Can we teach robots empathy?

Melissa Anthony
3 min readSep 23, 2020


Image: Science News

Culture is a way we define our environment. It can be conceived as a set of rules used to help keep us all working nicely with each other. Since our environments are different, our culture is different. But what does it mean to be human? And wouldn’t the pure building blocks of “human” be in our culture as well?

Image: Wikiquote

Many schools of thought in anthropology debate over what is termed “human universals”. There is a sociobiologist by the name of Donald E. Brown who wrote a book entitled, “Human Universals”. It is a thought-provoking book that I would recommend to everyone. We will just discuss some basic tenements here with an example. As an archaeologist, I would survey a multitude of climates looking for human artifacts. Whenever I employed the concepts of “human universals” I was more likely to find artifacts. As I would walk across a span of land, I would think to myself the following questions:

  • Where would I find water? Is there a body of water that existed historically that could be used to feed a few families?
  • How would a family be protected? Is there a ridge that would allow lookout guards to be patrolled? Is there enough foliage to disguise a group of people?
  • What food sources are nearby? Historically, were there migratory herds in this area? Is there enough grass for owned livestock to graze on? Are there enough natural plants in the area that are edible? Or is the land able to be cultivated for agriculture?

Questions like these are so helpful in finding cultural remains and patterns of behavior that they are asked on archaeological survey forms. Therefore, we can start thinking of them as “human universals”. And what is even more powerful is that as you the reader went through the list and imagined yourself in the middle of nowhere, wouldn’t you want to know the same things? So these concepts are so universal that they even reach across time to ring true today.

Image: CMHA Halton

Empathy is the building blocks of culture. We must feel for each other in terms of our own needs before we can agree on common rules. And this grows out of necessity in the unknown. These commonalities allowed us to overcome new environments. Empathy is the basic building block of the homo sapien brain. New studies are showing that empathy may reside in a part of the brain that connects all areas called the “supramarginal gyrus”. Thus positioning it as an important component to all of the cultural learning processes.

Robots exist in the absence of culture. So in essence, they are at that starting component of cultural learning. So can we teach empathy to robots? Well if we follow the components of “human universals”, we have a very compelling start to empathy. We can also model empathy in our machine learning models which gives us a deeper analysis. When we build predictive models, putting ourselves in the position of the user, we are implementing an empathetic analysis of the data. So as a data scientist doing feature selection, or defining a model to use for prediction, I think about this:

  • What are the universal ways of viewing this data?
  • What are the commonalities inherent in the data?
  • What are the commonalities in the usefulness of the data?
  • How is this data representative of the community for which I am using it for?



Melissa Anthony

GIS/Data Analyst/Data Scientist