My friend Zack Lynch, author of The Neuro Revolution, said something to me the other day that stopped me in my tracks. It was one of those satori moments, a thunderclap. “You know,” he said, “in the future, human beings will evolve as a society because of the empathy machine.” Those two words, juxtaposed, illuminated a mental puzzle, a koan, that I had been wrestling with for a long time.
Let me explain: We live in an ever more complex world. Separations between the fortunate and the less fortunate have never been larger. Those whose cultures are more traditional see an even bigger chasm between themselves and those who are pressing at the margins of a future society. We continue to celebrate a more multicultural society at the same time that we witness the injustices of the day-to-day affairs of living in it.
The paradox of technology
No doubt, technology is accelerating society’s pace of change and extending our capabilities. At the same time that we delight in making a hotel reservation across the world from a cell phone, we are frustrated by the distance these same technologies can create between individuals living in the same home. We see the power of the technology to give us autonomy, but we fear the automation of our lives and our human interactions themselves.
We are quickly but almost imperceptibly moving into a machine age where blistering computer speed clearly supersedes analog human processing. Human judgment in many cases is better substituted by algorithmic magic. We know that we benefit from the literal and figurative autopilots on airplanes and robots on the assembly lines yet we strive to amplify the roles where humans clearly excel: discerning, contextualizing, and understanding human emotions and interactions.
Against the computational backdrop of daily life, neuroscience discoveries continue to unlock the potential for human performance improvements in our cognitive capabilities and our ability to better understand ourselves. We have discovered ways to enhance our cognition and accelerate learning. We recognize the value of striving to be our best and to deliver to our families and our world our most prized assets – our attention, our thoughts, and our feelings. We also have the feedback loop of being able to see all of the individual human data points play out in real time in social media — a large scale neural network of our collective consciousness.
A human performance imperative: empathy
Technology relentlessly infuses our lives and our minds. We exercise our bodies and our brains to increase our productivity while at the same time trying to keep our command and edge over the very technology that further enables us. So where does this ultimately take us? It takes us to Zack’s empathy machine. The empathy machine may be the ultimate nexus where our most uniquely human and most powerful asset – our capability for empathy – can be further leveraged by technology.
We see a future where human beings en masse in society, like Eastern monks through the ages, will be able to train our brains to hypertrophy our empathy skills. For sure, neuroscience is currently showing us ways to understand the biology of the social mind and how to use technology to enhance our empathy skills.
What if the fitness craze of the future was not about optimizing cardiac output and muscle efficiency, or even cognition, but about exquisitely tuning and maximizing our brains for their intrinsic capabilities for empathy? What if the very artificial intelligence machines we so worry about became, in fact, a new form of neuro personal trainer? What if we could program machines to relentlessly mine the big data of our consciousness to harvest new and better capabilities for human empathy?
When we strengthen the musculature and stamina of our empathy, we will reach new heights as a society. We will climb to the summit of technology’s capabilities and see a clear view of our purpose in life as human beings: to feel each other deeply and thus be compelled to act accordingly.