How Technology Can Help Us Become More Human

Woman’s hand showing digital big data.

Woman’s hand showing digital big data. Credit – Yuichiro Chino—Getty Images

Profound changes to the substance and structure of our lives — wrought by disruptive technologies ranging from smartphones and social media to newly ascendent AI — often go unnoticed amidst the rush of daily life. Over 30 percent of U.S. adults report “almost constant” online activity, something that would have been impossible only two decades ago. From an early age, children are exposed to digital technologies, and one recent study found that two- and three-year-olds average two hours of screen time daily. Nor is this phenomenon simply a matter of media consumption. Ordinary market transactions, whether online shopping or home mortgage applications, are now facilitated through sophisticated algorithmic systems.

How we use our time, form relationships, feed our minds, and develop our identity bears scant resemblance to even ten years ago. These are radical changes compared to when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s. No wonder we feel on the back foot when reacting to technological change. The dialogue in higher education about ChatGPT4 is a case study in urgent shifts in institutions. Should chatbots be banned or encouraged? Should college exams revert to hand-cramping Blue Books? These short-term challenges are not trivial. But, they also point to deeper, more fundamental questions: How do we create, finance, and incentivize the development of technologies to proactively scaffold human development rather than simply adapt reactively?

How We Grow

First, let’s be clear about what human development means in this context. Most people can intuitively explain how the needs of an infant are different from those of a middle-aged or elderly person. Decades of psychological research have articulated a clear series of cognitive, emotional, social, and moral transitions over time.

Psychological needs vary greatly across childhood, adolescence, emerging adulthood (the years between 18 and 30), and older adulthood. In childhood, cognition centers on the acquisition of language and the rudiments of abstract reasoning, while emotional skills such as self-regulation and empathy are still taking root. However, adolescence begins with an exploration of identity, social concerns, refinement of moral reasoning, and critical thinking. Emerging adulthood revolves around higher-order characteristics such as wisdom, perspective-taking, forgiveness, and spiritual understanding, traits which continue to develop as people age.

Human institutions, beliefs, and practices reinforce specific cognitive, emotional, and social skills and traits. Rituals such as baptism and naming ceremonies, coming-of-age rites, weddings, retirement parties, and funerals help reinforce individual and communal identity. These cultural products were fine-tuned over centuries to help us navigate important life transitions. As the most important cultural product today, our technologies should do the same.

Technology Can Help Us Grow

Early adolescence is a great example of a life transition where application of digital technologies can help. Researchers posit that identity development is the core cognitive, emotional, and social task for adolescents. Being accepted and valued by a peer group is incredibly important during this period.

It is clear that something has gone awry in adolescent development, where statistics on teen mental health underline a deep crisis. Nearly 60 percent of teenage girls in the U.S. report feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness and just over 30 percent have seriously considered suicide.

Clinical treatment by a health professional may be the gold-standard, but it is not accessible to all, and there is a desperate need for scalable options to prevent adolescent anxiety and depression. Schools are increasingly seen as being responsible for the mental health of children, and they are rapidly adopting socio-emotional learning curricula around the world as a result.

Aided by digital technologies, teachers can deliver interventions that are highly personalized for individual students and optimized to promote key socio-emotional skills. Children can practice skills that lessen anxiety in a virtual setting where they can be exposed to a stressful environment through various scenarios in a safe way. One such game, MindLight, helps children and young people improve how they cope with stress and anxiety by using a neurofeedback headset.

In MindLight, kids put on a single-channel EEG headset and their avatar navigates a dark, enchanted mansion where they encounter stressful scenarios. The only tool at their avatar’s disposal is a little head lamp which brightens or dims in response to their neurofeedback: The better kids manage their anxiety, the brighter their avatar’s head lamp, allowing them to navigate and make progress in their game. For adolescent players, a six-hour session with MindLight was shown to be as effective as 12 weeks of the therapist-guided cognitive behavioral therapy. These results are incredible, especially because such technologies can be deployed at scale throughout school systems. Digital tools like MindLight save precious time for teachers and psychologists while also super-charging impact on adolescent mental health.

Another example comes from the realm of moral decision-making. Many adults work in jobs where they constantly make decisions affecting the health and wellbeing of others. Ethical codes and moral precepts guide moral decision-making, especially when information is incomplete, distractions are myriad, time is short, and outcomes uncertain. As a proof-of-concept, computer scientists and philosophers have teamed up to develop an algorithmic system to help hospital administrators adhere to their own professional ethical code in the allocation of scarce organs for transplantation.

In this case, features of an organ recipient that administrators consider to be morally salient (age, health, number of dependents) are incorporated into a computational model. The outputs of this model can be used to guide allocations for a large number of decisions, with the goal of reducing bias, overcoming fatigue, and adhering to pre-considered ethical priorities. Much more work on these hybrid human-AI systems is required before they are ready for deployment, but these initial studies point the way for promising new applications.

But clearly these innovations face enormous challenges to rapid development and widespread adoption. Developing these systems requires radical collaboration from different skill sets including psychology, computer science, philosophy, and engineering. A more significant challenge relates to the ecosystem (or lack thereof) of resources necessary to develop these technologies, the so-called “valley of death” between research and practice.

Hundreds of pilot-scale interventions are developed in academic labs where the primary aim is evaluation of efficacy in controlled conditions. Yet, important issues like usability, willingness-to-pay, and demand generation — which de-risk private investment — are rarely investigated within the academy. Securing financing to get these technologies into the hands of people who most need them in the workplace, home, or classroom can be incredibly difficult.

Demonstration projects exist, yet the path to product testing and adoption at scale is unclear. Digital consumer products generally require the aggressive, capital-intensive user growth strategies demanded by venture investors. Public sector channels like education or healthcare have inherent regulatory risks and favor incumbent players.

This is a classic market failure where philanthropic capital and impact investment should fill the gap. Philanthropy has been at the forefront of developing many high-impact public health tools including new malaria vaccines and new broad-spectrum antibiotics. The same can happen for technology development.

For example, philanthropies can support consensus ‘target product profiles’ that specify the intended use, evidence of efficacy, and other performance characteristics of technologies. Funders can then use grants to support innovations that meet these criteria and also invest directly in the companies who are commercializing them.

Outside of helping to accelerate specific technologies, philanthropies have a major role to play in shaping industry-wide practices and norms. One effective tool is the creation of public indices that assess company commitments to different social causes. For example, the Access to Nutrition Index tracks and ranks food and beverage manufacturers on their actions to improve the nutritional quality of their products. An analogous “Responsible AI Index” could help keep firms accountable to their promises.

These are just a few ideas about how philanthropic investment can help galvanize a new generation of technologies that aid human development, not impede it. As technology becomes ever more embedded in our lives, it’s up to all of society to figure out how to use it for good.

Madelyn Skylar

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