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Intelligence Health

Would you trust a robot?


Words by Jacintha Scheerder

Photos by Joseph Chan

To a philosopher like Peter-Paul Verbeek, it’s never been us humans versus technology. Trusting technological development is essential to progress, so long as we remain critical and keep hold of our connection to nature. Futurologist Jacintha Scheerder visited the professor of technology at the University of Twente to talk about what it takes to grow trust.

How do you cultivate trust?

Trusting means giving up a part of you, entrusting someone or something else with it. You give up a bit of autonomy, and you only allow that to happen if there’s a good reason to do so. Most of the time it’s a rational reason, something you can understand. You trust a doctor because you understand the system of medical schools and residencies and medical boards. Trust is built on understanding how something works, and if it doesn’t work, trust decreases.

Should we trust technology?

There are three different stages, or conditions, of trust. There’s mistrust, or suspicion, where you think robots will come steal your job. The opposite of that is blind trust: unconditional trust that technology can solve climate change, for example. I believe we should be focused on cultivating the third kind of trust when it comes to technology: entrusting ourselves to technology. The trick here is to allow technology to change society, but to also remain critical. Let change happen, but don’t trust every change blindly. If we can’t be critical anymore, that blind trust will turn into mistrust, and usually for good reason.

Can you give an example?

Just look at the healthcare system. People are afraid of robots taking over elderly care. Most of us can’t pay for round-the-clock personal care and attention, but we’re hesitant to let a robot take care of grandma. But robots are so valuable to the healthcare industry. Getting wiped by a robot after using the loo might even be better than having to ask a person to do it for you. Of course, robots can’t replace a nice chat with a nurse, but we can entrust robots with different tasks. We should be confident that they can do the job well, which is not to say we should trust them blindly, but at least give them a chance.

"Robots can’t replace a nice chat with a nurse, but we can entrust them with different tasks..."

Why shouldn’t we trust technology blindly? How does it lead to mistrust?  

Let’s look at the meat industry. It seems like every day there’s a new scandal, more slaughterhouse malpractices. It’s out of control. Why? Because we trusted that industry blindly. Now when you’re at a grocery store, the chicken you buy doesn’t even look like a chicken anymore. Kids think fish are square breadcrumb-crusted things swimming in the sea. We’ve lost a connection there, and that’s how that industry lost its way.

Is technology ruining our connection to nature?

No, it means blind trust is. The connection we have to our world is built through technology these days, and some of that technology has taken us too far, making us feel like we’ve been cheated. In the case of the meat industry, we’re experiencing a moral disengagement with animals, and that’s something that needs to be reversed.

We try to re-establish our connection by going on vacation, watching documentaries, experiencing the exotic, something you need an entry ticket to. I think it’s important to get that connection back, as it would make us much more aware of the effects of environmental pollution. We wouldn’t accept more polluting planes or dirty highways. Nature doesn’t have enough people championing for it. A patch of nature is often not even mentioned on a map, it’s just that piece of the land where nothing has been built yet.

What do you think the human being of the future will look like? How will we relate to nature, in an era which is becoming more reliant on technology?

That’s going to be the big challenge with the way our world population is growing. How can we preserve the natural world? Real nature, real wilderness doesn’t even exist here in the Netherlands anymore. But the border between technique, nature and culture isn’t a set one. Nature is already part of culture. The trick is to combine these things in a way where nature can still be experienced as nature, that it’s not just a replica of what used to be.

Are we still nature?

I think it’s in our nature to be artificial. Technique is our nature. It’s an oxymoron, but it’s true. Of course, we’re ‘natural’ in some way, we’re animals. But a different kind of animal, we artificially got rid of our animalistic traits. But we’re still organic creatures, with pain and hunger and needs. We’re animals who learned to suppress our animal ways. Or maybe we’ve just learned to handle them better, thanks to technology.