AI versus human interactions

It’s good to talk. So why are we creating a society where we seem to do less and less of it?

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Jan 02, 2020

Recently I’ve been listening to a podcast called ‘The Happiness Lab’ by Doctor Laurie Santos. She is a professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Yale University and runs a course so popular that they had to do the lectures at a concert hall. The main focus of this course is around what makes people happy.

One of the key elements of the podcast (which I highly recommend by the way) is that over thousands of years humans have become the dominant species due to our ability to work together with other humans and our social skills. Studies cited in the podcast show that humans are happier when they have strong and regular interaction with other humans.

Given the evolutionary nature of our species, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. What is quite interesting though is that technology is developing so many things that are aimed at cutting out human interaction. These developments are all marketed as being in the best interest of society as a whole. For a simple example, where you used to go to the shops to buy your kid’s Christmas presents, Amazon now probably has everything you need and it’s delivered directly to your door. The next day. Or even that same day.

Now, of course I love Amazon and the convenience of online shopping, and I don’t miss the queues and stress of traditional Christmas shopping, but I remember fondly the local toy shop that I used to pop into as a kid on a regular basis. I am friendly with the family that run our local newsagents who still remember my favourite sweets from years ago. I used to know the guy who owned my local hardware store; I knew his wife who worked on weekends and over time I knew their daughter as well. I know some of my local restaurant owners from going in to pick up food.

I have had all these interactions built up over time and, while I wouldn’t necessarily say they’ve all made me happy, getting to know people, hearing their stories and seeing their businesses thrive (or not in some cases) is interesting to me and has definitely taught me some life lessons.

Now Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Apple, Google and the like are all constantly building tools that cut out human interactions. The level of depression in young people in the US & UK is the highest it’s ever been. Even during this golden period of life, people are finding less and less human connections in their day-to-day lives and I do believe that technology is a huge part of the problem.

In financial planning there is lots of talk about artificial intelligence and how it’s going change the way we work. For example, if you’ve building a financial plan for someone and they want to buy a holiday home, they can slip on the virtual reality headset and see what it actually looks like to be in their future house.

Now this sounds like a really cool idea and, while I agree that this kind of technology can enhance what we do, I feel that there needs to be more emphasis on the journey rather than the end goal – the building blocks put in place to enable you to get to a position to be able to buy that dream home.

Diligent, long-term savings are the foundation of this type of wealth creation, which are achieved by putting in the hard yards. This ensures that sense of appreciation when you finally reach the goal. It’s an amazingly nuanced subject and I don’t profess to be an expert.

However, I am convinced that technology that builds on our social underpinnings is going to be the winner in the long run. The issue is that these current monopolies appear to be putting profits before people and will continue to advance their share price ahead of what might be better for society as a whole.

Yes, you may be able to invest via an actual robo-adviser, have Alexa build you a viable financial plan and spend all your money without leaving your living room. Is this the life anyone wants to lead though?

Sam Sloma is managing director at engage financial services

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