AI and the rise of the emotional economy

Intelligent machines are starting to do many tasks that until recently were the exclusive domain of people. From delivering pizza to filing simple legal briefs, AI-powered software agents and robots are taking tasks away from humans. But while doom and gloom prognosticators have dominated mainstream media with predictions that this will inevitably cause mass unemployment, there’s reason to believe the opposite: that as we automate elements of our jobs, we’ll need to be even more human to succeed.

That’s because AI assistants have the potential to fundamentally remake our economy so that it more prominently features humans doing human things, things that involve emotion and empathy.

Emotional labor

The future of work will no doubt create myriad jobs in science and engineering, including jobs building, training, and maintaining all those AIs. But mundane and repetitive tasks, many technical ones included, will also be shifted from humans to intelligent agents. That will have two big effects:

  1. It will give us more time. With less time needed to devote to impersonal things like scheduling meetings, managing budgets, or analyzing data, we’ll have more time to devote to the emotional parts of our jobs. That will give salespeople more time to form relationships with customers, nurses more time to attend to patients, and designers more time to talk to customers about their needs.
  1. It will force us to place a higher value on emotional labor. There’s plenty of evidence that humans can form complex emotional bonds with robots (like in battle, where soldiers have forged emotional attachments to very unemotional bomb disposal bots), and that’s great. But it doesn’t mean the age of humans is at its imminent end.

A robot might be well-suited to listen to a dementia patient tell the same story over and over, for example, but it’s unlikely robots will completely replace humans in emotional settings. (Think of it this way: who do you want breaking the news to you about bad test results?) As Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) wrote in a 2013 report (PDF): “The NHS could employ hundreds of thousands of staff with the right technological skills, but without the compassion to care, then we will have failed to meet the needs of patients.”

The worker of the future

It’s not just about the work we already think of as emotional (like nursing); AI will bring emotional labor to every industry. That means the people who thrive in the new economy will have high degrees of emotional intelligence (EQ), which is defined by traits like empathy, collaboration, and socialization. Fast Company even credits an embrace of empathy and collaboration with powering the turnaround at Microsoft. Research shows that high EQ already correlates to greater levels of innovation, and it will only increase in importance as the proliferation AI puts a premium on emotional labor.

Here’s how it might look: sales professionals, freed from the drudgery of qualifying leads, optimizing funnels, and sending follow up emails, will spend most of their time forging relationships with clients. Financial advisors won’t be hired because they achieve the best returns—their AIs will manage your money—they’ll be hired because they connect with you, make you feel confident about your future, and provide empathy when you go through a rough patch with your finances. Recruiters won’t have to burn daylight reading resumes and writing recruitment emails. Instead, they’ll put their energy into connecting with recruits on an emotional level and making sure they match the right people to the right jobs.

This will be a positive development for humanity. Historically, emotional labor has been greatly undervalued, even though it has played a central role in our society. Writer Livia Gershon points to the example of police, who spend 80 percent of their jobs on emotional interactions like defusing disputes. Yet police training tends to focus more on things like weapons use, hand-to-hand combat, criminal codes, and tactical defense.

As AI agents (whether software applications or physical robots) take on more of our non-emotional tasks, we will begin to value more the things that remain dominated by humans. The emergence of the emotional labor economy will offer us opportunities to provide value in ways that highlight creativity, passion, and empathy.

Preparing for the emotional economy

Because it’s becoming clear that the emotional traits humans bring to the table are not so easily automated, employers are starting to place a premium on those traits. Those core skills are what neuroscientist Tara Swart calls “executive functions,” and they include the ability to:

  • regulate our emotions
  • suppress our biases
  • switch between tasks
  • solve complex problems
  • think creatively and flexibly

Emotional intelligence flows from your ability to master these executive functions. Employers are already looking for the skills that make up the bedrock of EQ, and once repetitive and mundane aspects of your work are automated away, they’ll be even more important. Just like hard skills—the ones that are so often suited for AI and automation—these soft skills can be developed with practice.

Practice observing how your colleagues and customers feel. Take reflective breaks (go for a walk!) to think carefully about what you’re trying to accomplish. Get in the habit of starting with the question, “why?” when trying figure out a certain feeling or behavior. Learn to use classic storytelling techniques to better communicate with others.

By embracing your humanity at its most fundamental level, you’ll set yourself up for success in the emotional economy.


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