The new comfort zone

Rebecca Wald on the human touch in bots

Who has not heard about the saying: “Change begins at the end of your comfort zone”? I have experienced the meaning behind those words many times in my life and I always came out wiser, stronger, and especially more confident in my decisions. The most recent experience outside my comfort zone took place here at Y and I would like to use this blog post to share this personal experience with you.

I have always been intrigued by peoples’ behavior and the human ability to communicate through means that go beyond spoken language. But I have also gotten curious about how the underlying behavioral mechanisms apply or change when the counterpart is a computer and not a human.

Thanks to constant advancements in machine learning and NLP, technology becomes better at imitating human behavior with the consequence that we find more and more use cases in which A.I. can already outperform human services. Since this is something that undermines our human distinctiveness, it can make us feel quite uncomfortable. But what if this simply means that it is time to expand our all’s comfort zone? If nothing changes nothing changes, right?

While my master thesis allowed me to investigate whether a more customized user experience can effectively reduce discomfort of users  when interacting with a chatbot (view my preregistered study here https://osf.io/4mdtr?view_only=d9e8ec3906ad4c5b88a2b0af725a3032), I was lacking insight on how these intelligent systems are technically developed and deployed in real-world contexts. Therefore, I decided to step out of my academic comfort zone and started working with my colleagues here at Y.

At Y I was given the chance to see how a team of data scientists, architects and developers works on real business cases and I was able to make connections between my psychological A.I. knowledge and the technological know-how of my team members. Next to getting hands-on practice in programing, communicating my ideas and critically reflecting on them, I was also given the chance to learn about remote teamwork and software development, about the needs of clients and the necessary steps to turn a tech start-up into a major player on today’s digital transformation market – especially during such uncertain times like these. It took me some while to realize that in a rapidly growing field as this it is simply impossible to know every new technique, tool, or trend before you dedicate yourself to a new data project. Rather it is a learning-by-doing process, which primarily requires motivation and interest in the topic at hand – and that I had!

The initial discomfort of being a newbie in most of the tasks I was given eventually transformed into growth. And this got me thinking: What if my personal experience can and perhaps should be translated into the way we approach the technological future? Our surroundings change. The number of technological devices and services that we encounter in everyday life constantly increases, and the expectation to intimately connect with them rises (for an interesting read about conscious machines I can recommend Max Tegmark’s book Life 3.0 Being human in the age of Artificial Intelligence). We struggle to accept that technology’s expertise is starting to exceed our own in certain areas and we catch ourselves worrying about the question whether machines will be able to drive humanity extinct. 

If I am not being too naïve, I’d say we, as the creators and consumers of A.I., must expand our comfort zone so that we are better able to see the big picture. Let’s not overestimate possible short-term consequences, while underestimating the long-term potential! I finished this blog post on my last day here at Y. My time has ended sooner than expected to pursue my doctoral studies on virtual assistants and their use in families at the University of Amsterdam, but I know that the insights I gained at Y will stay with me for a long time. I am very grateful for the lessons I learned and for the chance I was given to discover the reason (wh)Y I want to help society embrace the power of our most promising invention – A.I.