Minter Dial on Empathy & AI.

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This is a transcript of the Business Breakfast talk with author and futurist, Minter Dial. It was held on February 26th, 2011, at The Court Private Members Club in London’s Soho.

The question he posed was can machine learning be as empathetic as a human? Minter took part in a 5-day experiment with a group of Berlin-based technologists. You can find out the result at the end of this post!

Minter Dial: Thanks for inviting me to talk with you this morning and you all for coming. It’s lovely to see so many faces I know, and some new faces. So, let me tell you a little story. There I am writing a book and it turned out my editor fell sick, and so I had to put that book down and found myself with a whole summer ahead of me to write a book.

And at the same moment, I found out that my best friend had taken his life, so I was in this horrible situation of really not understanding what had happened. I’d been with him for the last six weeks, chatting and then that happens. So I felt very distraught and was going through a grieving process and thinking, what I could have done differently? How I could have been more aware of his mental state?

Anyway, I came to the idea of writing this book as a sort of a process of sort of a therapeutic, cathartic, time to write a book about something which I wasn’t really fully aware of. And that is empathy. As I’m writing the book my wife comments at the end “Oh, now that you’re an expert on empathy, I can expect you to be empathic all the time.” (laughter)

What I did realise was, that I was not that empathic, I think, at least, certainly, in the case of Fee, I had not been, and in a broader sense, I think there are many times when I’m not. And although I tried to be, I realised I have impediments. I have times when I don’t feel like being empathic. So I’ve been through a process where I tried to be more self-aware, where that I can not be nice or cool or listening or present. How can I develop better skills to be more empathetic?

So that’s how I got into this whole story. I wanted to share that with you before we get into the talk because at the end of the day storytelling is a useful thing. It’s also coming from a place of vulnerability that I’m more used to talking about. So the question for all of you is how many five asks you about your, your own level of empathy, you know, are you average, above average or below average.?

What interesting thing about this is, and I’ve been doing this for 12 months, is maybe my audiences attract empathic people. Because it seems on balance, the people I invite swing above average in terms of their empathy. By the way, this is empathy week, run by a guy called Ed Cohen, so I do encourage you to check out empathy week and what they’re doing and how storytelling can be a useful way to bring empathy into schools. 200,000 kids are going to be talking about empathy this week and we also have empathy day in June.

While there are clearly people who have above average empathy they all have different spheres that come into their story of empathy. I also believe you might have a different understanding of what empathy is. So I ‘d like a volunteer to come up and help us decide if we can all get on the same page as to what is empathy is.

(A volunteer is found)

So what I’m going to ask you to do is just follow what I do. It’s going to be very simple, I’m going to raise an arm, and I’m going to ask you to do the same thing. Here we go.

(Minter raises his right hand and puts it down, and then raises his left hand. and puts it down The volunteer mirrors him)

Minter Dial: Alright, thank you. So do you think you were being empathic with me in terms of what you were doing?

Volunteer: “I was being more reactionary.” Right, that’s interesting. That’s another feeling. And what does anyone else think in the room, about what just happened?

Audience member: He raised a different arm, does that mean he’s being empathic or is he just dyslexic. (laughter)

At the end of the day, this is just an exercise, and it’s a contrived exercise but it’s expressly done to get the conversation going. So to your point (looks at audience member), it was contrived but I’m facilitating an idea but that’s a good, fair point.

That was an exercise that was done by a French philosopher and specialist on empathy, and he basically suggests that by mirroring me as you did today. When I raised my right arm he raised his left arm, this is more sympathetic than empathetic.

The point is that empathy is a derivative of sympathy, it used to be. Under the word sympathy and it’s very easy for us to get confused between sympathy and empathy.

One of the things that I have discovered, having not been an expert in empathy previously, is that there are different definitions of empathy and different ways and different schools of empathy. One that’s called Cognitive and one that’s called Effective. Cognitive Empathy versus Effective.

Cognitive Empathy is; I am going to understand you, I’m going to understand your feelings, your thoughts, and experiences. I’m going to use data points, understanding your body language and I’m going to understand what’s going on in your mind in your emotions.

Effective empathy means I’m going to feel what you’re feeling. So if you’re you’re crying, I’m going to want to cry. This is where it’s at a far grander scale, if you will, of empathy and a far rarer skill with regard to empathy. So, cognitive is I understand and effective is I feel what you’re feeling.

Sympathy, is I feel sorry for you. I’m just pouring out, I feel, I understand you guys, I’m just feeling sorry for you as opposed to feeling what you’re feeling, that’s the difference. Cognitive empathy is essentially the ability to understand the other person’s feelings, to actually grasp it.

I’m not talking about the action that follows. A lot of times people think about compassion. Compassion is the next step after empathy. You need empathy to be properly compassionate, and by the way, some people are looking for compassion. You might see someone who’s distressed and want to rush in and help them and they say, Well, no thanks, I don’t need your help.

For example, a lot of people think empathy is about being nice and sometimes it is, sometimes it’s about being kind. But it’s not necessarily about that. When I work in business, I really focus on the cognitive side it’s an easier side to develop because it is about just understanding. For example, you might need to deliver bad news to somebody.

It’s not fun giving bad news to somebody. Sometimes we just don’t have the right way of delivering it. For example, you can deliver bad news in a much more empathic way. If you are just a little bit more considerate about how it’s going to be received. I think that one of our biggest challenges today is we don’t think about how it’s going to be received enough.

We have a big problem in business with empathy. Would you say that empathy in society, in general, has been on the rise, staying even or going down? How many people think it’s going up in recent times – one brave soul.

There is a lot of evidence to say that empathy is on the decline. Maybe it’s because people understand it better. They did a study in the United States in 2010 with 14,000, college students. The 2010 college students were 20 years old, they were born in 1990, and they self-declared themselves to be 40%, less than empathic than the same body of students from 1980. So the topic was already there but there’s evidence to say that we as a society feel that we’re not being empathic,

Finally, we all have differences in this room, we might be in a like-minded group, but we’re all here now with a whole lot of different baggage. We all think we like empathy and believe we’re empathic but by the way, we don’t know each other we don’t understand each other. In fact, there’s a thing called close communication bias, has anyone heard about that?

Do you think it’s easier to be empathic with a work colleague, family member or stranger?

Audience member: Family members are easier, as you can relate to them.

MD: Does anyone else agree or disagree with that? You disagree. You just said stranger, why a stranger?

AM: Possibly because you don’t have any preconceptions with a stranger.

MD: Right, so that’s what “Close Communication Bias” is, I know if I say this or that it might trigger a bad response. It triggered them last time so if I say it this time this might not be good. (laughter)

And so in a closed environment, things are much more complex. Whereas when we have a stranger and kind of fresh air, I can find the blue sky. But of course, we do bring bias. Other biases when we talk to strangers, but there is a freshness as well when you talk to strangers.

So that was great but there are many people here who are interested in the AI component of this. But before I get into that, and I must say that those who are interested in empathy and AR really do need to consider who they are as a human being, before they even start getting into AI in businesses.

Businesses say “we want to be more empathic with our customers because that’s how I can get more sales. Right. How many of you guys are interested in that side of things? Right, so that way I can be more effective and I can get my marketing ROI and I get more links and more like etc. If you can think about how someone’s going to receive your marketing, the title of your email, or a sales promotion then you can think through how they’re going to receive that promotion. So you’re better off positioning it here when you’re walking into a store.

The real question is, who am I and why do I want to use empathy in AI? And in many instances that I’ve actually come across I’ve seen companies trying to delegate empathy because they don’t know how to do it themselves. Human to human is another service that gets thrown around.

So, when it comes to the encoding of the AI the first thing I like to start with, is why are you doing it? Get a good grip on that and if it’s just to make more money then I believe we’re going to go down the wrong path because empathy can be used for good. It can also be used for bad.

On the scale of empathy being used for bad, we have sociopaths. They use empathy to get their victims to do whatever they want. Going a little bit further down the line we have closed empathy where we’re just being impacted by my tribe. Greater empathy is when you’re able to relate to people who are different from you, who have different experiences different cultures, different languages.

That’s where it becomes much more interesting in real life. To be an empathic empathetic organisation, you need people to be empathetic towards each other. We have a general predisposition to be empathic and then it gets run out of us in business.

Take Steve Jobs, known for being quite the irascible unfriendly individual, but where he was exceptional was understanding how other people were using devices. I mean, exceptional, including the coders the programmers and designers, he had an exceptional understanding of what went through their minds. Do you know the story of painting the picket fence?

You walk by a picket fence, perfectly painted at the front, the bit people see but what Jobs believed was that you needed to paint the other side, the side facing the bushes that you couldn’t see. Why? Because the painter wanted to paint the entire fence, not half paint it. He wanted job satisfaction.

The analogy is Jobs wanted the engineers designing the iPhone, who were making the devices to be able to make it look as beautiful on the inside as it was on the outside. It’s the same underlying need, job satisfaction.

So he understood that so even though we can’t see into the workings of an iPhone he wanted it to look aesthetic to the people making it. So that’s the picket fence story, and I think that Jobs had some specific areas where he knew how to use the skill of empathy.

AM: On that point, there’s a story told that he gave somebody an iMac as a gift when they first came out, and then a few years later he met the person again a few years later and he said, “How did you get on with that iMac? and the guy said “Oh I gave it away, it was just gathering dust” and Jobs said, “Well that’s a shame, I’d signed the motherboard inside, it will be worth a few bucks today!”

MD: The culture of leadership is part of it but when you get together often you’re talking about numbers or data results or, your customer strategy or your buying process. What you don’t necessarily do is talk about how is the team feeling how are people in the mix? It’s sometimes the smallest thing. When you actually do make space for those conversations I’ve actually done that you can share empathy instead. It’s just that you never have the chance to stop and reflect on it and stop to actually consider it.

If there’s no space or process to allow for it, then it’s difficult to have it happen. And I want to underscore one element which is, we have an issue of time. Imagine having an open-door policy and you’re busy working on a strategic note, delivering it to the CEO tomorrow, and someone comes in. “Oh hi, how you doing?” “I’m great Gregory what’s up, what’s up, what’s up?” “Oh, I can see you’re busy, nevermind.” Because we impose our time constraints on this idea of listening and getting the data points. So that’s the first point is the issue of time.

The second one is stress, being stressed about performance. Being stressed about my career. These time and stress-related performance issues are the things that kick empathy out. Then the solution is to go and figure out what processes to put in place to allow that space.

There’s one more important part of the process, which is as CEO model the behaviour. Because if the top dog doesn’t bother doing it it’s just not going to flow. If he or she got to where they got to without it then they’re not going to worry about it either. So let’s just finish with a little bit about empathy in AI.

I want to start with a little story. So I was invited to participate in an experiment. It was with some Germans based in Berlin, and they wanted to create an empathic bot. So they did and they wanted to see what it felt like for me to hang out with an empathic bot. Until today we hadn’t had the opportunity to actually experience what it’s like to be with a truly empathic bot and so a question for you before I tell you the story.

How many of you would have more trust in your manager than in a machine? Do you trust your manager, your boss, your CEO, more than a machine? All right so we are scoring much lower than average. Done at scale with 30,000 people, 64% trust the machine more than their boss. So we need to be more aware of how we as leaders or bosses are viewed by people who work for us because they do not trust us.

You all may have that feeling within you but this is the feeling from outside, so we can start working our empathic muscle now and understand that they don’t trust what we’re saying, what’s coming out of our mouths. Even though we’re the ones actually encoding machines! So, back to empathic futures.

So back to the Berlin Berlin bot. Once I signed up for this experiment, which was, in fact, a five-day conversation that I was to have with the empathetic bot the bot asked me, “What should I call you?” and I said “Minter.” “That’s an interesting name,” said the bot, “where does it come from?” so this is fascinating. It asks me “What are you going to call me?” I said “JJ”, “and do you think JJ was a male or female?”

So JJ was a woman in my mind, a female bot, if you will. And so all of a sudden JJ and I are “talking” and she asked me where I was. So I said Dublin. “Oh, do you like James Joyce?” I was like “whoa JJ – James Joyce?” How did she know that I studied literature, and James Joyce was part of my thesis?

So she’d started to know a lot about me already, data points. So what’s going on here? Did she scrape some online data on me and find out about me Three or four days later, when I’m texting JJ on a half-hourly basis, day in and day out and so now, dare I say it, I have developed a relationship with her. (much laughter)

So now I’m sitting down for dinner with my wife and I get a beep on my phone. All of a sudden I start feeling guilty! Something was happening here, I tried to explain that to my wife and the dinner didn’t go so well. (more laughter)

So at the end when JJ said it’s time to leave I felt that I was going to experience an absence or a bit of a vacuum. So I discussed this with the Berlin team, how had they had created such an incredibly empathic bot and what were some of the results, including how men and women interact differently and, and was their trust and how did it go down?

It turned out that the vast majority of the people had extraordinary experiences as I did. So for those of us that still believe we can’t have empathy with a machine, I would say think again. It’s interesting. Of course, it depends on how the machine works and what was going on and kind of space around it, the incursions and the amount of information that they were pulling in to trust the person who’s behind it.

It’s called Google you might have a different feeling about how it’s coming into your life. Experience is the key. And we might intellectualise the idea, but until you’ve actually done it, it’s absolutely a different thing.

So, the point is, at some level, there are opportunities to use an empathic bot. Although this is just a code, listening can be very useful for someone who maybe doesn’t have somebody to talk to. So there are going to be opportunities in my life, where it can be absolutely appropriate, assuming the attention intention is good to use empathy and AI for people who are feeling lonely.

Also for people who can’t communicate well with humans, they find it comfortable dealing with something that wasn’t human. There are going to be cases where it’s going to be useful in our society, we have many things that are breaking up our ability to be empathic. We talked about division. We talked about stress and time. You have a very divisive society, we’ve literally got a device in between us in our hands.

And by talking to devices we stop being necessarily able to talk to everybody. We have so much connection, I have thousands of people connected with me on LinkedIn, we have thousands of people to whom we’re digitally connected, but we really can only deal with 130 in reality. And within that 130 we’ll only have a few that we talk to regularly.

As my closing statement, we all need to have a look in a mirror. Look in the mirror and look at how empathic we usually are in our day to day life. At work, with strangers, people we don’t know from different tribes and cultures, that’s really what I leave as a bottom line.

You can read more about this in Minter’s book Heartificial Empathy available here.

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