SSIR: Leveraging the power of bots for civil society

SSIR, April 11, 2018: Leveraging the power of bots for civil society

Like it or not, the age of automation has arrived. “Bots,” in the form of robots, chatbots, artificial intelligence, machine learning, conversational interfaces, cyborgs, and other smart devices, are increasingly becoming the interface between organizations and humans. So much so that by 2020, according to Gartner research, it is estimated that 80 percent of our interactions each day will be with bots.

The ramifications of these technological developments reach far beyond cafés and customer service interactions to the heart of civil society. Bots are beginning to be deployed for actual service provision, and this is where the age of automation comes into conflict with our humanity. It may be fine to interact with a bot rather than a human to make airline reservations—in fact, it may make for a better overall experience—but what about a bot instead of a therapist, a healthcare worker, or a social worker? Are these interactions we are willing to delegate to a bot?

So before the bots become involved with almost every facet of our lives, it is incumbent upon those of us in the nonprofit and social-change sectors to start a discussion on how we both hold on to and lead with our humanity, as opposed to allowing the bots to lead. We are unprepared for this moment, and it does not feel like an understatement to say that the future of humanity relies on our ability to make sure we’re in charge of the bots, not the other way around.

We must not look at the age of automation as a smackdown between flesh and code, but as a partnership between social services agencies adopting the technology to better serve their clients. To reap the benefits for civil society, design and implementation must have a humans-first orientation and maintain the highest ethical standards to avoid devastating unintended consequences.

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