What would disaster look like in your city? ‘Deep Empathy’ uses A.I. to show you

MIT's disaster-simulating AI

It’s a common observation: some terrible tragedy, inflicted by either humans or nature, takes place close to home and suddenly it’s all that anyone talks about. Newspapers are full of stories, 24/7 news channels dissect every last detail, and all your friends switch up their profile picture on Facebook in a unified show of solidarity. If something bad happens on the other side of the world, however, that’s not necessarily the case. The disaster might be every bit as horrible, or even more so, but the amount of coverage it receives is significantly less.

It’s easier to relate to events which take place closer to home than ones that happen thousands of miles away.

There are plenty of possible explanations for why this might be the case, but a big one could simply be that it’s easier to relate to events which take place closer to home than ones that happen thousands of miles away. If an incident happens on your street, or in your neighborhood, or in your city, country, or a neighboring country, there’s a higher likelihood that you’ll have some personal connection to it. You might know someone who lives there or has lived there, you may have visited in the past, or it could simply look a bit more familiar in a way that means that it is easier to empathize. Is that a trait we should be proud of? Not really. Is it a part of human nature? Almost certainly.

But in a globalized world, building empathy with people elsewhere is essential. While it’s understandable that we care for the people around us, we should also be able to put ourselves in the shoes of people from all over the world — especially when it comes to helping victims of disasters.

Could A.I. help? That’s a bold ambition, but it’s one that researchers from MIT Media Lab have embraced with a new project. Called “Deep Empathy,” their system uses a popular deep learning method called neural style transfer to create images showing neighborhoods from around the word as if they’ve been hit by some of the disasters afflicting other countries.

Using A.I. for social good

For example, it’s almost impossible to imagine the scale of the brutal six-year war in Syria, which has affected more than 13.5 million people, displaced hundreds of thousands, and destroyed an unimaginable number of homes. But what if some of those scenes took place in your local city of, say, Boston? That’s where Deep Empathy comes in. Rather than requiring human creators to mock up the scenes, it takes two images, namely a “source” and a “style” image as input, and then simulates a third image which reflects the semantic content of the source image and the texture of the style image.

“Researchers and artists used this technique to create interesting art pieces in the past, where they transform arbitrary images to Van Gogh-esque pictures, but this is among the first instances to use this technique towards social good,” Pinar Yanardag, one of the researchers on the project, told Digital Trends. “We also experimented the idea on different types of disasters, such as earthquake and wildfires, and got promising results. By using this technique, we wondered whether we can use A.I. to increase empathy for victims of far away disasters by making our homes appear similar to the homes of victims?”

The idea of using tech to promote empathy is a tricky one.

The idea of using tech to promote empathy is a tricky one. After all, as psychologists like Sherry Turkle have spent a career pointing out, technology can serve to distance us from others — even while it provides the opportunity to connect with an unprecedented number of people. Her 2011 non-fiction book perfectly encapsulated this idea with its title: Alone Together.

Other writers like the noted technology critic Evgeny Morozov have explored similar territory. Morozov’s tetchy, though brilliantly argued, 2013 book To Save Everything, Click Here takes issue with what he calls, “the folly of technological solutionism.” At its most basic, it’s the idea that — whatever the giant social, political, or philosophical problem — there’s an app, a smart device, or an algorithm that will fix it.


In the most cynical reading, Deep Empathy is solutionism. It algorithmically airbrushes out the otherness of foreign places and makes them seem more relatable by showing them as taking place to people on our home turf, presumably to people who look like us. But this is also a harsh reading of a project that could genuinely do some good.

Zoe Rahwan, a research associate at London School of Economics, told us that: “We are seeking to understand whether artificial intelligence can be used to evoke empathy for disaster victims from far away places. As humans, we have a range of biases which can limit our care for people who are different from us, and numb us to large numbers of injuries and deaths. We hope that Deep Empathy will help to overcome these biases, enabling empathy to be scaled in an unprecedented manner.”

Building in empathy

This isn’t the only use of technology we’ve come across that aims to make us into more empathic human beings. In their book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, authors Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen imagine how virtual reality could be used to make people better capable of empathy by, for instance, transporting them to the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Since then, we have seen numerous real world illustrations of virtual reality allowing us to literally see the world through the eyes of people we might otherwise never come into contact with, or hear about only as numbers on an international news report.

A.I. could help break down the polarization of views that exist in society.

A.I. could help break down the polarization of views that exist in society, too, by making sure we get exposed to views other than our own. Researchers in Europe have developed an algorithm which aims to burst the filter bubble of social networks by making sure we see stories reflecting a variety of perspectives about issues on which we may have views that are rarely challenged.

At the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, researchers are developing chatbot whose goal is not to simply obey orders, but to engage users in arguments and counterarguments with the specific aim of changing a person’s mind. Such tools could help pull us up on biases and see other points of view. Heck, there are even devices that remind us of important issues like energy usage.

The so-called Forget Me Not reading lamp starts closing like a flower, throwing out less and less light the moment you turn it on. To reactivate it, touch one of its petals — thereby constantly offering a reminder of your responsibility to use energy responsibly.

There’s even an exoskeleton that’s designed not to make you feel younger, fitter and physically stronger, but rather to simulate the effects of old age. The goal? You guessed it: to make you more empathic to the struggles of being a senior citizen.

Ultimately, no one tool is going to make us more empathic. It’s not something that can be easily “augmented,” like adding a sixth sense that buzzes when we face north. Technology doesn’t offer quick fixes to these kinds of challenges, although it can provide creative new solutions to big problems. Deep Empathy is one such approach. If it can succeed at opening a few people’s eyes about global problems about which they might otherwise not consider, that can only be a good thing. Is it a comprehensive perfect solution? No. But it’s an attempt at using these tools for genuine social change.

Frankly, we’d love to see more computer science projects like it.

Product Review

Google’s Pixel 3 is a hair away from pocket-sized perfection

Google’s Pixel 3 smartphone is the best Android phone you can buy. It doesn’t have the best looks or the best hardware, but you’ll be hard pressed to find better software and unique A.I. functionalities.
Emerging Tech

MIT is building a new $1 billion college dedicated to all things A.I.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has announced a new $1 billion college of computing designed to offer the best possible education to future machine learning A.I. experts.
Product Review

You’d be crazy to dismiss the Huawei Mate 20 as an amateur

Traditionally, Huawei’s Mate series of phones has been a little staid. That started to change with the Mate 10 Pro, and now both the Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro have come along to turn our heads. Here’s a look at the standard Mate 20.
Home Theater

I’ve seen the 8K TV future, and you should be excited. Here’s why

Samsung set the tech world on fire when it announced it would sell an 85-inch 8K TV in the U.S. along with several 8K screen sizes in Europe. Debates over the validity and value of such a high resolution have continued since, and we're here…
Emerging Tech

Ekster 3.0 lets you ask, ‘Alexa, where did I leave my wallet?’

Ekster's newest smart wallet is its best yet. It's slimmer than ever, boasts a neat card-dispensing mechanism, and will even let you know where it is, thanks to smart speaker integration.
Emerging Tech

Johns Hopkins’ lab-grown human retina could lead to big insights

Scientists from Johns Hopkins University have successfully grown human retina tissue from scratch in a lab. The work could help with the development of new therapeutics related to eye diseases.
Emerging Tech

Light-swallowing room promises Call of Duty fans the blackest of ops

What's it like to be in a room fully painted with the world's darkest material, Vantablack? The makers of one of the year's top video games teamed up with Vantablack scientists to find out.

Skydio’s self-flying drone now has an Apple Watch app for flight prep

Skydio's clever R1 autonomous drone now has its own Apple Watch app, making flight preparations simpler than ever. The $2,000 flying machine is now also selling at its first retail outlet — Apple Stores in North America.
Emerging Tech

Are e-cigarettes safe? Here’s what the most recent science says

Ecigarettes are widely regarded and advertised as a healthier alternative to cigarettes for people who are trying to kick the smoking habit. How safe are these cigarette alternatives? We went deep into the recent scientific literature to…
Emerging Tech

Scientists created a condom that self-lubricates during sex. You’re welcome

Researchers from Boston University have invented a special coating for condoms which make them respond to bodily fluids by becoming more slippery. Here's how their new breakthrough works.
Emerging Tech

You’re so vein: Palm-based biometric system could help confirm your identity

Move over, Face ID! The next biometric security systems could rely on analyzing the unique vein patterns in your palm print. Here are some of the ways the technology could prove useful.
Emerging Tech

For only $4,950, you can get jetpack lessons from the world’s only instructor

Have you ever dreamed of flying using a jetpack? JetPack Aviation founder -- and the world's only qualified jetpack teacher -- David Mayman is now offering a day of flight instruction.
Emerging Tech

Biologists have found a hormone that could make space farming possible

Researchers have shown how space farming may be possible. By encouraging plants to excrete a certain hormone, they’ve demonstrated that crops can thrive despite challenging conditions, such as low-nutrient soil and microgravity.
Emerging Tech

Keep your holiday gift list high tech and under budget with these gadgets

Modern technology doesn't always come cheap, but there plenty of premium devices that don't carry a premium price. Whether you're looking for a streaming device or a means of capturing photos from above, our list of the best tech under $50…