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Silicon Valley Is Trying (and Failing) to Automate Human Empathy

The new Holy Grail for tech companies: a bot that sounds just as awkward on the phone as you do.

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Sep 4 2018, 2:30pm

Photograph by Hannah Whitaker.

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In May 2018, Google released a demo of Duplex, an artificial intelligence personal assistant that can make phone calls for you, stepping in when you might need to book a haircut or reserve a table at a restaurant but feel too busy or awkward to do it yourself. In the uncanny examples that Google released—like AI prank calls on its unwitting test subjects—Duplex inserts “umms” and “ahhs” into the conversation, imitating the syncopation of natural dialogue. Its multiple voices have unique personalities and use linguistic quirks like “I gotcha,” not to mention millennial uptalk.

What Duplex is engineering is empathy, which has become increasingly common in the tech industry as both a business buzzword and a technological goal. The word “empathy” emerged in English fairly recently, around 1908, as a translation of the German einfühlung, deconstructed as “in-feeling,” itself lifted in 1858 from the Greek empatheia, meaning passion or a state of high emotion. These days, it has evolved into the psychological idea that we can feel what other people are feeling, imagining ourselves in someone else’s position, either on purpose or subconsciously.

In other words, empathy is what makes us human, even though we’re only beginning to understand what it means. It’s a key ingredient in our social fabric. The problem with applying empathy to business or technology, however, is that rather than it being a way to cultivate humanity, “empathy is just another tool to extract money from someone,” says James Cham, a partner at the venture capital firm Bloomberg Beta. It’s a sales strategy: We’re seeing a proliferation of empathy training practices in corporate culture, and there’s even an agency in the U.K. called the Empathy Business, conflating feelings with profit.

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Duplex, for example, uses the trick of mirroring to make people think they’re speaking with another human instead of a machine. The better it can mimic, the more money Google will make selling it as a service. Empathy is what motivates artificial intelligence research and what makes the Turing test so alluring: Emulating human emotion is considered the height of technological sophistication, the affectual equivalent of the nuclear bomb.

The robots end up making us think less about each other—particularly strangers, the people we come into contact with arbitrarily, instead of by choice.

But Duplex’s clever gesture is just a facsimile. Empathy is “what computers can’t do, which is engage in other people’s worlds, feel how they feel, and see the world through their eyes,” says Christian Madsbjerg, a partner at ReD Associates, a consultancy that uses “social science tools to understand how people experience their reality,” according to its website. Duplex is “a case where the tech is so incredibly advanced and you get so excited about it that you forget about why we’re doing this, and how people might be using it,” Madsbjerg says.

An actually empathic version of the AI assistant might consider how the people on the other end of the phone line feel about being duped. Shouldn’t a robot caller come with a warning, so we don’t waste our own emotions on it? By helping us avoid making the call to the restaurant, salon, or plumber ourselves, Duplex actually prevents the flash of intimacy that comes with real interaction. The robots end up making us think less about each other—particularly strangers, the people we come into contact with arbitrarily, instead of by choice—turning us into worse human beings in the process. It’s a vicious cycle of dis-empathy.

These days, it seems we want businesses to have empathy as well—not just at the level of individual employees, but as corporations. Silicon Valley has suffered from a perceived lack of compassion lately as it has neglected the feelings of its users and staff: from the reports that Uber mistreated its female employees (not to mention its drivers) to Facebook’s attempts to downplay its own influence in the 2016 United States presidential election. It didn’t help that during his testimony in front of Congress, Mark Zuckerberg was stiff and reticent, drawing comparisons to a robot—the very symbol of the coldhearted corporation.

If these companies can’t shake their aloof reputations, they could suffer, losing ground to their competitors. Uber is experiencing such a loss to the seemingly more empathetic Lyft, even though the latter company isn’t much different in practice, destroying the regulated, unionized taxi industry just the same. “It’s not because the app is better or the wait time is better,” says Dev Patnaik, author of Wired to Care, a book on empathy and business, and CEO of Jump Associates. “They’re switching because Uber is a horrible company.”

That technology will invade ever more aspects of our lives, as Google Duplex shows, is inevitable; all the more reason to put empathy at the tech industry’s core, from the CEO down to the end product. The Internet might have brought us together as Facebook friends, but it hasn’t made us any better at truly caring for one another, online or off. “This is where companies get it wrong,” Patnaik says. “Connection is not empathy.”

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