AI and Human Centricity – Resetting Our Power Dynamic

Source: FutureShapers

Author: Nicola Darke

If we all believe a core benefit of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is to enable human value add capability, why are so few organisations or governments doing anything to foster it? Because turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. You see, what no one is talking about is the fact that human value add is all about the redistribution of power.

Right now, we are outsourcing our power to the main actors of our future; Big Tech, scientists and  technologists at the forefront of AI, and Government; who are not taking a human centrist perspective, but by western world ideals and democracy should have everyone’s interest in mind.   If we want to take advantage of the positives AI has to offer, this needs to change. We must stop discouraging and relinquishing individual power.

Interestingly, the G20 agreed AI Principles (originally proposed by the OECD) state commitment to a ‘human-centred future society’. The principles are “non-binding” and neither China nor Russia signed up – perhaps they understood the reality of what it embodies. How we interpret and implement the term ‘human centric’ has huge implications for the future of our society. The key to success is understanding the difference between, and ensuring there is no sleight of hand conflation of ‘human centric’ vs ‘consumer centric’. At the root of all this lies power.

Taking a step back to basics, here’s the cheat sheet – a core facet of human value add is adaptability – essential if we are to make the most of all AI has to offer and live happily and productively. The ability to be adaptable is predicated on core human needs being met, the most critical of this is the ability to exercise one’s own choice and agency; individual power. And, at its simplest level, human value add, or human capability, is about humans functioning at their potential. When a human functions at potential, they are hugely powerful entities. Indeed, we are the most powerful species on the planet.

Despite this, either through lack of engagement, lack of understanding, or duplicity on behalf of the technology players and governments, over time we’ve been conditioned to give our power away. In more and more ways choice is being removed. We trade privacy for convenience without a second thought. Agree to a product’s terms and conditions? Sure. Read them? Nah. To be in a situation where you say ‘there’s no other option, you’ve got to accept’ or ‘you have to’ in order to access a fairly fundamental service is not compatible with a democratic society – where people choose and have agency

We are well sunk into herd mentality and our day to day lives are extremely predictable repetitions of the same set of actions on shuffle. Society is constructed to make change difficult. Keep people calm, quiet and to do as they’re told. Life’s just ‘easier’ that way. The Government and corporates who like to predict markets like predictable people, but predictable is very easily disrupted. This is where we find ourselves at present. Right now, we are emotionally and intellectually under equipped to adapt to a very new way of living.

With all AI promises, we’re about to be able to drop the focus on 5 day week habit loops, group think, attachment to linear process and tasks, and instead can play to our strengths, but we’re out of practice of being human and few seem to even understand what that means.

Before I go on, there are three core commitments that the G20 AI Principles/OECD Intergovernmental Standard outlines, which are of note and I will reference:

  • “ensuring respect for human rights and democratic values”
  • “building human capacity and preparing for labour market transformation” 
  • “human-centred values and fairness”

Human disablement (consumer centric)

Who is steering the ship in setting the parameters of what human centricity is? 

I was at a conference in San Francisco last year where I heard Google Empathy Labs talk about building AI, I quote their phrase used; “AI should never make you feel uncomfortable”. Here is a prime example of the difference between human centric and consumer centric. Products built to make it easier for us to consume and slide unnoticeably into our lives, thoughts, habits. The trouble is, discomfort is a stimulus for and basic building block of learning. It is only obstacles which require us to really move ourselves. A baby only bothers to learn to stand due to its desire, or frustration at not being able to engage with the world around it. What happens to us when we quietly but increasingly remove our need or ability to question, and we slide in to ever deepening levels of passive ‘comfort’? We lose our adaptability; our capability.

Seems an extreme conclusion from that one example? The ability to question and choose are core facets of agency – a fundamental human need and central to personal power – pretty hard to have agency when you can’t even think. Our reliance on devices and the way we consume information has led clinicians to coin the phrase ‘digital dementia’ indicating our lack of thought to figure things out for ourselves and inability to retain information. 

Japan’s ‘Society 5.0’ was hailed as leading the way – do see the alarming sales video – promising a “Technology based Human Centred society”. How about human based, tech enabled? “Removing the stress of driving”? Do we need to remove stressors, or do we need to get better at handling them? Hardly ‘building human capacity and preparing for labour market transformation’, which will likely be a highly stressful experience for many. Do we want fragile humans or anti-fragile, powerful people? 

Furthermore, as AI learns and develops outpacing the rate of Moore’s law, it will rapidly overtake our ability to learn. A key skill for adaptability. As we live a life of ‘next, next, next’ and instant gratification, we give little time to pause, self reflect, learn, and self master to pivot our behaviours to something new. AI offers us the opportunity to do this; to be productive in new ways, live happier, healthier lives that we’re all told we should but are too caught up in the grind to give full attention to.

Luckily, despite all the attempts to disable it, adaptability is a built-in functionality of humans. And we’re incredibly good at it. For example neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganise itself and adjust activities by forming new neural connections throughout life) and consciousness combine to allow us to choose how we evolve. We can physically ‘rewire’ our brains in 10 hours if we put our minds to it. We just need to tap into it and adapt in the direction of capability rather than incapability. Agency outside of all the devices, advertising, data manipulation and other influence tactics designed to control your life choices. 

Like most muscles, if you don’t use it you lose it. It’s time to limber up. So what’s happening to support this?

Human enablement? – “Building human capacity and preparing for labour market transformation”

Andrew Yang, US 2020 candidate, though gathering a broader church now, initially appealed to the same demographic as Trump – those whose jobs are most immediately at stake from automation – and suggests a universal basic income (UBI) of $1000 a month paid for by companies benefiting the most from automation. Maybe it’s a starting point as a buffer, but it’s a bit like a date who doesn’t turn up and thinks flowers the next day makes it ok. Root cause, not symptoms. Changing the system and the mechanisms is one thing, but truly equipping people to move themselves differently within those goes beyond money. UBI is not going to mobilise people. Yang posits that giving people money will help stop those in danger of losing their jobs from committing suicide or becoming destructive to society and cause civil unrest. He’s right that’s a risk, and it’s brilliant to see anyone even having this conversation, but it also sounds like pacification when what’s needed are new ways to develop human capability. 

When we start to see money as a lubricant to keep things moving, and help hold people safely in the space, this pause, that AI creates, its relationship with power changes. Money means less, and the space it creates becomes very loud. What does the ‘Freedom Dividend’ free people up for? It’s not quite winning the lottery but we’ve all read stories of what happens to many who do. Redistributing money redistributes power so we must equip people to handle their own. This is dependent on the simple difference between who wants change, and who wants to change. How are people choosing to adapt? This space of possibility created must be used valuably, not just mopped up with further device usage and consumerism. Companies have a huge responsibility here. Companies whose processes and models are shifting need to work on their human strategy for their workforce.

Big Tech can send a cheque like an absent parent to fund programmes etc, but the school the children go to must be led by others. Google’s approach I mentioned earlier makes clear their goal. Big Tech’s influence and funding in politics and academia, so they can determine the regulations for their benefit, is unlikely to be driven by the desire to enable people to flourish, but rather generate good consumers, doing as they’re told. The UK’s AI council (another box ticking exercise) consists of names such as Amazon, Microsoft, BBC, MasterCard and some universities (would be great to see how they’re funded… I’m sure you’re up to date on MIT in the US), and Luminate (owned by the company owned by the founder of eBay). This is deeply concerning. How we steer the ship needs to be fed from all areas of society – grassroots creation. Where are the coders, where are the people who will be affected, where are the people who aren’t funded by Big Tech, where are the people with vision?

An end to centralised power – “human-centred values and fairness”

Grassroots fed, cross sector and governmental policies should be setting the parameters of what’s needed. This requires more ‘regular’ people to get involved. We are only going to be able to take advantage of what AI offers and create systems and institutions which enable people when we have a diverse range of more politically active people taking responsibility for it. 

As we live in a hyper connected world, with increasing ability to run low to zero marginal cost businesses, distributed networks with real local responsibility becomes the norm. Decentralisation is the future. Take a look at Jeremy Rifkind (who’s advised Germany and China on this). As automation, digital assistants and the ability to provide a service to anyone in the world becomes ever more accessible at negligible cost, anyone can start their own business if they’re minded to. The way demand can be met is changing. Likewise, with the clean tech necessary to provide power for a sustainable future we see that solar and tidal are best managed and distributed locally. To look after our environment, and to be healthier, we should eat local, seasonal produce. The direction of this industrial revolution, requires more local ownership and capability, there’s less need for the corporate or multinational.

Most governments work on the basis of central management and decision making, a more decentralised age is a clear threat to this. A reason why the EU as a political institution is failing. It’s unable to meet local needs. We need to reimagine what ‘government’ is and look at how individual autonomy and sovereignty becomes more critical.

So will governments recognise that everyone has power and not only let them use it but help them to, or will they continue to fight to keep it over and above everyone else? Government is merely a bigger version of making sure that the tribe thrives. It’s a way to organise, and we created it, so we can reorganise it. The question to Government and industry is – are you going to continue down the same path, going faster with more dangerous tools, which encourage less conscious users? A fool with a tool is still a fool. Or will you divert your attention to a new goal? This will require a reset of the power dynamic between government and big tech and government taking the lead on regulation. Yang has coined the phrase ‘human centred capitalism’. Where people are more important than money, and markets exist to serve common goals and values. So what are those?

Creating a next generation ‘workforce’ requires Government and industry to look for other measures than simply profit or centralised power. People want, and need, purpose. This informs values and is a way to get people to behave differently. When you free them up to use their own power, put it towards something of real value which fulfils them. Because the thing with purpose, when done properly, is it’s intrinsically based on human need and how we’re contributing to the tribe, to our wider ecosystem. It should be human centric.

Human Need – “ensuring respect for human rights and democratic values”

So, this all boils down to human needs. Innovator’s tools like Design Thinking and Jobs To Be Done are going to leave us wanting unless coupled with a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. Even Maslow’s ‘hierarchy’ of needs plays nicely into the same trap of power struggle and playing the game as it’s currently constructed, by keeping people stuck in their ‘basic needs’ state until they climb the ladder of hierarchy.

For a new era, and one which is likely to be ever more fluid, rather than the paradigm shifts every few decades that we’re used to, we now need a system independent understanding of human need. The UK Government had the Turing Institute support them on ethics and it falls short here. Furthermore, there isn’t an overarching strategy or governance in place that the (guess who) Government needs to bring. The framework of the Industrial Strategy is not it.

Following that, a new understanding of need necessarily requires a new understanding of rights. 

Our current list of rights are not fit for purpose in the digital, apparently human centred, society we are creating. We’ve never been here before. We need to create it with appropriate values in mind. As I like to quote Einstein, “you cannot solve a problem from the same level of consciousness which created it”.

A simple example might be that we are basing most of future tech on the assumption of a hyper connected world. What do our privacy rights look like when ‘we’ roll out global 5G? To use the network and all the devices attached to it, must we allow full access to our data all the time? Is this not an evolved form of surveillance? Are we choosing this? If a global roll out happens, there’s also no choice in your exposure to those 5G electromagnetic frequencies (2G and 3G already proven carcinogenic FYI – a service built with human centricity in mind?). What rights do we have around health and invasion of personal space and where does the onus fall to ensure them? Perhaps the right to end your own life will be ever more popular soon too.

To that point, we need workforces and citizens who are able to understand their own needs – not only so they can determine what rules, regulations and products help meet them (real choice and therefore power to be responsible in a decentralised ‘market’), but critically so these people can be truly adaptable for such fluidity. We don’t know what’s coming, we just need to be prepared to both create and handle it. Not just learning new jobs every few months or years, but proactive in an organisation’s, or society’s, movement for it to adapt at pace. Oh no, sorry, I forgot, ‘digital dementia’.

Step up

Power is all about ownership – over yourself and your actions. We currently have a misconception that power is something you have to fight for, that you have to struggle to get. When you understand you intrinsically have power, you don’t need to fight for it. That’s just acquiescing that the other party has more. Not so; every single one of us has all the power we need to do what we want in life. We are born with inherently human functions of consciousness, choice, power and capability – we can think, act and evolve. There are other options to the reality you currently live – and what you don’t change, you choose. We may dislike governments or large monopoly banks and industries but we signed up to the deal and put them in power.

So who’s going to step up? Which entities are going to trust and enable their people – lead the way by putting human need at the centre of what they do?

It’s all of our responsibility – not something we can outsource to Government or Facebook. Look at those in government and the current state of play. You are giving your power over to those people, willingly. In the UK, whatever your view of The Brexit Party, they proved that, in a matter of a few months, anyone can indeed stand up to be counted and make a difference. We can all do better. The time for political apathy is over – activism is now critical. We are only going to be able to create institutions for shared prosperity when we share the responsibility of creating them with a more actively engaged and politically savvy population. Likewise within organisations, this is a leveller; we need more conscious coders, managers and leaders, all towing the same lines. Apathy and incapacity, or activism and powerful capability. You choose.

The whole narrative around AI is that it is coming and will cause X, Y and Z. Well, only if you make that so – it is not something that will just magically be done to you. As yet, tech is not building itself and making decisions about your future. People are – all the individuals turning up to make decisions about management, design, build and strategy (or lack of) across our society. As consumers, we’re all voting with our money and deciding how much power to give away daily. 

We are all in this together and share one thing in common; our humanity, and if a collective of people cannot build a reality which genuinely puts people first (and the natural systems necessary to support life), we truly have checked out and become the ‘machines’, just going through the motions. And if that’s the case you can disregard this article. But I don’t believe you will. I hope it activates within you a very deep, innate sense of knowing.

Very simply, new ways require new thinking. And I mean ‘thinking’ in the most essential sense of the word – the key to adaptability and agency; the new power to the people; is simply raising consciousness. A fundamentally human trait. Be more human, be more powerful.

It is the time old question of power… but it’s time for a new approach. For those willing to take the leap, you will be best placed to navigate the foreseeable.

I’d be delighted to hear your views and feedback on how we tackle these challenges. I don’t have all the answers but I do have some. Failing to put the human at the centre of our thinking as we design our organisations and societies to tackle this digital frontier may just turn out to be the biggest travesty of justice that younger and future generations will challenge us on. We cannot pass up this responsibility because before we know it the opportunity will have passed. Please connect. As all innovators know, we just need to start. 

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