Google Empathy Lab founder Ananda Danielle Krettek is harnessing the spiritual teachings of Ram Dass to make technology more ‘human’

By Christina Campodonico

As a Google employee in Venice, Ananda Danielle Krettek has worked on the kinds of projects you might expect, like voice assistant technologies and AI (artificial intelligence). But her days also involve conducting humanistic research studies, making books, creating tone poems and even foraying into film (more on that later). As founder and head of the Google Empathy Lab, it’s her job, as she told an audience in Australia, “to speak human at a table with a bunch of incredibly brilliant folks who are fluent in machine.”

Krettek has likened herself to a Montessori school teacher instructing machines on how to be a little bit more human. It’s all part of an interdisciplinary methodology she calls “Design Feeling” — making technology that not only serves up answers or solves problems, but is also emotionally intelligent and sensitive to our needs as messy, imperfect and vulnerable human beings.

A “guiding star” in that philosophy of hers is the spiritual guru Ram Dass, who turned on, tuned in and dropped out with Timothy Leary back at Harvard in the ’60s, and — after going to India to attain enlightenment and coming back with a name which means “servant of God” — took hippie-era America by storm preaching a mantra of “Be Here Now.” Also the title of his breakthrough book of Buddhist, Hindu and Christian teachings, it extolled an early form of what we may now call “mindfulness” and led to a career espousing the virtues of meditation, unconditional love and service to others.

That journey and more of the now 88-year-old’s spiritual observations are woven into a meditative documentary called “Becoming Nobody,” presented in partnership with the Google Empathy Lab and screening Sept. 13 through Sept. 19 at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center in downtown Santa Monica.

But how else do the teachings of Ram Dass show up in Empathy Lab’s work? For Krettek, that may be the influence of a wise-but-humorous saying or the insight to teach a voice assistant some manners.

The following are excerpts from a wide-ranging conversation that has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Krettek on the Ram Dass saying she takes most to heart…

“Treat everyone as if they’re God in drag” — that’s one that has always stuck with me. When I was founding the lab, it was very much in my heart because of that idea that there is this divine spark that lives in everyone. Like you can serve someone’s cognitive and functional needs. You can even serve their most small needs … but really the thing that you’re serving is their soul, their spirit, their energy, their essence, the force that drives them to live their life and become who they are. That’s the deepest part of their humanity.

I think this idea of repairing and serving the world and doing good is sometimes about the big things — solving the big problem, doing audacious things, which is very Google. In the Empathy Lab we’re starting from a smaller, more humble, more connected place, which is: How can I repair the part of the world, serve the part of the world, catch the part of the world that is closest to me and that is really going to touch another person?

On how “You’re Welcome” entered the Google Assistant lexicon…

What we found was that the assistant would answer the question … and then people would say “thank you,” but the machine wouldn’t respond because the machine did its little robot job, which was, ‘You asked me a question; I’m going to give you an answer.’ That’s what it’s programmed for.

What’s funny was the machine did its job — it answered the question — but people felt deflated or disappointed … because after you say “thank you” you want to hear “You’re welcome.” Neuro-biologically, our monkey selves take over and we can’t help but be in that empathic rapport.

On how experiencing a concussion improved her work …

I had a concussion four years ago and it was the best thing I ever could have done for my job. … I felt everything and I noticed everything, and it was through that healing process that I really started getting deeper into the teachings [of Ram Dass] again. And what I found was that I could feel when things, at a very subtle level, were taking from me or giving to me. … At that level of noticing, we naturally know whether the thing that we’re doing — a behavior, or using a device — is life-giving or life-taking.

Where Ram Dass and Google Empathy Lab meet is this place of presence and stillness. Taking care of that place is his work. It’s my work. And I feel like if you start in that place — if you start in the place of the heart — then anything that’s created in any interaction people have will anchor us there. Can you imagine technology that looks after that part of us? We aren’t even great at looking after that part of ourselves.

On what a more “Ram Dassian” technological future might look like…

When I look at the forces that are shaping technology right now… I see the hard materials becoming more pliable and flexible and fluid, and even disappearing, and that devices aren’t just for one person. They’re shared, and there’s a kind of community aspect within a family or within friends. … And then there’s AI, which is this ambient kind of fluid intelligence that shows up when you need it, disappears when you don’t, and then kind of carries with it the bits of information you need, but doesn’t make you go into an interface … but instead is kind of rising and falling [with] what you need in the moment. Fluidity is very much becoming part of the design experience of technologies. … These things are getting lighter and more fluid.

And then we look at the ‘Dassian’ piece of this this, which is human. What does it mean to be a deeply connected human, and in your best expression and your lightest and soul-est and brightest self? What does it mean to be all of yourself, and not just the parts of yourself that you think are welcome? What does it mean to be one and connected with and considering other people? What is it to lose the things that separate us?

When I look at that with what’s possible in the form of technology, what I see is a place where we can follow our feelings. Because when we look at technology in the past and even in the present, we have to change a little bit of who we are to get the best out of it. … We entrain with it in order to do the thing we need to do and the amazing thing that’s possible. But in becoming the way it is, that’s the part of us that gets sucked in.

It feels like, ‘Oh, we need to do this password thing.’ And then this other thing. And then by the time we’re finally logged in and we do the thing, we forgot what we were doing and then we just infinitely scroll and watch too many videos or whatever. That’s part of the stickiness of the interfaces now — that they hold on to us in a way that we don’t want to be held. But the people that make it don’t want it to be like that. We live with all this stuff and our families and everything, too.

So I think what’s beautiful is the intention for a smoother, more fluid experience in the technology itself. … I always start with: What does the future feel like? What is your emotional experience? What is it like for your inner life to be interacting with these things? … I think it’s really possible to have a supportive relationship and a harmonious relationship with technology.

On whether machines have feelings…

People ask that because I think it’s an exciting and scary question of the new era. I will never say never. … But I think what’s interesting in that conversation is not what machines feel, but what we feel in relation to these machines. And if we care for ourselves and design the machines around that experience, they will feel so different to us.