Exploring Generative AI’s Effect on Consumers

We had a big year in 2023 — launching tools to help you take control of your data, shaping up the national IoT labeling strategy, shining a light on biased algorithms and more. That’s all thanks to the help of partners, contributors, fellows, donors, and volunteers like you.

In 2024, we’ll keep building solutions for the problems facing consumers today. And, we’re looking forward to exploring a new opportunity with our community: understanding how AI agents might help consumers better navigate the marketplace. 

How might generative AI affect consumers?

The emergence of generative AI (think ChatGPT) seems poised to transform how people find and synthesize information, understand choices, and make decisions. When you combine personal data with persuasive technology, you have the potential for real influence over consumers’ preferences, beliefs, and behavior in the marketplace. That’s an important development for consumer advocates to consider.

Over the last decade, providers of high value, trusted information have had to compete with AI content farms which degrade the information marketplace, distort search results, and make it harder for consumers to find accurate and trustworthy information. 

Now, the nature of search itself is changing. Whereas traditional Google results return “10 blue links,” Google’s new generative search experience now summarizes and synthesizes search results in natural language. 

You can imagine how this change might play out across the digital marketplace — over time, the “information gateways” we rely on will become more like “information agents.”

When making important decisions about what to buy — let alone what to believe — it’s more important than ever that we can trust these “agents” to surface the right recommendations and to represent our best interests. Google’s mission may be to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” but at the end of the day, it’s distorting the economics of the web through the forces of advertising. And while Amazon may have a “customer obsession,” isn’t it odd that many of the product search results you see are either ads or Amazon Choice selections?

In the 1930s, the consumers’ movement was founded by people who feared the distorting effects of advertising. Almost 100 years later, the information environment is very different — we have an amazing resource called the internet! Yet the problem remains — the internet runs on advertising! 

Consumers have more access to information than ever before, but it’s becoming harder and harder to find it in the flood of spam, clickbait, advertising, and—yes—AI generated content. 

Can we imagine AI tools that fight for consumers?

Generative AI could make these things much worse — or it could create an opportunity to make things much better. 

What if we harnessed the potential of AI to power uniquely personal recommendation agents that save consumers time and money? What if we built AI agents operated purely for the consumer’s benefit, rather than the interests of sellers and advertisers? The Consumer Reports magazine became iconic because it bucked the trends of the day: it was ad free, objective, and accountable only to the consumer. What’s the equivalent for the coming AI era?

These are the questions we’re looking forward to exploring with you. If you’re thinking about how AI might be harnessed to help—and not exploit—consumers, we want to hear from you. Keep an eye out for upcoming calls for proposals, events, and other opportunities, or drop us a line at innovationlab@cr.consumer.org

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