5 Empathetic Design Principles for Successful Human-Agent Interaction

Intuition Robotics team members working on ElliQ’s empathetic design
Empathy plays an incremental role in our agent design process at Intuition Robotics.

At our core, humans are social beings. We’re naturally inclined to seek out and form connections and attachments with those around us, whether they’re with other people, our pets, and otherwise. And while there are several key personality traits that ultimately contribute to our ability to connect with others, one of the most impactful of these is our ability to exhibit empathy.

What exactly is empathy? According to Wondra and Ellsworth, researchers at the University of Michigan, “The essence of empathy, agreed upon by most empathy researchers, is feeling what another person feels because something happens to them.” In other words, it’s our ability to vicariously experience the emotions, behavior, and motivation of those around us. We feel sad when our loved ones are sad, we get embarrassed for our parents, we laugh because others are laughing, and so on. This intrinsically human trait is part of what makes it so easy and natural for us to form connections and bonds with others.

And as today’s social ecosystem continues to evolve with advancing technology, the way in which we interact is inherently transforming. Though we still interact with other people in a conventional sense, a new type of interaction is emerging throughout our lives — our interactions with intelligent AI agents. Intelligent AI agents are autonomous entities, driven by internal goals and motivations that help them determine which behavior and actions to carry out with their human users to achieve these goals. These agents now play an ever-expanding role in our lives, engaging with us on a regular basis to simplify, expedite, and enhance numerous tasks and experiences with us.

Research indicates that people certainly can — and do — express feelings of empathy towards machines. The theory of mind demonstrates that we humans are capable of attributing mental states (emotions, knowledge, etc.) to ourselves and others, which is a key component of successful human-human interaction. And by equipping AI agents with this same ability — to analyze and understand their human users’ desires and intentions — we can generate successful, effective human-agent interactions.

Our goal at Intuition Robotics is to enable the creation of digital companion agents that build enduring, personalized relationships with each human user — and we firmly believe that the theory of mind and empathy play a major role in this process. Obviously an agent can’t truly feel or process emotions, and thus can’t empathize with us in the way that humans can. But by incorporating certain empathetic principles throughout the human-agent interaction, the agent opens the door to creating more meaningful connections and exchanges that ultimately evoke empathy from its human counterpart.

So how can you create a digital companion agent that embodies and evokes empathetic principles — without crossing the line and seeming too human-like? It’s certainly no easy task, but it’s a growing focal point for us, and for many companies designing intelligent agents — especially as we move towards an era in which these agents will play an even more dominant role in our lives as the human-agent interaction field evolves. Let’s take a closer look at the importance of empathy when it comes to designing an AI agent, including why it’s so crucial, how to design agents and experiences with empathy in mind, and some specific principles our team is focused on.

This content was originally published on the Intuition Robotics blog. Read the full post here to learn more about empathetic agent design, and how we’re designing agents that embody empathy for effective human-agent interaction.

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