Robots and AI – an opportunity or a threat to volunteering?

By Morven MacLean (Volunteering Development Manager, CHAS) on 30th May 2018

In recent weeks I’ve been pondering developments in technology – in particular robots and artificial intelligence (AI). I’m thoughtful of how these advances might impact on the future of volunteering.

A common narrative on this theme is people versus technology. It’s one or the other. Driverless cars, supermarket self-service check outs, robots selecting and transporting goods in warehouses. ‘Technology is threatening jobs’ is what we hear and read …but is there any truth in that? Can artificial intelligence do everything better than humans? And if so, what does that mean for us?

We know that there is a national shortage of children’s nurses. So what if robots could take over the moving and handling of children? Is this inconceivable or should we be willing to consider this as an option? What if robots freed up nurses to take on other tasks that can’t be completed by a machine? Could nurses then focus solely on the emotional, caring, human side of the job, something that can’t be done by robots? Maybe by allowing us to focus more on the human touch, AI will make us better humans, and subsequently better at our jobs?

And what does all this mean for volunteering? With technology assisting with so many aspects of our lives, in years to come perhaps people will have more time to volunteer? With volunteering participation rates starting to decline in Scotland, surely this is a welcome opportunity?

Today’s school children are learning coding and app development. Many of them will go on to do jobs that we can’t even begin to dream of yet! There’s a lot of debate about the benefits and drawbacks of ‘screen time’ and the impact it’s having on children. Is it impacting on their development of soft skills, such as empathy and listening – skills that charities like CHAS are looking for in volunteers? Might we face a crisis in years to come if schools churn out young people without these skills?

Technology has undoubtedly changed volunteering over the last ten years. Telephone helpline charities are an example of this. Many helplines services say that online counselling has overtaken telephone counselling, radically changing the role of the volunteer telephone counsellor.

So what next and where do we strike a balance? Can we be both hi-touch and hi-tech? It could be argued that replacing people with machines improves productivity. But what is lost and what is the impact on people? Replacing people with machines certainly doesn’t make us feel more productive, useful or relevant. Only other human beings can achieve that.

I’m optimistic about the future of technology on volunteering. Let technology take over aspects of our work, and free us humans up to do the activity that can’t be fulfilled by machines. Perhaps being freed up to do more of the human stuff will mean more people will have the time and inclination to volunteer. We might become more rounded individuals – with more than one outlet for our energies and creativity. Volunteering might even achieve equal status with our work. “Hello, I’mMorven– I work for CHAS and I volunteer for three other charities”.That’s certainly something I’d like to see!

What do you think? Is technology an opportunity or a threat to the future of volunteering? Join the debate – I’d love to hear your view!