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Rise of the Empathy Bots

I recently re-read one of my favorite books, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“. It’s a deliciously funny, absurd, sci-fi romp with speculative technology like the infinite-improbability drive (“a wonderful new method of crossing interstellar distances in a mere nothingth of a second, passing through every conceivable point in every conceivable universe simultaneously.without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace”), and alien races that happily destroy entire planets to make room for “hyperspace bypasses”.

The book was written almost 40 years ago, and we still haven’t caught up with the technologies it describes…except one.

Many of the advanced devices in Hitchhiker’s Guide were made with GPP – Genuine People Personality. Automatic doors sigh with contentment just to open for you, computers are “pleased as punch”announce that a hundred enemy battle cruisers just showed up.

And of course, Marvin the perpetual-downer android (“I could calculate your chance of survival, but you won’t like it.”)

Well, guess what – Marvin’s forbearers are being born as we speak.  MIT (amongst others) is working on sociable robots. The goal – devices that both elicit and respond with empathic responses.​​​

In other words, robots designed to read our emotions.​

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing – Siri and Alexa aren’t exactly sparkling conversationalists.​​ Might be nice to empower your car to have Ben & Jerry’s waiting at your doorstep when it notices you’re cranky after leaving work.

But call me a skeptic – I’m not sure empathy can be replicated​​. Accurately reading emotions is far from an exact science ​even for us humans (as anyone who’s been in a relationship for more than 5 minutes will happily tell you – have Ben & Jerry’s handy for optimal levels of disclosure).

What concerns me about the empathy-bots is that these seem to be less of a nice way of interacting with technology,
​and more of a solution to a problem, namely a dramatic decline in empathy amongst us organic types.​​

2010 University of Michigan study found a 40% drop in empathy among college students since 1980,  ​with most of the drop occurring after 2000.

MIT Professor Sherry Turkle worked with one middle school, where she found 12 year olds interacting at the level of ​8 year olds. They excluded one another from playground activities, not in a cruel way, but from a lack of being able to empathize with others – they couldn’t recognize the hurt emotions exclusion caused in others.

By the way, you don’t need a scientific study to show the decline in empathy – a quick scan of the daily headlines is probably proof enough.

So…not getting enough empathy from your fellow homo-sapiens?  Get it from your newly purchased robot pal!
(Marvin, you’re the only one who REALLY gets me)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge technogeek, and I love new innovations like this.  The skill and imagination it must take to create empathy-simulating technology is amazing. I just have this scary vision of vicious cycle, where we become less and less able to read emotions in others and empathize, feel less connected because others can’t empathize with us, and we create better and better devices that can do the job for us.

This may be one reason why improv is more widespread and popular than ever, why so many people show up for one class…and stay forever.

Improv is crossfit for empathy! 
In classes, you learn to notice everything your scene partners give you​, and respond with a “yes, and…!”
In shows, the audience is actively asked for their input…which is heard and immediately acted upon.​  And not just the verbal suggestions – dropped bottles, ringing phones and sneezes (just to name a few things) have all provided rich material for shows.

(You can also shout things at scripted theater performances. You’ll get an immediate reaction, but it probably won’t be a reaction of empathy.)

If you’re feeling a little low on empathy, either giving or receiving, try coming to a show or taking a class.  It might save you the few hundred bucks you’d spend on an empathy-bot.  Or at least help you postpone the purchase until they get all the bugs worked out of that Ben & Jerry’s ordering system.

Ken Robertson
Artistic Director

Posted in Backstage