Em­pa­thy, not im­i­ta­tion

Idealog - - CONTENTS -

Elly Strang talks with Google Em­pa­thy Lab founder Daniel l e Krett ek on why i t 's t i me f or tech's EQ to match its IQ

The world’s big­gest com­pa­nies are on a quest to make their ar­ti­fi­cial i ntel­li­gence as­sis­tants em­pathise with the hu­man con­di­tion, from Google’s Al as­sis­tant, to Ama­zon's Alexa, to Mi­crosoft’s Cor­tana. But the woman at the fore­front of Google’s Em­pa­thy Lab, Danielle Kret­tek, doesn’t want to give AI a l i teral hu­man face. She says the tech­nol­ogy i ndus­try i s chas­ing a false prom­ise i f i t thinks cre­at­ing ‘ hu­manoids’ i s the best way for­ward for hu­man­ity. In­stead, her work i s fo­cused on re­search­ing the quirks that make us hu­man and designing i ntu­itive tech­nol­ogy that com­ple­ments us, rather than i mi­tat­ing us. On a re­cent trip to Vivid Syd­ney, Elly Strang had a chat to Kret­tek about bring­ing emo­tions to the fore of tech, whether ma­chines will ever feel em­pa­thy, and more.

Lis­ten­ing Em­pa­thy Lab to the Founder way you and work the as paths Google’s you go down re­search-wise, it sounds like your job is a dream job: you get cu­ri­ous about some­thing, and then you get to go fully in depth and re­search it. Is that how it works – you fol­low what sparks your in­ter­est? I started the Em­pa­thy Lab three years ago, but I prob­a­bly didn’t re­alise I started the Em­pa­thy Lab un­til a year and a half ago. I was like, ‘Wait, this is a thing that’s go­ing well. I should prob­a­bly call it some­thing so it’s not just called Danielle’s stuff.’ Mo­ments in your life can sneak up on you and I didn’t have a mo­ment where I was like, ‘I founded the lab’. What ac­tu­ally hap­pened was I was ac­tu­ally work­ing on the most un­sexy things ever – no­ti­fi­ca­tions and voice in­ter­ac­tion. The thing I al­ways did in my work was to look at the prob­lem that needed to

be in­quired about. Take no­ti­fi­ca­tions: they’re so un­sexy, we kind of hate them. It’s great if it’s a best friend, but mostly you’re like ‘Ugh. I don’t need to know that it’s six de­grees colder to­mor­row.’ So no­ti­fi­ca­tions are a re­ally tough space for in­for­ma­tion.

So I wanted to un­der­stand the anatomy of a no­ti­fi­ca­tion, the nitty, gritty, crunchy de­tails of peo­ple and how they feel about that. What I al­ways do with a project is look at what is the creative an­gle: how can I make this in­ter­est­ing for peo­ple? Be­cause I think the more creative it is, the more creative your de­sign­ers can be lib­er­ated to be be­cause you’re go­ing to tap truth, you’re go­ing to tap emo­tion and you’re go­ing to tap a place in peo­ple where they’re like, ‘I didn’t think about it this way’.

So with the Air­plane mode ex­am­ple [in an ex­per­i­ment, Google asked peo­ple to come up with other modes to set their phone in ac­cord­ing to their mood be­sides Air­plane mode. Peo­ple came up with over 400 dif­fer­ent modes, such as ‘pro­fes­sional mode’, ‘hun­gover mode’ and ‘gen­tle morn­ing mode’. Kret­tek joked the lat­ter two were es­sen­tially the same thing] peo­ple got to have fun with it and it gave so much truth­ful, au­then­tic in­for­ma­tion about their lives. The piece you got out of it was about moods and rit­u­als and how peo­ple emo­tion­ally travel through their days. The funny thing is the cu­ri­ous place isn’t al­ways this field to pick flow­ers from. It’s not al­ways as glam­orous or in­ter­est­ing as the sto­ries I tell at the end, but over time, I found that ev­ery­one was in­ter­ested in the crazy, creative thing I did, so as I went through the last five-and-a half years, I started di­al­ing more to­wards the creative, cu­ri­ous, in­ter­est­ing things. The lab is an ex­er­cise in courage and brave ideas and good ques­tions and I built mo­men­tum over time say­ing, ‘This is the thing I’m study­ing.’

The more you own that – ‘This is the thing I’m study­ing, the de­sign ex­plo­ration I’m do­ing, trust me for a minute’ – and the more you fol­low that lit­tle voice while ig­nor­ing the critic in your mind say­ing ‘That sounds bat­shit crazy’, the more you’ll get courage over time and then you end up in a po­si­tion like me where I look like I have a to­tal dream job – and I do. I made it in the shape of me, I made it out of the work that gives me the most juice so I can give the most juice to the work. When you think about peo­ple who work in the tech in­dus­try, the stereo­typ­i­cal per­son is some­one that isn’t so per­son­able – you’re very in you end up there? The way I got into tech, I make the joke that I love Alice in Won­der­land – Dad’s a sur­geon, Mum’s an artist. Pre­dictably, you can see my lin­eage in me and the need to make bal­ance out of both. That’s so hu­man and an­noy­ing. But I feel like my ca­reer is a back­wards fall into the rab­bit hole be­cause I lit­er­ally started in Lon­don work­ing in a de­sign and ad­ver­tis­ing firm where I was look­ing af­ter the minority vote, or Rock the Vote for the UK, and the move­ments of so­cial change for a greater good. Nike heard about that then I went to New York. I feel like all the places I’ve worked, I’ve been re­ally blessed be­cause of course they’re work, but they were an ed­u­ca­tion. On Nike, I learnt what it was like to cre­ate feel­ings in peo­ple and bring them alive. I worked on Michael Jor­dan shoes and the idea that flight was pos­si­ble. That got me no­ticed by Ap­ple, so I worked with Ap­ple’s ad agency, then I switched to the in-house de­sign group. I was re­ally blessed to be there for the golden years, when Mac made the switch to In­tel and Steve was like, ‘We’re go­ing to tell sto­ries about how Macs are not for creative peo­ple and cof­fee shops, it’s for ev­ery­day creativ­ity, com­put­ers are a bi­cy­cle for the mind, this is about the hu­man spirit’ and I was like Yes! Right?

Ev­ery good piece of work feels like lib­er­a­tion if you’re do­ing it right. I’d al­ways been fol­low­ing feel­ings, then with Google I loved that it was so open: ‘We’re go­ing to solve the most au­da­cious, sig­nif­i­cant hu­man prob­lems with tech­nol­ogy and we be­lieve in ev­ery­one and that you should be open, demo­cratic, free, even though we have prod­ucts peo­ple pay for.’ The spirit of Google called to me be­cause it was truly for ev­ery­one. I still don’t feel like I work in tech, even though I work on AI. For me to be at Google, I’m deep in the core of this tech­nol­ogy and re­ally proud to be there, but it’s all the more rea­son to bring the un­ex­pected voices into tech­nol­ogy – the sto­ry­tellers, film mak­ers and the de­sign­ers – that’s the beat­ing hu­man heart of this. When I in­ter­viewed Jenny Ar­den from Airbnb she talked about how com­pa­nies like that will bring in an as­tro­naut to be on the de­sign team just be­cause they want that com­pletely new tech sec­tor. It’s one of the things I study – I call them ‘the un­ex­pected ex­perts you need to lis­ten to’. I work with en­to­mol­o­gists [studiers of in­sects] as I’ll be look­ing at a prod­uct or prob­lem and think, ‘What would be a very dif­fer­ent way of look­ing at this?’ So if you look at ges­ture, you talk to dancers and chore­og­ra­phers, peo­ple that speak Amer­i­can sign lan­guage, and you pull from the full spec­trum of non-ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion: neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy, phys­i­ol­ogy, art. It’s not just the de­signer and the art di­rec­tor, the ta­ble is so much big­ger if you think with a gen­uinely hu­man, in­clu­sive lens, so I think that’s why Google’s al­ways en­cour­aged big­ger, big­ger, big­ger, and I say I’m go­ing to go deeper, deeper, deeper.

We have been told the story that vul­ner­a­bil­ity i s a point where we can be at­tacked, when ac­tu­ally, vul­ner­a­bil­ity, i f wielded prop­erly, i s your great­est strength. Not to pass judg­ment on men, but you do tend Do you think hav­ing more women in lead­er­ship is lead­ing to this more hu­man­ised ap­proach?

Why do you think there has been that hu­man­ity com­po­nent miss­ing from the tech sec­tor and why is this chang­ing now? What’s so in­ter­est­ing about be­ing in tech­nol­ogy is hu­mans are hu­mans, to state the ob­vi­ous, but the thing that is most chal­leng­ing is ac­tu­ally at the cul­ture level. Peo­ple feel like they need to come up not just with prob­lems, but with so­lu­tions. They don’t need to cre­ate messes, they need to clean things up. They need to be right, to be cer­tain and to cre­ate and add value, and these are all things that make you a pro­fes­sional, adult hu­man be­ing that’s smart and suc­cess­ful.

What’s re­ally chal­leng­ing is the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence is not that – we are not these de­ci­sion-mak­ing en­gines, we are messy, emo­tional be­ings that are con­stantly trav­el­ing around, feel­ing all these feels and yet there’s a re­ally weird thing that hap­pens when you walk into work in the morn­ing and you’re like, ‘I’m go­ing to turn those things off be­cause here is the place where I do the thing I’m good at and do it over and over again’. You’re shut­ting off how­ever much of your­self that you don’t let in the door. There isn’t a lot of space for not hav­ing an an­swer, so in that space where maths has an an­swer, science has an an­swer, it’s re­ally hard to say, ‘Okay, the wa­tery, messy parts of my­self are just as im­por­tant, be­cause those are the un­known depths, but these are the great mys­ter­ies that move the hu­man spirit.’ It’s hard to say, ‘I’m go­ing to do the tough thing, I’m go­ing to sit with the mess and trust that on the other side if I take more of me, the work will be bet­ter be­cause more of me is in the work.’ How has your re­search changed your be­hav­iour? The things that don’t change are how much I sleep, the fact I have green tea ev­ery morn­ing, the fact my dog makes me re­ally happy and I try to take him with me as many places as pos­si­ble and that in my meet­ings, I try fo­cus on re­ally be­ing present with peo­ple and try­ing to get to the deeper layer of a con­ver­sa­tion. I think what’s funny is we get into prob­lem-solv­ing mode for de­sign con­ver­sa­tions and you don’t know where the peo­ple are at, like, ‘What’s go­ing on with you in this mo­ment to­day – how are you feel­ing?’ I try to start con­ver­sa­tions with that and then get into the work. I started that prac­tice not as a mind­ful, Cal­i­for­nia thing, but be­cause I was do­ing some work with the Yale Cen­tre for Emo­tional In­tel­li­gence and one of the things I learned while I was study­ing the deep science of emo­tion with them is EQ is a skillset – it’s not just some­thing some peo­ple are granted. Ev­ery­one can build that skillset. They said that when a teacher has a pile of tests to grade, the emo­tional state they’re in will in­flu­ence their grad­ing. So the way you solve that prob­lem is recog­nis­ing the emo­tion, which al­lows you to not be bi­ased. What’s lovely about that tru­ism is if you ac­knowl­edge how you’re feel­ing, you don’t let it bleed into the world. You can say ‘this is re­ally serv­ing me at this mo­ment’ or ac­tu­ally, ‘this is not serv­ing me at this mo­ment’. But by hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions and giv­ing per­mis­sion for that to be part of a pro­fes­sional con­ver­sa­tion, peo­ple’s per­sonal and emo­tional power isn’t switched off. Ev­ery­body feels like they’re seen and heard and met in the mo­ment. I think emo­tional in­tel­li­gence is a skillset and it is un­gen­dered. How­ever, cul­tur­ally there is more per­mis­sion for women to be at­tuned in that way and more cul­tural train­ing and prac­tice around that, and it’s both a bless­ing and a curse. But look­ing at this as a skillset, ev­ery­one can de­velop these things, it’s not just the nat­u­ral birthright of women. At the same time, I love the way women do hold this skill and this space wher­ever they’re op­er­at­ing, which is why I’m like, ‘More women ev­ery­where, yes please.’ Glo­ria Steinem is one of my he­roes, and I feel like by cham­pi­oning emo­tion in the tech space, this is still one of the fron­tiers of fem­i­nism and I’m re­ally proud to raise my hand and be one of the many voices that are speak­ing for that.

Be­ing emo­tion­ally flu­ent is not a soft skill. There are all of these ways of di­min­ish­ing what it means to speak with truth and feel­ing and pas­sion and power and I think be­ing an emo­tional be­ing is not a neg­a­tive thing, it doesn’t ex­clude you from ra­tio­nal­ity, it’s ac­tu­ally a power like logic if you use it in the right way. I see women stand­ing for that more and the more we can en­cour­age it from both sides, the bet­ter. Men need to be al­lowed to have this as­pect of fem­i­nine ex­pres­sion, it’s per­mis­sion for ev­ery­one to feel and be felt and speak and be heard and take up the full space of them­selves,

which isn’t just about emo­tional in­tel­li­gence, it’s about be­ing a full hu­man be­ing. I think there are a lot of im­bal­ances to be cor­rected.

We have been told the story that vul­ner­a­bil­ity is a point where we can be at­tacked, when ac­tu­ally, vul­ner­a­bil­ity, if wielded prop­erly, is your great­est strength. My abil­ity to stand up on stage and talk about how I some­times feel like I don’t be­long in these rooms, but I ab­so­lutely know I be­long in these rooms, is a huge part of my power be­cause if I can own that and say that, no one can write my story for me. There’s a lot of power in your vul­ner­a­bil­ity and your truth be­cause you don’t feel like there’s any­one who will snipe at you for some­thing, you’re whole and you’re ex­pressed. Do you think we’ll ever reach a point where a ma­chine will feel em­pa­thy? I will never say never, be­cause I don’t have a crys­tal ball. There are in­cred­i­ble ad­vances be­ing made, but in terms of ac­tu­ally be­ing able to feel em­pa­thy, the def­i­ni­tion I use by Brene Brown is the clear­est: em­pa­thy is when the feel­ing that some­one else is hav­ing and ex­press­ing is a feel­ing that you can recog­nise and be aware of in your­self. So much of emo­tional in­tel­li­gence is the abil­ity to recog­nise emo­tion in your­self, then recog­nise that in an­other, then be able to shift that or stay where you are de­pend­ing on how you want to be, so an em­pa­thetic mo­ment re­quires that both be­ings are feel­ing be­ings.

What’s in­ter­est­ing about the space of AI is ma­chines are able to do things hu­mans can do, but I can’t see that far into the fu­ture where the ma­chines would say ‘You’re feel­ing this, I’m pick­ing up on that mo­ment and have felt that in my ex­pe­ri­ence as a ma­chine’. That em­pathic leap I talked about – I do be­lieve it’s pos­si­ble be­cause I al­ready see it hap­pen­ing where we as hu­mans are at the cen­tre of the ex­pe­ri­ence, mean­ing we have our abil­i­ties or emo­tions em­pha­sised be­cause of AI. The hu­manoid is the red her­ring. Peo­ple say, ‘Lets make them just like hu­mans.’ No, we should let them be ma­chines, but think, ‘What more is pos­si­ble for us?’ be­cause we’re in this com­pan­ion-like re­la­tion­ship where more is pos­si­ble. That’s where it starts to get ex­cit­ing.

To be fair to the in­cred­i­bly tal­ented folks do­ing this hu­man-shaped work with AI, it’s not to say they shouldn’t be do­ing that. I think that in times of great progress, in­ven­tion is about ex­plor­ing all things. But I per­son­ally feel more con­nected to a fu­ture where the har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy is de­fined by tap­ping my hu­man­ity and connecting with a ma­chine that feels al­most hu­man in next-level in­tu­itive­ness, ver­sus some­thing that is try­ing to be like us, and never will be. Be­ing hu­manoid is so much less pow­er­ful a space. It would be a great tech­no­log­i­cal feat, but for me and the per­sonal tra­jec­tory of my work and the work I’m do­ing with Google, connecting ma­chines with the po­ten­tial of hu­man­ity is just so much more pow­er­ful and so much more in­ter­est­ing.

There are peo­ple who be­lieve it’s science fic­tion, as in it’s not now, but it could hap­pen. I’m in it for the ride. If they need the first ro­bot psy­chol­o­gist, I’ll be there.

while also ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the likes of Face­book Scott: One of the key things that was on my radar and part of my set of du­ties as ed­i­tor-inchief was to ex­pand the plat­form to all rel­e­vant touch­points for our au­di­ences, break­ing it out of what would tra­di­tion­ally be called a tech mag­a­zine for geeks into a plat­form or a por­tal into the fu­ture. That meant hav­ing a strong pres­ence on so­cial me­dia, that meant hav­ing live events, that meant a video plat­form, that meant reach­ing re­tail and com­mu­nity mem­bers in re­tail and other places and di­ver­si­fy­ing rev­enue streams so that the ideas trans­ported through Wired and as de­fined by Pa­trick and the strat­egy process, were rel­e­vant to the right au­di­ence at the right time. Do you think were ahead of the curve in think­ing about a mag­a­zine like that? Scott: I think with all things at Wired, you are a prod­uct of your environment and cer­tainly liv­ing and work­ing in Sil­i­con Val­ley in San Fran­cisco, the ideas that get un­packed by founders and en­trepreneurs up and down that cor­ri­dor – you can’t help but be in­flu­enced by them. Wired was in­vented by a bunch of folks who thought it was a ve­hi­cle to bring sto­ries back from the fu­ture. Kevin Kelly was the found­ing ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor and called it a ‘let­ter from the fu­ture’, so Wired’s mis­sion was very much im­bued to the plat­forms that it spoke to. It’s about in­no­va­tion and cul­ture and the in­ter­sec­tion of those two ideas. And do you think mix­ing with in­spir­ing in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies led you both down the path of be­com­ing en­trepreneurs your­self? Scott: Def­i­nitely – hav­ing founders and en­trepreneurs and in­ven­tors come through the halls ev­ery day, it’s hard not to want to join their ranks at some point. The con­ver­sa­tions me and Pa­trick had through­out the course of our work re­la­tion­ship and then as friends, you can’t help but be in­flu­enced by peo­ple that are mak­ing great things in the world. Wired, what led you to that de­ci­sion? Had you achieved every­thing you wanted to in the in­dus­try? Scott: I did. I saw the arc of my 11 years at Condé Nast and my seven years be­fore that at

Texas Monthly – two decades in this space – and I felt like I had learned what I wanted to in the in­dus­try. I had al­most dou­bled Wired’s au­di­ence over the course of my ed­i­tor­ship, I’d built a great team there and po­si­tioned it for the fu­ture in a strong place where I could step away and chase my next set of dreams with Pa­trick and think about what a firm that we

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