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  • Alejandro Buriel

What robots won´t do. AKA Emotional Artificial Intelligence.


As AI continues with its fascinating fast pace and taking over more and more task done by humans before, there are many interesting questions that remain open.

There are no more doubts about unmanned cars, as we are not anymore in the development stage but in the implementation stage. In his fascinating article “Autonomous vehicles: the adoption phase” Enrique Dans, provides plenty of examples of how this is happening. That creates many uncertainties about the urgent need for robot´s ethics.

If your driverless car is driving you home and suddenly a kid jumps in the middle of the road chasing his basketball, what will your car decide? There is a motorbike coming in the opposite direction on your left and a huge tree on your right. What is the ethic choice, hitting the bike, throwing you against the tree or hitting the kid? The car will know everything about previous accidents like that at that speed, will know the statistics about the injuries that you can get if hitting the tree at that speed, and even how effective the airbag system can be in saving your life.

But that is just based in Big Data and statistics, as the owner of the car, would you like the car to decide something different to preserve your life?

What I will refer to as EAI (Emotional Artificial Intelligence) is a new field that is opening and is here to stay, still partially addressed. But machines are in fact faster and already better in recognising emotions and faces than humans, as Rana el Kaliouby has proved with her company Affectiva and the amazing work done in AI systems. They have achieved and impressive accuracy in human emotions recognition recently.

The question then will be, if AI machines are able to recognise and react to our moods and emotions, even better than any human (the base of empathy) how will we compete with them? Soft skills seemed to be the only realm where we could still outperform robots.

In his book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain from 1994. The neurologist António Damásio, addresses in part a treatment of the mind/body dualism question. Damásio presents the "somatic marker hypothesis", a proposed mechanism by which emotions guide (or bias) behaviour and decision-making, and positing that rationality requires emotional input. He argues that René Descartes' "error" was the dualist separation of mind and body, rationality and emotion.

António Damásio stablished what is considered today the state of the art of the emotional neurology. This means that in order to do rational decisions, emotions and in particular emotional learning is a necessary. i.e. a kid that touches the fire with his hand learns that it burns and that pain, will prevent him from doing it in the future.

The study is fascinating, several clinical cases where the patients suffered different brain damages in brain regions responsible of our emotional learning, proved that without the ability to experience emotions and learn from them, we can´t make rational and strategical decisions and function effectively in the world.

Humans are very complex at the level of neurophysiology, to the point that certain postures or body positions are needed to be able to perform in complex intellectual and creative activities. Some others prevent, concentration, focus or even creativity. Mainly managed by the right brain hemisphere.

This discovery, that proves that emotions, and their proper management, are essential for logical and rational thinking, strategy, etc… brings us back to the topic of how machines will be able to act or make this complex kind of decisions without emotions. Deprived from a neurological system and emotions as a consequence, their ability to do more than predict results based in statistics and big data will remain a limitation for them to innovate and act strategically. They will always be circumscribed to what has already happened and measured before.

Even creativity experiments, done with AI, after a deep learning process, on all the previous genius painters or musicians works, provides them with the ability to create original and unique works of art, where you can recognise a merge of different styles and techniques taken from those geniuses. But no soul or real success to create new uncharted dimensions. They can´t make great art, or interpret great art. Or cook from the heart.

What robots can´t do is also properly covered by Blake Morgan, Customer Experience Futurist, Author, Keynote Speaker in her Forbes article: 10 Things Robots Can't Do Better Than Humans. To just enounce them:

  1. A robot can't look you in the eye. Would you trust something that can't interpret events, actions, or tones as much as a human? They can´t make you feel understood (empathy and active listening).

  2. Consider the feelings of the other person and respond accordingly.

  3. Make a person feel seen or heard. When a customer contacts you with a problem, the problem is not always the product or service. Life can be messy and sometimes customers just want some attention. By giving customers the attention needy customers want you are investing in a relationship with those customers. It's not always about selling something.

  4. Feel empathy. When another person has been through something that you've been through, and you two can share talk about it - there is nothing like it. Humans need and crave this connection. We were built to share and connect in this way.

  5. Feel sympathy. If a robot tells you, "I am sorry for your trouble, I can imagine you must be very upset" - that doesn't make you feel better, does it? No of course not, because the robot is not being genuine. It's a robot. There is no soul.

  6. Make a person feel taken care of, the way a mother or grandmother, father or grandfather can make a person feel taken care of.

  7. Understand comedy, Be good at comedy. Good comedy comes from pain, humiliation - all the good stuff of life you can't fake. You acquire stories by going through awful stuff.

  8. Establish trust with a person, the way another person is capable of establishing trust. Trust is established by consistent good behavior from both parties. A robot doesn't have a moral compass, they just have a compass.

  9. Be a critical thinker, be creative in the way the great minds of our time can be creative. I don't see a robot coming up with a "Start With Why" Simon Sinek idea, or Brene Brown's work on vulnerability and shame.

  10. In a hospital environment, deliver bad news well. If you had an MRI and were awaiting a diagnosis, would you want that diagnosis to come from a robot? I certainly wouldn't. A good doctor that knows how to communicate in a direct but empathetic way can shape the patient experience. Would you want robots zooming around a hospital doing all the surgeries and delivering diagnoses to patients? There is a human element, especially in dire situations, that can best be delivered by a person.

In summary, everything that revolves around developing our Emotional Intelligence, that was analysed and covered in depth in a enlighting way by Daniel Goleman in his 2004 Harvard Business Review article: What makes a leader.

I will cover these essential 5 leadership skills, AKA soft skills, and the best ways to start developing them in following posts during this year. As an executive coach for C-Level, I devote great part of my professional activity to support leaders in improving and developing them. As visiting professor. Applied Soft Skills, Emotional Intelligence, NLP and Positive Psychology at IE Business School University, I help my students to develop and master all these skills so essential for the future success.

Leadership skills are one of the main focuses of Business Education, and a core part of our MBAs nowadays together with all disruptive technologies, AI, Machine learning and analytics. This is the most demanded content by our clients at HARA in Asia and globally. If you want a point of start on how to develop some of your skills in the SMAC (Social Networks, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud) read my previous post Top 10 skills for 2020.


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