Swimming pools of ink have been emptied in the
discussions of the intense verbal warfare in America about politics as the
president fires tweets like a machine-gunner at a wide range of enemies. In all
of these dramatic battles, thereís not been much discussion about a central
question that defines our humanity: have we loss our sense of empathy? Exactly
what makes empathy a desirable trait? I recently read an interview with Nick
Bostrom, Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and
Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, who writes about the danger of AI;
he is worried that mankind might suffer an existential crisis should AI lack
empathy. In an interview with Andy Fitch of the Los Angeles Review of
Books Bostrom draws what is, I
believe, a useful distinction between two different meanings of empathy.
In the first sense,
empathy is our ability to read the mind of others: their intentions, emotions,
and feelings. Our theory of mind is based on the words, gestures, posture, and
the context that provides enough information to make a reasonably good
prediction of what another person wants or is seeking to obtain from his or her
own actions. If you can predict with reasonable accuracy what someone is after,
this is a huge opportunity to take advantage of anotherís
In the second sense,
empathy is using the theory of mind to dissect the wants, urges and desires of
others, and genuinely being interested in and caring about their intentions and
feelings. What makes us human is this innate sense of caring. It limits the kind
of actions we take as we want to avoid causing harm to the people we care about.
If we care only about the feeling we share a common cultural or religious
identity or does that caring scale to others who have different attitudes and
beliefs from us? Everyone needs to ask themselves how far the caring empathy
scales to people outside of their tight circle.
A psychopath may have an
overtly developed sense of empathy in the first sense, but a psychopath lacks
any ability to care about the people whose minds he or she can read. No one
existence inside a psychopathís circle of people whose feelings he cares about
except himself. Itís that void we find frightening about a psychopath.The
psychopath may take it one step further and take pleasure and satisfaction in
harming, crippling or killing others. What Bostrom was concerned about was that
AI is a kind of psychopathic intelligence that may not necessarily set out to
harm us but has no human notion of what it means to care about how someone else
feeling come into play when making a decision or taking an action.
We are some way from
creating an AGIóArtificial General Intelligence. How far away is that time? No
one can predict the time frame. We live with that uncertainty and that risk. Our
more immediate problem is happening now. We are in an era of empathy reduction
of the second kind by us, homo sapiens who have become overtly
polarized. You can find ample evidence in the first year of Trumpís presidency.
The Democrats along with many on the left believe Trump has caused damage to the
democratic traditions and constitution system of the United States. Not to
mention heís managed, in their view, to have destabilized international
treaties, alliances, and human rights. But Republicans and those on the right
believe Trump will save the United States from the heavy hand of big government
and overregulation, and protect US citizens from terrorists. The US electorate
is deeply polarized, and neither those on the left or the right are interested
in exploring a common political ground. But it has gone beyond politics. People
hate people they donít know based on their political beliefs and affiliations.
Neither side cares about the feelings of the other. In other words, a large
number of Americans (and others around the world) are slipping into a group
psychopathic mental condition. Both camps have militarized their empathy in the
first sense, and, at the same time, have buried dug the grave for dumping the
second element of empathy: caring.
One row in the graveyard
of empathy (in the caring sense) is filled with the unread fiction. The best
novels celebrate our capacity for empathy and that is why these books have been
written, read, treasured, and handed down. People are buying fewer novels. They
are reading even fewer of the books they buy. I wouldnít say people are reading
less. Many are reading more from their social media timelines. Is your timeline
a source of empathy for all sides? More likely, like my timeline, it is a
one-sided empathy landscape. Cheerleaders are working 24-hours a day feeding me
signals that remind me when to feel smug and self-righteous and when to feel
anger and outrage. My timelines on Facebook and Twitter allows me to feel
comfortable, right, engaged, part of a community or tribe of people who see the
world very much like me. This is an emotional trap and Iíve stepped in it.
Social media timelines are popular because of the clever way they work on
enhancing our empathy in the first sense of figuring out what someone is
thinking or feeling. It is remaking our vision of the world as one that is
occupied by psychopaths because we use this information to launch an attack.
Read any popular website like the New York Times comments sections on a
political story. Itís a humbling lesson when it comes to empathy. But this is
not how many of us wish to see ourselves. Itís hard to hold up the mirror when
what is reflected is not consistent with our self-image. The Trump
administration most dangerous accomplishment would be not to recognize what we
are seeing in the mirror as 2017 closes. Itís not him. Itís us. You. Me. In the
last year, ask yourself the cost weíve all paid by concentrating on theory of
mind of others while ignoring caring, letting it atrophy like an unused muscle.
We find a movement to mock the idea of caring. Someone who cares about otherís
feelings are called Ďsnowflakesí as if empathy turns you into an emotional
puddle. Hold that thought for the day when AGI arrives and we are treated as 7.5
billion snowflakes which as far as AGI is concerned, how we feel is irrelevant
to itís actions.
Fiction has another
purposeóto make you care about all the characters, the good, the bad, and
sometimes even the ugly ones. Characters are said to be thin, two-dimensional,
or shallow if absolutely nothing in their lives, plans, history that humanizes
them, and makes us care about them. We condemn the bad, for whom we withhold
redemption and forgiveness easily. But people and life are complex, often
contradictory, neither black nor white. Caring about the feelings of others
opens the door to a more complex, complicated, broken, and fragile world.
Nothing works the way it should, nothing is really fair or just, and everyone
dies in the end while meanwhile we try to get along with the least amount of
conflict as possible. In order to make an armistice we need load both barrels of
the empathy gun. I donít see the will to that and that should worry
We have reached a stage of
anger, hate and polarization when we donít care to consider anything that would
humanize a Donald Trump or a Hilary Clinton or their supporters. Even the best
of our commentators and pundits are drawn into the frontline battles where any
sign of caring is viewed as a betrayal. We cheer when someone on our side lands
a blow, although we should be reflecting and digging deeper. We donít dig. We
stay firmly on the surface like good soldiers protecting his comrades at arms.
We are at war.
There is a term for what
we are avoiding in caring about something we have intense feelings of
dislikeóitís called cognitive dissonance. We hate and project that negative
emotion on people who donít think like us. Part of the process is the inevitable
avoidance of facts or information that contradicts our belief about an idea, a
culture, or a person. In this simplistic, binary world of black and white, the
information is sort into one or the other category. You are on the white side;
those Ďmoronsí are on the dark, ignorant side. No one cares about what a moron
thinks or feels. We call someone a moron or stupid so we can dismiss, diminish,
mock, or ridicule such people. We have never been so fully weaponized for social
and political battle. Our arsenal includes a mishmash of images, hashtags,
photographs, videos, comments, blogs, and gossips. As digital warriors we sit
before our screen poking the other side in the eye with a digital stiletto. As
they are blinded, it doesnít hurt, right? Our side cheers. The other side
retaliates in kind. And so it goes like the trench warfare of World War
My New Years wish is that
we start 2018 with an intent to rediscover our second sense of empathy. We need
to remind ourselves, and to urge others, to care more about each otherís
feelings. Itís not enough to care about the feelings of people you like, those
on your side of this digital no manís land. We need to also care about the
people on the other side and make room for their feelings. We have evidence from
the past where such a miracle happened.
In the history books itís
called the Christmas Truce. On Christmas Eve and Day 1914, French, German and
British troops left their trenches on the Western Front and entered no manís
land where they mingled, exchanged food, played football and sang carols.
Although the generals forced them back into the killing machine, for a moment in
time we were shown a glimmer of the best of our empathetic selves. The lesson is
when you hunt for the caring part of empathy, donít look to the generals or
politicians or pundits, instead look to the common foot soldier for leadership
in caring. We have a chance to get out of the trenches and call a truce on
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.