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Empathy, the External and Robots

by on April 7, 2021

We can come to believe that all the matters is the external. What I do for other people. What other people do for me.

There’s an AI driven, holographic version of Salvador Dalí at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

To the people who experience the hologram, does it really matter that this a hologram? If it makes you feel like you’re talking to the artist. If it makes you laugh. Does it matter that its not a living person?

Philosophers talk about robot cats. What if you learned that all cats were really robots? Would it make a difference? They act the same. They purr the same. Nothing changes in the world except you just learned that cats are actually robots. Would you love your cat any less? Or, if you don’t care for cats, would you change your feelings about them?

The same thing can be asked about people. If you learned that somehow everyone you know was a zombie, would that make a difference? By zombie I mean that they had nothing on the inside. That they were not alive in the same way that you are.

Now, of course, we can see how people react to others not being alive the same way. There are many homiletic interpretations of Biblical Scripture where non-believers are labeled as dead. Or not really alive. Many believers consider themselves living in a way that’s different from people that don’t believe.

AI Dalí, Robot cats. Zombies. Non-believers. They raise the same questions. How much does it matter what’s going on inside? What’s going on inside things we interact with?

Looking around. There aren’t many examples of people with AI Dalí, robot cats or zombies. There are lots of examples of how believers treat non-believers. And, well, its all over the place. Sometimes believers treat non-believers with pity. Sometimes they treat them with anger and spite. Sometimes they treat them as they would treat anybody else. Except you know there’s a club for believers only. Secret comforts you can have with people like you.

You also know that sometimes it goes the other way. That non-believers treat believers with anger and spit. They treat them disrespectfully. Like they’re uneducated. Or un-enlightened in some way.

Basically, believers and non-believers can treat each other equally poorly. Or equally well. Neither believers or non-believers have the market cornered on disrespecting other people. Or on treating people nicely. And, incidentally, the believer and non-believer categories can apply to many things besides religion. There are people other people consider inside and outside the fold in all sorts of areas. Areas like politics. Do you believe the same things I do? Areas like medicine. Do you believe the same things I do? Areas like science. And conspiracies.

There are no end to the ways we, as people, find ways make ourselves feel comfortable. To find ways to make sense of the world. And, in doing so, creating divides between us and others. There is some strange connection between the desire for certainty and the fact that we find comfort by figuring out where we fit in. Where we belong. And where others don’t belong. Who is inside. Who is outside. It’s like that strange evolutionary tale where we survive by knowing who is a friend or a foe. What’ll eat us and what we can eat. What’s poison.

Somehow, in the evolutionary tale, that grows into who is poison.

Robot cats. Zombie people. Non-believers.


I was sitting on our couch thinking about things these. Our youngest daughter was on the couch. Someone else in the room said something funny. Our daughter began to crack up laughing. She was rolling on the couch with the biggest smile on her face. Laughing.

It made me so happy that she was laughing. It made happy that she was experiencing something, inside herself, that brought her joy. That brought a smile to her face.

I looked at her. Looked at her eyes glimmering with laughter. Heard her smile filled breathing. Felt her energy.

It mattered what was going on inside. What was going on inside her, made me happy. It made me happy, inside.

Later that day my wife and I talked. And, you know, we all have different ways that people make us feel special. There are books about it. Our love language. The books help us figure out how other people can make us feel special. What other people can do to make us feel special. The books teach us how to tell people what they can do for us that makes us feel special.

Well, my wife and I haven’t read those books together. We’ve just been real patient with each other over time. We’ve learned a lot about each other. Though, I’m always amazed at how much more there is to learn. But, what I guess I’m saying, is that she tries to do things that make me happy sometimes. And sometimes, I try to do things that make her happy. Sometimes its a hit. Sometimes its a miss. What I’ve learned, though, at least, is that she is doing something nice for me. I may be so caught up inside my little world or my brain or whatever is going on that I don’t see it. That I’m a jerk. But, gosh, when I take a step back I can sometimes see through myself and see that she’s doing something nice for me. She’s doing something she thinks will make me happy, inside. She cares about what’s going on inside me. She cares about how I feel.

Cats, as we know them. People, alive. Beliefs, just ideas. Not dividers.

There’s a lot of talk in business circles about what jobs can be replaced by robots. By AI. About who can be replaced. I recently took a continuing education business course at Stanford. One entire section of the class was about artificial intelligence. Robots. Algorithms. How we can think about our jobs. Our careers. And how we can think about not being replaced. Or replaceable. By robots.

Some of the answers are around what we can do that’s different than machine or a computer. But that’s all about the external. What I do for other people. For companies and organizations. What other people do for me. For companies and organizations. And sure, its easier. More comforting. More certain. To see the world that way. To think about the external. The easily measured. The easy to make a case for. But I think that misses the point. That puts others people on some side of a divider or other. Makes it all about me. About us (not them). About the company and organization.

I think the point is that the difference is about feelings. Its about the inside. Of others.

It’s about how we make other people feel.

And yes, sure, we can manipulate that. Particularly on a grand scale. With things like social media. News. Programming on the internet that appeals specifically to how we think. The believer in us. The non-believers everywhere else.

So its hard. It is hard. Very hard. To get out of our own way and see. Or care. About the inside of other people. It’s not necessarily rational. It’s not necessarily measurable. It may not be scientific. It may not even be in keeping with anyone’s particular beliefs. It’s more a way about things. It’s about not wanting to be angry. It’s about getting out of our way. Understanding how small we are. How little we know. How manipulative and self-seeking we can be.

Then, just looking. Just asking. How are you, that other person, feeling? Can you pick up on the signals the other person is sending? Are they happy? Are they sad? Are they uncomfortable or in pain?

What can you do to make them feel better, inside? Meeting them where they are. Not where you want them to be. Seeing them for who they are. Seeing them as an equal. Or better.

Finding their joy.

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