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Algorithms, TransTech and Kindness: Should we be worried?

Things are happening in the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) at a rate that is difficult to keep up with. The reality is that whether we think we should be worried or not, its too late, the whole world is already run by algorithms and if they did stop working at scale, even for a couple of hours, there would be unimaginable panic. So, going back to some idealised version of the world before the ‘computer said no’ is unlikely, borderline impossible.

TransTech is shorthand for transformative technology. Apparently in the world or technology all useful, meaning laden words must be shorthanded or acronymed (I know its not a verb, I’m just short of time). Ironic that a time saving idea could turn out to be so time consuming – I have spent a lot of hours googling things like ‘SaaS’ (software as a service – I think I’ll just say ‘software as a service’ and opt to move at the corresponding geological pace!). But I digress.

Transformational Technology is broadly defined as technology that can facilitate and advance human wellbeing and includes emotional feedback applications, psychological and emotional recognition and diagnostics, neurological assessment, human augmentation and enhancement. It’s a broad category - Peacebeam is transformational technology (we leverage technology to send out messages of peace and connection), so are driverless cars with facial and emotional recognition scanners. All of these things when presented as the means with which humanity can thrive and evolve sound great. Resilience, thriving, connection, well-being – they are all such positive words but is there a shadow cast by all of this potential to thrive?  I think it’s the conflation that still exists in our Western culture between value and price.

Issues around mental health are a theme of 2017. There are editorials everywhere about the causes, consequences and costs of the exponential rise in mental health problems. The Thriving at Work Report commissioned by Theresa May and published last month puts the annual cost to the UK economy of between £74 billion and £99 billion. Losses like that have to be recouped in our particular economic paradigm of exponential and consistent growth. One response to this is for corporates to allocate substantial budget to tackling these issues in their workforce. TransTech plays a large role in this and there is a noticeable rise in capital focussed on it. It seems like it will be one of the main growth areas for tech in the next decade.

So, back to the conflation of value and price. If mental health and wellbeing issues are a cost to business at the moment then solving those issues in the near term will reduce cost and boost profits. Our current economic paradigm views this as an unassailably good result. I don’t argue with that for these purposes. What concerns me is that an even more effective cost saving/profit boosting device might be to have a workforce, at least of key workers – the availability of what we now call jobs and careers is also being narrowed by the rise of AI – who are reliably resilient, thriving, happy and crucially, productive. This is where all the data being collected by TransTech may become a stick to beat us.

I recently had a conversation with a woman from an app aggregating company about consumer targeting and advertising as we want to be able to reach commuters who might like Peacebeam. I was talking about our ideal user and was probably being too vague, or consuming too much time by using words instead of acronyms, and so she cut across me and said:

“Look, I think you probably want to target the 25 to 45 year olds who like all that ‘mindfulness stuff’ (I suspect she would also have substituted the word ‘crap’ for ‘stuff’ but settled on air quotes out of politeness) and maybe have had a bout of depression”.

“You can identify that how?” I replied, the shock making me temporarily forget how we phrase a question in English.

“From Facebook. Actually, I could also tell you what they browse for when they are feeling depressed and whether they binge eat?”

“Are you joking?”

“No”.

She didn’t strike me as someone who enjoyed a joke so, fair enough.

If I can already target people’s emotional health with that degree of accuracy from something like Facebook, what could I do if I had access to data on every facial expression you have that indicates negativity, every time you have googled ‘mental health’ or depression? What could I do if I have access to your brain patterns as read by the VR interface in your IoT (virtual reality set in your internet of things (electric stuff linked up in your home relaying data all over the place)? Maybe one of the things I could do is start to select employees, students or partners based on their mental health, their resilience and their happiness – it would be very cost effective.

It would also be terrifying.

As noted at the beginning of this blog – there is no turning back to more innocent times. Algorithms already run our lives and AI is slowly and quietly embedding in every aspect of living, not to mention replacing jobs and occupations in every sector. The benefits of TransTech are potentially limitless if it is really deployed for the enhancement and thriving of humanity. If it is used ethically and kindly then this potential is thrilling. What we must remember though is that AI and TransTech itself doesn’t have the capacity for kindness; that is a uniquely human technology. The question perhaps is not whether we should be worried about TransTech but what conversations should we be having about the data that TransTech harvests? Fortunately block-chain provides an avenue for sense and kindness to prevail but that’s a subject for another blog!