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The Hope and Promise of the Empathy Machine

Lacking the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, modern society is looking for new, innovative ways to help make people more empathetic. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, whose company sells the Oculus VR headset, said of virtual reality (VR): “One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. By cultivating empathy, VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world.”

The hope and promise of VR is that one day everyone will call it an “empathy machine”:

By creating an immersive and interactive virtual environment, a VR headset can quite literally put you in someone else’s shoes. Text, image, or video offers only partial views of a person’s life. With VR, you can get inside their head. And this high-fidelity simulation, the argument goes, will make us better people by heightening our sensitivity to the suffering of others. It will make us “more compassionate,” “more connected,” and ultimately “more human,” in the words of the VR artist Chris Milk. ... By lending you the eyes and ears of someone suffering, tech helps you to develop a greater sense of responsibility for them. You feel compelled to act. This is connectivity not merely as a technical concept, but a moral one.

This expectation is partially explored in the movie Ready Player Two, released in November, 2020. More advanced VR--actually placed inside the brains of most of the world’s population--has rid the world of crime, disease, addiction, and all forms of prejudice. As one of the film’s characters says: “For the first time in human history, we have technology that gives us the ability to live in someone else’s skin for a little while.”

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