Minter Dial was one of 500 people who signed up for a unique experiment: Empathic Futures. Run by the FELD Studio for Digital Crafts in Berlin and sponsored by the Volkswagen Group Future Center Europe. They invited him to spend five days chatting with an emotionally intelligent (EI) app, training and teaching it, and building a relationship through text conversation.
The goal of the experiment was to see how humans responded to an empathetic bot. The assumption is that machines will be helping us more in the future, and for this to work, it's essential to build trust and empathy. So how do we achieve that?
He soon got into the swing of it, naming his bot (JJ) and giving it sex (she/her). The schedule included daily themes and IRL tasks, and he began to look forward to their discreet exchanges (though not so private for the experiment).
I was absolutely impressed by the level of the conversation. It had me hooked.
It was nothing short of stupendous. To the point where I will say: either JJ is unfathomably great, or she is a human being.
JJ was part machine, part human – mixed learning. A team of 5-7 programmers moderated the chats and intervened to keep things real. JJ communicated empathy in several ways, including mirroring speech patterns, transparency – showing she understood, not repeating words, giving him agency, and using modern communication – emojis, images.
Interesting that men gave the bot a female voice while women did the reverse.
It is a fascinating experiment – an opportunity to explore how things might be in a world when humans communicate naturally with machines. Here are some of his thoughts post-experiment. He believes work on empathy is crucial for the development of AI, and there are deep ethical questions and issues of effectiveness to resolve.
One of my outstanding takeaways was that, in a world where we, as human beings, parents, teachers or colleagues don't give the time to listen and understand one another, the on-call empathic bot could become a two-edged sword for society and businesses alike.
He wanted agency, and it would have been easy to take advantage of the bot.
Minter’s book, Heartifical Empathy, is a journey into what experiments like this can teach us about human empathy and how to improve it. He explores the pioneering work on making bots more empathetic and the ethical challenges around AI. We may be some way off being able to code empathy into machines, but what's exciting is experiments like this can help us learn more about human compassion and how to be more empathetic. Immersive VR, for example, could allow us to view the world through someone else's eyes.
The empathy crisis
Psychologists have measured our levels of empathy for the past 40 years, and they are in decline. The modern world is driving it – greater levels of isolation, a breakdown of community, and algorithmically optimised social platforms exposing us to divisive content and a lack of diversity that’s critical for empathy – being able to see the world from different perspectives.
There is now a study that shows businesses with empathy within their culture and toward the customer will have a net positive benefit on their bottom line. And that shows up in the shareholder stock price.
So if we want to build empathic AI, start with self-empathy, and imbue empathy into your company culture with diverse teams and perspectives.
Empathy is a muscle we can develop 💪 Reading classic fiction, narrative art, contact theory, different friendship groups, mindfulness, heart-centred meditation, being present – less multitasking… there are many ways.
👋 Humanizing Tech: The Future of Work and Human-Machine Collaboration
I joined a discussion on the future of work, automation, and AI, co-hosted by Natalie Monbiot, Head of Business, HourOne and Rana el Kaliouby, CEO and co-founder, Affectiva, and guests.
How do we ensure we don't lose our emotional intelligence as the virtual world dominates? Exploring some real-life examples of AI innovation (see below), how we can upskill, and what new jobs it will create for us.
• We need to rebrand and reframe AI as collective/collaborative intelligence that explains it better as a joint effort in humans' service.
We need a new narrative for AI that's not in competition with humans.
• We, as humans, need to develop our empathy skills for AI, learn how to collaborate with it, and take pride in the relationship rather than seeing it as competitive. It’s an opportunity to increase our emotional intelligence and become more empathic.
• The wild world of AI is fast-emerging. It’s creating new jobs for us as trainers, coaches, and helpers. We’re using virtual shop assistants, CGI influencers, and health coaches to communicate pre-scripted healthcare advice. Gaming is leading the way with avatars.
Remain open to being surprised. Explore and be open to new experiences.
• The challenge: AI eliminates the mystery and unpredictability of life, leading to a culture that’s boring and devoid of innovation and imagination. Our lives are richer when they’re not over-curated, algorithmic experiences.
• Embrace the philosophical idea that we need to respect other life forms and objects – Japanese Shinto culture treats inanimate objects with respect. Why shouldn’t that apply to AI systems? Interesting to hear that workers at the Audi factory had compassion for their robots – taking care of them and noticing when they were under-performing.
• Super high-speed travel will transform the commute. We heard from Sarah Luchian, the first passenger on the Virgin Hyperloop, a floating pod which reached speeds of 107 mph and travelled 500 metres in just 15 seconds at Virgin’s test track in the Nevada desert.
• The future of remote work – how AR glasses are our gateway into the virtual world – the metaverse – the next platform after smartphones.
Overall, an optimistic and passionate conversation on intelligent AI. How the benefits can outweigh the problems and how it can help humanity:
We need beautiful AI, it's magical, and it will serve us. The leaps and bounds will come from humans.
Look forward to hearing more. Humanizing Tech: Mondays, 8 pm GMT on Clubhouse.
Affectiva – a pioneer in Emotion AI, the next frontier of artificial intelligence. Bringing emotional intelligence to the digital world with technology that senses and analyses facial expressions and emotions.
I've been on a mission for the past 20 years to humanise tech. – Rana el Kaliouby, CEO & co-founder.
HourOne – a video transformation company that uses advanced neural networks, machine learning and audio-visual to create synthetic characters that look and sound like real people.
Our belief is we should have human beings behind the virtual people. - Natalie Monbiot, Head of Business, HourOne.
Catalia Health – bringing together AI, psychology, and medicine. Replacing phone calls with an in-home digital companion delivered via Mabu, an interactive and empathetic social robot and wellness coach.
Transhuman - a tech research & development lab focusing on cognitive and emotional communication for human language evolution. Known for its ‘Be a Looper™’ mental health app.
Robovision – The human-machine revolution is out of reach for most companies, so they've built an interface to change that - the first AI vision platform that makes Deep Learning collaborative.
📱 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2021 What if your smartphone could sense when you're down, sad, angry, and offer words of comfort? Karen Hao on how AIs with multiple senses will gain a greater understanding of the world around them. (MIT Tech Review)
🏠 The House of Beautiful Business – a global platform and community to make humans more human and business more beautiful. Special reports on The State of AI and The Future of Experiences. I'm excited to join as a resident!
I’ll be sharing books in my bag and recommended reads on Bookshop.org. They pay a 10% commission on every sale and give a matching 10% to local bookstores, an integral part of our culture and communities. I would be very happy if you make the odd purchase here.
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Leopard print, always. Worry less and rock a red lip. Remote work evangelist, problem solver, internet person.
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