Intelligence that’s artificial isn’t emotional

The first of my many exposures to the brilliance of Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut was his 1952 short story “EPICAC,” in which the narrator prevails upon the world’s most powerful computer to draft a poetic marriage proposal for his lovely colleague.

EPICAC’s series of poems fulfill the romantic objective, but there’s a hitch. The computer has fallen in love with the narrator’s betrothed and cannot understand why it cannot marry her. I won’t spoil the outcome, but Vonnegut’s tale immediately sprung to mind as I took in the past year’s hysteria about artificial intelligence.

There’s no question AI will be every bit as transformative as PCs, smartphones, the cloud, and the many other innovations I’ve seen in my lifetime. Many people have asked me whether I’m afraid AI will put me out of a job. My response? No … not yet, anyway. Because for all the astounding capabilities of AI systems, they still lack the most critical component of human thought: emotion.

We’ve learned a lot about digital technology over the past couple of decades. We’ve also learned a significant amount about emotional intelligence — our ability to understand and manage our emotions so we interact more effectively with those around us.

Copywriters like me use our understanding about human emotion to help organizations communicate with, inform, educate, and motivate other humans. We may call them prospects, targets, accountants, or Taylor Swift fans, but regardless of how we define them, they’re people. And people are inherently emotional creatures.

No matter how rational we pretend to be, our emotions and the resulting behaviors are governed by chemicals generated by our brains. By the time our allegedly analytical brain tissue has helped us grasp something, our emotions have already colored our response. We can say that bad news we received yesterday had little effect on us, but at the moment we heard it, our brains were flooded with stress hormones.

That’s the legacy of our ancestors, who developed that response to make sure they didn’t become a sabretoothed tiger’s next meal. When your boss angrily commands you to come to their office, your brain assumes a threat as deadly as that tiger awaits, so it prepares you for escape. Your heart pumps harder to ready your limbs for a run, your eyes focus on nothing but the door to the corner office, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it in those first few microseconds.

We’re good at rationalizing our feelings and actions after that fact, but copywriters know our strongest, most powerful responses are the immediate emotional ones. So when I’m helping an organization promote its advantages, I’m more focused on triggering emotions than on piling on rational facts.

I’m fascinated every time I ask an AI platform to generate something. The knowledge ChatGPT and its counterparts analyze and organize is nothing short of astounding. Of course, it’s simply regurgitating information that appears elsewhere, and sometimes it parses the wrong stuff. But no matter how accurate the words it chooses may be, AI can’t fall in love, feel fear, or fully grasp any of those other emotional triggers that are central to human behavior.

When we pay attention to emotional intelligence in our marketing and communications materials, we accomplish several things. First, we get our audience’s complete attention, because they feel we’re aware of and care about their emotional needs, which builds trust and the confidence they must develop to do business with us.

Paying attention to emotions also makes our audience far more likely to remember what we’re telling them. We’re assaulted with thousands of messages every day, all of them fighting for our attention. We tend to remember the tiny handful of those messages that truly trigger our emotions. We’re far more likely to build relationships with the sources of those messages.

Will AI develop emotional intelligence? I’m not a tech expert, but I assume it will happen more quickly than I expect. It’s not there yet, however, so people who are turning to AI to write web pages, blog posts, or EPICAC-like romantic poetry are getting the words, but not the genuine emotions needed to truly motivate their audiences.

If writing content to promote your organization is part of your job, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend using AI to help you create a first draft. But I wouldn’t stop there. You’ll make that first draft far more effective by developing an understanding of your audience’s emotional motivations and editing that AI draft to incorporate them.

Or you could simply ask someone who actually understands emotional intelligence to write it for you. (That may not be my advice five years from now … but as for right now, I’m sticking with it.)