Emotionally Intelligent Technology

Smart technology has become ubiquitous. Most of America is carrying around a pocket sized computer at this very minute, capable of doing things our grandparents couldn’t have even fathomed. But in reality, smartphones seem rather dumb when compared to the computers and sensors that are now strewn around our daily lives.

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Today, we can live in smart homes, drive smart cars, wander around smart cities. Thermostats learn our behavior and adjust accordingly. Cars drive themselves. The very urban spaces we inhabit can even respond to crime. This increasingly intelligent technology influences ever more of our lives and will only continue to do so. Considering this, it feels fitting that we might think critically about what smart technology is, as well as question critically what it ought to be. Algorithmic based programs and machine learning have enabled products and systems to exhibit real learning, some might even say awareness. My Nest thermostat doesn’t just respond to my inputs, it doesn’t just do what I tell it to. It learns my behavior and makes sound predictions about the future based on its memory of me. My thermostat knows me.

But, something about that statement feels inherently false. While my thermostat may know my preferred temperature at different times of the day, when I’m home and when I’m away, it doesn’t actually know me.

So, if my Nest is undisputably intelligent, and arguably better at making decisions about my temperature and energy use than myself, why do I still feel superior in intelligence? I believe the answer lies in the complexity of intelligence I, as a human, exhibit. While I may be outsmarted in operational intelligence, possibly even intellectual intelligence by my computer friends, as of now, I still rule in emotional intelligence.

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Emotional intelligence is how I navigate the world, build relationships, solve abstract and undefined problems. It’s how I read a room. It’s how I adjust quickly to unexpected changes in an environment or situation. While a computer can respond to change, it can do so only within a predetermined structure; “all the alternatives must be foreseen in advance” (Licklinder). Until my technology can match wits with my emotional intelligence — self awareness, contextual understanding, dynamism — I can rest easy.

But, as an Interaction Designer I’m the one who should be pushing this question. While my human self can feel superior now, the designer in me wants to consider what potential might lie in emotionally intelligent systems? What could our technology do if it could think and act more like we do? How would this make technology more human-centered, instead of requiring that we bend to whims of technological intelligence?

While I am wary of what the future of intelligent technology might look like, I am excited know that mine will be the field working to answer these difficult questions. As I was told recently in a design critique, interaction designers get to decide “where the smarts go,” creating beautifully “choreographed environments” that support and enable all that we, as humans, do (James Tichenor & Joshua Walton).