(Istockphoto)
(Istockphoto)

Opinion | The behavioural trend that Artificial Intelligence will spawn

A greater emphasis on the brain’s subconscious processes could work as an effective counter-trend to the emergence of AI

There have been many discussions about job losses the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) could cause. The last time the world faced this level of anxiety over job losses was during the Industrial Revolution. During that phase too, many manual, repetitive jobs were lost to machines. There is no doubt that the advantages that AI bring to the table far outweigh its negatives. So, any Luddite attempt to stop this forward march of AI is not desirable.

Every societal trend like AI tends to create equally strong counter-trends. To understand the possible counter-trends that could affect the inevitable emergence of AI, it might be worthwhile to study the societal trends that happened as a counter to the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution coincided with the enlightenment age in Europe. With the publication of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton, Kepler explaining the movements of planets, and Galileo challenging the notion of Earth being at the centre of the universe, it was believed that scientific methods could explain even the deepest truths in the universe. The Industrial Revolution portrayed a world that was certain, rational and governed by reason. But soon, reality dawned on everyone. One started to realize that beyond the apparent sense of progress being achieved by the Industrial Revolution, there were too many irrational, emotional aspects at play.

In his book, Age of Insight: The Quest To Understand The Unconscious In Art, Mind and Brain, Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel vividly captures the counter-response to the Industrial Revolution. This response emanated from Vienna, the cultural capital of Europe at the time. The Vienna School of Medicine led the way with its realization that real truth lies beneath the surface. This principle strongly influenced thoughts in psychology, arts and literature.

The most significant thoughts came from Sigmund Freud, who put forth his psychoanalytic thought that most human behaviour is influenced by what happens in one’s unconscious. Artists like Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele realized that the three-dimensional depiction of the outside world by photography is far better than what realist artists could ever depict. So they started to focus on creating art that depicted the multi-dimensional, inner happenings of the mind that photographs could never really capture. Writer Arthur Schnitzler revealed the unconscious beliefs of his characters through innovative use of interior monologue.

In sum, a close focus on the inner working of the mind was a strong counter-trend to the Industrial Revolution.

Today’s scenario is quite similar to that during the Industrial Revolution. The confidence in the efficiency of machines during that period has now been replaced by a strong belief within the AI industry in the absoluteness of data and in the ability of algorithms and technology to make sense of that data. Reason still rules. No doubt, data is the most honest record of the past behaviour of humans. With increasing computational power and improved technology, AI will be able to better explain what humans have been doing. But the rational world of data has limitations in explaining why someone did what they did and understanding how their existing behaviour can be changed. This is an opportunity for new societal trends to emerge.

According to Kandel, the central challenge of science in the 21st century is to understand the human mind in biological terms. The possibility of meeting this challenge opened up in the late 20th century, when cognitive psychology, the science of the mind, merged with neuroscience, the science of the brain. When Freud tried to build his psychoanalytic theory, the technology of the day did not allow him to get a deep understanding of the deeper recesses of the human brain. Today, the field of neuroscience has moved far ahead.

Neuroscience has discovered that more than 99.99% of human behaviour occurs at a non-conscious level and that the non-conscious brain is 10 times faster than the conscious brain. While at any point of time, the conscious brain can focus only on one task, the non-conscious can easily manage multiple tasks. This means that the facet of human behaviour that the rational world has been focusing on, the conscious mind, is a very small, not-so-efficient dimension of human behaviour.

It is not easy to understand the working of the non-conscious brain. One’s consciousness has no understanding of what is happening in one’s own unconscious. There is very little observable data on the happenings of the non-conscious brain. We need to develop new qualitative measures to decipher the workings of the non-conscious brain. Marrying this qualitative information with the existing quantitative data about humans will be one of the interesting challenges for tomorrow.

Increased focus on the non-conscious processes will bring in more challenges for companies. It was easy for companies to monitor and manage the conscious processes of their employees. But brain studies show oner’s non-conscious works best while one is asleep or relaxing—perhaps while having a drink on a beach. How will a performance appraisal be done to capture how well someone is using her non-conscious brain?

Neuroscience will remind us that all the great scientific discoveries, all great works of art and literature, all innovations that humans have witnessed so far have emanated from non-conscious processes of the human brain. All these paradigm shifts happened at a time when there was very little understanding of the workings of the non-conscious. It would be good if we focus more on non-conscious processes of the brain now as a counter-trend to the emergence of AI. An emphasis on non-conscious processes will surely lead to even more innovations in the world.

Biju Dominic is chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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