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Communication and empathy: essential in the AI era
  • Writer : KU TODAY
  • Hits : 1008
  • Date : 2020-06-19

Communication and empathy: essential in the AI era
Choi Se-jung, professor at the School of Media & Communication, Korea University


With an ever-expanding range of applications, robots are rapidly replacing human jobs in factories, hotels, shopping malls, and even hospitals. Innovative artificial intelligence (AI) that seems human-like or beyond human is becoming a part of our daily lives. To learn more about how to live with this new technology, KU Today reached out to Choi Se-jung, a professor at KU’s School of Media & Communication.

Professor Choi studies advertising and media, two of today’s trendiest areas of research, with a particular focus on technological progress. Evolving technologies are penetrating our daily lives at a fast pace, changing the way we live, and demanding new values. The current pace of technological advances is overwhelming even for an academic who has been keenly observing changes in technology.

She started by saying, “We’re now living in an era of hyper-technology” and talked about a TV documentary on virtual reality (VR), which is, according to her, “a great example of how the overwhelming pace of technological advances is making possible things that had previously been impossible.”

▲ “I Met You,” a TV documentary aired on MBC in February 2020, featured a mother reuniting with her deceased seven-year-old daughter, who passed away from a rare disease, in a virtual reality world. (Photo source: MBC)

“The documentary, called ‘I Met You’ aired this February on MBC. A mother had lost her seven-year-old daughter. The daughter had initially showed cold symptoms but was then diagnosed with an incurable disease and died a month later. Three years later, the mother reunites with her daughter in a virtual reality world, celebrating the girl’s seventh birthday, talking about how much they’ve missed each other and consoling each other.”

This was made possible by more than seven months of work to integrate a variety of technologies, including VR, motion capture, AI voice recognition, deep learning, and 3D scanning. These technologies helped the mother’s dream of meeting her precious daughter one last time come true.

According to Gooddata Corporation, a TV subject analysis agency, the program ranked top on the searching word list in Korea in the category of non-drama in the first week of February 2020. On the day it aired, 46.5% of the words searched were about the documentary. The program’s website received more than 10 million hits and nearly 20,000 comments.

Professor Choi said, “The program demonstrated new possibilities and benefits of technologies, but technologies come with risks,” adding, “As VR technology becomes more sophisticated, the line between reality and virtual reality becomes blurrier, which leads to concerns about immersion into VR being used as an escape from reality.” Reuniting with your departed loved one in a virtual reality world might make you feel better at first, but you might also feel a strong sense of loss after returning to the real world. But given that there are ways to alleviate the sense of loss, she puts more emphasis on the benefits of technologies.

You can make friends with AI robots

“When the internet was becoming popular for ordinary users, there were concerns that many people might socially isolate themselves. But the opposite is true: People interact with others more actively than ever on social media and find and communicate with like-minded people without physical boundaries. I believe AI robots, too, can help us build social skills. This was shown in an experiment on an EBS TV show, with significant results,” said Professor Choi.

In the experiment, titled “Spending a Week with an AI Speaker,” participants of different ages and from different types of household (e.g., young people and elderly people living alone, newlyweds, couples with young children) were each given an AI speaker to use freely for a week.

A week later, the participants gathered in one place with their AI speakers and put them in a box equipped with a device that would send a current to the box. The participants asked simple questions to their speakers, as they had done at home. Every time the speaker failed to answer a question, the participant pressed a button, causing the current to flow to the box. The intensity of current increased gradually every time the button was pressed. What the participants didn’t know was that the speakers had been preset to make mistakes. They seemed perplexed as to why their speakers didn’t work as they used to at home but had no choice but to increase the intensity of the current, making the participant feel sorry or even guilty to press the button. At the last stage of the experiment, the participants were asked to press the kill button to discard the speakers, but some participants refused to press the button to the end.

“Only 27% of them pressed the kill button. On the contrary, 91% of the people who hadn’t spent a week with the AI speaker pressed the button. This difference shows that humans can develop affection for robots they can talk to. If you have a robot even more sophisticated and communicative than an AI speaker, you would probably feel like you were talking to a real person—a family member or friend. If elderly people who live alone have such a robot, they might feel less lonely, which could help them manage their mood and stress levels more effectively. Robots will never be able to replace human-to-human interactions, but they will certainly have positive impacts on people’s social and emotional wellbeing,” said Professor Choi.

Convergence thinking and collaboration skills matter more than ever

Despite the potential advantages, there are concerns about the side effects of technological advances. Professor Choi echoed the thoughts of Harvard history of science professor Peter Galison: from a human perspective, emerging technologies are productive and fascinating on the one hand, and dangerous on the other. This is why Choi believes that solutions to problems stemming from technological development can be found in areas unique to human beings, such as art and philosophy, rather than in the technology itself. She predicted that “as technology advances, convergence thinking—making something new by combining different disciplines—and collaboration skills will become more important than ever because these skills can’t be replaced by AI.”

“Now we’re living with AI. Life has become easier thanks to technological advances, but we also fear that technology will dominate us. This is the paradox of technology. But I believe that the value of technology depends on how we use it. That’s why I see technological developments as a boon rather than a threat. Besides, no mutual relationship, whether with a machine or a person, can’t last without authenticity. So no matter how advanced technology becomes, communication and empathy will remain invaluable,” said Professor Choi.


KU Insights 게시판 리스트
Communications Team
Tel: 02-3290-1062 E-mail: hongbo@korea.ac.kr Update : 2020-10-28