In yet another experiment by Nicholas Christakis team (see previous Daily Thought on mistakes by robots!) they tested the power of Artificial intelligence (AI) led bots (read pieces of software created to post/behave as real humans) to influence group behaviour.
The experiment reproduced the well known Tragedy of the Commons , as old as 1883. The concept used the word ‘commons’ (for those not living is this part of the world’) as the common land in Britain and Ireland where anybody could bring their herbivore animals to eat grass. The tragedy is that if everybody exploited the grass in the commons in their own interests, soon (tragically) they would be no grass left. IT is in youir own interest not to behave as ‘only in your own interest’. The metaphor/model/mental frame has been used since in a myriad of applications, notably environmental studies. In my view it should be compulsory study in our kids education.
The Yale crowd used thousands of people and gave them money on an online game in each round. They were told that they could keep the money or donate some to neighbours, in which case the system would match that money. Not completely surprisingly, two thirds ‘altruistically’ donated initially. Being generous to neighbours under that rule was a way to expect reciprocity. I said not completely because, in the short term, the best would be to keep all the money and also receive from neighbours who chose so.
All very well until the system was artificially infested with some very few selfish, free- riding bots who did not share anything. Progressively the behaviours was copied and the human players stopped cooperating altogether. In Christakis words, ‘ the bots converted a group of generous people into selfish jerks’.
This is seriously scary, no matter what. Whoever doubts the online manipulation of voting in several recent elections, is perhaps on a sabbatical in Mars. We could go that line of conversation for hours and days. But to bring it down to our prosaic day to day world of management in organizations, surely it tells us again about the delicate world of influence and the importance of mastering it.
The human copying mechanism, as I have described in Homo Imitans , is extraordinarily powerful and the only one potent enough to scale up behaviours, good or bad. Viral Change™ banks on ‘network interventions’ to ask highly connected people in that network to join a cause: for example, the shaping of a culture. And we need that scale mechanism provided by Viral Change™ as Mobilizing Platform  precisely to overcome the non-robots-yet-human-perhaps-selfish, amongst others, that drive the system towards a bad culture. Read and interpret as you wish.
Happy to talk further… but one things is clear, we live in delicate human systems of cross collaboration and the old models of persuasion (‘behave that way, or else’) don’t work. The balance Culture A vs Culture B has a very fine line. A few bots, a few non bots, can make the difference, good or bad. We work on the good side!