In May 2021, Twitter, a platform notorious for abuse and hot-headedness, rolled out a “prompts” feature that suggests users think twice before sending a tweet. The following month, Facebook announced AI “conflict alerts” for groups, so that admins can take action where there may be “contentious or unhealthy conversations taking place.” Email and messaging smart-replies finish billions of sentences for us every day. Amazon’s Halo, launched in 2020, is a fitness band that monitors the tone of your voice. Wellness is no longer just the tracking of a heartbeat or the counting of steps, but the way we come across to those around us. Algorithmic therapeutic tools are being developed to predict and prevent negative behavior.
Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication at Stanford University, defines AI-mediated communication as when “an intelligent agent operates on behalf of a communicator by modifying, augmenting, or generating messages to accomplish communication goals.” This technology, he says, is already deployed at scale.
Beneath it all is a burgeoning belief that our relationships are just a nudge away from perfection. Since the start of the pandemic, more of our relationships depend on computer-mediated channels. Amid a churning ocean of online spats, toxic Slack messages, and infinite Zoom, could algorithms help us be nicer to each other? Can an app read our feelings better than we can? Or does outsourcing our communications to AI chip away at what makes a human relationship human?