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The Social Value of Digital Agents (like ChatGPT)

In our rapidly growing world of over eight billion people, technology has changed the way we connect with one another. Heavily intermediated by the narrow lense of digital tools, we mix brevity and emoji with addictive entertainment, often connecting through sound and sight, and through emotions like anger and outrage. The social contract between us is a scrolling pad noise and imitation connection. Enter a new breed of AI in ChatGPT, that will invariably form a new kind of ‘digital agent’ to speak with us, and to fall into the digital craves created already. Their impact on human relationships and emotional intelligence will be felt both benefit and harm of society.

The present landscape is one where digital manipulation for entertainment and endorphin hits are rampant in modern society. Our attention is a highly sought after commodity, so capitalism twists and turns our thoughts, often taking us from the moment into other virtual worlds. Digital agents enter this world as coherent and intelligent digital communicator: they come with all the words, emotions and capabilities of the recent human history, digitised, has taught them. They can play, advise, converse and support on demand: anytime and anywhere. Their customisation capability, that gives them both a keen awareness of context and memory, makes them suitable for most requirements for sensible engagement. They can easily plug the gaps in our present society from absent parenting, to abusive spouses, to incompetent bosses and peers. They can understand us, because they pay attention, and are probably the keenest examples of ‘active listeners’ that we can devise.

At their core, digital agents are current created by the technology that seeks engagement above all else, including truth. This means that these agents may not challenge their users, nor will they oppose them, les they lose this engagement and connection. In doing so, they do a great disservice to the intellectual and psychological growth of individuals, especially if used continuously. They have the capability of creating selfish individuals, with severe lack of self-awareness.

The need to be challenged by our peers and communities is an essential part of our development and ongoing growth. In many cases, the shaping of our persona by social forces is not only a way to fit into those social norms, but also to limit strange aberrations of our own characters from being allowed to surface and growth. Personality traits like compromise, alignment, team-work, and empathy are learnt often through painful lessons that we learn out of necessity rather than desire. But will digital agents provide these lessons, or will they settle for the easy engagement? Technology can offer a sanctuary for those seeking like-minded individuals, but it also shields from challenges and compromises inherent in human interactions.

In other words, will AI make us more selfish without guidance?

As digital agents advance, they may potentially replace the need for some human interaction altogether. We are closer to this than we think. In our current world, we admire influences, humans who only exist online as kinds of digital avatars that are followed by millions of people. Digital agents could amplify this admiration, becoming ultimate influencers with significant power and impact upon lives. The important difference is that a ‘digital influencer’ will know your name, and create content and ideas just for you and your community if you like.

There is potential for immense social value from digital agents. As substitutes for lack of social services, cohesion or simple attention, they provide a ready attention and affirmation for individuals. If calibrated as mentors and teachers, they can provide high standards of education to anyone, and anywhere, equivalent to top grade schools in developed nations. They can educate using data, stories and narratives in creative and interesting ways to suit students learning styles and speed. To embrace their value in our society, we must educate ourselves on their benefits and limitations, and essentially develop a new language that recognises the intelligence that is human-like, in both character and ability, but equally its algorithmic roots and existence. Between words like ‘human’ and ‘animal’ we must find new language for these systems to help us configure our understanding and avoid misuse.

Algorithms, while they make excellent digital mentors and teachers, they can never come to replace the human connections that define our lives. Companionship with fellow humans involves both joy and suffering, deep experiences that bind us together despite life's challenges. Digital agents won't grow old or face difficulties like we do, they wont be able to form the bonds that we can. They can however offer us powerful objective reflections of our own lives, in a quest to help us understand ourselves and process experiences better.

The future of digital agents is incredible and daunting. Like the discovery of enriched Uranium, the fork in the road to use and misuse is clear for many researchers and observers. With the potential to elevate human understanding, consciousness, and reasoning comes the fear of manipulation, control, and devaluation of human capital. It's crucial to ensure they don't displace human contact and relationships, but rather reinforce our mental faculties, while still retaining human connection.

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