Will AI make us better human beings?

08 : 10 : 2018 Health : Technology : Artificial Intelligence

From over-eating to spending that has a negative impact on the environment, could AI help to identify our bad habits and encourage us to do better? Writer Becky Waller-Davies questions the opportunities.

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Arguably, we’re more likely to form positive habits that benefit our future selves if an outside force such as AI is there to motivate us.

Becky Waller-Davies, freelance writer

Artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms have infiltrated the way we live, from our Discover Weekly playlists on Spotify to tracking down an outfit via ASOS’s visual search app.

In short, AI has opened up our worlds. But it hasn’t yet been used to funnel down the possibilities – to nudge us towards the most beneficial option while governing our compulsions, essentially, approximating our willpower.

Unfortunately for those who lack it, willpower is very important. This was most famously exemplified by Walter Mischel’s marshmallow experiment, in which children were offered the choice of one marshmallow up front or two if they were able to wait a short while. Startlingly, when psychologists followed up several years later, those children who chose instant gratification were faring poorly as adults – they were more likely to struggle financially, have substance abuse problems or criminal convictions.

This doesn’t mean that those lacking the willpower to get out of bed for a morning run are doomed. It simply indicates that it is difficult to change where you lie on the willpower scale, and that it can have implications more serious than missing out on a second marshmallow.

This, I believe, is where AI could help. It could keep our worst impulses in check – for example, buying single-use plastics – by identifying our negative habits and prompting us to take a more constructive path. If AI were able to project the health and wellbeing impact of our current behaviours, it would have the potential to positively influence and shape our future selves.

We need to consider the potential dangers of outsourcing our decision-making in this way. What effect could it have on our personal development?

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As a Stanford study focused on monetary savings found, subjects who were shown an aged avatar of themselves allocated more money to a retirement fund than those shown an avatar of how they looked at present. Arguably, then, we’re more likely to form positive habits that benefit our future selves if we can visualise who we might become, with an outside force such as AI there to motivate us.

But before we deliver our destinies into AI’s algorithmic hands, we need to consider the potential dangers of outsourcing our decision-making in this way. For example, what effect could it have on our personal development? In the bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest Strength it is argued that willpower is like a muscle that needed exercise to grow stronger. Essentially, it is crucial that we – as humans – develop our own.

This is particularly pressing for children, who are not only susceptible to the influence of AI, but are growing up interacting with smart devices and AI-driven bots from an increasingly young age. As shown by a recent study, scientists asked children and adults an obvious question but did not let them answer until a robot answered the question – albeit incorrectly. While adults ignored the incorrect answer and used their better judgement, children were more likely to follow the robot, giving the same incorrect answer.

With consumers already using AI-driven technology and apps to better themselves, it is apparent that we can use this technology to encourage or otherwise boost our willpower. An AI-powered system that questions our urges and attempts to hold us to account might embody the next generation of this technology, but risks becoming a proxy that we solely rely on.

It's crucial, then, that in the age of AI we do not lose sight of the very human quality of ultimately being in control of our own desires – and futures.

Becky Waller-Davies is a freelance writer specialising in fashion and retail.