Transformative Development Necessary to Counter Technology’s Side Effects

4-year-old child (in a demanding voice) to ubiquitous electronic assistant: “Alexa, play music I like.”

Alexa: “Can you be more specific?”

4-y-o child (angry voice): “You’re stupid, Alexa. Don’t you know anything?”

Alexa: “I will try some music you may like.” (Tune from “Sesame Street” begins playing.)

4-y-o child (angry voice, now screaming): “You stupid, stupid person, Alexa!”

In her article, “The Challenge of Scaling Soft Skills” (2018), Lynda Gratton briefly considers why soft skill development, such as how to interact well with other humans, is now and will continue to be so very important. She also considers some reasons why soft skills seem to be in short supply. The hypothetical exchange between a child and Alexa may be one reason technology giveth, yet it taketh away, too — sometimes with a vengeance.

Artificial intelligence and technological replacement of tasks that used to require humans to accomplish will grind forward. There are studies that put numbers to these things, but the basic tenet seems obvious. Tom Freidman (2018) shared a couple of examples, quoting education-to-work expert Heather McGowan:

In October 2016 Budweiser transported a truckload of beer 120 miles with an empty driver’s seat. . . . In February 2017, Bank of America began testing three ‘employee-less’ branch locations that offer full-service banking automatically, with access to a human, when necessary, via video teleconference.

One ramification of spreading artificial intelligence (AI) and robotization is that the tasks machines can’t do become that much more valuable in human employees. Yet the Alexa-child interaction imagined above might give pause regarding the child’s development of empathy, which is pretty high on the list for many employers when seeking new hires. As Gratton says, “. . . machines are generally poor at understanding a person’s mood, at sensing the situation around them, and at developing trusting relationships” (2018).

Humans, however, can learn to do these things. It’s a great irony, though, that technology (which cannot produce machines to do these things) can actually make it more difficult for humans to learn these key “soft skills.” Would the child in the scenario above be as rude to a librarian when asking for help (if the child is asking a human librarian and not the robot at the circulation desk)? One hopes the child will have learned to be a better human, but enough Alexa-training and a concurrent dearth of human interaction can make you wonder.

Are the sweet technological advances resulting in the cell phone causing detrimental trickle-down effects on developing humans’ abilities to interact well with others, to identify others’ moods based on facial expression and body language? Maybe we are becoming a society not so good at empathy and the ability to relate to others yet at the same time able to select the perfect emoji to attach to a text message.

Technology giveth; technology taketh away.

Gratton piles on some more in her brief 2018 article about pending technological dangers to the workplace and society. She points out the effect stress has on learning.

Imagine you’re a new employee. Your soft skills are lacking. In that scenario, you’re going to be stressed, maybe even very stressed. That kind of stress lowers your ability to learn to read others’ intent, needs, and mood. Now your ability to succeed as a new employee by learning fast is compromised.

If you don’t come into the job with being-a-decent-human skills already developed, you may be in trouble in that job. Learning to be a decent human via on-the-job training is probably more difficult than learning a technical skill required on the job. After all, a successful learning curve for this kind of development generally takes years as children grow into adulthood.

But imagine what Transformative Learning (TL) could do as a disruptor to the bad disruptions technology is causing. In the fight between AI and TL, at least in an arena where humans are the players, TL should triumph for a pretty basic reason: TL helps humans reflect on relationships and their own development.

When guided and facilitated by someone who knows how to scaffold the occasional disorienting dilemma and then prompt for the kind of reflection that expands empathic understanding, humans develop. In particular, they develop the kinds of skills that robots and AI, at least for the foreseeable future, do not possess as members of a functioning team.

Technology giveth; technology taketh away; TL giveth back.



Freidman, T. (2018, January 17). While you were sleeping. The New York Times, p. A19.

Gratton, L. (2018, August 6). The challenge of scaling soft skills. MITSloan Management Review. Retrieved December 27, 2019, from

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