Today I found myself reading the latest Bill Gates essay AI is about to completely change how you use computers and to be honest it made me a little depressed.
Gates is getting all worked up and excited about a future where everything from mental health therapists(!) to primary school maths tutors(!) are replaced with personalised AI Agents that can deliver better information faster, cheaper, more conveniently etc.
But is this the future we really want to live in?
Amongst my friends at least, we’re already complaining about our increased screen time and look forward to time spent catching up face-to-face…being genuinely connected to each other. To be clear, I’m addicted to my phone as much as the next guy, but I love nothing more than talking with a quality person with my phone face down or tucked away in another room. I do this with friends one-on-one, in meetings with colleagues and certainly if I’m with a doctor or therapist. I couldn’t think of anything worse than replacing any of these amazing real life human interactions with a screen and a computer programme.
A lot of what I see from our tech leaders these days is a desire for more and more screen time — but I thought we were done with that? All Zoomed out? Zuckerberg wants us to stop seeing people for real and live in the Metaverse, and now Gates is suggesting we treat anxiety or depression by chatting away to a turbo-charged version of Clippie. Count me out.
As much as we like to complain about time spent commuting in cars and the inevitable frustrations that come with dealing with other real life humans — do we actually want to spend our entire lives sat at home, talking with our thumbs at a screen? I don’t. Maybe the 30 minutes spent with an actual sales person, an actual school teacher, an actual doctor, an actual friend is pretty important to the overall human experience.
We all (hopefully!) remember that favourite teacher at school who noticed us, inspired us, asked us the right questions. Are the next generation of kids going to remember back to their favourite chat bot? I sure hope not.
I’m a technology guy and I’ve spent my career to date in the world of eCommerce and making shopping from home both convenient and fun. I realise my point of view is potentially backward and somewhat hypocritical — I’m getting old. But honestly I think there’s such a thing as going too far. AI is awesome and inevitable, but personally I will be gravitating toward services and companies that continue to recognise the enduring value on the human connection. AI needs to enhance these human interactions not replace them entirely. Even at Mighty Ape with all our focus on creating a machine focused on efficiency and fast delivery — we still had a real life customer service team based in Auckland staffed with passionate fans who love our products and love our customers. We still had real life humans delivering packages via Jungle Express — and customers consistently give feedback that drivers bring a smile to their face. Of course drones and AI cars will be faster, but will we ever replace that warm fuzzy you get when the courier driver pulls up on time, pats your dog, drops off your package, and gives you a friendly toot and a wave. During Covid times this was actually a life saver for many and an interaction to look forward to. In my opinion this still counts for…something.
It’s not all bad news. While reading the Gates article my friend Vaughan sent me a txt inviting me (and you!) to come hang out at his camp in Raglan over Christmas/New Year. I love this…getting a group of like-minded technology people of all ages and stages together into the physical world to create new memories and new connections. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised the invitation came from Vaughan…the guy who started POS company Vend, and continues to believe in a version of the future with thriving bricks-and-mortar retailers crafting unique in-person retail experiences — made better by technology.
AI might be about to change how we use computers, but it’s up to us how and when we choose to use computers at all. Computers are cool but lets not forget that people are pretty cool too. Lets continue to make room for both.