​Can AI help humans be more empathetic?

Author: Lynsey Free

MIT and Unicef resort to artificial intelligence to raise awareness about the harsh realities of war-ravaged zones.

Image: Deep Empathy

While it's normal to see artificial intelligence featured in the media for its possible evil uses or for taking away jobs from hard-working employees, there's another side that isn't typically considered. What if AI had a sentimental side? What if it could be used to teach humans to be more empathetic?

It's easy to lack empathy when it comes to conflicts that are happening far away. Even the most devastating headlines sometimes do little to stir the emotions of those living in safe, developed countries.

That's where Unicef and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab come in. The two parties were curious to know if people who live far away from the dangers of war and destruction can be taught to be more empathetic through the help of AI. They created a platform called ‘Deep Empathy’ to further investigate.

The tool uses deep learning to absorb the characteristics of Syrian neighborhoods that have been affected by the country's ongoing civil war which has affected 13.5 million people. It then uses that information to simulate how cities across the globe would look if they were hit with a similar conflict.

Image: Deep Empathy

"Can this approach – familiar in a range of artistic applications – help us to see recognizable elements of our lives through the lens of those experiencing vastly different circumstances, theoretically a world away?" Unicef and MIT asked.

The platform allows visitors to browse through a number of global cities, seeing a “before” and “after” photo of each one. Boston, for instance, is clean and bright in its before shot, with red brick buildings towering above nicely paved streets. When it’s combined with a scene from war-torn Homs, it is transformed into a shell of what it once was. Broken windows, gutted buildings, and damaged cars replace a once friendly and inviting scene. The same transformation can also be observed in a number of other cities, including London, Tokyo, and Moscow.

Unicef hopes the exercise can serve as a wake-up call to make people more aware of what's happening around the globe. "With 11 major emergencies active around the world right now, it's difficult for people to keep track of every issue or situation, and to connect them in a logical way – and empathize with the realities of those suffering," it wrote. The organization added that it believes technology "can support us in finding the commonalities behind those disasters, and the commonalities that connect us all."

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