Boost the Power of AI: Nurture Human Connections at Work

Boost the Power of AI: Nurture Human Connections at Work

When Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition in June, interviewer Steve Inskeep posed a question about the uncertain future of artificial intelligence in the workplace: “Are you. . . scared by the prospects of AI getting out of control?”

“I don’t really worry about machines thinking like people,” Cook replied. “I worry about people thinking like machines.” The real cause for concern, he added, is the potential “absence of humanity” and “deep thought” in the corporate world.

Cook’s response immediately reminded me of  Ken Liu’s “The Regular,” a short story that we have used in Books@Work programs and discussed together as a team. The premise is simple: police detectives in a not-so-distant future have been outfitted with devices that regulate their decision-making functions. If the regulator detects too much emotion behind a decision, it will nudge the brain to be more logical, no matter the consequences. In other words, it’s a story about what happens when people think like machines.

Brene Brown

Brené Brown, image via Wikimedia Commons

As workplaces implement automated, data-driven processes, they gain efficiency and productivity. But they risk overlooking the importance of  what Tim Cook calls deep thought and humanity – and what others recognize as intuition, emotional intelligence, vulnerability and empathy. These traits are already undervalued in many workplaces, where being professional means hiding our worries, buckling down and doing the work. What’s so compelling (and even foreboding) about Liu’s story is that we don’t need a device to regulate our emotions at work: we do it on our own. In his provocative comment, Cook anticipates a problem that, in many ways, already exists.

To be human is to feel deeply, to struggle, to worry; but to be professional is to project confidence, to succeed, to assert authority. A 2014 piece for Harvard Business Review explores research from professor Brené Brown, who found that vulnerability and authenticity “lie at the root of human connection,” and yet are both sorely missing from the workplace:

“Opportunities for vulnerability present themselves to us at work every day. Examples [Brown] gives of vulnerability include calling an employee or colleague whose child is not well, reaching out to someone who has just had a loss in their family, asking someone for help, taking responsibility for something that went wrong at work, or sitting by the bedside of a colleague or employee with a terminal illness.”

Vulnerability is one of the very traits that helps us forge invaluable bonds with others and drives authentic inclusion. To be able to show your true self or share personal struggles may seem taboo, but it’s a powerful and productive experience. Books@Work participants tell us again and again that the opportunity to connect on a human-to-human level beyond transactional day-to-day interaction has extraordinary benefits. One recent participant shared the impact of exchanging personal stories with his colleagues:

“[Work is] part of who I am, but it’s not the only thing I am. I’m bigger than this. I’m more deep and more complex than this, and so are you. [It’s helpful] to recognize that in another person and say, ‘Oh, okay. Wait a minute. I’m really not seeing you as a fully-fleshed human being.'”

Another participant found that better understanding his colleagues – their backgrounds, motivations and beliefs – unlocked a stronger team dynamic:

“It’s made [discussions] more meaningful. [W]e use stories to actually reach common ground or start a conversation. It brought human into the conversation. When I interact with our team now, there’s a lot more warmth. It’s shifted our conversations inside of our team.”

In a keynote speech at Indeed Interactive, Brown provided her own take on AI and its effect on humanity. “We try to dehumanize [vulnerability] and make it engineerable and put it in an Excel spreadsheet,” she said. “I get it, but you will never be able to engineer the humanity out of what you do – ever.” On the contrary, only by nurturing and encouraging that humanity will we fully harness and manage the power of AI.

Whether it’s a futuristic device that over-regulates our emotions or the societal pressure to hide our vulnerabilities at work, many forces urge us to leave our whole selves at home. Clearly, AI is here to stay and will create valuable and productive efficiencies. But humanity – in all its messiness – is at the core of a healthy, respectful and inclusive work environment. Instead of fighting our natural inclinations, let’s embrace, share and celebrate what makes us human, and put it to good use.

Image: Fernand Leger, Machine Elements, 1919, [Public Domain] via

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Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan

Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.