Empathetic Artificial Intelligence: Next-Gen Tech for Scaling Empathy


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Empathy is widely considered to be the epitome of human nature. It is, in fact, what sets us apart from machines to begin with. So the idea of empathetic artificial intelligence and machinery, while long romanticized in film and fiction, seems somewhat contradictory.

However, according to CB Insights’ 2021 Tech Trends Report, A.I. Technology that simulates empathy seems to be on the rise. The report states that “businesses will prioritize building A.I. technologies that can interpret and respond to human emotions as they look to connect with consumers”.

It does in fact seem that empathetic artificial intelligence is the next logical step in bringing AI closer to human understanding. So, in this post we will explore how this technology is advancing and how it can best be applied to help companies understand their customers better.

Let’s start with empathy

The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
From the Greek em · pathos /em/ meaning ‘in’ and /pathos/
meaning feelings. In other words,in feelings

Empathy is a trait that’s most useful in one-on-one conversations or interactions. During a conversation, by listening and asking the right questions, one is able to connect to the other to a degree in which they feel what the other feels. This leads to a deep understanding of the other’s pains and needs and is one of the greatest assets of communication.

If we were to apply a business angle to empathy, companies would need to find a way to build empathy for customers into their processes. Now, how would companies go about this, and is it even possible? Well, it all starts with establishing communication with customers to understand their pains and needs. And while establishing a one-on-one connection with your customers is achievable if you’re small, it is nearly impossible once you reach a certain size. Until now…

What is Artificial Intelligence?

ar·ti·fi·cial in·tel·li·gence
/ˌärdəˈfiSHəl inˈteləjəns/
The theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks that
normally require human intelligence.

I won’t get into a long explanation of what AI is since most folks are already quite familiar with the term. However, there is a lot of misconception around AI, what it can and can’t do.

Essentially, when most people refer to artificial intelligence, they are in fact referring to one of its many subsets, Machine Learning. ML is a sequence of algorithms that learns from data as opposed to rules (like programming). These intelligent systems can handle huge amounts of data and make complex calculations very quickly. When data is fed into the algorithm, it “trains it” to identify the same types of data on its own.

For instance, machine learning can be trained to identify a tree by “looking” at thousands of pictures identified as trees. Know all those captcha squares you’ve been clicking on? Surprise! You’ve been training a machine.
captcha squares - palm trees

Replicating or being trained to perform a task with guidelines to an exponential degree is the main superpower of ML. This means that, with training, an algorithm can execute a task at a level that humans are incapable of. This makes it highly scalable, just as long as it receives the correct training and guidelines.

Therefore, if we train it to listen to customers’ pains and needs, couldn’t we achieve empathy at scale?

So, what is empathetic artificial intelligence?

The idea of artificially intelligent robots conjures ethical questions and doomsday scenarios for the human race (that shouldn’t be overlooked). Despite that, incorporating empathy into AI likely has more benefits than downsides. The development of empathetic artificial intelligence is still in its infancy, but it’s becoming clear that computers can become intelligent to a point where they will genuinely understand feelings.

According to AI researcher Arend Hintze of Michigan State University, artificial intelligence that can have or understand feelings is still a ways off. It is a part of what is considered the “theory of mind” stage of AI which is the third and penultimate stage of potential AI advancement.

When it comes to human beings, emotions are a central component of general intelligence. So, for AI to truly come close to mimicking real human intelligence, it must include empathy. The perfectly empathetic AI would have the ability to both perceive and express emotions and personality.

But in truth, we don’t need “perfectly empathetic” for AI to be useful for companies and customers. AI’s ability to perceive and gain context from emotions and perceptions can be used to categorize and segment this data so that people can use it to create more empathetic products, processes, and services. In other words, AI would do the heavy lifting and deliver the intelligence companies need to make them empathetic at scale.

How can companies use empathetic AI at scale to help customers?

Although AI does not yet have the power of empathy, it can give the power of empathy to those using it correctly. In fact, research already has made significant strides when it comes to how AI can be trained to identify emotions and perceptions.

For instance, Humana Pharmacy made news in 2019 for their use of Cogito, an empathetic AI system that helps call center agents better understand customers’ emotions. Cogito processes the customer’s emotions by identifying patterns of behavior like a long pause, quickened speech, or raised voices. Then, it sends messages to the call center agent like “You’re speaking too fast,” or “Try to relate to the customer” to help them be more empathetic.

This is a great use of real-time intelligence for one-on-one interactions. But what about using AI for long-term strategic planning and analysis at the C-Suite level?

Worthix does just that with a conversation-based AI called LUCI. This AI can determine which customer perceptions and experiences have the highest probability of impacting their decision to buy from a company or not. Using advanced statistical models and natural language processing, LUCI dialogues directly with customers to identify pain points in their experiences, their perceptions of value, and the driving forces behind their decisions. That rich voice of customer feedback can then be translated quickly into actionable, scalable intelligence, ready for the C-Suite to implement company-wide.

The most important thing empathetic artificial intelligence gives us now is the ability to use data to understand our customers’ needs, wants, perceptions, expectations, and frustrations. It gives teams and executives the power to change how companies affect customers’ perceptions, as with most things AI, it’s also scalable.

And what do I mean when I refer to empathy at scale? Imagine the needs of a global organization, with multiple brands under its umbrella, hundreds or even thousands of brick-and-mortar locations across multiple regions as well as online stores. Think millions of customers with their own set of pains and needs, cultures and languages. Scaling empathy means creating an empathetic connection with each of these unique individuals regardless of location, language, demographic or need. Next-gen tech is do precisely this with empathetic artificial intelligence. Don’t get left behind.

Start Scaling Empathy Now With Worthix’s Conversational A.I.

Mary Drumond
Mary Drumond is Chief Marketing Officer at survey tech startup Worthix, and host of the Voices of Customer Experience Podcast. Originally a passion project, the podcast runs weekly and features some of the most influential CX thought-leaders, practitioners and academia on challenges, development and the evolution of CX.


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