Caring machines vs sociopaths

Caring machines may be the only way to scale empathy across our species.

An abstract image of a mother and child

We can think of empathy as another type of perception. There are two types of empathy which interact to give us a sense of the experience of others. Cognitive empathy is a top-down process where we think about what’s happening and make inferences about another person’s internal state. Affective empathy is a bottom-up process where feelings from our own bodies and senses allow us to share in the experiences of others. We literally feel what someone else feels—we vicariously experience someone else’s pain (or joy). Feelings are about something—they are mental projections of the state of the body and they give us an embodied sense of personal vulnerability. Feelings aren’t processed in a value-neutral way. How you feel, what you do, matters. Vicarious feelings motivate us to act prosocially but they can also be unbearable.

Some prominent neuroscientists—including Antonio Damasio and Jonas Kaplan—argue that if AI has no machine version of feeling—no sense of vulnerability—it will be unable to align itself with humans. A machine whose artificial empathy includes a sense of personal vulnerability may allow for more adaptive AI because the machine is imbued with goals related to homeostasis—the process of keeping the body in equilibrium. In other words, a machine that has a visceral sense of how humans feel will make better decisions about humans. An AI would need a real or simulated body that is able to provide homeostatic signals and is vulnerable to the environment. It would need to know what signals come from inside itself that have somehow originated in an other.

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