My smartphone surprised me. It was about 7pm, and I had just gotten back to my hotel room after a long day at an out-of-town speaking engagement. I was startled by a flash from my phone, with the message, “Good evening, Colette” and photo of what looked like a row of brightly lit New Orleans French Quarter shops at dusk. I instantly had this warm and comforted feeling…then I chuckled at my response to a random phone app (which I don’t even recall downloading, by the way).
Nonetheless, it got me thinking about this idea of merging technology – particularly artificial intelligence (AI) – with human emotion. Without getting into a deep discussion of the possible consequences of “virtual emotional support,” including Stephen Hawking’s view that full development of AI would put an end to mankind, I see evidence of this level of technology leading instead to increased need for “soft skills”—the capacity for creativity, empathy, compassion, and paying attention to others. But could AI be fine-tuned to master these connecting skills? Consider the following:
Human Intangibles Can’t be Programmed – Recently, I read an article that talked about Apple Corporation’s hopes to broaden Siri’s IPhone functions to include mental health advice—sort of a quasi-therapist. To that end, this tech giant is reportedly looking for a software engineer with additional “peer counseling or psychology background.” The role is titled ‘Siri Software Engineer, Health and Wellness.’ Interestingly, the article also noted that Apple may be struggling to fill the position, which has been open since April, since there are not many people proficient in both coding and counseling. I think the lack of candidates is far more likely related to the inadequacy of “pat answers” to help people through complex emotional issues. Who else but another person could possibly understand human feelings, so often irrational and contradictory?
Connection is a Priority in Health Care – As reported by Bertalan Mesko, MD PhD in his article, “The Future is About Empathy, Not Coding,” the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that while jobs for doctors and surgeons will rise by 14% between 2014 and 2024, the top three direct-care jobs – personal-care aide, home-health aide, and nursing assistant – are expected to grow by 26%. Healthcare is a growing area, especially now with the elderly population on the rise, and human connection skills are among the most important qualifications for working in this field. As Mesko states, applying technology to treating human beings has definite limitations. Although AI will perform diagnostic tasks, and robots might be able to do certain surgeries, can an electronic device talk to a patient with empathy about the risks and consequences of an operation?
Natural Disaster & Trauma – Recently, I worked with a company that delivers technology and solutions for contact centers handling a high volume of incoming calls, including large moving, storage, and mortgage companies that have been recently inundated with calls relating to hurricane damage. Although AI can answer basic questions, these companies recognize the need for call center employees to be able to effectively communicate with victims about specific concerns. They need representatives who are skilled in relating to people who have suffered major, devastating losses after this type of large-scale disaster.