“Empathetic computers can bring people closer”

If a computer learns to better understand human emotions, it could in turn teach humans to be more empathetic and mindful of ‘the other’. An end to loneliness, exclusion and other such woes? In his inaugural lecture, Professor Egon van den Broek outlined a future in which ‘sensitive machines’ bring humans closer together.

Portret van hoogleraar Egon van den Broek

A yellowing newspaper article on his wall delineates the possibilities of affective computing: intelligent devices such as smartphones and smart watches capable of measuring human bio signals such as heart rate, fluctuating body temperature and sweat levels, and subsequently able to infer how a person is feeling. ‘Fancy a pint? Your friends already know,’ reads the headline of the interview with scientist Egon van den Broek, then working at TNO (the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) and the University of Twente.

The article dates back to 2013. In it, Van den Broek said he expected it to “take another decade or so” before computers capable of recognising human emotions would be available for the consumer market. Have we reached that point yet? “No,” concludes the professor of Data-Driven Interaction when we speak a few weeks after his inaugural lecture. And - spoiler alert - he does not expect any major breaks over the next few years either.

AI can be your buddy

That is not to say that there are no developments in his field. In fact, with vast amounts of data now being processed through machine learning, discoveries are coming thick and fast. For instance, AI enables faster and better population studies into diseases on a much larger scale. It also allows direct analysis of an electrocardiogram; it provides a diagnosis and even explains this diagnosis. Not only when we are in a hospital bed, but also at home or at work, AI has a role to play. AI can even be your buddy when you are lonely or scared, Van den Broek posits.

In his inaugural address, entitled ‘Sensitive machines’, the professor depicted a future in which smart devices can not only measure and interpret people's emotional states, but they can also even provide an appropriate response. “An empathetic machine can respond to an emotion, reflect or explain the emotion. Imagine, an installation that allows you to actually experience the consequences of climate change, of famine, of war? If that fear can be made palpable, it really hits home. In this way, AI could coach people to be more empathetic.”

‘We need to understand how humans work, model this mathematically and combine that with big data.’

Egon van den Broek, Professor of Data-driven Interaction

The crux of the matter, and the core of Van den Broek's research, is that computers must somehow connect with humans more closely. “To achieve this, we need to understand with greater precision how humans work, how an individual thinks, feels and experiences. We must then model this mathematically and combine that with big data to develop efficient and effective AI. Plus, we need to think about the interaction between AI and humans. Is this similar to how humans interact with other humans, or does it differ? There lies a big challenge, but it can be done.”

Responding appropriately

This is where Van den Broek's research team is now moving forward, working with physiologists, psychologists, physicians, roboticists, electrical engineers, physicists and mathematicians, etc. to model appropriate behaviour. “When do you say something, when do you say nothing, and if you do say something, what do you say and with what facial expression? Computers are already able to recognise emotions in facial expressions and speech. However, can they subsequently also establish an emotional connection? Can a machine sense whether someone is a bit lonely or a bit anxious, or very much so? And gauging emotions is one thing – can a computer actually respond appropriately?”

At the moment, for instance, Van den Broek is working on an empathetic robot for children affected by cancer. These children are often socially isolated because they spend so much time in hospital and are unable to attend school, play sports or meet friends. “A robot can act as a buddy for these kids, for example by sensing what the child needs in terms of social interaction and - literally - providing a connection with children who are not ill. While not the solution to the problem, it can really help alleviate the loneliness and suffering.”

‘I want everything I do to have an impact. Otherwise I won’t do it.’

Egon van den Broek, Professor of Data-driven Interaction

This could also be done with something like a smart watch or your mobile phone. “These devices are already equipped to do all sorts of things, such as measuring your heart rate or determining your cardiovascular age. If they could also measure whether you are experiencing loneliness or stress, an app could check in with you: how are you feeling? And it could, for instance, establish a connection with someone close to you who is also experiencing loneliness. That's not rocket science, it’s absolutely feasible.”

Delicate field of research

As to whether this is something we should actually want, Van den Broek is keenly aware of the issues involved. “Clearly, such progress comes with a flipside. If you can make people sympathise with unhappy situations, you could also predispose them to fears of non-existent enemies. This field of research is delicate, I am by no means closing my eyes to that.”

Nonetheless, he is confident that empathetic computers can play their part in making the world a better place. “I want everything I do to have an impact. I want my research to make a substantial contribution to science or to society, otherwise I just won’t do it. There is so much suffering out there: hunger, war, global warming. There is polarisation on a great many fronts. Wouldn't it be great if people could learn from computers to empathise with 'the other' and really feel what it is like to be in the shoes of, say, someone who has had to flee violence? That might bring people closer.”