MIT trained an AI to tug at your heartstrings (and purse strings)

There’s a lot of fear about what AI might do–take our jobsautomate bias, and even contribute to the destruction of democracy. But in the right hands, could AI be used as a tool to engender empathy? Could algorithms learn what makes us feel more empathic toward people who are different from us? And if so, can they help convince us to act or donate money to help?

Those were the questions researchers at the MIT Media Lab’s Scalable Cooperation Lab and UNICEF’s Innovation Lab set out to answer with a project called Deep Empathy. You might remember the Scalable Cooperation Lab from its previous projects, Nightmare Machine and Shelley AI, which taught AI to create scary images and stories. But more recently, the same team has focused on how to use computer-generated images to make people feel more empathic toward victims of disaster.

“As humans, we have a range of biases that can limit our care for people who are different from us and numb us to large numbers of injuries and deaths,” Zoe Rahwan, a research associate at the London School of Economics who worked on the project, tells Co.Design in an email. “We hope that Deep Empathy will help to overcome these biases, enabling empathy to be scaled in an unprecedented manner.”

Because people tend to respond with more empathy to images than they do statistics, the lab set out to train an AI to take images of North American and European cities and transform them into what those same cities might look like if they were as war-torn as Syria is today. The technique, which is called neural style transfer, essentially combines two images into one, keeping the content of one image and the style of another. It’s the same kind of technology that takes an image and makes it look like Picasso or Van Gogh painted it–but for social good, rather than for fun. The algorithm spits out images of Boston, San Francisco, London, and Paris where the cities are bombed-out shells, with dilapidated buildings and an ashen sky.

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