How to teach empathy to computers

How to teach empathy to computers

Meet a woman whose mission is to improve interaction technology using empathy.


Rapidly evolving technology has led to a growing concern that direct human interaction has been replaced by computers. As we spend more time communicating online, it has already become evident that emotions are often poorly transmitted via computers, resulting in misunderstandings and poor online communication. What would happen if computers and smart phones learned the ability to understand and convey emotions to exhibit empathy?

As a cognitive neuroscientist, Katri Saarikivi devotes a considerable portion of her waking hours to researching the subject. She is not against the on-going digital development – quite the opposite. What Saarikivi wants to do is improve interaction technologies so that computers enrich rather than impoverish communication.

Empathy is a word that repeatedly pops up in Saarikivi’s speech. “Empathy is often seen as this soft thing, an emotion, or as a weakness, while it is actually an assortment of cognitive skills that help us to understand how and what other people are thinking and feeling,” she explains. To learn what happens in the brain during human interaction, Saarikivi has spent the past two years engaged in researching “two-brain neuroscience” with colleagues Valtteri Wikström and Tommi Makkonen.

To take things further, Saarikivi and her team have embarked on another two-year research project funded by Business Finland and ten partner companies. This time they are investigating empathy in real working situations and online interaction environments, such as virtual reality. Their goal is to understand how computers can better transmit human emotions leading to improved communication and collective intelligence.

Saarikivi is the first to admit that empathy doesn’t automatically lead to good deeds, but the fact that humans have advanced empathy skills means that this quality has probably been useful throughout history. In a business context, empathy can help companies create successful products and services by helping them better understand their customers.

“I believe that empathy is the right way forward and I can present logical reasoning for why that is – but I have no guarantees. I do think that it’s an interesting new area that we should look into. We humans are curious creatures,” she concludes.

Text and photo Laura Iisalo


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