Assisted Intelligence | the future seen through the eyes of a child

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by Emma Rogers, co-Founder / CEO of Little Bridge. Originally published on Medium on Dec 14, 2018

I had the extraordinary privilege to meet Sam, aged 9 years, on my daily commute to the office this morning. As often happens, the train was delayed, and we found ourselves suspended between stations, with the driver announcing problems on the network. As everyone around me was fidgeting, looking at their watches, their devices, or their route maps, I couldn’t help noticing the small boy sitting next to me who was absorbed in a book about robots.

His Mum and I struck up a conversation over his head, a mutual complaint about the trials of train journeys and disrupted commutes. Sam joined in:

‘Robots will fix the trains,’ he said.

‘That’s a great thought!’ I said — feeling immediately embarrassed. I sounded like a patronizing adult. So I added, ‘I’m interested in robots too.’

Thankfully, Sam didn’t take my remarks badly. He simply continued, matter-of-factly. ‘When I grow up, I’m going to build robots. I’m going to build a robot for my Nan.’

I asked him to explain.

‘My Nan has some problems,’ he said. ‘She keeps forgetting where she’s put things, like her glasses and her keys, or her medicine — that’s the most important thing. Her nurse helps her, but she’s not there all the time.’

Sam’s Mum said, ‘You also help Nan find things.’

‘Yes, I do!’ Sam shot back. ‘But that’s no good when I’m at school. Nan needs a helper all the time. My robot will do that. It will be her very helpful friend.’

There was not the remotest sign that Sam thought that robots were something to be afraid of. Rather they were an exciting, inevitable and profoundly welcome part of his life — now and in the future. He saw only the immense benefits that his robot could bring as a companionable support for someone he clearly loved dearly — his Nan.

Our train was moving again, and Sam went back to his book. I was lost in my thoughts. I couldn’t help imagining, had Sam been a bright young boy in the 15th century, what would he have made of the printing press? I had a feeling he’d have been one of those who saw the opportunity to change people’s lives, create new potential and contribute to the great project that is the advancement of human intelligence.

There again, what would Sam have made of the introduction of machines into the 18th and 19th century economies? Would he have been excited by their noisy power? Or would he have been saddened for those whose lives were wrecked by these relentless, mechanical game changers?

I decided to ask.

‘Excuse me Sam. I can’t help wondering … if your Nan had a robot, what would the people who look after her today be doing? Like the nurse you mentioned…?’

His reply came, quick and clean.

‘Some nurses will look after the robot teams, get them to learn what needs to be done, teach them how they can help human beings. Others will be doing things that robots can’t really do, like hugging people and making them feel good.’

I was in awe of this little boy.

‘Oh,’ he added. ‘The nurses will also be working out how, with robots, everything for doctors and hospitals and patients can be better!’

I decided to ask him one more thing, conscious that I might be projecting adult fears onto his pure vision. ‘Sam, do you think that robots could also be a problem?’ He looked puzzled, so I went on. ‘Well, what if the robot tried to help your Nan when she didn’t want it?’

I think Sam was genuinely surprised. He laughed.

‘No one can tell my Nan what to do! She knows so much more than a robot.’ He thought for a moment before continuing, ‘For a start, Nan knows about the war and things like that. Also, she can bake any cake, without a cook book. She’s funny too — like, she tells jokes! Her robot won’t do that, unless she asks it to. It’ll just help her with what she needs.’

AI. Not Artificial Intelligence but Assisted Intelligence. With the intelligence firmly attached to the human.

By the time we were approaching my stop, Sam was lost in his book again and I was deep in thought, remembering something Jack Ma (CEO of AliBaba) said at the World Economic Forum in 2018. ‘Only by changing education can our children compete with machines. We have to teach something unique — soft skills: values, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others.’

I was dreaming of the best ever fantasy get-together, where Jack Ma would meet William Caxton of printing press fame, along with the 18th century’s James Watt, and James Hargreaves, creators of the steam engine and the spinning jenny. Not to mention Steve Jobs. Elon Musk. And, naturally, Sam.

The train slowed. I jumped up and stuck out my hand. Sam shook it, smiling. Then, as I hustled towards the door, crowded with commuters getting off the train and more getting on, I felt a tap on my arm. It was Sam.

‘You dropped these,’ he said, holding out my gloves.

‘Thank you!’ I said. ‘I think I need one of your robots to keep me in order.’

Sam smiled again.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Robots will make things better for everybody!’