AI Assistants
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Are We Ready for the Age of Virtual Companions?

Guest blog by TrendWatching’s David Mattin.

Humans are social animals. We’re hard-wired to seek out meaningful social connection. Way back in our history, the ability to make those connections was a matter of survival. Failing to do so — being shunned by the tribe — meant death.

For tens of thousands of years, there was only one way to meet the human need for social contact. That was, to meet and talk to other people. But today that basic truth about the human condition is being challenged by the evolution of artificial intelligence.

Indeed, today, right now as you read this, there are thousands of people all over the world engaged in a conversation with a non-human entity. For the most part those conversations are of the most primitive and functional kind. Siri, show me the way to the nearest bank. Alexa, order washing powder.

But look closely and you’ll see that something even more significant is happening. The nature of our relationship with these AI-fuelled virtual entities is starting to change. It’s becoming about more than just functionality and basic transaction. Instead, it’s deepening to include higher-order human concerns such as wellness, creativity, even friendship and companionship.

This shift raises the seemingly incredible possibility: that in the future, billions of people will form close, emotional bonds with AI entities that provide companionship and allow them new insight into themselves. People, in short, will be friends with an A.I.

Sounds beyond far-fetched? Try this simple test. Ask yourself: have you ever asked Siri, Alexa, or any other AI-fuelled personal assistant a question that goes beyond the purely functional or transactional? A question with any kind of emotional content whatsoever? If you have, you’re already starting to admit to yourself that this shift in the nature of our relationship with AIs is real.

The core human impulse for social connection means that it’s impossible to have engagement at the level of hundreds of millions of users every day without the nature of that engagement starting to deepen. Once people can talk to a virtual entity, using relatively natural language, they’re going to start to talk to it about the things that are important in their own lives. And that includes how they’re feeling. Their hopes and anxieties. Their need for acceptance and recognition. A.I is unlocking powerful new ways to serve the basic human need for connection. And when emerging technologies allow basic human needs to find new expression, powerful new trends in behaviour and mindset are the result.

Right now, this shift is at an early stage. But fast-forward 20 years, with exponentially more powerful AI, and it seems inevitable that we’ll see an enormous deepening in the relationship between humans and virtual entities. Of course, this is a trend that raises huge questions. What does it mean for our shared social life, if people can form close emotional bonds with AI-fuelled entities? Who will create and own those entities? How can we ensure that these relationships help promote human flourishing, rather than diminishing us and societies? Can AI companions offset the negative impact of social media and its implications of social exclusion?

As we’ve learned more about the true impact of social media on individual health and on our democracies, it’s become ever-more clear that we cannot afford to either waste or ignore the broader impact of new digital technologies. And as much as that was true for social media, it’s a thousand times more true for the emergence of powerful AI. The age of virtual companions is coming. It offers amazing new possibilities to us — to promote individual and social wellbeing in powerful ways, and ways we can’t currently even imagine. If we are to realise those vast benefits, we need to start preparing now.

Guest blog by David Mattin — Global Head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching.

David advises many of the world’s leading brands on the future of consumerism and technological change. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.

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