Digital Personhood: Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis


Empathy involves the inner experience of sharing in and comprehending the momentary psychological state of another person (Schafer, 1959).

Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy (CEDE) unlocks the digital communication of empathy, one of the core elements missing from how we currently communicate online. There are few ways to show a friend, a loved one, a group or a community as a whole that you feel empathetic towards their situation. We are able to express emotions in the digital space via text or iconography but this is limited in scope and fails to include any indication of understanding or depth of feeling. In short, there is a need in the research space, known as 'digital personhood' to understand what it means to be digitally human and in particular to investigate new methods to feel/express empathy via the network.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of empathy is "...the power of projecting one's personality into (and so fully comprehending) an object of contemplation". This lacks somewhat the nature of empathy as enacted between two people, and this feature seems crucial to empathy broadly and digital empathy in particular. As a result we will use a working definition of empathy as an intuitive act in which we give complete attention to someone else's experience in a way that allows the other to realize that we both share and understand the essential quality of that experience. It is to understand how the other person feels and to be able to communicate this understanding in a way that is uniquely 'human'.

In the science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Dick, 1968), and the subsequent 1982 film, Blade Runner, a machine is used to test whether an individual is human or an artificial replicant. Known as the Voight-Kampff, it measures bodily functions such as respiration, "blush response", heart rate, and eye movement in response to emotionally provocative questions (Sammon, 1996). As replicants are unable to communicate the feeling of empathy for which these responses are indicative, the Voight-Kampff test is asking the fundamental question of the story - what does it mean to be human in that future world? While a work of fiction, this idea reflects the present day failure of digital devices and online communications to facilitate the expression of empathy between people. We believe that this leaves the notion of digital personhood, devoid of a key component, and it is this component that we aim to address in CEDE.

Based at The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, The Institute for Economic Analysis of Decision Making at the University of Sheffield and Imagination at the Institute for the Contemporary Arts, The University of Lancaster, the cross disciplinary project is divided up into 6 core stages over 24 months, working with two unique focus groups. Firstly research explorations will be carried out using three groups of 30 students over an initial 18-month period. Using a variety of techniques from brain imaging technologies such as electroencephalography and networked devices, a series of prototypes will be developed to enable and measure levels of remote empathic communication. The later stages of the project will work with patients, family members and practitioners involved in women's cancer. With the core aim to increase levels of well being via digital personhood it will open up techniques, methods and technologies across sectors of society and industry.

Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris.. We call it Voight-Kampff for short (Fancher, 1980).

Dick, P.K (1968), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Doubleday.
Fancher, (1980) - Blade Runner: Screenplay, New York : Scott Meredith Literary Agency.
Schafer R (1959), Generative empathy in the treatment situation. Psych Quarterly, 28,:342-373.
Sammon P (1996), Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, It Books.

Planned Impact

CEDEs impacts span societal, health and well being, economic and the public understanding of science sectors via the creation of a new domain relating to empathy within digital personhood. From the impact on an individual's life through to enhanced group dynamics and a new understanding of empathic engagement CEDE's focus is on tangible impacts and beneficiaries. One key tangible impact is via the potential for enhancing well being based around the ability to transmit and share empathetic feeling. Digital empathy can transform the Q in the QALY index in particular to improve our understanding and how we might measure the quality of life of digitally engaged citizens. Our focus groups have been selected on these grounds by both establishing our understanding of digital empathy and then to move into challenging areas to achieve an increase in quality of life, well-being, a reduction in feelings of isolation and an increased understanding of an individual's circumstances on multiple levels. This theme runs throughout CEDE with impact established via the case studies and extended via take up of the objectives from wider sectors.

The impact of digital empathy works on a number of levels. From localised benefits, such as increasing family ties and patient/health worker relationships, through to a highly personal level of patients and an increase in their wellbeing by enabling them to share and release empathic feelings. Impact could be as simple as being able to make an empathic connection between individuals through to developing new ways of designing digital services that promote and support empathy between participants. With the move of society towards a digital personhood there is a need to achieve such impacts and beneficiaries, CEDE has the potential to achieve this across a wide variety of sectors.

As part of a wider view on impact the multi-platform online presence of CEDE will allow a discussion and understanding of digital empathy between different user groups. With the ability to communicate digitally we aim to create the ability to impact beyond the case studies. Respite care, for example, could benefit from a remote, discrete way to communicate an understanding and remote presence. CEDE will allow impact in these sectors as well as ones yet to be envisaged via developing and communicating the research to a wide audience. We have ensured that the project includes flexibility to quickly adapt and respond to requests for talks, trial installations, staff exchange and training in the field of digital personhood and empathy.

We view CEDE as having potential for notable impact in terms of UK competitiveness and innovation. Across the design, health, digital communications and media industries we envisage such impact through new capabilities, products and procedures to benefit society as a whole. Via the use of open standards we expect small enterprises to emerge into the sector, adding a new field in the digital economy and contributing to the impact and legacy of CEDE. As such we expect to attract industry buy-in and potential future inward investment as the direct result of CEDE.

On a wider economic basis, any business that relies on digital communities or networks for generating demand can benefit from a fuller understanding of digital empathy. The same can be said of any policy where there are positive externalities from influencing communities over and above individuals.

From impact on an individuals well being in a time of need through to communication within the family unit, healthcare support efficiency and the creation of a new way to transmit empathetic feelings CEDE has a strong potential for impact.
Title Playing with the Light 
Description Gesture controlled 2 player game created for Light Up Lancaster using large pixel display 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Game played by 150+ people 
Description Digital devices can be used to increase the level of empathy on both a community and individual basis. The ability to communicate digital prayers, in our Church of England based partnership, allowed both communities to come together, both digitally and physically.

The addition of wearables allows users to communicate via physical devices (such as Empathy Badges and Heart Beat Hats) in an unspoken manner. Allowing a 'hat tip' and an understanding of a persons situation via digital technologies developed by the CEDE project. The Empathy Badges prototyped a novel interactive wearable that helps foster mutual support and empathy between wearers belonging to particular communities or groups. These low cost smart badges have potential as powerful digital equivalents of the familiar empathy ribbons distributed by charities and support groups as well as similar charity and community tokens.

In addition CEDE introduced the concept of Digital Empathy to the design and development of a digital interpretation tool that will accompany the national museum tour of the The Kongouro from New Holland' (Kangaroo) by George Stubbs. As part of the Traveller's Tails project, the £4 million painting is going on a tour encompassing four museums: the Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London; The Hunterian in Glasgow; the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Whitby; the Horniman Museum and Gardens in south-east London; as well as the National Maritime Museum, which will be the painting's final home. The digital interpretation tool was iteratively developed over the duration of the tour by SODA design in response to input and evaluation from the project partners including CEDE to include aspects of empathy including putting the visitors 'in the shoes' of the artist and explorers and how extraordinary images worked both as scientific records of carefully planned exploration, as well as sensitive representations of an unfolding new world.

Continuing the theme, we have run an experiment looking at the relationship between empathy and a range of economic decisions (which may be moderated by digital vs. face-to-face transactions). We have explored empathy as both a cognitive and affective trait and as a state (in-the-moment) phenomenon, and their interaction, as a predictor of economic decisions with real financial consequences. In this experiment, 320 individuals completed some screening measures (demographics, trait empathy), and were then randomly assigned to either an 'empathy' or 'neutral' induction condition (which involved looking at a series of emotive or neutral photos) prior to playing a series of classic economic 'games', which involved making a series of financial decisions under a number of different scenarios. We have found significant interaction effects between affective empathy and empathic condition when predicting financial altruism (so that individuals with greater levels of trait affective empathy give more altruistically only in the empathy condition); and cognitive empathy and empathic condition when predicting financial trust and expected return(s) (such that individuals with greater levels of trait cognitive empathy invest more on the expectation of return when put in a compassionate condition). These results are the first to elucidate a causal link between empathy and economic behaviour and have clear implications for financial decision-making, including in digital (vs. face-to-face) contexts where the state empathy 'elicitors' are absent.

Finally, we have developed the first ever diary measure of digital empathy and have piloted, refined, and run this in a sample of 50 students over a 3-day period (totally in excess of 1000 observations). This, combined with background data on participants' psychological traits, demographics, and digital behaviour is currently enabling us to answer the question: do, and to what extent do, individuals experience empathy (cognitive, affective, compassionate) when interacting with others digitally? We are currently analysing these data, and already we know that people experience more 'cognitive' than 'affective' empathy in their digital interactions and that this is dependent on a number of qualities of the interaction. This work is being written up for publication in another leading journal: Computers in Human Behavior. These diary data have helped us identify, for the first time, under what conditions people experience empathy in everyday digital communication and this knowledge will inform our colleagues' work on generating technology that enhances abilities for communicating empathic concern.
Exploitation Route The digital candle and prayer units are being made to distribute across 5 churches, allowing a UK wide network to be developed at the end of the grant. This will be supported via further funding, allowing others to learn from and continue the development of the work. The development of wearables and the ability to communicate empathy digitally is ongoing and will be further developed beyond the current funding.

The core part of CEDE is allowing users to communicate empathy digitally, we now have a series of tools and prototypes that others can build upon.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy,Other

Description The research has had impact on two specific communities, the Church and the Museums sector. The work with the church is documented throughout this submission. The creation of a digital font and a distributed digital prayer system has had notable impact on the two churches involved. Bringing them together not only digitally but also physically. The work was widely covered in both the national and local media (ITV and BBC News). The partnership with the National Maritime Museum challenged a traditional museum approach to audience participation building upon CEDE's research into digital empathy - it explored and had impact in: • The potential of new and emerging technologies to revolutionise participation, engagement, interaction with museum collections. • How differing perspectives can be engaged, promoting debate and encouraging the public and museum professionals to think further about the themes and ideas collection items draw on, such as the history of exploration - for which the Stubbs's painting provided an excellent starting point. The work is currently being built upon, developing new partnerships and ensuring the work carries on in a sustainable manner via other funding streams.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Cybersecurity Privacy and Trust (PETRAS)
Amount £9,300,000 (GBP)
Organisation University College London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK)
Start 02/2016 
End 02/2019
Description Church of England 
Organisation Church of England
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution CEDE has created a digital installation including a Font of Solace and Digital Prayer candles for the Parish Church of St Peter de Beauvoir in Hackney. Anonymous prayers submitted by members of the congregation are projected onto the floor of the church to promote empathy within the church community. Focus groups held with community groups within the parish demonstrated a very positive response to the installation and consequently we have recently partnered with a second church (The Church of St Michael and All Angels) in Cumbria to allow the trial of remote digital empathy between an urban and a rural parish. This second church was selected for this work as, aside from the significant distance between the two locations (approx. 370km), there is a significant contrast between the typically younger and relatively static community at St Peter's, and the typically older community of St Michael's which is extended in the summer months by many tourists to the Lake District who visit the church. Of particular interest will be the extent to which it is possible to develop a 'community spirit' between the two churches, the extent to which the two communities are able to feel empathetic towards the other, and the potential for the development of pro-social and pro-community behaviours between the two communities.
Collaborator Contribution The partners provided full access to the church and the local community, allowing a research in the wild approach and direct participation with often hard to reach groups (such as the over 60 Afro Caribbean Group).
Impact Papers, as per the publications section of this form, Television and press coverage as well as a one day symposium.
Start Year 2016
Description Travellers' Tails 
Organisation National Maritime Museum
Country United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (UK) 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Travellers' Tails is a collaboration between Royal Museums Greenwich and four partner museums to investigate the history of exploration, art and science inspired by the National Maritime Museum's recent acquisitions: 'Kangaroo' and 'Dingo' by George Stubbs. The project aims to bring together artists, scientists, explorers and museum professionals to investigate the nature of exploration in the Enlightenment era, how the multitude of histories can be explored and experienced in a gallery, heritage and museum setting, and to question what exploration means today. Digital Empathy, via CEDE was built into the project and the tour of the painting around the UK.
Collaborator Contribution The partners provided additional funding to build a digital empathy system based around the concepts of CEDE and the aim to explore the expression of empathy via art. The tour included: Grant Museum of Zoology UCL, London (16 March-27 June 2015) Captain Cook Memorial Museum (4 July-27 September 2015) Hunterian Museum, Glasgow (1 October 2015-21 February 2016) Horniman Museum (27 February-6 June 2016)
Impact Outcomes include a tour of the UK with a digital empathy exhibit, in collaboration with artists, engineers, curators and the public at large.
Start Year 2014
Description Digital and physical link between two church communities 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As a direct result of the digital empathy installation of the Digital Prayer candles for the Parish Church of St Peter de Beauvoir and the The Church of St Michael and All Angels in Hawkshead, Cumbria, both congregations arranged a physical meet up to discuss the shared prayers and to develop closer ties between the communities.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Evidence to House of Lords Enquiry - Children and the Internet 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Written contribution to the House of Lords' Select Committee inquiry on Children and the Internet. Powell, P., McDool, E., Roberts, J., & Taylor, K. (2016). The Effect of Social Media Use on Children's Wellbeing.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description ITV Feature on Project 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact ITV feature Interview

A Cumbrian church is embracing the new media age by allowing people to post their prayers digitally and have them projected onto a wall in the church.
St Michael's and All Angels in Hawkshead has installed specialist equipment that will also allow the congregation and visitors to share their prayers with members of a church in Hackney in London. Kim Inglis went to have a look
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Inside the digital 'Harry Potter' church 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact BBC Click Feature

Scientists at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, Lancaster Imagination Lab and the Institute for Economic Analysis of Decision-making at The University of Sheffield have teamed up with a church in Hackney to create a project aimed at exploring ways to communicate and share "empathy via digital means".
St Peter De Beauvoir Town Church has installed a wifi-enabled prayer candle system, a digital advent window and a holy water font connected to a motion sensor as part of the programme.
The church hopes that the new technology will help it engage with younger members of its congregation.
Jane Wakefield visited the church and talked to those behind the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Symposium: Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy at the Royal Society of Arts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A one day Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy symposium at the Royal Society for the Arts in London, where the project CEDE team and visiting guests discussed their research into emotions and technology.

The programme covered topics such as empathy in church communities, building a Voight-Kampff machine, a neuroscientist's perspective on detecting emotion and truth, empathy and economics, and sensing and communicating emotions. In addition, there was a reception and an exhibition afterwards, showcasing the work from the project CEDE.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016