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Our Tech Infrastructure Is Undermining Our Collective Intelligence. Here’s What We Can Do About It.

Tom met Tristan Harris at the annual TED conference in 2017. Both were preparing for their first main-stage TED talk, rehearsing and honing their presentations on the speakers’ floor of the conference hotel. That week Tom introduced the idea of Humanistic AI, arguing that AI should be designed to augment and collaborate with humans rather than to replace or compete with them. In his talk, Tristan advocated for Humane Technology, arguing that technology — including AI — has been aligned against human benefit, competing with human users, in the war for attention and the relentless pursuit of profit by social media. Tom committed to join Tristan’s effort to help raise awareness about the unintended consequences of technology, particularly AI, on society and human welfare.

Today, millions of people have seen Tristan’s message in the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. It explains what happens when powerful AI algorithms are focused single-mindedly on the objective of addicting people to social media. Center For Humane Technology is the nonprofit organization behind the film. It works to spread public awareness and influence policymakers to rethink and restructure the system that gave rise to the serious harm being done by unfettered algorithms run amok. Beyond the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on the population, the most profound consequence is an epistemological crisis — we have collectively, as a population, impaired our ability to make sense of information about what is true in the world. The social consensus necessary for democracy and progress has been badly damaged by filter bubbles, conspiracy theories, and commercial propaganda. It has undermined our collective intelligence.

Influence and Mindset

Tom works to influence industry leaders and technologists with practical advice about what is broken and ways to fix it. In particular, he sees a clear role that AI plays in the system for harm as well as healing. The problem starts with the business models of the attention economy, which have created an ecosystem where companies thrive but people often suffer.

In this ecosystem, and the mindset that drives it, the only thing that matters is getting people to engage with social media in order to drive advertising revenues and facilitate constant market growth. This is an unprecedented experiment in human behavior with systems gathering and analyzing voluminous amounts of data about every aspect of our lives and our society. AI models are trained with this data to optimize for online engagement — yet they have no idea of the unintended consequences and collateral damage that result. Tom has identified how AI models incorporate these single-minded goals and recommends ways in which AI can be used instead to optimize for human benefit, and he is optimistic that we can make a difference through initiatives like Center for Humane Technology.

See also:

How AI Can Enhance Our Memory, Work and Social Lives | Main Stage TED, Vancouver, BC | April 2017