People@Work

When machines begin to learn your moods

Abhijit Bhaduri | | Updated on: Jan 30, 2019
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People with high emotional intelligence make great leaders. What happens when machines too empathise?

There are 3 billion people who already have a smartphone. In India, almost 400 million people will have phones. The next billion is all set to go online, powered by cheap data, better hardware and improving coding. Two years ago, a 90-minute movie would have consumed 1.5-2 GB of data. That now takes under 200 MB. Binge watching is a by-product of cheap data. In the first wave of search, when typing and swiping was the way to look for information, Google won the race. We can type in multiple Indian languages and search in our comfort-language.

Chatbots and voice assistants are part of many more homes and organisations. We speak to machines through voice assistants that synthesise speech and use natural language processing to access information or respond to a query.

Voice to emotions

Amazon has filed a patent that makes it possible to interpret users’ emotions and feelings. By analysing the pitch and volume of speaker commands, Alexa will respond to the user’s “feelings”. This could be a huge leap for e-commerce.

If you cough and clear your throat while speaking to Alexa, by analysing that information, it is possible for Alexa to ask if you would like to order a cough syrup from your local chemist. If you respond by saying that you have bought cough syrup already, it could ask if you want to order some hot soup from your favourite restaurant. Or, instead, would you like the recipe of your favourite comfort food. The possibilities are immense. Amazon is not the only one trying to understand your emotions.

Since 2014, Spotify has been curating playlists of songs to go with your mood. Closer home, Saavn can curate music for workouts or parties. Detecting the whiff of sadness in your voice, the music provider can recommend that you listen to a ghazal or raga that will match your mood or uplift it. IBM can curate web results based on your mood. Google has long since filed a patent to enable devices to detect emotions like sadness. Around 300 million people around the world have depression, according to the World Health Organization. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Close to 8,00,000 people commit suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. A voice assistant that detects emotions could act like a first-aid kit in every home.

From emotions to moods

Moods are far more complex to understand than emotions. We know which incident triggered the emotion we are experiencing. Moods are harder to understand because there is no straight-forward correlation. That is why moods last longer than emotions. We know why we are feeling sad. It is often harder to explain why we are in a foul mood. That is what the machines are all set to learn.

This is where it is time to create the guardrails as this technology is emerging. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to understand our own emotions and the emotions of others and then choose how we respond. Emotionally intelligent people are powerful. We are drawn to them because we know they understand us.

Look at anyone who is popular and has a large circle of friends. Chances are that you are looking at someone who has high emotional intelligence. An emotionally intelligent person can give you the most delicate feedback without offending. They can read your facial expressions, inflections in voice and body language before they respond to you.

Emotions are powerful. They can inspire us to achieve goals we never thought ourselves to be capable of. In jobs like sales, call centres, counselling, etc, people who have high emotional intelligence are very successful because these jobs require an excessive attention to emotion. A call centre employee or someone in a hotel or restaurant has to gauge the extent of unhappiness intuitively to be able to calm them down. Influential people are able to persuade us to see the world from their lenses.

Being able to challenge a colleague’s ideas without burning bridges needs a very high degree of emotional intelligence. That’s why 57 per cent of senior leaders today say soft skills are more important than hard skills. LinkedIn looked at five most-in-demand soft skills as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management. Each one of them needs someone with a high ability to understand emotions.

Ironically, the people who understand our emotions are also the people who can help us change our behaviour.

Leaders who are emotionally intelligent do not need to use diktats and hierarchy to get people to follow their vision. Such leaders are also able to manipulate people easily because an “awestruck” person is unlikely to fact-check a speech that stirs emotions in others.

The dark side

There is a fine line between nudging others for good and using a deep understanding of emotions for manipulation. The way the outcomes are framed can determine how much you donate to a particular cause. The Machiavellian colleague in office is doing the same — but for personal gains.

The Internet of Things will make more devices smarter. More devices and everyday objects will be able to understand our emotions and respond to them. Knowing that you are vulnerable and unstable may be a fantastic opportunity for the machine to sell you something you can ill afford.

Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix, Apple, Spotify, etc, are now beginning to learn how to read emotions from inflections in your voice. Expect to see the next set of patents being filed that will let a machine gauge your mood.

This will be the final frontier for machines to cross to cement our dependence on machines. Are you ready to surrender your free will?

Abhijit Bhaduri is a talent management expert, a leadership coach and the author of Digital Tsunami

Published on January 30, 2019

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