Why using AI could make you less creative and disconnect you from problems

Social media and artificial intelligence are reducing our ability to focus on important global issues like the climate crisis, says Hamish van der Ven, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

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Generative AI and social media can undermine efforts to address serious global problems like climate change, University of BC researchers say

Hamish van der Ven, assistant professor of sustainable business management of natural resources at UBC, and his colleagues argue that generative AI like ChatGBT and social media can eat away at the attention span needed to understand complex global problems, reduce critical thinking and make people feel. less creative.

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In a paper Published in Global Environmental Politics, van der Ven’s team analyzes how social media and generative AI are reducing people’s ability to focus on the climate crisis.

“We know that across all ages and markets people get less information from print or digital newspapers, and rather look at links or social media posts that are shared through their online networks,” van der Ven said Thursday.

“This is a problem for really complex challenges like climate change, as it takes time to absorb the complexity of that challenge. “It takes time to figure out the different types of interconnected pieces that are required to address that challenge.”

Social media is partly responsible for destroying the ability to focus and do deep work, the article says, and the appeal of algorithms is deliberately designed to hold people’s attention and distract them.

For example, the study notes that the average TikTok video lasts 34 seconds and causes a release of dopamine that makes users want to continue watching more videos.

Researchers say the problem with normalizing this fast-paced, superficial content is a lack of engagement with complex, slower-moving stories like climate change. In younger people, the study notes, heavy use of TikTok has been associated with distractions and memory loss.

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Researchers believe that the loss of ability to maintain attention on what is happening with climate change is related to the lack of political urgency to confront the crisis, van der Ven said.

“How do we address climate change if we can’t even concentrate long enough to understand the problem?”

He said a growing reliance on generative AI could mean people gradually lose their ability to think for themselves and become overly reliant on machine-driven networks to solve problems.

“It is worrying that more and more people are outsourcing this part of their brain to artificial intelligence platforms that are atrophying that muscle that helps us think creatively about how to address challenges like climate change,” van der Ven said.

For example, he said people can go to ChatGPT and ask for 10 solutions to climate change, but the problem is that AI is designed to look at the past and make future projections.

“So you’re going to look at everything that’s out there about solutions to climate change and come up with a summary list of what you think those 10 solutions are. But this is not necessarily the approach we need in a shrinking time frame to act on climate change.”

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For their next study, van der Ven and his team asked four different AI chatbots how they would solve nine different environmental challenges, and asked questions about who causes the challenge and who is vulnerable to it. Next, they will discuss areas of bias and how chatbots frame environmental challenges for the study.

He said both social media and generative AI have contributed to the spread of false or biased information that impedes transformative action on climate change. This contributes to a broader phenomenon that some have called the “death of truth,” in which collaborative knowledge usurps scientific consensus and expertise.

“Social media doesn’t resolve nuance and uncertainty particularly well. And because the business model for social media is eyeballs to advertisers and the way to get eyeballs and clicks is through containment or good reviews,” he said.

While there is no easy solution, van der Ven said people should disconnect more often, taking breaks from social media and chatbots.

He also recommends taking the time to read books and read news, not from social networks but from the media.

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He said companies like Meta, Google and X have had a “free pass” when it comes to environmental impacts and that people need to start holding big tech companies accountable.

“It’s about thinking not only about the direct emissions associated with your products, but also the indirect social and political impacts.”

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