The Future Of Empathy-Building Tech

Unsplash/Samuel Zeller
The ability to broadcast emotions sounds like science fiction, but scientists believe this reality is closer than we might like to admit.

Today is a very special day!” a young girl with shiny hair, wearing a ruffled scarf and a big smile, tells the camera as she unwraps a white and pink package. She takes two items out: a pink wristband and a matching crown-like headset that looks like tentacled headphones. The wristband, not unlike a FitBit activity tracker, will detect changes in her hormones and analyze her voice for emotion, she explains. Then, when she switches her privacy setting to “Public,” these devices will transmit what she’s feeling to others on the FeelThat network. The headset will allow her to receive, and feel, the feelings of others who are also wearing that wristband.

Together, the fictional set, called a FeelThat 1.0, is an approximation of what social technology might look like in the not-too-distant future. And though the ability to directly broadcast emotions to friends and family — and maybe even strangers — on an interconnected social network sounds like science fiction, scientists, engineers, and game developers believe that this reality is closer than we might like to admit.

“Technologies that allow us to track and sense emotions and share or broadcast them with others are going through a huge explosion of development and breakthrough research right now,” says Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a nonprofit research organization based in Palo Alto, California. “It may seem like a leap to think people will want to be broadcasting their innermost feelings, but if we think about it, 10 years ago, the idea that we would be sharing our location and photos of intimate moments with the world like we do on Instagram and Foursquare seemed like a leap. There seems to be no limit to people’s appetite to share.”

Part of McGonigal’s job at IFTF is to figure out where those limits are, if they do exist, and identify so-called signals from what kind of technology is coming down the pipeline to test them. One major signal related to the recording and sharing of actual emotions, as opposed to depictions of or words about emotions, is Thync.

Created by neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Thync bills itself as “the first wearable technology that actively elevates your mood and lowers stress.” It is a little white puck that attaches to your head and communicates with a smartphone app. The device stimulates nerves on your head and neck with low-level electrical pulses in specific ways to trigger whichever state you’re trying to achieve. It’s a method that has been used to successfully treat epilepsy and depression, and can make you feel something you weren’t feeling before — and in a study currently undergoing peer review, the device’s creators found that Thync changed 82 users’ arousal states, making them feel calmer or more excited, through this transcranial stimulation.

Thync in action (Photo by Aaron Muszalski via Flickr)

At the moment, this mechanical stimulation only works on the wearer, but McGonigal and many of her colleagues believe that within a decade, “there may be other ways to simulate the feelings other people are feeling,” founded on these initial findings. And Thync isn’t the only sign that these empathy-simulating technologies are becoming mainstream. In January 2016, Apple purchased Emotient, an artificial intelligence company that has developed facial recognition software that detects, and tags, people’s emotions. Techno-helpers Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have the ability to detect mental states through voice patterns. Soon enough, McGonigal and her colleagues predict, wearables like the FitBit will have sweat sensors to detect hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin, which tend to spike when we are excited, stressed, or anxious. Eventually there is likely to be a device that can do all of these things at once — like that still-fictional pink FeelThat 1.0, unboxed by the young girl with the big smile.

Scientists believe that within a decade, there will be ways to simulate the feelings other people are feeling.

The girl in that video is part of Face the Future, an online game developed by IFTF in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit educational and professional development organization that uses historical case studies to teach middle and high school students about the impetus and impacts of human behavior. The game, which launched online as a real-time multiplayer event in mid-November 2016, asked players to imagine a future in which an emotion-detecting device like FeelThat is as commonplace as a smartphone. “Who would you share your FeelThat data with?” the game asks. “Whose data would you want to see?”

When Calee Prindle, a ninth grade English teacher in Manhattan, queued up the video to show to her class at the Facing History School in Hell’s Kitchen, the students were all already feeling pretty vulnerable. A couple of days earlier, Donald Trump had been elected president, much to the surprise and concern of many students and their families. The 450 students at the public high school where the curriculum relies on experiential learning supported by Facing History and Ourselves are about 70% Hispanic and 25% Black. Prindle had planned to spend two days preparing her students for the game, explaining the concept of empathy and how it relates to their use of technology. But after the election, she scrapped her plans and spent an entire day addressing the elephant in the room. “Many said they had so many thoughts going that it was hard to break it down,” she said.

In the weeks since the election, writers, pundits, and even priests have been attempting to call for more open-mindedness. Get to know people who are different from you, they suggest. Follow news organizations you wouldn’t normally follow. Try to see things from a different perspective. This may be a noble pursuit in theory, but it can also be infuriating and even problematic (how can we ask people to empathize with those who seek to do harm?).

It raises other questions, too: How much can we ever truly understand about the way a person feels, in the actual way they feel it? Is that even really necessary? Wouldn’t it be easier if we could share others’ emotional experiences in literal terms?

These are exactly the questions that Prindle was hoping that Face the Future would be able to answer to her class.

The game took place online, on Face the Future’s website, where thousands of students around the world, in addition to Prindle’s students in Manhattan, logged in for an exercise in future-building. The first step was to watch a series of videos that ranged from endearing — the young girl excitedly unwrapping her FeelThat — to disturbing — a young man receiving his girlfriend’s feelings as she died in a car accident.

After watching the videos, the players chose questions from two virtual decks of cards: one called Positive Imagination, for those with an optimistic outlook on the whole scenario, and one called Shadow Imagination, for those who were more skeptical or concerned. Players were asked questions like, “What would you want to do in this future?” and “What could go wrong with the FeelThat Network?” Their answers showed up in a feed where others were encouraged to upvote or comment. Players earned “foresight points” for engagement with their contributions, while a moderator insured that bullying or trolling didn’t derail the game. The comments with the most engagement were mapped out in a graph in real time, so players (and teachers) could see which potential futures were getting the most attention.

“The game is a giant question mark,” Daniel Braunfeld, the senior program associate for special projects at Facing History and Ourselves, told me a few days before it kicked off. “It’s about the community engaging in a dialogue about the future we want.”

Participants’ comments built on each other to create a visual representation of the conversation as it unfolded:

“This could start a war!”
“It could create more separation. We have racism based on physical traits. What if we discriminated based on emotional traits?”
“I worry about privacy. I am currently concerned about phones tracking our locations. What will future governments do with FeelThat data?”
“If police officers could receive feelings from suspects, would it lead to better outcomes in crisis situations?”
“People could become friends based on having the same emotions about the same things.”
“What an opportunity to show people with empathy deficiency how certain things literally feel.”

After two days of play, there was a deep web of concern and excitement about the future of technology — and of empathy.

Prindle said she could tell by her ninth graders’ questions that they got a lot out of the game. Some thought out loud about how important it was to think before typing or speaking to someone. Others were concerned about who had invested in, and created, this game. What were those people’s goals? After the game, one student approached Prindle confused, saying she’d thought they had been done talking about the election in class.

“They made that connection with talking about the importance of trying to understand people’s perspective and hear people out,” Prindle said. “That’s empathy.”

Five days after the election, McGonigal addressed the crowd at the Face the Future kickoff event at Boston University. “I couldn’t have predicted how timely the topic of empathy would feel this week,” she said.

It felt almost wrong, somehow, to be preparing to play and report on a game, after a week that had felt like day after day of mourning for so many in the United States. But McGonigal put the tension in the room to work. We were all attempting to examine the same problem, however we saw it, with different strategies, she explained. What if we tried to all get on the same page? It would take some investigating, she said, and it was none other than Albert Einstein who once said that games were the most elevated form of investigation.

So, at McGonigal’s instruction, we — the audience in the room, and those of us watching from home — played a game. We practiced stimulating the creative and empathic regions of our brain in order to do something that often feels impossible: imagining something that doesn’t exist. We each closed our eyes and imagined ourselves in a place we’ve been, with a person we know, doing a thing we’ve done, but in a different combination than had ever occurred in real life. If we can do this, the thinking goes, we find that combination more likely. This is known as counterfactual thinking. And, the thinking goes, if we can train our minds to do this, it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to train them to imagine someone else’s experience.

If we can train our minds to imagine something that doesn’t exist, it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to train them to imagine someone else’s experience.

“Empathy requires you to use your imagination in the same way,” McGonigal said. “It requires you to get your brain to simulate something you have no personal, concrete experience with.”

Studies show this type of empathy actually leads to taking future action. But it takes work, and time, and a certain level of comfort with the unknown. In a room full of adults, the process was somewhat hesitant, somber, and quiet. But in a room full of students, it was colorful, exciting, and inquisitive. Most of us grow more skeptical as we get older, and many of us become more prone to overwhelm. But the next generation has already started answering some of the questions we are afraid to ask. I struggled to get a publication to take this story seriously enough to publish. The game itself hosted more than 9,000 students, eager to play.

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