What effect will AI have on our social skills? 

I’m curious, will AI make us want to connect with each other more or less?

I must make it clear, I am discussing this from having lived in the UK all of my life – I think that is important, as we often find it hard to communicate directly at the best of times. I write this on the train after somebody’s phone alarm had been going off for about 10 minutes before people started sighing, looking at each other and raising eyebrows. Not one person tried to confront the issue by trying to find out where the alarm was coming from and gently asking the person to switch it off. 

Country tutting

I remember many similar journeys commuting to work. One that sticks in my mind was getting the 6.55am train to Maidenhead from Reading. Commuters flooded the train as usual, everyone scrambling to save a row of two seats just for themselves – the commuters’ dream. A businessman possibly in his late 40s or early 50s was getting into the frame of mind for the day ahead, as a lot of us do – using music. I’m not sure I could live without music and believe it is one of the most powerful tools to elicit emotions, completely change a person’s mood, create connection and community. So, I am onboard with some morning music to set the mood for the day. His choice was a powerful country ballad. Probably not everyone’s cup of tea and likely no one’s cup of tea on the way to the job they don’t want to go to at 7am in the morning. 

Anyway, this wonderful chap decided the whole carriage could benefit from it, so the music was cranked up to full volume, the corners of his mouth lifted as he enjoyed his choice of tune to get him into the morning groove. He had a pair of headphones on – you know the ones that look like earmuffs rather than earphones. Usually these are good for noise cancellation, but this made me wonder if there was a new kind of noise cancellation that meant no one could hear anything but country. I also started to wonder what kind of brand these headphones were since they were so shockingly bad and sounded more like a speaker than a personal device. 

And so it began – the tuts which started softly but grew louder, the raised eyebrows, the sighs and shakes of the head as now the whole carriage shared a collective disapproving stare towards the man, who was happily enjoying his country music. How could anyone be so selfish? How dare he impose country music on everyone without their consent?! The audacity. 

Until some rational, level-headed, kind and confident individual alerted the man to the fact that the whole carriage could hear his music. Flustered and a little embarrassed he spotted the aux cable which had not been inserted into his phone. The headphones were not on or connected to the phone and his device had literally been playing the music via its speaker. He quickly and quietly apologised. The morning had been saved and the regular morning commute resumed – the one where people avoid eye-contact, where smiling is offensive at such an early hour, and the less conversation the better. 

Will AI make us communicate less? 

Now I’ve set the scene, commuting in southern UK, where people are immersed in their phones, kindles, laptops and any other screen or device. Often, missing key kindness opportunities to help somebody struggling with a trolley, or even just acknowledge the person sitting opposite them, let alone facing the dreaded country music situation or irritating alarm.

If we already miss these opportunities to connect with people, to help people, to be kind, to share, or converse, it begs the question: will AI make this better or worse? Will we become even more dependent on our devices that we dismiss the imperfect human who makes mistakes and prefer to share only a few commanding words to all-knowing obedient Alexa? Will we only want to talk to AI that serves us, that answers any question we ask and gives us the information we think we are looking for? Will we lose the ability to create conversation with a stranger, hold our attention and find interest in a different perspective? 

The effect of AI on human interaction 

And this raises a bigger question, what and who will be the source of the information that AI provides us with? How is it generated? Language, choice of topic and timing makes most information we are exposed to biased or as unbiased as it can be. But, if we only listen to the same narratives, the same people, the same source of information and the people that are most similar to us, surely, we only narrow our perspective and opinion.

Or will we see the kind of post-pandemic social bounce-back where people crave human connection. The flexibility of meeting people online only doesn’t cover the same needs as meeting people in person. Will AI make us want to talk to each other more? Will it create connections? Will it uncover the beauty of imperfect humans, the vast array of experiences we could learn so much from by sharing, observing and being present. 

Will it go one way or the other? Social or anti-social, or will it be a hybrid of anti-social, with the need for connection but without the skills to connect? If we feed AI with kindness, will it produce kindness? Could it be a power to the people, or will it be power over the people?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have a lot of questions. I am intrigued in how our world is evolving and how we behave as humans. We are all living on earth experiencing our version of life, what if we can make each person’s experience a little easier or at the least not worse. What if we let people live the way they want and let them believe what they want without causing harm to others. We don’t need to agree on everything, but we do need to find a balance between being open to others, community and whilst also learning and realising it’s OK to have different opinions. 

Regardless, we must continue to challenge and expand our social skills, so we have a choice to connect with humans if we want. So, we retain a skill and power AI can never quite replicate. So we can possibly use AI to benefit by passing on the things we don’t need or want to do and focusing on how we, as humans, can make this world a better place. 

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