Amplifying Empathy, by Christopher Robinson and Amanda Knox

Editor’s Note: Writers Christopher Robinson and Amanda Knox, a real-life couple, recently experienced Machine to Be Another. Following is their exclusive report for

Robinson and Knox experiencing Machine to Be Another

Amplifying Empathy

By Amanda Knox and Christopher Robinson

The Machine to Be Another is an experiment, an experience, and an interactive art installation created by Barcelona’s BeAnotherLab that allows two people to embody each other through virtual reality. As presented at TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival, the experience includes three phases: 1) participants swap perspectives and adjust by slowly mirroring each other’s movements; 2) mirrors are introduced, allowing participants to see the body they are inhabiting; and 3) the partition is removed, allowing the participants to see their own bodies as viewed from the other’s perspective. As partners, we tried the Machine together. The following is a mimetic response to the experience, written in three parts corresponding to the three phases.

Phase 1 – The Exquisite Corpse

When my vision goes live, I see hands resting on knees, but they aren’t my knees, or my hands, they’re oddly…small. I lift my left arm, slowly, and watch your hand rise.

There’s a slight lag–the signal must travel from the camera on my head to the headset you’re wearing on the other side of a partition, then your optic nerve has to take in information about my movements so that your motor cortex can signal your arm to move, so your camera can transmit that visual data back to my headset.

I move, you move, ever so slightly, you move, I move, and in this way, we approximate simultaneity.

The feeling is eerie, seeing your leg extend before me when I contract my muscles, but I still feel like myself. Don’t you?

I glance down to check. There’s that lump in my–your–lap. Weird.

So, this is like a ouija board. For the illusion to work, I have to automatically consent to and coordinate with your movements.

It’s a bit surreal, like both of us, and neither of us, are in control. I run your big hands along your thighs, seeing your pant legs but feeling my pantyhose.

I operate your appendages. But then the experimenter approaches, waves. I wave back. He reaches out and I see his fingers connect with your fingers.

I feel fingers connect with my fingers. Our fingers? Woah.


Phase 2 – Oh My God, It’s You!

You thought that was strange, but now the experimenter places a full-length mirror in front of you. You see the body that you’ve been inhabiting, in full and head on. You stand up, you step forward, and the body in the mirror steps forward, too. You know it’s not your body, but this is what that other person sees in the mirror every day. You’re seeing them in second person. Before, it felt like you, but with different limbs; now it feels like you are the master of a living marionette. And while you control it, it controls you.

But who are you? What brought you here?

You’re a writer, as is your partner. You are here because you recognize that virtual reality is opening up new artistic and narrative possibilities, that storytellers are making up the rules as they go. What could be more exciting?

You’re a programmer with a background in game-design and you just moved to Seattle from Southeast Asia. You still struggle with English, but your excitement about VR technology is crystal clear. There’s no better place to develop it than Seattle, which is quickly positioning itself to be the Silicon Valley of VR. Microsoft, Facebook, HTC and Google all have offices here, where brilliant VR pioneers like yourself are developing the Hololens, the Oculus Touch, the Vive, and smart contact lenses, which Google recently patented as “intra-ocular devices.”

You’re a filmmaker tired of LA, where the dinosaur studios play it safe with superhero flicks. You want to innovate, you want to discover what kinds of stories can be told in VR, which cinematic techniques will work and which won’t. You see the HTC Vive and you feel like Charlie Chaplin looking at an early film projector, your eyes lighting up with possibility. You’re ready to leave vaudeville behind and see where this new medium will take you. Seattle is already filled with game designers who are intimately familiar with non-linear storytelling. With the new influx of film visionaries, in two years, Seattle will be the Hollywood of VR.

You’re a student at the UW and you’re interning at a VR start-up company hosted at CoMotion Labs, a University-sponsored innovation center that brings together students, entrepreneurs, artists, programmers, and thinkers. It’s exciting to be in the middle of an environment buzzing with crazy-smart people pushing the boundaries of what is possible with a technology that changes by the day. You’ve got a mind-bending idea to adapt one of your favorite mangas into an underwater VR world.

You’re an advocate for social justice. You see VR as a powerful new tool to amplify empathy, to create experiences that counteract the cultural biases and prejudices that allow us to dehumanize each other. As a trans person, you know what it’s like to not be at home in your own body, and you’ve struggled to communicate this strange feeling to others. VR might finally allow others to have that experience, helping to curb transphobia. But you know that the possibilities are so much bigger than just that. Reading an article about refugees will never be as powerful as walking through a refugee camp. With VR, anyone can take that journey from half a world away.

You’re here at the Erickson Theater for Seattle’s queer film festival, TWIST. So let’s be real about who you are. You have the weekend off. You can afford tickets. You’re connected to a social group whose actual realities are comfortable enough to focus on virtual ones. You are not, likely, a poverty-level African American living in Rainier Valley. You’re not, likely, a Somali immigrant driving an Uber. You’re not, likely, a middle-class mother in White Center, working as a clerk at the Safeway. You’re not even most of the students at UW. You’re in a small, small minority of Seattle’s population. Hopefully, you’re concerned about that. The future is already here, William Gibson said, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. Maybe there’s something you can do to change that.


Phase 3 – Oh My God, It’s Me!

The experimenters pull away the partition and Amanda-in-Chris faces Chris-in-Amanda. Holy shit, they each think. They take two steps toward each other, until they are at arm’s length. Chris-in-Amanda stares at Amanda-in-Chris’s chest, and Amanda-in-Chris stares over Chris-in-Amanda’s head. It’s an out-of-body experience, for they are seeing their own bodies from inside a head which is normally outside their own. They are seeing themselves in third person. They touch. Chris-in-Amanda slips his arm (her arm? The pronouns begin to dissolve) around Amanda-in-Chris’s back. They slip into a swing dance position. Chris-in-Amanda leads, something their bodies are used to, but their minds now attempt the opposite. The illusion flickers. The cords from their headsets wrap awkwardly around them. They untangle, pull off the headsets, and hug.

That got a bit messy at the end. The temptation to test the boundaries of their physical predispositions quickly surpassed the possibilities of the experiment. There were other problems. The lag, as they noted before. There were the headsets, which not only limited their movement and were occasionally blurry, but, most importantly, obscured their faces from each other. The Machine to Be Another offered them a fragmented approximation of a body-swap, but it required them to concentrate hard to sustain the illusion.

There are still many technical issues involved in amplifying empathy. There are also human ones. Chris and Amanda sat in on a panel before the TWIST festival, during which Be Another experimenters JJ Devereux and Marte Roel discussed ideas about technology and empathy with a small audience. An audience member condemned “the military industrial complex” for “using VR to desensitize troops.” Amanda and Chris watched the heads nod all around. This crowd, apparently, was unaware that troops have always undergone combat conditioning to help them stay calm in the midst of chaos, which leads to fewer casualties, not more. In fact, the US military is currently using VR to help soldiers recover from PTSD and to train combat medics to better save lives in stressful situations. Desensitization is not inherently a bad thing. After all, an effective surgeon has to desensitize herself to the sight of her patient’s blood. Amanda and Chris couldn’t help but notice that even these empathy-minded thinkers had their own empathy blind-spots, confusing the question about the morality of having US soldiers take action in foreign countries with the question about whether and how soldiers should be conditioned to do their jobs. Chris and Amanda reflected on all this after experiencing the Machine To Be Another. Could it help them to overcome these types of empathetic blind spots?

Strangely, the most profound effect of experiencing The Machine was how clearly it helped them imagine the future of this technology, how contacts will replace the bulky goggles, how resolution and frame rate will improve, how brain-to-brain connections will enable one person’s brain to pilot another’s body (UW has already demonstrated a simple version of this). But this spawns a deeper philosophical question.

As we improve our ability to create virtual embodiments, replicating or transmitting more and more facets of another’s experience in ever greater degrees of fidelity, what happens to our own self-hood? If we want to encourage maximal empathy, should our machine not only allow person A to see through the eyes, and pilot the body of person B, but have their memories, their verbal and cognitive dispositions, their thoughts? Does complete virtual embodiment lead to infinite empathy, or zero empathy? The people in the VR community seem to think the answer is obvious. But Amanda and Chris disagree. To understand the nature of empathy, it’s crucial to have a robust and rigorous notion of what a self actually is. The best Chris and Amanda have found comes from cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett.

He disabuses them of the intuitive notion of what he calls the “Cartesian theater,” the idea that there is a place in the mind (which is the brain) where consciousness happens, where it all comes together, where an inner homunculus, a small you, watches the “stream” of consciousness flow. Everything we know about the brain tells us that this isn’t so. The brain is composed of many separate systems (the visual, the motor, etc.) that run in parallel, and it takes a non-negligible amount of time for signals to travel from one area of the brain to another. The “stream” of consciousness is an illusion of simultaneity for neural events happening at different moments. Your “self” is not something that views that stream; it is what Dennett calls the “center of narrative gravity,” a very useful, non-physical, abstraction. “A theorist’s fiction.”

With this understanding of the self, the philosophical problem of complete embodiment becomes clear to Amanda and Chris. Like a center of mass, the self is an abstract point whose qualities depend on the overall structure of the brain. The self cannot inhabit another’s mind, viewing a foreign stream of consciousness. To be in another mind is to be that mind. If our hypothetical future empathy machine were to allow Chris to fully embody Amanda, to take on all her cognitive traits, there would be no remnant of Chris to digest the experience. Even afterword, he would not have memories of that experience, for memories are not files stored in a directory, they are intricately woven through the unique structure of each individual brain. Only Amanda can recall an Amanda memory.

Understanding the hypothetical endpoint of this embodiment technology reveals to Amanda and Chris an important truth about the nature of empathy: it requires cognizance of the self and the other; it is not something you have, it is something you do. Empathy is an intuitive human action, but developing the technology to amplify it requires a technical understanding of consciousness. As VR pioneers push this technology forward, they should consider that its ideal form is not complete embodiment of the other, but the eerie duality of being two people at once. The Machine to Be Another is admirably reaching for this duality. Let us hope that future iterations of this technology don’t lose sight of that in the quest for full embodiment.

For Chris and Amanda, being intimate life partners is an organic form of this duality. They finish each other’s sentences (and food). A pain in Amanda’s shoulder is a pain in Chris’s mind, and vice versa. This organic merging occurs over countless hours of cooking, running, and sleeping side by side. They do not fight. They pay attention to each other’s emotional states. They talk. They touch. They listen. They imagine a reality where strangers could experience this intimate duality in a matter of minutes. How strange that virtual reality is bringing that world closer by the day.