Why Emotional Intelligence is So Valuable in the Age of Machine Learning

In a world where Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning continue to proliferate, it’s easy to lose sight of our human-level capabilities. The technological changes occurring mean that what makes us human will become more important, rather than less so.

Emotional Intelligence is at the heart of what separates humans from machines. Our opportunity therefore is to embrace the evolving technological change while harnessing the Emotional Intelligence skills that differentiate us.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are becoming increasingly pervasive in our work and lives. From driverless cars to text recognition, medical diagnostics and data analysis, AI is making inroads into more industries and activities every day. At the heart of AI, ML algorithms tease out relationships and reveal the interconnections captured by data. What’s learned through this process allows fast and effective automation of a number of tasks. Humans simply cannot compete with the power and efficiency of AI in doing this.

So, where does this leave humanity?

The humanness of EI

Fortunately, humans are good at other things. The less quantifiable, more abstract things that permeate human interactions. Things like empathy, motivation and emotional awareness, all of which underpin Emotional Intelligence.

The term ‘Emotional Intelligence’, or EI, first appeared in a Columbia University paper in 1964, but was popularised by the 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman. According to Psychology Today, EI refers to identifying and managing emotions, both your own and those of others. PositivePsychology.com, a resources site for psychology practitioners, considers EI skills to include listening to others, understanding others’ perspectives and responding to others’ emotions.

It is clear that EI has implications for our personal and professional lives, in the way we interact with others and the outcomes that those interactions provide.

Grounds for differentiation

In a recent Forbes article, technology commentator Bernard Marr observed that “A machine can’t easily replace a human’s ability to connect with another human being, so those who have high EQs will be in demand”. Here Marr uses the term EQ, or ‘Emotional Quotient’, interchangeably with EI. Marr’s view is synonymous with a growing demand for EI skills amongst employers, as evidenced by LinkedIn’s report on the highest demand skills in 2020. EI appeared amongst the top 5 soft skills in the report for the first time and is described as “a skill important in just about every role”.

The value of EI therefore lies in its positioning as a primary point of differentiation between human and machine capabilities. Machines struggle with the aspects of human behaviour that EI excels at. Megan Beck and Barry Libert, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, consider that AI will quickly surpass human abilities in processing ‘rote’ tasks and determining evidence-based courses of action, but it has trouble replicating the emotion-rich interactions that characterise EI. “A smart machine may be able to diagnose an illness and even recommend treatment better than a doctor”, Beck and Libert suggest, “It takes a person, however, to sit with a patient, understand their life situation … and help determine what treatment plan is optimal”.

Do androids dream of electric sheep?

In the 1982 film ‘Blade Runner’, an adaptation of the novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’, a bounty hunter pursues renegade human-like androids. Some of these androids develop a capacity for human emotion, showing compassion, love and a high degree of self-awareness. Blade Runner is an attractive film, with its dystopian, film-noir appeal, but perhaps its most intriguing aspect is its exploration of the divide between humans and machines.

There are many who worry about the possibilities that Blade Runner alludes to. How far can AI-powered machines evolve toward human-like characteristics? IBM’s Watson, for instance, can answer questions with intelligent, natural language responses, and has even beaten the world’s foremost players in the challenging game of Jeopardy. Sophia, the humanoid robot developed by Hanson Robotics, sports a human-like appearance, can sustain eye-contact, make facial gestures and engage in rudimentary conversation. Sophia is also the first robot to receive citizenship of a country, Saudi Arabia, and the first non-human to be given a United Nations title, the UN Development Program’s Innovation Champion.

Even humble chat bots, the software that we may find ourselves talking to during customer service calls, are rapidly improving their human-like abilities. IBM estimates that chatbots can already answer up to 80% of common customer queries today. The future is already amongst us.

The prospect of increasing levels of automation through AI is not a foregone conclusion however. As pointed out by McKinsey in a recent report, “… simply considering the technical potential for automation is not enough to assess how much of it will occur in particular activities”. Automation depends on costs and benefits, supply and demand and regulatory and social factors in addition to technical potential. The hardest activities to automate, suggests McKinsey, are those involving managing and developing people, expertise in decision making, planning and creative work.

Stefan Reis, an HR executive at technology firm SAP, considers that “while AI may continue to change jobs, machines won’t replace our judgement and empathy”. Stefan’s view is that the human dimension will remain fundamental in the workplace. “AI may be the next wave of innovation”, he asserts, “but unique human skills such as flexibility, creativity, empathy and emotional intelligence will always be necessary to help companies achieve a sustainable, successful future”.

Embrace AI, savour the EI difference

The human ability to differentiate through EI is powerful. As noted by Sundaresan Natesan, a globalisation executive at SAP, “while any bot can deliver a technical speech, the emotional authenticity which is a crucial element in connecting with an audience can only be done by humans”. Ed Hess, co-author of ‘Humility is the New Smart’, further asserts that “in the coming Smart Machine Age, our emotional intelligence will be the very factor that makes us unique and employable”.

Beck and Libert reiterate that EI skills are essential for those wanting to stay relevant in their fields as automation proliferates. This should not suggest however that less attention be given to AI. On the contrary, Beck and Libert welcome technological advancements such as AI, noting the prospects they offer for improving our workplace and lives. Beck and Libert recommend that we embrace AI but also that we assess our EI capabilities and invest in developing these to their fullest potential.

In conclusion

While the use of AI and ML technology continues to expand seemingly unabated, it’s easy to lose sight of our relevance in an AI-driven workplace. These technological changes however, serve to highlight the skills that differentiate our human capabilities from those of machines.

EI is at the heart of this differentiation. The challenge, and opportunity, for us all therefore is to recognise and develop our human-centric, EI-driven skills so that we may stand out in an increasingly automated world.

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