Machine Empathy

I recently read an article recently about the potential disruption of autonomous vehicles in the transportation industry. In focus groups with truckers, they conceded the impact on their profession at some point, with the average time frame estimated at around 40 years. The prediction given by engineers working on these vehicles? Four years, with consideration for regulatory delays. That is quite a difference. 

This topic matters because everything is quickly becoming increasingly connected to the internet, possessing some level of artificial intelligence (AI). We tend to consider something as “AI” when it is complicated and noticeable. However, AI is simply the ability of a “thing” to make a decision on its own. It may not be at the level of the virtual assistant in the movie “HER,” but there are many devices in our lives already using AI. Our GPS deciding to offer a faster route is a simple form of AI. A digital calendar assistant scheduling a meeting for you is another form of AI.

If AI is increasingly in our lives and will be increasingly interactive, how should we think about the exchange? We are soon going to need to design our brands’ interactions with people with some level of empathy. Not a canned responses based on a set of contrived rules - but the ability to intuit emotion and react appropriately based on real-time feedback. 

There is an interesting article written by the CEO of Julie Desk about building empathy into artificial intelligence. The problem, according to the author, is that humans can only be empathetic toward other people, not toward machines. Thus, they involve their associates on many machine/customer interactions, because if there is a mistake, clients are more likely to be understanding and forgiving of another human being. I think that is a very smart approach, for now.

However, what happens when the AI we employ does have the capability to intuit emotion and respond meaningfully? I predict that we will see the “humans only can have empathy for other people” hypothesis fall. When our devices understand us and are continuously reinforcing sensitivity to our needs, we will feel compassion toward them. When they make a mistake, take responsibility for it and offer a heartfelt apology, we will forgive them. Because what will happen is that unlike humans who tend to repeat mistakes, machines reliably and doggedly learn. We will appreciate their ability to learn from the past.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that AI is a long time away - I am going to go out on a limb and suggest this will be an impact on brand strategy within four years. Think today about the autonomous interaction your product might have with customers, and what will make those interactions reflect the brand essence. What are relevant emotions to express? What language should we incorporate? How much empathy is appropriate? I have to admit that when consultants used to talk about customers having a relationship with a brand, I would respond that “people do not have relationships with brands - they have relationships with other people.” I think I am going to need to stop saying that…