19 September 2016
Empathy Deck is an art project by Erica Scourti, commissioned by the Wellcome Collection for their Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond exhibition. It’s also the project I’ve been referring to as Holmfell. I worked on building the software behind the Empathy Deck with Erica over the summer.
To quote the official about page:
Empathy Deck is a live Twitter bot that responds to your tweets with unique digital cards, combining image and text.
Inspired by the language of divination card systems like tarot, the bot uses five years’ worth of the artist’s personal diaries intercut with texts from a range of therapeutic and self-help literatures. The texts are accompanied by symbols drawn from the artist’s photo archive, in an echo of the contemporary pictographic language of emoticons.
Somewhere between an overly enthusiastic new friend who responds to every tweet with a ‘me-too!’ anecdote of their own and an ever-ready advice dispenser, the bot attempts an empathic response based on similar experiences. It raises questions about the automation of intangible human qualities like empathy, friendship and care, in a world in which online interactions are increasingly replacing mental health and care services.
I’m very pleased with how the bot turned out; seeing people’s responses to it is really buoying – they’re engaging with it, both what it says but also its somewhat unusual nature. It looks like no other bot I’ve seen, which I’m pleased with – it’s recognisable across a room. It’s also probably the most sophisticated bot I’ve written; I don’t want to focus too much on how it works at the moment, but suffice to say, it mainly focuses on generating prose through recombination rather than through statistics. Oh, and sometimes it makes rhyming couplets.
There’ll no doubt be a project page forthcoming, but for now, I wanted to announce it more formally. Working with Erica was a great pleasure – and likewise the Wellcome, who were unreservedly enthusiastic about this strange, almost-living software we made.