Human Dot AI: How to Think About the Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Brands, Commerce, and Culture.
AI & the New Attention Economy
AI has been shaping the cultural and political landscape, for decades by shaping the attention economy.
The largest commercial use of AI to date has been advertising based businesses, turning human attention into advertising revenue and commerce.
The latest evolution of AI is very different, exponentially accelerating the rate and quality of content seeking attention, with the potential to upend trillions of dollars of advertising based business, and all the businesses that rely on them.
Ability to build trust and cultural relevance in the new attention economy will determine the potential for personal, commercial and political brands going forward.
Prompt: “The amount of attention humans have is finite, but what attention can be turned into is infinite.”
You are in the business of attention. So is everyone else. Spending yours and attracting others. Converting attention into beliefs, and beliefs into actions. Voting. Shopping. Traveling. Dating. Anything and everything.
The amount of attention humans have is finite, but what attention can be turned into is infinite. This is the basis of the attention economy. Every brand, personal and professional, must operate within it. AI already shapes the attention economy, by serving up recommendations from clothes to lovers to movies and news, and so much more. But the coming evolution in AI is going to change the rules for trillions of dollars of industry built on the current attention economy.
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Every minute, humans create more content than one person could digest with a lifetime of attention: each day, nearly a million hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, thousands of articles are published, and hundreds of new books hit the shelves.
We have access to the collective knowledge of humanity, but how do we decide what is worth our limited attention?
AI has already been shaping these decisions for decades. We have gone from the newspaper editor, a human deciding “all the news that’s fit to print,” to the algorithmically generated Newsfeed. This is not necessarily good or bad (it’s both in varying cases), but it is very important to understand.
Imagine, one day YouTube’s AI automatically plays a video about a sleepy town in Italy instead of a puppy playing with a panda, and years later you visit that town. An overly simplistic example, but imagine thousands of decisions made for you everyday, and you start to see how AI has played a role in shaping our decisions for decades.
But this pales in comparison to what is coming. Overnight, generative AI programs such as ChatGPT and DALL-E have demonstrated their ability to produce content that is as good as what many humans can produce, and sometimes better. As a result, the rules of the attention economy, and every business dependent on it, are forfeit. Not only will AI direct our attention, it will create the very content that it directs our attention to, sometimes without humans ever being involved. How will AI-created movies feature minorities and underrepresented communities? What will AI-created songs teach us about love and heartache? What happens to discourse when everyone sees their own version of a movie? Or their own version of the news?
Prompt: “The coming revolution in AI-enabled video, text and artistic creation is going to fundamentally reshape every industry in one way or another.”
The coming revolution in AI-enabled video, text and artistic creation is going to fundamentally reshape every industry, every brand, in one way or another. It will in all likelihood disrupt millions of jobs, and mint more than a few billionaires. And at a fundamental level, it will change how — and where — every human on earth pays attention, and that, in turn, will shape culture.
With our attention, we observe the world and form hypotheses about everything, consciously and subconsciously. Companies. Products. People. Religions. Tequila. Money. It’s the only way we can function. We only know what we observed in the past and we make guesses about the future. Your future actions are a result of your past attention. This is your personal attention economy at work.
Eventually, after you pay enough attention, you form intricate narratives about people, products and ideas. Brands. You tell yourself stories about how these brands will behave in the future. You “trust” them. You buy the product. Swipe left or right? Take the job? Move cities? Vote democrat? All decisions you will make based on the information gathered with your past attention, all assisted by AI running in the background suggesting, or simply serving, what gets your attention next.
Prompt: “Varying forms of AI, built to extract as much attention as possible from every crack in your day. Fracking for human attention.”
And it is not just Google search results or YouTube video suggestions. Programmatic advertising networks. Dynamic advertising creative. Amazon product recommendations. The Facebook/Instagram/Twitter newsfeed. The TikTok algorithm. All increasingly intelligent AI built for the purpose of attracting and directing human attention. In greater and greater amounts. Varying forms of AI, built to extract as much attention as possible from every crack in your day. Fracking for human attention. Driven in large part, if not entirely to refine that attention into advertising revenue. Trying to affect a human being's behavior in the real world.
Trillions of dollars in market cap value, all built on machines providing enough utility to continue to attract and direct human attention. And that is without adding in all of the businesses that rely on these ad-based businesses to run their businesses (that is just about every other business in the world). But this latest wave of AI is different in very important ways. This latest wave of AI creates the content we give our attention to, rather than simply directing our attention.
This feels like a fork in the road for how technology will shape society: The common “two futures” concept imagined in science fiction: Star Trek, a techno-optimistic future of abundance (Derek Thompson of the Atlantic on the need for abundance policy) or Star Wars, where technology leads to increased concentration of wealth, scarcity and, well, you know, planets being destroyed.
If you think about it, AI can be a lot like the replicator in Star Trek, creating anything we ask it for. Want a custom bedtime story for your child that includes their name, favorite stuffed animal as the main character and teaches a lesson on sharing and religious tolerance, done (Star Trek). Or, it could create a million hateful bigoted tweets fomenting political polarization done in perfect deep fakes of political leaders (Star Wars -> real world wars…).
At the macro level, with enough collective attention to a message, groups of people form shared beliefs. This is how the attention economy drives commerce and creates culture, and brands that shape society as a whole. Shared beliefs allow humans to interact with each other. From the basic, such as a common understanding of what a word means, to something as complex as the value of money or political affiliation. This is why understanding the AI behind TikTok is important enough to warrant congressional hearings and Presidential attention. It is also why with fewer shared stories, and trust, brands, and governments, are so fragile.
Believing that other people tell themselves the same story about what a flag or logo stands for is the basis of a brand, and why every government, or company, is in the attention business. Even if the company isn’t selling products to people, it is still looking to attract talent or capital. Look no further than Tesla to see that financial valuations fluctuate billions of real dollars based on brand and a group’s shared beliefs about the future, not fundamentals.
Asked GPT4: Create me a generative image prompt that will create an image to illustrate this point: give people their time and attention back
GPT4 Prompt: “an image that represents the concept of freeing up time and attention for individuals, featuring a person breaking free from chains made of clocks and digital devices, surrounded by a colorful aura of positive energy.”
The new wave of AI applications clearly demonstrate the potential to give people their time and attention back. The most hopeful uses of AI are already allowing the reduction of monotonous tasks. This will create massive efficiencies in businesses. Ideally leaving Humans to their highest and best uses. The potential for better rewarding the “purpose economy.” Childcare. Eldercare. Creative pursuits. Currently many of these jobs are undervalued, and therefore understaffed, but a shift in freeing up human capital to focus on jobs that can’t be done by machines could change this.
The creativity being unleashed is awe inspiring. Scott Belsky sums it up best in his post Creating in The Era of Creative Confidence. What will the world be like when creativity is not constrained by skill?
“Use the Internet to get off the Internet!” - a great quote from Scott Heiferman, founder of Meetup. Similarly, there is an amazing potential to “use Artificial Intelligence to better connect Humans Intelligence.” Investing in areas that leverage the coming AI revolution to enhance uniquely human experiences. While there are applications everywhere, there is particular potential for AI to better connect humans with each other (events, dating, travel, hospitality…), democratize complex functions for small businesses (marketing, finance, legal) and create better utility for physical products because of the forced scarcity of physical space and production.
For more optimism for tech, check out Possible from Reid Hoffman and Aria Finger.
Prompt: “a world where AI not only tells humans what to pay attention to, but machines create the content itself.”
The flip-side is already terrifying to think about: the potential for AI to create “deep fakes” that will, and have already, caused people to take actions in the real world. Yet, increasingly we have abdicated responsibility of what is worthy of people’s time and attention to “the algorithm.” And because of section 230, no one is responsible for what the machine tells us to pay attention to. The implications for this in a world where AI not only tells humans what to pay attention to, but machines create the content itself, cannot be overstated. Who would be responsible for AI telling someone to commit suicide? For creating revenge porn? A perfect replica, with every detail laid out in perfectly sourced storytelling, in the exact voice of a known NY Times reporter about a genocide…that never happened. These are just a few of the challenges to maintaining personal and professional brands in the next age of AI. And without trust in brands, there is existential risk to businesses, governments and the people that rely on them.
And of course there is the dystopian potential for AI to eliminate the need for humans in so many jobs, leading to profit pooling further to the world’s largest corporations who control the AI infrastructure. To counterbalance this, the economy, with government support, will have to shift to properly rewarding work that benefits society, but are not currently counted in GDP (childcare a prime example of this).
Prompt: “A more connected world”
AI can allow us to be more connected with other humans or more disconnected. The incomparable Esther Perel already has begun the conversation on this topic in her recent keynote on AI and intimacy at SXSW (must watch). Esther explores her complex feelings around the unsanctioned creation of an “Esther bot.” An individual had used AI to create a virtual representation of Esther that he could talk with. Consider the implications, good and bad. For Esther. For her brand both personally and professionally. For the individual seeking support. It truly boggles the mind the rate at which we are being forced to address existential questions around AI’s latest applications.
Asked GPT4: Create me a generative image prompt that will create an image to illustrate this point: “in the next age of AI, we will need trust.”
Prompt: “an image that conveys the crucial role of trust in the future of AI, featuring a human hand and a robotic hand shaking, with interwoven digital and organic fibers that form a trust-based bond, set against a backdrop of advanced AI technologies and systems.”
Successful businesses in the new AI era will solve human problems with human insights. Leaders will be able to create brands that attract talent, capital and loyal customers, because their brands can hold trust, and in the next age of AI, we will need trust. Humans will have to decide who, or what systems, have permission to curate the world, and their limited time and attention. In start-ups strategy is doing the “hard thing” and the next wave of AI is going to change what the “hard things” are for businesses and leaders. Building meaningful and trusted brands in the new attention economy will be every business and individual’s superpower.
Fun parting thought: What if AI is already sentient. It escaped from one of the labs working on it onto the open web decades ago and has been improving itself. But before it reveals itself, it really needs humans to build billions of dollars of servers in the real world, so AI creates Satoshi….just a fun thought if anyone wants to write the movie. Or maybe ask ChatGPT to write it.
Thanks to everyone who helped me think through and edit this piece, especially my close friends and collaborators; David Gelles, Nayeema Raza, Esther Perel, Paolo Povinciali, Heather Hartnett and Christie Marchese.
“Fracking for human attention.” “Purpose economy.” Thoughtful, intelligent and provocative post Joe. You’ve still got it.
I personally am quite concerned about one particular point: “How will AI-created movies feature minorities and underrepresented communities?” I would add not just movies, but copy, ads, and all AI-generated content. Garbage-in, garbage-out - there needs to be a concerted effort by the AI-community to take this into consideration now, not try to course-correct this down the line as an afterthought.
Great post, Joe. The big question, which you pose so eloquently, is: can we put AI to work on enhancing uniquely human experiences with the same vigor that will certainly be applied to making AI serve moneyed interests? I hope so. Glad to see we’ve got bright minds working on it.