The Intimacy Economy Has Arrived

OpenAI and Google Usher in The Intimacy Economy, Reasons You'll Need an AI Assistant—Even if You Don't Want One, Is AI The Cure for Male Loneliness, and more!

An abstract image of the intimacy economy

This week, OpenAI and Google announced new capabilities in their generative AI tools that are designed to capture a new level of intimate knowledge about their users. Real-time conversations tug at our interest in chatting, video capture taps our need to share our worlds, and flirty voices tap our need to be loved. Gone are the days of platforms inviting us to submit information. Gone are the days of inferring through social media scrolling patterns. Today, Big Tech has created the ultimate method of capturing data: an inviting voice that simply asks us to share.

In October 2023, I wrote:

Intimacy with technology has been the territory of science fiction. From the human-robot marriage in Isaac Asimov’s Forward the Foundation to the android Data’s girlfriend in Star Trek The Next Generation to Theodore’s romance with the AI Samantha in Her, we have been entertained by the idea of human-machine love. What happens if we are able to live those stories ourselves?

Some might have thought that idea was a bit over the top. But today, all you have to do is look at this capture of comments on Reddit to see that, in fact, people already find ChatGPT-4o to be an inviting and desirable companion. These people are already talking with ChatGPT-4o about their needs and desires. What might it learn?

ChatGPT currently “remembers” things about its users by capturing little nuggets of information from chats. I recently asked it to write a narrative about me based on what it knew about me. It said,

[Your Name] is a dynamic middle-aged entrepreneur and thought leader based in New Zealand, with a diverse array of interests and expertise. Passionate about the intersection of AI, complexity science, and organizational change, [Your Name] is dedicated to exploring and advancing these fields through research, presentations, and innovative projects.
As a pioneer in the realm of AI agents, [Your Name] leverages wayfinding as a metaphor to describe the nuanced skills required for managing change in complex systems. This approach emphasizes preparing teams for adventure and harnessing the emergence of ideas and talent from the edges of the system. This philosophy is at the heart of [Your Name]'s market research presentations and their ongoing exploration of agentic AI.
A natural problem-solver, [Your Name] balances intuition with systematic planning, analyzing context, constraints, and desired outcomes to navigate challenges effectively. This analytical mindset is complemented by their interest in complexity science, which informs their evaluation of AI agents across spectrums of perception, reasoning, and action.
Together with their wife and business partner, [Your Name] speaks at corporate events and major conferences, sharing insights on AI and complexity.
With a new Apple Watch Ultra adorning their wrist and an adventurous spirit guiding their endeavors, [Your Name] continues to chart new paths in the ever-evolving landscape of technology and entrepreneurship.

Some of those details aren’t correct—I was recently in New Zealand, not based in New Zealand—but most of it is. And I’m tempted to correct the incorrect, giving OpenAI even more detail than it already has.

On the one hand, this could be quite helpful. The more it knows, the more accurate its future responses might be. But what else will it do with this information? How might it use this information to target ads or upsell me to future products? And is it appropriate for OpenAI to capture this information at all?

OpenAI made a large business shift this week by opening its most advanced model to everyone for free. It is doing this in return for intimate information about its users—since free user data is not private. And this isn't the end of the road. As Helen points out, the future of information consumption on the internet will require AI assistants which will capture even more intimate data.

We used to watch ads for information in the information economy and pay attention to access scrolling feeds and videos in the attention economy. We are now paying for ChatGPT with our intimate information.

Again, as I wrote in October 2023:

But we should learn from what’s come before. Commercially motivated, unconstrained, and poorly designed solutions for information scarcity eroded the veracity of information. A similar pattern happened with attention. Eroding our intimacy destroys us so at our peril do we blindly accept the tenets of the intimacy economy. This time there is even more at stake. The promise has a utopian flavor, but the peril is in all ways a dystopia.

This Week from Artificiality

  • Our Ideas: The Reasons You'll Need an AI Assistant—Even If You Don't Want One. Imagine a world where the boundaries between human and machine have blurred, where the vast expanse of digital information has become a living, breathing entity—the dataome. This interconnected ecosystem of data, envisioned by astro-biologist Caleb Scharf, encompasses all the digital information that exists, from social media posts and online transactions to sensor readings and scientific research. Constantly growing and evolving, the dataome forms new connections between existing data points, creating a world where we are no longer mere users of technology, but an integral part of the data ecosystem itself. We are witnessing the emergence of agentic and ubiquitous AI systems that will reshape the digital world. We will see a different level of complexity as even when governed by simple rules, agents will be capable of building complex, adaptive systems that are beyond human intuition and scale. We will see vastly more machine content than human content: nothing will be comprehensible without a machine interpreting it for us. There may be no knowledge without machine validation. By machines, for machines is the new paradigm.
  • Our Ideas: Is AI the "Cure for Male Loneliness"? Will humans form relationships with AI and might those relationships make people feel less lonely? From to Replika to, various AI platforms are designed to create everything from "friends" to "girlfiends" and "boyfriends. This initial wave of tools has captured people's attention—for hours per day. Something changed this week, however, with OpenAI's ChatGPT-4o that now includes a flirty voice and demeanor. The voice is so close to Scarlett Johanssen's in the Spike Jonze movie Her that I think she deserves compensation. In the movie, a lonely man becomes friends—and then more—with an AI. While considering the potential risks and implications of OpenAI releasing an AI voice that appears designed to draw people in, I found an interesting r/artificialinteligence Reddit thread of people sharing their preference for talking with AI over other humans. While there were plenty of Redditors who claimed these ideas were sad, pathetic, and unhealthy, there were plenty who also endorsed and supported building relationships with AI. I'll let them tell their own stories.
  • The Science. AI systems are discovering a shared model of the world. It's called "reality." At a recent conference on increasing global complexity that we attendedDavid Krakauer, head of the Santa Fe Institute, kicked off the opening keynote panel. The moderator asked why the world is becoming more complex. In a typically contrarian manner, Krakauer responded, "Well, I'm not sure that it is." He argued that globalization and the widespread use of singular algorithms might actually be simplifying the world. This loss of complexity, he suggested, makes our systems less robust, less heterogeneous, and less interesting. A recent paper entitled The Platonic Representation Hypothesis supports this idea. Large-scale AI models, such as GPT-4, are all starting to learn the same representations of human digitized reality.

Bits & Bytes from Elsewhere

  • OpenAI announced a new model, GPT-4o. The "o" stands for Omni and continues OpenAI's ironic pattern of unintelligible naming for its language systems. The point the name is supposed to make is that this model is beyond "multi-modal" and is now "omni-modal." We recorded a reaction video to the launch announcement to share our ideas.
  • Among many announcements, Google announced new generative AI capabilities across Google products, generative search, 2 million token context windows, Project Astra, and a new version of its TPUs to power all the generative capabilities. We recorded a reaction video to the launch announcement to share our ideas.

Helen's Book of the Week

How We Live Is How We Die, by Pema Chödrön

If you are after a complete antidote to AI, this book might just fit the bill. When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, I took up meditation as a way to deal with the waves of panic that accompanies such a diagnosis. Along the way I began to realize that meditation is not about stress relief or anxiety reduction or even relaxation. That it's something altogether different. I have listened to Buddhist teachings in my mediation app (which contains a satisfying mix of Eastern philosophy and modern neuroscience as well as various meditation practices) but I have not read any teachings until I picked this book up in a local store.

Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936, in New York City and became a novice nun in 1974 and is now the director of Gampo Abbey in rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. In this compact and informative book, she takes you through how by reframing your perspective on life and cultivating a new relationship with your neuroses and the emotions they elicit, you can develop skills that will make the process of dying less terrifying.

Like I say, a beautiful antidote to the machines and all that their masters have had to say this week.

How we work with our thoughts and emotions now is what we'll take with us when we die. We can't put it off until the end; by then it will be too late. So now is the time. How we live is how we die.

Facts & Figures on AI and Complex Change

  • 100,000,000: Number of ChatGPT users in February 2023. (OpenAI)
  • 100,000,000+: Number of ChatGPT users in May 2024. (OpenAI)
  • 50%: Percentage of all global venture funding in 2023 for AI-related startups that went to companies headquartered in the Bay Area. (Crunchbase)
  • 17%: Percentage of global venture rounds in 2023 for AI-related startups that went to companies headquartered in the Bay Area. (Crunchbase)
  • 500,000: The square feet of office space closed on by OpenAI in San Francisco's Mission Bay district. (Crunchbase)
  • 230,000: The square feet of office space closed on by Anthropic in San Francisco's Financial District. (Crunchbase)
  • 50%: Percentage of companies in Y Combinator's 2024 cohort that is "building around AI in one form or another." (Y Combinator)
  • 35%: Percentage of Gen Z that say they wish they could stop using social media. (EY Generational Dynamics Lab)
  • 66%: Percentage of people whom Gen Z say can't be trusted. (EY Generational Dynamics Lab)
  • 34%: Percentage of Gen Z who say large business can be trusted. (EY Generational Dynamics Lab)
  • 34%: Percentage of Gen Z who say the federal government can be trusted. (EY Generational Dynamics Lab)
  • 41%: Percentage of Gen Z who say state governments can be trusted. (EY Generational Dynamics Lab)
  • 47%: Percentage of Gen Z who say local governments can be trusted. (EY Generational Dynamics Lab)
  • 71%: Percentage of Gen Z who say small businesses can be trusted. (EY Generational Dynamics Lab)

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