AI, Higher Education, and Standardizing Values in Human Decision-Making

Our current use of AI in higher education involves automating parts (and at times the whole) of the human decision-making process. Where there is automation there is standardization. Where there are decisions, there are values. As a consequence, we can think of one of the functions of AI as the standardization of values. Depending on what your values are, and the extent to which they are reflected by algorithms as they are deployed, this may be more or less a good or bad thing.

Augmenting Human Decision-Making

An example of how AI is being used to automate parts of the decision-making process is through nudging. According to Thaler and Sunstein, the concept of nudging is rooted in an ethical perspective that they term ‘libertarian paternalism.’ Wanting to encourage people to behave in ways that are likely to benefit them, but not also wanting to undermine human freedom of choice (which Thaler, Sunstein, and many others view as an unequivocal good), nudging aims to structure environments so as to increase the chances that human beings will freely make the ‘right decisions.’ In higher education, a nudge could be something as simple as an automated alert reminding a student to register for the next semester or begin the next assignment. It could be an approach to instructional design meant to increase a student’s level of engagement in an online course. It could be student-facing analytics meant to promote increased reflection about one’s level of interaction in a discussion board. Nudges don’t have to involve AI (a grading rubric is a great example of a formative assessment practice designed to increase the salience of certain values at the expense of others), but what AI allows us to do is to scale and standardize nudges in a way that was, until recently, unimaginable.

Putting aside the obvious ‘having one’s cake and eating it too’ tension at the heart of the idea of libertarian paternalism, the fact of the matter is that a nudge functions by making decisions easier through the (at least partial) automation of the decision-making process. It serves to make choices easier my making some factors more salient than others, reducing an otherwise large and complex set of factors to a set that is much more manageable. The way a nudge works is by universalizing a set of values by using them as criteria for pre-selecting relevant factors for use in the decision-making process.

I don’t want to say whether this is a good or a bad thing. It is happening, and it certainly brings with it the possibility of promoting a range of social goods. But it is important for us to recognize that values are involved. We need to be aware of, and responsible for, the values that we are choosing to standardize in a given nudge. And we need to constantly revisit those values to ensure that they are consistent with our views and in light of the impact on human behavior that they are designed to have.

Automating Human Decision-Making

An example of where AI is being used to automate the entire decision process is in chat bots. Chat bots make a lot of sense for institutions looking to increase efficiency. During the admissions process, for example, university call centers are bombarded with phone calls from students seeking answers to common questions. Call centers are expensive and so universities are looking for ways to reduce cost. But lower cost has traditionally meant decreased capacity, and if capacity isn’t sufficient to handle demand from students, institutions run the risk of losing the very students they are looking to admit. AI is helping institutions to scale their ability to respond to common student questions by, in essence, personalizing a student’s experience with a knowledge base. A chat bot is an interface. In contrast to automated nudges, which serve to augment human decision-making, chat bots automate the entire process, since they are (1) defining a situation, and (2) formulating a response, (3) without the need for human intervention.

What kinds of assumption do chat bots like this make about the humans they serve? First, they assume that the only reason a student is reaching out to the university is for information. While this may be the case for some, or even most, it may not be for all. In addition to information, a student may also be in need of reassurance (whether they realize it or not). For first generation students especially, they may not know what questions to ask in the first place, and may need to be encouraged to think about factors they may not have otherwise considered. There is a huge amount to gain from one-one-one contact with a human being, and these benefits are lost when an interaction is reduced to a single function. Subtlety and lateral thinking are not virtues of AI (at least not today).

This is not to say that chat bots are bad. The increased efficiency they bring to an institution means that an institution can invest in other ways that enhance the student experience. The increased satisfaction from students who no longer have to sit on hold for hours is also highly beneficial, not to mention that some students simply feel more comfortable asking what they think are ‘dumb questions’ when they know they are talking to a robot. But we also need to be aware of the specific values we assume through the use of these technologies, and the opportunities that we are giving up, including a diversity of perspective, inter-personal support, narrative/biographical interjection, personalized nudging based on the experience and intuition of an advisor, and the ability to co-create meaning.

Is AI in higher education a good thing? It certainly carries with it an array of goods, but the good it brings is certainly not unequivocal. Because it automates at least parts of the decision-making process, it involves the standardization of values in a way, and at a scale, that until now has not been possible.

AI is here to stay. It is a bell that we can’t unring. Knowing that AI functions through the automation of at least some parts of human decision-making, then, it is incumbent upon us to think carefully about our values, and to take responsibility for the ways (both expected and unanticipated) that the standardization of values through information technology will affect how we think about ourselves, others, and the world we cohabit.

Is it ethical for marketers to ‘nudge’?

They almost got me.

As I reached for the gasoline nozzle, I realized at the very last minute that what I thought was regular gasoline was actually ‘plus,’ a grade that I did not want and that I would have paid a premium for. The reason for my near mistake? The way my options were ordered. I expected the grades to be ordered by octane as they almost always are. But in this case, regular 87 was sandwiched between two more premium grades.

The strategy that was employed at the pump at this Shell station in Virginia is an example of ‘nudging.’ It is an example of leveraging preexisting expectations and habits to increase the chances of a particular behavior. There is nothing dishonest about the practice. Information is complete and transparent, and personal freedom to choose is not affected. It is simply that the environment is structured in such a way as to promote one decision instead of others. 

Ethically, I like the position of Thaler and Sunstein when they talk about ‘libertarian paternalism.’ In their view, nudging can be a way to reconcile a strong belief in personal freedom with an equally strong belief that certain decisions are better than others. But not all nudges are created equal. Just as it is possible to promote decisions that are better for individuals, so too is it possible to increase the likelihood of choices that serve other interests, and that even serve to subvert the fullest expression of personal liberty, as in the gasoline example above.

One way to think of marketing is as the use of the principles of behavioral economics to change consumer behavior. Marketers are in the business of nudging. Because nudging has a direct impact in human behavior, it is also a fundamentally ethical enterprise. Marketing carries with it a huge burden of responsibility.

What ethical positions do you take in your marketing efforts? What would marketing look like if we were all libertarian paternalists?