Is it just me, or do disturbing articles about artificial intelligence continually sail into everyone’s Twitter stream? I ask because one of these pieces, from The Wilson Quarterly, recently made me rethink my reactions to the unending flotilla of AI content. “The greatest threat humanity faces from artificial intelligence is not killer robots, but rather, our lack of willingness to analyze, name, and live to the values we want society to have today,” wrote John C. Havens, Director of The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems (whom I met on Twitter and later interviewed). It was an unusually disquieting sentence. In 32 words, Havens snatched the frightening power of our emerging technologies and handed it to us. Us!
“The greatest threat humanity faces from artificial intelligence is not killer robots, but rather, our lack of willingness to analyze, name, and live to the values we want society to have today.”
Emotions run high when we imagine the AI-enhanced future. We read this and worry about our professional futures—about what life will be like for our children. How can we prepare them for, or protect them from, AI? The uncertainty can lead to some rather panicked responses.
AI is powerful, and will surely lead to tremendous changes, but it isn’t all-powerful. Not yet anyway. Havens’ sentence is an essential reminder that ordinary citizens can and should have a say in designing our technological, cultural, and ethical fate.
To do so, however, we must first articulate own values. Not an easy or obvious thing to do—and not something that’s habitual to most of us. We need to change our own behavior. Right now, we’re too distracted, too buried in our headphones, too unpracticed in mulling over our values and effectively sharing these ideas with the people in our lives. Recent research says that we spend five hours daily on our devices and that we check our phones every 12 minutes. What’s needed are life-long, real-time conversations about values and undistracted periods of self-reflection—both of which, as Tom Peters would remind us, require time. How to fold values into your already extremely busy life? Here are a few suggestions:
Keep a notebook. A notebook is a superlative tool for the difficult work of trying to define your values. Make your Moleskin a place to record your thoughts about values as they present themselves. Put down real-life scenes in which you see people embodying or rejecting a particular value you think is important. Or take note of how your values have evolved over time. Or make lists of people who truly live their values and try to articulate the nature of your admiration for them. Or start several notebooks, each dedicated to one of your top four values. There are many techniques you can try, but the important thing is to keep your focus and write every day.
What’s needed are life-long, real-time conversations about values and undistracted periods of self-reflection.
Make lunch literary. Pick up a book, a printed book, and not a piece of junk, either. Dedicating your lunch to communing with a well-written volume is a great way to sidestep the endless clicking distractions of online life. No pop-ups. No pausing to check Twitter. Just you and the book and peach yogurt and a bag of lightly salted almonds (or whatever floats your culinary boat). Bring a pen along and, in the margins, analyze the values, good and bad, you see on the page. It’s a great way to train your brain to have a more nuanced ethical worldview.
Raise the bar on your friendships. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend with whom you can have honest conversations, make it a priority to meet regularly for the purpose of high-quality value chat. If you both agree on the intent of these meetings and put them on the calendar, they will transcend hanging out. I’d suggest meeting at a deliberately casual environment—over beers at your favorite pub, say. You don’t want this to be a chore. But make sure you bring a particular topic or theme (maybe a relevant newspaper article or blog post) to each meeting. Not quite a book group, not quite a happy hour, these meetings will raise the bar on your friendship and your values discourse.
Play Values Bingo on family movie night. If you’ve got kids, you need to bring them into the values conversation. Movie night is a great place for a family to start. Institute a regular game of “Values Bingo” when you all watch a movie together. Getting children to “read” a film for the values it presents is a useful, organic way to bring values into your family culture. Of course, you’ll have to make the cards listing all the values, and pick movies that feature values, but this kind of work is necessary if you’re going educate your kids properly.
If we want to create a humane future for ourselves and our kids, our friends and colleagues, we must bring a greater level of humanism into our lives.
Talk up the MVFPs of the Week. On Friday nights, set up a values conversation by asking everyone to name a person who best embodied one of your family’s central values that week. Over time, kids will learn that sharing stories of their own value-based behavior will win parental approval in a big way. In addition, this forum will surely push parents, who want to model good behavior for their kids, to take the opportunity to be an MVFP (Most Values-Focused Person) as often as possible.
Spell out the values of your organization. Many organizations have a set of values on which they operate: does yours? If not, take up the task to defining it for your organization. You might be surprised at how animated values conversation can get—and how they can attract all kinds of people from every nook and cranny of the org. If your company does have a set of values, are they buried on the organizational intranet? When’s the last time you talked about them, or made them come alive? At EPAM Continuum, we do something called The Values Project, which is a storytelling event featuring a single core value (empathy, for instance) where three or four employees explain how this value plays out in their work.
Artificial intelligence, and the myriad posts written about it, isn’t going anywhere. But if we want to create a humane future for ourselves and our kids, our friends and colleagues, we must bring a greater level of humanism into our lives. When we do, we can understand what’s at stake in the AI debate—and what we do and don’t want for our future. Armed with a more robust sense of values, we will be able to confront, with intelligence and purpose, the looming armada of AI scenarios.