Who is the researcher of the future?

4.9.2018

What will the researcher’s role be if one day machines perform most of the current research tasks?

A researcher identifies an important question for science – often an important topic for people and society too. They familiarise themselves with earlier research, come up with a novel and interesting hypothesis and then test it by gathering a huge amount of data from different sources.

Because the results of will only appear about two years later and behind a paywall, the researcher immediately sends a draft of the article to colleagues for whom the findings are important.

On the basis of the data gathered and their long experience, the researcher puts together a brilliant press release about the findings and sends it out to journalists, science bloggers and social media communities interested in the topic.

If the findings are relevant to decision-making, a PowerPoint presentation is also sent to the respective Ministry, presenting the findings by way of complex diagrams that the audience is accustomed to.

Perfect! But who is even capable of doing all this?

Maybe one day the answer will be: a machine.

Learning machines – or artificial intelligence – are already capable of inventing new hypotheses and insights from huge amounts of data. There is no reason to think that they could not also learn all the stages of research work from carrying out background research to communicating the findings.

What will the role of the human researcher be?

The question is a difficult one but in many ways already relevant. Digitalization leads to the rapid networking of research. Data is gathered and received from different sources, and large groups of volunteers, colleagues or members of different interest groups participate in the various stages of research. “Reseacherhood” is becoming less and less strictly delimited.

At the same time, however, the media demands stories about individual researchers and their strokes of genius. The risk of networked, machine-implemented future research is that the human researcher will become purely a human representative of the research and its findings – a kind of figurehead or personal brand mannequin. To fight such a development, it is increasingly needful to highlight the fact that scientific inquiry is a community project.

But what will the role of humans be in inquiry, if one day machines carry out the majority of the work that researchers do now?

Science is done for people as well as for science itself. Perhaps the human researcher’s main responsibility will be to connect research to humanity.

Although artificial intelligence can learn to identify and model human emotions, desires, beliefs and qualities of feeling, it does not experience them itself. Based on our reactions, artificial intelligence is able to efficiently recommend us things to read and accurately target the marketing we receive, among other things, but it does not share our experiences. In the future, too, it is likely that human researchers will be needed to understand and relate what the research findings and scientific breakthroughs mean in terms of human experience.

In the future, too, it is likely that human researchers will be needed to understand and relate what the research findings and scientific breakthroughs mean in terms of human experience.

Nor does an “intelligent” machine live a human life. A learning machine which has absorbed a huge amount of data could, for example, almost flawlessly suggest to a person now 15 years of age what they ought to go on to study. However, it would likely find it difficult to envisage the role that freedom, chance, strangeness and sheer irrationality play in human existence.

The role of the human researcher in the future will most likely be to clarify the importance research has to society and in terms of shared human projects – also in disciplines where the connection of research to topics relevant to human society has so far appeared to be minimal.

Artificial intelligence and networked operating models will hardly abolish the work of the researcher completely; as with other professions, however, they will change the contents of the job to a great extent. Not to be taken unawares by the future, the question in the heading must be constantly borne in mind by everyone carrying out scientific research.

Henrik Rydenfelt Ph.D. works as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oulu. His research areas include the nature of ethical research, the link between democracy and intellectual values and the ethics of communication.