The call is coming from inside the house

Editor’s note: Ben Jenkins is CEO and co-founder of Sympler, a New York-based research services firm.

In December of 1847, the United Kingdom officially adopted Greenwich Mean Time after years of groaning debate, confusion and mishap. GMT provided order and standardization for another much-lauded system: the railways. In fact, it was originally known as “railway time.” When all clocks finally agreed, nobody missed a train. The marriage of these two systems may have been pivotal in supercharging the second industrial revolution. Imagine lumbering into a 20th century where Bristol is 8 minutes ahead of London, or with infrastructure unfit for the machine age? 

The role of human-centricity in an AI-driven landscape 

Today we’re preparing for another kind of machine age, but this time we need to pair it with a much more human playmate. Today’s machines learn, so we’d better spare a thought for what we’re teaching them – the psychological infrastructure we’re building on. 

The 20th century was obsessed with scale: mass media, mass production and massive audiences. This scale demanded rigid systems to categorize, count and coerce. Demographics was born. Data was collected on everything and everyone and then segmented into crude brackets so governments and businesses could efficiently communicate with them. But they weren’t really communicating with anyone. Not in a human sense. The 20th century jettisoned talking for broadcasting, and then zealously mechanized a whole bunch of other human functions too (like empathizing, but we’ll come back to that!). By the year 2000, a cold and militarized lexicon was being deployed to engage and execute against global consuming targets. 

In one century, we successfully dehumanized huge swathes of human interaction, both in the commercial and social spheres. We turned citizens into robots in the name of efficiency and growth. 

It’s no surprise our empathy levels plummeted in the last 40 years. The pipes are broken or no longer designed for the way humans were meant to interact. It’s funny that, just as our machines have almost grasped semantics, meaning and emotional inferences, we have become the machines! As we brace for the AI age it will become imperative that we rediscover our innate human gifts so that we may bequeath them to our robot offspring. 

The future of AI: Checks and balances 

I’m already seeing fervent petitions for a more human-centric AI-sphere as well as defensive speechifying about how “we won’t forget the people as the bots move in!” 

Just like with the railways, we’re experiencing a chaotic moment of arguing about the necessary checks and balances. Unlike the railways, AI needs to resync with an altogether non-machine-like accomplice: us. Artificial intelligence demands that our own systems of emotional intelligence be up to scratch before we layer on the artificial. We must become humans again so that the machines don’t blindly build on today’s assumptions that have been engraved into large data sets. 

Recently I saw how things can turn left when BuzzFeed published AI-generated Barbies from around the world. Due to the biased, simplistic data sets they pulled from, we were served a South Sudanese Barbie wielding a machine gun and a German Barbie wearing what looked like an SS uniform. One cursory glance from a feeling human eventually saw fit to remove these, but it all illustrated how much we need to partner with the machine. 

The future of marketing, advertising and consumer research 

In my industry, I’ve watched as linear thinking and scale-chasing have sucked the life out of marketing and advertising. Studies show significant declines in funny advertising in the last two decades despite it being proven to be more effective. And, in the research business, we’ve allowed reductionism to define our desires and restrict our intuition and imagination. We’ve snuffed out empathy and adopted a sterile language that loses sight of emotional beings. Who agreed to lump Gen Z into one bucket of activism and disenchantment? Why are we still talking about demographics when we have sophisticated psychographics that tell us much more? What purpose do blunt segmentations serve when AI will predict our behaviors more forensically than ever?

The metaphors need to shift.

Next-gen tech is less blunt, so we can remove the weaponry from our language and add nuance, nature and even irony. The last few decades saw research participants as inanimate objects, training them to hide their true selves in the process. The future of research will be about intuition, prediction and discernment of idiosyncrasies and contradictions. We can’t glean these from faceless robot people. We’ll need the whole human to show up. Creativity, play, emotion and art will play a much larger role. 

I believe we’re about to move from a necessarily mechanistic world to a deeply intuitive one. Growth in AI, responsive design, human-centricity and the migration of the social sciences and art into tech will assist this. But we must remove the legacy plumbing. The language, the systems and the assumptions about humanity must change. Now that data sorting is cheaper, it can also be smarter. It can admit that large segments rarely do things in the same way and that two Boomers are not the same. Maybe we can even agree that “user” is no way to describe a human with complex feelings.  

There is hope. Gen Z shows signs of a more human-centric worldview. In our many conversations with the newest cohort to enter the workforce, we’ve seen a complete upending of priorities. A renewed comfort with discussing emotion, mental health and empathy for those unlike themselves is clear and already infecting wider society. 

We’re about to build a whole new tech layer that will be able to organize us beyond our wildest dreams, so we must spend a moment reflecting on the layer beneath it: the human one. 

Perhaps we might take a beat to remember how to “human,” maybe throw out brittle assumptions about our fellow Homo sapiens that formed the backbone of society in the machine age. Let’s banish the robot within ourselves and revive our creative, feeling, intuiting, laughing selves before the decision is no longer ours to make.