Issue #71: Robots Can't Feel Your Pain, Fear, or Joy. So What?


The RoboPsych Newsletter

Exploring The Psychology of 
Human-Robot Interaction
Issue 71: June 26, 2017

What Will Humans Do?
Quote of the Week:


Early last year, the World Economic Forum issued a paper warning that technological change is on the verge of upending the global economy. To fill the sophisticated jobs of tomorrow, the authors argued, the ‘reskilling and upskilling of today’s workers will be critical’. Around the same time, the then president Barack Obama announced a ‘computer science for all’ programme for elementary and high schools in the United States. ‘[W]e have to make sure all our kids are equipped for the jobs of the future, which means not just being able to work with computers but developing the analytical and coding skills to power our innovation economy,’ he said.

But the truth is, only a tiny percentage of people in the post-industrial world will ever end up working in software engineering, biotechnology or advanced manufacturing. Just as the behemoth machines of the industrial revolution made physical strength less necessary for humans, the information revolution frees us to complement, rather than compete with, the technical competence of computers. Many of the most important jobs of the future will require soft skills, not advanced algebra.

The Future is Emotional"
 By Marina Benjamin

Robots Can't Feel Your Pain, Fear, or Joy  

We humans have been working with machines for less than 200 years. That's no time at all when viewed in the context of our species' 150,000 year run as the planet's dominant force. That makes technology a late addition to our social repertoire. Long before we had machines, we'd developed a suite of social mechanisms for living, communicating, and working together. Unsurprising, then, that our ability to relate to one another emotionally has been a crucial factor in our rise to planetary dominance. 

Think about it. Being able to determine that one of your fellow hunter-gatherers was frightened, angry, surprised, disgusted, sad, or happy made it much more likely that you'd be in tune with other group members; that you'd experience and display resonance with what others were experiencing; that you had what we came to call empathy for what others were going through. Doing so meant you had a much better chance to succeed in the tribe: to survive and to spread your genes. This made our emotionally aware and expressive ancestors evolutionary winners. 

As we became increasingly cognitively and technologically capable, we came to believe that intelligence, as demonstrated by a mastery of abstract concepts and numbers -- particularly through science -- was the key to success.

Over the centuries, emotions came to be seen as “unreliable,” “subjective,” “soft” and, in most cultures, “feminine.” Real men did STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). That's what made the tools (and weapons) that made the world go round. 

Enter AI and robots. 

In the early days of the 21st century, STEM, the pinnacle of human achievement, became child's play for AI. As a result, no modern human would intentionally choose to manually calculate a rocket's launch details, the return on investment for a field of corn, or the perfect factory production schedule. These were now jobs for machines. And, if expert predictions are anywhere close to right, there will soon be many more jobs that fall into that category.

What's left for humans in a world where machines can do so much?

Our first thoughts take us to “emotional work.” When we hear that phrase today, it conjures up images of child care, nursing care, or elder care; or maybe social work or missionary outreach.

What do those jobs have in common? First off, they're almost guaranteed to be low paying. Emotional work is practically universally economically undervalued. Second, emotional work still carries substantial gender connotations. Caring, “the soft stuff,” is for women; men get real things done.

Around 20 years ago, the phrase “emotional intelligence” (EQ) started showing up in business literature, made popular by Dan Goleman's book of the same name. Leaders of organizations of all kinds began to appreciate that cognitive skills in themselves were not the last word in employee performance. In a world where technical skills were becoming increasingly widespread, organizations saw that an individual's EQ, emotional sensitivity and attunement to others, whether customers or fellow employees, often accounted for significant differences in job performance. Today, consistently demonstrated EQ is often a key differentiator between average and superior performers. 

As we look ahead to a world of machine workers, EQ is likely to become an even more important factor in business success. If the future of work is “take any current job and add AI,” as Kevin Kelley suggests, we might also say that the future of successful employment is “take any AI-assisted job and add EQ.” If every AI customer service agent will be able to provide fast, accurate information, superior customer service will deliver that information in an emotionally intelligent manner. Top quality salespersons will develop emotionally-founded relationships with customers and use every interaction as an opportunity to demonstrate a caring approach to the customer's needs and desires. Physicians, police officers, teachers, and caregiving service providers of all kinds will be distinguished by their empathic resonance with their constituents and their families. 

We see this trend today in the highest levels of luxury services. Every luxury store employs customer service staff who are sensitive to the slightest nuances of their customers' experiences, anticipating reactions from those they know well. High-priced personal care providers do the same. Their goal is to make the customer service, sales, or patient experience as emotionally comfortable as possible. Personalized service to the wealthy feels emotionally intimate. 

We've also seen that services that were once only available to the wealthiest amongst us are now broadly available. Remember when only the rich took limos? Today, your Uber pulls up to your door in a matter of minutes, just like their limos did. Personal shoppers flagged special items so that their their top-spending customers could get first access. Today, Amazon will notify you of items you might be interested in based solely on a suite of rapidly improving algorithms that learn from your prior purchases and social graph. Remember when only the rich had financial advisers?  

What the wealthiest of us enjoy today, the rest of us are likely to experience (in some form) tomorrow. (This is the real meaning of "trickle down economics.")

If that trend continues, we will all have high expectations for the emotional quality of all of our service interactions in the future. We already see the best companies competing for your recommendations to others, using something called Net Promoter Score to evaluate the likelihood that their customers are satisfied, no, happy enough with their experiences to suggest them to their closest friends and family members. 

Emotionally luxurious interactions will become the new standard of excellence when AI takes care of the nuts and bolts of business transactions. No matter how sophisticated robots become, genuine, caring human engagement will always be a step ahead. After all, our ancient ancestors learned the power of forming positive emotional connections with others, a secret that will continue to make all manner of future interactions more satisfying. Unless and until robots can go beyond simulated emotional expressions, every transaction will always have hidden within it an added layer of value that can only be delivered by another, feeling, person. 


Tom Guarriello, Ph.D. 

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