An Old Buddhist Exercise with a Technological Spin

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Olivia Jeffers

December 25 · Issue #7 · View online

Welcome to Compassionate Technologies. Here you'll get a dose of real science and business in your inbox every Sunday morning. Why? Because cutting-edge research shouldn't be locked in an ivory tower. This newsletter covers the relationships between machine learning, robotics, genetic engineering, and climate science. It's all connected, and it's my passion to simplify and make clear those connections for all of you. Love, Olivia.


With the holidays in full swing, many of us are now re-immersed in family environments. Reconnecting and reminiscing goes both ways, opening up lovely memories but also old wounds. Here’s an old Buddhist exercise for strengthening compassion and communication, with a new technological spin.

The "Difficult Person" Exercise
A few days ago, I read an article on Lion’s Roar on how to deal with difficult people in your life. It proposes a trading places exercise, with you and the difficult person (DP) sitting across from each other (in your imagination of course).
It’s a fully immersive reality and mind-bending exercise where you imagine being fully in the difficult person’s body, what does it feel like? What pains does he or she experience? 
And then, imagine that you’re looking at yourself as the DP. What does you/DP want from you that you don’t want to give? Now, imagine that you give yourself/the DP what they want. How does it make them you/them feel?
Now shift back to yourself and your reality. Is that something that you can do? How can you reach a compromise? How can you make both people, yourself and the DP, feel happy, safe, and secure?
Snapchat Already Does This
The exercise reminds me of Snapchat’s Face Swap “filter” where you and a friend swap faces. Now, imagine that you are friendly with that special difficult person in your life, and you face swap on Snapchat! How strange that would be! (see Useful Links)
Face swapping in AR is a particularly compelling case, because as you move your body and your face in real life (RL) the body and face of your friend or opponent moves in sync. This messes with the “agency” part of our minds, shifting over our sense of self to identify with your friend or opponent - which is quite a trippy experience.
Using AR or VR to Train Compassion
A rosy future of virtual reality. (copyright Shenzhen Dlodlo Technology Ltd.)
A rosy future of virtual reality. (copyright Shenzhen Dlodlo Technology Ltd.)
In the future, I imagine AR (like face swapping) or fully immerseive VR experiences (wearing headsets) will be incredibly strong tools to trick our identities into shifting.
Imagine you’ve just put on a pair of VR goggles. You’re in a normal enough but unfamiliar home. You glance in the mirror and you see the face of your opponent, the “difficult person”. As you widen your eyes, the image widens it’s eyes. Soon it’s no longer an it, it’s you. You’ve become the difficult person in fully immersive virtual reality environment.
I can bet, that in a few short minutes, you’ll feel compassion and friendliness toward this person who has been causing you so much difficulty. And that’s the first step towards communication and problem solving.
The Big Questions for Technologists
How can we use AR and VR technologies to enhance communication and cooperation? In an increasingly globalized world, we have many cross-cultural conflicts.
Imagine if you could wear a hijab while hearing bombs land on neighboring houses around you, hearing children cry for their parents. Just a few minutes of this experience is enough to jolt compassion into the hearts of wary politicians and hardened war generals.
But is that what we want? Netflix’s Black Mirror asks us this question in “Men Against Fire” where the military invented compassion-killing contact lenses that turn “the enemy” into frightening monsters that shriek like aliens from your worst nightmares. In the episode, this technology increased the kill rate from 10-20% like during World War II, when many soldiers would fire above the heads of opposing troops, to upwards of 90%.
We have to ask ourselves if we want compassion. This is a choice, a trait that we can choose to enhance or weaken in ourselves as humans and technologies co-evolve.
Useful Links...
The "Difficult Person" Exercise
What's a Face Swap? Check it out.
Black Mirror's“Men Against Fire” is a warning from the past about our future
Thanks from Olivia :)
I first wore headscarves and hijabs in Indonesia, a wildly uncomfortable experience at first which soon became normal.
I first wore headscarves and hijabs in Indonesia, a wildly uncomfortable experience at first which soon became normal.
Olivia Jeffers writes a Sunday newsletter focusing on where technology meets humans. A former engineer and product marketing director, Olivia is currently working on getting Compassionate Technologies enough runway for a liftoff. Thanks for reading!
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