Creating a human future for a digital world

24.3.2016

earth

Humankind is more connected than ever. The Internet, hoped to reach over 4 billion individuals in 2020, brings the people of the world closer to each other than ever before in human history. The digital realm offers astounding opportunities for global collaboration and unity.

Interestingly, at the same time it feels like it has never been this easy to lose contact to others. Instead of creating alliance, the Internet seems to a growing degree to function as an incubator for the dark aspects of human interaction such as mistrust, in-group thinking, bullying and hate speech.

The reasons behind this may stem from the personal weaknesses of human beings but also from the fact that the digital tools we have created for connecting to others are not yet perfect. Ironically, they fail to support many aspects that lie at the core of functional human connection: feeling of shared context, synchronization, and perhaps most importantly, human emotionality.

The massive shortcomings in the field of emotions probably stem from inadequate understanding of human cognition. Digital systems still largely resonate a picture of human beings as rational thinkers even though for instance current understanding of brain organization strongly suggests that the division between rational and emotional processing is obsolete. Therefore, as a result of an outdated view on humanity, we have very rudimentary tools for expressing our emotions online, very far from the richness of expression possible in face-to-face contact.

What is so special about emotions then?

Emotions intertwine with rational thought, acting as signals of salience and value. In interaction, emotional signals conveyed by nonverbal means such as body language, facial expressions and prosody provide vital information about the intentions and true meanings of the communicator. Furthermore, we understand the emotions of others through modeling them within ourselves, by becoming moved and touched. When emotions are not transferred, they cannot touch us. And when emotions don’t touch us, it becomes easy to misunderstand and mistreat others, and to be cruel.

The consequences of inadequate tools for emotion communication are seen in a number of problems: in how distributed teams have trouble collaborating, in the increasing incidences of cyberbullying and perhaps in the declining empathy skills of young individuals.

This is a problem of great importance.

Why?

Well, for one, we are being joined in this world by intelligent machines. In the future, most valuable human thinking will require skills that cannot be modeled in artificial intelligence. The most important of these is our capacity for emotional and cognitive connection, for interaction, for empathy.

Therefore, any organization that wishes to increase the value and quality of the work it does should focus on improving the quality of interaction between all individuals involved. Any individual who wishes to improve their cognitive skills, or intelligence, should focus on improving interaction ability.

For another, at the moment humankind seems to be facing problems of tremendous urgency and scale. Collective intelligence has always been our best problem-solving tool, and right now, we need it more than ever. However, our best tool for collaboration does not support its emergence.

In summary, paradoxically, the future is permeated with technology that inhibits emotionally rich interaction, while at the same time emotionally rich interaction is precisely what humans are best at, and increasingly needed for.

It is clear that just another set of emojis is not enough. More profound advancement of our digital tools must take place.

Dear reader,

could we fix the Internet? Could we create new ways of transferring emotional information online? Could we create new digital senses for emotions? Could we re-animate empathy in digital interaction?

Could we make the future of a digitally connected world more human?

Join Emotion Hack Day 2016 to collaborate in finding answers to these questions, in inventing cures for an ailing Internet and in building a better future for human collaboration!

-Katri Saarikivi
Researcher at the Cognitive Brain Research Unit
Team leader of the NEMO research group