India File

Bots and us: How AI impacts our lives in myriad ways

Venkatesh Ganesh Jinoy Jose P | Updated on September 21, 2018

Woebot is arguably the world’s first chatbot that offers non-stop cognitive behavioural therapy services. It is available as an app for Android and Apple gadgets. Users can chat with the genderless bot anytime, from anywhere, and get psychological help. A report says, every week Woebot, backed by a team that includes psychologists from Stanford, sends some 2 million messages to users in more than 135 countries. Hundreds of thousands of people use the bot every month.

“Ideally, we would expect people to hesitate to talk to a robot about their personal problems, but the experience of Woebot shows otherwise,” says Shiju Joseph, a clinical psychologist and academic based in Thiruvananthapuram. Joseph tracks the impact of technology on human lives and society.

Many people have found the Woebot more convenient, more neutral, non-judgmental and respecting their privacy. “This is very revealing, considering that even though an element of ‘real human warmth’ was absent in those interactions, the non-judgmental quality of the bot seems to have offset that,” notes Joseph.

Even though human biases creep into AI programmes, people, in general, expect AI to be neutral. “Chatbots are one of the many ways through which people enter the larger world of artificial intelligence, which is impacting human life in many complex ways,” says Ajith Balakrishnan, software developer and consultant.

In machines we trust

Studies have shown that people’s hesitation to share personal details with a human helps in the success of chatbots, even though most of the data collected by the chatbots is shared with the team that operates and becomes part of a large Big Data universe. “But that’s secondary,” says Joseph. Over time, he says, people have built a belief around the ability of machines to be accurate in certain departments. For instance, everyone knows a watch tells us the time more accurately than a human. This may seem a trivial example, but human cognition works in this fashion.

“People are starting to trust AI with increased efficiency and accuracy, which is a game-changer” says Joseph.

Human-chatbot interaction still hovers somewhere around 20 per cent of the population across the globe, with urban audiences serving as the predominant user base. Most of the people engaging with chatbots are early adopters of technology. “They will soon graduate into better users of AI,” says Balakrishnan. “Chatbots in particular and AI in general are plugging the gaps in human behaviour.” For instance, a customer relations executive is supposed to be courteous and kind towards someone calling in with a grievance. But in most cases that doesn’t happen by default. “Humans lose patience and can be biased,” says Balakrishnan. But people somehow think AI will be patient, egalitarian and altruistic.

“The ideal way a chatbot system should function is by keeping a human in the loop of information exchange,” says Arindrajit Basu, Policy Officer at the Centre for Internet Society, Bengaluru. He says that in countries like India where different cultures exist, AI-based bots may face a lot of limitations and might not be able to offer the best of insights to the users. Human supervision helps here, says Basu.

Prominent among the myriad impact areas of the bot economy on society is the legal angle of AI. At least in certain early-level customer interactions, bots are going to replace decision making and this triggers several legal challenges as well.

There is also the (inevitable) question of job losses. Robot automation is expected to take away 80 crore jobs across the globe by 2030, suggests a study by the McKinsey Global Institute. Chatbots have already replaced thousands of humans in various customer care jobs, manned by people with low skillsets.

Rehabilitating or redeploying them is going to be a gargantuan task, says Balakrishnan.

“Essentially, chatbots are the conversations of tomorrow,” says Thomas Abraham, Founder, T-Ventures. Apart from being an integral part of our daily lives in the future, they are also a potential tool to help solve some of the most crucial social crises, he says. Free basic consultative healthcare, easy access to education, psychological counselling, caring for the elderly, transport, agriculture — the possibilities of chatbot implementation and utility are endless, he points out.

“But the challenge is to keep bots non-judgemental and altruistic,” sums up psychologist Joseph.

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Published on September 10, 2018
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