Opening Pandora's box

While artificial intelligence can be a force for societal and economic good, there may be unintended consequences when it comes to our increasing reliance on technology.

Andy Grabia and Noah Castelo - 07 January 2020

The Revolution of Business: Pandora

Job loss should not be the only concern when thinking about the consequences of AI.

When people talk about artificial intelligence (AI), two questions inevitably arise: When will we be enslaved by robot overlords? And what will happen when we all lose our jobs? While the first question is probably better left for science fiction movies, the second one is an important and entirely justifiable concern. Unemployment as a result of technological disruption is a constant throughout human history and has become even more pronounced with the accelerated advances of the past 100 years.

Job loss should not be our only concern, however. A recent paper by Noah Castelo, assistant professor at the Alberta School of Business, and Donald Lehmann, professor of business at Columbia University, suggests a handful of unintended consequences that an increasing reliance on technologies such as AI may have on humans. They also offer up three solutions that may help counter the negative effects of these technological advances.

Unintended Consequences

Decreased patience and willingness to struggle

Research suggests that the best way to promote learning is to present difficult material, normalizing struggle and failure in order to promote a growth mindset helpful in overcoming adversity. However, an expectation of instant and painless solutions has developed with increased reliance on electronic sources by "digital natives." People have increasingly turned to search engines such as Google when faced with difficult problems, for example, which in turn leads to a worse recall of information. Patience and willingness to struggle with difficult problems may thus become impaired as technological ubiquity further entrenches expectations of easy and instant answers.

Degradation of offloaded skills

The idea that offloading tasks to technology will impair our abilities to perform those tasks unaided is intuitive. The less you do something, the harder it is to remember when you need to do it again. It's also supported by the evidence. Research suggests that airplane pilots have become less skilled as reliance on autopilot has increased. Similarly, the increased prevalence of online search engines appears to be impairing memory, as the expectation that one can always find answers to questions online reduces the perceived need to store information in one's memory. This "de-skilling" puts individuals increasingly at the mercy of technology, decreasing their ability to deal with crises involving power outages, device failures, or even hackers and cyberterrorists. In the long run this could also reduce the ability to innovate and create - at least until AI proves superior at such tasks.

Decreased connection to nature

Americans have spent less time in nature each successive year since 1987, and this decline has been explained by a parallel increase in time spent with technological entertainment such as video games and television. Exposure to nature has many benefits including stress reduction, improved mood, enhanced concentration and attention, and an increased desire to conserve nature. These benefits seem less likely to be realized as technologies such as virtual reality becomes more immersive, sophisticated, and entertaining.

Less care for personal health

New treatment options and medical devices are proliferating, from retinal implants to mind-controlled prosthetic limbs. This may make it easier for people to disregard sound health advice (eating and sleeping well, exercise, etc.) because they believe health problems can be fixed using technology. Especially damaging would be the assumption that modern technologies have abilities they don't actually possess. Reduced concerns about health may lead to increased costs in healthcare services for both individuals and society as a whole.

Diminished sense of accomplishment and competence

Two of the fundamental motivations that guide human behaviour and enable the creation of meaning are the need for competence and autonomy. In practice, this means feeling like you are doing something useful and valuable. There is already a growing trend of young, educated, white-collar professionals leaving desk jobs to work with their hands at jobs like gardening, farming, and baking. This reflects the fundamental need to feel like one's work is useful and valuable. This need will be increasingly threatened as technology begins to outperform humans at more jobs. When AI can out-think the lawyers and doctors, and robots can out-work the farmers and bakers, where will humans turn to fulfill their needs to feel competent and autonomous?

Decline in the belief in free will

If autonomous technologies are indeed capable of undermining people's sense of autonomy and responsibility, a challenge to the belief in free will may not be far behind. A good example of this is predictive algorithms, which have become increasingly capable of predicting consumers' desires, identities, and beliefs based on their digital footprints, and then using those predictions to present consumers with accurately targeted recommendations. As these technologies become more capable, the belief that we are truly choosing our own path in life may become less solid.

Countering negative consequences

The march of technological progress is unlikely to be slowed even by an accumulation of evidence that it is doing a great deal of harm. Further research is therefore needed on how the potential harms can be mitigated, so that people can create and maintain healthy relationships with technology. Castelo and Lehman suggest three possibilities.

Mindfulness training

Ancient meditation techniques have long taught how to cultivate mindfulness, which refers to both the process of bringing one's attention to the present moment without judgment, as well as the resulting state of mind. A great deal of psychological research has shown that cultivating mindfulness improves psychological functioning in many ways, such as reducing depression and anxiety, reducing implicit and explicit biases, improving working memory and academic performance, and enhancing self-control. Mindfulness-which can be cultivated using even short training sessions-may also facilitate healthier relationships with technology by allowing individuals to more easily break harmful habits and engage with technology with greater awareness and intentionality.

Humane design

A social movement known as Time Well Spent grew out of a Google product manager's disillusionment with how the company's products were designed to be as addictive as possible. The movement champions "humane design" of technology, which includes features such as sending smartphone notifications in batches a few times a day instead of as they arrive, disabling "auto-play" features that automatically load the next video or image and thus remove natural stopping points, and providing users with greater awareness of how they spend their time on their smartphones and computers. While the academic research on these kinds of design changes is still lacking, they could be useful in reducing the addictive and damaging effects of over-using technology.

Exposure to nature

As mentioned earlier, exposure to nature has been declining in recent decades. In addition to the benefits of nature already identified, an additional benefit may be a healthier perspective on one's relationship with technology, encouraging an occasional "unplugging" period, free from technology, and perhaps also a less compulsive pattern of use. Exposure to nature could also offset some of technology's harmful effects by enhancing attention and concentration.

Further Reading

Opinion: Why having robot co-workers might make you less prejudiced - Los Angeles Times

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