Using Tech to Restore Our Humanity


What to eat for dinner. Who’s picking the kids up. Which movie to see. What time to go to the gym. Negotiation is a fundamental aspect of being a human being—and not just when it comes to buying a house or a car, landing a new client or scoring a raise. Every day is full of negotiated moments.

For the most part, we barter for all these small choices via email or text message, using emojis to express a more nuanced reaction (including the upside-down smile). If we’re lucky, we get some coaching or training on the job—so we think of it as an expensive skill taught by a human expert.

Emmanuel Johnson has found that artificial intelligence (AI)—in the form of a virtual agent—is actually a more effective instructor than a typical (human-led) workshop when it comes to teaching this most human of skills. Johnson is a University of Southern California Ph.D. student and NSF Fellow at the university’s Institute for Creative Technologies Emotion Group, advised by Jonathan Gratch.

The Emotion Group studies how human emotion affects the decisions people make, and how technology should be designed to understand and respond to human emotion. Johnson notes that negotiations are a rich source of emotions. “A lot of people are very nervous when they negotiate, and there is something on the line, so people are very jaded.” The group found people get better at negotiation when they practice, even if it’s practicing with a virtual agent—even testing the practice of lying.

The research led Johnson to ask how that knowledge could be used to train people to become better negotiators.

What’s #winning?


A successful negotiation outcome is subjective. One party might consider the swiftness of conclusion to be the most important criterion, while another might regard value as most important. Skeptical about a virtual agent teaching something that’s qualitative? That’s why ICT is looking at what constitutes “good” negotiating.

“Negotiation is what is called an ill-defined domain problem in the scientific literature: There is no set answer that works every single time,” Johnson explains. Instead, the team looks at the principles of negotiation to teach and gauge performance, such as knowing as much about what your opponent wants and what he or she values in a negotiation—insights that can be extracted from the negotiation and transaction between parties.

“I think it goes back to the original idea of what Alan Turing proposed when he talked about AI. Asking whether or not a robot can think doesn’t make much sense, but if we’re able to evaluate a robot or a system based on how well they do things that humans do, then we have some sense of how good that system is,” Johnson says. “We don’t know all the variables in a given situation when you negotiate, but if we can teach you certain principles that good negotiators practice, and you’re able to mimic them, and we provide feedback on that, we know from our research that your chances of being successful are much higher in future negotiations.”

Negotiating a better future


If you’re still not sure there’s a place for negotiation training in your hectic days, consider this: In a global economy, we’re interacting with people we don’t know, from cultures with which we might not be familiar. “One thing that we talk about is being able to ask questions and being able to understand what your ‘opponent’ wants so you get a better sense of how to navigate that culture and not offend anybody.”

Then there’s the bigger question of the impact that automation will have on the nature of work. Johnson agrees with many experts that automation of repetitive tasks will free people to do more high-level thinking and planning. “The future will require more collaboration because the more complicated things require more human interaction,” he says.

The irony of using technology to teach human skills is not lost on Johnson. “What we’re trying to do here is not to create a dependence on the technology,” he says, “but to give you the skills needed for more fulfilling interaction with people in the real world.”

Johnson’s final point is a sobering one: “Interpersonal skills training is something that we all need, but it’s not really a focal point of most education systems.” The work that ICT is doing can be applied in a skills drill section as part of live training or as a web-based tool to allow anybody to practice his or her negotiation ability—giving researchers more data to analyze and improve our understanding of effective negotiation.

Video credit: Daxio Productions, ShutterstockPhoto credit: rawpixel, Unsplash; rawpixel, Unsplash