Pushing Back In An Increasingly Human-Free World

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You Influence More Than You Realise

I view my current focus on mentoring organisations to plan and scale Emotive CX as part of a wider recognition across the world that we all need to consciously think about the future we want. And to then positively influence its direction.

At root is the current generation of technology which is both wonderful and terrifying. It can deliver nuclear payloads at hypersonic speeds as well as predict cancer or heart attacks more accurately than medical experts. It can transform a shopping trolley into an individualised, automated checkout. While the same scanning tech also can be used to track citizen behaviour in real-time for whatever worries a countries’ leadership.

These are all big picture impacts. Easy to dismiss as being beyond our individual ability to influence and therefore best left to governments and legislators. Unfortunately, we have seen how decisions that aim to protect the quality of our lives can be hijacked or seriously delayed. Even when policy makers finally catch up, it is better when they can shape things in a climate of active engagement and interest.

In other words, as the world continues its arc of accelerating change, can we see ourselves as being able to positively influence big picture outcomes in the daily decisions we make? 

I’m guessing most people reading this are practically involved in shaping how organisations adapt and keep up with the impact of new technology. There are constant choices to be made. Not just the ones around vendor selection but more profound ones around cultural impact and organisational resilience.

Sometimes the right decision is not always the easiest. Maybe there is a tempting one-off windfall in terms of reduced cost, but also recognition of a potential impact – a hollowing out of customer and colleague relationships in the medium term. The question we all face in these circumstances is what do we consider important and feel impelled to act on?

As I said, it might seem that one isolated decision makes little difference in the grand scheme of things. Therefore we can excuse ourselves taking the easier option. But in truth the combined impact of our individual decisions changes the world we live in. If we care about that then we need to sharpen our own thinking on what matters and why certain things remain important and worth keeping in our ever changing world.

Here are some topics I currently find important to have clear thinking around and are one I’m prepared to argue for, invest in, and find new ways to demonstrate their enduring value.

The Challenge of Automation and Digital Humans

What are the consequences as we continue to automate our world and increasingly converse with digital surrogates? The obvious benefits are that customers enjoy greater convenience and organisations remove cost.

Right now, most of us would agree it’s a good thing that routine repetitive tasks are being automated. There are many administrative tasks that fall into that category. From routine double data entry to high pressure M&A contract scanning for outliers between parties which then require further expert (aka human) negotiation.

Of course, I might feel differently if I have just lost my job as a result, but the consensus is that robotic process automation enables more valued and satisfying work.

Where it starts to become more difficult is when people to people engagement is being automated. For instance, if you are a McDonald’s customer you already use self-ordering kiosks or the mobile app instead of cashiers in store. Drive thru order takers are due to be replaced with natural language equivalents over the next few years.

You might argue that if it is faster, then it’s no problem. And in the short term you are probably right. But will a reduction in human contact impact customer loyalty over time? And what happens when this reduction in human contact is replicated at scale?

McDonalds is just part of a much greater global change in how daily life is experienced. For instance, look at the direction of travel in advanced AI cultures. In China, some TV channels now use avatars to read out the news.

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Samsung is introducing a new digital human capability this week at CES.

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Does any of this really matter? It might do for your children’s generation when they start using digital humans as role models. Because these have become the dominant example of adult interaction in public life: enabled by you and me retiring human colleagues over the next ten years in the fight to survive extreme digital competition. 

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According to a recent book by social psychologist Adam Waytz, our increasingly human-free lives come with a serious cost that we’ve already begun to pay: the loss of our humanity. The unprecedented access to other humans that technology provides has ironically freed us from engaging with them.

He argues that while technology offers us more convenience, it has a downside: It has decreased our contact with others, creating a society where we’re more independent – but also potentially lonelier and less empathic toward the people around us.

This tendency towards dehumanisation may have a neural basis, as studies have shown that we have a “mentalizing network” that we use when thinking about others’ mental states. Research finds that, when people view members of groups that are commonly dehumanised (such as homeless individuals or people struggling with addiction), their mentalising networks show less activation.

We already see this issue in organisational life. Tackling the cognitive biases that dehumanise the LGBTQ community is topical in many organisations today.

Recent studies also show the survival rate of individuals with stronger social relationships has been found to be twice as high as those with weak relationships. In other words, we need to be careful about how much we disrupt the amount of available human contact if we care about staying alive for longer.

The needs and benefits of social bonding are deeply woven into the success of the human species over millennia. And yet here we are with today’s generation of technology which allows us to construct a world that is rapidly unhooking us from this nurturing and identity forming source without enough thought as to the consequences.

I’m convinced the rapid polarisation we see going on across the world into ‘us and them’ tribalism is an early sign of what happens when we unplug from human contact. Social contact keeps us sane and centered.

Human Reality – Beyond Replication?

My last point around the digitisation of human experience relates to AI.

Current avatars already appear hyper realistic. Most of us will get used to them over the next decade. They will increasingly appear in everyday contexts such as news readers, medical advisors, sales and customer service assistants. They are becoming part of modern life. Our expectations will be extended every time we stream the latest animated movie or game in which digital humans feature and do things just beyond real world current capabilities.

Natural language advances make conversation with them increasingly natural. Emotive AI claims we are now able to understand a person’s emotive state. For the sake of this discussion let’s assume the next few years sees ongoing advances and it starts to be commonly used to understand customer and employee emotive states.

So, is it simply a question of time before a human being can be digitally cloned cognitively and emotively? For organisations that need to ponder where they will be focussing their investments over the coming decades this is an important decision to get right. Many already prefer to buy tech instead of investing in people because it is an easier decision with a supposedly clearer ROI.

We currently talk about AI’s role as augmenting highly skilled roles. But could the use cases for replacing people become much broader than our current assumptions?

After the normal phase of over exuberant experimentation, I’m not so sure things will go that direction.

Those who distinguish between current ‘narrowband’ AI and ‘general’ AI would probably say that replicating the full range of human cognitive abilities remains many decades away. I’m currently convinced by this point of view.

But what about the emotive? Can a digital human really empathise? Certainly, they can be made to look like they can. Here is a screenshot from a current vendor of digital labour.

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But is this anthropomorphism backed up by science? Anil Seth is Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex. He lands a great point in a well-known TED talk he gave in 2017.

“What it means to be me cannot be reduced to or uploaded to a software program running on a robot, however smart or sophisticated. We are biological, flesh-and-blood animals whose conscious experiences are shaped at all levels by the biological mechanisms that keep us alive. Just making computers smarter is not going to make them sentient.” 

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As part of a much broader discussion about how humans generate their own reality, Anil makes a vital point. Sensing and predicting the world around us requires a symbiotic relationship between our brains and bodies. Biofeedback is a core input to understanding what is going on. Machines can’t go there since they do not have bodies with all the biology that is contained within them. As such they cannot become sentient i.e. the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively.

Of course, it’s always wise to caveat this kind of conclusion with a ‘never say never’ mindset, but right now there is a chemistry of understanding between humans that remains beyond our ability to digitise or replicate as an algorithm.

In Conclusion

We need to keep human contact as a central part of the way we run organisations. Otherwise the emerging evidence suggests we will suffer as customers, colleagues and partners. And outside those specific roles we will be reduced as societies.

However there is a commercial context to this. If you get too far behind the curve on automation and digital labour you end up with an uncompetitive operating model. However if you strip out too many humans you end up with brittle relationships. So the central strategic decision that needs to be made over the next decade is how to balance the virtual with the physical.

To protect regular human contact, we must be clear when it matters and fight hard to keep those engagements off our digitisation agendas. Otherwise our default behaviour will be to allow a gradual erosion that will end up looking like no-one’s fault in particular.

Am I suggesting we act differently? Yes I am and it’s worth it. Holding ourselves accountable for the future we want is effective when done at scale.

Just look at what the combined individual voices of veganism, environmentalism and sustainable economics are starting to achieve. The time from grassroots to mainstream continues to shorten. My point is that the same determination can be channelled within organisations around the way we use technology and the role it plays in the human communities that organisations are made up from.

Emotive CX is just one example.

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