Blockchain, bots, and broken trust
How mixing machines and humans is leading us to question everything we know
Humans develop machines, but technology in turn shapes people and society
This feedback loop is hard to predict, leading to unexpected outcomes
As institutions began to fail, people are looking to tech for alternatives
Blockchain is a bet on using algorithms rather than institutions to build trust
Bots and the nature of machines posing as humans raises new, complex issues
The golden age of institutions is over
I’ve been spending time recently reading Governing the World by Mark Mazower which focuses on attempts over the past two centuries to create institutions that represent the world from an international perspective, as opposed to more narrow regional or national views. One of the fascinating aspects of this history are the ebbs and flows in momentum behind the creation of new institutions that are intended to promote peace, commerce, and collaboration. Mazower walks through periods such as the Concert of Europe beginning in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars through to later institutions such as the League of Nations following World War I and the United Nations after World War II. While there was significant politicking and jockeying for power and influence during the establishment of these institutions, each represented an attempt to improve upon imperfect institutions that preceded it. That is, new institutions replaced old institutions.
Today in the 21st century, this period is more notable for people looking to technology to solve problems when our institutions fail us. This thread can be seen all over, from the development of Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain technology in 2009 following the Great Financial Crisis and associated bank bailouts in 2008 to the push to suspend former President Trump from platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Many people have questioned the health of long-standing institutions such as the government and the banking system, but there has been much less energy put towards reforming these institutions or replacing them with newer institutions as much as there has been in looking to technology for answers. Unfortunately, most attempts to meaningfully reform large institutions often go nowhere as changes are seen as win-lose propositions and vested interests remain opposed to overhauls that might threaten their power and status. It usually takes a crisis such as the war in Ukraine to revitalize an institution like NATO and provide a push for major change.
In technology we trust?
From sharing our personal data to posting on social media, so much of our lives are conducted online in today’s world. The recommendations from computer algorithms are constantly reviewed, the advice provided by online influencers is accepted more than expert authorities. With our always connected smart phones, we’ve come to rely on technology to navigate even mundane aspects of life such as getting driving directions via GPS and ordering from restaurants through delivery apps. Research has shown that face-to-face interactions were down even before COVID-19 while social media interactions have risen, and this trend accelerated throughout the pandemic. Some have written about the social displacement hypothesis that argues quality in-person interactions have suffered due to adoption of technology, while others dispute a direct causal link between the two and point more to a shift in preferences in terms of how people socialize and build relationships.
While technology undoubtedly plays a starring roles in our daily lives, our evolving relationship with machines leaves some complicated feelings. According to a recent survey, people are more trusting of technology firms that offer hardware and business solutions and less trusting of firms offering social media, streaming and other content. Additionally, the recent “crypto winter” has depressed the enthusiasm for speculative investments, and attempts by countries like El Salvador to make Bitcoin legal tender to promote economic growth has led to limited adoption by the public one year in to the experiment. Perhaps this complicated relationship isn’t surprising: what is surprising is that increased regulation of Big Tech is one of the few bipartisan issues in the United States and that the European Union continues to take a bold, aggressive stance on regulation.
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Bots: talking with machines posing as humans
One of the most fascinating interactions between humans and machines are bots: automated technology that simulates human conversation. So-called “spam bots” famously are the reason that Elon Musk decided to end his acquisition bid for Twitter (which is still being debated by the parties). Advancements in artificial intelligence, specifically natural language processing (NLP) and natural language understanding (NLU), have greatly advanced the technology behind bots. While there have been notable stumbles along the way (Microsoft’s infamous racist bot being a prime example), there are also many positive examples including in the health care realm where patient outcomes improved when voice chatbots were used.
It seems that most websites I visit today have a friendly chat assistant which pops up offering to answer questions as soon as I arrive. Smart conversational AI is hot right now: companies like Forrester are providing reports for their clients on how to leverage chatbots and virtual assistants (VAs) to improve customer experiences. When I have evaluated firms such as boost.ai in the past, I was impressed with the seamless ways their technology could go from an automated response to a human call-center interaction. In addition, their ability to create multiple VAs that flowed into one another provided scale and sophistication.
Technology is not good or evil in and of itself; it’s all about how people choose to use it. -David Wong
Bots have come a long way since the early days of Clippy, the ever annoying Microsoft animation that had a knack for showing up at exactly the wrong time. While there is some debate over whether the Turing test has been successfully passed yet, in many ways that distinction does not matter. We interact with technology daily through our voice and text, and whether or not we recognize the other party as a person or machine is increasingly irrelevant. What is important to note is how our relationship with technology continues to evolve over time, how this impacts our levels of trust, and what it means for the institutions that could be replaced by it.
How has technology changed the way customers interact with your firm? Is trust greater when customers interact with your organization through technology? What is the impact of multi-modal transactions - those that involve both a machine and human? Do you find that customers still want a human to talk to when navigating your technology? What has been your experience with chatbots and virtual assistants? Will call centers be replaced by bots?