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Artificial Intelligence and the Need for Social Skills

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

Trend Update

A recent report from McKinsey Global Institute captures the changing makeup of the global workforce.

By 2030 the report estimates demand for Manual Labor and Basic Cognitive skills will fall around 15%. At the same time there will be increased demand for people with Higher Cognitive skills (+8%), Social and Emotional aptitude (+24%), and Technological skills (+55%).

The Areas of Increase

Tasks requiring Higher Cognitive skills will increase moderately. That means jobs related to human creativity, information processing, and interpretation of information.

There will also be a significant increase in the need for Social and Emotional Skills, including roles of leadership, managing others, collaboration, negotiation, innovation, and creativity – skills related to working with people and teams.

But the biggest growth will be in the area of technology. We spend a lot of time now getting technology to work for us: 73 billion hours in 2016 according to the study. A decade from now that is going to increase massively, with 55% more time spent designing, programming and maintaining the electronic systems that serve us.

Crank Out the Programmers?

It is tempting to just stop here and say: “We need a lot more people with advanced IT skills!”

But the findings indicate that we need other skills as well: higher cognitive skills and more sophisticated social and emotional abilities.

The design and development of bots, machine learning systems and artificial intelligence engines, especially ones that interface directly with the public, are projects with far-reaching implications. To build and maintain them well will increasingly require a broad understanding of social and cultural factors.

A few early examples of where this can go wrong include complaints about Google’s auto-complete feature suggesting bizarre and disturbing search terms, and the outcry from Facebook users over news feed algorithms that showcased some stories and hid others during the last U.S. election.

It may seem like Social and Emotional Skills are only indirectly related to the quality of automated technologies; but software solutions are not just programmed by their programmers, they are designed in the image of their programmers.

A World Shaped by Programs

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has said: “Where there is a lot of artificial intelligence, real intelligence will be scarce, real empathy will be scarce, real common sense will be scarce.” What he is saying is that dependence on automation tends to suppress human abilities - things like relational skills.

How we design and implement automated solutions for the world of tomorrow then has deep social implications. If our technologies are not designed to preserve and promote what it means to be human, it is quite possible they will do the opposite. We can end up flipping the script from where technologies are made to serve us to where we go down a road of uncritically conforming to them, with unintended negative consequences.

Josh Bersin, founder of the Bersin Institute within Deloitte, has a similar perspective:“If anything, humans and their innate skills seem to be growing more important as the need to devise, implement and validate artificial intelligence solutions becomes more widespread.”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution may be a rough ride if we do not become more self-consciously human: better at collaboration, better at emotional intelligence and better at empathy; and ensuring that is reflected in the solutions we design.

It would be a very sad world someday if robots from China, designed in the image of Chinese programmers, and robots out of the U.S., designed in the image of American programmers, try to collaborate with each other and have a culture clash between them - without empathy.

That could make for a great movie, but it would be considerably less entertaining in real life!

Intercultural Skills for International Connectedness