The most successful artificial intelligence (AI) systems will be those comprising an emotional intelligence almost indistinguishable from human-to-human interaction, according to Bronwyn van der Merwe, group director at Fjord Australia and New Zealand -- Accenture Interactive's design and innovation arm.
While the concept of AI is not new, in 2017 van der Merwe expects emotional intelligence to emerge as the driving force behind what she called the next generation in AI, as humans will be drawn to human-like interaction.
Speaking with ZDNet, van der Merwe explained that building on the first phase of AI technology, emotional intelligence enhances AI's ability to understand emotional input, and continually adapt to and learn from information to provide human-like responses in real time.
Currently, 52 percent of consumers globally interact via AI-powered live chats or mobile apps on a monthly basis, Fjord reported, with 62 percent claiming that they are comfortable with an AI-powered assistant responding to their query.
With consumer appetite for AI expected to continue to grow at a rapid pace, van der Merwe predicts emotional intelligence will be the critical differentiator separating the great from the good in AI products, especially given that by 2020 she expects the average person to have more conversations with chat bots than with human staff.
"People are probably going to be more drawn into engaging with chat bots and AI that has personality," she said. "We're seeing this already ... it's a companion and it's something people can engage with."
Van der Merwe explained that Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are hiring comedians and script writers in a bid to harness the human-like aspect of AI by building personality into their technologies.
With audience engagement somewhat guaranteed out of necessity when it comes to employing AI technology, van der Merwe said companies will have to focus very heavily on transparency and trust, and tell customers when they start speaking with a machine, be careful not to blur the lines.
"Right now, my recommendation to our clients is that we need to experiment with this ... and we need to get data to validate our response," she said.
"My intuition is that it's better to be completely transparent so that you are building the trust, because I think if you build solutions that don't have transparency at their core, you risk unintended consequences that could create a media storm and a backlash of a brand."
An AI capable of human emotion is not a guaranteed win, however, with van der Merwe pointing to the public relations nightmare that was Microsoft's Tay.
Microsoft announced in March last year that it was testing a new chat bot, Tay.ai, that was aimed primarily at 18- to 24-year-olds in the US. After a brief 16-hour Twitter rampage, Microsoft suspended Tay for spouting inflammatory and racist opinions.
Tay was designed by the tech giant to use a combination of public data and editorial developed by staff, including comedians. But, as an AI bot, Tay also used people's chats to train it to deliver a personalised response.
"Much to Microsoft's embarrassment, they had to shut it down very quickly," van der Merwe said. "There's a real, big question around ethics and how you build the morality into AI."
While the debate over machines displacing workers has been discussed at length, van der Merwe is certain AI won't ever completely replace human beings.
"As human beings, we have contextual understanding and we have empathy, and right now there isn't a lot of that built into AI. We do believe that in the future, the companies that are going to succeed will be those that can build into their technology that kind of understanding," she said.
"[Organisations need to] harness the strengths of AI and human beings and deliver those things seamlessly to a user in order to deliver a great customer experience."
As organisations enter into the new territory that is emotional intelligence, van der Merwe recommends a long and hard think about AI's impact on society, jobs, and the environment.