Mark Hollis, R.I.P.

Mark Hollis has died, I recently learned from Brian Behlendorf’s post on Twitter, the frontman for Talk Talk, a band that started out with some easy pop hits, toured with Duran Duran and then diverted their talents into incredible albums like Spirit of Eden, on which this song, The Rainbow, appeared.

Beautiful, tentative singing by Mark Hollis. And here’s a somewhat ponderous interview with him talking about the making of the album.

 

Should This Exist? Woebot

ste_woebot_square_website.png

We can summon cars at the push of a button, we can video chat with our grandparents, and we can listen to any song, from any era, at any time.  Yet the same devices that enable those miracles have ushered in an epidemic of anxiety and depression, which has hit our kids particularly hard. Studies show a clear connection between technology use and feelings of loneliness and depression. We’re more powerful than ever, and our needs are instantly satisfied, but we are dying inside.

My guest on this episode of Should This Exist? Is Alison Darcy, PhD, clinical therapist and creator of Woebot, a friendly AI-powered chatbot that aims to change this by being there for you 24/7, and delivering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–or CBT– whenever depression descends and a black cloud of negative thoughts hovers over you. In its first day of operation it treated more people than a therapist could in a year.

For most people in the world, seeing a therapist isn’t practical or affordable, and having one just a tap away in your pocket can change your life. Because Woebot has had millions of chat sessions, it has also generated more data than a therapist will in a lifetime, and its algorithms can optimize its responses better.

But what if Woebot drives us even farther apart? We asked Esther Perel, renowned couples therapist, best-selling author, and host of her own hit podcast. She said:

“AI stands for artificial intelligence, but it also stands for artificial intimacy, the idea that a bot, app or machine will answer you the way you want to be answered, and suspend your awareness that it has actually been programmed.”

Perfectly human-like AI could lead to mass emotional dependency on technology, similar to how movies like Her and Blade Runner 2049 show dependency on virtual girlfriends. And there’s an entire industry growing around providing children with robot friends. 

Screen Shot 2019-03-05 at 11.29.14 AM

Pilvi Takala, a Finnish artist, recently had an exhibition at Kiasma called Second Shift showing her work around emotional labor. Emotional labor is the often unseen and unappreciated work required of employees, group members or family members beyond manual or mental labor, and the work that needs to be done to care for others. It’s responsible for a lot of female exhaustion. One of Pilvi’s works was Invisible Friend, which came from her experience working as a paid “girlfriend” over the internet. One thing that occurred to me was that women might be liberated from more emotional labor by apps like Woebot, and wouldn’t that be an amazing outcome. Watch the video here: Pilvi Takala: Workers Forum.

But in the end, it seems like a bad idea to use technology to solve a problem that technology has itself created. Shouldn’t we put down our phones and join the conversations around us? Shouldn’t people, not AI, bring us back to ourselves? Shouldn’t women be relieved of emotional labor by, say, men? But then again, is this the way out of the sorrows of the world? Join us on Should This Exist? to discuss this issue, and send us your feedback by posting a review! We read each one, and it really matters for the following episodes.

NYT Review of “Mama’s Last Hug”

Mama, the long-time matriarch of the Burgers Zoo chimpanzee colony, with her daughter Moniek. At the time of this photo Mama was at the height of her power. She did not physically dominate any fully grown males, but nevertheless wielded immense political influence.” Credit: Frans de Waal

Just pre-ordered Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal, based on this review, which starts, as the book does, with this anecdote:

The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.”

Science has historically ignored emotions, dismissed them as irrelevant, as impossible to study, as beneath our regard. The technology we’ve built is unable to detect it, and so emotion has been invisible to us as we communicate through our machines, using clumsy signals such as emoticons, and agreeing to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and reduced to a smaller and smaller version of ourselves, even eliminating nuance and expression to use technology.

Emotions, de Waal writes, “are our body’s way of ensuring we do what is best for us.” Unlike instinct — which leads to preprogrammed, rigid responses — emotions “focus the mind and prepare the body while leaving room for experience and judgment.” Emotions “may be slippery,” he writes, “but they are also by far the most salient aspect of our lives. They give meaning to everything.”

The world we live in–the Technic–denigrates and disparages our emotions, and this is damaging and deadly to our humanity.  Looking forward to getting my copy!


From the Amazon review: “De Waal discusses facial expressions, the emotions behind human politics, the illusion of free will, animal sentience, and, of course, Mama’s life and death. “

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow
I was quite moved by this post from a friend of mine on Twitter, because the same thing  has happened to me several times in my life, and its uneventfulness is striking:
Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 4.16.01 PM
There is, of course, a wonderful poem on this subject, which I happened upon this weekend in the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson again:

It ceased to hurt me, though so slow
I could not feel the Anguish go—
But only knew by looking back—
That something—had benumbed the Track—

Nor when it altered, I could say,
For I had worn it, every day,
As constant as the Childish frock—
I hung upon the Peg, at night.

But not the Grief—that nestled close
As needles—ladies softly press
To Cushions Cheeks—
To keep their place—

Nor what consoled it, I could trace—
Except, whereas ’twas Wilderness—
It’s better—almost Peace—

 

Should This Exist: Halo Neuroscience

Should This Exist: Halo Neuroscience

Memory palaces, cuneiform, kung fu–for millennia we’ve pushed ourselves to recall with greater precision, learn faster, perform better and achieve more. One new technology in particular we’re about to unlock—neurostimulation—may forever change what it is to compete as a member of society, and even alter our basic conception of what it means to be human.

Everyone has heard of the 10,000-Hour Rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. It’s simply a matter of repetition: 20 hours of practice a week for 10 years will get you to mastery.

But what if by priming your brain to learn faster, you could accomplish the same in half the time and far surpass your “natural” abilities? Would you opt out? What about your kids? Would you zap your brain to become smarter faster? If I could learn Finnish or cello faster–especially at my age!––I would. Of course! 

 

My guest in the first episode of Should This Exist? is neuroscientist and entrepreneur Daniel Chao, co-founder and CEO of Halo Neuroscience. Halo Sport is their first product, a headset that enhances the neuroplasticity of the motor cortex in your brain. It could usher in a new golden age where millions of us  are virtuosos… or it could bring about the dystopia of Gattaca, where only a select few get superhuman abilities.

To a 1950s Olympic gold medalist, today’s Olympians would already seem superhuman. We all know they got there because today’s athletes train better. They use science, medicine, and technology (sometimes even pushing the boundary of what’s legal) to enhance their bodies and minds.

And it’s not just our top performers and dominant athletes. Normal people like you and me take it for granted we should be pushing ourselves to learn, perform better and achieve more at work and school. We tell our children how important it is to be resilient, try and try and try again until you make the cut.

We’re watching technology is being enthusiastically introduced into schools. STEM is seen as the most desirable focus for our kids, not the humanities. And there have been several well-publicized debacles which should give us pause.  Nowadays even pre-schoolers have to train to be smarter.

And another question: what if this technology is available to some and not others? Could the achievement gap widen? And what if instead it were given to the kids who had fallen behind, who were then able to catch up?

Cuneiform was restricted to the elites, and writing itself was the province of educated men–and only men–for centuries after its invention. Kung Fu wasn’t taught except to the lucky few. And sharing these technologies sometimes had dire consequences. Could Halo follow a similar trajectory?

Not on our watch! Daniel is a thoughtful, deep-thinking entrepreneur; we talked through its many possible permutations. Join us on Should this Exist?

 

Thoreau the Technophile

You know Henry David Thoreau, author, transcendentalist, author of Walden Pond, a celebrant of the simple life lived in nature? He seems an unlikely candidate for a technophile, but often the least likely among us are susceptible to the allure of technology. His diary entries in 1851 present quite a poetic view of the newest technology to come to New England: the telegraph:

1851, Sept. 3.  As I went under the new telegraph wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was as the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us and vibrated in the lattice-work of this life of ours.

1851, Sept. 22. I put my ear to one of the posts and it seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music, labored with the strain–as if every fibre was affected and being seasoned or timed, rearranged according to a new and more harmonious law. Every cell and change or inflection of the tree pervaded and seemed to proceed from the wood, the divine tree or wood! How much the ancients would have made of it! To have a harp on so great a scale, girdling the very earth, and played on by the winds of every latitude and longitude, and that were, as it were, a manifest blessing from heaven on a work of man’s! Shall we not add a tenth muse to the immortal Nine? And that the invention this divinely honored and distinguished–on which the Muse has condescended to smile–is this magic medium of communication for mankind!

I felt the same way about the internet when I first encountered it–a magic medium of communication for humankind! It’s often difficult for us to “see” this kind of magic anymore because we now know where it has ended up. Power lines, telephone lines–these are not a thing of great beauty, to us. They don’t look like harps to us. This has been beautifully illustrated by Robert Crumb in a drawing titled “A Short History of America”:

Crumb-History1.jpg

Thoreau lived in frame 3, and we live in frame 12. We can see beauty and nature disappearing, and see that, maybe it would have been better to put those lines underground. And that it is up to us to make frames 13, 14, 15. Can we improve it? What will frame 24 look like? 

Not only the built environment, but the inner life has been changed by what Thoreau sees as the  “magic medium of communication for mankind”. This is what I first loved about the internet:  it connected us to each other. We love to connect!

But we’re not communicating any more. We went past Dunbar’s number, beyond the number of people we can meaningfully know, which makes our relationships brittle and thin. Fake news, platitudes, bias, and not seeing our friends anymore– just reading their updates–is what it’s come to. 

This passage from Thoreau tells me three things: One, we should not forget the wonder of being able to communicate with one another across great distances. All the wonders of the internet are still there: we should see it again with it’s magic. Two: we should pay attention to the past to learn for the present. And three, living as we do in Thoreau’s future, where we can see the future outcomes of those telegraph wires, we should think deeply about the future we ourselves are creating and guide it to a better, more beautiful, future.


 

 Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau. Many people now say that Thoreau’s stay at Walden Pond was more like an early example of performance art then any commitment to living permanently in simplicity.  Still, the virtues of living simply resonate in our overstimulated, trivia-filled lives. And this edition includes Civil Disobedience, his great ode to freedom, which inspired non-violent protest everywhere is a must-read for all of us. Libertarians and liberals alike have marched beneath its banner, and the fact that it can encompass so many diverse viewpoints is a testament to its depth and power.

America by Robert Crumb. Have Thoreau and Crumb ever shared a page? This may be a first.  Both are deeply American. Thoreau is easy for me to like, but I have a love-hate relationship with Robert Crumb. If you haven’t seen the fantastic Terry Zwigoff documentary about him, Crumb, you must, and it will help you understand where he’s coming from. But I have to work hard to get past the pornography, misogyny, racism and scab-picking ugliness of all he does, in order to appreciate the great things he’d done, like that comic above, and his nasty (NSFW) 1989 comic about Donald Trump.


 

 

Should This Exist?

It’s live! The preview of my upcoming podcast Should This Exist! Go subscribe and listen to the preview, and if you like it, please leave a rating!

proxy.duckduckgo

Here’s the official blurb about it:

About Caterina Fake

Caterina Fake is Silicon Valley’s most eloquent commentator and dot-connector on technology and the human condition. As a humanist with a deep passion for history, literature, arts and culture, she has a unique perspective on the myriad unforeseen ways technology can impact our world. And as a celebrated tech pioneer herself, Caterina brings a deep knowledge of technology and an optimistic enthusiasm for entrepreneurs. In the early 2000s, Caterina co-founded Flickr and introduced many of the innovations — newsfeeds, hashtags, “followers,” “likes” — that laid the foundation for modern social media. (Though she’s quick to point out where social media has gone wrong). As an angel investor, advisor and board member, she helped build companies like Etsy, Kickstarter and Stack Overflow — which defined and nurtured new types of human-centered online communities. She’s now co-founder of Yes VC, an investment fund focused on early stage startups. For Caterina, hosting Should This Exist? reflects her career-long dedication to help technology fulfill its promise.

About ‘Should This Exist?’

Premiering on Thursday, February 21, Should this Exist? leads a new conversation to answer the question of our times: How is technology impacting our humanity? On each episode, an entrepreneur or scientist with a radical new technology will join Caterina on a journey to peer around corners, and glimpse their technology’s wildest potential to change human lives for the better — and the hidden forces that might send their vision sideways. A sneak preview of the first season is now available on the Should this Exist? page on Apple Podcasts.

The show’s first season will include the visionaries behind a headset that hacks your brain with electric fields so you can learn like a kid again; a fully automated chatbot that offers one-on-one therapy; a next-generation supersonic plane; a device that can read the expression on your face and know how you’re feeling; software that will translate between human and animal languages; and a scientific approach that allows humans to modify entire species of animals in the wild —among other unprecedented firsts.

Should this Exist? models a new kind of conversation between the entrepreneur or inventor and the world. Drawing on a wide range of fields — history, psychology, philosophy, the arts — Caterina leads the inventor through a conversation that sets aside the business model and examines the human case more closely.