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Guest Post

August 27, 2020

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Artificial Empathy: Can AI Chatbots Be More Human-like in Hospitality?



*This article was contributed by Cristal Bukler, Tourism Researcher & Hospitality Specialist


You hear a lot about empathy these days. Empathetic Leaders. Empathetic relationships. Empathetic customer service. Empathetic companies. But what empathy really is, and how to teach AI chatbots to perform with such a human quality?

Back in April 2020, Facebook launched Blender, a new kind of open-source chatbot that can understand human emotions and respond based on that, making the conversations with humans more natural, fresh and emotional.

This new release could not only make the conversations sound more human and conscious, but also end up in a real and meaningful connection with customers, which of course would result in more revenue for the business.

But, how is that even possible? Is it not empathy a human quality?

Let’s begin analyzing what empathy is

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference.

Its definitions encompass a broad range of emotional states, including caring for other people and having a desire to help them; experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling and making less distinct the differences between the self and the other.

This quality can be divided into three major components:

  • Affective Empathy: also called emotional empathy, is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states. Our ability to empathize emotionally is based on emotional contagion: being affected by another’s emotional or arousal state
  • Cognitive Empathy: is the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state
  • Somatic empathy: is a physical reaction mostly based on mirror neuron responses

We now understand that empathy is more than “putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes”. As Researcher Brené Brown remarks, “Sympathy is “I feel bad FOR you” while Empathy is “I feel it WITH you”. The first one can make us feel more alone and the second one helps us feel connected.”

With this in mind, what kind of empathy could AI chatbots perform? How can the use of technology make the interactions with our customers more human 24/7 when you are not even there?

Affective Computing

“Affective computing, you said?”-

Yes, affective: this is all about emotions.

In a human-computer interaction scenario, the most important thing is not providing information, but providing it in a more personal and human way; it is all about the person on the other side of the screen, not about the technology used to make this interaction possible.

In this regard, Rosalind W. Picard, who is a Scientist, Engineer and the Founder of the Affective Computing research group at the MIT Media Lab, had the idea that it should be possible to create machines that relate to, arise from, or deliberately influence emotion or other affective phenomena.

And even though many of the bots on the market today can only act in a programmatic way (which makes the interaction with customers cold, distant and limited), it is possible to teach them to be more empathetic and emotional.

Right now, when it comes to chatbots, Software Designers are capable of building programs that are being called on for much more sophisticated and complex tasks, which can also include being able to “show” some kind of emotion.

If we go back to 1984, the first Macintosh computer screen showed a smiley face on it, making the users feel that they were being seen at some point.

And this was not a coincidence. By nature, humans want to feel seen, heard, loved, which is not limited to human-to-human interactions only. This is the reason why, since the beginning of technology, was necessary to make the human-machine interaction more intentional and emotional.

First things first: Understanding travelers’ needs

In a Hospitality context (and based on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy) we recognize our guests as people with three different needs:

Basic needs

Physiological needs: eat food, drink water, feel warmth and rest
Safety needs: security concerns

Psychological needs

Belongingness: the need to be loved, have friends
Esteem needs: the need for prestige and feeling of accomplishment

Self-fulfillment needs

Self-actualization: achieving one’s potential, including creative activities

If we think about the guest’s journey, you may think that your Hotel already covers all these areas:

  • you provide your guests with food and water;
  • create a safe and clean environment for them which results in peace of mind;
  • your staff makes them feel welcomed and taken care;
  • your brand makes them feel a sense of belonging and help them to position themselves in a particular social status;
  • ultimately, you make them part of the experience in every single stage, providing them a sense of achievement.

What are we missing?

When it comes to communication, an AI chatbot is key because it can take care of your customers’ needs in every single touchpoint of their journey; and it helps you to gain at least three outcomes:

  1. 1. It is there to answer questions about your business even when you are not online, helping your brand stand out
  2. 2. It helps to persuade the customers’ behavior making them make the decisions you want them to make
  3. 3. It generates new leads that can be converted into customers

Now, if you want to make this conversation sound more human and natural, the chatbot should make your guests feel seen, heard and understood, and this is when empathy appears.

Connecting emotionally with your guests

In order to make sure that your current guests keep coming back to your Hotel, it is key to plan your communication strategy very carefully, making the guest experience exceptionally personal.

Regarding this, chatbots were always seen as cold robots made primarily of words, without the capacity of showing any emotion.

Conversations with them have always been the type of “What is the weather like today?”, “Book a flight for me”, “Make a reservation at the hotel”.

However, through Artificial Empathy we can make the guest feel better, creating the illusion that he/she is actually being seen and heard by a real human being on the other side of the screen.

Now, technology is not magical. Behind the chatbot, there was someone who built it, and this is where the Programmer takes place.

In order to truly create a chatbot that can actually interpret and understand how your customer is feeling (and respond based on that), the Programmer can build the chatbot making it more customer-centric and not programmer-centric.

Empathy-driven development is the right approach for Developers when creating chatbots that will help your customers to connect in a meaningful way with your business.

Regarding this, Andrea Goulet, the CEO of Corgibytes, said: “Coding is a form of communication. Communication is rooted in empathy. So software engineers have a lot to gain from leveraging empathy as tactical skill.”

And added: “I would argue that if [someone] wants to be an excellent engineer, [they] should know how to communicate, in addition to knowing how to make a machine work the way you expect it to.”

Andrea created a framework that helps Developers to achieve this goal. She calls it “The Empathy-Driven Development framework”.

“Empathy-Driven Development can be distilled into audience and action,” says Goulet. “First, consider your audience, the people who are going to be interacting with your content. Then, take action. Think about how you can proactively anticipate their needs.”

And since the Hospitality industry is all about anticipating your customers’ needs, this is why choosing the right Developer is key when building the technology that will bridge the gap between you and your customers.

But, can empathy be learned? How can the Developer teach something he/she doesn’t possess?

Quoting again to Andrea, she says:

“Exercising empathy doesn’t add much time to your existing workflow and the benefits are far-reaching: A clear commit message today saves everyone time and frustration further down the road.”

Based on her framework, in order to train his/her empathic abilities, the Developer should:

Identify individuals: Who is your User?

  • Consider the context: Where does she/he come from and what are their main struggles right now?
  • Define their needs: Ask questions, the correct ones, based on their current needs

Then, take action:

  • What’s the best action to take?: How can (in this case) the chatbot help them?
  • What’s feasible?: What tasks the chatbot can actually perform?
  • Create secondary artifacts: Do what you are doing with more intention

Building  AI chatbots with an empathy-centric approach would prevent your customers from feeling frustrated and not heard, and will also prevent you from having complaints and unhappy guests.

Designing with a Human-centric approach

We can talk about Design Thinking and how the use of empathy maps can help you to understand your guests and cover all their needs in a single experience; however, empathy maps are not enough.

According to Brené Brown, when we develop and show empathy, we need to pay attention to at least six aspects:

– Being kind
– Being curious
– Don’t need to fix it or make the customer feel better. Connecting and listening is powerful
– Trying to understand how your customer is feeling (not how you might feel in the same situation)
– Helping your customer know that they are not alone in their feelings
– Letting your customer know that you are grateful they shared with you

Translating it into a chatbot design process, this could look like this:

1. Be kind enough to make your customer feel comfortable creating a friendly environment for him/her when interacting with your business

2. Be curious enough to ask them whatever questions come up and do this using the correct questions

3. May the chatbot don’t have all the answers at the very first, but you can make your guest feel heard promising you’ll come back with the appropriate answers. The important thing here is to show them that you are already working on a quick solution

4. Avoiding projections is key here since empathy is not about how we would feel in our customer’ situation but rather feel what that person is actually feeling

5. Even if you have never had that experience (or a question) before, you might know the feeling

6. Again: being kind and grateful with the customers’ concerns (even if it is a simple question) make them feel heard

Besides this, the use of Artificial Intelligence may make it hard to think about creating the best environment for your guests to interact with your business since human communication involves common sense, knowledge of facts, a combination of one’s experiences and the ability to read and understand the other person’s emotions and feelings.

However, someone who already believed in the power of artificial empathy, the Specialist in Digital Transformation Minter Dial, in his book Heartificial Empathy stated:

“Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeing the world through the other person’s eyes. It is not learned in school; it is cultivated over a lifetime.”

He describes artificial empathy as the coding of empathy into machines, making it personal, situational and based on the appropriate intentions.

And since empathy is a quality we as human beings have inert on us and it can also be learned, it is possible for artificial intelligence to learn and grow over time with the appropriate design and development.

Nevertheless, you will have to decide which specific cases empathy will be displayed in the communication process.

In this regard, Minter Dial says: “The challenge will be finding the right mixture and chemistry for the agents to be assisted by machines in providing, in combination, a more empathic and effective service.”


Last thoughts about AI chatbots in Hospitality

Artificial Empathy is a fact and can help you to connect better with your guests.

In order to deploy a technology able to show such a human quality, your choice on Developers is key, as he/she must be empathetic first in order to truly build software capable of doing this.

After all, the goal of a chatbot is to create the feeling of being talking with a person and not with a robot.

What do you think about Artificial Empathy?

cristal bukler profile picture

About the author: Cristal Bukler is a Hospitality Specialist transitioning to Software Development with a focus on humanizing technology



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