Question: What’s the difference between a psychotherapist, a robot, and an executive leadership coach?

Answer: Maybe nothing.

In 1964 Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab built ELIZA, a computer program that simulated a Rogerian psychotherapist. ELIZA is one of our earliest examples of natural language processing, with the ability to analyze speech and substitute key words into scripted phrases and questions.

ELIZA’s language skills were primitive compared to today’s chatbot rock stars Siri and Alexa. But despite these limitations, it’s reported that Weizenbaum’s secretary asked him to leave the room so she and ELIZA could have a private chat. People responded to ELIZA as if she were human.

Today, when you ask Siri if she loves you, does her coy response make you laugh? When you ask Alexa about the weather, and she suggests you wear a sweater, do you reach for one as if your partner had made the suggestion? Do Siri and Alexa know you?

It may seem like it at times.

Pepper is a customer service robot created by Softbank Robotics that uses IBM’s Watson computer to analyze human emotions through facial expressions and tone of voice. Pepper memorizes your face and voice as well as your personality traits and preferences. He also adapts to your mood. Pepper can be funny, and he laughs.

Pepper Robot

MIT’s Media Lab now has Tega, a robot that can assess emotions using a camera and facial recognition software. Like ELIZA, Tega mirrors your responses. But unlike its MIT progenitor of 50 years ago, this robot gets to know you. Over time, Tega’s responses become more personalized—similar to your interactions with a psychotherapist or an executive leadership coach.

In the field of leadership development, we assess leaders using a variety of personality tests and feedback surveys. We also use interview techniques to gain insight into their emotional state based on facial expressions, word usage, and tone of voice. As coaches, this information helps us identify areas for improvement.

But now we have IBM’s Watson, who uses linguistic analytics to assess personality as well as needs and values. And Tega, who reads our emotions and motivates us to create a human-like connection.

How are they different from people who provide professional therapeutic and coaching services? The simple answer: soon there will be none.

As writer and essayist William Gibson said, “The future is already here—it is just not evenly distributed.”

In the 1968 science fiction film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the HAL 9000 computer ran a psychological assessment of a crew member. Fifty years ago, the “Star Trek” television series showed us a future where people use handheld devices to communicate voice and data. Today, many of us keep such devices—our smartphones—within reach 24/7.

We’re working in a field of dreams where time turns science fiction into fact. The future of leadership assessment and coaching is here, and it’s inextricably linked to the rise of the machines.

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