Mike de la Cruz is the CEO of Directly. He is a technology visionary in how software and AI can improve the customer experience.
The growth of AI has brought the emerging technology to a wide range of professions, including those that have traditionally required “the human touch.” In the past, high-touch professions have been considered “robot proof,” but that is no longer the case. Recently AI technology has inspired numerous think pieces that explore whether AI can do the work of social workers, counselors, guest services specialists, doctors and even babysitters. In the majority of cases today, the AI systems that have made their way into these professions perform very simple tasks. Take Woebot, for example, which has helped millions of people as their “chatbot therapist.” The AI is a delivery system for a form of self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), all created by human experts. Woebot functions like a CBT self-help book. It isn’t designed to function like a human therapist, who builds and executes a variety of personalized care programs based on empathy for patients and their evolving needs.
In order to interact with people at a level that matches human experts in high-touch professions, AI needs empathy. Today, human experts are able to accomplish much more than any AI system because they are able to understand the emotions of others, and can modulate their behavior and service offerings appropriately. For me, based on my experience in developing AI-based solutions, this raises two vital questions: First, is it possible for AI to develop a sense of empathy? Second, if it is possible for AI to develop a sense of empathy, how does it get that empathy? Below, we’ll take a look at some examples where AI developers bridge that divide.
Effective Training Enables More Versatile AI
While Woebot provides therapeutic services that don’t require empathetic emotional insight, others have taken a different approach. For example, the mental health chatbot known as Tess provides services that are similar to Woebot, but relies much more on AI empathy. Like Woebot, Tess delivers text-based mental health support, however, the AI system uses its understanding of users’ emotional needs to offer enhanced support. Tess was developed with the help of personal support workers, nurses and therapists who trained the system during an initial pilot operation. These professionals would tell Tess about things that were troubling them, and then tell the program if one of its responses was unhelpful, giving the algorithm the feedback it needed to develop a more nuanced understanding of how to respond to different emotional states. Now, unlike Woebot, the Tess system can interact with users without relying on preselected responses. Tess is constantly analyzing the users it interacts with, and just like a real human therapist, is able to react to shifting information. This enables the AI to perform different forms of therapy beyond CBT, and to select the best kind of therapy based on its knowledge of the user. It also frequently asks the user if its responses and therapy style are helpful, and uses that feedback to continually improve its performance.
Human Support Leads To Greater Emotional Connection
Tess is one of the more advanced empathetic chatbots on the market today, but other organizations have made similar progress. In early 2017, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas debuted Rose, a chatbot advertised as the luxury hotel’s digital concierge. Rose is available to all guests, who can communicate with the chatbot via SMS text messaging for help with dinner reservations, hotel services and more. Rose is the public face of an intricate customer service operation that is designed to help The Cosmopolitan build more intimate relationships with its guests, and those relationships are built on the empathic understanding of guests’ needs. The bot can easily transition from helping users settle on weekend activities to fielding complaints, especially when it has a little help. Rose demonstrates empathy in its conversations with Cosmopolitan guests. The secret? Training. The hotel maintains a team of human concierge specialists — none of them experts in AI — who continuously train Rose, monitor its communications and ensure the AI responds appropriately to guests’ emotional states. This team can also seamlessly step into the conversation when Rose gets stuck on a difficult question.
Expert Input Fosters Cultural Sensitivity
This final example comes from the realm of education. In early 2019, Planned Parenthood launched Roo, a health chatbot aimed at teens ages 13 to 17. Users are encouraged to talk to Roo about even the most sensitive and private health-related topics. Because health concerns are such delicate topics with many complex cultural implications, the Roo system is constantly being trained and refined by human experts. A content strategist reviews all answers to ensure the tone is friendly, helpful and, most importantly, empathetic. This approach wouldn’t be necessary if Roo were designed to answer teens’ questions about a more straightforward subject, like geometry, for example. However, when it comes to a topic like human health, where knowledge and best practices are constantly evolving, input from human experts in the field is a must.
Humans Can Train Chatbots To Be More Empathetic
Empathy is essential in any high-touch profession. It is the tool that enables us to understand and respond to customer needs as they change over time. Can chatbots be taught empathy? Absolutely. However, just like how we teach children, these chatbots must be trained to understand human emotions and respond appropriately. The right behavior must be modeled for them by human experts who have experience engaging with the emotional needs of others. AI is absolutely capable of providing human users with the help they need, even in sensitive, high-touch professions. However, as these examples show, AI needs human help to give humans the help they need. Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives. Do I qualify?