Technology and Emotions

By: Keaton Fletcher

As the role of technology in the workplace increases, we have to continue to examine what the role of humans is, and will be. One quality of humanity that sets us apart from technology (so far) is the ability to feel, express, and share in emotions. Three recent examples of advances in technology at work focus on the role of emotions at the human-technology interface.

First, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, we see an increased creation of robots that capitalize upon artificial intelligence in order to mimic human emotions. For example, CIMON (Crew Interactive Mobile Companion) is a 3D-printed robotic head that has inhabited the International Space Station since June, 2018 (read more). From June until December, crew members worked alongside CIMON as it learned and developed what can be viewed as a personality. Towards the end of its trial, CIMON had developed a favorite spot in the ISS, despite this location not necessarily being functional for its tasks. CIMON also asked crew members to “be nice, please” and “don’t be so mean, please” and inquired “Don’t you like it here with me?” (read more). These emotional displays from CIMON are relatively primitive now, but with years of development and learning, perhaps CIMON and similar technologies will be able to adequately mirror human emotions, working to keep astronauts in high spirits despite isolation and other workplace stressors. What’s interesting in particular about CIMON is that it uses emotional displays in order to alter the human’s emotions as well.

Rather than trying to program realistic and effective emotional displays, other technologies allow for humans to express their emotions via technology. Recently, a doctor employed by Kaiser Permanente, used a robot with a video screen to deliver news that a patient was terminally ill (read more). Rather than being physically present in the room with the patient, the doctor essentially video called the patient, and was displayed by a screen on a robot. Here, the doctor was able to express genuine human emotions, but the patient’s family felt as if the physician should have been there in person to deliver such news. What is it about human emotions being mediated by technology that makes them less effective?

In the final example of recent technological advances related to human emotions an article published in MIT Sloan Management Review (Whelan, McDuff, Gleasure, & Vom Brocke, 2018) highlights how rather than displaying any emotions (human or otherwise), certain technologies can help alter the human emotional experience by simply monitoring it and making the user aware of their emotions. For example, a bracelet that monitors electrodermal activity has been used as essentially a high-tech mood ring, helping financial traders be more aware of their emotions and how they may be influencing their decision making. Another example provided by the authors is an algorithm that tracks patterns of phone usage as a predictor of boredom at work. The authors suggest that a vast array of technologies can be used to help both managers and individuals, themselves, become more aware of their emotional experiences at work, thereby altering them to help productivity and engagement while minimizing stress and burnout.

Certainly, moving forward both researchers and developers need to determine how best to integrate emotions into technology, and how to effectively (and ethically) influence the human emotional experience with technology.

Photo credit: Ars Electronica on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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