Our protagonist, 92-year-old Simon, and his social life in 2047, as supported by our artificially-intelligent digital assistant, Spirit. Illustration by Thomas Dowse and Luca Ponticelli. Photo by Luke Hayes.

You, and (A)I

How artificial intelligence might help us be more social, live longer, and build closer communities, in the future

How did you decide who you’re spending your life with: your partner, your friends, colleagues?

If you’re like most people, you probably trusted your gut. But as everyone who’s broken up with a lover, let a friendship fade, or quit a job because of their boss, our stomach sometimes leads us astray.

We frown at the idea of objectively evaluating a husband, friend, or work buddy, but these incredibly complex decisions are among the most important we ever make.

The world of 2047: Simon is 92 years old, a new father, and living with 23 others in a multi-generational cooperative. He’s still working — in mixed reality, and keeps physically and mentally active.

These people — our community — are, literally life-saving, as we get older. Facing physical infirmity, far-away family members, and retired from work, our social bonds are liable to unravel, particularly if we weren’t well-matched in the first place.

Philosopher Alain De Botton argues that the reason we sometimes make poor decisions about people, is because we don’t understand ourselves, and certainly not others.

But what if you did?

Meet Spirit: Your Social Assistant

That question led us at IDEO London to create a piece of design fiction for the London Design Museum’s New Old exhibition, running until February 19th, which explores how design can enhance people’s later lives.

The exhibition features work from fuseproject, PriestmanGoode, Future Facility, Konstantin Grcic, and Special Projects, exploring themes such as mobility, identity, and home.

Asked to explore the theme of ‘community’ for the exhibition, we created Spirit, a free, open source, artificially-intelligent assistant, designed to strengthen your social bonds as you age. Spirit is like Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, or Amazon’s Alexa, but imagined for the technologies we expect to see, 30 years from now.

So, instead of just sharing our emails, web searches, location, and photos with Apple, Google and Facebook, we envisage a world where everything that can be recorded, digitised, and shared, will be. We’ll want to give Spirit permission to access every part of our lives, including — through tiny biosensors in our bloodstream — what we eat, drink, and otherwise absorb.

And, just as Tesla’s self-driving technology today gets better through every kilometre driven, so Spirit’s AI will build a fine-grained psychological, physiological, and emotional profile of you, a model of your on- and offline community, and how different interactions with people, affect you. Over time, Spirit’s AI will discern patterns: who is a constant companion? Who makes you laugh, or sparks your imagination? Who makes you feel purposeful, or a meaningful member of the community?

Spirit will start to understand how our network of friends, family and colleagues keeps us socially active, mentally stimulated, and physically active.

These everyday connections aren’t trivial: loneliness among older people is a global health crisis. Just as today we know exercise, and eating well keeps us healthy, tomorrow we’ll place similar importance on the health of our social bonds, through our lives.

A digital consigliere

But how might Spirit share that information with you, in 30 years? As sociability becomes more important, we’ll put the technologies to enhance it closer to us than ever before. Instead of interacting through your computer, mobile phone, or wearable, the merging of biology, design and technology will mean the body itself will be an interface.

So, to help people whose memory fades as they age, Spirit will be your digital social secretary, proactively managing your online calendar, and suggesting who to meet; perhaps even those who need a friendly ear, but can’t say so. Then, when you’re with a friend, tiny nanobots clustered around your cheek and jaw bones will vibrate, helpfully whispering just the right tidbit in your ear, to enhance your conversation.

We imagine the communications interface of the future might be our bodies. Spirit collects data about its user via tiny biosensors, and communicates with its user through nanobots inside them. Sculpture by Agi Haines. Photo by Luke Hayes.

What might it say? One of Spirit’s values is to strengthen your social bonds, so, a reminder of what you spoke about at your last meeting, perhaps, or an old adventure you’d shared, but forgotten about.

Body language

Today, isolation in people’s later years happens for many reasons; our social group shrinks as families disperse, people leave the workforce, friends move away, or we suffer physical infirmity. Tomorrow, when we can get anything delivered from the comfort of the sofa, and escape into extraordinary virtual worlds, our face-to-face interactions might dwindle further.

So, beyond making you a better conversationalist and companion, Spirit might help you to actively meet people who would be good for you, and you for them. By constantly comparing your profile to those of other (consenting) Spirit users around you, it can predict who will make a great friend, co-worker, teacher, or student, and physically nudge you to let you know.

Spirit Alpha, 2017: visitors share their thoughts on ageing, community, AI and the exhibit, with our conversational AI.

Our instincts about people are our body speaking to us: When we love someone, we feel butterflies in our stomach, for example. But these primordial cues are opaque, and aren’t always helpful, today.

What if your instincts could — objectively — be right? Could act in your physical, mental, and emotional best interests, supercharged by vast data sets and powerfully accurate artificial intelligence? Spirit does that: it speaks to you through a new language of artificial bodily sensations, triggered by nanobots nestled in your brain, muscles, skeleton and organs.

Spirit alerts its user to a good social match close by through a feeling in their stomach (left), and whether they’re being social enough, as white marks on their thumbnail (right). Sculpture by Agi Haines. Photos by Luke Hayes

Over time, Spirit’s helpful whispers, and subtle physical sensations will help build a strong, healthy community around you through your life, perfectly calibrated in number, and make-up, to your personality, temperament, and emotional needs.

An algorithmic oracle?

Would we in time come to trust Spirit’s artificial senses, more than our own?

Creepy as that thought might be, it’s worth reflecting how algorithms guide our lives, today. The people we date, the news we read, the friends we hear from, the books we’re recommended, are shaped by OKCupid, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others.

As we use these online services more, every ‘Liked’ Facebook post, Amazon purchase, LinkedIn job listing we linger over, or right swipe on Tinder, incrementally gives them data to improve. In time, they’ll get better, and so we will trust them more. Perhaps that’s okay when we’re deciding whether to watch Game Of Thrones or Mad Men; buy ‘Pampers’ or ‘Huggies’. But as that trust improves, we might begin to ask the descendants of these digital platforms questions we once thought only humans could (and should) answer, argues historian Yuval Harari, in his book about the future of our species, ‘Homo Deus’.

We might trust Spirit with more profound questions — what career to pursue, who to befriend, perhaps even who to marry. And if our choice of job, friends, and partner might be shaped by AI, how these services are designed, and the values they are instilled with, becomes hugely significant.

Power, and responsibility

As human-centred designers, creating a provocation like Spirit has made us think deeply about the increasingly influential role technology plays in every part of our lives.

Although it’s a fiction, it raises some important questions about our future: what trade-off we are prepared to make between privacy, and wellness? Who should own our most intimate data, and benefit from it? What role does human decision making have in a world where our machines are wiser than we are? How do we factor individual free will against what’s best for a community?

The biosensors, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence that feature in Spirit might seem like science fiction, but they’re not. Today’s emerging technologies are the design tools of tomorrow. They will enable us to design not just forks, and shops, but our own biology, and communities.

But just like any piece of design, algorithms reflect the biases of the people who designed them. So — as we begin to use these powerful new tools — it’s more important than ever that we place human agency at the heart of how we think, and what we design. That we augment, rather than automate away, the richness of human experience.

IDEO’s Spirit concept is showing at the Design Museum in London, as part of The New Old exhibition, January 12th to February 19th. Spirit features alongside work from fuseproject, PriestmanGoode, Future Facility, Konstantin Grcic, and Special Projects.

A huge thanks to our collaborators, designer Agi Haines, and visual design studio Waltz Binaire.

This first appeared in the catalogue for The New Old exhibition. Kindly reprinted with permission from the Design Museum.