Last week the media buzzed with reactions to a supercomputer’s victory: IBM’s Watson trounced human opponents solving puzzles on Jeopardy, with only occasional pauses or mistakes. This provoked all kinds of speculation about the future of human/computer interaction.
One fact overlooked in the discussion was this: Watson had no consciousness of the audience. No way of knowing whether anyone was laughing at its answers, cheering with delight or gasping in surprise. How much more difficult would it be to teach a computer to take on an unscripted Q&A session with a live human audience?
That’s a challenge that business leaders face on a regular basis. Questions come up that can’t easily be answered with a Google search or by matching data in stored documents. There are fine nuances: beneath the surface of a question there may be a challenge, a plea, a demand or a hint (the unspoken question is often the most significant).
Those are aspects that speakers should listen for, and need to address if they wish to be effective leaders. But with more and more Q&A sessions taking place online, with limited face-to-face interaction, the challenge is magnified. How do you read nuance in a text question? How do you judge the mood of an invisible audience? Computers may be capable of analyzing online discussions and social networks, but having data is not the same as having answers.
And would we really want a Watson to explain corporate policy or predict industry trends? Not likely. What’s needed is better ways of connecting leaders to their online audiences so they can become attuned to the nuances of online buzz (and online silences) and respond with feeling.