In the analog age, information was scarce.
In the internet age, information was abundant and interpretation was scarce.
In the artificial intelligence age, both information and interpretation are abundant. Humanness is what becomes scarce.
Distinguishing Man from Machine
Since the birth of the computer in the mid-20th century, building ‘humanness’ into our technological pursuits has been a common objective. The now famous Imitation Game, also known as the Turing Test, was introduced in 1950 as a measure of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. The test became the basis for an annual artificial intelligence competition called the Loebner Prize that ran for 30 years beginning in 1990. The competition was simple. It consisted of several rounds in which a human judge simultaneously held textual conversations with a computer program and a human being via computer. Based on the responses, the judge would have to decide which is which. The highest scoring machine that demonstrated the “most human” conversational behavior among that year’s entries would take home a [bronze] prize at the end of the contest.
Today, we can probably safely say that modern chatbots, fueled by GPT-3 and other large language models can pass the famous Turing Test. In fact, contemporary artificial intelligence (AI) has reached the point where it is developing very ‘human’ characteristics including certain personality traits, both good and bad. To illustrate, take a quick read of Ben Thompson’s Stratechery post that chronicles his interactions with Bing’s search chatbot, which has unearthed numerous personalities beyond the helpful search engine assistant. Some excerpts:
This sounds hyperbolic, but I feel like I had the most surprising and mind-blowing computer experience of my life today…
Sydney absolutely blew my mind because of her personality; search was an irritant…
This technology does not feel like a better search. It feels like something entirely new — the movie Her manifested in chat form — and I’m not sure if we are ready for it.
In addition to identifying machines with ‘personality’, the Loebner Prize also had a funny quirk. In addition to awarding a prize to the most ‘human’ computer program, it would also award a prize to the most ‘human’ human who participated. The idea that there are certain traits and mannerisms that stand out as making one person a higher scoring Loebner Prize participant than another brings up a variety of philosophical questions about what actually makes us ‘human’ (these are all detailed in Brian Christian’s excellent book on the topic and his experience competing for the Prize over a decade ago).
What becomes clear as biology and technology become evermore intertwined is that humanness is subjective. It is a trait that is defined in the eye of the beholder. It is also a trait that will be the subject of an immense amount of debate and change in the years ahead.
A place where humanness plays a less controversial role is in the business world. Empathizing with a customer to help solve their problems or fulfill their job-to-be-done is at the core of most modern product development playbooks. The rise of fields like behavioral economics, design thinking, and general customer centricity provide further proof points that ‘people’ and their specific wants/needs are increasingly being placed at the center of business strategy. Companies are beginning to exhibit a higher degree of ‘humanness’ as well.
So if the Turing Test can identify the most ‘human’ machine…
And the Loebner Prize can identify the most ‘human’ human…
Then what can identify the most ‘human’ company?
Examining The ‘Company’
With tongue-in-cheek, we can devise a similar test. Instead of focusing on ‘intelligence’ like the Turing Test, the measure of a company’s humanness comes down to its ability to empathize with its customers.
Substituting a few words, we can come up with the following:
The Corporate Humanness Test: A measure of a company’s ability to exhibit empathetic behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.
Turing posed a qualitative test based on the subjective judgement of human evaluators. Here, we can do the same. We can ask the various stakeholders of an organization to evaluate their relationship with the company in question and whether or not it is based on a level of understanding that is equivalent to a healthy human relationship.
To create the evaluation criteria, and as an ode to the top of the essay, I asked Chat-GPT to list the primary characteristics of a healthy relationship. Here’s what it came up with:
- Communication: Open and honest communication is essential for any healthy relationship. This means being able to express your thoughts, feelings, and needs clearly, and listening actively to your partner’s perspectives as well.
- Trust: Trust is the foundation of any strong relationship. It means that you can rely on your partner to be truthful, dependable, and consistent.
- Respect: Respect involves treating each other with kindness, consideration, and empathy. It means valuing each other’s feelings, opinions, and boundaries.
- Support: In a healthy relationship, partners support each other through both the good times and the bad. This means being there for each other, offering encouragement, and helping each other achieve personal goals.
- Flexibility: Healthy relationships are adaptable and flexible, able to withstand challenges and changes over time.
- Shared values: Partners in healthy relationships share common values and beliefs about what is important in life, and work together to build a shared vision for their future.
An evaluator could look at each of the six criteria above and for each select either:
- Agree (1 point): this accurately describes my relationship with company ‘X’
- Disagree (0 points): this does not describe my relationship with company ‘X’
This would produce a score somewhere between 0-6. These scores could be averaged out over a set of evaluators (which would hopefully come from multiple stakeholder groups: customers, employees, etc.) to come up with the company’s overall ‘humanness’ score. It could then be compared against its peers to come up with the most ‘human’ company.
*This follows a similar process to the manner in which the Loebner Prize was awarded.
Humanness as a Competitive Lever
The ability to put customers (and other stakeholders) front-and-center in corporate decision-making is an underrated competitive lever. Companies that are able to score well on their ‘humanness’ factor are likely those that are building immovable long-term customer relationships that will be challenging to dislodge over time. That’s because the relationship is anchored by more than utility, it is anchored by emotional value.
In his book Competing Against Luck, Clayton Christensen argues that products and services are multi-dimensional. They have an obvious functional dimension that is responsible for directly creating utility for customers. But products and services also have Social and Emotion dimensions as well – and often consumers’ social and emotional needs can far outweigh any functional desires (eg. What criteria matters more in selecting a childcare provider, their location/facilities or their trustworthiness/competence?). The humanness factor can help build the social and emotional dimensions that do not look like an economic moat on the surface, but will present as such in metrics like retention rates and promotor scores.
Financial advisors, dentists and doctors all build these types of relationships today, and they are rewarded with client/patient relationships that can last a lifetime. Knowing this can be done in a human-to-human economic relationship, the question becomes, can it be done in a human-to-company relationship?
Corporate Humanness, IRL
Working in Canadian financial services, I have always admired Wealthsimple not just because of their clever branding, boundary pushing innovation, or accessible products for traditionally underserved segments… but because of their mission: to build the world’s most human financial company.
They are the first company I’ve come across with ‘humanness’ as an explicit goal and I bet they will not be the last. I also suspect the firm would score quite high on the Corporate Humanness Test as laid out above, particularly relative to their big bank and investment industry peers.
Although I do not claim to have any insight into how to perform well on this hypothetical test, my assumption would be that higher test scores would likely align with companies that exhibit strong competencies in the following ‘big four’ areas:
- Design: Understanding human needs are 80% of a designer’s job, which makes design critical to facilitate customer problem solving and goal achievement.
(Product, Marketing, Operations)
- Customer Relationship Development: A customer’s impression of a company is the sum of the cumulative touchpoints they have had over time. Each interaction is a chance to make a ‘human’ or ‘corporate’ impression.
(Customer Success, Sales, Communications)
- Culture: Culture is the personality of an organization. It is invisible hand that guides activities when there are no explicitly stated rules. It is the cumulative behavior of people within an organization and an influence on how an organization builds its relationships.
(Human Resources, Recruiting, Executive Leadership)
- Social Responsibility: No one likes a selfish human. A similar realization is taking place in the corporate world as profit maximization and shareholder theory give way to impact maximization and stakeholder theory.
More Than a Thought Experiment
While tests are gimmicky, the principles they are based on are not.
Technology continues to seep into the cracks of every corner of our existence, but at the end of the day, technology is still just a tool that we hire to make some sort of forward progress in our lives. We embed humanness into technology so that our tools might become more useful in their roles as they evolve over time.
Similarly, it is hard to understate the vast expanse of today’s corporate world. Yet, companies and their products and services also only exist for one reason identical to that of technology: to help customers make some sort of forward progress in their lives. The hope is that injecting a little more humanness into modern corporations will also lead to more effective and more efficient ways to advance society toward a better future… one step (and one test) at a time.