Will our emotional capabilities secure future jobs?
Image by Dmitry Smirnov on Flickr

In the discourse on the future of work, certain human capabilities are seen as uniquely indispensable, guaranteeing us a place in the workforce. Even if our more cognitive competences are likely to be less needed because of the latest technological developments, our social and emotional abilities are seen as the last stronghold of our potential to shine as human beings. However, predictions that human work will concentrate on socially and emotionally oriented jobs might not be as likely to come true as prominent sources present them to be. 


  • The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Future of Jobs Report 2018 suggests a 6,5% decline of jobs (mainly jobs that entail routine work) and a gain of 11,8% (mainly jobs that help bring the use of technology to the next level) between 2018 and 2022. Drivers of change in this period are four particular technologies: ubiquitous high-speed mobile internet; artificial intelligence; widespread adoption of big data analytics; and cloud technology. Typically, they also predict that some tasks that were only recently seen as fundamentally human, such as reasoning and decision-making, communicating and interacting, and managing and advising will also increasingly be done by machines by 2022. Although many cognitive tasks can currently only be done by humans, within four years, machines are already expected to take over around 10% of them.
  • Former Google China president Kai-Fu Lee stated in an interview that in many cases, humans will become “human connectors”, because AI will outperform us when it comes to all sorts of forms of intelligence. Our role will be “reduced” to addressing the emotional side of matters, providing emotional guidance and advising or comforting clients or patients.
  • It is predicted that AI systems and devices will soon be able to recognize, interpret, process, and simulate human emotions. These acts are not necessarily signs of real emotions, but they nevertheless open up a whole range of tasks for technology to fulfill, such as in customer services or even psychological screenings. There is, for example, already proof that AI can beat humans in detecting human emotions through facial analysis, voice pattern analysis, and deep learning programs.
  • Earlier, we wrote about the pedagogical issues that come with introducing AI toys into a child’s life. In the relationship a child develops with a robot toy, it is observed that the child makes all the demands and receives all the rewards, but feels no responsibility for the robot. This is considered unhealthy for moral and emotional development. At worst, the child could begin to abuse its power or be disappointed by real friends because of their lack of adjustments to their wishes compared to the AI toy. In any case, when AI becomes a prominent factor in human childhood, this will rapidly intensify the emotional bonds we form with AI.


Kai-Fu Lee and the WEF predict that emotional and social capacities will be one of the core activities in the more distant future of work. People will work side by side with technology and technology will perform the more cognitive tasks. In case of a doctor, for example, technology will be responsible for making a diagnosis, and human beings will see to the emotional part of the job by communicating a diagnosis to a patient and offering emotional guidance. Indeed, there are two reasons for believing that our social and emotional capacities will increasingly define jobs: 1) technology is expected to outperform human cognition in many cases and will therefore take over many basic to medium level cognitive activities, leaving the more socially and emotionally oriented tasks to humans, and 2) it is expected that, although AI will be able to perform social and emotional tasks, humans will not trust them enough with matters of the heart or feel comfortable sharing their troubles.

Predictions that human work will concentrate on socially and emotionally oriented jobs might not be as likely to come true as prominent sources present them to be

Nevertheless, AI programs are already trained to display social and emotional behavior as well. Experiments with technology that can have human-like conversations have been successful, and a number of dating apps have already fooled their customers with help of AI programs pretending to be real, potential (human) life partners. Many agree that AI has the potential to simulate human emotions in a way that cannot be distinguished from actual human emotions. On top of that, AI is expected to outperform humans in detecting human emotions. This implies that AI can carry out tasks that are of a more social and emotional nature, which could undermine the first argument that only humans can shine in this category.

The second argument is based on a more intuitive disposition towards technology, building on current hesitations and fears about technology. The implementation of humanoid technology, however, has only just begun. The friendly human voices of our AI assistants or the AI substitutes for real life partners have only just been developed and introduced to us. Next generations will most likely be introduced to AI during childhood. Warm and deep feelings for AI might be developed because of exciting or comforting memories with AI friends in childhood. Current hesitations might therefore abate in future times, making it unclear if people will indeed continue to rely exclusively on humans instead of technology where matters of the heart are concerned.

With respect to the near future of work, the WEF also offers a hopeful perspective. The job decline caused by technology will be well compensated in the next four years with a substantial increase in relatively new jobs such as AI and Machine Learning Specialists, New Technology Specialists, Robotics Specialists and Engineers. The bulk of new roles that are envisioned by the WEF are occupations that enable technology to fulfill its full potential. These new jobs will mainly count on our cognitive abilities, rather than our social and emotional capacities which are only needed for a few of the new roles in the near future of work.


  • In previous industrial revolutions, the disruption of technology eventually made room for human factors that were previously underexposed. Our increased free time, for example, gave a substantial boost to the entertainment industry, creating all sorts of new jobs for us to carry out. The fact that we can be outperformed by technology in manual labor, cognitive tasks and finally more social/emotional occupations could result in even more spare time to focus on personal interests. Whether this will create more jobs for us to carry out is questionable, however, since the distinction between human capacities and the capacities of technology has started to become blurred.
  • Having robots taking over most forms of work has inspired our imagination for a long time. Ideas vary from dystopic pictures of human life in which people are almost entirely dependent on technology and occupy themselves with endless chatter (e.g. Wall-E) to euphoric theories in which humans develop into creative and ever-playing beings free from work and boundaries (e.g. Constant Nieuwenhuijs inspired by Johan Huizinga’s work Homo ludens).