Yesterday, I was privileged to speak at the Activate Lightning Talk Night. My subject matter was The Human In The Machine. Mainly, I wanted to give a (10 minute) overview of how we preserve human-elements in an increasing tech-heavy, distant world. Before we start – know that I’m a tech-advancement-fan. I firmly believe in the advancement of technology. But as a student of human behavior, I wanted to point out the issues that technology faces when dealing with basic social interaction. Two things are real: 1) what makes us uniquely human is not going to change, and 2) the continuous advancement of technology is not going to stop.
First, we crave human interaction. An example is a 2016 Accenture Strategy report on the disconnect that digital has caused in customer engagement. It called for companies to recalibrate their investments between traditional and emerging digital channels. A mixture of human and digital. Stating that digitally native consumers crave personal communications, and humans are fed up with what researchers call “human-less customer service.” Think about it, how often to do you try to hit the zero or star button when calling customer service, rather than talking to an automated system?
The reason we crave personal communication – we know it’s better. Physical touch and in-person communication are still preferred most. In a 2014 research study the act of shaking hands was linked to people feeling more comfortable with each other, more open to discussion, cooperation, or negotiation and perceptions that the person is less likely to lie. Also, a widely referenced 1971 study on personal communication found that communication is broken down to 7% of the words we say, whereas 93% is tone and non-verbal expression (facial expressions, body language, etc.). Another example is a 2004 study on “The Mirror-Neuron System,” which discovered that when you see a person take some action, your brain fires up the neurons associated with the same activity. So when someone smiles, you tend to smile too. Or when a teacher calmly starts talking to a rambunctious class, the classroom tends to quiet down. We mirror the actions of others. Additionally, we pay attention more in face-to-face communication. A 2010 white paper makes a case that people pay better attention in face to face meetings than in phone conferences and even video conferences. How many of us have other tabs or windows open while we’re on that hour-long conference call? Basically innovations did not (and will not) change the fundamental aspects of human behavior. Humans have a “social suite,” which is a basic set of capacities we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. These include things like love, friendship, cooperation, and teaching. These traits remain consistent throughout the world, regardless of whether a population is urban or rural, and whether or not it uses modern technology.
But there’s no turning back – humans need tools. The benefits outweigh the deficits in the loss of personal human interaction in a digital environment. The digital age links people who could otherwise not be connected and gives a more substantial and more accessible connection capability. It allows humans to be empowered, access to the education they may not otherwise have, and opportunities for advancement they may not have ever witnessed. We can’t deny the self-efficacy that technology has created. However, the introduction of technology is not the problem. For generations, children grew with new inventions like radios and televisions. (And they once called those the bane of an age!) With each new wave of technology, people worried, but life went on. What is uniquely different this time, however, is that these devices seriously crowd out opportunities for critical social interaction. Social interaction we crave.
So what are we getting wrong? First, we must view technology through various lenses, which means we need more diversity in tech. We’ve seen reports that AI has produced a perpetuation of current human behavior perpetuating toxic environments and areas where racism, sexism, bigotry exist. If those who design these programs aren’t able to see past their own biases, then our technology will reflect that. Next, technology is getting greedy at the expense of the end-user, trying to maximize capital at the expense of human behavior. We see capitalization on dopamine-dosing behavior, fear-based emotions, and the addiction that tech brings, creating users who over-consume and can’t disconnect. Next, digital distrust and divisiveness in technology are at a heightened state. Propaganda, tribalism, and lack of personal agency creates a population that questions everything, distrusts everyone, and doesn’t allow for human nuance. Furthermore, we’re all in information overload. We have FOMO (fear of missing out), and we’re always connected. While at a stoplight, in the bathroom, or waiting for Uber, we’re face down disconnected to humans around us. Lastly, cyber-security is a massive issue for this generation and our children’s children. Personal information is a product, and our privacy is sold to the highest bidder.
I’m sure now you’ve rolled your eyes (“Ok, Boomer”), but my goal isn’t to indicate that advancement in tech is terrible; instead – how can we improve? We need to reimagine systems that center human elements in the new emerging tech areas. (AI, machine learning, VR, augmented reality, mixed reality). As AI is is further developed it will insinuate itself deeply into our lives and this may change how loving or friendly or kind we are. For example, a Yale experiment had a robot helping lay down railroad tracks in a virtual world. The robot would apologize when he was clumsy or made a mistake. Compared with a control group (that had just a bland-replying robot) the entire group was more consoling, comforting, and interacted better with each other. Also, in another experiment 4000 humans were divided into social network groups and given a simple color chart task. Bots were added to the mix unbeknownst to the humans. The groups with mistake-prone bots consistently outperformed groups that had bots. So while we use machines to be more agile, functional, productive, and increase accuracy, as AI emerges, we’re seeing research that humans prefer (and interact better) with flawed machines. And what are humans, but flawed machines. Another way we can improve is through regulation. We need more standards, codes of conduct, guidelines, and laws. We needs ethics and integrity in tech to be part of how we move forward. And it may mean answering tough questions from from a philosophical level, like “Who owns data?” Improvements also need to be made in formal education for all ages for digital literacy – we can’t leave people behind. This improvement may mean making software more transparent and open sources. Self-driving cars will be the next significant change in the transportation industry, but we have over 3.5 million professional drivers in the US alone. Will we leave them career-less as we did our horse-drawn carriage drivers? Or our vehicle factory workers in Detroit? Or can we forecast this change and help in the transition. Lastly, we all need to recalibrate our expectations. Evolution takes time. We have evolved as interpersonal, social creatures we must re-evolve. Technology should enhance, not replace, human interactions. We should fight not to let technology crowd out or replace human interaction, but rather to augment it. Alex Beard writes in a book called Natural Born Learners, “And if the robots do take the jobs, it’s our human qualities that will count…The greatest impact of technology… may paradoxically be to push us towards the human.”