By Frédérique Ternede
Interview with Randall van Poelvoorde
(Co-Founder The Meta Company)
For my interview in this twelfth edition, I spoke with Randall van Poelvoorde. When you think robots, you think Randall. He is Co-Founder of The Meta Company, robot.nu, robotzorg.nl, robotverhuur.nl and RobotXperience. He is a sought-after keynote speaker in technology and robots and has been a guest lecturer at Nyenrode Business University for many years where he inspired Executive MBA managers to think about the impact of technological developments on their customers and thus their own business. Since March this year Randall started The Meta Company, a consulting company that helps organizations navigate the Metaverse, the next incarnation of the Internet. I can’t wait to start our conversation about robots.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you from and where did the fascination with technology and especially robots begin?
When I was a little kid, my favorite trip was always to go to the Evoluon in Eindhoven where there was a big Philips engineering exhibition. Although I studied and majored in economic business administration, the fascination with technology never disappeared.
Through my studies, I actually rolled right into the Internet marketing world. I worked as a marketing manager at Independer and after that I became self-employed, because I really wanted to broaden my passion for technology. At a certain point I made the choice to be an entrepreneur. I just wanted to have that space. My background in business administration proves to be very helpful in advising companies. Since I know how businesses work, it’s easy for me to make the translation. And specifically for the topic of robots. It’s very easy to get into a conversation with people in technology. You put that thing in front of them and the conversation model starts running.
“The will to do well is essential and we do need to develop it together.”
And then you are talking about a physical robot that you put in front of someone or also a computer with just software?
Both, a computer actually is also a robot, just like a car. But I’ve chosen for the robot with a physical appearance, so hardware included.
I have read a number of your articles and I see the term ‘robotization’ mentioned quite often. I am curious to know what definition you use for this term.
What I really mean is the increasing degree to which technology is going to determine and is already determining our entire world. That is what I call robotization. So, that’s also the software side. You can’t see it separately.
A robot is a collection of technology. The robot with a physical appearance is a combination of software and hardware. The robot that is just software running on a PC or on a smartphone, happens to be called a robot as well, because it takes chores out off your hands. But as said before, both of them are robots.
And in both of them artificial intelligence plays an equal role?
Yes that’s right and the leading role! If you want to use smart software to control a robot with a body then your hardware is also super important and also really high-tech. To make a robot that is powerful and can work precisely, hardware and software must both function equally.
I would like to present a statement to you: technology is neutral vs. technology is never neutral. Which one would you choose?
Well, technology should be neutral as much as possible! In the sense that all technology, in my opinion, just has to be deployed for a better world, a cleaner world, a world with more honesty and more compassion, more consideration for each other. That’s what technology should be for. One thing that’s still being discussed a lot is the fact that self-learning systems that we’re working with more and more actually still have biases, preferences, because the data they get is not neutral and the people who program them also have their own jobs. You can’t just remove those people. We must decide for ourselves who gets the job and/or who gets the care for it. Of course, you want that process to be as neutral as possible. We must start to trust that those systems are very neutral and make a real objective judgement.
So given your answers so far, I notice you only see positive sides to robotization. But is that realistic given the vulnerabilities that lie in technology: hackability, algorithms being developed incorrectly, etc.?
These vulnerabilities, of course, lie in people as well. There are two questions you can ask: Is it realistic? My answer would be probably yes, you’ll just have to accept that any system will always have limitations and any system we’re working with now also has limitations. But above all, you have to want it really bad! You just have to try your hardest to get it as good as possible, knowing that you will always make mistakes in everything. That’s just how life works. The will to do well is essential and we do need to develop it together. So, we first have to be aware of the importance of these systems becoming more and more important and more and more decisive. That’s one. And two, what is our responsibility? We have to take our own responsibility to make those systems the best they can be for the world.
“It’s a very important generation that is in control of the direction we are going.”
Do you think we can handle that kind of responsibility?
At this very moment, definitely. The people who are living now, they are going to determine from what basic principles and from what culture we are going to deploy all these heavy technologies. It’s a very important generation that is in control of the direction we are going.
Is it? I feel like this generation is more obedient to technology.
Oh no, I think it’ s going very well. I look at it in a long-term perspective. Ten years ago it really wasn’t okay. Ten years ago I would have agreed with you. Nowadays it is going so well in several steps. The first step is awareness. That’s the most important step. The second step is for individuals and organizations to take that responsibility seriously. And the third is to implement it well. In all three areas, things are improving. People are becoming more aware. Developers are already starting to make real agreements with each other about how and what kind of world and what kind of systems they want to build. And the larger organizations producing these systems are also more in the picture. That’s a good thing. But that doesn’t mean we are there yet. But it’s certainly not going in the wrong direction either.
Speaking of that responsibility, I’m curious to know what you think of the hypothesis of the ‘Paperclip Maximiser’?
[The Paperclip Maximizer is a hypothetical artificial intelligence created and programmed with only one purpose: to maximize the number of paperclips in the universe. So, it would value something that us humans would consider worthless or useless and it doesn’t have the ability to learn our values. Its only purpose is to collect and maximize the number of paperclips which could eventually take over the world.]
That’s just a story to explain to people in a bit of a funny visual way what could happen in the worst-case scenario. I also use the story sometimes. This is basically about the following: are we smart enough to get a proper task done in the right way. And that’s a challenge. If those things do exactly what we ask them to do it could go wrong even though our intentions were good. That’s interesting. That’s what it’s about. It’s a funny example.
The technical possibilities are, of course, enormous. In addition to something like the Paperclip Maximizer, there is a chance that technology and therefore robots will be used for very wrong reasons, for example as a weapon. How do we protect ourselves from this? To what extent is regulation needed for that?
Yes, laws and regulation, but also ethical insight, societal acceptance, all of it. But yes, that only arises when mistakes are made. And that’s fine.
So the only way is to respond?
Well, of course you want to be ahead of it but that’s impossible. Everything we do, how we observe, from when we are babies to how we function as a large group through societies, we only learn when we make mistakes. That’s also the definition of innovation drive. You have to try not to make mistakes, but you have to know that you’re going to make them anyway. And you have to fix them afterwards with the tools that can be used to do so.
I have also read a number of things about robots being used in healthcare. But are there other aspects within society where the effectiveness of robots is visible?
“In 20 years, one robot will be more intelligent than all of humanity combined.”
Well those ‘robots in healthcare’ stories are used a lot by healthcare organizations to put themselves on the map to be seen as to be very innovative. The problem is simply that those robots are not yet good enough to take over real care tasks. You can let them keep an eye on people, do some construction, make sure they can talk a little bit, play some music. But it’s all very much at the margins as to what has really been successfully implemented. But that’s going to change at lightning speed now! It’s going to go all the way in the next five to ten years and then it’s going to happen. That’s because we’re about seven to eight years into implementing those robots close to people. So not in factories, but really close to humans; in healthcare (as you read and see in the news) and education, tasks like that. It’s just that the robots were not yet smart enough. Now that’s starting to change. For three years we’ve had the technology to make robots self-learning. We do this by using neural networks, deep learning and big data. As a result, computers are now starting to learn on their own and perform incredibly difficult tasks that we never thought they could do. The next step is that we will now build that smartness into the robot bodies, allowing them to physically interact with us in our daily lives as well. In some areas, they are already smarter than us: they can make and solve complicated calculations, they can already do the most difficult games better than we can. And in the end, you know, humanity doesn’t really get more intelligent than how it is now. Robots get exponentially, at a rapid pace, more intelligent.
Are you referring to exponential technology here?
Yeah, basically you see a lot of exponentialities in technology: computing power is getting cheaper, getting faster, there’s more and more. It’s going faster than we think. There is no intuitive growth on technology. Intuitive is 1-2-3-4-5-6-7, but it just goes 2-4-8-16-32. At the beginning, exponential growth looks very much like linear growth, because the numbers are not that big, until suddenly it goes very fast. We will get behind. At some point, robots will be smarter than us in every area. In 20 years, one robot will be more intelligent than all of humanity combined. That’s just inevitable! There is no way we are going to stop that. Every time we think ‘yeah but they won’t be able to do that’ then suddenly bam, they can. And everyone is amazed. To give you an example, since we have these neural networks, all the scientists who do the research make a prediction every year ‘where is it going to be next year?’. Every year they make a wrong prediction. And not just a little bit. They are far off. It’s happening much faster than even the experts think.
So how do you think we, humans and companies, would benefit the most from using and deploying robots on a daily basis?
If robots become so intelligent then they simply become labor. They start competing in the labor market. Labor is what determines the gross national product of the world, so where we now have seven billion people of whom three billion work, that’s what now determines the physical upside of economic growth. If you replace those three billion people with one billion robots that can work four times as hard, then the whole world is going to get richer. This is just what is going to happen. If you look at the rate at which wealth has been spreading around the world over the last 50 years. That’s going to go up in a straight line. That graph just needs to be adjusted every year and the robots are only going to accelerate it. They’re going to take over everything and we’re going to live with the animals and cuddle, make art, do sports and take care of each other, focus on what’s really important. That will be the reality in 30 years. We’ll all be stomping rich without having any money, because money will become completely unnecessary for us. Everything will be abundant.
As I look out of my apartment window, I live on the tenth floor in Amsterdam so I have the ultimate city view, I’m kind of visualizing what our society will look like. I imagine there will be some sort of charging stations where all the robots automatically will go to to recharge at the end of the day.
In the first place, there won’t be an end of the day: they work 23 hours per day and only need 1 hour to recharge. They don’t smoke, don’t need breaks, don’t want to go on holidays, don’t have headaches. They simply work very hard for 23 hours and recharge for 1 hour and so on.
That will be great for us. We can fill in our own life in the way that works best for us individually, we will experience less stress, we probably learn to be more gentile to our bodies and minds, take care of our health more, we probably will be much happier!
Well, I don’t know if we will be happier, but I like the way you say that! I hope we all can carry those new worlds in the best way possible. I believe it will be a much better place.
So what are the latest developments that a lot of people don’t know about yet and what can we expect in the next five years?
That are those neutral networks that I mentioned briefly. I’ll be willing to take you up on that for a final image. Go take a look at what Tesla is doing with making its cars self-driving. They are in fact using the most advanced neural networks in the world. Do a YouTube search for Tesla FSD which stands for “Full Self Driving” and search on 10.69. That’s the latest version. Then take a look at that car as if it were a robot, because of course a car is just like a robot. It has a physical body that can look at the world, that can understand the world and that can react to it. You can see that the technology used for the car can also be transported into the body of a humanoid robot. I leave the rest of the fantasizing to everyone else.
It’s a very exciting image for the future isn’t it?
Yes it is! The fact that we are living in this area is amazing. We are so lucky, you have no clue. We detach ourselves from all constraints we have with our human capabilities and we create artificially intelligent systems that help us to be better and live in a better way.
What would the ideal future with robots look like, what are you aiming for?
In a nutshell, what I am striving for is a future where people pay attention to each other and can put time into the things that really matter.
I think that’s a beautiful thought. With that, we end our conversation. I am sure the last word on this matter has not yet been spoken.
About the author
Frédérique Ternede is managing editor of the magazine Data, Cybersecurity & Privacy (DCSP). With a master’s in law, focusing on intellectual property, internet and ICT and a degree in journalism, she developed in the multidisciplinary aspects of IT and cybersecurity. She has years of experience in the editorial field, guiding experts and authors in the topics of data, cybersecurity and privacy.