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Collision Course: How An Explosion In Artificial Intelligence Could Threaten Human Agency

As Artificial Intelligence continues to expand its role in our daily lives, experts are now concerned about the future of human agency and our simple decision-making processes — and a phenomenon uniquely American could catapult us into that future quicker than we realize.

The Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center sought the opinions of many different kinds of experts — all of which have expertise with automation as it relates to their occupation — on the extent to which we will have control in tech-aided decisions.

The Pew survey asked 540 academics, developers, researchers, and policy experts the following: 

“By 2035, will smart machines, bots and systems powered by artificial intelligence be designed to allow humans to easily be in control of most tech-aided decision-making that is relevant to their lives?”

The results of this nonscientific canvassing:

  • 56% of these experts did not agree that humans will remain in control of most tech-aided decision-making.
  • 44% said they agreed that humans will remain in control of most tech-aided decision-making.  

The report also features written responses from hundreds of survey respondents — most concerned with the encroachment of AI on human agency.

“Looking at the studies on human factors, human systems integration, etc., humans become pretty lazy when it comes to being vigilant over the technology,” said Heather Roff, nonresident fellow in the law, policy, and ethics of emerging military technologies at the Brookings Institution and senior research scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Humans’ cognitive systems are just not geared to ‘think like’ these systems. So, when one has a lack of literacy and a lazy attitude toward the use of such systems, bad things tend to happen.”

Roff’s comments serve as a good indication of her cohort. The rapid sophistication of AI’s ability to make decisions combined with the complexity “under the hood” of the algorithms incentivize both increasing reliance on the technology and decreasing concern for how the technology operates.

Additionally, social impact will likely be an afterthought considering the speed of advancement of AI, according to Lea Schlanger, a North American senior business intelligence analyst. She said, “Advancements in AI and machine learning automation are currently happening faster than research on the impacts they’ll have on society as a whole.”

On the other hand, those who believe that human agency will not deteriorate with advancing AI argue that humans will always have the ability to decide what and what not to delegate to AI.

“Although many important decisions will be made by autonomous and artificial intelligence, they will be willingly delegated to non-human intelligence, but we will still keep the decision of what decisions to offload to ourselves,” wrote Chris Labash, associate professor of communication and innovation at Carnegie Mellon University.

One theme present among those on the same side as Labash was that market forces would place adequate restraints upon AI’s role in tech-aided decision-making. Also, historically, many argue, humans have always evolved with technological advancement.

However, the themes present amongst respondents who are more pessimistic about AI’s role in human agency cause more concern than perhaps their counterparts’ view cause hope.

The report noted a common theme amongst the 56% who disagreed with the survey question observe that there is very little incentive among very powerful actors to honor human agency, whether that be for monetary, ideological, or some other kind of gain. They also recognize the human draw towards convenience, and that is compounded by the “black box” operations these complex AIs utilize.

But, could there be a social factor, especially present in Western culture, priming us to relinquish more of our agency all the more quickly to AI?

Agency describes our ability to make choices. In recent decades, the West has fostered a culture that produces so many choices for so many things that a new phenomenon has occurred, which garnered the term “overchoice.”

The Decision Lab, an applied research and innovations firm specializing in behavioral science, defines overchoice as “how people get overwhelmed when they are presented with a large number of options to choose from.”

There are a near infinite number of options nowadays in many aspects of our lives, whether it be searching for a partner in dating apps, movies and shows to watch on streaming services, job search engines, houses and apartments on property websites, music streaming, and on and on. Overchoice is a risk we take from the smallest parts of our lives, like choosing the next few songs for the queue, to the biggest parts, like choosing our next home or potential spouse. 

Barry Schwartz authored the book, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less,” which analyzes the consequences of being presented with too many choices. He said there are two things that generally occur when faced with an overabundance of choices. 

First, decision paralysis. People are less likely to engage in an activity if there are too many choices. 

Second, people usually experience less satisfaction with their choices when presented with too many options than if they were presented with fewer. There is a sneaking sense of regret, because there is more responsibility of the decision maker, and there is always the question of what could have been with a different choice, according to Schwartz.

With there being more options in multiple facets of life, increasing the likelihood of experiencing overchoice, the temptation to delegate decision-making to AI could become even stronger as the technology progresses.

In fact, some streaming companies seem to have already picked up on consumers experiencing overchoice with their products.

Over the last couple of years, Netflix has rolled out the “Play Something” feature, which utilizes machine learning. “There are times when we just don’t want to make decisions,” the feature’s about page says. “When you hit the ‘Play Something’ button, you’ll be instantly met with a series or film we know you’ll love based on what you’ve watched before.”

Spotify is the most recent case of rolling out a new AI system for its listeners. The Spotify “DJ” uses AI to take recommending music to another level.

“The beauty of these experiences is our ability to deliver the right piece of music for that exact moment in time, and maybe even connect you with your next favorite artist in the process. We’re building on that innovation by harnessing the power of AI in an entirely new way,” the company said in a statement.

Both systems strive to deliver the best choice for the consumer. When faced with infinite choices for music or tons of films, why not skip the hard part and let the AI make the choice for you? Then, imagine this mode of thinking when AI expands its capability into more important areas of our lives.

Experts are still split on how AI will affect human agency, and the debate must continue as the technology advances. A necessary wrinkle to that debate, however, is the choice fatigue Westerners already experience, which already seems to indicate that consumers are more primed for AI-aided decision-making technology.


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