TED2015: The battle for empathy and compassion

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TED2015: The battle for empathy and compassion

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TED is arguably the world’s best event for bringing together incredibly audacious, inspiring and motivating movers and shakers with ‘ideas worth spreading’ into the one venue for creative collaboration and idea iteration.  The distinctive beauty of this conference over others is the complete absence of ego, self-promotion and sales pitching.  Instead, the ‘sales’ tools at TED are the edgy yet meaningful ideas themselves, not the contrived, surface narrative so commonly used by many. The ambience is casually social, an unassuming hive of ideas in action where attendees (including the speakers themselves) actively seek out and welcome new hellos out of curiosity in the spectrum of perspective.  One can only hope that this approach is a sign of systemic change on the horizon for all other business events around the globe.

And so the insights.  Phew.  After week of synthesising, mind-mapping, supposing and iterating, I’ve finally found space to write a short piece on one of the key themes, which I feel to be the most foundational, immediately actionable of all…

The battle for empathy and compassion

The overwhelming theme throughout TED and SXSWi (which I attended the week prior) was one of implicit concern over diminishing empathy and compassion. A concern I’d suggest is well-founded in the face of the precipitous technological advancements taking over our everyday lives and increasingly displacing human cognition with artificial intelligence (‘AI’).  As philosopher Nick Bostrom (2015) wisely advised, in our technological advancement, we must ensure that everything we care about (ethics, values, compassion) is included in the programming, or suffer the consequence of the “Midas touch”.

This requires us – and particularly those programming the technology – to have deep expertise in understanding the unconscious multi-faceted intricacies of everything we care about in order to replicate it without significant and potentially threatening error.  Yet countless stories demonstrated notable human shortfall in empathy and compassion throughout the world today: segregation/racism (Haugen 2015, Kim 2015, Goffman 2015), gender inequality (Shirley 2015), human trafficking (Thrupkaew 2015, Satyarthi 2015), cyber bullying (Lewinsky 2015) and violence (Brown 2015).  Despite these shortcomings, AI development is well underway with self-driving cars (Urmson 2015) and context aware robots (Li 2015) already preparing to make decisions on our behalf.  Given the 35 to 55 year gap between today’s juvenile AI and that predicted to reach the full human-level equivalent (Bostrom 2015), the potential for unintended consequence over the coming years, particularly where substandard ethics programming is concerned, should not be glossed over.  Case in point was Li’s (2015) AI bot that mistook a child holding a toothbrush for a child holding a baseball bat.  Amusing on the surface (because its still in development) but it doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to consider the consequence of a live future scenario in which the bot was armed and programmed to respond to that threat – the consequence of which also challenges our justice system to identify ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ who is criminally responsible.

Of course, there’s the counter argument in that our human race isn’t perfect either – we too often misperceive situations.  In fact, cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman (2015) suggests that our brains are programmed to misperceive to help us cope with information (think optical illusions).  Urmson (2015) highlights the consequences of this, suggesting that humans, not technology, are the fatal bug of the car system which cause accidents at a rate equivalent to a jumbo jet falling from the sky each day.

And whilst both human and technical systems are currently flawed, there appears to be a reasonable, unstated working assumption fuelling progress of AI, that accommodation of new learning by machines is far more achievable at scale than that of humans.  This assumption appears to be assisting our rationalisation of the displacement of human decisions with AI, with greater focus on the positive safety aspects of it than the unintended consequence of increasing imbalance in rational decision making (computers) over empathetic, compassionate decision-making (humans).

With the prevalence of ethical issues in today’s society set to be compounded by the rise in rational technology, it is no real surprise that the cries out for empathy and compassion are growing louder with desperately creative  attempts to reconnect us with it emerging, such as Abramovich’s (2015) confronting soul-reflective course, Milk’s (2015) immersive virtual reality footage that creates a sense of personal proximity with ethical issues, Isay’s (2015) StoryCorps booths which reengage emotional connection through deep listening, and, countless recounts of meditation being practiced and advocated throughout the week.

As far as I’m concerned, its a healthy sign of recognition of our unfair advantage over machines in this increasingly technology dominated world, and a promising set of actions to counter the unhealthy pendulum swing towards rationalisation at the cost of human empathy and compassion.

The question is: what will you do to strengthen empathy and compassion within your accessible network today?

[tip: start with a small yet impactful conversation with a loved one or even a neglected stranger… download the StoryCorps app to help guide and record your conversation and optionally upload it to the US national archive]



Abramovich, M 2015, ‘Transformation through art’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 16 March 2015.

Bostrom, N 2015, ‘The future of machine intelligence’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 17 March 2015.

Brown, J 2015, ‘Curbing crime through collaboration’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 19 March 2015.

Hoffman, D 2015, ‘Conscious realism’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 17 March 2015.

Isay, D 2015, ‘Listening is generosity’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 17 March 2015.

Lewinsky, M 2015, ‘Culture of humiliation’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 19 March 2015.

Li, F 2015, ‘How we’re teaching computers to understand pictures’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 17 March 2015

Milk, C 2015, ‘The future of immersive film’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 18 March 2015.

Satyarthi, K 2015, ‘Modern slavery’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 20 March 2015.

Shirley, S 2015, ‘Give yourself for success’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 17 March 2015.

Thrupkaew, N 2015, ‘Corruption and exploitative economic systems’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 19 March 2015.

Urmson, C 2015, ‘Self-driving cars’, TED 2015, Vancouver, 17 March 2015.

Jennie Bewes
Jennie Bewes
Former Australian Financial Review columnist, speaker and founder/MD of REDSQ innovation & consulting, Jennie Bewes has been a driving force of innovation within global brands for the past 20 years blending strategic marketing, design and development with cultural change for optimal results from the inside out.

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