We recently welcomed two experts to Pier 17 for an informal conversation about the implications of new technology on ethics and empathy: Dr. Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD, is the UC Berkeley Professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities, and Jonathon Keats is the principal artist behind Mental Work, whom The Atlantic has called a “multimedia philosopher-prophet.”

Together, they explored how empathy can broaden the conversation around the impacts of tech and science — part of our SciComm Studio series inspired by the Mental Work showroom, and our continuing work exploring the emergent future of intelligent machines.

We’ve condensed that conversation into key highlights below.

On Philosophy

Keats: I’ve chosen the job title ‘experimental philosopher’ because I don’t know exactly what it means. I decided to study philosophy because  I wanted to do what I imagined philosophy to be as a child — going around being a pest. When I learned that isn’t really what academic philosophy is about, I chose to do philosophy on my own terms. I wanted to have conversations that weren’t limited to five other people with the same specialization, and I wanted to ask open-ended questions.

The one mechanism I smuggled out of academia is the thought experiment. Essentially, it’s a way to coerce your opponent into agreeing with you by luring them into an absurd position. The coercion didn’t make much sense in my case, because coercion isn’t exactly open-ended, so I decided to take ‘thought experiment’ literally. I decided to see if I could undertake experiments out in the world, where I didn’t have a conclusion in mind. Instead the idea was to create absurdist alternate realities that people could experience together, in which everyone would be sufficiently disoriented to reconsider their opinions. Every project I’ve done has, in one way or another, engaged that methodology.

‘Experimental philosopher’ is a very old job title actually, dating back many centuries to before the advent of professional philosophy. I’m motivated by curiosity, in ways that don’t allow me to focus on a single subject, but to mix them in irresponsible and mutually enlightening ways.

Halpern: I think we’re incredibly aligned! I also came to philosophy — I’m a psychiatrist, and studied philosophy of mind. My whole life has been about studying empathy. I was really shocked, in medical school, at how doctors were detached from the feelings of their patients. I became very interested in detachment, and took on every skill I could to attack the idea that you had to be detached. I studied the role of emotions in the beliefs we hold, and how to understand each other person’s distinct world and developed a model of engaged curiosity.

Science & Philosophy

Halpern: Before modern science, before Descartes and the earliest sketches of the modern scientific method, in ancient philosophy, science and philosophy were sort of the same thing.  Regarding our topic, both asked how one person could understand another person’s mind. Both took engaged curiosity to be central. In Aristotle, there’s this parable of a man staring at the stars and being so absorbed that he fell into a well.  His curiosity was a motivation in and of itself. Today, research often has to be so immediately practical — to get grants and so on — that we lose touch with what science originally was.

Keats: To me, science has become much more operational. It seems that science can benefit from considering why we’re undertaking the investigations that we are, and one way we can do so is by exploring alternatives — positing possible worlds.

And what I say about science is also applicable to technology. Mental Work, specifically, is about exploring what might happen if we were to become cyborg. We’ve already allowed machines into our lives in so many ways without much thought; perhaps by taking a leap into the future and imagining how the future might manifest, we might be able to ask what kinds of technology we might want.

Defining Empathy

Halpern: In the clinical context, empathy is about certain moments of genuinely therapeutic interactions. Traditionally, it’s about being “understood.” I’m a bit critical of too narrow a definition of understanding, but there’s something transformational about being understood in a richer sense. What’s therapeutic about it — so far, this is my view — depends upon one person experiencing and internalizing another’s engaged curiosity.

There are limits. Doctors always say “I know how you feel,” and that’s a bad thing to say because you don’t really know how other people feel. Each person is a world unto themselves. You can’t get all of the particulars of their individual experience.  

Keats: For me, empathy is related to theory of mind: The ability to appreciate that you can’t know what someone else is experiencing, and that what you are experiencing may not be identical to what someone else is experiencing. This is one of the great political challenges of our time. We seem to be losing whatever empathy we may once have had, and what’s coming into the world in place of empathy is xenophobia — an inability to appreciate how someone else might think, an inability to value what you can’t know.

I’m investigating these questions in a new project called Intergalactic Omniphonics. Half a millennium ago, there was a Copernican revolution in the sciences that not only changed astronomy, but also taught us that we can run an experiment on Earth that can tell us about the entire universe. More generally, Copernicanism teaches us that there’s nothing special about where we are in space or time. But there had never been an equivalent revolution in culture.

By ‘Copernican’, I’m referring to the act of decentering — where you don’t see yourself, your tribe, or your nation as the center of everything. To explore that idea, I’m making musical instruments that are potentially accessible to anyone in the universe — including aliens from other galaxies — and challenging our assumptions of what music is: the sensory, cognitive, and experiential assumptions we make as humans. What if you don’t have ears? What if we use gamma rays instead of sound? I’ve even invented a cello that modulates gravitational waves.

Bridging divides is not about saying “I know how you feel,” but having an experience together. That’s the essence of empathy.

Specialization, Art & Philosophy

Keats: I believe that philosophy and science — like most every discipline — have moved toward greater and greater specialization. That’s completely understandable and legitimate at one level: as you build knowledge, you get to a stage where any given individual isn’t going to be versed in all of it.

The arts are the exception to this rule. Everything and anything can be art now. That can be detrimental, but also opens up enormous potential to explore any topic using any methodology. Art is a space that facilitates philosophy as philosophy needs to be done. The freedom given by the art world needs to be taken as a challenge to pursue curiosity in the most encompassing and inviting ways possible.

Empathy vs. the Machines

Halpern: We ask, can we empathize with machines, and can machines empathize with us? We can empathize with machines, yes. We can make a very simple stick figure that evokes empathy. There’s no question.

But can they have empathy for us? I have two hours on YouTube on this question. Right now, we obviously don’t have AI, but in principle? I don’t rule it out.

But the real question for me isn’t whether we can create therapeutic relationships with machines, but should we? AI psychotherapy, for example. The problem for me is if this machine-human interaction replaces transformational empathy between two human beings. There should be a co-vulnerability, a co-mortality. So now some people have heard my work and want to create a mortal AI!

Keats: Can a machine be empathetic? Can an animal or any other organism? I think it relates to the issue of humans treating humans as special and privileged. Being open to the possibility of an empathetic machine can induce us to question our own self-importance.

There’s also the matter of how machines can make people more empathetic to other people — machines as a mediators of relationships. In the past, I’ve often been inspired by philosophical instruments, mechanisms that can be used to confront complex ideas through interaction with a physical object. For instance, philosophical instruments were an inspiration for Mental Work. Ideally, what happens with a philosophical instrument is that people confront ideas together, leading to a relationship or conversation that can be generative of empathy through co-exploration of who we are.

Technology & Empathy

Halpern: Descartes, from the beginning, was really a technologist. There was this idea that the purpose of engineering science was to design solutions to problems.

When it comes to ethics, experts often focus too much on utilitarian questions, which are focused on outcomes–the catastrophic, unintended consequences.

But for most people, ethics is more about our rights and duties to each other. Not just the outcome, but how we treat each other along the way. We don’t have to wait 5 years to see what happens. We can look at how it changes the way we treat each other right now.

A professor at Yale spoke to me, and said, you know, you could foresee this recent use of social media to silo people politically— the companies said the internet would make the world more socially connected, and this would  bring people together and end tribalism.

Well, the same was said about the telegraph and the radio. Each time we thought we finally had a tool to unite people across differences, but we didn’t ask the right questions. Both technologies actually worsened tribalism, helping stir up conflicts that lead to world wars.  We keep making the same mistakes, imbuing technology with magical powers to change how we treat each other.

Keats: Mental Work was inspired in part by my wariness about the Industrial Revolution, and how society took up industrialization without thinking through the consequences. Arguably we’re now on the verge of a Cognitive Revolution. In the Industrial Revolution, the machine could do what the body could do, but more powerfully and quickly. We’re approaching an era where the human mind may likewise be challenged by AI and rising computational power. So how do we navigate change and prepare for the future in a way that is as informed as possible?

I want to make the connection between the Industrial Revolution and the Cognitive Revolution explicit with Mental Work. We can avoid the worst and most obvious mistakes by fabricating possible worlds to experience together — foundations for reflecting on where we’re going before we get there. We can negotiate the future we want, rather than settling on the one arrived at by default.

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Mental Work installation photo by Astra Brinkmann for swissnex San Francisco.