What to Do Until the Machines Take Over
May 17, 2017 by Bill Rosenthal

One of my favorite stories from the annals of computing comes from the mid-1960s. Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory created a program designed to hold conversations. He named it ELIZA, after Eliza Doolittle, a lower-class character in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion who was taught to speak English like a member of the upper classes. 

The user would converse with ELIZA by typing on a keyboard and reading responses on a screen. The program acted on keywords and posed nondirectional questions. So, if you typed in something that had no keywords it recognized, it might respond with “Can you elaborate on that?” If you typed in a remark about your father, it might respond with “Tell me about your father.”

Weizenbaum created the program to demonstrate the superficiality of human to machine communication. He was candid about the program’s inability to understand or make sense of anything it was told. On one occasion, however, he was watching his office secretary use the program, when she turned to him and asked if she could be alone with the terminal!

Now, 50 years later, we are coming to grips with real artificial intelligence. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests the advent of AI has made emotional intelligence more important as a career skill. Most modern jobs follow the same general process: we gather data, we analyze it, we interpret the analysis, we recommend a course of action based on the interpretation, and we implement the recommendation. Artificial intelligence is beginning to surpass human performance in all of those processes. The article recommends cultivating your emotional intelligence as a way of staying relevant.

Wikipedia defines emotional intelligence as “the capability of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions, to discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and to manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s).” In my opinion, emotional intelligence is crucial to the highest forms of business communication: leadership and persuasion. 

But how does the ELIZA story fit in? Some of ELIZA’s users were willing to believe they were having meaningful communication with it. If a chatbot like ELIZA can persuade someone it understands them, how much more vulnerable will we be to true AI? People will eagerly accept signs that machines understand them. Alexa’s programmers at Amazon have even had to equip her with a polite response if you tell her you love her!

This is one of the reasons emotional intelligence is so crucial — not because it helps you get your point across (although it does), but because it helps you read the emotional state and intentions of those you communicate with. In other words, emotional intelligence makes you less susceptible to the ELIZA effect. This will be no small advantage in the coming world of AI-powered marketing and sales. 

I believe leadership and persuasion will always require true emotional intelligence (as opposed to artificial emotional intelligence, which is apparently a thing). But even if I’m wrong, and someone comes up with AI that can lead or persuade, there will have to be a transition during which you’ll need all your leadership and persuasion skills. Developing your emotional intelligence now will continue to confer professional success, at least until our robot overlords arrive. :)