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Science communication has been too serious for too long

This lack of levity is why comedian and scientist Lieven Scheire’s new show, A.I., contains plenty of witty observations. The show’s title is a nod to the technology that is the talk of the town right now, both among journalists and entrepreneurs. Curious? Scheire will be a keynote speaker at HRtech. Lucky us: we didn’t even need to apply to be on his new show!

ChatGPT is well aware of who Lieven Scheire is, so you probably are too. Just in case you had overlooked the man completely, here are some of his main achievements. Scheire co-founded the comedy group Neveneffecten with his cousin Jonas Geirnaert. The partnership resulted in hit TV programmes like Basta and Willy’s and Marjetten. More recently, Scheire has delighted audiences with programmes like Scheire en de Schepping, Team Scheire and Ons DNA.

But television alone is far too limiting an outlet for this versatile professional prankster and physicist. Which is why Scheire also does live shows, regularly appears in the media as a science communicator, and created a whole universe with the Nerdland popular science collective: there’s a monthly podcast, a festival and even a book label. Now, Scheire will be attending HRtech.

You’re currently touring with your show. What can those who attend – or who cleverly combine it with HRtech – expect?

You don’t need any prior knowledge. On the contrary: during the show, I try to explain the basics of AI. What it is, what it can and can’t do, how it might evolve and what its limits are. AI is everywhere these days, even in mainstream news, which is why I wanted to make this show, both as a comedian and a science communicator. I like to think of what I’m doing as “lifting the bonnet” – AI being the car in this metaphor. We examine the car’s engine and taking a closer look at it without getting too technical. If you want to prepare yourself anyway, I’d suggest listening to the Nerdland podcast.

Where does society’s sudden interest in technology and concern about AI come from? There was less fuss when the internet first arrived.

True, but we’ve had quite some time to get used to the internet. At first, it was something only few people were into. It took a while before it was widely adopted, before you could do anything fun or useful with it. Slowly but surely, however, more people started exploring the world wide web. It was only later that we got smartphones, apps, social media, things like that. In comparison, AI is evolving at breakneck speed. Ironically enough, that’s precisely because the internet is now so mature and omnipresent. AI can absorb online data like a sponge and constantly reinvent itself.

Think of AI like a car. Together with the audience, I lift the bonnet and check what’s underneath. Without getting too technical, my show tries to answer questions about what AI can and can’t do, now and in the near future.

Perhaps one of the reasons why it inspires fear is because of its name: artificial intelligence. People are worried it might be almost human, and that creates distrust. Especially when AI starts doing things we previously believed only humans could do, like writing creative texts or playing music. But AI isn’t intelligent or sentient at all, and it looks like it will remain that way for a while.

Big Bang Theory

You’re a scientist and a comedian. Why are humour and technology a good match?

You can joke about anything. But good comedy is often about things people have in common, about the topics that pop up in our everyday conversations. This used to be politics, people’s in-laws, the royal family. Observational humour is popular too. Today, however, technology is on everybody’s lips. Personally, I’ve always been passionate about technology. But the field of science communication has been devoid of humour for far too long: the emphasis has always been on a business-like, accurate presentation of facts. I want us to be able to talk about science in a science podcast as smoothly and easily as we talk about football.

Who were your favourite comedians when you were a physics student? Did any of them talk about technology at the time?

Oh, we have to travel twenty years back in time now. If anything, the humour-tech combo was rare. But the TV series The Big Bang Theory changed a lot. Already as a student, I loved science communication; think Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. Brian Cox, Professor of Particle Physics, was a rising star at the time. I found Bill Bryson’s books wonderful, well-narrated and accessible. And Michael Mosley made an excellent science documentary with the BBC, The Story of Science. As for humour, however, I was mostly into Monty Python, and Jan Eelen and Mark Uytterhoeven’s Woestijnvis clique.

I’ve never applied for a job

HRtech is about the impact of technology on HR. AI is big in the field of HR too. What’s your take on that?

In the short run, I believe AI will mainly serve as our digital assistant. It can write design texts, create images and draft to-do lists for us. But we remain the editor-in-chief: we still go over everything and correct or adjust what AI prepared.

In the long run, AI will trigger a new wave of automation. The question is whether that wave will resemble previous waves of automation. Up until now, jobs have always disappeared, but new ones have also been created. In the 20th century, there were no CX designers or online content creators.

What changes will we see this time?

It’s too early to say. Fruit picking, for example, seemed impossible to automate for a long time. Some fruits grow hidden among branches and leaves; it takes skill, experience and concentration to decide which fruits are perfectly ripe. But these days, AI can make those choices. So we might be moving towards a semi-automated paradise. If that’s indeed what’s happening, our entire system will have to go along, with shorter workweeks and early retirement. That would be quite the turnaround!

Could AI become a ‘fertile matchmaker’, as you describe HR?

AI is already well embedded in many recruitment and matching processes. Amazon even left its HR entirely up to AI for a while, although that turned out to be a bad choice. That’s actually the most important takeaway: if AI makes a mistake in a text, you can simply adjust it. If it makes a mistake in an application procedure, the impact can be much greater. And there’s still a lot of ‘noise’ in AI systems. Europe does have a fairly strict AI Act. In the US, they’re more hands-off, only intervening when things go wrong.

Final question: what’s your personal experience of HR?

Well, I’ve never applied for a job in my entire life. A remarkable statistic that makes me realise I’ve always had the privilege of seeking and finding my own way. Without AI!