Can AI Help My Friend Feel Empathy?

The search for empathetic robots.

Leah Zitter
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A friend of mine has a hard time feeling empathy for anyone. When people tell her their problems, she fakes interest and tries to show concern.

She once told me, “They may be going through the worst things; their child has cancer, their mother died, they may have lost their jobs, anything and it doesn't make the slightest different to me. It’s like I’m hearing a lecture on pythagorean algorithms. In fact, I once congratulated someone for having difficulties in his marriage. Told him it was no big deal.”

Ths friend had been starved, beaten, and bitten by her mother into her teens. The amygdala (the emotional part of her brain) was impaired, resulting in her ability to feel empathy for others being disabled. In this way my friend was no different than robots. In 2017, MIT researchers Pinar Yanardag, Manuel Cebrian, and Iyad Rahwan, obsessed over whether scientists could teach robots empathy. If they could, their strategies may also benefit people my friend.

The MIT “Deep Empathy” Experiment

The Deep Empathy experiment conducted in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab used a popular deep learning method called neural style transfer to create images, showing neighborhoods around the world as though they’d been hit by disasters smashing other countries. Cities included Melbourne, Toronto,  Amsterdam, Boton, Tokyo, and Paris wracked by tornados, hurricanes, terrorism, earthquakes, and wildfires.

The idea came from a book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, where authors Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen imagine how virtual reality could be used to make people better capable of empathy. For instance, transporting them to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. In their Deep Empathy experiment, the MIT researchers solicit your involvement and ask you, "Would it make you feel more empathy for victims of far away disasters if your homes looked similar to theirs?"

Well, I selected San Francisco, Chicago, and London (all cities I've lived in) and found that the images only elicited cognitive empathy. According to Sherry Turkle in her 2011 book Alone Together, this is because technology distances us from others even while it provides the opportunity to connect with an unprecedented number of people. 

Either way, I could intellectually process that disaster victims would well feel miserable and bewildered from losing their homes and stability. But I lacked the affective empathy, where I felt their emotions and cried for their loss. Apparently, I’m not the only one to feel that way. When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, people heard reports about stranded pets.

Thousands poured into the area to help rescue, treat, and reunite pets with their owners. They also worked to place those whose owners couldn't be found. However, I bet most of those people yawn while reading some newspaper report about a famine that starves millions of children in distant countries.

How Do I Get This Affective Empathy?

Scientists say it comes through mirror neurons which are “neural representations based on your own past experiences that helps you relate to the experience yourself,” according to Stephanie Preston, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. Preston co-authored a paper discussing the latest evidence on empathy research in humans and other mammals.

“If someone is going through something difficult and you’ve experienced that yourself, you are more able to relate directly to how they feel.”

According to psychologist Paul Slovic, early research on disasters and AI shows that people become "numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals" of large-scale disasters and atrocities. They may, however, be triggered by the experiences of one victim – especially a child – far more than by the reports of the misery of hundreds of thousands of individuals.

Techniques include listening to people. Really listening to them. Thinking about the lives of others and their points of contact to yours. Talking to others and eliciting similarities. I guess that’s behind the Biblical prescription of  “liking others as you yourself.” In its PR for MIT's Deep Empathy project, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) writes:

"With 11 major emergencies active around the world right now, it's difficult for people to keep track of every issue or situation, and to connect them in a logical way – and empathize with the realities of those suffering."

The world-renowned humanitarian organizations added it believes technology "can support us in finding the commonalities behind those disasters, and the commonalities that connect us all." Other AI experiments have tried empathy with an exoskeleton that makes you feel older so you care for the elderly. Alternatively, there was an algorithm that tried to burst the filter bubble of social networks by making sure we see stories reflecting a variety of perspectives about issues on which we may have views that are rarely challenged.

Most of these stories are on horrific activities. If you or I were exposed to those or similar experiments, would it make us open our wallets or love the old man? Unlikely. It’s affective, not cognitive, empathy that prods those tears. The good news is our brains can change and adapt, through training and experiences.

"Empathetic people are made not born," writes Knapton for Science News. This means there’s hope for my friend. And maybe there's hope for robots, too.