Our lives are now ruled by digital devices, screens and cameras that follow us through stores, streets and even our homes. That’s no secret. What may be less apparent, however, is how technology erodes our human capacity to feel emotions and empathize, and how that harms our relationships – with others, ourselves and the world around us.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re recognizing four acclaimed female scholars who are on a mission to disrupt this destructive trend by building awareness and shifting the conversation. Here, they explain why the only way to protect our humanity is to build empathy into the development and use of digital technologies, including AI, robots and machines.
“Even though AI and robots can make us more efficient and improve services, humans have a tendency to trust AI more than they trust their own decisions in moments when they shouldn’t,” says AI and robotics pioneer Dr. Ayanna Howard, author of the bestselling book, “Sex, Race and Robots” (2020). “AI can greatly enhance our lives in such areas as health care, sports, recreation and the workplace. But we must recognize that humans develop these systems and humans are using them, so we need to be aware of the biases on both sides. We must build AI with diversity of thinking and with diverse audiences in mind. Ultimately, it is our responsibility as humans to take hold of our future by ensuring AI does not work against us but serves us.”
Howard, the newly appointed Dean of the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University, began developing robots while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Beyond advising organizations on the practical uses of robotic technologies, she works closely with engineers on identifying and eliminating biases they may be unwittingly building into technologies they develop.
“In the digital age, encoded biases manifest through algorithms, which humans then take guidance from,” adds Howard. “We need to intercept this problem so it doesn’t make its way into next generation AI systems.”
“Communicating through devices inhibits a person’s ability to develop empathy, and without empathy, everything suffers, from our home life to our workplaces,” warns MIT sociologist Dr. Sherry Turkle, whose eagerly anticipated new book, “The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir” (March 2021), draws on her own life experiences.
Turkle, author of the 2015 New York Times bestseller, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” has been moving from researching how technology affects relationships to helping people proactively cultivate empathy through participation and engagement. In her workshops, classes and keynotes, she helps organizations build a culture of productive communication outside the digital realm.
“In our divided country, we need to learn new techniques for listening to and engaging with each other,” adds Turkle, who believes empathy is a necessary component of citizenship. “It’s the only way to build a productive culture of healthy, empathetic, engaged human interactions at home, at work and in society.”
“Progress to racial equity is often stunted by a narrow framing, mis-framing or outright rejection of racial realities. In order to address racial inequality, we must first understand racism,” says Columbia University Professor Courtney D. Cogburn, PhD.
To address this problem, Cogburn developed an immersive virtual reality tool, “1000 Cut Journey,” that allows users to walk in the “virtual shoes” of a Black man experiencing racism as a child, adolescent and adult – a profoundly transformative exercise that exposes the realities of structural and cultural racism. As an advisor and speaker, she helps companies develop more comprehensive strategies for moving beyond implicit bias – including through her revolutionary VR sensitivity training – so they can build more empathetic, diverse and inclusive workplace cultures.
“As the business case for diversity becomes more robust and companies tout their rising numerical diversity, they often fail to build a culture that respects, maintains and leverages the benefits of diverse work environments,” says Cogburn. Acknowledging that many ostensibly progressive businesses may be unwittingly sustaining a culture of racism and exclusion, Dr. Cogburn offers organizations concrete tools for building a future of work in which employee diversity, equity and inclusion are facts rather than idealistic slogans.
“As AI becomes more sophisticated, it will be increasingly performing or aiding in important tasks traditionally done by humans – from driving cars to teaching our children and caring for the sick and elderly. Given the nature of these roles, we should be able to trust the AI systems with which we will be interacting,” says Dr. Rana el Kaliouby, author of “Girl Decoded: A Scientist’s Quest to Reclaim Our Humanity By Bringing Emotional Intelligence to Technology” (2020). “It’s paramount that developers building these systems carry out their work with these considerations in mind and create the next generation of AI with trust as its cornerstone – and the basis of that trust must be empathy. The onus is on CEOs and founders to set an example of good stewardship, to step up and be responsible for the good use of their technology. That means keeping an eye out for ways their technology could be abused and acting in advance to prevent the problem.”
A leading pioneer in human perception AI, el Kaliouby helps companies better serve diverse, multi-cultural audiences with technological solutions that drive growth and positively impact society. She also teaches leaders how to build core values, such as ethics and integrity, into their workplace cultures so those values carry over into the ways they develop technology. She argues that to avoid systemic bias, diversity must be reflected not only in the data used to build the AI capabilities of the future, but also in the teams developing the systems. “More specifically,” she adds, “AI has to be attuned to the needs of humans, understanding our complex emotions and cognitive states and adapting to these appropriately.”