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Article Article November 7th, 2018

Is automation harming our everyday human connections?

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Is automation harming our everyday human connections? @NadineMCSmith reflects on a recent idea expressed by @juliaunwin #AILegitimacy

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It's the relationships, not the transactions that get us through the tough times, says @juliaunwin

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In a world increasingly dominated by technology, we believe very strongly in establishing authentic human connections. #AILegitimacy

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At CPI, we believe very strongly in establishing authentic human connections in a world increasingly dominated by technology, as we've shown in our most recent work on AI in government. We heard this idea very well expressed on BBC Radio 4's Four Thought programme by Julia Unwin - the former CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation - and her views on the importance of personal relationships resonated very strongly with us.

She began her talk by describing her experience 10 years ago with her teenage son's hospitalisation. As she put it, “one of my children became seriously ill. In my busy, active, speedy professional life, I simply had to stop”. This led her to reflect on what became most important to her and her family during such a stressful time. Here are some of our best bits from this must-listen BBC Radio 4 programme. You can download the full transcript here.


Human connection in difficult times

  • “What I remember now most about that time are the relationships” - with hospital staff, teachers and others, and how they supported her and her family through their kindness. “What united all those gestures was their humanity, and their recognition of our humanity.”

  • “Disruption has been felt in every single part of our lives... But there are some things we do not want broken, and the biggest of these is human connection. It's the relationships, not the transactions that get us through the tough times.”

The increasing impact of automation and AI

  • “We invest very heavily in artificial intelligence, and we progress every day in our understanding the benefits and opportunities that that brings. We don't invest so heavily in our emotional intelligence.”

  • “Our world is being transformed as I speak by the power of artificial intelligence, which has the potential to transform all our lives for better... But it has its shadow side, and that shadow side is seen in what it means for our human connection.”

  • “Systems... don't provide human connection, and we need human contact. We're motivated by love, and yet we design environments as if this is not true.”

Algorithms, technology and human relationships

  • “The power of the algorithm to personalise” - this is an illusion of connection.

  • “The rules of the algorithm may seem to allow for fairness. They allow us to say that decisions made by these very clever machines can be exposed and justified. But they don't allow us to use our discretion and our autonomy.”

  • “Now is the time to take stock of how technology and the policies of efficiency and regulation have affected our relationships as citizens, and our humanity as professionals.”


One of Julia Unwin's concerns is that “our lives are increasingly transactional and automated”, mediated by technology and ignoring our need for “the human touch”.  We agree wholeheartedly with her, because we all need to reserve the time and space for the relationships and connections that are most important to us.

We've explored this problem as it affects the use of AI in the public sector, giving practical advice on how to overcome the obstacles. To get started on building a more human government across government and in policy more generally, please read our paper Finding a more human government.

We want to help you make humans, machines and people work together for better outcomes.

The Centre for Public Impact is investigating the way in which artificial intelligence (AI) can improve outcomes for citizens. 

Are you working in government and interested in how AI applies to your practice? Or are you are an AI practitioner who thinks your tools can have an application in government? If so, please get in touch.



Written by:

Nadine Smith Founder & CEO, Nadine Smith Consulting
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