Cultivating emotional intelligence in age of AI

AI has thus far proven to perform pretty poorly when it comes to interpreting human facial expressions. Freepik

AI has thus far proven to perform pretty poorly when it comes to interpreting human facial expressions. Freepik

Published Feb 13, 2024


INTELLIGENT and skilled, a new generation of machines is poised to forever change the way we work – or don’t, if you’re one of the 85 million people projected to lose your job to artificial intelligence (AI) by 2025.

In 2023, the pace of change seemed to accelerate even more - with AI tools such as ChatGPT going from niche curiosities for nerds to household names in a matter of months.

It’s enough to leave any business leader a bit disoriented – and concerned – about how they might fit into this brave new world. As machines grow smarter and more capable, leaders can protect their jobs by cultivating those forms of intelligence unique to humans.

Unique talents

The good news is that organisations still need flesh-and-blood leaders - even in the age of AI. And the leaders who successfully ride this wave of innovation won’t do so by mimicking machines. Instead, leaders will grow and thrive by tapping into their uniquely human capabilities.

Cultivating emotional intelligence is one of the most important and effective ways to do this. But what exactly is it? In his new book, The Threshold: Leading in the Age of AI, Nick Chatrath draws on the framework devised by psychologist Howard Gardner to define emotional intelligence as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills in two key areas:

  • Intrapersonal relating - understanding yourself, what you feel and what you want; and
  • Interpersonal relating - sensing others’ intentions and desires.

You can probably imagine a variety of ways in which these skills and their underlying mindsets would be useful. Still, the question remains: how exactly are they going to help ensure you have a place in your organisation for years to come?

Interpreting feelings

To answer that, it helps to have an understanding of the trends shaping AI’s development - and why AI can’t replicate humans’ emotional intelligence.

As we’ve seen, AI has gotten quite proficient at creating convincing representations or simulations of human writing. It’s also demonstrated an ability to draw like a human and talk like a human. So, why can’t AI interpret emotions like a human?

There are several reasons.

In his book, Chatrath explains that it starts with a matter of mathematics. Tools such as ChatGPT are effective at replicating human writing because they are trained on enormous data sets, in relatively narrowly defined areas. So if AI scans a thousand sentences, it can produce a sentence of its own with relative ease.

However, emotions are a much trickier subject.

An AI programme that has never had a glass of milk can’t imagine what it tastes like, or what childhood memories it might invoke. An AI programme that has never fallen in love has no point of reference for the excitement of a relationship beginning, or the pain of it ending. Such sensations are simply beyond AI’s ability to “experience”.

Chatrath spoke with a scientist at DeepMind, the company behind AlphaGo, an AI program that made headlines in 2017 for beating a human champion at the complex strategy game Go. They told him that both algorithmic and hardware inefficiencies make it unlikely that AI will have the raw power needed to master the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of human feeling.

Business leaders with emotional intelligence will remain in-demand, despite the growth of AI. | Freepik

Human niche

It turns out that when it comes to interpreting emotions, AI even has trouble achieving more modest goals. Despite the claims of some tech companies, the tech has so far proven unable to correctly interpret people’s facial expressions on a consistent basis. Whether facial expressions are an accurate proxy for emotional status is, of course, a matter of debate itself.

Could AI learn to get better at this - to the point where it exceeds human emotional intelligence across the board? While this is possible in theory, it is unlikely in practice. Most psychologists agree that humans learn by doing, and in the process, through making mistakes.

However, many experiments (even ones that could potentially yield useful information) are beyond ethical boundaries. Allowing robots to make mistakes could prove costly or even deadly. It’s hard to argue that risking harm to huge numbers of people would be worth the reward of smarter AI.

So, if robots aren’t going to fill this niche, humans will have to do it.

Mindful leadership

When you’re fully present, people notice it. They feel heard and respected, and motivated to do their best.

Satisfaction and productivity skyrocket when leaders show they care for others by calming their minds and paying attention to colleagues.

In other words, leaders are at their best when they bring their full emotional intelligence to their work.

​And that’s something only humans can do.

* Supplied by Gestaldt Consulting Group