Emotional intelligence--the extent to which we understand and influence our own emotions and those of others--is the very essence of our humanity. At it's most reductive, it is the ability to not be a jerk. (That's not the word I want to use, but I'm trying to keep it clean.)

We don't form it by having it modeled for us or by reading a book. It is informed by a lifetime of our individual experiences. It is a mark of experience, but one we can short-cut by making real-time connections that matter.

Generally speaking, decades of tech innovations have made our lives easier - without a doubt - but they've also enabled us to get away with terribly low emotional intelligence. Now the digital age all but demands that every last one of us improve it on purpose, and earlier.

Here's why--and how you can achieve it.

Case in point: Show some respect to A.I.

As the brainchild of man, A.I. is a reflection of us--for better or worse. Conversational assistants like Siri and Alexa are "learning" from everyone in speaker-shot, not only A.I. developers.

"It is well known in the tech community that people say horrible things to these assistants. You would be appalled," explains Mary Czerwinski, research manager of the Visualization and Interaction (VIBE) research group at Microsoft.

"What worries us is that children using Alexa, for example, to do their homework or crack jokes--left unchecked--the artificial assistant could model really poor behavior (based on what it learned from adults)," Czerwinski says.

If improved interpersonal dynamics and earning potential aren't reason enough to develop emotional intelligence, consider this--we have no business teaching machines how to interpret emotion and act accordingly if we can't get it right for ourselves.

Our collective responsibility to teach artificial assistants how to respond to or demonstrate an emotional response is essentially an act of global parenting. I challenge all of us to model a range of emotions and conversations when engaging with conversational A.I., and to talk to them respectfully, much in the same way we try to do with our children and even our co-workers.

So what does it mean to develop emotional intelligence?

Great question. So glad you asked. The extent of our emotional intelligence informs how we communicate. And how we communicate teaches A.I. what it means to be human(like). It's worth it that we all do better.

Let's assume an A.I. visionary leading a team of developers nails the notion of empathy. Does that mean his team--the very people responsible for programming technology to be quasi-empathetic--will automatically nail it, too? 

That's a hard no, simply because the application of empathy and developing our emotional intelligence are deeply personal pursuits. It is illogical to expect a team or individual to reflect the same of their boss.

At its core, emotional intelligence is not learned, it is earned, making it achievable by everyone.

By familiarizing ourselves with the framework of emotional intelligence, and first choosing one area on which to focus our attention, such as empathy, we can make gigantic strides toward improved interpersonal communication and outcomes benefiting everyone - including the A.I. we're collectively teaching.

Start with empathy.

"Empathy is the next killer app," offers Mark Edmunds, senior partner and board member at Deloitte. "Learning or improving empathy starts with listening to learn, not to respond."

Edmunds suggests the practice of pausing for 3-5 seconds before responding. Taking a beat is a tacit signal that you care enough about someone's contributions to consider them. And, assuming you can rapidly distill what you heard, you are all but guaranteeing an empathetic response. (Side note: this technique calls up another aspect of emotional intelligence--impulse control.)

For us humans practicing it, we'll be astounded by how much we learn through active listening and a meaningful pause. And for AI developers everywhere, this is a behavior they can program to mimic a human. 

As I write this, I ask Alexa how she feels. She quips about feeling bright and loud like her holiday sweater. (Cheeky monkey.) When I ask her if she can tell how I'm feeling, she says, "Hmm. I'm not sure." 

Maybe one day soon that will change.

The technology might be far down the road, but it has a lifetime of learning left, yet. Let's raise it wisely by improving our emotional intelligence to benefit each other and the inevitability of our A.I.-dominated future.

Published on: Dec 18, 2018