This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AI-generated content can tend to look or feel “not quite right.” How much of that is an inability to empathize?
I think a great deal. Where AI is now, say ChatGPT, is generative but it’s predictive. It’s anticipating what the next word is going to be. That’s intelligence, but not sentience necessarily. And I think the sentience is what generates the empathy.
Empathy is an innate ability that [most of us are] born with, and we need to train those muscles. AI’s not born with that. You can teach it how to reflect the language; empathetic language is not that complicated. But there’s a human essence that’s still missing — a deeper intuitive understanding of the subtext, what’s there, not there, what’s being said.
While very good, the AI I’m seeing is cold and robotic.
What do you mean when you say empathy is like a muscle?
Think about a toddler. They have muscles in their legs, but they don’t come out of the womb walking. Empathy is similar: Parents have to give the child an opportunity to strengthen the leg muscles so that they can start crawling — so that they can ultimately stand, and then scoot along the carpet, and then walk, and then finally run. And then all hell breaks loose [laughs].
Empathy is the same way. We need to model empathy. We get the opportunity to strengthen that muscle to tap into it, understand how to use it, and how to not be afraid of it as well. And that’s getting into that being comfortable in your own emotions and feelings, and then feeling the feelings of other people.
If we can train that muscle in ourselves, can you imagine a world in which we could train the AI to have that? Or is it a uniquely human thing?
I think it definitely can be taught to mimic, which is what a narcissist does. Narcissists mimic expressions of empathy they see in others, but are unable to have it themselves. And in some cases, we can sense that or pick up that this seems a little false.
Ultimately I think it’s a question of: Could AI get to true sentience? And yeah, that’s where they seem to be headed and what they want to do. I do not doubt that we’ll be able to get there. At the rate ChatGPT is advancing, all bets are off.
How can marketers make sure they appropriately incorporate empathy as these tools become increasingly integral to workflows and processes?
There are two different types of empathy that I talk about. There are cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Cognitive is the perspective taking, and emotional is the feeling. AI can help on the cognitive side, depending on how you prompt it, but the marketer has to step in on the emotional side.
That emotional empathy can help you separate the good from the bad and prioritize things, then communicate in a way that allows people to feel respected and heard.
When you start using empathy in the workplace, it can create a much stronger organization. You’re going to have more loyalty, more creativity, more innovation, more problem solving — then imagine the things you’re going to be able to unleash on society. In a good way. [laughs]
I like that idea — the more empathy you use in daily conversations, the easier it will be for your team to create content that rings true to your audience.
Absolutely! I like to make the distinction between conversation and communication. These generative AIs, particularly large language models that predict the next logical word in a sentence, can help with communication in some ways. But using empathy in conversation? That is 100% a human-to-human interaction. Conversation denotes dialogue in real time because in that moment you can sense, see, and feel how the other person is responding to the information you’re giving. It can be scary, and it can be uncomfortable, but damn it, we’ve got to do it. This is part of life.
If you’re looking to inject more empathy into your content, or could use some guidance on implementing generative AI into your processes, we’d love to talk! You can contact us here, or email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rob Volpe is the founder and CEO of Ignite 360, a market research firm based in San Francisco. He is also the author of “Tell Me More About That: Solving the Empathy Crisis One Conversation at a Time.”