The future of empathy — in a world of artificially intelligent humans.

“I understand depression.”
“Oh, you do?”
“Yeah, haven’t you seen my likes on Facebook? I loved that Nike commercial about using sport to beat mental illness. Btw, did you see the video where Deepika Padukone (a top Bollywood actress) revealed for the first time that she suffered from depression. That was eye-opening!”

Dear God, Please tell me if this conversation is happening between men or machines. I can’t tell the difference.

In an era of artificial intelligence where machines (computers) can parse Facebook feeds and fake empathy, it’s hard to distinguish humans.

We’re creating a world where spouses may not understand their partner’s struggle with depression or menopause or anxiety, because it did not come packaged in a professionally edited video with powerful imagery, neither was it discussed on TV with a top journalist.

Today, we spend more time consuming beautifully crafted feeds of hundred people vs. actual emotions (often ugly) of a few people in our immediate lives. As a species, we may soon find it easier to talk at Facebook-scale about any “topic” of human emotion, but find it harder to patiently understand one individual’s version of depression — his/her needs, her struggles, and her way out of it.

That form of understanding is called empathy, and the subsequent actions need physical presence and caring, of a very different kind. She (or he) may need to be asked over several walks and conversations, and only then will she let you in — only then will you learn that the triggers are not specific (could be hormonal, bad food, no sleep, stress, fatigue, anxiety, events); it’s as if she’s happily walking down a path, and suddenly her physiology changed, her mind took a sharp turn and entered an unknown network of thoughts— at any given moment she is two thoughts away from tears, and four thoughts away from feeling that life is not worth the struggle.

But, unless you switch off from others, switch off the world you are constantly consuming, you won’t be able to make space for caring. You have to stop responding like a machine — which needs a feed of data to do anything, and finally spits out answers — “It must be your job, or new diet, or the kids, that’s why you’re depressed. Bingo!” No one had asked.

Empathy and patience are hard human skills, probably the hardest, honed over millions of years; skills that machines will take a long time to learn. But the real problem is not whether machines will get there, but whether humans will lose these skills to a level that machines can catch up.

On a scale of 1–100, being human is 100, and being machine is 49. Machines reaching 100 is not as bad a future, as humans becoming 60.

That’s the future I dread. A future of artificially-intelligent humans where human empathy feels artificial.

— Part 2 —

My five-year-old loves his superheroes — Superman, Spiderman, and the like. They can do things he can’t — fly, fight, climb vertically. I don’t find them superhuman in this age, not because I am much older, but because machines (made by humans) can now do all those things that were considered superhuman.

I have my own set of super-humans. I think about them when I need strength. One of them is my friend; I consider him a superhuman dad, and a superhuman husband. He took unparalleled care of his wife through breast cancer — no partner could have done more, and puts in a superhuman effort into raising their twins after her death. I still remember an email he sent me, among several emails, which had pages of painstakingly collated notes. This particular email was on how to talk to a four-year-old about her mother’s cancer. His notes (written from several books and discussions) had possible answers he could give for the question — “Will mommy die?” His sharing of those notes with his closest friends always reminds me how deeply he cared about giving the right answer to his daughters.

He is a superhero in my life, and in his circle. No one outside would know. But that’s why his qualities are superhuman. Empathy, patience, care, and tolerance are most needed when no media/charity/under-served-population is watching. It’s often within the four walls of our homes.

I wish we bury our outdated superheroes, and create new ones like my friend. Those with qualities that no machine can achieve. Superman must die, and be reborn as a nurse, or teacher, or a doctor, or a single parent, someone who has to be human first.

The skills we splash around will soon be done better by machines — driving jets, maximising profit, buying and selling companies, optimising portfolios, and killing other humans.

It’s time we move our attention to what machines cannot do.

No one is going to call you, and say “I’m sad. Please talk to me.” But you already know who needs that call at this moment.

Make that call, and show your family that you are not a machine.