I run two organizations. Prof G Media is a (wait for it) media company that produces books, videos, podcasts, TV shows, talks, and this newsletter. The second organization is the aircraft carrier squadron that runs my life outside of work. The tutors, trainers, accountants, landscapers, financial planners, lawyers, nannies, health aides (Dad), dog walkers, and other professionals whose job is to make my life nicer and easier. Think Downton Abbey, except the Abbey is a Marylebone apartment and the patriarch is (much) less charming.
The chatter about AI has focused on how it will change (first) organization, the world of work, and/or annihilate us. But the most valuable tech companies to date, with the exception of Microsoft, have been consumer-facing. And it’s likely the major AI disruptors will (again) be consumer offerings. One big change: The butlers, maids, and valets of the rich will be introduced to the broader world. Instead of servants downstairs, we’ll have servers.
Except the servers will be housed in some nondescript tilt-up building next to an inexpensive source of energy to keep it cool, where they’ll sweat plowing the fields of my indulgent life, where I’ve created a series of mazes I need others to help me navigate. Note: I’m especially proud of the previous sentence. Generative AI and smartphones and smart speakers promise the power of personal and professional assistants to everyone with an iPhone. That’s good news … mostly. Technology democratizes access (good thing), but also sequesters us from one another. The tech elite are opting out voluntarily with a nihilistic vision of go bags and bunkers.
The backstory is that the performance of digital assistants might be finally catching up to the decades of promise. Emphasis on “might.” MIT had a chatbot called Eliza in 1966, and the progress since has been steady, if not remarkable. Sixty years later we started to lose interest — the number of Americans who use voice-activated assistants declined. That’s about to change.
We’re on the eve of war — the AI Assistant Revolution. The invading AI army established a beachhead years ago. Remember paper maps? Until recently, successes were limited to AI-friendly contexts: those with a lot of structured data, limited and predictable queries, and not much nuance. Pre-ChatGPT, our AI assistants were kids: They took everything literally and needed to be set up for success. The real innovation unleashed by large language models is soft skills — specifically, their ability to manage the ambiguity of human experience.
Intelligence is synonymous with nuance, or the ability to recognize and deliver it. Google describes its AI mission: “More than answers, we’ll help you when there’s no right answer.” The hardest decisions in life are having to choose between the bad options rife in a difficult environment. Bear markets and bad relationships require intelligence (i.e., nuance). Bull markets and good relationships only require bravado and presence.
We’ve learned, painfully, that converting any asset or substance to another, for economic benefit, produces externalities. Fossil fuels to energy produces carbon; plant calories to meat calories results in deforestation and methane. The worst are the rage emissions spewed into our environment as Big Tech converts attention to ads. The externality when we convert the patterns between words to information and insight (i.e., AI)? A: Dehumanization. The people who invented AI — now that their options have vested — are full-time catastrophists. But they’re hyping the wrong catastrophe. I’m less worried about SkyNet declaring war on the species or being turned into a paperclip than an epidemic that causes more death, disease, and disability than Covid-19: loneliness.
The U.S. faces an epidemic of isolation. Loneliness among young adults has been increasing since 1976. (The increase has been steeper among those with lower incomes.) Teen depression would be at similar levels, given its trajectory, with or without the pandemic. Put another way, Covid didn’t inspire social distancing … social media did. A more honest moniker for the sector is “asocial” media. Studies find that when people reduce or eliminate social media from their lives, their self-esteem and sense of connection often improve. AI-driven assistants present a similar risk.
According to the U.S. Surgeon General (an impressive man who makes you feel good about America): “Evidence across scientific disciplines converges on the conclusion that socially connected people live longer.” Social isolation is associated with a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease and a 32% increase in the risk of stroke. Put another way: loneliness kills.
A reliable indicator of how much a new tech product will drive us apart is the intensity of the founder’s promise to bring us together. Facebook’s mission statement has become less recognizable than an ’80s pop star’s face, but the Zuck and Sheryl promised (repeatedly) they would “connect people.” They then built algorithms that send images of nooses and razor blades to 14-year-old girls experiencing suicidal ideation. Tinder aims to spark relationships but increasingly results in sadness and anxiety. We’re then told that the solution to tech’s externalities is … more tech.
On cue, Tinder’s former CEO is raising venture capital for an AI-powered relationship coach called Amorai that will offer advice to young adults struggling with loneliness. She won’t be alone. Call Annie is an “AI friend” you can phone or FaceTime to ask anything you want. A similar product, Replika, has millions of users. AI sex-robot vendors saw sales increase 50% during the pandemic, and sextech is expected to become a $53 billion industry by 2026. So, Natalie 2.0 (a sex doll) should make the same as Beyoncé and Tom Cruise, as the industry she works for will approximate the scale of the combined global music and movie businesses.
We’ve seen this movie before, literally. It was called Her. A lonely introvert in the midst of divorce purchases an advanced AI assistant that helps him with everything — from therapy to cooking to setting him up on dates — and they fall in love. Also Ex Machina, another great film about the collision of tech and loneliness. What sci-fi gets right, and the innovator class papers over with earnest TED talks on bettering the world, is that human connection is why we’re all here. And inserting AI between ourselves and those around us dulls those connections.
Secret to My Success
Sexbots are a sure thing, and AI assistants are inexpensive and don’t need vision and dental. Also, they are not real and don’t nourish our soul. We’re not wired to live in a world where we have friends but don’t experience friendship. Human relationships are about competition and compromise, about listening and bouncing off one another in unexpected ways … in person. They are about, among many things, the risk inherent in relationships. These risks include disappointment and rejection.
Rejection has been key to my success. Specifically, my willingness to endure it. In high school, I ran for sophomore/junior/senior class president … lost all three times. Based on my track record, I decided it made sense to run for student body president, and I (wait for it) lost. I asked four girls to my high school prom and didn’t go — 0 for 4. (Note: I did get asked to the prom by a girl from another school.) I have raised over $1 billion for my startups and investments. However, I pitched (conservatively) $100 billion in capital over the better part of a decade, before raising a dollar. I was rejected (initially) by UCLA. But here’s the thing, I recovered. More than recovered — I got stronger. And that made the victories feel more … victorious. Twenty years ago, under the glare of the midday sun, I approached a woman at the Raleigh Hotel pool who was sitting with two friends. I was so attracted to her, I decided it was worth the risk of rejection — I’d learned that the downside doesn’t present that much … downside. It’s risk, it’s growth, it’s life.
AI assistants are the ultimate helicopter parent, bulldozing obstacles and the risk inherent in establishing new relationships. We are breeding a generation of asocial people who don’t know what it means to be rejected, forget a name, miss a flight, and find unexpected joy. AI, and mobile technology, have strip-mined a key component of what it means to be human, what it means to be a mammal. Happiness is a function of your willingness to take an uncomfortable risk and have something wonderful … really wonderful … happen in person. Technology offers productivity and prosperity. However, joy is in the agency of others. The most important skills are forged, not taught.
My oldest son’s middle name? Raleigh.
Life is so rich,
P.S. This week I spoke with Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, about community building, AI, and relationships. Listen here.
P.P.S. I’m sitting down to talk about How to Have a Breakthrough with my colleague Adam Alter next Tuesday. Join us, and come with questions — the best ones get a copy of Adam’s new book.