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“Empathic” AI has more to do with psychopathy than emotional intelligence – but that doesn’t mean we are able to treat machines cruelly

In cognitive areas that were once considered the supreme disciplines of human intelligence, equivalent to chess or Go, AI has long since overtaken humans. Some even consider it’s superior in the case of human emotional abilities equivalent to empathy. This doesn't appear to be simply because some corporations are going big for marketing reasons. Empirical studies suggest that folks perceive ChatGPT proves to be more empathetic than human medical staff in certain healthcare situations. Does this mean AI is actually empathetic?

A definition of empathy

As a psychologically informed philosopher, I define true empathy three criteria:

  • Congruence of feelings: Empathy requires that the person empathizing feels what it’s prefer to experience the opposite's feelings in a specific situation. This distinguishes empathy from a merely rational understanding of emotions.

  • Asymmetry: The one that feels empathy only has the emotion because one other person has it and it matches the opposite person's situation slightly than their very own. For this reason, empathy will not be only a shared emotion equivalent to parents' shared joy over the event of their offspring, where the asymmetry condition will not be met.

  • Other-awareness: There have to be no less than a rudimentary awareness that empathy is in regards to the feelings of one other person. This explains the difference between empathy and emotional contagion, which occurs when one catches a sense or emotion like a chilly. This happens, for instance, when children start crying once they see one other child crying.

Empathic AI or Psychopathic AI?

Given this definition, it is evident that artificial systems cannot feel empathy. They don't know what it's prefer to feel something. This signifies that they can’t satisfy the congruence condition. Consequently, the query of whether what they feel corresponds to the state of asymmetry and alien perception doesn’t even arise. Artificial systems can recognize emotions, be it based on facial expressions, vocal cues, physiological patterns or affective meanings; and so they can simulate empathic behavior through speech or other types of emotional expression.

Artificial systems subsequently bear similarities to what common sense calls a psychopath: although they’re incapable of feeling empathy, they’re able to recognizing emotions based on objective signs, mimicking empathy and using this ability for manipulative purposes to make use of. In contrast to psychopaths, artificial systems don’t set these goals themselves, but are given to them by their designers. So-called empathetic AI is commonly intended to cause us to behave in a desired way, equivalent to not getting upset while driving, learning more motivated, working more productively, buying a certain product – or voting for a certain political candidate. But doesn't the whole lot then rely upon how good the needs for which empathy-simulating AI is used are?

Empathy-simulating AI within the context of nursing and psychotherapy

Care and psychotherapy geared toward promoting people's well-being. One might think that the usage of empathy-simulating AI in these areas is unquestionably an excellent thing. Wouldn't they make wonderful carers and social companions for old people? loving partners for the disabledor perfect psychotherapists who’ve the advantage of being available across the clock?

Questions like these are ultimately about what it means to be human. Is it enough for a lonely, old or mentally disturbed person to project emotions onto an unfeeling artifact, or is it necessary for an individual in an interpersonal relationship to receive recognition for themselves and their suffering?

Respect or technology?

From an ethical perspective, it’s an issue of respect whether there’s someone who empathically recognizes the needs and suffering of an individual as such. By withdrawing recognition from one other subject, the person in need of care, support or psychotherapy is treated as a mere object, because ultimately it’s assumed that it doesn’t matter whether someone really listens to the person. They don’t have any moral right to have their feelings, needs and suffering perceived by someone who can truly understand them. Use Empathy-simulating AI in nursing and psychotherapy is ultimately one other case of technological solutionism, i.e. the naive assumption that there’s a technological solution to each problem, including loneliness and psychological “dysfunctions”. Outsourcing these problems to artificial systems prevents us from seeing the social causes of loneliness and mental disorders within the larger social context.

Furthermore, the design of artificial systems that appear as someone or something that feels emotions and empathy would mean that such devices all the time have a manipulative character because they appeal to very subliminal mechanisms of anthropomorphization. This fact is utilized in industrial applications to get users to activate a paid premium level: or customers pay with their data. Both practices are particularly problematic for the vulnerable groups at issue here. Even individuals who don’t belong to vulnerable groups and are fully aware that a synthetic system has no feelings will respond empathetically to it as if it did.

Empathy with artificial systems – all too human

It is a well-studied phenomenon that folks respond with empathy to artificial systems that exhibit certain human or animal-like characteristics. This process is basically based on perceptual mechanisms that are usually not consciously accessible. Perceiving an indication that one other person is experiencing a certain emotion triggers a corresponding emotion within the observer. Such an indication could also be a typical behavioral expression of an emotion, a facial features, or an event that typically triggers a specific emotion. Evidence from MRI scans of the brain shows that the identical neural structures are present are activated when people feel empathy for robots.

Although empathy will not be essential to morality, it plays a very important moral role. For this reason, our empathy toward human-like (or animal-like) robots imposes, no less than not directly, moral constraints on how we interact with these machines. It is morally incorrect to habitually abuse robots that elicit empathy since it negatively affects our ability to feel empathy necessary source of ethical judgment, motivation and development.

Does this mean we’d like to form a robot rights league? That can be premature, since robots themselves don’t have any moral standards. Empathy with robots is just not directly morally relevant due to its impact on human morality. But we should always consider carefully about whether and during which areas we really need robots that simulate and evoke empathy when people walk the danger of distorting and even destroying our social practices in the event that they became ubiquitous.


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