P050: Building an Empathetic Machine

Gonna keep it short this week because I’m 50% on vacation and 50% exhausted from being on vacation, but I wanted to turn your attention to a post from Om Malik. Empathy Isn’t a Corporate Slogan is a deep dive into how the various algorithms that form the backbone of our social networks fail individuals time and time again, and what (if anything) we can do about it. It’s a little long and a little prescriptive but I think we’d all be better off if we spent more time heeding the words of people like Om.

Here’s an excerpt:

It was a rude and very real reminder that, no matter how well-intentioned, our software-enabled society is far from being empathetic and understanding of human reality. Facebook, which as a company serves 1.25 billion people, wants to be empathetic. And so do others like them. The question is how, and how fast, can we make software take on empathetic qualities, especially as we continue to pray at the altar of “growth at any cost.”

From a technical point of view, building truly empathetic qualities into software algorithms is beyond our current capabilities, at least at the scale required for Facebook and their competitors. Additionally, the incentives for empathetic software are misaligned here – the current emphasis on user-acquisition overrides the satisfaction of existing users. As a result, the systems that encourage us to invest ourselves emotionally are ill-equipped to deal with our contributions, and will be for some time. But you can’t un-ring a bell. We already live in FacebookWorld, so now it’s on Facebook to be good stewards of their citizenry.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron