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A bot might not take your job, but it could be your new coworker

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Recent commentary from Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and other influencers in the tech space has reignited the age-old conversation around how artificial intelligence will affect humanity. I say “age-old” because the idea of automation and advancements in technology disrupting the labor market is not new. This has happened in the history of mankind time and time again, from the industrial revolution to the advent of computers and the Internet. We’re seeing these concerns echoed today as AI becomes more mainstream.

Examples of automation throughout history do suggest that AI will inevitably eliminate some jobs, particularly those that are repetitive or menial. But the reality is that AI systems today are not nearly advanced enough to threaten humanity at large, and they are generally still too niche in their functions to replace people entirely. Instead, AI will augment people’s abilities to do their jobs by increasing the limits of what people are capable of achieving.

Like it or not, AI advancement is upon us, so it’s time to reframe the conversation we’re having around it. Instead of fearing the inevitable, technology and business leaders alike must consider how AI can be harnessed to improve the way we work today. This will involve thinking further out to prepare for how businesses will need to adapt as AI takes on new roles that have previously been human territory.

How will AI help people do their jobs better?

Despite the fear that AI will dehumanize our interactions in the workplace, it could actually do just the opposite if we apply it correctly. Specifically, artificial emotional intelligence — which Affectiva calls Emotion AI, a system that can read and respond to human social and emotional cues — can add valuable insight into interactions with clients, customers, and partners for professionals in a number of industries.

Take education, for instance. More than one in four students now take at least one course online during their higher education process. This leaves teachers unsure of what’s going on with students on the other side of the screen. Are they engaged and paying attention? Are they lost and confused? In a physical classroom, you could look around and quickly discern the level of engagement, but in an online world, you’re stripped of any emotional intelligence or social skills. With Emotion AI, lecturers can get insights into the emotions of their students in real time and adjust their lessons accordingly. Not only can these insights help teachers to be more effective in the moment, but data on students’ emotions as they vary across different subject areas and lessons can inform future changes to the curriculum.

The same goes for people in leadership positions across industries. Personally, I don’t foresee a social robot taking over my job as CEO anytime soon. But I do see the potential for Emotion AI to augment my abilities as a CEO so I can become a more effective and empathetic leader. For instance, like most companies today, Affectiva’s team is distributed around the world, and we communicate digitally. What If I was able to tell who is motivated and who isn’t? Or see who is burning out, so I could intervene in a thoughtful and empathetic way — just like I would if we were all located in the same office? Emotion AI could make this possible, which would not only make it easier for me to do my job but help me identify how I can improve the work experience for others.

Finally, medical professionals could also serve to benefit from using Emotion AI. Take mental health treatment, for example. More than half of American adults suffering from mental illness lack access to care due to a shortage of time and resources among medical professionals. Emotion AI could serve as an extra set of hands, to monitor patients’ moods and flag to doctors the cases that warrant immediate attention. If used around the clock, Emotion AI could also provide medical professionals with a log of patients’ mental health data at all times, which has historically been unattainable. Imagine how much more tailored treatment plans could be if doctors could tap into unlimited information on a patient. Not to mention how many more cases they could attend to with the help of a virtual assistant. In this way, Emotion AI could greatly improve the lives of medical professionals and the well-being of patients.

Setting standards for the AI economy

It’s easy enough to conceptualize ways that AI can work alongside people to improve our ability to do our jobs, but learning to accept a bot as your new coworker could be challenging. In a practical sense, how can industries prepare their workforces for this new reality?

As AI becomes a part of our everyday lives — especially as it begins to take on more human roles — people will need to develop skills and be trained to work alongside robots and AI effectively. Perhaps they will need to learn to become more patient or flexible, or change their workflow to incorporate data that AI collects. This could potentially spur an entirely new industry of AI consultants, training programs, and certifications. Not only will these organizations play a key role in helping people adapt to AI, they will also create entirely new kinds of jobs. For example, there will be a need for AI specialists to spearhead consultancies and AI implementations.

So while Musk and Zuckerberg may be right in their assertions that AI will change work as we know it, perhaps the outlook isn’t as bleak as many think. AI can serve to benefit us in many ways, some of which we may not even be able to imagine today, but only if we effectively harness the technology. It’s our responsibility as leaders in tech and business to find meaningful applications of AI in the short term and take steps to prepare for the implications of AI in the workforce for decades to come. After all, people are still the driving force powering AI, so its role in the workplace of the future and beyond is in our hands. We can either work to hone it successfully or let the fear of the unknown hold us back from the next evolution in human capabilities.

Rana el Kaliouby, PhD, is cofounder and CEO of Affectiva, pioneering Emotion AI, the next frontier of artificial intelligence.

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