Emotional intelligence: An automation task too far

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Automation will improve many aspects of business and may lead to job losses, but robots will never master soft skills

Technology offers us more flexibility and freedom than ever. It also enables us to automate many complex and repetitive tasks, traditionally the kind which humans tend to falter at given our limited attention spans, and need for sleep, food and respite.

Indeed there are endless examples of how automation helps businesses increase efficiencies and compete more effectively. For example, a European bank is using automated voice biometrics to improve call handling with high-net worth clients.

But conversely automation can, but not always, lead to job losses. The financial services sector was particularly quick to embrace Artificial Intelligence and data analytics and the effect this has had on the number of people it employs has been dramatic. In 2000, financial services employed 150,000 people in New York but by 2013 that had dropped to 100,000, while Wall Street’s profits soared. Using algorithms to automatically execute equity trades, rather than people, certainly hasn’t been bad for business.

Naturally this is a worry for some people, as no sector is immune from digital disruption. And more recent research suggests that 40% of young people across nine countries believe their current jobs could be automated within 10 years. How then can people upskill themselves to remain employable during and after the digital revolution?

I believe emotional intelligence is the key to ongoing success. While machines surpass people at mathematical or physically gruelling and precise tasks, they are terrible at anything requiring “soft skills”. The best that’s been achieved to date to my knowledge is Pepper, the “emotional robot” which can apparently feel “joy, surprise, anger, doubt and sadness” at what looks like a very basic level.

Good communication and interpersonal skills are vital in any role, and are the backbone of any business which deals with people. Demand for those who excel at emotional intelligence, while machines take care of the rest, will surely rise and I believe dramatically so. It’s therefore vital that both individuals and organisations prepare.

At the moment there are just a small range of courses available to help people upskill here. We’ve been working with the Cabinet Office to develop its Plotr game to help young people discover careers they’ll love; perhaps this is something the government should be investing in further, particularly as consumer technology seems to be robbing the younger generations of their ability to interact with people in real life.

Meanwhile businesses should be hiring for emotional intelligence so they have a workforce adept at dealing with change, and who understand and motivate others, and manage both positive and negative emotions to create an environment where everyone can be at their best. Self-reported testing only tells half the story. Detailed conversations with references and behavioural event questioning in face-to-face interviews will tell the other half.

The march of the intelligent machines will not abate. Ultimately their ability to dramatically improve the lives we lead and the businesses we run has been proven time and time again. But AI and data analytics are not here to make people redundant, they are here to allow us to refocus on our often overlooked, but totally unique, interpersonal skills.

Mark Sear is CTO Big Data at EMC Consulting EMEA

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