Entrepreneurship4 July 20185 min

AI is changing our world, but are we keeping up or falling apart?

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Across SXSW 2018 there is a clear theme - we are increasingly feeling overwhelmed by the extent to which we are connected to and reliant on devices. This is leading to loneliness, more extremism and anger, and not enough empathy. Yet we have a growing understanding of how much AI is already, and will further affect us, potentially leading to further disconnected feelings from what is ‘real’ and ‘humanness’.

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Technology and the human mode

Author Andrew Keen in his talk on How to fix the future, says that today we are not participating in society enough. Technology, globalisation, education, governance are making us less involved, and are maybe even encouraging us to be more passive. Rohit Bhargava who writes the annual Non-Obvious Trends, describes how we are more and more being manipulated by the media to feel outraged by events and stories, and then instead of turning to human debate, we jump onto Facebook and Twitter (as encouraged) and publically voice our anger, even through Facebook’s angry button.

But there is positivity in this story throughout SXSW - in one of Bhargava’s trends of 2018, he observes that we are more and more reaching for what he calls the ‘human mode’ - he cites an example of an airport in the USA who employs a pig and guide to walk through the terminals and this surprise but also the concept of an animal (wildlife?!) in this environment relaxes travelers and brings them away from their phones and into conversations.


So how can we add more human elements to our technology and customer services? Some companies are building robots with personalities so that they do not seem detached when they are employed in your homes. Time spent waiting on-hold on phone calls is being reduced by chatbots. There are even companies such as IPG Dynamic from Belgium (whose MD spoke at SXSW on From AI to EI) who provide consulting on how brands can incorporate empathy, in an authentic way. A non-technological company improvement can be seen from Tesco in the UK, starting a ‘relaxed, slow check-out’ line in many stores.

In fact, Keen insists that we cannot rely on technology to solve our future. And Eddy Cue in Curation in Media: Why it matters reminds us that technology in it self is not for good. People who make technology should make it for good. AI must be fed with empathy in order for it to understand that empathy is a requirement. Computers do not have consciousness to solve debates of ethics and what is moral - they can (so far) only observed patterns and ‘decide’ from this the next steps.

The need for AI regulation

It turns out there are many areas in which we can’t rely on technology to make our decisions. And as we move in the direction where it can do more and more, we must continue to observe where its current limitations are, and update our systems and societal policies. In a talk on The Future of Machine Learning, Finale Doshi-Velez from Harvard University reminds us how machines should not cannot choose between patients there are not enough resources for everyone.


There is general agreement across SXSW of the need for more AI related regulation - in previous years we’ve heard fear about governments’ abilities to keep up with and to make good policies for technology. However, the tide is turning, more people are calling for regulation because it should not be up to engineers to decide allowable outcomes from our latest innovations.

Doshi-Velez suggests that platforms could be used to gather data from our societies on baseline ethics requirements, and this can be used by governments to form policy - this being the only way to keep up when the rate and size of change across so many areas is so great. On top of this goes AI, and since it can be rolled out fast, you want to know that people are happy with the effects when new technology products are released.

Let’s focus on the positive

Jeff Chow from TripAdvisor in The Future of Machine Learning talk reminds us that we should not be scared of AI and our increasing reliance on technology - at its best it enables us to do things faster, better, more accurately, enabling us to better solve some of the world’s greatest problems given the size of our population.

One thing is for sure: we should focus on building technology and the policy that will help us do things better instead of moving away from the great new technological advancements that we have made. Even though it has been around for a while, we are still early days of what is possible in AI.

Written by Anna Thomlinson
Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/annathomlinson/

Twitter: @akthomlinson