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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Relationality in AI:
The Missing Link for Regenerative Sustainability

Regenerative sustainability provides a pragmatic foundation to demonstrate caregiving and relationality to people and planet. It shouldn’t be a ‘battle against climate change;’ it should be a ‘relationship we’re working to heal.’

"Computers can work with hard, hand-coded rules or statistical processing based on historical data, but never in relationship to the full situation at hand and thus never with wisdom. This irrelationality ends up devaluing humanity while also leaving no space for it."

Emily M. Bender, "Resisting Dehumanization in the Age of ‘AI'

In business and society for almost a decade, media and leading experts in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) have proclaimed when a certain iteration of automation has "beat humans" in a specific task or discipline. Often billed as "natural evolution" for society with calls to "not hinder innovation," the forces driving the seemingly inexorable replacement of humanity with these announcements typically leave out a seminal aspect of how most AI Systems are designed:

They prioritize the rational while devaluing the relational.

If one believes the brain is essentially a computer where knowledge is defined as an aggregation of data, this demonstrates a bias towards rationality being the primary if not sole driving factor of what it means to be a human. Emotions, spirituality, music, art and culture and how humans relate to each other are specifics classified as "squishy" or "subjective.” These marginalizing terms effectively usher one half or more of our humanity out of the room.

Aligning Value Management and Regenerative Practices

Join us as Regenovate co-founders Chris Grantham and Adam Lusby lead an interactive workshop on how to rethink value in the context of regenerative innovation by linking value to the dividends and resilience that come to an organisation from enhancing system health — Thurs, May 9, at Brand-Led Culture Change.

No wonder loneliness and isolation are at pandemic levels. We're being trained as a society to seek solace from systems trained to ignore our relationality.

Companies wondering why employees are nervous at the use of Large Language Models or various AI tools may be inclined to assume workers aren't tech savvy or fear they're training their machine successors to take their jobs. But when an invisible bias towards rationality is embedded within an economic paradigm prioritizing productivity, simply training workers how to use the latest version of ChatGPT isn’t enough to address the great gloom.

Leaders need to train and equip themselves in care. Being “relational” in this regard doesn’t mean being invasive or invading someone’s privacy. It’s a recognition that being present for someone as a human is an act of care and relationality in and of itself.

To be clear — while machines and algorithms can and are helping humanity in myriad ways, these tools cannot connect with us in pheromonal, physiological ways. This is not a criticism; it’s a critical distinction in outputs and a recognition of how people communicate with each other.

The genuine opportunity for brands and companies utilizing AI Systems (and “systems” is critical to mention, as all AI utilizes human or other data to function) is to inform workers and all stakeholders that it is in the sharing of knowledge and information with each other where we communicate the totality of who we are as humans. Pick 10 employees to create a presentation based on the same two-page report. Based on their interpretation and delivery (how they smile, when they gesture, descriptive words used based on their experience, words from different languages used to better connect with specific audience members), the same information provided in the report will be communicated in 10 different yet equally valuable ways.

Recognizing a balance between the rational and relational in how society utilizes technology also opens the door for enlightening conversations on how to avoid the potential for marginalization. When Western values of rationality mirrored in design don’t honor relationality in the application of AI or other technologies, harm happens. Framing results for AI applications as “unintentional harms” is irresponsible when designers knowingly disregard cultural framings that vastly change perceived and actual outcomes for a specific product or service.

Brands also have the opportunity for education regarding the concept of “relationality” in terms of how humans interaction with AI systems as studied in the field of research known as Human Computer Interaction (HCI) — a multidisciplinary field encompassing behavioral science, psychology and sociology. As an example of the manifestation of HCI issues, it’s common knowledge that if an AI-enabled robot makes a certain gesture with an “arm” in one country or culture, said gesture may be offensive in a different culture. This example speaks to the nature of human agency — where our capacity to act based on our will is affected by the gestures, voices, pheromones (visceral nature of our physiology in close contact) and actions of other humans. Robots or AI Systems designed with anthropomorphic features — a chatbot or other system to which users are prone to attribute human characteristics — are deceptive by design.

Yes, some designers may have a fiscal or ideological agenda. But the deeper deception is trying to convince a person their unique relationality can be replaced. This includes anyone designing these tools who may not have been given tools to equip themselves or others with care.

This is where regenerative sustainability provides a pragmatic foundation to demonstrate caregiving and relationality to people as well as the planet. We know that regeneration goes beyond sustainability by (1) restoring, renewing and/or healing systems we depend on; while also (2) improving the inherent ability of said systems to restore, renew and/or heal themselves more effectively. What we may not always consider is that humans are a core part of the “healing systems” that live symbiotically with nature. Relying only on rationality for AI — or any tool or KPI — may also deceive us into thinking we are more powerful than the planet and can “win the battle against climate change” by applying more knowledge and technology to any issue.

But who said this is a “battle?” Words matter. Metaphors matter.

If Mother Earth is alive, why wouldn’t we have a conversation with Her to see what Her needs are? Why are we more willing to communicate with a fabricated form of humanity than to commune with the life force providing all of us water, air and life?

It shouldn’t be a “battle against climate change.” It needs to be a “relationship we’re working to heal.”

And the healing starts in a recognition that every human has worth who can be in relation to another person. I call this The Seen Transition — which is based on the fact that relationality, the potential for connection between people, cannot be replaced.

Sabelo Mhlambi, a subject matter expert in AI and ubuntu ethics, provides further justification for recognizing the totality of who we are as humans in his foundational 2020 paper, "From Rationality to Relationality: Ubuntu as an Ethical and Human Rights Framework for Artificial Intelligence Governance:"

"Accepting another human as part of oneself is to be in harmony with ultimate reality, for accepting others is in compliance and reverence for Umvelinqangi — the ultimate reality from which humans and all forces derive and are intricately and inextricably interconnected. This provides the foundation for relational personhood. Relationality is the acceptance of the individuality of others — for all are interconnected — and in general, it is the acceptance of the interconnectedness of humans, nature, and the spiritual."

It is irrational, immoral and irresponsible to deny our full humanity in the age of the algorithm.

Being relational is hard because we haven’t given enough value to what passes between two people when sharing information, emotions and ourselves.

So let’s work on this together.


John C. Havens is the author of Heartificial Intelligence: Embracing our Humanity to Maximize Machines (Penguin, 2016).

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