The Paradox of Personalization

How AI and personal agency conflict.

An abstract image of a person and a clock

After last week’s post, which included a an article on How to Personalize and Not Over-personalize, a number of readers commented that they’d like to read more on this idea. We’re also experimenting with a podcast which will come through as an email mid-week. The idea is to discuss this week’s subject in more detail, so send your questions and thoughts in by Tuesday (Wednesday for kiwis). Replying to this email will do the trick.

At the heart of personalization, lies a natural tension - AI’s strength is predictability while humanity’s strength is unpredictability. It’s not an easy paradox to resolve.

AI makes predictions. Predictions are valuable - especially when predictions involve human behavior. In User Friendly, Kuang and Fabricant discuss how the most valuable raw material in product design is not glass or steel or plastic, it is human behavior. In Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff details the perils we face with the capture of human “behavioral surplus,” which is used as the raw material for predictions, and monetized by AI-powered platforms. The trade in human futures is how Google and Facebook make their billions.

AI’s promise is personalization - delivering frictionless experiences that make our lives easier. We can offload cognitive, emotional or moral tasks to AI. For this we need AI that can predict our behavior. AI’s ability to predict human behavior is more than most people realize. AI can detect signals in our online actions that are beyond our comprehension, then turn these into patterns that are highly predictive.

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