Emotional AI in the workplace: a good idea?

Professor of Digital Life at Bangor University, Andrew McStay asks whether using AI to gauge emotions at work is a good idea.

Emotional AI in the workplace: a good idea?

Work can be fun, stressful, exciting, frustrating, thrilling and boring – sometimes on the same day. Work, then, is emotional.

From a human resources point of view, it makes sense that organisations would want to understand this. Indeed, for nearly a century, industrial psychologists have recognised that understanding of emotional, psychological and social factors is useful to nurture productivity. Where psychologists once conducted surveys and interviewed staff to understand workers and their social environment, today AI techniques are increasingly used to gauge emotions in an automated and always-on fashion. Is this a good idea?

First, let us deal with how: automated capture of emotions and affective states may be achieved through various means. These include: measuring the sentiment of what we say in our emails and other postings (such as social media); cameras that record facial expressions, gesture and behaviour; voice (not just what we say, but how we say it); worn devices; and even chemical changes within enclosed spaces from breathing. To be clear, AI does not understand emotion, but by registering, learning and responding to affective states and human contexts, it can simulate this ability.

Who is doing this? Large and small organisations alike are developing and implanting emotional AI in the workplace. Microsoft, for example, is working on using these biometric sensing techniques to create emotionally sentient agents who will provide feedback and advise workers. Smaller companies, such as Sensing-Feeling in the UK, promise emotional temperature checks of the workplace so managers may engage and create interventions to emotionally optimise all sorts of workplaces. At the application level, sector leaders PriceWaterHouseCoopers have done widespread testing of these technologies in the name of increasing positive and personalised experiences of work. Deloitte similarly has significant experience with emotional AI and affective computing techniques.

Is it OK? What is proposed is a living lab to understand health, stress, happiness, connections with others, self-esteem, and short and long-term changes. On the face of things, if this could be delivered, one can see the upside. My question for readers is this: in heart of hearts, do you really believe this is how surveillance technologies employed to capture, gauge and optimise emotion in the workplace will play out? Will employees have a choice in the matter, or will they be coerced into being subjects for these objectifying technologies? And what of the sovereignty of the self and choice? The best and the brightest may be able to easily move between companies, but the rest of us?

The key question is this: does emotional AI encourage dignity and human flourishing? Beyond ethics, there is another question: does emotional AI in the workplace encourage wellbeing, creativity and happy productive workers? If not, who benefits? For a myriad of reasons, just because we can, does not mean we should.

For recommendations on ethical approaches to emotional AI, see this ethics checklist I created with Pam Pavliscak, my project website here and book on emotional AI.

Andrew McStay will be speaking in the interactive panel discussion titled ‘The ethics of automation – driving meaningful working lives in a more automated future workplace’ on 12 June at the CIPD Festival of Work.


Get involved:

The CIPD’s Festival of Work (12-13 June 2019, Olympia London, festivalofwork.com) promises to be a landmark event for both people professionals and business leaders. By focusing on the most innovative strategies in management, technology and learning, the festival will help you, and 7,000 of your colleagues, to harness the latest transformations and drive a human future of work. With 7,000+ attendees, 160+ inspiring speakers, filled with inspirational live experiences and challenging ideas, it’s the ultimate celebration of people in the workplace.


Register for your free exhibition pass or book a conference pass.

To submit a blog for consideration please email blog@festivalofwork.com

For more information on sponsorship, exhibition or partnership opportunities contact +44 (0)208 267 3201 or email sales@festivalofwork.com

Leave a Reply