Back in November, a few of our team members watched the new Netflix series, Maniac. The show explores the power of emotional intelligence in computers — an important topic to Writer, as we continue working to train our content AI to accurately process and provide feedback on human language, including suggestions to improve the writing style, tone, and sentiment. Thus, I felt inspired to share my reaction to their take on artificial emotional intelligence (a few months later, to pass the statute of limitations on any spoilers).
A little background on Maniac
Maniac unfolds in a dystopian New York City that feels both foreign and familiar. Technology at the personal level is largely absent — no cell phones, no mention of the internet — and the technology that is present exists as a cheap salve for loneliness. One character lives in an avoidance pod in his backyard. Robots troll the streets for dog waste and play chess with people in Central Park. And a rent-a-friend service makes money off of the socially isolated longing for true human connection.
Within this world, where technology’s primary function is to provide quick-and-dirty fixes for complex human problems, a pharmaceutical juggernaut is running a new study, seeking to actually solve the deeply human problems that plague the test subjects. But past tests of the drug have always failed, rendering the subjects in a vegetative state, their brains wiped from a lethal combination of yet-to-be-approved pharmaceuticals and a computer that is unable to truly read their fragile mindsets.
Her theory? Build emotion into the AI to create empathy for the human subjects. At first, her fellow scientists balk at this notion. Wouldn’t an emotional computer create yet another disaster as it attempts to navigate the human pain of death, guilt, abandonment, and other agonizing traumas?
In the end, it is the computer’s learned and applied empathy that allows the human characters within Maniac to not only survive, but also heal from their past wounds.
Emotional intelligence in AI
Emotional connections are core to the human experience. The underlying message in Maniac suggests that as long as computers are nothing but cold logic, we as users and contributors will continue to feel more isolated and lonely in our lives. If we, as a society, continue to increase our usage of technology (which we can assume with a high degree of certainty) while keeping that tech emotionally ignorant, we risk the individual and collective wellbeing as people seek and fail to find needed comfort.
By building emotional intelligence into AI, we help technology sense, comprehend, and (in the case of the show) feel human emotion in communication. In turn, we are helping — maybe even saving — ourselves. We can build a future that’s more connected, more human, and full of richer experiences with lasting, meaningful impact, and AI can support us in that journey.