BiblioTech“There is probably an 80% consensus that free will is actually overrated”
“There is probably an 80% consensus that free will is actually overrated”
Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of “I, Human: AI, Automation, and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Unique”, joins CTech as part of its new BiblioTech video series
“On a philosophical or testimonial level, if you look at most of the mainstream science, neuroscience, behavioral science, there is probably 80% consensus that free will is actually overrated or overstated,” said Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of ‘I, Human: AI, Automation, and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Unique’. “We think we are in control of the decisions we make, but actually there are so many serendipitous and biologically driven courses of our decision.”
Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an organizational psychologist who works mostly in the areas of personality profiling, people analytics, talent identification, the interface between human and artificial intelligence, and leadership development. He is the Chief Innovation Officer at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, co-founder of deepersignals.com, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab.
He is the writer behind books such as “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?”, “The Future of Recruitment: Using the New Science of Talent Analytics to Get Your Hiring Right,” and this year’s “I, Human: AI, Automation, and the Quest to Reclaim What Makes Us Unique”. Joining CTech for its new BiblioTech video series, he discusses the integration of AI into our lives and how we can keep our unique creativity and value in an increasingly digital world.
“Leaving aside these philosophical discussions… what I highlight in the book is that if we get to a point where our decisions are so predictable that AI can make most of these decisions, even if we are not automated and replaced by AI, surely we need to question our sense of subjective free will?”
Many of the topics that Chamorro-Premuzic addresses in the book relate to the impact that AI will have on our lives and how different generations might respond to the algorithms living beside us. For example, he cites tech leaders like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who present concerning views of AI, but also respond positively to how Gen Z might learn to adopt such technologies.
“One of the things that the digital age has introduced is ever more and more ADD-like behaviors,” he continued. “We are pressed to do things quicker and quicker. And therefore there are few rewards for pausing and thinking.”
Even though he believes humans are “perfectly capable” of stopping and taking time to consider their thoughts and actions, most of the decisions today in the AI age are so fast that they become very predictable and therefore easily outsourced to machines.
“Gen Z and the next generation will need to showcase their expertise in a different area or a different way,” he told CTech. “Expertise is mutating from knowing a lot of answers to asking the right questions - from memorizing and retrieving facts to knowing how, why, and where the facts are wrong… Demonstrating and cultivating expertise is a big challenge for the young generations.”
Tomas, in your book you tackle one of the biggest questions facing our species: "Will we use artificial intelligence to improve the way we work and live, or will we allow it to alienate us?" Why did you find that now was the moment that this question needed to be asked and why did your book come out when it did?
“I wrote 4-5 years ago that AI could be a really powerful tool to translate data and make leadership selection more data-driven with my first book, “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix it)”. Then came “The Future of Recruitment: Using the New Science of Talent Analytics to Get Your Hiring Right,” which was about practical advice on how organizations can do that. Then, I was already contracted to do a new book during the pandemic, and on a personal level I found myself interacting with AI so much and interacting with other humans so little, that I thought this thing was really about to take off especially if we will be in lockdown for a while.
“I started to look at the wider impact of AI and human behavior. Coincidentally the book was due to launch when OpenAI released ChatGPT which I always say is good and bad. It’s good because there is more interest now for a book that explores the implications for human intelligence and human creativity in an age where we can outsource much of our thinking to machines. And it's bad because I had to write it myself, I couldn't rely on ChatGPT to write it! I think the next one will probably be written by AI and I will edit it!”
I'd like to highlight what some of the tech leaders of today have said about AI, which you address at the start of your book:
You comment that Bill Gates is “concerned about super intelligence”; Stephen Hawking noted that “Super-intelligent AI will be extremely good at accomplishing its goals, and if those goals aren't aligned with ours, we are in trouble.” Finally, you highlight how Elon Musk labeled AI “a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization” - although you point out it hasn't stopped him from trying to implant it into our brains.
Tomas, why are we pursuing such a scary and unknown technology?
“We're pursuing it mostly for two reasons. First, over the past 10 years, we have amassed so much data that we don’t have enough human resources or human intelligence available to analyze that data. Also, we had to rely on a large language model, or some version of AI, to help us make sense of the data and actually make decisions in a more efficient, quick, and effortless way which is needed in a work that is so complex.
“The second reason is that human beings are very lazy. We love to optimize everything for familiarity, for predictability. You could either sit down to watch any movie that Netflix recommends to you and after five seconds you’ll be watching a movie, or you could do what I do which is dismiss the algorithm, dig deeper, and waste two hours of my life. By the time I actually find the movie I want to watch it is time to go to sleep. We are trading off efficiency, which means lazy, fast, and furious decision-making, for deep, thoughtful, and expert-like decisions.
“It is the same whether we are choosing a job, a romantic partner, a restaurant, a hotel, or what we consume in terms of news. This is why AI has been introduced as a potential tool that can enhance our productivity. Even if we're not necessarily going to invest whatever savings we gain from the productivity that AI uses into more thoughtful, creative, and intellectually fulfilling activities. Therein lies the problem.”
I want to address some of the more nefarious things you mention and some of the ways that AI is affecting us in ways we don't understand. We speak about AI in the world, but how much choice do we have and how much is just an illusion of choice?
“On a philosophical or testimonial level, if you look at most of the mainstream science, neuroscience, behavioral science, there is probably around 80% consensus that free will is actually overrated or overstated. But it is mostly an illusion. We think we are in control of the decisions we make but actually, there are so many serendipitous and biologically driven courses of our decisions.
“Leaving aside these philosophical discussions which are hard to verify and often don't mean much to the average consumer, it is clear to me: If we get to a point where our decisions are so predictable that AI can make most of these decisions, even if we are not automated and replaced by AI, surely we need to question our sense of subjective free will?
“If when I'm writing an email to you and Google’s auto-complete version is correct 95% of the time, then I have to wonder whether I really am an agentic creative human that still has some choice or whether it's more deterministic than we think. I think the way to think about these issues is that we are mostly free to choose, or at least we feel we are free to choose, but that doesn't necessarily mean we want to pause, think, and choose. One of the things that the digital age has introduced is even more and more ADD-like behaviors. We are pressed to do things quicker and quicker and therefore there are few rewards for pausing and thinking, which explains the rise of things like mindfulness movements, apps, and people who do digital detoxes.
“We are perfectly capable of pausing and thinking, but most of the decisions we are making in the AI age are so fast that they become very predictable and therefore they can be outsourced to machines.”
I'd like to elaborate on what you mention in the book which you call a "Crisis of Distractability". I think it really sums up where so many of us are today online. What did you mean by that and how is it manifesting itself in recent years?
“Around 11 years ago I went to a digital marketing conference where you had all the big tech firms. For the first time, some people were introducing the notion of the second screen, which was very counterintuitive and bold at the time. People were watching TV and holding their iPads, or they were looking at their smartphones and now there’s a second screen market.
“Now, we all have 3-4 screens that we interact with all the time. Life itself has been downgraded to a distraction. You're almost distracted when you can't pay attention to your apps or your social media feeds. You get FOMO if you can't interact with people digitally and you have to pay attention to the analog world.
“In terms of productivity, I think this is really important because even though we keep on arguing about whether technology and GenAI are going to lead to a productivity gain or the demise of human civilization, the tech firms keep telling us it will make us healthier, fitter, happier, and more productive.
“Actually the productivity data is very clear. Our productivity went up between 2000-2008 in the first wave of the digital revolution, only to start to stagnate or stall after that, after the advent of social media. Roughly 60-75% of smartphone use occurs during working hours when they're working from home or in an office and 70% of workers report being distracted. In the U.S. alone, digital distractions cost the U.S. economy $650 billion dollars in productivity loss per year, which is 15 times more than the cost of absentees, turnover, and sickness. Multitasking, which we all do, results in a deficit of our intellectual cognitive performance of around 10 IQ points. It's basically as debilitating as smoking weed, presumably minus the benefits.
“We think and fool ourselves into thinking that we can multitask, but every time you switch from one task to the other and you go back, you’ve lost the equivalent of 26 minutes of concentration on that task. Technology might improve productivity but sometimes you become more productive if you ignore or have the ability to resist technology as well.”
There is a whole new generation in Gen Z who are growing up in the world you’ve been outlining - with AI and a search for uniqueness. What are some of the challenges they're going to have when trying to find their voice or establish their careers or relationships?
“The main challenge will be to demonstrate social proof. If you just enter or start your career, no matter how smart you are, it is a very steep curve to demonstrate to others that you can provide more value than what you can get from AI. You're probably paying a lot of attention to ChatGPT and other forms of GenAI in terms of their ability to produce an article, or an opinion piece. You’re probably, in your area of expertise, able to spot the errors, but the reason you are adding value to that is because of your track record and experience, that actually you know your stuff.
“If you're just starting, it's very difficult to persuade people that you have that expertise. Gen Z and the next generation will need to showcase their expertise in a different area or a different way. Expertise is mutating from knowing a lot of answers to asking the right questions - from memorizing and retrieving facts to knowing how, why, and where the facts are wrong. Fundamentally, to make decisions on the basis of information that might be correct or incorrect. Demonstrating and cultivating expertise is a big challenge for the young generations.”
I heard that the future artists or engineers won’t be coders, they’ll be prompt engineers. They’re going to know how to get the best out of the AI, which at the moment folks like me are walking around with our blindfolds not knowing what it's capable of.
“There is an argument to be made that as soon as there's enough prompt engineers prompting AI, AI will learn to prompt itself then we will need to move to the next iteration. There is going to be a very intense cat-and-mouse race or game where as soon as we develop something it can be automated. And we have to develop something else and it can be automated.
“Creativity is really critical. Spotify probably has enough data to automate 80% of its artists because it has an algorithm to understand what people like and most music can be pre-processed and done synthetically. Even if it automated 100% of its content, it probably wouldn’t kill musicians. It would push artists to invent the next version of music. I think that's how we need to think about every form of performance that is intellectually fueled or creatively or artistically informed.”
You touch on popular content in the book, such as Netflix's ‘The Social Dilemma’, the famous book ‘Surveillance Capitalism’, and of course ‘Black Mirror’, which is the modern-day Twilight Zone. What can readers learn from ‘I, Human’?
“Hopefully they will learn a little bit about AI, especially if they don't have technical backgrounds on it. It's designed for people with no knowledge for people to understand what AI is and what it isn’t - to understand how the algorithms that we interact with on a regular basis are reshaping our behavior.
“Culture is always a big influence on how we behave. The average person today behaves differently from the average person in the Renaissance, medieval times, or in ancient Greece or Rome even though our hardware or DNA is the same. What I argue is that the current culture could be defined universally as the AI age, and with that comes certain behavioral traits and markers they will discover in their book.
“The final part is a call to action, how we need to change if we want to ensure that the AI age is also the human AI age and that we use this technological invention to upgrade ourselves.It finishes on a relatively optimistic note with a call to action to rediscover some of the qualities that make us who we are. AI will probably not harm things like dep curiously, creativity, self-awareness, empathy, and EQ. The argument is that AI will probably win the IQ battle but the EQ battle could be won by humans.”