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Driving innovation with emotional intelligence

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Driving innovation with emotional intelligence


The world watched in wonder in February as NASA’s robotic rover Perseverance successfully landed on the surface of Mars with the goal of searching for evidence of past life on the red planet. The technology itself was, of course, astounding. But what really captivated the public was the video taken by a couple of miniature cameras from consumer-grade smartphones that were attached to the landing module. The idea came from NASA deputy program manager Matt Wallace, who was inspired when his daughter showed him a video she made by attaching a camera to her body during gymnastics. “I felt for a moment I had a glimpse into what it would be like if I could do a back flip,” he told The New York Times.

With this simple idea, Wallace helped NASA captivate and inspire humanity.

EQ as a differentiator

Even as the world rapidly embraces more and more complex technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), it’s still the human connection that gets our attention. That makes emotional intelligence (EQ) more important than ever. In a world gone digital, it’s crucial to design products and lead people in the analog world, based on our humanity. Those who understand this will more effectively inspire and lead their staffs, please their customers, and spark more innovation. 

Emotional intelligence was developed as a psychological theory in the 1990s by Peter Salovey and John Mayer. In a series of books, journalist Daniel Goleman refined and popularized the idea, breaking it down into five characteristics:

  • Self-awareness: Recognizing and understanding your emotions, and how they affect others.
  • Self-regulation: Controlling your impulses and moods, especially to pause and think before acting.
  • Internal motivation: Being driven by something other than external rewards like money.
  • Empathy: Understanding how other people feel.
  • Social skills: Knowing how to build and manage good relationships.  

EQ is increasingly recognized as a competitive advantage, according to a survey by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. It found that emotionally intelligent organizations get an innovation premium. These organizations reported more creativity, higher levels of productivity and employee engagement, significantly stronger customer experiences, and higher levels of customer loyalty, advocacy, and profitability. Organizations that did not focus on emotional intelligence had “significant consequences, including low productivity, lukewarm innovation, and an uninspired workforce,” said the report.

With the recent crisis of a worldwide pandemic, EQ has become even more important in leadership. Verizon surveyed senior business leaders both before and after covid-19. Before the pandemic, less than 20% of respondents said EQ would be an important skill for the future. But since covid, EI increased in significance for 69% of respondents.

The emotional appeal of Perseverance

NASA’s Perseverance exemplifies the application of EQ in many ways. The complex technology came not only from NASA rocket scientists, but also from a variety of U.S. small businesses identified, nurtured, and funded through two programs: the Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer program (STTR). Together they award some $200 million a year to small businesses to develop technology for NASA.

Gynelle Steele, deputy program executive of these programs, says EQ is key to her job on several levels, including how she leads her staff and how the programs nurture small business. As a leader, she needs to be perceptive in terms of what type of innovation NASA needs, how small businesses may provide it, and how she can bring them together. Like the manager who put the smartphone cameras on the Perseverance, Steele and her staff try to stay open to new ideas and perspectives.

“A sure way to stifle innovation is to not have the emotional maturity to recognize that innovation and creativity can come from many sources,” says Steele. “I think that our agency has hugely benefited from research institutes, large businesses, small businesses, and individual contributors.” She continues, “The capacity to recognize untapped sources of innovation, then bringing them together in a system, is a great ability to have.”

Perseverance incorporates technology from several of the small businesses that are or were once part of Steele’s programs. For example, small businesses developed the rover’s seven-foot robotic arm, which will drill Martian rock to collect and analyze core samples, as well as a dust mitigation tool and lithium ion rechargeable batteries.

Integrating these contributions into the larger NASA design is like conducting an orchestra in a symphony. “Pulling all these technologies together into the bigger mission becomes very poetic,” she says.

The end result is something that appeals to us on a human level: it’s satisfying for Steele as a leader and for the NASA staff—feeding their internal motivation of advancing humanity’s exploration of the Final Frontier. And it reinforces a strong emotional bond with the American public, which is NASA’s ultimate “customer.” Everyone feels inspired and experiences a sense of higher purpose. “This feeling of being an explorer­­—of constantly pushing the boundaries—is something that even as kids most of us appreciate,” says Steele.

Bringing EQ benefits down to earth

Although NASA is a universal example, EQ is just as important in design and leadership in terrestrial vehicles as well. Americans already tend to bond emotionally with their cars, for example. One of the latest models from Lexus illustrates how that company infuses EQ into its design.

As a brand, Lexus uses omotenashi, a Japanese concept that embodies a spirit of hospitality that anticipates and fulfills people’s needs, from the design of the car to the showroom floor. Lexus dealers are known for treating customers like guests in their homes, trying to make them comfortable in many ways on many levels. Lexus dealers consistently rank very highly for helpfulness, attitude, high standards, and technical knowledge. In design, the automaker uses what it calls “L-finesse,” which it describes as leading-edge design applied with finesse. It includes anticipating the customer’s needs and making even the most complex technology simple and joyfully intuitive for the customer to use, which the company calls “incisive simplicity.” It also strives for “intriguing elegance,” a design that captures and holds people’s attention, drawing them to the car.

The LS has been the flagship sedan for Lexus since the brand launched. “Flagships are leaders pointing the way forward, embodying values that will always guide us,” says the company. In the LS, Lexus employs these concepts to bring customers emotional satisfaction through technology that embodies the human touch. This includes features such as comforting ambient lighting inspired by andon paper lanterns and an available internal climate control system that senses the surface temperatures of passengers and automatically adjusts to their comfort levels. It even incorporates Japanese shiatsu massage technology in the seating in some packages.

And while Lexus uses cutting-edge technology, it leads with EQ, says the company. It wants to demonstrate the power of the intangible world by keeping an emotional understanding of its customers at the core of what it does. It uses EQ to achieve the highest levels of design and customer experience. This strengthens a bond with customers at a human level, inspiring owners and feeding their sense of purpose.

Like Steele and NASA, the Lexus LS uses EQ to captivate the imagination. It feeds people’s emotional need to explore and inspires them to push boundaries.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing

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A bot that watched 70,000 hours of Minecraft could unlock AI’s next big thing


The researchers claim that their approach could be used to train AI to carry out other tasks. To begin with, it could be used to for bots that use a keyboard and mouse to navigate websites, book flights or buy groceries online. But in theory it could be used to train robots to carry out physical, real-world tasks by copying first-person video of people doing those things. “It’s plausible,” says Stone.

Matthew Gudzial at the University of Alberta, Canada, who has used videos to teach AI the rules of games like Super Mario Bros, does not think it will happen any time soon, however. Actions in games like Minecraft and Super Mario Bros. are performed by pressing buttons. Actions in the physical world are far more complicated and harder for a machine to learn. “It unlocks a whole mess of new research problems,” says Gudzial.

“This work is another testament to the power of scaling up models and training on massive datasets to get good performance,” says Natasha Jaques, who works on multi-agent reinforcement learning at Google and the University of California, Berkeley. 

Large internet-sized data sets will certainly unlock new capabilities for AI, says Jaques. “We’ve seen that over and over again, and it’s a great approach.” But OpenAI places a lot of faith in the power of large data sets alone, she says: “Personally, I’m a little more skeptical that data can solve any problem.”

Still, Baker and his colleagues think that collecting more than a million hours of Minecraft videos will make their AI even better. It’s probably the best Minecraft-playing bot yet, says Baker: “But with more data and bigger models I would expect it to feel like you’re watching a human playing the game, as opposed to a baby AI trying to mimic a human.”

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death

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The Download: AI conquers Minecraft, and babies after death


+ Scientists have found a way to mature eggs from transgender men in the lab. It could offer them new ways to start a family—without the need for distressing IVF procedures. Read the full story.  + How reproductive technology is changing what it means to be a parent. Advances could lead to babies with four or more biological parents—forcing us to reconsider parenthood. Read the full story.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 Elon Musk wants to reinstate banned Twitter accounts
It’s an incredibly dangerous decision with widespread repercussions. (WP $) 
+ Recent departures have hit Twitter’s policy and safety divisions hard. (WSJ $)
+ It looks like Musk’s promise of no further layoffs was premature. (Insider $)
+ Meanwhile, Twitter Blue is still reportedly launching next week. (Reuters)
+ Imagine simply transferring your followers to another platform. (FT $)
+ Twitter’s potential collapse could wipe out vast records of recent human history. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Russia’s energy withdrawal could kill tens of thousands in Europe 
High fuel costs could result in more deaths this winter than the war in Ukraine. (Economist $)
+ Higher gas prices will also hit Americans as the weather worsens. (Vox)
+ Ukraine’s invasion underscores Europe’s deep reliance on Russian fossil fuels. (MIT Technology Review)

3 FTX is unable to honor the grants it promised various organizations 
Many of them are having to seek emergency funding to plug the gaps. (WSJ $)
+ Bahamians aren’t thrilled about what its collapse could mean for them. (WP $)

4 It’s a quieter Black Friday than usual
Shopping isn’t much of a priority right now. (Bloomberg $)
+ If you do decide to shop, make sure you don’t get scammed. (Wired $)

5 The UK is curbing its use of Chinese surveillance systems 
But only on “sensitive” government sites. (FT $)
+ The world’s biggest surveillance company you’ve never heard of. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Long covid is still incredibly hard to treat 
Its symptoms vary wildy, which can make it hard to track, too. (Undark)
+ A universal flu vaccine is looking promising. (New Scientist $)

7 San Francisco’s police is considering letting robots use deadly force
The force has 12 remotely piloted robots that could, in theory, kill someone. (The Verge)

8 Human hibernation could be the key to getting us to Mars 
It could be the closest we can get to time travel. (Wired $)

9 Why TikTok is suddenly so obsessed with dabloons 
It’s a form of choose-your-own-adventure fun. (The Guardian)

10 We can’t stop trying to reinvent mousetraps 🧀
There are thousands of versions out there, yet we keep coming up with new designs. (New Yorker $)

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?

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We can now use cells from dead people to create new life. But who gets to decide?


His parents told a court that they wanted to keep the possibility of using the sperm to eventually have children that would be genetically related to Peter. The court approved their wishes, and Peter’s sperm was retrieved from his body and stored in a local sperm bank. 

We have the technology to use sperm, and potentially eggs, from dead people to make embryos, and eventually babies. And there are millions of eggs and embryos—and even more sperm—in storage and ready to be used. When the person who provided those cells dies, like Peter, who gets to decide what to do with them?

That was the question raised at an online event held by the Progress Educational Trust, a UK charity for people with infertility and genetic conditions, that I attended on Wednesday. The panel included a clinician and two lawyers, who addressed plenty of tricky questions, but provided few concrete answers. 

In theory, the decision should be made by the person who provided the eggs, sperm or embryos. In some cases, the person’s wishes might be quite clear. Someone who might be trying for a baby with their partner may store their sex cells or embryos and sign a form stating that they are happy for their partner to use these cells if they die, for example. 

But in other cases, it’s less clear. Partners and family members who want to use the cells might have to collect evidence to convince a court the deceased person really did want to have children. And not only that, but that they wanted to continue their family line without necessarily becoming a parent themselves.

Sex cells and embryos aren’t property—they don’t fall under property law and can’t be inherited by family members. But there is some degree of legal ownership for the people who provided the cells. It is complicated to define that ownership, however, Robert Gilmour, a family law specialist based in Scotland, said at the event. “The law in this area makes my head hurt,” he said.

The law varies depending on where you are, too. Posthumous reproduction is not allowed in some countries, and is unregulated in many others. In the US, laws vary by state. Some states won’t legally recognize a child conceived after a person’s death as that person’s offspring, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). “We do not have any national rules or policies,” Gwendolyn Quinn, a bioethicist at New York University, tells me.

Societies like ASRM have put together guidance for clinics in the meantime. But this can also vary slightly between regions. Guidance by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, for example, recommends that parents and other relatives should not be able to request the sex cells or embryos of the person who died. That would apply to Peter Zhu’s parents. The concern is that these relatives might be hoping for a “commemorative child” or as “a symbolic replacement of the deceased.”

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