Are We Ready For Emotionally Intelligent Machines?

Sophie Kleber of Huge Inc. recently wrote an article titled “It’s Time to Design Emotionally Intelligent Machines.”  As technology advances and becomes more complicated, design trends have shifted towards creating human-machine interactions. As society becomes more familiar with the use of bots, smart speakers, and other “talking machines,” research shows that society wants the interaction to be more humanized. Humans don’t want to feel like they are talking to a computer. The question then becomes: how do designers refine the experience while simultaneously preventing brands and companies from profiting from the interactions or swaying consumers to go in a forced direction unknowingly?

In the article, Kleber brings up a good point, “When machine learning meets affective computing, what do designers and brands have to think about to create beautiful and supportive experiences that are more Big Hero 6 and less Ex Machina?” Are we ready for Big Hero 6 to become a reality? Companies are already experimenting with it and have been for years, whether or not we knew about it or were ready for it.

Messenger bots are becoming increasingly popular on websites and social media platforms.  Siri, Amazon Echo, and Google Home are just a few versions of our merge towards intelligent machines. Designers are now tasked with creating genuine and emotional responses. I think to create something that can connect with consumers; we must first understand them and be able to answer these questions:

  • What do customers hope to achieve by using this product?
  • What do they feel when they are using the product?
  • Will emotional responses from the machines make the product or service better?

Kleber writes that there are three categories of emotional responses that can classify an emotionally intelligent machine:

  1. React like a machine – More preferable in transactional situations and security moments.
  2. React like an extension of self – The machine recognizes a particular emotion but does not steer the user in any direction based on those feelings. Useful in self-improvement services.
  3. React like a human – The machine can interpret emotions and with the users’ permission, assist to sway their feelings. This can be used in mental-health capabilities.

There are benefits to using intelligent machines for some brands, but designers should ensure that the experience is genuine and in-line with brand personalities. Studies continue to prove how persuadable consumers can be. Ethically, developers should be held to a higher accountability to ensure that the persuading is occurring after permission has been granted, as well as making the experience feel genuine. This is a unique challenge for designers as we can only design something that is as emotionally aware as we are. If the person or team creating a messaging bot lacks empathy, it would be hard to for the consumer to form an emotional connection with the product or service. To create a successful product, I think a bit of sociology and psychology should be involved. To maintain someone’s attention while using the product is to know how someone’s mind works. That’s a big request from a designer. How can a tool be efficiently designed in foreseeing how a mind will work? Are we ready for this new technology?

Before brands jump into creating their intelligent machines or artificial messaging on their channels, I think that they must first learn from person to person interactions. Before automating your online customer service, first, have it backed by actual people. Learn from what people are asking for and solve their problems on an actual personal level. From those experiences, you can have a better understanding of your consumer and how responses should be made. Designing a poor, intelligent machine is worse than not creating one at all.