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Artificial intelligence and the heartfelt business of empathy

Artificial intelligence and the heartfelt business of empathy: An interview with Minter Dial

‘Leading Digital Transformation’ is a weekly podcast series produced in collaboration between The Digital Transformation People and Rob Llewellyn digital transformation advisor and founder of CXO Transform.

During this series, Rob interviews experienced practitioners, authors and thought leaders whose stories and experiences provide valuable insights for digital transformation success.

In this episode, Rob speaks to Minter Dial. Minter is a professional speaker, storyteller, consultant and veteran executive, with a 16-year high-profile career at L’Oréal. He is a specialist on new tech, branding and digital strategy. He received his BA in Trilingual Literature from Yale University and his MBA from INSEAD (Fontainebleau). Minter has published two award-winning books, Futureproof, co-authored with Caleb Storkey (Pearson 2017) and The Last Ring Home (Myndset 2016), which was adapted into the award-winning documentary film of the same name (for PBS and History Channel)
His latest book, Heartificial Empathy, Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence (DigitalProof Press), came out in November 2018.

“I was one of the few that were selected to spend five days interacting 24/7 with an empathic bot. And it was an extraordinary experience and it made me understand just how friendly I felt with regard to the bot and how the bot I felt was understanding of me, sometimes more so than some of the people I know around me.”

Listen here and read the full transcript below.

Transcript

Rob Llewellyn [00:00:22] Minter Dial is a professional speaker, storyteller, consultant and veteran executive with a 16-year high profile career with L’Oreal. He is a specialist on new tech branding and digital strategy. Minter has published two award-winning books, “Future Proof” co-authored with Caleb Storkey and “The Last Ring Home”, which was adapted into the award-winning documentary film of the same name for PBS and History Channel. His latest book, “Heartificial Empathy: Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence”, came out in November 2018. Let’s jump into the interview with Minter to talk about artificial intelligence and empathy. Minter, welcome.

Minter Dial [00:01:11] Hey, thanks, Rob.

Rob Llewellyn [00:01:13] Hey, Minter, before we get talking in a little bit more detail, let’s talk about your book. I love the title “Heartificial Empathy: Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence”. Tell us what inspired you to write that book firstly?

Minter Dial [00:01:29] Well, so there’s a personal answer and then there’s the professional answer. I’ll start with the personal one because I think that’s where it all starts. So I came to the conclusion that I could be more personally empathic and it came through some tragic events in my life. I was trying to be more empathic with people around me. So I started exploring the topic. And how does one become more empathic if you’re not that way cabled? I don’t consider myself an un-empathic person, but I figured I could actually do a lot better. And then the second is the professional reason. And it became apparent to me that this is not a word that’s common currency in business. Obviously, intellectually, we’ve come across it. We’re familiar with a lot of misconceptions about it. But in my experience, it wasn’t something that was commonly or if ever talked about in business. And yet, I could see empathy having incredible impact on so many areas of the business. The area then got to me was, well, how do we encode it into artificial intelligence? And actually, why would we want to encode it into A.I.? Shouldn’t we start with being empathic ourselves, not delegating the empathy to A.I.? And that is basically the whole premise behind the book.

Rob Llewellyn [00:02:45] Okay. And you know, you talked about empathy being important in business. Do you think it’s more important now than it ever has been before? Why is it so important, Minter?

Minter Dial [00:02:56] Well, a very appropriate question, Rob. The fact is, of course, we as human beings have empathy hardwired into us. It is something that we exist by, and especially in our communities, we can be empathic with our small communities. What we’ve seen is a number of studies that show that there is less and less empathy being felt in the world. And I’m going to cite a very large scale study that was done in the United States in 2010 and it was done with college students. And this is important because college students are the ones that are most switched on to these devices. We’ll get to that in a moment, perhaps. But these college students, something like 30 thousand of them, self-declared themselves to be 40 per cent less empathic than the college students 30 years before in 1980. And so that was a strikingly large descent and, well, be it just declarative, it did smack a truth, which is that with so many devices around us, we seem not to be connecting anymore. So we have this sort of paradox of being totally connected, yet not connecting with each other in a more profound human manner. And so I think that’s the first level of understanding of why it’s important. The second is, as we’ll get into it, is that it’s complicated to understand a customer, even an employee, by the way, but a customer when they are operating with you in so many different capacities and different channels with the different people in your company. And so we have a challenge of understanding our customer more, even though there’s a lot of data, we don’t actually have a good grip on what’s going on. So empathy today is more important than ever, largely because there’s a loss of empathy. And if you want to be understanding your customer better and getting more focused on the customer, then empathy will be the superpower of your company.

Rob Llewellyn [00:04:53] And when it comes to digital transformation, is there a specific role for empathy in that, Minter?

Minter Dial [00:04:59] Well, there’s actually specific roles, in my opinion. The first is to recognize that there’s this word “transformation”, a.k.a. change. And there are very few people that really enjoy change. So if you’re the boss and you’re trying to read the digital transformation, hopefully, you’re OK with change. But you need to recognize that others have other legitimate and certainly for themselves feeling genuine reasons for not wanting to change. Change is uncomfortable. It brings you up with possibilities of failure. And so as a leader, you want to be putting out your empathic muscle and figuring out how some of your employees are struggling with this change. And the better off you’re able to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re frightened about, for example, losing my job or not being good enough in digital anymore, then you’re better able to equip or change the path that they’re going on and make it better. The second one is that digital transformation literally, inevitably, leads you to believe that being customer-centric is important. And it’s the most important and easy way to get through the digital transformation challenges, to create everything around the customer. And if you want to be focussed on the customer and understand what they, he or she is wanting or feeling, then empathy is the conduit. So you need this empathy to understand the customer’s situation, which, by the way, is filled with lots of fears as well as desires. And the more you able to get into the feelings as opposed to just the practical realities and the performances of your marketing or your products, you’re more likely to have a human relationship and you end up with this thing called authenticity and more likely a stronger relationship with customers than you do if you’re just doing it in a very irrational manner. And there is the role of empathy within digital transformation.

Rob Llewellyn [00:06:57] I want to dig into that a little bit deeper, Minter. Now, I know you’ve been in and out of a lot of big organisations, and particularly I know you’ve spent a lot of time with L’Oreal, which is a very well-known and large organisation. Now, in terms of the leaders, I’m talking CEO possibly, you know, how well are they adopting a suitable degree or what do you call it of empathy to lead their people on that digital transformation journey?

Minter Dial [00:07:27] Groovy question. I was chatting with a friend about this type of topic not so long ago. More or less, but it’s obviously not study based, but we said there’s basically a third of leaders that are switched on to this notion of empathy. There’s a third of leaders that might be talking about it, but not showing it or doing it, because they’re not that way cabled. And there’s a third who absolutely don’t give a toss and aren’t going to even have it on the radar, even when you’re switched on and want to have it. So that’s the first third. The challenge is doing it daily. And, you know, if you subscribe to empathy-, when you write a book about empathy, then you are supposedly considered knowledgeable, maybe an expert on empathy. And there is this possible interpretation that I’m an empathic individual, while so then I might get called out for not necessarily being empathic all the time at home. It’s hard to be empathic all the time. You know, get the ego head off, get your own preoccupations out of the way so that you can intensely and intently listen to the person in front of you. So when you have many preoccupations, when you are drawn and torn by shareholder performance and issues with H.R. and the factory and logistics and whatever else, it can sometimes be hard to create the space to listen and understand what’s going on in other people’s minds, you know, you sometimes – outside the fact that you have a big head as a CEO sometimes, you also struggle to get into the skin of other people. In many examples and actually studies that show that this is challenging for CEOs, one of them shows that it’s called the “rich person’s challenge”, which is that rich people, more successful people tend to struggle to be empathic because they’ve succeeded in doing it without having been empathic. And when they end up being less empathic because they’re not understanding how other people have to actually get in a queue and pay, how very banal is that? or other issues!  So you get detached from how other people are feeling. So the challenge of being – especially if you’re male and wealthy and successful – it becomes all the more challenging to become empathic as a CEO.

Rob Llewellyn [00:09:41] Now, I’d like to think that most CEOs out there, they understand the need for empathy. But as you’ve just mentioned, you know, only a perhaps a third of them are. But tell us, you know, a lot of things that we all know we need to do in life in theory, we don’t actually do them in practice. What about that CEO who knows that he or she needs to be empathic, but he’s just not authentic empathy? What is the difference between that authentic empathy coming from a leader and that empathy which is really not authentic?

Minter Dial [00:10:13] So, the way I like to answer that, Rob, is to say that genuine empathy is something you know how to do off and on line. You can do in professional and outside professional space. So it’s actually a constant skill so, that means that you know how to deploy empathy when you’re in the street and you come across a person who’s in need or, you know, just asking for directions, you don’t take on the haughty tone right then and there. So that’s in the personal side. And then when you get into business, you have to be aware of yourself and you have to be aware of the place that the ego takes in when you’re running. You have to make quick decisions. You know, there’s a constant pressure and it’s very quick to lose focus or lose sight of how empathic you’re being. Another challenge, for example, is the “hippo idea” where the highest-paid person in the room gets the best attention. You know, “How are you feeling?” “Good, sir.” Well, because if you don’t allow people to say “bad, sir”, then you’re always going to get good. And, you know, I never really going to understand what people are saying and how they’re feeling. So you need to create an environment where people feel not judged or scared to mention how they might feel, because this is allowing them to be authentic. And if you come in and you’re always like peppy and happy, you got the big paycheque, by the way, the biggest paycheque, then you’re setting up for failure, because you’re not going to get real understanding of what’s going on either in your employees or in the outside, because people are just going to pay lip service to you. So I think the real thought within that is to be aware and to understand that it’s something you can do more or less well and badly. And some days you’ll be more on and some days you’ll be more off. And maybe, you know, if you’re really actually are empathic and people aren’t judging you for being authentically empathic. Well, then that should be some room for investigation in self-awareness. You know, look into yourself and say, well, why do people not think I’m being authentic? I mean, I don’t have the answer to that. Only they know what their intention is. And that’s really what it boils down to.

Rob Llewellyn [00:12:18] Now, we’ve talked about that characteristic of empathy for quite a bit. Let’s come into the world of technology. And, you know, we’re being influenced, it’s all around us. Now, how did the two come together? For example, why and when could empathy ever be part of artificial intelligence?

Minter Dial [00:12:38] Well, so artificial intelligence is this large word. But I’ve enjoyed trying to figure out how to compartmentalise or categorise the way A.I. is being used. So empathy, of course, is not for all A.I., but there are some specific moments where empathy becomes really interesting. The first is with regard to your ethical framework. So as you look at A.I. as an opportunity to drive your business, maybe save costs or add value, what is your ethical construct and are you doing this to cut heads? Or are you doing this to provide a greater experience for your customers? So your strategic intention is important at this point, but what is your ethics behind that? And if you really want to have good ethics or sound conscientious ethics, what you need to have is empathy upfront. Empathy becomes a precondition for setting a strong ethical framework. So that’s already a sort of marriage between empathy and A.I. through the spectrum of ethics. But then there are two different ways that A.I. today is being used towards the customer, and the first one is on hyper personalisation, so figuring out how to be more empathic about the propositions you’re doing to be for Rob Llewellyn living in Spain. This is exactly what he needs for his family conditions and his lifestyle and so on and understanding your situation to provide that really great proposition. The second one is with regard to interactions. So you’re going to interact with me and the brand. You can do it through a call to me at the customer service. At the customer service, now I can answer you as a person, but I can also answer you with an augmented empathy. There are certain services like Cogito or Digital Genius that are helping customer service agents or they’re prompting them and nudging them to be a little bit more empathic in the way that they answer Rob’s queries. You can use empathy in social media, creating content that’s more appropriate to the person. Ann Handley is this amazing lady in the States. When she writes her newsletters, even though it’s generalised to everybody, I can just feel the empathy of her newsletter. It feels funnily enough like she’s talking to me, even though she’s talking to everybody. So she’s created this sort of empathic voice that makes her interaction with her customer base very powerful thanks to her strong empathy. Those are the two strongest areas within A.I. that’s facing the customer. But then there’s a third area which is internal and that relates to employees. And so there’s more and more usages of A.I. within the organisation that can be as a substitute to or helping arrange and manage within the business. And I think there’d be a good dose of ethics in A.I. and empathy to deploy within those types of softwares.

Rob Llewellyn [00:15:36] And in your experience, Minter, as you’ve been going in and out of different organisations, how much is A.I. now part of the digital transformation conversation?

Minter Dial [00:15:46] Well, if it’s not, I’m worried at this point. Let me phrase that differently. I see essentially four different types of companies dealing with A.I. right now. And the reality is there are those companies who are in A.I. because that’s their business, creating A.I. for other companies. There’s the second type, these are going to be the bigger companies who can afford to embed in-house A.I. They’re going to look to create artificial intelligence systems, to generate better customer relationship management or the like. There’s a third tier and they are going to be smaller companies who can’t afford to have in-house intelligence and expertise. And what they will do is they will use, as will, by the way, the larger companies, but they will mostly be using third party material to generate the A.I. to help them drive their business. And the fourth are basically the small grocery store on the corner, who doesn’t need it for ever, at least not in a financially responsible manner, as far as I see it. So, you know, I mean, it’s the small little shops, the mom and pops and all that. They won’t be needing it, anyway so that’s how I see A.I. being deployed in the next few years. And to answer your question about digital transformation, there are some companies that are digitally switched on, digital-first, mobile-first, and they, generally speaking, aren’t necessarily being transformed. They’re transforming themselves. But even they, too, will need to transform their businesses as we move into another era. And the usages of these technologies change and change the way the customers are experiencing and expecting us as businesses to operate. And we will see, you know, it’s got to be a part of the conversation with the biggest companies. There’s no doubt, basically because of the size and the opportunity that A.I. has to help deal with hyper-personalization at such scale.

Rob Llewellyn [00:17:43] We’ve talked about the importance of empathy. I think most people listening to this podcast understands the increasing role that A.I. will play in the world. How far along the tracks are we in marrying these two things together and making A.I. empathic?

Minter Dial [00:18:02] Well, the truth, as far as I see it, Rob, is that we are a long way from making machines empathic. But I think the question should be different. I think the question is, “how do we make it more empathic?” And at some level, local A.I. will be very interesting as well. Maybe that can then help switch over to the human agent so that the chatbot starts off by being simply empathic and then hands over to the more complex conversation, part of the conversation to the human agent.

Rob Llewellyn [00:18:34] So Minter, are there any interesting applications out there where A.I. has been made kind of empathic?

Minter Dial [00:18:42] So in my book, I talk about this experiment I had with this German organisation, Volkswagen, that created an experiment called Empathic Futures. And the idea was to spend – I was one of a few that were selected to spend five days interacting 24/7 with an empathic bot. And it was an extraordinary experience and it made me understand just how friendly I felt with regard to the bot and how the bot I felt was understanding of me, sometimes more so than some of the people I know around me. So that’s the first point to sort of say welcome the idea, you know, can you legitimately feel you’re going to have feelings for a robot and or vice versa? These areas of expression, as far as a human being is concerned, we definitely can feel attachments to objects and see within objects the impression that they are being empathic with us. An area of tremendous interest, that is not specific to business per se, is mental health. And there’s a bot called Woebot, W-O-E-B-O-T, and it’s designed to be a little companion that asks you questions and “hey, how are you feeling?”, with a very natural type of language that learns from you and tries to interact with you to make you feel like you can get connected with, in this case, a bot. But it really does feel like a very casual kind of conversation. And in mental health is going to be a lot of opportunities, because as I said at the top, we are living in a very connected world, but don’t feel connected with people. We’ve seen many people distressed and this burnout and people feeling depressed in many cases. And the issue is that we just don’t have time for one another. So there’s nothing more frustrating than wanting to help your friends, but not finding the time for it. Bots have kind of an unlimited capacity to listen. And if you go back to the very origin of A.I. with Eliza in the 1960s, this experiment that was done at M.I.T., Eliza was designed to show how silly and stupid robots were by only repeating back to you what you asked, but it didn’t do it in just a plain way, it did reformulate what you said. You asked in a Rogerian therapist type of manner, and it turned out that it was very attractive to many of the individuals who were working in the lab. And they came out of it saying “well, I’ve never felt like I’ve been listened to more”, even though all they did was reformulate the question. So the point is that I think in mental health, we have a lot of opportunities. Think about that with regard to the fact that 70 per cent of employees feel disengaged in business today. So how could you improve the condition of your employees? Well, I think one of them is to make them feel more listened to. Then a second area is within customer relationship management and you have to try to deal with customers in so many different places. Bing, bing, bing. social media, in the store, customer service and try to find ways to be more empathic there. And I think that there are certain machines and pega systems as an organisation is really working on this that helps prompt more empathy within the decision making and the communications that you have with your customers. So I think within CRM we’re going to see a lot more opportunities to integrate it more along the lines with an augmented empathy necessarily than being empathic by itself. I think at the end of the day, we’ll still have the opportunity premature of being the creator as a human being, providing intuition and emotions into our communications, which makes us really ultimately more authentic, because there’d be nothing worse than cheating your customers by making them think that you’re a human being, but actually being a machine. So I think you need to find ways going about this in an ethical manner, being transparent about what you’re trying to do and who’s doing the doing, if you will, behind. But I think there’s a-, there’s a big opportunity within customer relationship management that has yet to be exploited. So there’s a second major area.

Rob Llewellyn [00:22:42] Minter, what are some of the key challenges within code in A.I. with empathy?

Minter Dial [00:22:47] The biggest problem is data. When you are trying to code A.I. with empathy, every person, every language, every part of the country has a different vocabulary, vernacular and context. And the word read in one country means such a different thing than it is in another. So you’re going to have to find out how to parse that data, create contextually relevant information for each person. And with the world where we’re very worried about privacy and confidentiality, it becomes increasingly difficult for me to be able to pin down Rob Llewellyn and say this is Mr. Rob Llewellyn’s specific context. And if you don’t get that kind of data, then you end up with a sort of a generic approach. And that inevitably feels like you’re being treated like a number. So the biggest issue is getting enough data and you do need swarms of data to create the learning sets then to provide for that sort of possibility of being considered empathic. A second area with regard to this is to understand what are you trying to achieve and to be clear about your strategic intention. Because you can’t really, let’s say, delegate all the results to the A.I.. There’s a lovely expression of “garbage in, garbage out”. And what are you trying to achieve? What’s your intention as a business? And I think that you need to have a strong grip on your intention, your strategy as you try to encode. Then the issue becomes the translation to the coders’ language. So insofar as this A.I. is being programmed by individuals who are brilliant at coding, they are generally very logical individuals. And the big challenge there is helping them to understand the notions of empathy. So if you as the person prescribing and briefing these programmers are very empathic, you’re going to need to deploy great empathy in making them understand how to create empathy within the machine. Because as I like to say in my book, “empathy and logic are poor bed partners”. So the second big issue is figuring out how to translate empathy into programmers’ language. Which sounds maybe not so obvious because, well, in any event, it’s difficult.  And so I’ve seen a lot of companies or operations trying to do it. But these are generally people who start with empathy in the -, sort of programmed for it-,  like I mentioned before, they’re part of the top third who are really already totally into it. In businesses, most businesses, it’s going to be a foreign concept. And that notion of briefing out the team to do this has got to be done with intelligence and with a strong understanding of what your intention is. And don’t try to set the bar too high. At the very start, you need to sort of start about creating more empathy, not total empathy.

Rob Llewellyn [00:25:43] This is an absolutely fascinating topic. You know, this wonderful human quality of empathy, this amazing new technology, A.I. and marrying it all together. I’d love to go deeper into things like conversational A.I., but we’re going to have to wrap it up there, I’m afraid. But where can I! and where can our listeners go to learn more about what you’ve been talking to us about today?

Minter Dial [00:26:07] Well, thanks very much for having me on, first of all, Rob. So I’m pretty much a regular blogger. I am also a podcaster. So you can go to MinterDial.com and check out my blog. I’ve got a tab on artificial empathy which talks about the different interviews and writings that I’ve done on it. And it’s very explored in this very exciting field. And there aren’t that many people who are really into it yet. But I do believe it will be the topic that comes up over the next two to three years, especially with regard to A.I., but also in general in business. Otherwise, my podcast is called Minter Dialog. It’s available on pretty much every podcast service out there and I tweet at @MDial, otherwise, I’ve written another book called “Future Proof”, FutureProof.ly with my co-writer Caleb Storkey and that talks about how to future proof your business. So there’s some trails and links to go down rabbit holes on.

Rob Llewellyn [00:27:01] Plenty to keep us busy. We’ll include links to those in the show notes. Minter, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Minter Dial [00:27:07] It’s been a pleasure. Thanks a lot, Rob.

Announcer: [00:27:09] We hope you enjoyed this episode of “Leading Digital Transformation” with Rob Llewellyn and The Digital Transformation People. Visit www.TheDigitalTransformationPeople.com to secure the knowledge, talent and services you need for digital transformation success. To continue your journey as a certified transformation professional, visit www.RobLlewellyn.com. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast and follow us on Twitter @TheDigitalTP and @RobertLlewellyn

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