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Can a machine teach empathy?

HOST: There’s a new virtual reality experiment. It’s goal? To build empathy between people so that they are better able to resolve a complicated issue, whether on a domestic or a global level.

Reporter Dasha Lisitsina went to try it out for herself.


The Machine to Be Another is a tangle of wires, clunky headgear and two chairs separated by a black curtain. That’s what I saw when I walked into a booth at the Tribeca Film Festival where this machine was showcased. One of the creators, Daanish Masood, told me I was about to experience something very strange.

MASOOD: It’s just so odd to say that we’re going to give you the illusion of being in someone else’s body.

He said my body swap would be with a woman called Nicole. She sat on the other side of the curtain.

MASOOD: So the way the machine actually works is that there is a user and a performer.

He gives me what looks like a helmet.

MASOOD:  When they don the head-mounted display they basically see everything from a 1st person perspective but they’re in another person’s body.

I sit down and struggle to strap the goggles, headgear and headphones over my glasses. At first I see nothing.

X: Re-calibrate.

I can now see the curtain that I saw before, the stool in the corner that was there before too. Then I look down at my body.

ME: Oh, I have two tattoos on my forearms. I’m moving my hands but they don’t look like my hands. They’re a different skin color to mine, different size, different texture.

I look further down.  I walked into the booth wearing jeans and tennis.

ME: I’m wearing a light pink shirt and a polka dot skirt.

I shake my right foot, I shake my left foot, do a little cancan. The bottom of my skirt—or the skirt that I seem to be wearing now—billows and I see ballet shoes appear from underneath.

ME: I’m in someone else’s body. This is very bizarre.

At the same time someone else’s voice is coming through the headphones. Nicole, whose body I am virtually in, is telling her life story. She’s an African American military vet who joined the army for lack of a better option. She describes her life with her young daughter in a poor part of New York, before the army.

NICOLE:  All we had was dirty mattresses, vacant lots, welfare lines and public assistance.  If I get this job, baby gotta eat, mama gotta provide. I am on my own.  

Someone brings out a mirror. This is where stuff gets really weird.

ME: Now I see myself sitting opposite me [laughter].

What’s strange is that I am looking down and seeing a body with tattoos and a dress that I can move and control…but I’m also looking at the mirror and seeing the body I walked into the experiment with: myself in denim and space-age headgear. The curtain opens – ta-dah – and I meet Nicole, the person whose body I’ve borrowed for the past 15 minutes.

ME: Oh my god, that was so freaky. The last bit. It was great.

NICOLE: [laughing throughout] How do you feel?

ME: Weird.

I’m still pretty confused. How do they do that? I look to Daanish Masood, one of the creators, for an explanation.

MASOOD: What the user sees is connected to a camera that the performer is wearing.

I’m the user; Nicole is the performer. Her camera is also tracking my head motions.

MASOOD: And so it’s as though the camera is the user’s eyes.

She can see what I’m seeing through my goggles. This experience is virtual reality.

That’s how the machine works. But what was going on in my head? Later, I call Mel Slater, an expert in virtual reality in Barcelona. I look at my hand, I see my hand, my brain tells me its MY hand. In simple terms, those are the leaps the brain makes.

SLATER: It’s always trying to make a story up about stimulation. If the story it has to make is ok this is now my body, it makes it, that’s it.

But during my experience of the Machine to Be Another, there was a part of me that always knew that what the whole thing wasn’t really real. At one point I noticed the time lag between me moving my hands and me seeing the hands move. What was happening all along is that Nicole, my body swap, could see what I was doing through her goggles and was imitating my movements almost simultaneously.

SLATER: This gap between reality and virtual reality is actually very useful.

It allows you to take that virtual reality experience and apply it to real real life. And the real life purpose of this whole shebang is to generate empathy with another human being – one who’s maybe in a very different situation to you. One experiment Slater did showed that swapping virtual bodies with someone else dramatically reduced implicit racial bias. Slater says we naturally categorize ourselves into groups: an in group, which we are part of, and an out group. We categorize by interests, class, race…all sorts of things. When you put someone in the body of an outgroup it…

SLATER: It’s to do with yourself that actually the out group is not bad, because I’m good, I’m a member of the out group.

Slater’s test is one of the things that inspired Daanish Masood to start the Machine to Be Another project — a mixture of virtual reality and interactive storytelling.

MASOOD: When you recognize yourself in the story I am telling you, maybe we feel more connected.

Empathy is very difficult to measure and quantify. What I can say is that the Machine to be Another gave me momentary glimpse into what it might be like to be someone else.

Dasha Lisitsina, Columbia Radio News

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