Someone asked me a question last week that stopped me in my tracks. “Do you think future generations might prefer to be coached by AI Chatbots?”. “Of course not!” was my reflexive (probably defensive!) response but, with Artificial intelligence (AI) and ChatGPT having become such a hot topic recently, I have kept hearing that question in many different guises.
“Will we still need knowledge-based workers?”
“Will my skills become redundant?”
“What will leadership look like in an environment dominated by AI?…Will we even need leaders?”
These are all very valid questions and it is certain that AI will change the nature of the work we do in many ways…so why, I asked myself, was my immediate reaction that AI cannot replace people in the world of work? Personally, I think the answer lies in the nature of human connection and psychology. We know that our sense of identity, of safety and self-worth is directly linked to the social roles we play and our relationships. So perhaps the nuance lies in distinguishing between ‘jobs’ and ‘roles’ – separating what we do, or the content we produce, from the value we provide as human beings in a workplace. In this scenario, of course AI may eliminate the need for people to do certain jobs, but will it eliminate the need for people to fulfil certain roles – like mentoring, leading, and collaborating to name a few. Those roles all involve human connection, so the real question really seems to be “can artificial intelligence replace human connection in the workplace?”.
To answer this question, we need to unpack how human connection occurs. Connecting with someone is all about feelings…feeling seen, heard, and valued by another person. These feelings are created by a complex activation of brain circuitry and chemistry – a reciprocal process between two or more people that is not necessarily visible or fully understood.
- Sub-conscious processing: Firstly, much of the processing involved in connecting with others occurs beyond our immediate awareness. When we communicate face-to-face, for instance, we rely on a complex system of nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice to interpret the meaning behind words – the range and nuance of these cues is extensive and often subliminal. This means we are not even conscious of all we are projecting, perceiving, and interpreting when we connect with another human being. An example of this aspect of communication is the micro-expression. Micro-expressions are facial expressions that occur within a fraction of a second. They are often reflexively triggered by our emotions without intention or awareness. While we subconsciously engage in micro-expressions, we also subconsciously perceive them in others, meaning that ‘emotional leakage’ impacts human engagement whether we intend it to or not.
- Chemical processing: Secondly, while we do not yet understand its exact nature, chemistry between people really is a ‘thing’. Like animals, people emit pheromones, chemical substances that are naturally produced and play a role in social behaviour. In humans, the vomeronasal organ (VNO), located in the nasal cavity, sends signals to the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for regulating emotions, behaviour, and motivation. Several studies have suggested that pheromones play a role in sexual attraction and influence our perceptions of others, impacting our ability to form social connections.
These processes are why we can quickly decide whether we trust or mistrust someone, without being able to clearly articulate the evidence that has resulted in our ‘gut feel’. It is also why the energy of having people come together in the same space can feel so different from that created in a virtual environment. In essence, human connection is a complex biological process that is dynamically adaptive between different people and we have already experienced the disconnect that can occur in the absence of this ‘biology’. During the pandemic, the levels of disconnection experienced during isolation had extensive negative impacts on mental health.
In spite of how far technology has evolved and how our world has changed, our brains have not. We still have the basic survival drive to avoid threat, seek reward, and make meaningful and rewarding connections. Until our brains evolve, we will continue to seek out human connection. AI certainly offers very adaptive communication patterns driven by complex heuristics, meaning that it can simulate emotion to a degree. However, it cannot experience emotion, nor reproduce the chemical and biological processes at its core. If anything, as AI changes our jobs and how we work, the more likely we will be driven to find new ways to connect and create meaningful work. More than ever, leaders will need to become effective at harnessing opportunities to create human connection and support their people to navigate a rapidly changing environment which will feel threatening to many.