what are the aims of the project?

Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy (CEDE) proposes to unlock the digital communication of empathy as we believe its is a major emission from online communication and digital personhood as a whole. Currently there are few ways to let a loved one, a group or a community, or even perfect strangers  know that you feel empathetic towards their situation. Whilst we are able to express emotions via simple iconography it is limited in scope and fails to include any indication of understanding or depth of feeling. In short, there is a need in the digital personhood research space to understand what it means to be digitally human and to put in place new methods to feel / express empathy via the network.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of empathy is “… the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) an object of contemplation”. This lacks somewhat the nature of empathy as enacted between two people, and this feature seems crucial to empathy broadly and digital empathy in particular. As a result we will use a working definition of empathy as an intuitive act in which we give complete attention to someone else’s experience in a way that allows the other to realize that we both share and understand the essential quality of that experience. It is to understand how the other person feels and to be able to communicate this understanding in a way that is uniquely ‘human’.

design fiction

In the science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Dick, 1968), and the subsequent 1982 film, Blade Runner, a machine is used to test whether an individual is human or an artificial replicant. Known as the Voight-Kampff, it measures bodily functions such as respiration, “blush response”, heart rate, and eye movement in response to emotionally provocative questions (Sammon, 1996).  As replicants are unable to communicate the feeling of empathy for which these responses are indicative, the Voight-Kampff test is asking the fundamental question of the story – what does it mean to be human in that future world? While a work of fiction, this idea reflects the present day failure of digital devices and online communications to facilitate the expression of empathy between people. We believe that this leaves the notion of digital personhood, devoid of a key component, and it is this component that we aim to address in CEDE.

Capillary dilation of the so-called blush response? Fluctuation of the pupil. Involuntary dilation of the iris… We call it Voight-Kampff for short (Fancher, 1980).

Dick, P.K (1968), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Doubleday.

Fancher, (1980) – Blade Runner: Screenplay, New York : Scott Meredith Literary Agency.

Schafer R (1959), Generative empathy in the treatment situation. Psych Quarterly, 28,:342-373.

Sammon P (1996), Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, It Books.


Based at The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London, The Institute for Economic Analysis of Decision Making at the University of Sheffield and Imagination at the Institute for the Contemporary Arts, The University of Lancaster, the cross disciplinary project is divided up into 6 core stages over 24 months, working with two unique focus groups. Firstly research explorations will be carried out using three groups of 30 students over an initial 18-month period. Using a variety of techniques from brain imaging technologies such as electroencephalography and networked devices, a series of prototypes will be developed to enable and measure levels of remote empathic communication. The later stages of the project will work with patients, family members and practitioners involved in women’s cancer. With the core aim to increase levels of well being via digital personhood it will open up techniques, methods and technologies across sectors of society and industry.

digital economy grant

The Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy (CEDE) is funded by a themed grant on “Digital Personhood” by The Research Councils’ Digital Economy (DE).