An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How A.I. Is Poised to Transform Negotiations. Eye on A.I.

Negotiation is a fundamental business skill—one that is inextricably bound up with human emotion and psychology as much as economic calculus. Perhaps one day, robot lawyers will go forth to negotiate on our behalf. But, in the meantime, at least one negotiation expert thinks A.I. can be used today to improve humans’ negotiation tactics.

Jared Curhan is a professor at M.I.T.’s Sloan School of Management who specializes in negotiation. His particular focus is on what researchers call “subjective value.” That’s a fancy term for how people feel about the outcome of a negotiation: do they think they got a fair deal or got screwed?

Negotiation theorists once dismissed subjective value as irrelevant. But Curhan and others have shown that it is a good predictor of economic payoffs—especially when parties will have to negotiate with one another more than once over the course of a relationship.

Like most negotiation trainers, Curhan teaches students through role-playing exercises. For the past several years, he’s been using software that can run these games and provide immediate feedback to students on their performance in the form of computer-generated graphs and charts showing how well they’ve done in both economic and subjective terms. Now he’s adding A.I. to that mix.

Curhan has partnered with a Danish company called iMotions, that creates software for tracking human emotions. Part of iMotions’ platform is powered by Affectiva, a company that was spun out of MIT’s famed Media Lab. Affectiva uses computer vision to identify emotions from facial expressions. Curhan is using iMotions’ software to analyze videos of negotiation simulations. “We are trying to isolate particular emotions that have influence on the outcome of negotiations,” Curhan says. “How do you make a positive impression on your counterparty and how does that relate to your facial expression?”

Right now, Curhan is just gathering data. “We don’t know which emotional expressions are favorable and which aren’t,” he says. He hopes to find out—and then teach students how to alter their facial expressions to avoid negative outcomes. He even envisions a day when an A.I.-enabled alarm could warn a negotiator when a counterparty’s facial expressions indicate a bargaining session is about to go south.

That’s just one example of A.I.’s implications for negotiation. Another is IBM’s “Project Debater” A.I.  It can analyze a proposition and automatically highlight the best arguments for and against it, factoring in both logical and emotional impact. These technologies could transform business negotiations—and probably do so long before we have robot lawyers.

Jeremy Kahn

This story has been updated to reflect the correct name of the M.I.T. business school. It is the Sloan School of Management, not the Sloan School of Business, as originally stated. It has also been updated to clarify that Curhan uses software from iMotions and to make clear the relationship between iMotions and Affectiva’s facial recognition technology.


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Maybe killer robots and drones aren't as bad an idea as you think. Lucas Kunce, a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote a provocative opinion piece in The New York Times last week chastising tech workers at companies such as Google and Microsoft who have objected to their employers working with the U.S. military, especially on applications involving artificial intelligence. While many human rights campaigners and A.I. researchers have raised deep concerns about incorporating A.I. into autonomous weapons systems, Kunce argues that A.I. could very well help save civilian lives—as well as the lives of U.S. soldiers—on the battlefield. "We need tools that enhance situational awareness, provide information that overcomes fear and fatigue, and enable fast, effective and precise combat decisions for both commanders and individuals," Kunce writes. "For me, it’s hard to understand why tech employees would not want to help their fellow Americans survive on the battlefield and accomplish their missions in the safest and least damaging way possible."

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