We are in an emotional and physical crisis and it is far from over. Government lockdowns of sectors of the economy, and other mandates have caused physical and psychological harm to so many of us. While often well-intentioned, these lockdowns have destroyed small businesses. Children are socially isolated from their peers. Seniors died in nursing homes by the tens of thousands due to poor government policies, while others are choosing euthanasia. Computer models predict as much as a 145% increase in suicide rates. And, there are over 2 million COVID-19 related deaths reported in the world. There is also a debate on which would lead to the greatest harm — the economic and psychological cost of shutting down the world economy, or the deaths that could be prevented. Emotions are high on both sides of this debate and one thing is certain: we often dismiss the feelings of the other side.
What Does This Have to do with Automation?
I am a strong advocate for data-driven decisions. It’s true that gut decisions rely on our wealth of individual experiences. They’re useful when you walk home from a bar at 3am, or when time is short and taking too long to make a decision could result in a missed opportunity. But data makes an idea understandable, draws out new ideas in a collaborative environment, and reveals biases based on bad data in our learned experiences, and our emotions.
The COVID-19 response was a combination of personal and political bias, statistical models, and the feelings of policy-makers who were often more interested in their chances of reelection than the outcomes of their decisions and the feelings of others. As a data geek, INTJ (and sometimes P, depending on the season), and practicing stoic, I’m the first to admit that my EQ is low. I work on this daily, and I bring people into the fold who are more emotionally-driven because their views of the world bring fresh ideas (and datapoints) that I would be unlikely to imagine.
Machine Learning works by feeding lots of inputs into a black box and producing statistical outputs. Over time, a machine is trained with data to increase the probability of good decisions. If it is missing a data set, it chooses randomly and adjusts based on feedback. But there’s a problem.
Artificial intelligence often doesn’t take emotional outcomes into consideration. There are affective computing projects and algorithms in which data scientists attempt to bridge the gap between machine learning and human emotion. But this space is often overlooked, still evolving, and far from reaching consensus in methodologies.
Statistical Models, and COVID-19 Lockdowns
In the case of COVID-19 lockdowns, many of the statistical models pointed to hockey-stick spikes in cases. This led to lockdowns, mask mandates, and other measures as a well-intentioned attempt at flattening the curve. Then, as most people acclimated to the “new normal,” the goalposts were moved to waiting for a vaccine. Presently, in the United States, the goalposts are at 100 million shots in 100 days. This reality feels like a simulation taken from an early 20th century dystopian novel. But, it’s logical, right?
We’re told that these lockdowns and mandates are based on data — and they are. The issue is that it’s an incomplete data set. While scientists, doctors, and politicians have been so focused on the physical reality that is COVID-19, they have often neglected the emotional response that inevitably ensued. Had they considered the emotions of millions… billions of people who hold a variety of values and beliefs, they could have chosen more reasonable measures to counter this deadly virus while also protecting people’s mental health and wellbeing.
The Value of Emotional Intelligence in an Automated Reality
Statistical models drive our decisions. In many cases, they work, because the intended outcomes are simple. Show people more content that confirms their biases, and they are more likely to spend time on your social media platform, click ads, and generate revenue for your company. A few lines of code in PyTorch or Tensorflow and voila! You’ve got profits. Yet as most of us know, the unintended outcomes are not so simple.
Algorithms designed by coders with overly-developed frontal lobes are having consequential effects on our limbic systems. To anticipate, and at times counter these effects, companies will continue to place more value on the emotional intelligence of their employees, consultants, and leaders.
Life Before Social Media
We GenXers (ok, Boomers too) remember life before social media was a thing. We played outside, without adult supervision as long as we were home by dark. We visited libraries and pretended to understand the Dewey Decimal System while scrolling through pages of microfilm and tables of contents. And, we flipped through the telephone book and memorized the phone numbers of our closest friends. Our attention spans are longer than those of our younger counterparts. Consequently, we often prefer the longer-form, conversational content found on Facebook over the fleeting thoughts shared on Snapchat. Yet, like our younger counterparts, our thoughts and behaviors are shaped by the content we consume. And, the content we consume is shaped by an algorithm designed to keep us engaged for the longest time possible.
Behavioral Shaping Beyond the Clicks
We also find our behaviors shaped through automation in the physical world. Bernie Sanders attacks Amazon and Jeff Bezos every day. Yet, their interests are aligned when it comes to raising the minimum wage, because Bernie is operating on an incomplete data set. As the minimum wage is increased, Amazon’s often smaller competitors are forced to raise prices. Yet Amazon’s robots have reduced their staffing requirements by as much as 400%. Consequently, small businesses that cannot afford the upfront costs associated with automation raise their prices. We price-driven consumers then change our shopping behavior and purchase more products from Amazon as a result of their effective use of automation. Small businesses shut their doors, and the people who expected a life quality increase as a result of government enforced minimum wage now find themselves jobless.
Emotional Intelligence and Life Beyond COVID-19 Lockdowns
I don’t expect that life will return to “normal” anytime soon. But what I do know is that decisions that rely on incomplete data can produce disastrous outcomes. Instead of relying entirely on Dr. Fauci — who obviously wants good outcomes, we may want to include emotionally intelligent people in the decisions being made. They can reveal unique perspectives — and problems, that are so often missed.