Machine empathy as the future of mental wellbeing


Written By: Max Richards and Rhonwen Lally - Our BAMM Academicians visiting from Karmarama

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Machines As Medicine from BAMM global on Vimeo.

How do people feel about a future where machines replace humans in nurturing our wellbeing? Our latest BAMM Academy planners, Max Richards and Rhonwen Lally visit us from Karmarama, and share with us their view on our upcoming thinking piece ‘Machines as Medicine’, that investigates how technology is shaping the future of the Pharma industry.

We’re all aware of the popular discourse that our constant connection to and consumption of tech is bad for our wellbeing. Digital detoxes have been touted as a temporary solution to the constantly connected life, and the unhealthy worldview that comes with too many hours spent in your newsfeed.

Constantly connected living

On the other hand, there’s a clear trend in people adopting tech as a way to improve their mental fitness in the same way as their physical fitness. And more seriously, VR is being trialled by medical experts to treat PTSD, GAD and depression.

Trialling of VR to treat PTSD in soldiers

So there’s a tension between the idea of tech as detrimental to our mental health, and its use as a way to improve our wellbeing, or even to treat mental illness. With tech’s ubiquity and ever increasing importance to our lives, to what extent could it be used to manage our minds in the future?

With ‘digital health’ at inflection point, how do people feel about the possibility of a future where technology replaces other humans in nurturing our mental wellbeing? Is there a feeling that we can connect with tech itself in a far more human way?

From our research, it would seem not.

The prevailing feeling is that whilst tech is great to help you manage wellbeing on a casual, everyday level, there’s no substitute for real human contact to compliment this. It might sound obvious, but it’s clear that people don’t have a relationship with technology in a human sense. Even when listing the ways technology makes their lives better, they credit tech’s successes to the people that invented it in the first place, not to technology.

Because while the digital world enables us to connect in a virtual sense, people feel that the digital connection lacks (and even worsens) the emotional connection we seek. We found a feeling amongst people that tech’s role in connecting us to other people 24/7 actually makes our interactions in real life less fulfilling. People admit to finding themselves with little to say to their friends when they see them, because they’ve not stopped speaking to them on their phones all day.

A poor connection?

There was a sense that while sci-fi has fantasised about machines with personalities and believable ‘human’ characteristics, this is still unbelievable, laughable even, to people in the real world. Technology is perceived as flawed to people because it ‘doesn’t have a personality’, ‘the passion’, and ultimately it’s ‘missing something’. It would seem that today all tech falls into the uncanny valley to some degree.

Overall, the sentiment we uncovered echoes futurist Bruce Sterling at SXSW this year:

‘If robots were alone in the Universe they would shut themselves off, and that wouldn’t be suicide. They can’t commit suicide, but we can’.

Bruce Sterling discusses VR at SXSW this year

What we found is reflective of the innate understanding in people that technology has no broader purpose than to augment and improve human life. Technology can’t savour anticipation, feel proud of achievement, or share our universal and perpetual need to progress and learn. What we saw is people instinctively recognising something inherently valuable about human involvement in nurturing our mental wellbeing. Something that, by definition, machines can’t offer us.

But could there be a time in the future when technology is perceived as having enough humanity to pass for a real human? If you received a heartfelt personal message from a friend via hologram, there’s no question that you would perceive them as a human in front of you, and whilst you’d realise it wasn’t actually them ‘in the flesh’, you wouldn’t feel like it was uncanny in the way you would if a machine tried to empathise with you. So if we can perceive a hologram of a human in this way, it makes sense that technology may one day be able to emulate humanity in a believable way.

Could there be a time when humanity is indistinguishable and inseparable from technology? The possibility is very real – technology is predicted to be able to interact with the human mind within the decade. If this does become reality, and artificial intelligence integrates with our brains and builds its own understanding of the human mind, then the boundary between humanity and technology will be blurred. Theoretically, with a proper understanding of how our minds work, technology could empathise with us in a way we perceive as realistic.

In a future where human intelligence is augmented by artificial intelligence, tech can clear off the uncanny valley for good, leaving us in a reality where the wellbeing of our minds and machine are inseparable.

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