A Blueprint for Human Coexistence with AI

While I was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer in Taiwan, an old friend of mine who is a serial entrepreneur came to me with a problem at his latest startup. He had already founded and sold off several successful consumer technology companies, but as he grew older he wanted to do something more meaningful, that is, he wanted to build a product that would serve the people that technology startups had often ignored. Both my friend and I were entering the age at which our parents needed more help going about their daily lives, and he decided to design a product that would make life easier for the elderly.

What he came up with was a large touchscreen mounted on a stand that could be placed next to an elderly person’s bed. On the screen were a few simple and practical apps connected to services that elderly people could use: ordering food delivery, playing their favorite soap operas on the TV, calling their doctor, and more. Older people often struggle to navigate the complexities of the internet or to manipulate the small buttons of a smartphone, so my friend made everything as simple as possible. All the apps required just a couple of clicks, and he even included a button that let the elderly users directly call up a customer-service agent to guide them through using their device.

It sounded like a wonderful product, one that would have a real market right now. Sadly, there are many adult children in China and elsewhere who are too busy with work to devote time to taking care of their aging parents. They may experience a sense of guilt about the importance of filial piety, but when it comes down to it, they just don’t feel they can find the time to care for their parents in an adequate way. The touchscreen would make for a nice substitute.

But after deploying a trial version of his product, my friend discovered he had a problem. Of all the functions available on the device, the one that received by far the most use wasn’t the food delivery, TV controls, or doctor’s consultation. It was the customer-service button. The company’s customer-service representatives found themselves overwhelmed by a flood of incoming calls from the elderly. What was going on here? My friend had made the device as simple as possible to use—were his users still unable to navigate the one-click process onscreen?

Not at all. After consulting with the customer-service representatives, he found that people weren’t calling in because they couldn’t navigate the device. They were calling simply because they were lonely and wanted someone to talk to. Many of the elderly users had children who worked to ensure that all of their material needs were met: meals were delivered, doctors’ appointments were arranged, and prescriptions were picked up. But once those material needs were taken care of, what these people wanted more than anything was true human contact, another person to trade stories with and relate to.

My friend relayed this “problem” to me just as I was waking up to my own realizations about the centrality of love to the human experience. If he had come to me just a few years earlier, I likely would have recommended some technical fix, maybe something like an AI chat bot that could simulate a basic conversation well enough to fool the human on the other end. But as I recovered from my illness and awakened to the looming AI crises of jobs and meaning, I began to see things differently.

In that touchscreen device and that unmet desire for human contact, I saw the first sketches of a blueprint for coexistence between people and artificial intelligence. Yes, intelligent machines will increasingly be able to do our jobs and meet our material needs, disrupting industries and displacing workers in the process. But there remains one thing that only human beings are able to create and share with one another: love.

With all of the advances in machine learning, the truth remains that we are still nowhere near creating AI machines that feel any emotions at all. Can you imagine the elation that comes from beating a world champion at the game you’ve devoted your whole life to mastering? AlphaGo did just that, but it took no pleasure in its success, felt no happiness from winning, and had no desire to hug a loved one after its victory. Despite what science-fiction films like Her—in which a man and his artificially intelligent computer operating system fall in love—portray, AI has no ability or desire to love or be loved. The actress Scarlett Johansson may have been able to convince you otherwise in that film, but only because she is a human being who drew on her experience of love to create and communicate those feelings to you.

Imagine a situation in which you informed a smart machine that you were going to pull its plug, and then changed your mind and gave it a reprieve. The machine would not change its outlook on life or vow to spend more time with its fellow machines. It would not grow emotionally or discover the value in loving and serving others.

It is in this uniquely human potential for growth, compassion, and love where I see hope. I firmly believe we must forge a new synergy between artificial intelligence and the human heart, and look for ways to use the forthcoming material abundance generated by artificial intelligence to foster love and compassion in our societies.

If we can do these things, I believe there is a path toward a future of both economic prosperity and spiritual flourishing. Navigating that path will be tricky, but if we are able to unite behind this common goal, I believe humans will not just survive in the age of AI. We will thrive like never before.

Posted by Dr. Kai-Fu Lee on May 14, 2019 in All Posts AI and You

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