Many of us assume that empathy decreases as our world becomes more technologically advanced. Research indicates that tech may hinder the way we empathize while some psychologists argue that the Internet desensitizes us to certain shocking images or decreases our empathy skills.
However, the age of intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean an age without empathy. Contrary to the idea that high tech societies are solely pragmatic, we actually need compassion and understanding for others and our world for emerging technologies to function properly. Although it’s essential that high tech innovations are programmed without bias, these innovations can help improve the skills that foster empathy.
In the future, advanced technologies — like artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality and big data — will help societies expand awareness, create interactive experiences, and understand emotions that are crucial to create more empathy for a more caring world.
AI and Big Data Spread Awareness
Technologies like AI and big data bring important social causes to the forefront of our perception. As these innovations are increasingly adopted in everyday life, algorithms and data can transparently track global geopolitical, environmental and social issues — increasing awareness for the dire impacts of causes that might otherwise go overlooked or misunderstood.
When it comes to climate change, for instance, Inverse Magazine reports how AI catalogs geographic regions where coral thrives to prevent coral bleaching before the ecosystem’s extinction occurs. Underwater images are fed into a type of deep learning AI that identifies over 400 to 600 images of various coral reefs and their invertebrates, helping the scientific community assess that region’s ecological health — and ultimately providing visual aids that increase awareness regarding the status of these reefs.
Further, AI’s machine learning tools also drive caring through “deep empathy.” MIT’s Deep Empathy project seeks to increase awareness by using AI’s deep learning features to identify characteristics of Syrian neighborhoods affected by conflict and then simulate how cities across the world would look during similar conflicts.
Big data is another emerging tool that offers improved awareness, made accessible via data visualizations. The World Economic Forum reports how big data prioritizes and optimizes response efforts and, via crowdsourcing, enhances situational awareness. For example, Ushahidi is an open source, crisis mapping software that creates a database of geotagged and time-stamped reports gathered via email, SMS, or tweets. The information builds a comprehensive, real-time picture of what is happening on the ground. Today, Ushahidi’s cloud platform can be accessed by anyone, including non-developers. Thus far, it’s been used in 140 countries and reached over 20 million people.
Immersive Virtual Tools Help Us Experience Empathy
One of the most devastating experiences occurred when war victims in Aleppo, Syria posted their final goodbyes to Twitter. In many ways, people felt like they were experiencing the events as they watched in real-time. The moment effectively sent a shocking reality check and response across the globe.
However, immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR) now provide ways for us to experience major humanitarian causes as if we were at ground zero, essentially walking in another person’s shoes. Amnesty International implemented a VR program that allows its users to experience a day in the life of a Syrian refugee. Similarly, The United Nations has used VR to spread awareness and empathy about a variety of topics, ranging from world hunger to the ebola epidemic. Their 2015 VR campaign allowed audiences to step inside the shoes of a little girl in a refugee camp and became a special initiative of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, empowering people to demand that their governments implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to alleviate poverty, provide universal education and help the environment.
Gabo Arora, creative director and special advisor to the United Nations SDG Action Campaign, says, “People come out of it feeling enlightened and often moved, and often ready to take action.”
Likewise, in his TED talk, “How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine”, Chris Milk of the VR production company VRSE.works said, “[Virtual reality is] not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people’s perception of each other. And that’s how I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”
AI Helps Humans Understand Emotions
Face-to-face human interaction will always be the most direct and powerful way to foster empathy between people, and technologies like AI can help us do that more effectively.
According to the World Economic Forum emerging technology will let us connect more cohesively with each other and our environments by the year 2030. For example, they predict that emotion-aware glasses which augment social and emotional literacy can help translate people’s facial and vocal expressions to numbers and probability scores. The startup, Affectiva, a global leader in emotional artificial intelligence, has created an emotion-enabled system for smart glasses, helping those who have trouble identifying emotions and social cues on a daily basis.
Additionally, AI-enabled sensors can help identify the moods of others through facial and voice recognition patterns. Even automated stress detection systems can detect anxiety via biometric data or fitness trackers, led by companies like Fujitsu and BioBeats.
Koko, an offshoot of the MIT Media Lab, implements AI that commiserates with other people. If a user has a bad day, the program suggests how to channel that negative emotion into positive activity. Analyzing emotions via data algorithms, these targeted emotional analysis systems can be used for learning purposes from self-awareness, mindfulness and the need for understanding social behaviors. In general, AI could create more empathy because it provides more contextual information to teach us how to build bonds and manage relationships with people we know, and with strangers all over the world.
The implications of these tools are huge. Not only would we have companies focus on our well-being, but it would allow us to better understand both our and other people’s emotions. When we combine these automated tools with big data, we can offer a more in-depth analysis of the perspectives and feelings of people facing hardships at home and across the globe. In fact, the Harvard Business Review reports that a combination of facial and voice pattern analysis and deep learning already decodes human emotions for market research and political polling purposes. As we use these tools to bring attention to humanitarian crises, we may very well identify the need for more empathy within communities at home and across the world.
Technology allows us to better empathize with one another because humans created it in the first place. As long as we remember that it’s our humanity that allows these innovations to flourish, we can continue using them for social good. Empathy will always need human-to-human interactions to survive, but technologies and programs geared towards empathetic experiences and understanding helps us reboot our compassion for one another.
Albert Einstein said, “Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeking the world through the other person’s eyes. It is not learned in school; it is cultivated over a lifetime.” As tech and human emotion converge, our vision and understanding of one another can converge, too.