When my business partner and I launched our company in the mid-1990s, we debated whether to install an automated phone system. It seemed to be the wave of the future, and we were intrigued by the prospect of it saving us the expense of hiring a receptionist.
We eventually decided against it because of the frustrations we’d experienced on the other end of such systems. As a startup, the last thing we wanted to do is frustrate our clients and vendors by making them use a complicated telephone tree. In some circumstances, there’s just nothing that can replace a human being.
Despite our decision, automated phone systems have become even more widespread, no longer just answering calls but now placing them. Who hasn’t been momentarily fooled by a recorded voice on the other end of the line that asks you how you’re doing, pauses a moment for your answer, then launches into a pitch? It takes only a moment to realize we’re being played, and once we do, we feel manipulated and maybe a little bit foolish.
Well, buckle your seatbelt, because systems like that — and much more — aren’t going away. In fact, they’re growing increasingly widespread and sophisticated through the power of artificial intelligence. And in coming years, the stakes will go well beyond minor annoyances.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who wrote a new book with former Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher, an MIT computer science dean, says he could envision an AI-driven war in which the weapons make decisions faster than humans can. That’s pretty terrifying.
It’s coming whether we like it or not; as it was at the dawn of the nuclear age, there’s no getting that horse back in the barn. That said, despite AI’s potential peril, the technology also holds tremendous promise in areas like smart appliances and self-driving cars. This is why it attracted more than $40 billion in investment last year alone.
One of AI’s more newsworthy applications is the suddenly buzzworthy metaverse, a digital parallel world in which people are expected to increasingly spend more of their time and money. The metaverse is kind of an elusive concept at this point, but so was the internet in its early days — lest we forget there was a time when America Online was just as visionary and hard to grasp.
Back in those days, Harvard’s Shoshana Zuboff made a prescient prediction that “Everything that can be automated will be automated,” and we’re seeing that come to pass. Today, utilizing the power of AI, it’s safe to say that everything that can be metaversed will be metaversed.
Perhaps “metastasized” is a more appropriate term. I’m no Luddite, but ponder this thought from L’Atelier BNP Paribas CEO John Egan, an investment analyst who follows this industry: “This metaverse concept gives us the opportunity to create any universe that we’ve ever imagined.”
What could possibly go wrong?
I have no doubt AI and the metaverse will bring wonderful advances. I also have no doubt that they will create, or exacerbate, more problems than we can imagine. With that in mind, I’d like to suggest two things we should keep in mind as this all unfolds: humility and humanity.
The first time I heard of the internet was from a couple of engineers who work for one of the national labs. I didn’t pay much attention to what they were talking about because I thought it was just a technical network they used to communicate with one another.
But as blind as I was to the changes the Internet would bring, they were as well. Sure, they understood how the technology applied to their jobs at the time, but none of us could have conceived of the economic and cultural changes it would bring.
In an interview about his new book, Schmidt raised a handful of issues he’s concerned about with respect to AI. “Who controls what the AI system does? What about its prejudices? What regulates what happens? … I am very concerned about the misuse of all of these technologies.”
Schmidt also confessed to having failed to anticipate certain negative consequences of the internet, some of which were inadvertently advanced (and perhaps even spawned) by Google. Yet in the same interview, he boasted about his confidence in avoiding whatever oversight might be around the bend, saying, “We’re not going to miss the next one. We’re going to call it ahead of time.”
Forgive me, but “We’re from Big Tech and we’ve got this” isn’t very comforting. Industry leaders may be further ahead on the learning curve than the rest of us, but they have a track record demonstrating they’re just as blind to unintended consequences as anyone.
When it comes to AI, none of us know what we don’t know, including those who work at the bleeding edge. Humility is in order all around.
Humanity is the primary reason we need humility; it doesn’t matter how well we understand the machinery if we misunderstand people. Technology continually changes. Human nature doesn’t.
AI and the metaverse won’t make humanity better; they will augment and intensify what we all already are, for good and for ill. People can be good. People can be bad. People can be kind. People can be cruel. People can build. People can destroy.
And people will always need meaning in their lives. As real as the metaverse may seem, the only human thing about it will be the humans in and around it. No matter how well an artificial intelligence mimics a relationship, it can’t have one. Only people can. Sentience matters. Soul is real.
I titled this “AI vs. humans, part 1” because it’s an early opinion and I’m certain time will reveal how naïve it is. There’s so much we still don’t understand. But you can never go wrong with humility, and things won’t always go right with humanity. Keeping those two things in mind will help us navigate whatever lies ahead.
Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”