How AI Can Help Humans Become More Human

8 minute read

Huffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Global

The beginning of a new year is a great time to imagine new possibilities, both for ourselves and for the world. And this year, as Sam Altman put it while accepting the 2023 Stephen Hawking Fellowship at Cambridge: “We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It’s an exciting yet precarious place to be.”

At the moment the AI conversation is focused on how to align AI with human values. But the possibility I’m most excited about isn’t how AI can become more human — it’s how AI can help humans become more human. It can do this in two ways — one is very personal, and the other collective and universal.

Let’s start with the personal. The last few decades have been a golden age in behavioral science and the science of well-being. We now know that every aspect of our health is deeply influenced by five foundational daily behaviors: sleep, food, movement, stress management and connection. Not only do these behaviors impact our health, they’re also critical if we’re going to move the needle on chronic diseases, which continue to increase in unsustainable ways. At the moment, the focus of AI in healthcare is on diagnostic and drug development innovations, which are of course significant and transformative. But for most of us, health is what happens between doctor visits.

Yes, behavior change is difficult, but a lot of recent science and data show that it is absolutely possible when done right. The key is to base the process on tiny, incremental, daily changes that cumulatively become healthier habits. As Dr. Kevin Volpp, Director of the Penn Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, and Alisa Camplin-Warner, a two-time Olympic medalist, wrote in a paper about what elite athletes can teach us about healthier behaviors: “Coaches try to break goals down to a point that the first levels of goal achievement are almost guaranteed… Psychologists call this goal gradients—the idea that people work much harder to achieve goals that are seen as being in reach.”

There are thousands upon thousands of health microsteps people can take, but everyone is different and the right nudge, the right piece of content at the right time, can make a dramatic difference. And Volpp and Camplin-Warner pose the key question in their paper: “We should always be asking: Is there a way to make the healthy choice the path of least resistance and more automatic?” 

So imagine the impact a hyper-personalized AI coach can have on helping us adopt healthier daily habits that will transform health outcomes: a customized AI coach that not only has our biometric, lab and medical data but also our unique preferences—which foods we love (and recipes based on those), and which foods we don’t, not just our favorite forms of exercise but how and when we’re more likely to walk, move and stretch, which friends and family we connect with who are most encouraging of our new healthy habits, the ways to reduce stress that are most effective for us (box breathing, 60 seconds of downward-facing dog, two minutes of walking to our mailbox or around our kitchen table).

Read More: When Will AI Outsmart Us?

Then imagine that, along with having learned your personal preferences, this coach is trained on the best peer-reviewed behavior change science that’s ever been published, along with new science as it’s released in real time. It's a technology that isn’t just about learning facts, it also learns how we learn best. As Altman put it in a TED interview with Chris Anderson, “When you want to learn something, you have a tutor that understands your exact style, how you best learn everything you know and custom teaches you whatever concept you want to learn.” With AI, we have the opportunity to be custom taught not just concepts but behaviors that are at the heart of our health and well-being.

Of course, thriving—what ancient Greeks called “the good life”—isn’t just about our physical health. It’s also about our mental and spiritual health. And that’s where the universal possibilities of AI come in. A common truth acknowledged by all spiritual and philosophical traditions is that we all have within us a centered place of wisdom, harmony and strength. But it’s just as true that we’re all going to veer away from that place again and again and again. That’s the nature of life. In fact, we’re off course more than we’re on course.

So AI could help us not only adopt healthier behaviors and therefore improve our health, but by learning what inspires us, what poetry, sacred texts, and music and nature moves us, and what connects us to the better angels of our nature, it could deepen our humanity, serving as a pathway to that centered place of wisdom and strength. Altman has said that right now we have AI systems with “enormous horsepower but no steering wheel.” It’s a metaphor that’s come full circle, going back half a century to the visionary computer pioneer Douglas Engelbart, who predicted that computers would be “power steering for the mind.”

AI can augment not only our minds but also the deeper parts of ourselves by serving as a kind of GPS for the soul. And when we fall short, the GPS doesn’t judge us, it just recalculates and course-corrects with a new route. As Dr. Lisa Miller, professor of psychology at Columbia, put it, our drive for spirituality has a neurological basis. Indeed, we have “a natural inclination toward and docking station for spiritual awareness.” But, as she points out, “we have to choose to engage it. It’s a muscle we can learn to strengthen, or let atrophy.”

In talking with Anderson about how incentives built into certain technologies—as with social media and attention-mining—have created negative downstream consequences, Altman notes how when we’re tired and depleted, we’re more likely to choose an option like doomscrolling or scrolling through our feeds, which might make us feel good in the moment, but isn’t going to make us happy. But if we’re in, as he put it, a “reflective moment,” we’re in that centered place that is our birthright. And by giving us hyper-personalized support to adopt healthier behaviors—with real-time nudges to sleep, move, eat healthier, reduce stress and connect with others—AI can put us in that reflective moment much more often, and as a result help us make different and better choices with what we do with our time. And ultimately what we do with our time is what we do with our lives. But so often, as Altman put it, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

AI can help with both—by strengthening the flesh through healthier habits and behaviors, which in turn allows us to make wiser decisions that nurture our spirit. This is how Altman described that process at the Wisdom 2.0 2023 conference: “What I hope with AI is that it serves our individual will and that we can explain what we want in our best moments. When we're not tired, when we're not distracted, when we're not enjoying those dopamine hits of scrolling or whatever and say, this is what I want you to help me with. This is what I want myself to be.”

Up to now, much of our technology has produced a world that provides plenty of insistent, flashing, high-volume signals distracting us. The incentives have been to mine our attention, and so that's the course most technologies have taken. And that’s why this moment is both so important and so precarious. We need AI trained on providing different and better incentives. No doubt there will be AI companies that will continue the current attention-hijacking business model, but if we have enough alternative models with signals reminding us who we want to be and how to take care of ourselves along the way, we’ll have a lot more power to build the technological ecosystem humans can thrive in. If we build that world—with signals and guideposts and guardrails that help us tap in and return to our essence—they will come because it is our human essence.

As we’re at the beginning of the new year rife with already-faltering New Year’s resolutions, we can look to AI, by freeing us from the drudgery of work, to free up more time for contemplation, reflection and spiritual practice. Indeed, as Altman has said, people are already using ChatGPT for that purpose: “Every day we just get this deluge of positive stories from people about the way they're transforming their lives, learning new things, learning how to meditate more, making spiritual progress, solving problems that they've had for a long time.”

Ultimately, AI is a tool. What it will be is what we will make of it. As Altman puts it, “people remain the architects of the future, not one AGI in the sky.” So as we are looking to architect our lives for the new year and beyond, let’s focus not just on what we want AI to be, but who we want to be.

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