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Augmented Intelligence: How to Combine Human and Artificial Intelligence to Change Behavior


Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is the most promising and overhyped technology of our times. AI techniques such as deep learning have allowed computers to match or even beat world experts at games like chess and Go, and even board-certified doctors at diagnosing diabetic retinopathy and skin cancer.

While AI is great for recognizing patterns in puzzles and pictures, it is much harder for AI to change the behavior of people, in all their fascinating and frustrating complexity. In an earlier post on the Keystone Habit, I introduced the concept of using goals and habit change loops for personal development. Now let’s explore how to combine these loops for product development, in order to design a system to help someone change.

Here, I argue that human intelligence is better applied to helping people form goals, while AI is better applied to helping people form habits. This is not to say that an effective fully-automated AI system could not be built. But if you already have human and software resources, they can be synergistically combined to create an “Augmented Intelligence” system for behavior change.

The Sepah Behavior Change Model:

While there are a lot of behavior change models out there, I created a new model to integrate two important concepts — the goal formation loop on the left, and the habit formation loop on the right — into a unified loop that allows for continual improvement. Let’s walk through an example of how this works:

Plan the Goal:

All behavior begins with intention. Let’s say my intention is to exercise more often. While I may want to start working out every day, I decide to work with a personal trainer who takes into account my current routine to help me set a S.M.A.R.T. goal, that is Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Realistic, and Time-Bound. For example, since he knows my gym is conveniently located two blocks from my work, and I’m more motivated to exercise in the morning because I work long hours, we mutually set a goal of going to the gym next to my work at 7:30AM, to lift weights for 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and to check-in at week’s end.

Theoretically, an AI-based system could also ask me a series of questions about my routine and preferences, then creates a reasonably-tailored S.M.A.R.T. goal for me. But these systems often run into problems adjusting goals over time, as we’ll see later in the loop, which is why humans are better suited to plan and revise goals.

Act on the Goal:

Next comes an attempt to act on the goal. I’m motivated on Monday morning, and I successfully go to the gym for 30 minutes before work. Great! Action is the centerpiece of the model for good reason, since goals are merely dreams without action. It’s worth noting that inaction, such as procrastination, is counterintuitively an action itself (the action of inaction). So whether you do or you don’t, you’re still acting. The difference is direct action takes you towards your goals and values, while avoidance takes you away from them.

Reward the Habit:

Here we cross into the habit loop: actions only become habits when they are repeatedly rewarded over time, even if the rewards are occasional. These can be intrinsic rewards (e.g. the mood boost from the workout) or extrinsic rewards (e.g. my personal trainer telling me I did a good job). While social reinforcement is an incredibly powerful motivator — it fueled the rise of phenomena like Crossfit — AI can reward habits equally well.

Gamification, which is the application of behavioral principles to game mechanics, is the best example of AI reinforcement. It successfully gets people to play video games for hours on end using tokens such as points and badges to designate accomplishment and skill development. This would seemingly pale in comparison to the sense of satisfaction that comes from a real person giving you a heartfelt high-five after a workout. But the high-five after every single workout can become repetitive, while gamified systems use variable schedules, quantities, and types of rewards (like how slot machines randomly dole out different jackpots) to prevent habituation and continually provide the addictive dopamine hit that powerful rewards bring.

AI is also superior to human reinforcement on an economic basis. While a personal trainer is motivational, they are usually not as cost-effective as an AI system emailing me a coupon for free protein shake at my gym when I achieve 3 workouts a week, or notifying me that I am among the top 20 most active gym-goers via an automated text message. Applications like PactDietBet, and Stikk are examples of companies that blend social and behavioral economic rewards to get people to go to the gym more often.

Remind the Habit:

Habits not only need to be rewarded, but they need a reminder (also known as a cue or trigger) to initiate the behavior regularly. Since I am out of town for work on Tuesday, I call the hotel front desk and set a wake-up call on Wednesday morning to remind me to get up for my scheduled workout. While that is an effective reminder, it is not a good use of human resources, which is why most hotels have automated wake-up call systems (or most people just use their smart phone’s alarm). Given that reminders are quick and easy, outsourcing this to AI is an effective move.

Act on Your Goal (Again):

For an automatic habit to form, the action must be repeated. My alarm goes off on Friday, but I am so sleep-deprived and tired that I decide to hit the snooze button. I text my trainer to cancel our session last minute, and fail to go for the third scheduled workout that week. Thus, I unfortunately fall short of my initial goal.

Reflect on the Goal:

Here we cross back into the goal loop by reflecting on the week and how well I’ve executed against my goal. This step is missing or glossed over in most versions of habit loops that you’ll see in books, but is critical if you want to continually iterate and improve upon your goals. In a previous article, I argued that reflection is the Keystone Habit when it comes to personal development, and articulated a concrete system to achieve your goals. Without reflection, we are doomed to repeat mistakes, and as I always tell my patients:

“a mistake repeated more than once is a decision.”

My trainer calls me over the weekend to reflect on our first week together. I share that I used my initial motivation to successfully go to the gym on Monday. I then used an alarm to remind me to go again on Wednesday, and was motivated by remembering the sense of accomplishment I felt after the first workout.

However, by the time Friday rolled around, we identified I was sore from starting a new exercise routine and the accumulated sleep deprivation from a long work week hindered my physical recovery and sapped my motivation. Here we see the power of human intelligence. While there were many factors that contributed to my skipping the gym on Friday, a quick conversation with my trainer identified the two major ones: muscle soreness and lowered motivation from sleep deprivation. An AI system has a much harder time identifying and isolating variables, especially psychological ones.

Plan the Goal (Again):

Based on the information gathered, my trainer and I work together to plan a revised goal for next week. He recommends I go to the gym next Monday and Wednesday at 7:30AM, but knowing I’m likely to be sleep-deprived and less motivated on Friday, recommends I go at 6PM just to warm up and stretch (thus reinforcing the habit of going regularly, while making the workout easy enough for my level of motivation). If that doesn’t work, we will switch the third weekly workout to Saturdays when I’m feeling more recovered and motivated.

Human intelligence shines at iterating on goals. Good trainers and therapists accurately identify individual strengths and barriers and leverage them to creatively optimize goals towards success. People’s physical and psychological states also vary tremendously on a day-to-day basis. Humans are better at picking up on these through our intuitive ability to read body language and facial expressions. Once a new goal is planned, the behavior change loop is executed repeatedly until the action becomes an automatic habit.

The Future of Augmented Intelligence

While AI has tremendous promise (and I advise AI startups in Silicon Valley because I believe they will be transformative), it’s currently better suited for specific intelligence, rather than general intelligence. When it comes to behavior change, AI is a clinically effective and cost-effective tool for habit formation by automating reminders for behaviors and providing variable rewards. But when it comes to goal formation, human intelligence (particularly that of an effective manager, trainer, or psychologist) is currently better leveraged to help people with goal planning and reflection to continually improve.

As a result, I believe the immediate future holds tremendous promise for hybrid systems, what I call “Augmented Intelligence,” which best combines human and artificial intelligence to change human behavior. Rather than replacing human coaching altogether, AI can support coaches by automating the easier tasks of reminding and rewarding habits. Thus freeing time to focus on what’s difficult and meaningful: helping others find and achieve their dreams.

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Thanks to Ella ChiangNicole ZemanRJ Ellis, and Yassine Bentaieb for input on this post.

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