Technology Is Stealing Your Empathy and Making You Obsolete

Robot with heart

Here’s some irony for you:

Emotional intelligence in humans is declining because of technology.
Emotional intelligence in machines is increasing because of technology.

If you think that’s a problem, you’re right.
It means you might become professionally obsolete if you’re not careful.

Scientists have continued to make progress in artificial emotional intelligence, also known as affective computing. The goal of affective computing is to simulate empathy in machines, giving the machine the ability to interpret the emotional state of humans and adapt its behavior accordingly.

At the same time, studies have shown that our dependence on technology is reducing our emotional intelligence. A recent study at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) looked at how media is affecting the younger generation’s social skills by observing two groups of sixth-graders from the same school. One group was sent to a nature camp without access to electronics for five days, while the other group maintained their normal usage of electronics such as smartphones and computers. The study, which was published in the October 2014 issue of Computers in Human Behavior, revealed that the sixth-graders without electronics did a significantly better job at reading emotional cues.

There’s no reason why these findings would not also apply to adults. It seems clear that being glued to a smartphone compromises a person’s ability to read the emotional cues of others. Empathy can’t exist without awareness.

Emotional intelligence is our main competitive advantage over artificial intelligence… the incredible ability to empathize and connect with another human being in those subtle, unspoken ways that only another human can. This ability has been fine-tuned for millions of years. Of course, some people do it better than others, but the capability is embedded in our genes.

Without it, we would lose our upper hand.

Machines are already faster, more efficient, and less prone to error than we are in terms of processing. Our brains simply cannot compete. Jobs continue to become superseded little by little as technology advances and reduces the number of professions that require human interaction. And this is happening in ways that may blindside most of us. For example, in the not-so-distant past, people held the assumption that cars relied on humans to be driven, yet Google quickly discredited this assumption with its creation of driverless cars.

The human component of business is still very necessary; without empathy, society would crumble. But how often do you feel like your emotional needs are actually met when you engage in a call with customer service? (Many of us would say not often.)

Now imagine how quickly the playing field will change once scientists perfect the ability of artificial intelligence to evoke empathy, to have this “human” sensitivity to emotional cues and the capacity to respond accordingly. What if they are programmed to respond to your frustrations with a sophisticated gentleness that is more consistent than what we receive from humans? Perhaps machines will never reach the emotional depth of someone who has cultivated their empathy, but it’s very likely that machines will, in the coming decades, develop a sizeable degree of emotional responsiveness. Technology is headed in that direction.

Of course, there will always be professions that require the use of real human interaction, real people—whether for innovation and idea generation, or simply a human touch. But these professions will continue to decrease as the job market shifts.

What this means is that we will eventually reach a point where the professionals in the most advantageous positions will be those who have actively (and intentionally) cultivated their emotional intelligence. These people will have retained their competitive advantage in the workforce, while those who have neglected their emotional development will be pushed out. There is nothing alarmist about it; it’s pragmatic.

Let me conclude with an example. Fast forward 25 years: Pretend you are in charge of a company and have to make decisions on how to fill a role that could be completed by either a machine or a human, with a negligible difference in cost. Given the choice between an error-prone human with limited brain processing power and moderate emotional intelligence, and a highly efficient and precise machine with adequate emotional intelligence capabilities – which would you choose?

Seems like an easy choice to me.


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