Future Perfect

“How can we accelerate our progress toward the singularity?”

After hearing this opening question, I shifted in my seat and shot up my hand. I could barely contain myself.

“I want to object to the underlying premise of the question — that accelerating our progress toward the singularity is even desirable. Why do we want to endow machines with artificial general intelligence? To what end?”

I scanned around the room, pausing for responses. None immediately came. I continued.

“I’m personally far more interested in designing technology to enhance and complement human capabilities. Let’s delegate certain tasks to machines so that people can spend more time engaging in distinctly human endeavors — listening empathetically, supporting others in need, nurturing connection. Wicked societal challenges are wicked coordination problems by definition. The drive to create synthetic replicas of human intelligence seems like a distraction. Our future depends on supporting purposeful, collaborative reflection and action.”

Here I sat in a conference room with technologists, investors, academics, and corporate representatives to discuss the future of artificial intelligence in the heart of Silicon Valley. The introduction from the moderator focused on environmental factors that constrain the pace of innovation. The end goal was not in question, only the path to arrive there.

I instinctively questioned what I judged to be techno-utopian dialogue completely disconnected from modern day realities. I wished for a different conversation; one that examined both the promise and perils of artificial intelligence within the frame of pressing societal issues.

The dissonance I felt in that moment was amplified by stark contrasts in my own experiences. Just two weeks prior, I was in a completely different world.

As my colleague and I walked to the rental car, snow had already begun to fall. Chicago was bracing for a winter storm that meteorologists labeled as the worst of the season. The timing could not have been worse. Wednesday was the day we were scheduled to visit families in the south and west sides of Chicago. Their stories were central to guide our work. We hoped for enough respite to make our appointments.

Our drive to the south side in the morning was surprisingly uneventful given the conditions on the roads. We pulled up to an old brick two-story building and knocked on one of the front doors. A woman appeared at a second story window and gestured for us to come in. We entered the unlocked door and walked up the long, uneven wooden stairs to the second floor door.

As the door opened, we saw James sitting at a small dining table, laptop open, listening intently on a phone call.

“Yes. I’m trying to get the kids rescheduled for 9:30 on Thursday. Is the doctor available?”

Ms. Martinez sat next to him with her two year old daughter asleep on her shoulder. Her frustration was evident.

“When we lived on the west side, I took my children to the doctor who took care of me as a child. I never needed an appointment and could bring in all of my kids to be seen at the same time.”

We marveled at that mode of healthcare, one far from today’s norm.

“Now I can only bring in two kids at a time and they need referrals from this doctor and that doctor, which means more trips to the city.”

Ms. Martinez has ten children. The logistical burden is huge. She was so grateful for all of the support they’ve received from James, their family’s community health worker (CHW). Arranging appointments and transportation is an arduous task. James can spend thirty minutes to two hours on the phone to schedule transportation for a single appointment.

“I have the direct dial numbers for the transportation providers but often I have to call the insurance company first and get transferred from there. They insist on it.”

James and the other CHWs in the program are doing heroic work, addressing a wide range of environmental factors that are negatively impacting the health of families. Unfortunately there are not nearly enough of them. With over 7000 family members and only 30 community health workers, the case loads per CHW vary from 150 to nearly 300 to 1. Adding institutional friction and limited technology support makes the challenges faced by the CHWs seem monumental. And yet they soldier on and keep moving forward. It’s hard not to imagine getting completely overwhelmed when faced with so much to track and manage.

CHWs are working daily to nurture trust with the families they serve. In the earliest days of contact with a family, skepticism can loom large when they’ve experienced so many disappointments in the past. Why should the family trust this unknown person offering wide ranging support? CHWs are empowered to enroll and serve all family members in need, which makes their offerings all the more difficult to view as legitimate. Some families are rightly concerned that this might be an elaborate scam, making the task of building rapport all the more difficult.

Once a CHW has established an opening with a family, follow-through is key. The CHW needs to deliver on their word to develop trust. Tracking and executing on all of these commitments across their patient populations is a challenge. One where technology can ease the cognitive burden the CHWs face and intervene in aspects of the coordination process.

And yet, primacy of the human touch can not be understated. No machine will supplant this. The CHWs we’ve met are warm, charismatic individuals from the neighborhoods they serve. They understand deeply the difficulties these families face and the cultural nuances that must be navigated to build connection. Technological support must be carefully crafted to enhance their abilities to genuinely serve and connect with their patient populations. Such lessons on balancing the roles of humans and machines extend far beyond this particular context.

“Who all will be involved in designing AIs in the future? Where are the social scientists in this process?”

The woman to my left resonated with my concerns and wondered aloud about the path forward. I nodded in acknowledgement of her comments as I reflected on the complexity we were facing in Chicago. Co-design is absolutely essential in our development process as we must absorb the deep insights of domain experts to jointly imagine new tools that can positively affect the lives of CHWs and the families they support.

The session wrapped up with no substantive discussion contextualizing AI. It was clear different parties in the room held various definitions of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and artificial general intelligence. Therefore even the foundational elements of the discussion were not uniformly understood.

I approached the moderator and asked more specifically about his company’s objectives.

“We are aiming to develop a humanoid robot with artificial general intelligence (AGI).”

“Your work scares me,” I said.


“Because it will be weaponized,” I replied.

“All technology can be used in positive and negative ways.”

I was unsatisfied with this common refrain. The only positive application offered by anyone in the room came from my compatriot in co-design — future AGIs could be used as life coaches for humans. When I asked her “why not focus on nurturing community so that we may support one another directly?", she looked at me perplexed.

I still struggle to understand my fellow technologists who are passionately focused on the promises of these future innovations. The relentless pursuit of efficiency through machine intelligence feels soulless and misguided — a purely intellectual exercise. Is this techno-optimism unique relative to other times in the past? I don’t know. Maybe not. Yet one aspect seems distinct: the scale of impact that technological innovations can reach in our globalized world.

The great irony of our time is that while we are more connected than ever thanks to incredible advances in communication technology, we are more devoid of meaningful connection with one another. Connection and community are integral to our well-being at multiple societal scales. As the brilliant social activist and educator Parker Palmer has so eloquently stated, “complexity can only be held by community.” He so succinctly summarizes the viewpoint introduced decades prior by the design theorist Horst Rittel who coined the term wicked problem. Rittel made clear in his seminal work that social policy planning requires group effort, both to clarify the nature of the systemic challenges before us and to conceive of approaches to engage them. The complexity is simply too vast for any one individual to embrace.

In this time of increasing polarization and concentration of privilege here in the US, let us ask not how technology can mimic the abilities of the individual but how it can nurture and amplify the gifts of community. We need that now more than ever. If we are not developing technology that somehow catalyzes meaningful conversation and connection, what are we doing exactly?

Note: Names changed to protect privacy