On Our Evolving Relationship with Technology

On Our Evolving Relationship with Technology
Photo by Valerie Blanchett / Unsplash

The pace of technological change is moving quickly. And, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my professional life, most people do not like change. The field within technology changing most rapidly – and with the most public spotlight – is artificial intelligence. Its impact on companies and society at large is just beginning to be felt.

I’m not a pessimistic person. But, fear is a strong emotion. There’s been no shortage of fear generated by the media over the past few months around the rise of artificial intelligence. Just this past week, renowned AI research Geoffrey Hinton, who led Google’s Toronto-based AI research team, resigned over fears that the technology will cause serious harm.

I hear this same concern in my immediate social circle. A number of my colleagues have voiced unease about the implication of generative AI on people’s jobs. Some of my family members are worried about its impact on the upcoming election (deep fakes!) and how to know what’s actually true. Friends deflect with humor – "There’s no fighting our new robot overlords."

Other voices are less concerned. Stratechery’s Ben Thompson most recently called for an acceleration in AI so that we can get through the disruption more quickly. In a recent interview with Rich Roll, Kevin Kelly, famed technologist and founder of Wired, cast the current wave of generative AI as nothing more than an above-average intern with the prospects of getting much smarter one day with our training. Capitalism is speaking too: investment by firms in generative AI topped $2.6 billion in 2022.

To be clear, I am concerned about the speed generative AI is moving. In particular, I worry about the short-term effects on our relationships with each other, overconfidence in the technological capabilities, and an internet that’s overrun with unremarkable content in pursuit of optimization.

In the long term, I worry this technology will disintermediate ourselves from genuine connection with each other. It may result in an inability to create interpersonal relationships, build empathy, or transcend difference. It can help the Internet’s worst attention seekers meet their goals more than improve our collective well-being. It can further accelerate us into the post-truth world.

That blend of esoteric pessimism may not sound all that hopeful. But, my discontent with the path we’re on compels me to explore it. Even more, I want to shape it. That’s why I’m shifting the focus of this blog and newsletter to the topic of AI and its impact on society, work, and our relationships with each other (for at least the next few months).

I’m going to dive into the latest research and unpack them. From doctors making AI-generated prescription recommendations to call center agents paired with AI assistants to improve customer satisfaction, there is a growing body of research unfolding across industries. This work often gets lost in the academic world or overshadowed by bigger headlines. Each week, I’ll summarize one, provide some key takeaways, and offer a few thoughts.

While I’m anxious about the potential consequences of AI, ignorance and apathy isn’t my style. In his interview with Rich Roll, Kevin Kelly was emphatically optimistic about the future of AI. When pushed back on this sentiment, he added, “The world needs both types: people who want to press the gas and others who want to hit the brake. I want to be the engine.” It’s good that we don’t all agree where this technology is going or feel similarly about its risks. Engaged people with different perspectives will shape where we go.

Until next time,