Karthik Computes for Empathy

Today is Fraternity Friday, where we explore fraternalism, fraternit√©, frats, brotherhood, bros, and the masculine ties that bind us. This essay on one of my favorite “bros,” Karthik Dinakar, was written for the SXSW Interactive Scholarship Program.

Karthik Dinakar is one of the most inspiring technologists I know. Not only is he a bright, up-and-coming scientist currently in the PhD program at MIT Media Lab, he is also truly concerned with tracking and supporting some of our society’s most vulnerable people. As he says on his web site, he focuses on “real-world AI and computing for empathy.”

I first became aware of Karthik’s work when I moved to Cambridge for two years to work on my own degree at MIT. At the time, Karthik was working on cyberbullying-detection algorithms using natural language processing and statistical machine learning. He and his collaborator Birago Jones demonstrated this research at the White. House in 2012, and since then, he has built on this research and added “understanding large scale data science” to the Crisis Text Line, where is now Chief Research Scientist.

Karthik has also co-taught classes on technologies for wellness, and even looking at his Twitter stream shows how he seeks wellness, empathy, and beauty in everyday experiences.

Originally from India, Karthik has a uniquely sensitive, transnational perspective on how cultural conservatism can lead to discrimination for many kinds of people, including people of color, LGBTQ communities, and immigrants. As a student at the Media Lab, I faced some of the discrimination, intolerance, and “bro culture” that plagues many technical groups. I became very deeply involved in the lab’s Diversity Committee, and Karthik was a great sounding board for working through these issues, and helping me feel that I wasn’t alone. I think part of what makes Karthik such a great researcher of “computing for empathy” is that he is so empathic himself.