Science - December 21, 2018

No more people on assembly lines

Tessa Louwerens

Patric Brandt is looking forward to the time when robots take over a lot of our work. But for now, he still has to do most things himself. Like planning a sightseeing tour for his parents when they come to the Netherlands for his defence. ‘They will be surprised, because in the Netherlands a PhD defence is a real show compared to Germany.’

Patric Brandt got his PhD on 30 November for his thesis on climate-smart dairy farming in Kenya.

Proposition: Robots will take over the world

‘Technology is advancing fast, especially in the area of artificial intelligence. In a utopian scenario, robots will mainly take over from people in boring jobs. That means people will have time for other, more interesting things than working on an assembly line, for example. I think in the next decade or so we shall also see more robots in the healthcare sector. They are already in use in Japan. The Tropenmuseum, a museum of world cultures in Amsterdam, actually has an exhibition at the moment in which you can interact with one of these robots.

I understand that people are afraid, because the other scenario is that robots take over and we lose control, like in the film The Matrix. I’m not so worried, because for that to happen robots need to be way smarter than us, and I don’t see that happening in the near future. We do however use a lot of digital technology worldwide. I lived in Kenya for two years to do my PhD research. Even though smallholder farmers there are still too poor for investment-intense options such as precision farming, everyone has a smartphone and the development of digital technologies is booming. Nairobi is even called Silicon Savannah.

We use a lot of digital and social media and I think people are not very aware of the consequences of sharing information. Because this information is also used to make algorithms for artificial intelligence more powerful and to make future robots smarter. On the one hand, that is good but on the other hand, it makes everyone of us more predictable. Perhaps this is something that could be taught in schools, so we can avoid a future in which robots really do take over.’