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Psychology of Technology Conference Asks Difficult Questions About AI

Psychology of Technology Conference Asks Difficult Questions About AI

The Neely Center hosted a conference for experts, policymakers, and academics to discuss the implications of the new technology.

11.28.23
Conference attendees sit in a lecture hall and listen to a virtual presentation from Sal Khan.

Sal Khan presents to the conference on the future of AI in education.

[USC Photo]

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Humanity's relationship to AI is evolving with each passing day. In the grand scheme of things, generative AI and its foundational algorithm are in their infancy, and nobody knows how they will grow.

The founders and directors of the NEELY CENTER'S Psychology of Technology Conference recognize there’s no time to waste tackling these new challenges. The conference, now in its seventh year, offers an annual forum for technologists, policymakers, professors, and researchers to trade ideas and theories about the future of humanity’s complex relationship to tech.

The most recent event, which took place on November 3rd and 4th, narrowed its focus to generative AI. For Director of the Neely Center and Co-Director of the Psychology of Technology Institute NATHANAEL FAST, the conference was about getting ahead of the innovation — while we still can.

“A lot of times, as we saw with social media, we introduce this powerful new technology into society, and it took ten to fifteen years before we started to understand it in a compelling way,” Fast said. “We really can’t afford that gap [with AI]...We’re getting in front of this and anticipating some of the possible harms and how to unlock benefits in the same way.”

Fast founded the conference seven years ago with Juliana Schroeder, an associate professor at University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business. At the time, they expected the yearly event to provide a small, but meaningful forum to observe technology’s human impact.

Over the years, and with the help of grants from the INSTITUTE FOR OUTLIER RESEARCH IN BUSINESS (iORB) and the Neely Center, the conference grew to what it is today: a platform for cutting-edge researchers and thought leaders to learn from one another in a protected, private setting. This year, the discussion went to new heights, in part because of the urgency of the moment.

“Everybody is struggling to make sense of this. Nobody has a clear sense or understanding what is going to happen tomorrow or in six months,” Fast said. “I think that’s one of the reasons everybody was so eager to be part of the conversations from start to finish.”

High level executives and innovators from organizations like Meta, Google, Healthvana, and the United Nations were among speakers who offered insights on technology. Over the two days, presenters explored a number of subjects, including whether chatbots satisfy the human need for social connection, a study into the humanity of AI texting, and even the potential of AI to end HIV. The conference was also treated to a virtual Q&A from Khan Academy founder Sal Khan.

Managing Director of Neely Center and Managing Director of the Psychology of Technology Institute RAVI IYER believes AI may be a transformative tool, but it won’t fundamentally change human nature.

“Human beings are human beings,” Iyer said. “We want to connect with people, we want to get information, we want to practice science. There are things that we as human beings do, and AI is just a tool for doing those things.”

Conferences like these are becoming more and more common as thought leaders push to keep up. Many technologists look toward the future with optimism, but many also harbor serious concerns.

Human beings are human beings. We want to connect with people, we want to get information, we want to practice science. There are things that we as human beings do, and AI is just a tool for doing those things.

— Ravi Iyer

Managing Director of Neely Center / Managing Director of the Psychology of Technology Institute

“There was general excitement about all of the things that tech would bring,” Iyer said. “And now, I think we have had the experience where tech has brought many externalities to it at the same time…We’re naturally skeptical of the ‘new thing.’ I think that’s good. There’s natural questioning of network effects, of who’s making these decisions.”

Across the two days, presenters strove to remain even-handed in their analysis. According to Fast, the conference didn’t succumb to doom-and-gloom prognostications or visions of machine-driven utopias.

“You see so many people in society these days on the ‘doomer’ side. And so many people on the utopia side. There was just none of that in this conference,” Fast said. “It felt like [attendees] were very practical. They understand that there are benefits, and they understand that there are harms. They’re trying to be practical about how to address those.”

Guests seemed to value this opportunity to respectfully agree and disagree with colleagues. In fact, according to some attendees, this conference holds a unique place in the AI landscape.

“This is where meaningful change happens. There is nowhere else where such a prestigious and influential group of psychologists, business leaders, and computer scientists come together to share common ideas and forge collaborative plans that shape the future,” said John Hunter, assistant professor at Chapman University’s Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences.

Iyer, Fast, and Schroeder are already discussing next year’s conference, though they’re reluctant to reveal its focus.

Whatever changes occur in the tech landscape over the next year, the group hopes to keep up with them, providing a one-of-a-kind forum for experts from a variety of fields, whether it be industry, academia, tech, or research.