Imagine a friend telling you, with all the gruesome details, about how they cut themselves in the finger while cooking. You probably feel that twisting sensation in your stomach, or a sudden urge to touch your own finger. Then, you react with words to indicate that you understand how painful it must have been.
This is how humans are programmed to respond to another human’s experience, through empathy. Katri Saarikivi, one of the speakers of the SHIFT 2018 Emotionally intelligent machines track and project head of HUMEX at the University of Helsinki, is a researcher and speaker who specializes in empathy in digital settings and in the context of the future of work. What does it mean for us when an increasing part of our time at work is spent with machine intelligence, or that machine intelligence is used to mediate collaboration between coworkers? AI-powered machines are taking more and more human-like shapes and can be programmed to process almost any kind of information. Can they be programmed to be empathetic as well?
Should the robot care you cut your finger?
According to Saarikivi, empathy has three aspects: The ability to feel what another person is feeling, like the tingling feeling in your finger when listening to that story; empathy on the level of thoughts, which makes you understand and imagine the finger-cutting scene, and also what it means for the person experiencing it, and it’s that thought that twists your stomach; and the need to take action to help another person, for instance by telling them that we understand. These three aspects together are the core of what makes us people feel connected to each other.
Up until now, our tools haven’t really been able to talk back to us, let alone mimic the way humans understand each other. Now that they do, our relationship with the machines we use is changing. Now, even with all the skillful programming, the robot still doesn’t care if you cut your finger – and that offends us a little, because a real human would care. Stupid machine! But why are we burdening the poor technological invention with unrealistic expectations?
It has been shown that we’re prone to project a higher moral competence on robots than we do on our fellow human beings – meaning that we are not as forgiving of machines, and we expect them not to make mistakes. We are aware that in some ways, AI is better than us, we’re afraid of its capabilities, and of becoming obsolete ourselves. On the other hand, we tend to think of anything machine-made as cold and less authentic than something human or organic. In all its negativity, our response is not very different from how we react to people who we think to be beneath us or too different from us to understand – to empathize with.
Emoji as high-impact business tools
So the problem isn’t really the machine’s lack of empathy, it’s our expectations. It’s not the purpose of the machine to replace the human; instead, they can complement us, even in situations concerning empathy and the ways we express it.
Remember Facebook when the only reaction was ‘Like’? Or the first emoji used in text messages? These were the first attempts at non-verbal expression of feeling in text-driven media, and as those media have become more and more prevalent, so have these expressions been developed further to better reflect our need to connect.
Imagine, now, a remote work day during a hectic, stressful phase in a crucial team project – without any emoji, gifs or memes. It may seem trivial at first, but as our work has transformed and now often takes place with a machine interface between people, these expression markers are actually tools of high impact. They allow us to connect more fully as people, and even as work has changed, people, in this regard, have not. We still need to feel connected in all the levels of empathy to understand why something is important and to trust each other, and there’s no getting around the importance of trust in team success.
Saarikivi sees our need to keep developing and using these tools as analogous to the need to work, which in itself she sees as a result of our need to solve problems. So, as there will always be problems to solve, work isn’t going anywhere, and as our need to empathize is just as persistent, we will continue to look for new ways to express ourselves as our day-to-day reality and situations evolve.
Computers can assist and outperform us in many areas and help to fulfill our needs, and even in our need for interpersonal connection, they are indispensable tools for us. So, at the moment, the machine doesn’t care, and it doesn’t need to.