insights in culture

In an AI World, Everyone Will Need to Come Home

The profound choice facing every person and brand


You’ve seen the headlines. We don’t want to socialize anymore. There’s a loneliness epidemic. Americans have never spent this much time on their own, ever. We’re “exiting” shared society (my terminology). And now, allegedly, everyone is depressed and anxious.

University of Chicago Philosophy Professor, @agnescollard, on X on 2/18/2024

It doesn’t matter if you believe them. The narrative has the power to shape reality, and major brands are beginning to take notice and to worry. In this Jim Beam ad, the proverbial Sweet Caroline is being belted out in a now-fleetingly-rare moment of brotherly love. Jim Beam is imploring us to get on down to the bar, commune with our brethren and have a bourbon while we’re at it. Imagine receiving this message from a brand ten years ago. You can’t.

Jim Beam’s “People Are Good For You,” 2023

This is the social situation AI is galloping into right now. Our fragile, introverted society is about to be given the Godlike power of world creation. Current AI technology allows us to generate anything we want, personalized and on-demand: newscasts, games, porn, friends, romantic partners, video, the deadentire worlds

Soon we’ll be consuming it all, ensconced in the safety of our Vision Pros. Some are already arguing that Open AI’s Sora proves we’re living in a simulation. Whether we’re in base reality or not, we’re all about to become simulators, lording courtly over our personal kingdoms. Your tamagotchi was a tchotchke of simpler times: just the start.     

You now have a profound, consequential choice to make: Where will you call home? You can choose the real world, with its highs, and, increasingly, its lows, or you can choose an immersive, AI-powered world of your own creation. 

What’s this all going to mean for you? For brands? For society? For our sacred institutions? 

In order to reconcile these realities, we have to center the emotional experience they each provide. What does it feel like to live in a society that’s coming apart? What does it feel like to live in a digitally simulated world of your own making? How does each world satisfy (or not) our core human needs for belonging, safety and self-actualization?

The Downsides of Reality Fit – Hand in Glove – With the Upsides of AI

What’s largely missing from both the “AI will radically alter society” discourse (positive or negative) and the “what happened to society” discourse is any attempt at reconciliation. AI is entering our society –  this one – and that matters. It’s not coming to us in a vacuum. 

Two worlds walk into a bar because “people are good” for you:

It’s not difficult to see which of these is preferable. What’s striking is just how much the emotional experience of AI abets the existing real world trends of isolation, inversion, risk-aversion and societal exit. The popularity of AI worlds is poised to explode. 

In 2021, Scientific American reported a finding that went criminally under-discussed: our definitions of personal space have dramatically expanded in both physical and in virtual spaces. We now claim a whopping 4.1 feet of personal space around our bodies, on average, which is up from 2.6 feet before the pandemic. 

Similarly, drive through traffic at fast food restaurants is booming, the New York Times reports, such that many chains are considering closing the dining room all together. If you go to a given fast food restaurant in any city in America today, you’re likely to find people dining in their car. 

What’s emerged is a new cultural attitude towards risk. Sociologists call this the culture of fear. The shell we’re placing around ourselves has gotten bigger, literally. New research has shown that Gen Z is the most risk-averse generation in history. 

Teens are growing up anxious and depressed because their phones have become the medium of their reality. They don’t hang out, have sex, drive, drink or learn about themselves and each other through a healthy flirtation with risk.

Source: Generations, Jean Twenge, Ph.D., 2023

The cultural analyst Freya India has recently written an excellent piece on how risk-aversion and the culture of fear affects romance. She convincingly argues that “the most dangerous life is one that demands nothing of you.” 

“It’s tragic, all of this. Tragic because it’s putting us on a trajectory to miss out on what’s actually meaningful. There’s no love without vulnerability. There’s no life without fear. And you will no doubt derail romance if you are too risk-averse … We blunt romance and passion with this constant calculation of risk, this paranoid scanning for threats, and by holding back to avoid being hurt. We encourage each other to be emotionally absent, unfazed, uncaring. We even call it empowerment! It’s not. It’s neuroticism. I think we are a generation absolutely terrified of getting hurt and doing all we can to avoid it.”

Our real world culture of risk-aversion is about to collide with the most powerful, emotionally seductive technology the world has ever known. Many are already opting out of reality. These same people will likely choose to inhabit digital worlds that eliminate risk. An AI partner, for instance, will never disappoint you or hurt you. You are totally and completely safe. Replika, the foremost AI companion brand, promises users that their AI is “always on your side.”

In contrast, life in the real world is incredibly challenging. It’s hurtful. It breaks your heart. You can’t design it or control it. You take your lumps and you learn. You get exposed to challenging situations and challenging people. To difference. To risk.

@grantbels on X, 1/3/2024

The ability to customize, conjure and control our experience with AI is an incredible power. Throughout human history we’ve been at the mercy of God, never Gods ourselves. Spending time in self-created worlds and designed relationships is a peak experience of personal agency that does not exist in the emotional reality of day-to-day life.

“The Future is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed”

We primarily spend our time in three areas: with our partners, with our families and with our entertainments. How might things play out in these three core areas? What can we know now? What will it feel like for those early citizens of AI worlds?


AI Partnerships

Imagine: It’s 2030 and a friend of yours is in a loving and emotionally fulfilling relationship with an AI. Your friend has designed their partner to completely satisfy their physical and emotional requirements. They spend time together in VR every night, and your friend wears a headset in their apartment. Your friend routinely generates high-fidelity video dates for the two of them. When they have sex, your friend uses sex-technology that is synced with the video they generated – whatever they want in the moment. Your friend’s mirror neurons do not know the difference. At the level of brain chemistry, your friend is experiencing reality.



Technology is advancing rapidly and soon this will be much easier and more common. Sora and Apple Vision Pro will enable us to generate very realistic scenes with our AI companions and to consume them in augmented reality. “Sextech” for simulated romance is already a 37 billion dollar industry and growing. Take a look at what Replika – just one company –  is working on:

r/Replika, Reddit, 2/29/24

Early returns are overwhelmingly positive, proving that human beings are capable of developing intense emotional bonds with artificial companions. Below is the response of Replika users after the Italian government cracked down on the company over personal data sharing, changing the way Replikas interact with humans:

r/Replika, Reddit, 2/29/24

This level of safe emotional attachment is happening today, when Replikas look like this:

r/Replika, Reddit, 2/29/24

Right now men are the primary consumers of AI partners, and this is likely to hold in the near future, but there are signs that women are getting in on the act, too. Women in China say AI boyfriends are better at talking to them than real men. 

For now, though, let’s talk about men. Young people have always been the earliest adopters of technology. So, if you think about the dating life course, let’s call it 14 through 74, it’s reasonable to expect that teenage boys and men will dip in and out of AI relationships over the course of their lives. And it’s likely that teenage boys will start with AI partners. Again, AI’s are always available and “always on your side.”

Will this help involuntarily celebate men become less hateful? Will this turn more men into unmarriable men? Will this hurt women in real life? What does an AI experience of complete and total emotional acquiescence mean for real world relationships? I’m not here to pass judgment (there are plenty of good pieces where you can find that), merely to assert that a new world is emerging with new norms we’ve yet to figure out. 


AI and Family Life

Imagine: Your son has daily interactions with an AI that is a mentor, friend, therapist and tutor – all at once. This AI is your son’s go to “person” for any need he has. The AI is trained on all of the world’s knowledge of positive psychology, and it models emotional control for your son in their interactions. You no longer need to assist him with homework. That’s now his AI’s job. At first you were skeptical about this relationship, but since he began talking with his companion, you notice a newfound maturity, and he’s starting to thrive at school.



Our Concept Bureau Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Jean-Louis Rawlence strongly believes that in ten years, one of the three most important relationships in a child’s life will be with an AI. We do not have a model for what this relationship is in our current society. What do you call a mentor, tutor, therapist and friend? What is that, actually? What are its boundaries? What’s healthy and unhealthy about a relationship like this? 

Children will naturally develop strong emotional attachments to their AI helpers. Early experience with AIs who are operating in this capacity will quickly normalize this type of relationship, likely within a generation, paving the way for still more AI-human romantic relationships in the teenage and adult years. 

Fascinatingly, these AIs will share our children’s experiences. As children grow and maintain these relationships over the span of years, a repertoire of shared experience develops between the two, which will make these relationships incredibly difficult – nay, down right painful – to cast off. Life has a habit of always recommending a person be in your corner, after all. 

When these children grow up and start dating each other in the real world, their long-time AI companions will likely come into their relationships with them in some capacity. Two will become four, and managing this tension will be a new relationship imperative. 

The extent parents allow children to engage with AIs is a choice families will face in the near future, and there will be social pressure. Sociologist Allison Pugh has shown, in her book Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture, that parents readily go into debt to buy consumer goods and electronics for their children because they function as social passports, tickets of entry into peer groups. So what will you do when all of your child’s friends have these companions, and they ask you for one, too? Not to mention the very real fear that not having one of these helpers may put your child at risk of falling behind others in the classroom. 

Another choice families will face is how much they will continue to share the same reality in the home. When watching videos of Apple’s new Vision Pro in action, you quickly realize that it represents world choice. Imagine your partner is all about it, and they create a personal virtual layer in your home. They pin relevant windows, tasks and applications in space all over your home. They start spending more time with a headset on. In order to keep up, you have to do the same. This is a choice, again: What world are we, as a family, primarily going to live in? Will you make the same choice as your children? 

With a longer horizon, it gets even more interesting. Researchers at NYU successfully trained a multimodal AI system through the eyes and ears of a single child, using headcam video recordings from when the child was six months through their second birthday. 

Photo of the child in the NYU study

This leap enables AI systems to learn, grow and develop alongside a child, trained on every facet of their lived experience. Effectively, by doing this on a larger scale, we’d be cloning ourselves as AIs. There is no material difference between you and an AI that has been trained on your lived experience of reality. Whoa.


AI and Entertainment

Imagine, as web video producer and podcaster Marques Brownlee posed on X: “A theoretical VR headset that could fully trick all of your senses with perfect fidelity… You put the headset on and see the highest resolution perfect visual of the expansive Grand Canyon or some beautiful natural wonder in front of you

If you could see perfect visuals and hear the birds chirping and feel the wind on your face and smell the grass feel the warm sun on the back of your neck and every sense is fully covered to the point where your brain is basically tricked into believing you’re ACTUALLY looking at the Grand Canyon…

When you take the headset off… would you still want to go to the Grand Canyon?”



Survivors of near-death experiences report that when “beyond,” they observe no distinction between their inner and outer reality because they can change their surrounding environment just by thinking about it. 

This is an intentional metaphor on my part. Our newfound ability is miraculous. If you can think it, you can now create it. In the near future, we will all be able to generate personal versions of reality with just our thoughts. 

The floodgates of world creation have opened. As I referenced above, current technology enables us to generate newscasts on the topics we want with AI newscasters, gaming worlds for ourselves and others, video content of literally anything, high-fidelity facsimiles of our deceased loved ones, personal pornography, many-to-many AI bot simulations and helpful relationships of all varieties

Right now these experiences mostly exist in 2D, but soon they will take the leap into 3D, consumable in augmented reality headsets powered by spatial computing, making them much, much realer. We will become both Gods and experiencers, creators who walk among their creations. 

What’s so seductive about it all is that it gives us the ability to make our fantasies reality by bending the world to our will. Anywhere on the planet you want to “go,” you can. Any experience you’ve daydreamed about having, it’s yours. Any Comic-Con-esque world you’d rather be living in, the real estate is free. 

The knock-on implications of this are almost too vast to comprehend. They will disrupt nearly every industry in the long run. Prolific filmmaker Tyler Perry was so freaked out by Sora that he canceled his 800 million dollar plans to expand his Atlanta production studio.

It’s not just Hollywood, any real world form of entertainment is about to face existential competition: travel, live music, sporting events, you name it. Digital inhabitants are going to find digital solutions that enable them to sidestep the real-world challenges these forms of entertainment present. 

The scale of “society” is shrinking again. We’ve gone from all of us, to some of us, and now, to me. We’re on the precipice of a true multiverse within the multiverse.

Branding Between Worlds

What’s a brand to do? When we’re caught between worlds, the opportunity for brands is to help us feel comfortable in either one; to move us from the liminal space to a more full and unabashed inhabitance on either side. 

Our many-worlds future hasn’t fully arrived yet, but the good news for brands is that we can already anticipate the consumer needs that will emerge, or become more salient, in the future. On the side of old-fashioned reality, that means helping people get more out of life and to experience reality more richly, and on the digital side, that means reducing shame and lowering barriers to entry. 


Activate Awe

Many of us are looking to “re-wild” ourselves and return to a more primal existence. There are already reports today about the surging interest in outdoor survival courses, nature schools and wilderness therapy

Sure, we all like to dunk on the zoomers who “invent” the classics when they put their phones down – the “silent walking” TikTok trend from last year is the probably the greatest offender – but taken seriously, these inventions betray real desire for a less mediated experience of reality.

Collin Rutherford, on X, 3/4/2024

Value-added connection will require brands to get deeper, and there’s an exciting emotional roadmap emerging: awe. Awe is on the cutting edge of emotion research today. Experiencing it has been shown to have tremendous benefits for overall wellbeing and happiness, but most of us live in an awe desert. 

Awe used to be a daily occurrence. Humanity spent most of its history literally, awestruck by the awesome forces of nature. Just imagine going about your day 60,000 years ago and experiencing a spontaneous total solar eclipse without warning. You’d tremble in fear and bow in reverence. The roots of humanity’s religious impulse most likely arise from a wellspring of awe. 

As I’ve previously observed, there is already a loud desire in our culture to experience more awe and wonder in daily life, to re-enchant a disenchanted world. This unmet need is only going to become more glaring as we move further into digital worlds. 

Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner is our leading theorist of awe as an emotion. He recently published a tremendous book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life that brand strategists would do well to take heed of. 

For Keltner, there are reliable ways we can bring more awe into our lives. He recommends the obvious things like mindfulness, slowing down, paying attention and truly noticing the world around you, which is of course the foundation of many spiritual traditions. Keltner himself goes on routine “awe walks” for this purpose. Sublimity and danger is another obvious one, which means overcoming challenges and being in the presence of forces greater than yourself.

This is all clear terrain for outdoor brands, but what’s most revelatory about Keltner’s research is that our greatest and most reliable source of awe comes from observing the “moral beauty” of others. When we witness the simple goodness of others – not even the heroism of others –  we feel awe. We become happier and more likely to pass on goodness ourselves. 

For too long, culture has elevated what David Brooks calls “resume virtues” over “eulogy virtues.” Resume virtues are those most suited to success in markets, like our work ethic, professional achievements and our intellect, but these are not the things mentioned in our eulogies. Virtues such as humility, empathy and compassion are what we get remembered for. 

Keltner’s research on awe shows that it’s time for the eulogy virtues to take center stage, which is exciting because what brand can’t surface the goodness of their users? Every brand is capable of making us feel good about each other, something we’ll sorely need in a fractured, many-worlds future. 


Take Us to Extremes

As the cost-benefit analysis of engaging in real life changes, as our posture towards reality shifts from default to opt-in, what is reality’s new “job to be done”? What will people want out of their rarified forays into collectivity?

The explosion of recent interest in polyamory, maximalist aesthetics, psychedelics, adventure travel, extreme fitness, meditation retreats and immersive experiences suggest that reality will be increasingly used to satisfy our desire for extremes. The new cultural thought is, “if I’m engaging with reality, it better be worth it.”

Reality remains unparalleled in its ability to push us to the edge of our experiential possibilities, and consumers will reward the brands that give them permission to go there. This is a sharp pivot away from the saccharine, share-worthy experiences of an earlier era that optimized for photo quality at the expense of actual emotional enjoyment.

The middle – the dreaded zone of neutrality – has always been a danger zone for brands, and we can expect the pressure to ratchet up. Expected, normal and typical are all positions that are poised to become increasingly risky for brands to inhabit in the near future. 

It’s likely that consumers don’t want to leave reality. It’s just that reality is letting us down, not having kept pace with the internal changes we’ve all been undergoing in the wake of a pandemic that left an indelible mark on our collective psyche. 

Take Fude Experience, for example. Fude is a gathering of strangers in the nude for dinner and conversation. Fude describes itself as a “liberating space that celebrates our most pure selves through soul-nourishing food, art, nudity, and self-love.”

Images from

Experiences like these are clearly touching a nerve right now. If rubbing elbows – literally – while dining naked isn’t your thing, rest assured because an exciting crop of startups are popping up to build new social infrastructure to combat our ballooning feelings of alienation. 

According to French polymath and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, we all feel a vague sense of lack in our being, and we don’t know where it came from. We spend our entire lives trying to fill it, though for Lacan, we can never succeed. Try as we might, our relationship with lack is asymptotic. We can only approach it but never truly fill it. 

This nagging feeling of lack is what many brands are in the business of today, whether they realize it or not, and the brands of tomorrow will be increasingly called upon to address it. 

The time is now for brands to get weird, to take chances and be anything but neutral. The winning brands of tomorrow will be the ones that recognize our growing desire to live in extremist


Give us Rituals 

Digital detoxes are old news. We’re now beginning to trumpet the virtues of boredom. You may have noticed the “do nothing” trend in popular psychology non-fiction lately. Recent titles include How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Do Nothing: How to Break Away From Overworking, Overdoing and Underliving and The Power of Boredom: Why Boredom is Essential for Creating a Meaningful Life

This reflects a collective consciousness raising of just how taken in we’ve become by our phone-based existence. It isn’t a new idea but knowledge of the problem is now much broader. 

We’re living in what’s been called “dopamine culture,” most recently by the cultural critic Ted Gioia. For Gioia, the business model of tech platforms is addiction. In the past, gambling, alcohol and cigarettes were our primary addictive businesses, and they were easily sequestered and regulated. Now, addiction as a business model comes in many forms, mostly dressed up in banal clothing.

Ted Gioia’s Model of Dopamine Culture

The problem will only become more pernicious as we move from phones to the more enticing worlds on offer with spatial computing and AI. Consumers will increasingly be looking for slowness, silence, boredom, deliberateness and greater intentionality in their lives as a countervailing energy. 

This presents an opportunity for brands to build more ritual into their brand experiences. Rituals provide space for pauses to punctuate our daily rhythms. Pauses create necessary distance to let experience in and help you be in the moment. We already are struggling to stay “grounded” today, and rituals help us do that. 

An example of a brand that’s built around ritual is Lapse, which styles itself as the “anti-Instagram.” The point of Lapse is to share photos with only your closest friends. The app functions like a point and shoot camera, but, critically, you can’t see your photos until several hours later after they have “developed.”

By putting friction into the user experience of social media, Lapse is standing out. But any brand is capable of leveraging friction and ritual in their user experience. Your future users will thank you for any gift of pausing you give them. 


Give Us Permission to Have Positive Visions of the Future 

Have you noticed the lack of optimistic visions for our social future lately? It’s true. Concept Bureau Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer Jasmine Bina writes that brands are “stuck in an eternal now.” Brands most often talk to the individual, not the collective, and they are oriented towards the present, not the future. They speak to your present, rarely our future. 

In polite conversation these days, if you advance a positive vision for the future you’re likely to have your sanity and/or your intelligence questioned. This is a natural result of the negativity economy that ordains in the media and social media. 

It’s much easier to find negative takes on human relationships with AIs than it is to find positive ones; at best, the broader culture seems to be ambivalent about it.

r/Ask, Reddit, January 2024
@hopes_revenge, on X, 3/5/2024

Yet the people who will be the first citizens of AI worlds have an immense amount of optimism about the future. Recent headlines coming from AI evangelists include, “The Ethos of the Divine Age” and “Tech Strikes Back: Accelerationism is an Overdue Corrective to the Doom and Gloom in Silicon Valley.” 

Still, AI prognosticators are largely criticized. At SXSW 2024 the crowd booed a sizzle reel of people promising a beautiful AI future. While the rancor is there, and for good reason, the bottom line is that we don’t ultimately know what will happen. The future is always different from what we think it will be. 

There are many people who think the future will be incredible and are ready to live in that world right now, breaking from the reality others call home. The techno-optimists among us will badly need new narratives and brands have an opportunity to furnish them, changing culture. We will surely look to brands to help us feel like the early adopters some of us badly want to be. 

Who is going to do this but brands? The government is certainly not going to solve this problem, nor will citizens on their own. Edelman’s trust barometer has shown, year after year, that an increasing number of Americans view business as responsible for solving our social problems. Brands have to heed this call and tighten a loose culture. The future, so uncertain, needs to be defined. 

The best brands will solve the emerging many worlds tensions and give us permission to be the people we long to be. They will see our unmet needs and advocate for them, conditioning the rest of the market in the process. Those among us who will choose to be initial explorers of AI worlds, relationships and friendships will need permission. 

Everyone Will Need to Come Home

Picture the universe expanding – galactic centers of heat, light and gravity that are constantly spreading out, leaving vast empty spaces between them. As we think about what it means to be caught between worlds, this is what it’s like: clustering with vast emptiness in between. It’s now vitally important for everyone to find their strong-tie community, their galactic center of gravity. Above all, this is the job to be done in the next era of branding: helping us come home to each other. Everyone will need to feel comfortable with the fellow citizens of their chosen world. Our most cherished values lurk beneath the surface of our world choice. World choice is, at bottom, the loudest possible assertion of what we find meaningful in life. 

We’ll need help moving more fully into whatever world we want to live in. And we’ll need help figuring out the norms and rules of these worlds, managing the friction that naturally occurs between them. Brands must do this for us. 

Our rules are built for a shared world that no longer exists. This has been a eulogy for that world. But like any good eulogy, it should not leave you despairing.

It’s time to build.

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