What Happens If We Put Humanity at the Center of Technology?
When new advances are made in science and technology, they are often hailed within the research community as breakthroughs that will benefit humanity. The broader public, on the other hand, often views the exact same achievements as dehumanizing or dystopian in some way. The ongoing discourse around AI is just one example; researchers in the field see AI as a technology that can liberate people from tedious jobs and generate lifesaving breakthroughs in medicine. Many outside of the field worry that AI will take jobs and threaten their autonomy. In fact, neither unexamined scientific and technological boosterism nor fear and skepticism is really accurate.
A recent panel for Templeton World Charity Foundation’s Global Scientific Conference on Human Flourishing, moderated by science writer, Philip Ball, examined the intersection between human flourishing and technological and scientific advancement.
Typically, new technologies are discussed in terms of what they can or might allow people or societies to do. Yet this type of framing fails to incorporate what people may need or how individuals, communities and societies want to interact with technology and how they can use it. Technological advances, Ball notes, “will change us, individually and as a society, but often in ways that we don’t anticipate.” In essence it comes down to the distinction between what can we do a with a technology versus what should we do with it to help humanity flourish. It also requires scientists and society to think about how the existence of a technology affects us socially and psychologically. Powerful new technologies require us to think about how we want the world to be.
“I don’t think we’ve really yet psychically processed the notion that from pretty much every point in the space we now inhabit, almost all of the world’s recorded knowledge is now accessible,” Ball says.
As technologies such as AI become more prevalent, the scientific community and society must take an active role in shaping how these technologies are developed. Scientists must look at the technologies both in terms of what they can be used to achieve, but also how they will affect society. This means proactively thinking about technology in human terms.
“In our lab, what we do is we take evidence-based practices that are scientifically proven to help enhance flourishing, and then we build video game engines that take those techniques and translate them into game mechanics,” says Isabela Granic, industry professor for health, aging and society at McMaster University and director of the Games for Emotional and Mental Health Lab in the Netherlands. The team also engaged with designers and artists at the very beginning of the game development process, so that “they inspire and are joyful,” and so that “they delight young people as they’re playing them and as they’re learning emotional regulation skills and other kinds of skills that promote human flourishing.”
In one example, children put on an EEG headset which measures their brainwaves as they play the game. The neurofeedback game takes the data from the headset and automatically converts it to light in the video game. The more anxious the child becomes playing the game, the darker it becomes in the world of the game, and the more relaxed they are, the brighter it becomes. “Kids’ own physiological regulation gets fed right into the game,” Granic explains.
“Usually in therapy or in conventional programs in schools where we’re trying to teach kids how to regulate their hard emotions like anxiety or sadness or anger, they are told in some kind of didactic way how to do that,” she says. In the game, however, the children’s emotions are “combined with the technology, and they’re learning as they’re being incentivized to win the game.” According to Granic, four different randomized controlled trials have shown that these sorts of games are as effective, and in some cases more effective, than cognitive behavioral therapy.
In a similar vein, the 29 K Foundation has been working to develop a non-profit, open source mental health app. 29 K was founded “on the premise that individuals and societies need to build and scale psychological resources to cope with everyday life, flourish, and contribute towards a better future for all,” says co-CEO Maria Modigh.
While there are a myriad of for-profit mental health apps and services on the market, 29 K’s status as an open source non-profit gives it a distinct advantage, because it means that the platform is developed solely with the interests of the end user in mind. “It allows us to develop a solution that optimizes for a societal value metric versus a for-profit and value metric,” says Modigh. With 29 K, individual users are able to freely choose when to use it, rather than the app trying to sell them something or hijack their attention. Consequently, Modigh says the K 29 Foundation has “ultimately been able to build a robust platform that can also further the research behind human development and contribute to improving interventions over time,” because it enables scientists to access data and insights from the technology.
The idea that digital technology should exist to serve humanity over other motives, such as shareholder profits, for instance, is in some ways less radical than it may sound in the present. “Before market forces rushed in it was actually — for those of us who were around — a rather communitarian and post-hippie culture,” Loove Labs co-Founder Srinija Srinivasan says of the early days of the internet in the 1980s and 1990s. “These seeds are there, and we could revive this ethos. It’s easy to forget those fleeting early days.”
Breaking technology out of the prevailing frameworks of modern, Western capitalism requires reframing how we talk about it, Srinivasan argues. Srinivasan poses a simple question to start with: “What do we want from technology?” When she tries to answer it, Srinivasan immediately considers the arts, which she describes as the “most potent technologies that humans have come up with to show us our shared humanity,” and to “make visible the frame we’re operating in and interrogate it and to explore and press our collective imagination.”
As a practical matter, Srinivasan and Loove Labs co-Founder Josh Roseman are seeking to build a distribution platform to support musicians outside of the studio system developed during the 20th century. Loove has a production studio, which doubles as a performance venue for live and virtual events, and is also developing “new tools for distribution,” focused on the idea of a new type of record label with a transparent profit-sharing model.
More broadly, however, Srinivasan sees Loove Labs as part of “an ambitious, multifaceted endeavor,” that’s akin to the farm to table movement, but for music. “What would farm to table music be?” she asks. “The farm to table narrative gave me, just in the course of my lifetime, a way bigger story about a whole food system that I am a part of, and it changed my beliefs and behaviors as a result.”
By shifting how we talk about technology and how humanity interacts with it, we can change how technology is created and used, and thus make it a more meaningful part of society that promotes human flourishing. Putting humanity at the center of technology development is not necessarily a complicated idea, but it requires deliberate thought, creativity and action to achieve.
Srinivasan describes what this might look like: “I want to allow for the proliferation, the diversity, the creativity, the spontaneity, the discovery, all of the serendipity that human creative imagination can have at our best…. What creates the conditions for us to behave more interdependently and collaboratively in this generative math, instead of competitively in a scarcity mentality?”
Play the above video about Designing Technology for Human Flourishing, a segment from The First Global Scientific Conference on Human Flourishing, organized by Templeton World Charity Foundation.
Speakers discuss how technology research and innovation, and specifically artificial intelligence, can propel breakthroughs that enhance human ethical capacities and improve the human experience — not hinder it.
Isabela Granic, Professor, McMaster University
Maria Modigh, Co-CEO, 29k Foundation
Srinija Srinivasan, Co-Founder of Loove
Highlights from the Templeton World Charity Foundation funded Human Flourishing & the Futures of Intelligence workshop at Stanford University, organized by Worldview Studio, are also featured in this segment.
Philip Ball, Science Writer
Visit HumanFlourishing.org to learn more.