The Bots are Here: Leading With Our Humanity in the Age of Automation | Beth's Blog

The Bots are Here: Leading With Our Humanity in the Age of Automation


The Bots are Here: Leading With Our Humanity in the Age of Automation by Allison Fine and Beth Kanter

What nonprofits need to do to make sure that they are in charge of the bots, not the other way around.

Taking a virtual walk with Yeshi may not help you get your steps in for the day, but it will be fascinating and educational. Yeshi, is a Facebook Messenger bot created by charity:water to simulate the experience of many young girls in Ethiopia who walk six hours a day to get clean water. The conversation with Yeshi is “smart,” meaning that she asks and answers questions with a variety of images, maps, text, and videos.

As of April, 2017, Yeshi and over 100,000 other Facebook messenger bots had reached over 2 billion Facebook messenger users. Yeshi is part of the family of technologies we call “bots” that includes robots, artificial intelligence, cyborgs and virtual reality. These bots are the drivers of the “Age of Automation.”

Leading edge organizations are putting the bots to work for social change. For instance, the San Francisco Museum of Art has 34,678 items in its collection. A patron would have to walk 121 miles to see them all! To share its entire collection with art lovers, the museum created the  “Send Me” bot allows anyone to send a simple text message and receive a picture of a piece of art matching the idea, words, or phrase texted. The bot unlocks all of the artwork of the museum for virtual viewing by anyone, anywhere and at any time.

Innovations like these don’t have to break the bank. In fact, by becoming experts at frugal innovation, meaning stripped down technologies that are very customer focused, nonprofits can make “bots” affordable and accessible. Climate Reality did this by building a Facebook chatbot designed to educate supporters and build the organization’s email list to sign up for action alerts. It’s a much simpler bot than Yeshi, with only close-ended options rather than sophisticated artificial intelligence. The bot funnels supporters to different options on the lower rungs of the ladder of engagement.

Humanitarian organizations are actively researching and testing how the use of messaging and bots can help refugees or those directly impacted by a natural disaster, according a recent report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The World Food Program developed and tested the “FoodBot,” a Facebook Messenger bot, to interact with the people they serve to provide information on WFP services, food prices, weather updates, nutrition, and disease prevention. Unicef created its own bot, U-Report,to engage young people on a variety of issues, ranging from climate change. The bot, available via Twitter and Facebook Messenger, polls its followers (called ‘U-Reporters’) on a range of topics and uses the data to help influence public policy. Unicef’s bot has had some early successes. For example, in Liberia, the bot asked 13,000 young people if teachers at their schools were exchanging grades for sex. 86% said yes, uncovering a widespread problem and prompting Liberia’s Minister of Education to work with UNICEF on addressing it.

The bots aren’t just a technical challenge for nonprofits, they also present ethical problems, particularly for fundraisers. Amazon and Netflix use algorithms to manipulate our choices of books and movies. Facebook manipulates what we see on the site to keep us there longer. But bots may be able to manipulate our emotions in unprecedentedly unhealthy ways. Emotions have always had an appropriate place in storytelling for fundraising, we give because we are empathetic beings. But bots can offer companionship and empathy and support to donors and ask for donations. Where is the line between cultivation and manipulation? And who determines the line?

Another area of ethical greyness is maintaining people-centered practices and policies. For instance, which jobs will be acceptable to outsource to bots and which ones, like, say, social worker, should never be substituted by even millions of lines of code? This is a real and current concern. Woebot, a therapy chatbot engages in 2 million conversations a week and has been shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, some experts have raised privacy concerns as robot to human conversations are not covered by doctor-patient confidentiality laws

We know from our experience (lots of experience!) that most nonprofit organizations are very slow to adopt new technologies, but we can’t afford to dismiss or ignore both the upsides and downsides of the Age of Automation even though it does feels frightening and overwhelming. Helen Milner, CEO of the Good Things Foundation, shared her constructive approach for moving addressing the bots with Beth. She said, “We don’t want to put our heads in the sand about bots and just think they are evil, but to embrace the idea of bots and see if it can help us to help even more people have better lives. It’s early days, it might not work, but I’d rather we try and fail than not try at all. . . We should begin by focusing the bots on tasks that can unleash trapped resources or free staff to pursue higher-level human contact.”

Putting Helen’s positive attitude into practice allows to see that the benefits of bots to social change efforts include:

  • Using sophisticated chat bots like Yeshi that can educate supporters in very visual, interesting and emotional ways that text can’t.
  • Automating the FAQ function 24/7 for stakeholders  with questions comments, or requests without increasing staff workloads.
  • Building your contact lists and signing up volunteers for your cause.

Given the enormous challenges ahead, we want to provide specific steps for people and organizations to thrive in the Age of Automation. They include:

  1. Understand the Adoption Trends:  You don’t have to be an expert in artificial intelligence or know chatbot programming code, but you do need to understand what a chatbot is and at a high level how works.  More importantly, you need to understand the current usage trends.  Luckily, the The ICRC, together with The Engine Room and Block Party, has produced a useful report on the current and potential uses of messaging apps such as Facebook Messenger in humanitarian situations.
  2. Get Some Hands-On Experience With Chatbots Developed for Social Good Purposes:  Visit the different chatbots referenced in this article or use this curated list that Beth put together of examples from nonprofits and beyond.Try to determine the purpose and intended audience. Does the chatbot use open-ended conversation or is it close-ended?  Is it complex or simple? Is it a pleasant or frustrating user experience?
  3.      Design a Simple Pilot:  We have written before that using new technologies is a contact sport not a spectator sport. It’s time to get in the sandbox and try it out for your own organization. Start by determining a  a measurable objective.  Do you want it to assist in marketing to build your email list or delivery of services?  Next, figure out who the intended audience might be. It will be very helpful to come up with one or two user personas and sketch out some potential conversation threads.  Also determine the cost. Do you have a budget to hire Chatbot programmer (you’d need this for a more elaborate chatbot) or will you use one of the free and low cost chatbot authoring tools, like MobileMonkeyOctiveai, Manychat, or Chatfuel. (You read more about designing a pilot here)
  4.  Evaluate and Iterate: Run your pilot for a few months.  Gather  data against your goals.  You could also survey or interview some of the people that interacted with your bot and get their feedback.  Based on this initial feedback, how might you improve your bot’s results?  Is it ready to scale?

As with all new technologies, bots represent significant challenges to how we relate to one another and to society. In fact, it is not an understatement to say that our very humanness is at stake because of the power of bots to reshape our emotions. The Automation Age is already presenting new and complex problems at breathtaking speed. Embracing automation and our empathetic, artistic, caring and curious selves simultaneously are not incompatible ideas. However, in order to do so successfully to ensure that we maintain, and even strengthen, the fabric of our society, will require that we stay vigilant in being people-centered and make sure that we’re in charge of the bots, not the other way around.

Note:  Versions of this blog post were published on Philanthropy UniversityGuidestar and NTEN blogs.

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