Self-awareness a key differentiator in a world of advancing AI

The need for greater self-awareness in a world in which many of our decisions are being taken for us is the premise of a book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Artificial intelligence (AI) has had a hugely beneficial impact on business and society, playing a major part, for example, in the rapid development and roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines. Already pervasive in our lives, it is changing the way we live, work and pick our potential life partners.

The downside of AI is that it has been harnessed as a distraction tool, making us unfocused, less patient and unable to delay gratification. It has also narrowed our minds, amplified prejudice, normalised narcissism and has led to a decline in individualism and curiosity.

The need for greater self-awareness in a world in which many of our decisions are being taken for us is the premise of a forthcoming book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, chief talent scientist at Manpower Group and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University.

AI is being used by retailers to predict and shape our purchasing habits, by companies to decide whether to hire us or not and – in extreme cases – is being harnessed by nefarious actors to deliver fake news and influence politics. Scare stories about the power of AI abound.

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However, the most consequential part of AI is not its ability to replicate or surpass but rather impact human intelligence, the author notes in I, Human – AI, Automation and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Human (HBR Press).

“Each time we spontaneously react to AI or one of its many manifestations, we do our bit to advance not just the predictive accuracy of AI, but the sterilisation of humanity, making our species more formulaic.

“The mere fact that you may not be experiencing life in this Orwellian way highlights the immersive allure of the system itself, which has managed to camouflage itself as a normal way of life, successfully turning us into a rich record of digital transactions immortalised for AI’s posterity. A fish doesn’t know what water is; same goes for human and the matrix,” he says.

AI is changing the very nature of our psychology, he claims, making us optimised for speed rather than accuracy. This causes us to make errors and impairs our ability to detect mistakes. While we are capable of adaptation, if pace rather than patience is rewarded, impulsivity increases, ultimately making us more rigid, less flexible and a slave to our habits.

Narcissism is also fuelled by AI. It may not be its root cause, but evidence points to a bidirectional link between narcissism and social media use. The more narcissistic you are, the more you use social media – powered by AI – which tends to make you more narcissistic.

Geraldine Magnier is co-founder of Dublin-based data analytics consultancy Idiro Analytics, which is the brainchild behind Idiro’s AI Ethics Centre, which is focused on developing standards and technology that can be used by industry and government to ensure their AI-related activities are trustworthy and free from bias.

Magnier agrees that individuals need to develop a greater awareness of the pervasive nature of AI in our lives. “A lot of people believe that AI is something happening outside of them, in companies or at government level. There is a lack of recognition that they are allowing AI elements to take over, rather than stopping and saying: ‘No, I’m making a decision for myself.’ The real problem is when we relinquish decision making to AI.”

A key problem here, she notes, is that regulation has not caught up with the pace of technological development. The EU’s key piece of legislation on regulating AI, for example, remains in draft form and it will be a number of years before it comes into effect as industry leaders and policymakers thrash out acceptable standards.

At a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, the Manpower Group predicted that learnability would be a key antidote to automation

Magnier is less concerned about digital narcissism, noting that while narcissism has increased, there is an upside as well as downside to this. “Society is changing here, in many ways for the better. Irish people traditionally were very good at hiding their light under a bushel. This didn’t serve us well. We ended up having a lot of people emigrate to see themselves flourish elsewhere. Maybe an element of narcissism – if we want to call it that – is necessary for people to progress.”

Turning to the role of AI in the workplace, Chamorro-Premuzic acknowledges that there are many potential advantages to having algorithms monitor, measure and manage performance, such as higher precision, objectivity, consistency and the reduction of bias and toxic behaviour. However, there is also a clear dehumanising side to being managed by a machine, especially when it is, in turn, trying to turn us into a machine.

Ade McCormack, business transformation expert, author and founder of The Intelligent Leadership Hub (ILH) think tank, notes that the industrial-era factory model has focused on building intelligence into the system, at the expense of people. There are a handful of people who make the big decisions that the system cannot handle, generally referred to as leaders.

“The workforce comprises process operators and managers of process operators. These people are actively discouraged from deviating from the operations manual for fear of upsetting the process flow. Thus their innate intelligence is suppressed. In governance terms this is a squandering of the organisation’s cognitive capital,” he says.

“So it is perhaps ironic that the industrial-era model that has gone to great lengths to suppress human intelligence is becoming so enamoured of artificial intelligence. AI offers great benefits, including the ability to learn quickly and to pick up on weak signals in large data sets. With the appropriate hardware accessories, it can sense, decide and act on the organisation’s behalf. There is a lot to like.”

McCormack notes, however, that humans can surpass AI in respect of problem contextualisation, pattern matching, thinking in concepts and picking up on weak signals in very small data sets. “We need to start thinking about unleashing our human intelligence and boosting it using AI – so it’s humans and AI. But this requires a reinvention of the beloved process-centric factory model. Most organisations today are looking for a smarter factory, rather than something more akin to a living adaptive organism. For this to happen we need intelligent leadership.”

One of the biggest concerns workers have had for many years is how AI might make their positions redundant.

At a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, the Manpower Group predicted that learnability would be a key antidote to automation. In other words, the more people are willing to learn and upskill in new areas of expertise, the less likely they are to be automated. Crucially, the converse is also true. Those who are focused on optimising their performance will find that their jobs will eventually consist of repetitive and standardised actions that a machine could better execute.

Being less homogenous could be a key strength in a world that is increasingly standardised. Maintaining our cultural identities in an increasingly globalised world could be part of this.

Chamorro-Premuzic notes, for example, that Italians have a reputation for being more extroverted and sociable than Finns, but this is less evident when Italians and Finns use social media, which operates as a suppressor of cultural heritage and behaviour. Social media prompts everyone, including Finns, to share their unsolicited opinions, thoughts and likes with the rest of humanity, as if they were Italian, even if the outcome is that everyone ends up living their lives like introverted computer nerds.

The capacity to elude algorithmic predictions remains a fundamental part of human creativity and freedom. Ultimately, humans need to maintain agency, as Chamorro-Premuzic notes: “We are the hardest part of the world to change, but also the most important one. We need to examine our actions and create new patterns of behaviour, re-examine our beliefs and instil a minimum dose of innovation in our lives. If we don’t, then we better resign ourselves to being sheer passengers or spectators in the world.”

I, Human – AI, Automation and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Human, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, is published in February by Harvard Business Review Press