There is no shortage of doom and gloom surrounding advancements in technology. Just take a look at these headlines:
“Is Technology Destroying Empathy?”
“How digital technology is destroying your mind”
“How technology and social media is undermining family relationships”
An academic study suggested that American university students in 2010 had 40% less empathy than people their age in 1979. The authors suggested the explosion of social technology as one possible contributing factor – although by no means was this conclusive and several other societal changes (such as inflated expectations of success and celebrity reality television) were considered. Nevertheless, headlines were quick to criticise the social-media obsessed millennial generation.
Now, more than ever, we are reliant on technology to connect with others. This means that whatever effect technology is having, the effects are likely to be exacerbated. Therefore, it’s crucial to develop more sophisticated and empathetic technology. Luckily, many in the industry already know this. Here are some examples of how technology can be used to help build empathy.
Artificial intelligence feedback
This is one of the most interesting examples, because you might have already interacted with AI feedback without realising. Grammarly introduced a ‘tone detector’ towards the end of last year: a web browser plugin that grades the tone of your emails as ‘confident’, ‘optimistic’ or ‘worried’ (the plugin claims to identify up to 40 tones). Receiving feedback in this way could increase our empathy by making us more aware of the likely emotional impact on the intended party.
In a similar vein, Humana Pharmacy call centre started providing employees with an AI coach. Usually, employees start to experience ‘compassion fatique’ as the day goes on. The coach analyses pitch, tone, and rhythm of the phone call, then provides real-time suggestions about how to maintain an empathetic interaction.
You’ve probably heard the expression ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes’. Those are the hopes of people working on virtual reality – that by literally walking through someone else’s life, people improve ‘perspective taking’ skills and fully imagine what it feels like to be part of a disadvantaged or marginalised group. For example, people who experienced being homeless in virtual reality were more likely to sign petitions to support homelessness. Similar successes have been found with race and gender. Given that virtual reality is quickly becoming cheaper and more accessible, it presents a real opportunity for enhancing empathy.
While we should be cautious in reducing complex scenarios to data points, deep learning is an sophisticated method of doing exactly this. The ‘Deep Empathy’project aims to “increase empathy for victims of far-away disasters by making our homes appear similar to the homes of victims”. Deep learning is used to identify the characteristics of Syrian homes damaged by conflict, then simulates how your city would look in a similar situation. Seeing a picture of a place you know and love can make a far-away conflict feel immediate and personal.
Given its everyday presence in our lives, technology and empathy are inextricably linked. Forward thinking organisations are increasingly recognising that empathy should actively feed into technology – from providing a positive consumer experience to making change in the world. Google has it’s own dedicated ‘Empathy lab’ – which aims to design tech that works with our ‘messy human experience’ rather than against it. With such high-profile driving forces advocating for the role of empathy in tech, it seems likely that we’ll see many more innovative projects in the coming years.