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Finding a balance: Humanising ourselves while embracing artificial intelligence

 (ES Composte)
(ES Composte)

Theodore is a lonely writer going through a tough divorce. Samantha is intuitive, cheerful, and has a sensual voice. Their worlds connect, first in a friendship and then in an intense romance. They talk about art, life, and love. They argue, laugh, fight, and even have sexual intimacy. They form a couple like any other, except for one detail. He is flesh and bone. “She” is an operating system based on artificial intelligence.

The plot of the movie “Her”, released in 2013 and starring Joaquin Phoenix, raises forward-thinking questions for its time which today have surprising relevance: can we humanise a “machine” to the point of falling in love with it? As technology advances, will we be tempted to anthropomorphise artificial intelligence more and more? Will we reduce our human condition to a zombie state where all our needs are met by mathematical algorithms?

If we talk about the everyday uses of AI, it is not wrong for a streaming platform to suggest a good movie for us to watch or for us to spend some time watching reels of the latest dance craze. The problems begin when we develop an addiction to the instant rewards that satisfy our consumption desires. Content is presented as seemingly free and accessible at any time and place. The goal of AI on social media is to sweeten our eyes and ears so that we spend more and more time consuming, turning us into digital automatons.

Former Google engineer Tristan Harris, in the great documentary “The Social Dilemma”, summarises it with a phrase: “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product.”

I do not want to present apocalyptic scenarios or dystopian futures. AI occupies and will continue to occupy a place of utility in many areas of our lives, and much of my work consists of making that possible. However, it is important to become aware of the risks that excessive dependence on technology entails. The goal is not to stop using AI, but to humanise it and use it to improve our quality of life.

Leaders like Tristan Harris, Elon Musk, or Yuval Noah Harari warn about the risks of the course of AI and present tremendous scenarios to generate awareness and win the cultural battle. They appeal to shock because they want to anticipate potential toxic effects of AI, not only in terms of cybersecurity but also in its harmful incidence on social relationships and the consequent dehumanisation of the user.

Let’s think about a not-too-distant future in which we live with a virtual avatar. A kind of best friend or partner who physically looks like what we like, who speaks to us the way we want, who is always in a good mood, available 24x7 to listen and answer all our questions, and with the same interests as us, just as in the movie Her. Why create physical bonds when avatars could fulfill that function? Can we be friends with a machine? The answer may be yes, but it is important to ask the question in time and understand the risks involved in these types of relationships with AI.

Comfort can be an obstacle to our critical spirit, our ability to delve into important questions, connect with other people, and develop as social beings. Artificial intelligence, at times, goes against these fundamental needs.

It is crucial to talk about the subject in family environments, classrooms, business forums, and political spaces. The companies that work on AI development have a fundamental role in leading this process.

We must raise awareness in society about the risks of artificial intelligence and promote good practice. Although there are already initiatives, such as the Center for Humane Technology, moving in that direction, there is still much more to be done. The good news is that we still have time to act. Just as we have stopped smoking on airplanes and in enclosed spaces because we understood that tobacco is toxic, or have forced ourselves to use seat belts in cars because we understood that our lives were at risk if we didn’t, the time will come when we will understand that artificial intelligence must dehumanise the machine and humanise the person.

Juan José Murphy is Global Head of Artificial Intelligence and Data Science at Globant