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Communication, emotions and AI

Basab Dasgupta |

One of the main characteristics that distinguish humans from other living beings is their ability to communicate among themselves, both verbally as well as in writing. Humans interact using specific languages which have well-defined vocabularies, grammars and compositions. It would be interesting to examine what advantages we gained from this ability and to what extent artificial intelligence (AI) can affect it.

Basically, there are three reasons for communication among humans: i) to share and exchange information; ii) to share and exchange emotions and iii) to preach and teach/instruct. Any other reason is either a subset of one of these reasons or some combination of them. While the first and third purposes can be served simply by exchanging written notes with or without AI, it is more difficult to share and exchange emotions through writing. Even spoken words seem inadequate to truly express what we really think and feel.

We learn to colour our conversations with emotions from our childhood, by watching our parents, relatives, friends, colleagues and also from movies, speeches etc. When we learn a foreign language, we are not taught to interject emotions in conversations at the beginning. We gradually learn it, again by watching others.

Our thought processes regarding emotional exchanges are very complex; we think of many things in parallel; we think simultaneously in past, present and future; our emotions are always a combination of many different feelings. We typically also have a hidden agenda. For example, we might want to know the reactions from the other party or provoke them into saying their opinion on some issue. It is impossible to correctly express all of these in the very limited vocabulary and grammar of any language.

Why is it important to interject emotions into our communication? If all of our actions were based on logic and rational thinking, then there would be no need for emotional spin. Fortunately or unfortunately, an overwhelmingly large percentage of our decisions are based on emotions. This is a part of human nature. I do not know if society would become more effective or turn into a cold robotic place if all actions were indeed well thought-out and based on solid reasoning ala AI.

This human nature of living an emotion-based life makes it imperative that we are able to correctly convey these emotions when we communicate. There is no language which allows us to do that. The consequence is that our expressions – written or verbal – are only incomplete or distorted versions of our true thoughts leading to the possibility of misunderstanding. This failure in our communication is the main cause of all conflicts in the world including wars between nations, marital problems, political fights, religious differences and inter-personal clashes. If AI can help to clearly transmit our true messages, more power to it.

Emotions expressed in our conversations play a major role in defining our cultures in a way well beyond what results from just exchange of words. The American and Japanese cultures are probably two extreme examples of communication styles.

The Americans put a very high value on the ability to articulate clearly and concisely. In any business meeting or sales presentation or technical conference, if the speaker makes his points in a rational and convincing way we are always impressed. We do not like speakers fumbling with words, talking too long in an incoherent way or becoming too passionate in speech. Even in our informal discussions, the one who gets his point across in a rational way seems to be correct.

The English language itself facilitates this articulation. There are so many different compositions to describe the same episode. There is also an abundance of words available to describe our emotions. Take the feeling of a young man for a woman, for example. We can use words like “loves”, “lusts”, “likes”, “enamoured”, “infatuated”, “obsessed”, “is head over heels”, “has a thing for”, “has a crush” and probably a dozen more to give it different shades.

The Japanese always seem to be a little awkward with words, even when they are speaking in Japanese. They rely heavily on non-verbal communications in both formal and informal conversations. These non-verbal interactions take place not just by body language, but also in other subtle ways. A Japanese gentleman once told me “When you are talking to a Japanese person, what is not said is just as important as what is being said”. He also said that “When you are talking to someone, you have to read their eyes. If you look deep into their eyes, you would know what they are really thinking!”

There is a whole range of communication styles between these two extremes. In some cultures, male domination sets the tone. It is the men who have the final say; they have the right to interrupt the women and correct them; women are often not even considered worthy of a healthy debate. In academic circles, there is an inherent competitiveness based on an intellectual ego. Everyone wants to show how literate and knowledgeable one is. The British are known for their unique “stiff upper lip” style of very proper conversations while many “Asians” seem to think how loudly they speak is an indication of the importance of their subject. Mexicans tend to be very basic and simple in communications, though not quite as minimalistic as the Japanese.

While ability to articulate emotional thoughts is a challenge, the listener also contributes to the ambiguity of the interaction by doing his/her own interpretations in different ways. He factors in the nonverbals of the speaker, the tone of voice, any pause or emphasis on certain words etc. How much attention he spends also depends on his frame of mind and other thoughts he is preoccupied with. Sometimes, the listener “hears what he wants to hear”. Often times one responds to a question perhaps a little too quickly because one does not want to be perceived as “slow” or “stupid”. I am not sure how AI would address the issues at the listener’s end.

Diplomacy in conversations is warranted for personal interaction in a civilized society. If everyone spoke his mind out, there would be immediate problems and total chaos. In politics, leaders understand what needs to be said, whether they believe in them or not, and what is better left out. The desire to appear polite or charming is inherent in almost everyone and so there is a façade that everyone presents to others, which may or may not be a true indicator of their personality. We also censor certain topics and words in our dialogues with children. AI is age-insensitive and apolitical and presumably cannot be censored at will; a device like “Alexa” is liable to answer all questions on all topics regardless of who is asking.

The world of communication between remote parties has been changing from phone conversation to texting in recent years, perhaps as a precursor to AI. Texting has several advantages: it allows one to relay the bare minimum of needed information without wasting one’s time in exchanging pleasantries and discussing a whole array of irrelevant issues. It also allows avoidance of conversation with certain people.

One can send numeric information such as numbers, address, price of a certain item and time for a meeting without having the other party write it down. One does not have to face emotional reactions from the other party based on the information transmitted.

This last aspect is also the downside of texting. In fact, the very reason we want to even talk is to share our emotions. It is interesting to note that an entire array of “emojis” that one can attach to an E-mail or text in an attempt to convey emotions is emerging. However, it is obvious that a finite number of these cute symbols would be inadequate to express all of our emotions. How do you distinguish between “love” and “being enamoured”, for example?

Perhaps an ideal way to communicate would be some combination of AI-assisted exchange of information and some effective way of exchanging emotions.

The latter goal could be achieved by selecting some colour from a continuous array of choices to express various emotions. I do not believe that we can get rid of emotions completely from our exchanges. It remains to be seen how AI would change human-to-human emotional interactions.

The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.