Staying human in the age of machines
11 January 2018
Rachel Botsman, TED speaker and trust expert, says that the demand for human quality is never fading away – not even in the age of AI and futuristic technology.
Renowned for her TED talks on collaborative consumption and trust, and viewed by more than 3.5 million people, Rachel Botsman believes we are at a tipping point of social transformation. Her new book, Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together And Why It Could Drive Us Apart, talks about a new world order emerging.
By 2030, she thinks technology will rewrite the way we do things and who we trust in business. “One of the most interesting things [going into 2030 in the UK] will be when we decide to trust an artificial intelligence machine over a human to make decisions that a human would make,” she tells Business Reporter over the phone from a conference in Helsinki, where she has just given a presentation.
“The one we keep thinking about is self-driving cars – that is a really good example, where it feels very risky to trust a machine over a human being,” she continues. “But I think by 2030 we could be at a place where we ask, do we trust human drivers?”
The assumption that humans are automatically better at certain things than robots, she believes, is often a misguided one. “There is a tendency to look at technology and look at automation and say it is all bad, but human beings are not particular good drivers and there are places where trust and technology will really improve our daily lives,” she says.
There could come a time over the next decade, she explains, where we might think we are interacting with a human doctor, financial adviser or therapist when they are really a bot or a machine. “If you think about our basic needs, a lot of areas in our lives – banking, food, products, the way we move from A to B – we will outsource our trust to an algorithm and machine [to oversee].”
The main challenges she expects by 2030 will come in the form of “understanding the intentions and ethics of algorithms that are visible to us. It is the way those machines make decisions. The average human being cannot understand how they are being programmed. We have to trust the intention of people who understand these algorithms.
“We need to be asking very tough questions,” she explains. “This is where the pendulum has swung – onto technology companies. The questions we need to ask them are not technical, they are ethical. We have not figured out the ethical implications of this.” Even so, Botsman believes it will be the ethical companies that admit that they don’t understand the unintended consequences who will be the winners in the long run.
Although there could be some confusion between what is a machine and what is human, Botsman does not think AI will be able to replace everything. Just as companies will be required to look at the ethical consequences of AI systems on humans to be the winners, they will also be required to inject some kind of “human-ness” into experiences.
As well as the ethical dilemma the preponderance of AI will create, as technology progresses over the next decade Botsman expects it will shift peoples’ trust away from corporates and onto individuals. “For a long period in history we have placed our trust in governments, banks, lawyers and corporate brands,” she points out. “What technology does is pull it away from the top and distributes it through networks and systems and marketplaces.
“We are heading into this age where people will trust individuals more that institutions – whether that is influence over what music they should listen, to or movies they should watch. The shift is only going to become more and more amplified.”
Botsman believes that what we now call the “sharing economy” will by 2030 have become just a way of doing business. “The next stage is individuals realising that all around them in their own lives they create excess capacity that they could monetise value from […] and be able to share in real time with one another,” she says. “At the moment it is very much about companies aggregating these assets.”
According to Botsman the technology that will enable these transformations will be blockchain. As blockchain works through shared digital ledger technology, which records a transaction publically, people will be able to transfer assets and make micro-payments without the need for a trusted third party to oversee the transaction. This bypasses the need to use a platform powered by a huge corporate entity to buy something, allowing people to simply sell what they don’t need – such as minutes on a phone – using blockchain.
People will also be able to use the blockchain to prove authenticity of an object – as each transaction is recorded visibly a history of an item is built up and its legitimacy verified.
She believes this will have huge implications in the area of high-end goods – “things like artworks, fine wines, diamonds or jewellery, where you need the digital identity of something and it is largely dependent on paper”.
As technology makes individuals more visible online, people will start to obtain trust and reputation scores, similar to the credit scores we have today.
Says Botsman: “The way we are assessed and the way someone might judge how we might behave in the future will be more and more dependent on these trust scores. We will have a reputation score – a credit score will seem like a relic of the past. All this data will feed from what we buy and how we behave in different kind of communities and that will inform our ability to get a loan, health insurance… it will help predict our future behaviour.”
But there is a danger. “There are many dark implications from that,” Bostman warns. “What we don’t want is one big popularity contest where everyone is rating one another and I might unfriend someone else because they are bringing my score down. [There’s a danger of] that constant society surveillance, where it is gamified obedience.”
Another problem the technology could create is that of echo-chambers and filter bubbles. “Technology naturally organises people into groups that are similar or familiar to them,” Botsman says. “What we need to do is break that and actually have interactions and trust people that on the surface seem like they are untrustworthy.”
“If we can actually use these networks to discover new people to trust, what it could do for diversity, inclusion and collaboration would be phenomenal – actually looking at how it can overcome human bias and discrimination [rather than] just amplifying the way society is today.”
In the decade ahead, technology will transform our society and change the way we collaborate and trust in business, says Botsman. But she points out that it will be crucial not to lose sight of human values of judgment and empathy while we’re discovering how machines can help us do better.