Link: How AI Will Rewire Us

Radical innovations have previously transformed the way humans live together. The advent of cities…meant a less nomadic existence and a higher population density. More recently, the invention of technologies including the printing press, the telephone, and the internet revolutionized how we store and communicate information.

As consequential as these innovations were, however, they did not change the fundamental aspects of human behaviour: a crucial set of capacities we have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, including love, friendship, cooperation, and teaching.

But adding artificial intelligence to our midst could be much more disruptive. Especially as machines are made to look and act like us and to insinuate themselves deeply into our lives, they may change how loving or friendly or kind we are—not just in our direct interactions with the machines in question, but in our interactions with one another.

Christakis, N. (2019). How AI Will Rewire Us. The Atlantic.

The author provides a series of experimental outcomes showing how, depending on the nature of the interacting AI, human beings can be made to respond differently to teammates and collaborators. For example, having a bot make minor errors and then apologise can nudge people towards being more compassionate with each other. This should give us pause as we consider how we want to design the systems that we’ll soon be working with.

For better and for worse, robots will alter humans’ capacity for altruism, love, and friendship.

See also: Comment: In competition, people get discouraged by competent robots.

The incentives to create effective teams are all wrong

I just finished a meeting where I realised that the incentives provided for academics are all wrong (if you assume that having an effective department is a goal). If we want departments to be excellent (however you define excellence) we must accept that they can only get to that point if the staff work together as a team. However, academics are not incentivised to work as a team within those departments unless they happen to all be working on the same research project. While it’s true that academics are expected to work on larger projects in larger teams as they progress through the system, those projects and teams are typically not within the same department, or even institution.

The reason for this is that we have to keep expanding our sphere of influence, looking to work with colleagues from other institutions and then in other countries. As I grow as an academic all of the reward structures direct me to look for collaborative opportunities outside of my home department. If I ever actually manage to develop a high performing, excellent team in my own department, there is no way for me to be rewarded or even recognised in any meaningful way for that. OK, maybe I can tick the “Administration” box with a really big tick but there’s no way it’s going to give me an edge over someone else who is working on an international collaboration. All things being equal, “internationally recognised researcher” trumps “has developed a culture of excellence in home department”. And yet, many of the problems we experience in higher education can be traced back to poor / weak learning cultures within departments.

The more I see myself and my colleagues progress in our academic careers (through promotions and attaining higher degrees), the more I see the institution pressurising us to look beyond our own departments. This has implications in that we have fewer people committing to the responsibilities that are necessary for departments and faculties to run effectively. We need to coerce (sorry, encourage) each other to accept seats on committees because the time we spend on committees is time that we’re not working on a collaborative proposal. And even though the criteria for promotion does include wording to the effect of “Participates actively in faculty committees“, I doubt that my lack of engagement on those committees is going to impact my promotion, when I’m working on international projects and publishing fairly regularly.

I worry that the pressure from the institution on “senior” academics to increase their sphere of influence is going to have the following (unintentional) side effects on departments:

  • A reduced emphasis on the success of individual departments (because individual academics are rewarded on the basis of their collaboration outside their departments)
  • A lack of attention being paid to the undergraduate curriculum (because postgraduate throughput leads to income generation and publication)
  • Fewer staff willing to participate in department and faculty committees (because it takes time away from what really matters i.e. research)
  • Allocation of first year modules to staff with the least experience, when the reality is that our best teachers should focus their attention on the newest cohorts. But in fact, we are seeing a withdrawal of experienced staff from the undergraduate curriculum entirely (because experienced staff can’t afford to devote time to a process that won’t advance their careers i.e. undergraduate teaching)
  • Departmental processes gradually dissolving until the department limps along, with everyone doing the minimum necessary to avoid completely closing down (because “being part of an excellent department” doesn’t fit anywhere on my CV)

I’m sure that there are more but this is how far I’ve gotten in the time I allocated for this post. I don’t know what the answer is. We want our staff to progress in their careers but that progression comes with pressure – through the institutional incentives – to spend less time on ensuring that the department functions as a high performing team. In reality, departments just need to get by because as long as the wheels keep turning and the department doesn’t actually fall apart, there is no incentive on academics to build the internal relationships that allow for excellent teams to develop.

Assessing teams instead of individuals

Patient outcomes are almost always influenced by how well the team works together, yet all of the disciplines conduct assessments of individual students. Yes, we might ask students who they would refer to, or who else is important in the management of the patient, but do we ever actually watch a student talk to a nurse, for example? We assess communication skills based on how they interact with the patient, but why don’t we make observations of how students communicate with other members of the team when it comes to preparing a management plan for the patient?

What would an assessment task look like if we assessed teams, rather than individuals. What if we we asked an OT, physio and SALT student to sit down and discuss the management of a patient? Imagine how much insight this would give us in terms of students’ 1) interdisciplinary knowledge, 2) teamwork, 3) communication skills, 4) complex clinical reasoning, and 5) patient-centred practice? What else could we learn in such an assessment? I propose that we would learn a lot more about power relations between the students in different disciplines. We might even get some idea of students’ levels of empathy for peers and colleagues, and not just patients.

What are the challenges to such an assessment task? There would be logistical issues around when the students would be available together, setting concurrent clinical practice exams, getting 2-3 examiners together (if the students are going to be working together, so should the examiners). What else? Maybe the examiners would realise that we have different expectations of what constitutes “good” student performance. Maybe we would realise that our curricula are not aligned i.e. that we think about communication differently? Maybe even – horror – that we’re teaching the “wrong” stuff. How would we respond to these challenges?

What would the benefits be to our curricula? How much would we learn about how we teach? We say that our students graduate with skills in communication, teamwork, conflict resolution, etc? But how do we know? With the increasing trend of institutions talking about interprofessional education, I would love to hear what they have to say about interprofessional assessment in the hospital with real patients (And no, having students from the different disciplines do a slideshow presentation on their research project doesn’t count). Or, assessment of the students working together with community members in rural areas, where we actually watch them sit down with real people and observe their interactions.

If you have any thoughts on how to go about doing something like this, please get in touch. I’d love to talk about some kind of collaborative research project.