Privacy concerns get most of the attention from tech skeptics, but powerful predictive algorithms can generate serious resistance by threatening consumer autonomy. Three safeguards can help.
The nexus of big data analytics, machine learning, and AI may be the brightest spot in the global economy right now. McKinsey Global Research estimates that the use of AI will add as much as $13 trillion to global GDP by 2030.1 The noneconomic benefits to humankind will be equally dramatic, leading to a world that is safer (by reducing destructive human error) and offers people a better quality of life (by reducing the time they spend on tedious tasks such as driving and shopping). Even if the coming automation-driven disruption of labor markets is as serious as many fear, we are still, on balance, likely to be better off than today.
But not everyone is convinced. Negative predictions center on two overarching concerns that are related yet distinct. First, there is the issue of data privacy. After all, AI runs on data, and people are understandably uneasy about the things that automation technologies are learning about them, and how their private information might be used. Privacy in the digital age has been extensively researched and written about, and companies are devoting increasing attention to allaying their customers’ fears.2
However, there is another consideration that many companies have yet to seriously think about: autonomy. Though autonomous technology has a large and growing range of potential applications, when taken too far, it also may threaten users’ sense of autonomy and free will, or their belief that they can decide how to pursue their lives freely. A recent study found that when customers believed their future choices could be predicted based on their past choices, they chose less-preferred options. In other words, consumers violated their own preferences to reestablish their sense of autonomy by not choosing predictably.
The conflicting relationship between technology and free will is not new; it was described by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, the alienated protagonist of the 1864 novel Notes From Underground. Even in a utopian society, he argued, humans would rebel purely to prove “that men are still men and not the keys of a piano.”
Unfortunately, the perceived threat that people feel is likely to worsen as technological innovation accelerates and autonomous devices move into new areas of customers’ lives. We recently reached this conclusion after surveying diverse perspectives from philosophy, marketing, economics, and other fields.