Every year, the breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI), the intelligence displayed by machines, become more and more astounding. The list of what intelligent machines can now do better than humans grows and grows. From driving cars more safely to making more accurate medical diagnoses and being far smarter at predictions, it is clear that we’re on the cusp of a tech revolution that will soon bring sweepings changes with the aim of fundamentally improving human lives.
Amidst the amazement and excitement, there are also fears at the potential dark side of AI, as well as a more basic fear that because the machines can be smarter than us, we may find ourselves ‘useless’. A quick scan of the media and you will find a constant stream of narratives and conversations about a potentially huge scale of work that might be lost to people in the near future, thanks to the machine.
Some sceptics argue that no matter how clever a machine can be at the left brain functions such as logic and analysis, word recognition and mathematics; it would be impossible for AI to become better than us in the complex right brain domain of emotion, empathy, creativity, and intuition. They typically also argue that our need for ‘the human connection’ is always going to trump the machine. But is this true? It is well-proven that humans have an exceptional capacity to forge connections and even, relationships that we find meaningful, not just with the humans who we only know virtually, but with members of other species, with the substances that we become addicted to, with the games that we play compulsively, and of course, with our devices that make constant online connection possible.
Tech advances, particularly in communications, have already fundamentally changed the way that many 21st Century coaches, counsellors and therapists work. For years it has been common, particularly for coaches, to engage with clients all over the world, and those that do so, know from experience that in-person connection or even face-to-face time over a platform, are actually not always necessary for quality coaching to take place. Voices can be enough to establish the trusted environment and personal connection for effective coaching to take place. Sometimes, the voice-only virtual connection can put certain clients at greater ease, and in a group coaching session enable the more reticent clients to speak up and participate more meaningfully.
However, tech for coaching is rising to new levels. There are a plethora of self-improvement apps and device features available that are aimed at helping people change behaviour, form healthier habits and achieve their goals – the typical work of a life coach. Mindbloom, a mobile app and social gaming platform is a good example of this. A user sets and shares their goals with others, connecting and interacting to encourage each other, send inspiring messages, track performance and compare progress. Essentially, Mindbloom enables people to crowdsource coaching services from the group that they engage with. Apps such as Virtual Life Coach turns your device into an always-on, always-available coach at a fraction of the cost. These kinds of solutions are undeniably positive as they are enabling more and more people to access affordable and convenient coaching services. But does this mean that human coaches are in danger of becoming redundant?
“I think it is really important for coaches to understand and embrace new developments rather than moving into fear,” says ICF PCC credentialed coach and SACAP educator, Antje Berlin. “The emerging tech, such as AI, is part of human evolution, and whatever supports us in becoming more aware and conscious is a good thing. As far as we are comfortable with technology, we, as coaches, can explore how new innovations can actually help us to coach more effectively. For instance, if we’re familiar with the coaching apps on offer we may find it an advantage to recommend one to a client. So I don’t see that there is anything to be gained from taking an ‘us-versus-the-machine’ approach.”
Antje, who foregoes television and social media, and describes herself as ‘not a technical person’ is a great example of a coach who is comfortably using certain tech platforms anyway to enhance her coaching. She has recently served as one of two ‘virtual coaches’ engaged in a successful UN World Food Programme pilot project to help managers in emergency settings in a number of African and Middle Eastern countries to improve their leadership skills. “It was an incredible experience,” she says, “This was a 100% online project and I was initially concerned as to how to bring across my coaching presence and skills in this virtual way. Moving through fear and doubt and staying authentic helped me to grow immeasurably as a coach. We connected through voice-only platforms for one-on-one coaching, group coaching, gamification initiatives and webinars. I created amazing relationships and found a new appreciation of the power of intimacy of the human voice. I also realised how education and learning have become mobile, and that there are fantastic benefits offered by the virtual classroom where diverse people are innately equal. Tech platforms can provide small and intimate learning environments which provide the high quality engagement that is so aligned to the SACAP ethos.”
Executive Coach and Coach Supervisor, Kirstie McFarlane points out that coaching is no different from any other industry – we have to expect, and respond positively to tech impacts. “The real question for us as coaches is: how can we use the latest innovations to benefit our clients?” she says. “The essence, and real value of coaching rests in the quality of our relationships with our clients, and this is not dependent on the tech tools or platforms we might use. Instead it’s about our own consciousness and our comfort with being ourselves. Our strengths lie in very deep human capabilities such as sensitive listening and holding the space for another. So, coaching apps may be able to augment our service delivery, but they are cannot be a comparable substitute.”
Kirstie points out that while humans, of course, have the capacity to relate to the virtual and the non-human, the real issue is not about the capacity to relate but the quality of those relationships. This is borne out by a growing body of research that indicates while people might expend considerable time and effort, and place great value on their virtual relationships across social media, that doesn’t mean those engagements are healthy ones that make them feel fulfilled and support them in reaching goals and living lives that are joyful and inspired. “You cannot under-estimate the power of strong social bonds,” she points out, “Research in the world’s Blue Zones have shown that the lives of people who live longer, healthier and happier than most others are directly rooted in strong social connections with the humans around them. I think the latest tech advancements are actually highlighting how important our deep and real human relationships are to move beyond enduring existence into relishing it.”