Skip to main content

Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

The Impact of AI on Consumer Decision-Making with S. Venus Jin, PhD

As more consumer-focused companies harness the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, research on human-machine interactions is becoming increasingly important. In this episode, Venus Jin, PhD, Director of the Communication Program at Northwestern in Qatar, discusses her research in this area and examines how AI influences and shapes individuals' choices across various industries.

 spotify-podcast-badge-blk-wht-165x40.png en_google_podcasts_badge_2x.png us_uk_apple_podcasts_listen_badge_rgb.svg us_listenon_amazonmusic_button_white_rgb_5x.png 

S. Venus Jin headshot

Do we want a more convenient way of shopping? So you (AI) just get me what you think is best for me. Or do we want to have autonomy in deciding what is the best for me? I think it's a very philosophical question because it also goes back to the question of how we define human autonomy, or do we have any illusion or even delusion about this autonomy.”

S. Venus Jin, PhD

  • Professor in Residence and Director of the Communication Program, Northwestern University in Qatar

Background reading


Subscribe to Breaking Boundaries wherever you listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode:
spotify-podcast-badge-blk-wht-165x40.png en_google_podcasts_badge_2x.png us_uk_apple_podcasts_listen_badge_rgb.svg us_listenon_amazonmusic_button_white_rgb_5x.png 

Read the summary of this show

Growing up in Korea during a time of rapid technological growth and influenced by her late father's science and engineering background, Northwestern University in Qatar Professor S. Venus Jin gained exposure to a variety of emerging technologies such as social media, virtual reality, digital games, robots and AI, leading to her multifaceted career as a scholar, entrepreneur and front-end web developer. In this episode, she explores the evolving landscape of decision-making in the era of AI. Jin's insights into the persuasive power of AI algorithms, chatbots and virtual influencers shed light on how technology is influencing consumer behavior across various industries, from e-commerce to entertainment. 

The conversation extends to the metaverse, a digital realm where AI and humans interact in immersive 3D environments. Jin breaks down the concept, explaining that the metaverse can mirror the real world or diverge dramatically, affecting human behavior accordingly. She shares examples, such as non-fungible tokens, that challenge traditional notions of ownership and open new possibilities within the metaverse. 

As the discussion navigates through the global landscape, Jin draws parallels between Korea, Qatar and the United States, highlighting the commonalities in their technology-driven societies while acknowledging cultural differences through comparing these diverse societies’ receptivity to AI and metaverse technologies. Jin also addresses ethical concerns surrounding AI, emphasizing the need for collaboration between humans and machines. She envisions a future where AI contributes to a more sustainable and inclusive world. 

Read the transcript of this show

[00:00:00] Annelise Riles: Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, Executive Director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffett Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise, geography, culture, and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Can artificial intelligence accelerate progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals? Today's guest thinks so. Venus Jin is a professor in the communication program at Northwestern University in Qatar. She studies the social, cultural, psychological, and economic impact of artificial intelligence technologies and how they shape who we are as human beings, from virtual influencers to online dating. Venus, welcome to the show.

[00:00:59] Venus Jin: Thank you so much for having me, Annelise. 

[00:01:02] Annelise Riles: Well, let's begin with you, Venus. You were born and raised in Korea. How did you get interested in AI? Was there a particular experience or something that planted the seed for you of this work? 

[00:01:15] Venus Jin: I was always interested in technology and science. My career path developed quite organically. Yes, I was born and raised in Korea, which is a very tech savvy and technology driven society with such an exponential growth rate. And Korea is very similar to Qatar in that it's a small country that has one of the highest internet penetrations. I was educated in the knowledge economy where human capital and technology adaptability matter a lot in such a fast growing economy. And that was my environmental factor that shaped my interest in emerging technologies such as virtual reality, haptics, social media, digital games, robots and artificial intelligence. And when it comes to my family background, my late and beloved father had a science and engineering background, and I learned a lot from him. So that also inspired my interest in technology. 

[00:02:14] Annelise Riles: I was so excited to have you on the podcast because you really are a boundary breaker. You're a scholar, but you're also a developer, you're an entrepreneur, you're a media leader. Tell us a little bit about how your multiple careers fit together. 

[00:02:30] Venus Jin: Thank you so much for your kind description of my identities. My identities as a scholar, entrepreneur, and front end web developer are all inseparable and synergetic. I've always been a scholar since I embarked on my academic career. If I need to choose the most integral part of my career, it would definitely be scholar, especially since I joined Northwestern. However, it's very important to acknowledge that the various roles I played as a marketing director, a branding advisor, front end web developer, and entrepreneur enormously empowered me to become a better and more effective teacher. And also a stronger and even more productive scholar who strives to pursue impactful and influential teaching and research. So while I was working at business school to teach marketing, branding, and entrepreneurship, I also had relevant industry experiences of co-founding tech startups and serving as marketing director and branding advisor for startup companies in South Korea. As a co-founder of tech startup companies, I had a rare privilege of meeting with and being mentored by prominent entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who actually provided valuable and deeper insights into my research on entrepreneurship, and even on artificial intelligence. So luckily and gratefully, during my entrepreneurial journey, I also acquired knowledge of programming languages and coding skills, which were not only necessary practical skill sets required in the competitive tech startup landscape in South Korea, but also an organic development for me both personally and professionally. So my knowledge of computer programming languages and coding skills in turn helped me a lot in teaching artificial intelligence and machine learning at Northwestern University in Qatar. I could never connect all these dots looking forward, but now I can connect the dots looking backward.

[00:04:38] Annelise Riles: We often hear these days about people in the tech world saying, Oh, we don't need universities anymore. I don't want to get even an undergraduate degree. I'm just going to go right into my startup business. But you've kind of done it in reverse. You had an academic career, then you did some startup work. And then you came back and are now looking at all this from the point of view of a scholar. Why did you want to be in an academic environment? And how do you think universities can connect the dots across all these different fields?

[00:05:04] Venus Jin: In the current environment, it's sometimes really hard to draw a clear dividing line between academia and industry because everything is converging. Without practical skills and knowledge of the real battlefield in the industry, you cannot possibly teach entrepreneurship and marketing. And without this theoretical knowledge of the field, you cannot be a good entrepreneur. So I think rather than differentiating between two fields, I think it'd be more and more converging.

[00:05:36] Annelise Riles: So, you're doing research on the metaverse and, I'm not sure I totally understand what is a metaverse, so that would be my first question. What's a metaverse? And then what's interesting about this space? Are you finding that people behave differently in that space than in so-called real life or actually not?

[00:05:52] Venus Jin: It depends on the context. So for example, if we employ metaverse as a digital representation or a mirror world of the real world, people may behave pretty similarly. But if we develop something different from the real world, not necessarily an exact replication of the real world, people may show different behaviors. So it really depends on what type of metaverse. So metaverse refers to simply a computer generated universe, in practice. But theoretically, it's a conceptual framework envisioning an interactive, immersive, 3D environments inhabited by avatars. So one of the primary applications of AI in the metaverse is the development of digital twins, which refers to virtual representations of real physical objects, systems, or even processes. So, for example, if we are exactly replicating the virtual store of Nike, so people can see the actual digital twins of Nike products in the Metaverse Nike store, people may show very similar behaviors and psychological responses. But if Nike decides to develop a totally, I mean, dramatically different virtual store than the real world, people may find it innovative and may show different behaviors. So it really depends on what type of platforms we are developing within the metaverse or what type of attributes we are creating within the metaverse.

[00:07:27] Annelise Riles: Have you seen any cases of really interesting metaverses that are totally different than the real world where people are able to imagine new possibilities that we don't see in our daily lives?

[00:07:40] Venus Jin: So for example, non-fungible tokens, what is it? It totally changes our perception of ownership of physical products. It also begins with our groundbreaking paradigm change, such as if you want to own something, in the real world, we need to touch it and we have it in front of us. That's what we mean by ownership. But this metaverse and non-fungible token, these concepts, dramatically changes the concept of ownership. It's not like you own the physical products in front of you. It's like, think about the first time a credit card was introduced to the world. It's not money at all, right? But now, no one questions the concept of credit cards. Sometimes it's more credible than real money, right? They don't actually verify your credit card, but if you give this 100 bill to the cashier, they actually verify it, right? That kind of paradigm change about what we really mean by owning things, is a digital artifact. Credit card is also a type of digital artifact because it's not physical money. But we trust that transaction system. So that could be one of the groundbreaking paradigm changes about this virtual commerce in the metaverse.

[00:08:53] Annelise Riles: That's absolutely fascinating. So, you mentioned before that in your experience, Qatar and Korea have a lot in common, which I thought is fascinating. Can you talk a little bit about how these issues look similar or different between Qatar and Korea and the United States where you've also done a lot of research and obviously studied. And what difference does it make that you are thinking of these things from the point of view of a leading university in the global south?

[00:09:21] Venus Jin: Korea and Qatar is both similar and different. There are, of course, cultural differences between Korea and Qatar. Both countries are small countries with lower populations compared to the United States.Both Korea and Qatar have one of the highest internet penetrations in the world. Korea is very tech savvy and technology driven society, and Qatar is like that too. And as a lead principal investigator of this QNRF grants, I discovered that Qatar is also very technology driven society. Qatar is lucky in the sense that they have both human capital and natural resources. But Korea doesn't have that much natural resources. It's a very human-capital oriented society. And Korea and US are similar in the sense that the startup landscape is very, very competitive. And technology is the driving force for business and AI driven transformation. So, I think, Korea, Qatar, and the U.S., they're all very technology driven society and also value diversity in a different way. So that actually is a really, really important component of knowledge economy.

[00:10:37] Annelise Riles: Do you find any differences in people's receptivity to, say, robots or metaverse between these different societies, or are people pretty much the same everywhere in the way they engage with these new technologies?

[00:10:52] Venus Jin: I conducted a longitudinal three year survey within Qatar to measure Qatar's engagement with emerging technologies. And we found that there was no significant difference between the Qatari population and expats population in Qatar with regard to the awareness of emerging technologies and adoption of emerging technologies.

[00:11:15] Annelise Riles: So let's talk specifically about AI for a moment. So how do you think AI is changing the way humans make decisions? And do you see possibilities there for promoting more sustainable futures?

[00:11:30] Venus Jin: So to answer your question, we first need to acknowledge that there are many different types and many different branches of AI, including machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing, like ChatGPT, robotics, speech recognition, and even face recognition. So these different branches and types of AI may have differential impacts on human decision making. So for example, natural language processing chatbots. If you have real time conversation with chatbots, that may influence your compliance with or reactions to chatbots. When chatbots recommend products in online shopping context or persuasive brand communication, not only those real time product recommendations and online shopping, but also longer term customer relationship management. That's one of the examples of how chatbots and AIs can influence consumers' decision making. Whether consumers are willing to buy products recommended by chatbots or Netflix recommendation systems that may influence consumers decision making through more personalized recommendations of movies and TVs. And also, for example, Airbnb has adopted machine learning algorithms for predictive search or predictive pricing or even customer profiling to provide more tailored guest recommendations. So, AI is increasingly impacting consumers' conscious, unconscious, and sometimes even subconscious decision making in various industries, including education, entertainment, tourism, and even business and finance. Because you are persuaded to buy the products recommended by these AI algorithms. It actually indicates that this reduction in consumer autonomy in the decision making process increases some concerns about interference and even manipulation by AI algorithms. So, I actually examined the effects of these various factors of AI algorithms or even personalities of robots, which was my first experiment about human robot interaction, and force feedback in robotic haptic interfaces, or anthropomorphic, more human like characteristics of AI chatbots, or eeriness versus humanness of AI powered virtual influencers. How all these factors can influence the persuasion process. Whether consumers feel comfortable with complying with all these recommendations, or they react to these product recommendations. So that's what I have examined in my human AI interaction research.

[00:14:11] Annelise Riles: We at Northwestern Buffett have just launched a social innovation hub with the University of Tokyo, focusing on the positive and negative human dimensions of AI, and what to do about these at a national and global level. And one of our researchers made the strong claim that people in the next generation will have a harder time making decisions because they've become so used to having machines make decisions for them. What do you think about that?

[00:14:41] Venus Jin: Absolutely. That's exactly what I meant by reduction in consumer autonomy. And at the end of the day, I think we need to answer this question ourselves. What do we want? Do we want a more convenient way of shopping? So you just get me what you think is best for me. Or do we want to have autonomy in deciding what is the best for me? I think it's a very philosophical question because it also goes back to the question of how we define human autonomy, or do we have any illusion or even delusion about this autonomy. And at the end of the day, by the way, AI has been created by humans. Then do we give permission to this AI or the human developers to make decisions about our lives? So far, I talked about just consumer behavior context, but it could be even larger questions about our life. For example, our career path. What is the best career path for me? Right? Just tell me what I need to do in my life. That could be a bigger question. We need to ask, as a human, do we really want predictive AI to give the answer we're looking for? So, are we looking for a more convenient and efficient lifestyle so that we don't have to waste too much time on deciding. When there are too many options, maybe it's better to have fewer options and get the best efficient path for us. Or do we want to explore as many options as possible and then make a decision? So I think it goes back to the question of what do we really want as humans? Or how do we even define humans versus machines? 

[00:16:21] Annelise Riles: And what should we do about this? Is this a problem for regulation? Is it a problem for corporate ethics standards? Is it a problem that can be solved through education? What are your thoughts about that?

[00:16:36] Venus Jin: It's actually everything. There should be, of course, regulators and policymakers who need to address the ethical dilemmas we face here. Ethical dilemmas meaning, of course, we want more efficient ways of getting things done. But at the same time, we should have some level of human autonomy here. Because at the end of the day, what we want is ethical AI. In response to your question about education, that's exactly why we need to keep educating our Northwestern students on the integral role AI plays in a wide variety of industries: education, entertainment, business and finance. The more our students are aware of this variety of roles AI plays in our society, the better they are informed of the possible consequences of AI. And we need to educate our students to be responsible for utilizing any types of AI technologies.

[00:17:34] Annelise Riles: So Venus, you've said that you believe that AI and humans can work together to make the world a better place. Can you explain this? 

[00:17:42] Venus Jin: AI was not built in a day, actually, so it took years and years and even decades and decades of R&D for AI and deep learning to convince the market and the general public. It took even many years for deep learning methods to get traction even within the academic research community. So it was not until very recent years for deep learning and AI to be recognized as creative tools to be utilized in the real world, and also applicable not only to scientists or developers, but also to ordinary people's everyday lives. Given this recent exponential growth rate of AI and this continuous advancements in enabling technologies. We may see the fruition of that hope that AI and humans working together to make the world a better place in the near future. It's just my personal hope. But there is a caveat here, as far as humans develop ethical AI and build a socially responsible AI ecosystem. As well as humane metaverse and human centered metaverse to make the world a more convenient place. In response to the question you asked, like, what do we want? How we define a better world? Is it a more efficient and convenient world? Or what type of world do we want at the end of the day? This will mark a transformation from Industry 4.0 or Economy 4.0 to Industry 5.0 and Economy 5.0, where we need to highlight the importance of R&D or innovation to support more resilient prosperity. Meaning we need to develop secure, inclusive, green, and more sustainable economy, so that AI can be a longer term service to humanity. And once again, this is why I emphasize the need for greater collaboration between humans and machines, so that we empower each other.

[00:19:39] Annelise Riles: So, Venus, you're such a fascinating person. You are doing so many different things. Give us just a little insight into what's next for Venus Jin. What is your next big project? And also, let me close by asking you a question I ask all my guests, which is, as you think about that next big project, what is worrying you the most and what gives you the most hope?

[00:19:59] Venus Jin: I am aware of all the ethical issues and challenges surrounding AI and metaverse. There are so many issues, of course, including privacy invasion, information security, surveillance, reduction in human autonomy, misinformation, deepfake, even plagiarism resulting from generative AI like chat GPT. And replacement of jobs with AI, digital divide, and so forth. But I believe in the goodwill of the human race. I may sound too romantic or too optimistic, but I believe in the goodwill of human race and the dynamic process of this development and progress. I'm an optimist by nature and I'm a techno enthusiast by nurture. So throughout human history, there always, always have been concerns and skepticism about newer and emerging technologies as with TV, Internet. But no one questions the efficacy of the Internet nowadays, So I think it's important to respond to criticisms, address social challenges and tackle ethical dilemmas. Of course, that is the first thing to do before proceeding. But it doesn't mean that we should stop R&D for technological innovation and human progress. So, I'm optimistic and hopeful that AI will have profound impact on theoretical advancement in many disciplines. We also need to acknowledge the huge implications of AI, such as predictive analytics and predictive medicine. Like AI powered healthcare, for personalized medicine and disease detection, this is another example of human progress through technology and science, as well as AI saving people's lives. To this end, I think developing ethical AI systems, humane ecosystem will be crucial. The next step for me would be keep studying on the impact of social and psychological, cultural, and economic impact of AI on human society, and make theoretical and practical contributions to building this sustainable AI ecosystem.

[00:22:10] Annelise Riles: Well, Venus Jin, thank you.

[00:22:12] Venus Jin: Thank you so much for having me Annelise.

[00:22:14] Annelise Riles: For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at