New World Same Humans #22

Meet your virtual companion. A counsellor, philosopher and friend that could revolutionise life for you – and billions of others.

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

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The iPhone is 13 years old. No innovation released since has matched its transformative impact – on our daily lives, society and culture.

This week, a new video game caught my eye. This game is an indirect signal of a powerful emerging trend; one that I think could produce the next genuinely transformative innovation.

Let’s talk about virtual companions.

Meet your virtual companion

This week, and for the first time, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a video game as a medical treatment. In EndeavorRX players guide a spacecraft through a series of fantastical environments, avoiding obstacles and shooting enemies. The game is made by a digital health startup called Akili, and it’s now approved as a prescription treatment for ADHD among children aged between eight and 12.

EndeavorRX was approved by the FDA after trials showed it caused measurable improvements in the attention of ADHD children who played the game for 25 minutes per day, five days a week. The trial that showed most success was conducted by doctors working for Akili; scepticism is warranted. But the legitimacy of EndeavorRX itself is not the key point here. Rather, what’s most interesting about this innovation is that it’s a signal of an emerging trend that is likely to accelerate as we step into the aftermath of the crisis: the trend for digital interventions in mental health and wellbeing.

All this is a great reminder of the most important underlying truth when it comes to trends. That is, that any meaningful trend has its basis in a fundamental human need. When trying to think about the future, people often get hung up on the change they see around them – typically a shiny new technology such as AI, robots, or driverless cars. But when it comes to the trends that will reshape our lives in the years ahead, a changing world is only half the picture. Taken alone, the emergence of new technologies tells us little about our shared future, how it will work, or what it will feel like.

Instead, we need to remember to see new technologies through the lens of fundamental human needs. People are motivated by a set of core needs – think value, security, convenience, and others – that at their most fundamental are stable over time. Unlike the world around us, they don’t change. It’s when new technologies unlock new ways to serve those age-old fundamental human needs that lasting new trends emerge.

The collision between digital tech and a cluster of fundamental human needs – health, wellness, self-actualization – has been a fertile space for the emergence of new trends across the last two decades. So far, that innovation has focused mostly on physical wellbeing. But there are clear signs that digital services for mental wellbeing are now emerging into the mainstream. The technology thinker Benedict Evans has observed that when it comes to many trends – from remote working to food delivery services – the pandemic has been a period of widespread, forced experimentation. This trend is another example.

At the start of the pandemic the FDA relaxed its rules on other forms of digital mental health services, in order to give more patients access to them. One beneficiary has been a chatbot called Woebot, which provides an AI-fuelled version of cognitive behavioural therapy. The makers of Woebot say it offers a powerful new form of self-care to those dealing with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. The app free to use, and is working its way towards full FDA approval; a randomized, controlled trial by Woebot and Stanford University found the app could help people with depression. Woebot now exchanges 4.7 million messages with people every week.

Woebot and apps like it have been a crucial aid for millions during the pandemic. But even before lockdowns began, psychiatry and talking therapy services in most affluent countries were stretched beyond their limit. In developing countries and conflict zones, it’s often non-existent. It’s not hard to see how the trend for virtual and AI-fuelled mental health services, supercharged by the crisis, could now become a part of the new normal. No one is pretending that these apps are as good as a qualified human practitioner. On the other hand, there’s no travel required, no risk of infection, no cost of use, and 24-7 availability.

Where is all this heading? I think this trend will evolve into spaces far beyond medical need for mental health therapies, and towards the universal human search for mental wellness, self-enhancement, and even social connection.

As AI-fuelled voice assistants insinuate themselves into our lives – think Alexa, Siri and others – the nature of our relationship with these technologies is changing. It’s becoming about more than just functionality and transaction – Alexa, order me some washing powder – and broadening to include higher-order human needs such as entertainment, creativity, and, yes, even companionship.

In years to come, the ability of AIs to conduct natural conversation is likely to improve. And while these virtual entities won’t be conscious, they will be highly intelligent. This raises the possibility of altogether new kinds of AI companions and counsellors. An AI companion of this kind will never forget a word you tell it. It will have access to an array of personal data gathered via wearable devices and sensors in the physical environment, and will be able to use that data to make recommendations. David, you seem nervous; let’s do some breathing exercises. What’s more, these virtual companions will be able to tap into the entire store of human knowledge, culture and data to enrich its conversation and counsel. They will be a kind of combined Socrates, Freud, Buddha and Steve from next door, always in your pocket, available to talk any time.

For thousands of years, people have dreamed about the sage or guru who via ordinary conversation could offer life-changing insight. Could the next technology to rival the impact and adoption rate of the smartphone be a bespoke AI companion that acts as a personal guru, counsellor and friend? Big Tech is certainly taking the prospect seriously. Back in 2017 Apple announced they were hiring psychologists into the Siri team, when data showed that users often try to talk to Siri about their feelings. And at the beginning of this year Samsung released information about a new line of AI-fuelled humanoid ‘friends’ called NEONS.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea of these kinds of virtual companions as too Black Mirror; as fanciful, absurd. And it’s a long way from a video game for ADHD to a true virtual companion. But when an emerging technology unlocks new ways to serve fundamental human needs, it’s always worth paying attention. After all, rewind 15 years and the quantified self movement was limited to a few hackers in Silicon Valley. Now your parents count each day’s steps via their iPhone. Behaviour change tends to happen slowly, then all at once.

It’s always been clear – and contemporary consumerism has made it clear in a million new ways – that our capacity to find ourselves fascinating is endless. In the end the emergence of AI companions may not be so much about a relationship with another entity, but about our relationship with ourselves: our search for self-knowledge, improvement and advancement. That search is as old as we are; as long as there are humans, it will never end. But now, we could be about to witness the next chapter.

Snippets from Anonymous Anteater

Four telling stories from the Collective Mind this week:

🛠️ This is a great time to be building a remote collaboration tool. But are we underestimating the tools we already have? Check out this Technology Review piece on how humble old Google Docs emerged in recent weeks as a key collaboration tool for Black Lives Matter protestors worldwide.

📱Speaking of Black Lives Matter, check out these BLM AR lenses. A glimpse of how AR and the emerging Mirrorworld will shape our experience of communal events in the years ahead.

🏰 A new book says we’re heading towards a 21st-century version of the Middle Ages. The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class by US academic Joel Kotkin says society is devolving into three tiers: a new aristocracy comprised of tech oligarchs, a small clerisy of supporting knowledge worker professionals, and everyone else. That’s a crisis, says Kotkin, for democracy and our societies as we know them.

🔍 This month, employees of charity Crisis Text Line went to Twitter with concerns over their CEO’s racial insensitivity. They say this was after years of being ignored by the charity’s board. CEO Nancy Lublin has now been fired, and you can read the full story here. Another reminder of the ongoing transparency revolution: a connected world has turned every organisation into a glass box, making its internal culture visible to anyone who cares to look.

You must complete your mission, Dave

I can’t write about virtual companions without remembering HAL 9000 from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi epic Space Odyssey.

We’re a long way of that kind of artificial general super-intelligence. And if it arrives, let’s hope it’s less sinister than HAL.

Either way, New World Same Humans will be watching this trend – and many others – as it evolves. And our growing community will be thinking hard about what it all means.

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Thanks so much for reading, and see you next week,


David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.