Monday, May 16, 2022

Can we empathize through data without face-to-face interaction?

As a facilitator of design thinking workshops, I have held a view that face-to-face observation and listening are essential elements of empathy. Our body language sends powerful ques about our state of being, our approvals, disapprovals, comforts, discomforts, etc. And it is very difficult to capture these through data, graphs, analytics, etc. However, this belief is being shaken up over the past few years. Can we empathize through data alone? In this article, I present a few examples that have made me ambivalent.

Last year I read Brad Stones’ “Amazon unbound: Jeff Bezos and the invention of a global empire”. It is a story of Amazon’s transformation from a powerful force into the Giant over the past decade. The book highlights the data obsession at Amazon led by Jeff Bezos and percolated throughout the company. Decisions about whether to launch a new product such as Alexa, which private label products to launch and the locations of the warehouses were all based on data. Stones sometimes calls this “cold, hard data”. Given the size of Amazon’s customer base and its nature of ecommerce business where except delivery everything else happens online, it is understandable that Amazon doesn’t need face-to-face observation of customers. It is possible that the ecommerce business focuses on the 3 core customer needs, low prices, vast selection and fast delivery which don’t change much. Perhaps all other customer insights come through data without any face-to-face observation.

I thought the situation may be different for Alexa, the AI-enabled conversational device as well as a technology platform Amazon sells because building empathy is an important goal. It turns out the kind of effort that is being put in making Alexa socially relevant in a conversation, involves gathering a large amount of customer conversations with Alexa. This seems to be more of device-to-face interaction rather than face-to-face interaction. Customers who are helping Amazon evaluate newer ways of conversing with customers as part of Alexa Prize competition are interacting with the device and giving a rating on how likely they would be to converse with this “friend” again. No face-to-face interaction.

One would expect that face-to-face interaction is necessary in emergency psychiatry. However, Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Stanford, tells in the book “Connections: the new science of emotion”, how his belief has changed over the years and got further validated during Covid pandemic. He says, “Emergency psychiatry, I saw again and again, though it somehow surprised me each time, can be carried out with precision even over phone, through that lonely single line.” He feels, “Psychiatry and medicine broadly – though still constructed around interpersonal communication – can survive and operate well with much less social information than the traditional face-to-face interview provides.”

Earlier this year, I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Klara and the sun”. The protagonist of this story is an artificial friend, Klara. And one of the reviewers has aptly called this book “an absolute master class in empathy.” Ishiguro in his subtle and slow-moving style creates various scenes in which Klara, the robot, learns about human anxieties and aspirations through observation and conversation. If this fiction work is any indication of what could become a reality, then perhaps outsourcing empathizing to a robot is not too farfetched.

A few months ago, I joined a team of senior managers at an offsite in the outskirts of Bangalore. The team members have been working with each other for years and were meeting online throughout the pandemic. However, they were very happy with the face-to-face interaction and it came up multiple times during the conversations.  Video calls were dry and to the point. The physical presence, jokes, fun cooking activity, eating together in a relaxed atmosphere was no match to innumerable video calls.

Now you get some idea about my ambivalence. Can we empathize through data without face-to-face interaction? The answer seems to be a ‘yes’ at least in some contexts. But, can we eliminate face-to-face interaction in most contexts? I am doubtful but now open to the possibility.


For Alexa related discussion, check out

Laura Stevens, “Alexa, can you be empathetic, all-knowing and funny?”, Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2019

“Rohit Prasad: Amazon, Alexa and Conversational AI”, interview of Rohit Prasad, Head Scientist, Alexa by Lex Fridman, Dec 14, 2019.