APIs are hardly new technology, but their integration into our digital infrastructure (and lives) defines much of our relationship with common technology. As a quick refresher, APIs are basically ports that software developers create in a digital ocean in order to allow other developers to interact with their systems. This is how your budgeting app integrates with your bank accounts, how your tax preparation app imports all of your investment transactions.
As the internet becomes increasingly interconnected, it’s becoming clear that APIs are the foundation for what amounts to ‘digital empathy’ — defined as the ability for otherwise disconnected systems to recognize and understand each other’s needs, just as two human beings might display empathy by recognizing the perspective of a fellow person.
Interconnectivity of APIs
Even the most advanced algorithms devised by modern software engineering cannot address the needs, concerns and use-cases of every conceivable end-user. APIs are the means by which hard choices are made. Which preferences will be satisfied? Whose concerns sit at the front of the line? For whom is this software intended?
This may not seem particularly surprising through the lens of existing applications interacting, but as the world moves into virtual reality experiences and brain-computer interfaces, the importance of digital empathy will be crucial to how we interact with each other and the world through software.
Currently, developers use APIs to access systems to provide data, receive data, or otherwise interact with code built by another developer, team, company, etc. Many applications are simply a conglomeration of API integrations that feed data into dashboards, so users can visualize events in multiple places. In this way, these windows into the behavior of other systems enable ‘digital empathy’ for the end user viewing the dashboard.
If human empathy is the capacity to recognize the emotional state of another, then digital empathy is the ability to gain the same insight into a digital system. This transparency fosters the ability for outsiders to understand what’s happening on the other side of the API curtain. Great APIs allow for enormous amounts of access while still protecting sensitive data. The most intelligent APIs are empathetic by design — anticipating and respecting the needs and concerns of the code and the users on the other end of the interaction.
Imagine a conversation with a therapist. How impactful can that person be in helping you without access to the underlying data describing your mental health needs? The therapist’s ability to grasp connections between the state of your world, and the way that you feel (empathize with you) is largely contingent on the amount of data they can access.
APIs operate analogously, allowing users, developers and their software to access key (and oftentimes disparate) data within a system in order to understand and interact with it. In this regard, digital empathy is often correlated with the depth and breadth of API access.
More specifically, one set of developers must anticipate the desired use cases of other users and developers. APIs are improving rapidly and consequently so are developers’ abilities to build products and extend the uses of existing ones. This has catalyzed the evolution of the internet and will ultimately evolve into the brain-computer interface-driven, virtual metaverse reality we see on the horizon.
Machines and humans
Perhaps the most powerful application of digital empathy, just beyond the horizon, is in BCI technology. Sooner than we might imagine, people will be able to understand each other’s perspectives, emotions and even thoughts as if they were their own. This technology will change the nature of interconnection in ways we cannot imagine.
This remarkable shift will be made possible through what amounts to the next generation of APIs that digitally transmit human thought among humans and machines. The line between digital empathy and actual empathy will be forever blurred — eventually becoming indistinguishable. Consequently, APIs will be the digital equivalent of body language, voice tone and every other cue humans (err…computers) used to understand each other. The difference between an in-person conversation compared to one over the phone is a great metaphor for this.
Currently, our digital interactions with each other are the equivalent of a phone call with a stranger where the minimum required information is transferred, but nuance is lost. Eventually, these interactions will be as efficient (and even more so) than the in-person equivalent (where even our innate abilities to perceive can fall short). APIs are already providing the infrastructure to bring this world to life.
As APIs and the way computers communicate improve, we’ll be able to unlock the real potential of our interconnected world. In this interconnected world, software will be required to anticipate a greater array of inquiries and make a more complicated set of choices.
Things like brain-computer interfaces will, after sufficient calibration, communicate with other human beings and machines. To what information should access be allowed? What access should to remain private? Which requests should be answered? Humans will be able to use computers to understand the emotions of others as if they were their own. What access should empathetic software grant?
We are working diligently towards a world driven by digital empathy. Greater human understanding, seamless knowledge transfer and real, tangible comprehension of others’ emotions is just on the horizon and APIs have paved the road we’re traveling to get there and the guardrails along the way.
Jevan Fox is the chief revenue officer at AE Studio.