The importance of empathy in an automating world

January 31st, 2019 Posted by Vikee Rayner HCD, The future

Artificial intelligence appears to loom threateningly, gradually usurping us in the roles that take up our working days and put food on our tables. Computers work unceasingly; they think at mindblowing speeds; they make decisions with unnerving success. But they do not feel. This is our trump card, our competitive advantage – an advantage that, with increased, dedicated focus, can help us stay relevant and bring us closer to each other, the best position from which to achieve great things.

Our fear of being replaced by technology is by no means new: two centuries ago, textile workers in the industrial revolution destroyed machinery in protest, afraid that automation would take their jobs away. Now we are once again gripped by the fear of being superseded by artificial intelligence that can already outperform humans in many tasks. The learning rate of algorithms is exponential and will lead to what’s known as the singularity, where technology is able to think for itself and the capacity for superhuman intelligence through the merging of humans and AI extends beyond anything we can comprehend.

But where do we stand right now? According to Fortune, “The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 400 million to 800 million of today’s jobs will be automated by 2030.” That means that about 1 in 6-12 people will no longer be needed to do the job they do today. But which types of job are under threat and which are ‘safe’?

Algorithms do decisions

Beyond monotonous labour tasks, computers, apps and algorithms equipped with big data are also making decisions for us: when was the last time you navigated your way to a new destination unaided by technology? Where would we be without Google?

The decision-making ability of machines is edging into areas like insurance claims and medical diagnoses. In his Forbes article, tech analyst Mohanbir Sawhney says that, “To master these higher order judgments, all smart machines need are algorithms that feed on data to become smarter than humans.”

Creeping up on creativity

Even creativity is not entirely reserved for the human domain – though it’s much more complicated to create a piece of art, it’s something we expect machines to be able to do within a few decades. If you need convincing, take a look at how IBM’s Watson made a trailer for AI thriller movie, Morgan. It may not be accurate to label it creative, but it’s a pretty fine imitation, and if the imitation can fool us, well, does it really matter?

So, if robots can outdo us in most repetitive tasks, out-think us in an increasingly wide range of cognitive areas (eat your hard drive out, Kasparov) and get mock-creative at the drop of a clapperboard, where can we really stand out and remain relevant?

Free to offer comfort

One huge feather in the human cap is empathy – the ability to imagine life from another’s perspective and adjust your behaviour accordingly. This is where we can truly shine.  

Robots are very soon set to overtake humans in precision technical areas like medical diagnosis, and even surgery, but, The Medical Futurist asks, “could they talk to a patient with empathy about the risks and consequences of an operation?”

Picture it: you get called in to your GP’s office, you sit down in a scanner; after a minute, a Siri–us voice says, “Diagnosis: multiple sclerosis; condition: level 5; steady decline in mobility over the next 3-4 years; life expectancy: less than 5 years; cure: not applicable; medication available for pain management.” This is where you really need a human – someone who can listen, answer your questions and offer words of comfort. The 30-minute consultation becomes all about advice and support, instead of referrals and diagnosis guesswork.

Are our medical practitioners up to it? Many doctors, nurses and specialists have been accused of lacking a bedside manner – of not caring. Could it be that a practitioner free of administrative burden and the pressure of making the right decision would be freed up to foster empathy? If so, bring on the machines!

Big companies like Toyota are replacing fork-lift truck drivers with automated versions, allowing their drivers to take up more strategic roles instead. Rather than pushing humans out of the workplace, you could argue that the advent of machines is pushing us up the ladder, and that all we need do is be adaptable and upskill constantly to remain relevant. But is that just another arms race? How can we outrun artificial intelligence at adaptation?

Capitalise on the other’s strengths

Instead of stepping up and waiting for technology to catch up – and one day, inevitably, overtake – we can rather step to the side: the compassionate side, where algorithms may not tread.

We are social beings. We value face-to-face contact. Think about your best service experiences: they are a combination of clever automation with a touch of caring thrown in. Clients stay with businesses because of the relationships they form (that, and the convenience of this automation and that integration).

Empathy is essential to our success – in business and as a species

Human-centred design is all about empathy because it’s about keeping the user’s* perspective central to your process. Like many of the skills human-centred designers practise, it’s possible to improve your empathy skills, but if you don’t care about the guy who gets mad every time he has to queue to use your service, then you’re not likely to fix the problem. And you’re not likely to keep your customers. They expect more because they know they can get it. This is why it is critical for businesses to turn to human-centred solutions: it is a differentiator, but soon, it will become an imperative. Empathy keeps customers loyal.

If empathy is our competitive edge, we have some work to do. Excuses like, “It’s not my job” or “I don’t have time” can no longer be an option. If computers are going to take up a huge chunk of the workload, we need to show that we are willing to question, exercise judgement, do all we are equipped to do to blow the roof off customer service.

Artificial intelligence is not an enemy to compete with; it is a tool of mutual augmentation to work alongside.

The success of our quest to remain relevant – our very future as a species – depends on our ability to work together; for that, we must have empathy. It makes the world go round; it just so happens it’s good for business, too.

*’User’ is anyone who interacts with a service, product, or experience. It is the human who receives the solution.

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