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Meet your new A.I. best friend

December 10, 2021, 3:20 PM UTC
Woman looking at her phone screen.
Post-COVID isolation requirements have been shortened by the CDC, to five days, rather than 10. The new guidelines don’t require a negative test, drawing derision.
Olivier Douliery—AFP/Getty Images

People seem to be concerned about the hazards of artificial intelligence without realizing just how far it is already integrated into our everyday lives.

When Sophia the robot was granted Saudi citizenship in 2017, eyebrows were raised over humanoids’ position in society. Facebook’s rebrand just last month sparked unease about our potential future as avatars in the developing metaverse.

However, this innovative technology is currently playing a deeply embedded—but largely invisible—role in our social existence, from customer service chatbots to suggested matches on Hinge.

A.I. skepticism is often tied to the impact emerging technologies will have on our ability to function, socialize, and interact as human beings. Are we going to spend more time engaging with virtual beings than real people? What will happen to our communication skills, and how we engage and connect with each other?

Valid questions aside, the truth is that A.I. has the power to enhance, not diminish, human potential. It can transform our experiences for the better, optimize our capabilities, and help us instill habits to become healthier and potentially even happier. It can be our friend, not our worst enemy—but only when it is designed and delivered thoughtfully.

We are at a critical juncture in the role of A.I. Where, what, and how we design now will define our experiences of the future. If designed effectively, emerging technologies have the power to revolutionize our collective future and augment our potential. A.I.’s promise lies in its ability to make unprecedented analyses of vast amounts of data and empower us to make more informed and efficient decisions.

A.I. as a personality

Until recently, these emerging technologies have been mostly invisible. But as they become more integrated into our day-to-day lives, performing more complex and socially driven tasks, the challenge is to humanize our interactions with A.I. systems so that they become seamless and engaging.

Many companies are already working towards this. Take Replika’s A.I. companion that acts as a personal confidant and sounding board. Inspired by the desire to replicate a conversation with a deceased friend, and to retain the comfort of that friendship, the companion has now expanded to empower users to express themselves through helpful conversations.

UneeQ’s A.I. adviser service, driven by emotional cues and empathy, is revolutionizing customer experiences through more humanized interactions. Hybri, the virtual companion platform, enables users to create models in line with their desires and fantasies, or even mimic the appearance of real people.

But this can go so much further.

Imagine a future where people elect to have an A.I. companion whose relationship with you begins at birth, reading everything from your grades at school to analyzing your emotions after social interactions. Connecting your diary, your medical data, your smart home, and your social media platforms, the companion can know you as well as you know yourself. It can even become a skilled coach helping you to overcome your negative thinking patterns or bad habits. It can provide guidance and gently nudge you towards what you want to accomplish, encouraging you to overcome what’s holding you back. 

Drawing on data gathered across your lifetime, a predictive algorithm could activate when you reach a crossroads. Your life trajectory, if you choose to study politics over economics, or start a career in engineering over coding, could be mapped before your eyes. By illustrating your potential futures, these emerging technologies could empower you to make the most informed decisions and help you be the best version of yourself.

For some, this may seem like a tech invasion, an infringement of our capabilities as independent beings. But a new generation of digital natives is welcoming these new technologies, with studies from KPMG revealing that Gen Z and millennials are almost twice as trusting of A.I. than their boomer counterparts. By deeply integrating A.I. into our everyday lives from birth, it can become a second self who can take us on a journey and even give us a glimpse into our future.

Significant headway is also being made in the development of emotive A.I. that has empathy and provides emotional responses to real human needs, making our interactions with this technology far more seamless and authentic. This branch of A.I. combines biometric and physiological data to sense, understand, and respond to real feelings.

Envision a country where there are not enough workers available to provide real-time care for the elderly. After the pandemic, it’s not hard to imagine, especially with an aging world population. Emotive A.I. could be a powerful tool in combating loneliness in the elderly or any other forms of social isolation for that matter.

A.I. as a personality also has powerful potential in our professional lives. As this innovation becomes more advanced, an entire future is unlocked in which A.I. can become our creative companion. A critical partner conceiving great new ideas in a brainstorming session, advising us on interviewing skills, or helping to mentor staff members. Imagine how our productivity and time could be optimized if we each had an A.I. colleague or mentor to help us tease out our best ideas. A.I.’s growth presents a future scenario where this may become the norm.

An inflection point

This future scenario is not without its challenges, of course. To be truly successful, it has to be designed responsibly, and difficult questions about privacy and ethics have to be addressed. We must have structures and legislation in place that safeguard our security so that brands understand the importance of consumer trust and are guided by strong moral judgment when creating these new systems.

On a social level, A.I. is created by humans and trained on historical data, inheriting the same discrimination and biases that exist in the real world. Inequality could be amplified if there is unequal access to information and participation in A.I. To ensure the future of A.I. remains our friend, we must find diverse panels for user testing in order to overcome these inherent biases, and fill in the data gaps caused by decades of prioritizing the white, male, and able-bodied as the norm to design for.

According to Stanford’s 100-year study on A.I., we are at an inflection point where the promise and perils of this technology are becoming real. A potentially dangerous future does exist where A.I. can exacerbate inequalities, infringe on our privacy, and intrusively serve large corporations.

An alternative future exists where smart technology can augment human ability; where A.I. can help us raise our children, deal with loss, or pick us up when we’re feeling low. Innovators, designers, and businesses have the responsibility to be ambitious in conceiving the ideal future we want.

Yana Zalesskaya is a design researcher at Design Partners.

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