Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Fear Pushes Back:

“We have Nothing to Fear, but Fear Itself “— FDR

For the price of a cup of coffee I have garnered a table on the ground floor of the Koch Institute for Cancer Research at MIT. I spent part of the morning listening to papers being delivered at Neurotech 2016 which describe the new and fascinating ways that many neuro-labs are probing into brains to help solve neurological mysteries. There are now technologies that have allowed people to seek answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask ten years ago.
There is irony of course, sitting here at this Koch Institute, which is funded by the same family that also funds some of the most conservative political issues in our country. They did not fund Trump, but their money did help spread exaggerated fear about what is happening in America. It is this fear that is pushing back against the adoption of many of the new technological and scientific advances that are being developed right here on this campus, and at other places all around the country and the world. It is the fear of change.
Trump, the Republican right, the Alt-right, the rightwing reactionary parties that are growing all over the world, and even ISIS, have aimed their messages at that fear. They are appealing to people to hold on to the traditional ways that have worked for centuries. In most cases these are the extreme form of the traditional ways. In many cases the arguments are based upon the unprovable and unfounded beliefs that were the guiding principles of the world before the scientific method of thought began to take hold. In other cases the arguments are put forth by those who have run the traditional power structure, as they struggle to stay in power. They have been feeling that their influence is being eroded by forces that they don’t quite understand and they can’t control. Their response is to clamp down more controls. They justify doing this by raising fears about the usual scapegoats; people who are different, ideas that are different, and any redistribution of power.
There is enough truth in this fear of change to attract almost half the world into being willing to give up much of their freedoms to feel safe. I know, from being a therapist for so many years, how difficult and frightening change can be. Even when the change is obviously for the better, most people resist.
I have spent decades working with people who struggle to stop eating at McDonald’s, stop hitting their kids, stop spending more money than they have. They understand that they need to study to pass a test and exercise to stay healthy. It would help if they could tell people what they want instead of being angry all the time. They haven’t learned that if you promised someone you would do something, do it.
When I talk about these things in therapy people agree that those are the things they want to do. They are almost all capable of change, but it takes months and years for it to happen. The biggest obstacle is fear. Feeling bad has become familiar. How does anyone know what the change will fee like?
If we move away from the being lead by old, White men, who will replace them? Will it be better? For whom? What’s the guarantee?
If I have been told all my life that there is one true god, and these people have a different god, or no god at all, how can I trust them? They are blasphemers. They are infidels.
Many wmen realize that they are as smart, capable and creative as any man. They see that they can prove themselves in the world, and be proud of their accomplishments. But many of them wonder if that freedom is worth giving up their male protectors and the financial support that often goes with it. They feel safer being supportive and nurturing. Why take on challenges when dependency is easier?
All these changes are frightening. I feel much safer if I carry a gun. Everyone on TV carries a gun and shoots the bad-guys. I want to be a hero, protect my family, and shoot bad guys too. Good guy Americans have always shot bad guys (and Indians, [and Black people, but we never talk about that]).
Changes are coming from all over. Almost all jobs have changed, or have been lost. Marriage is between anyone. People from so many countries are moving to other countries. Some are running away from being killed by militias or bombs from their own government. Some come here to start a business and make money. Some come here to pick fruit or cut your lawn. How can I tell which ones are terrorists?
There are so many new ways to communicated and get information. How do I know whom to believe? Facebook? The New York Times? Fox News, My friend Leslie? My doctor? The ads on TV? A priest? A neurobiologist?
When the changes get scary people want to hide. They want a big strong Daddy to protect them and make the decisions. They want a father, who knows best, just like in 1959, when nice White families lived in small towns with quirky neighbors and the same newspapers were delivered to everyone’s door. But we now know that comforting Cliff Huxtable turned out to be Bill Cosby, the rapist. We already know that our new leader-to-be is an overly sensitive narcissist, who retaliates against any criticism. But many are willing to give up some freedoms to feel safe, even when the danger is really slight.
As i sit here in this coffee shop, and go across the street to the conference, I see who it is who is making all of these changes. It is people from all over the world working together, sharing knowledge, trying to correct mistakes, trying to solve the mysteries of life. They are men and women who are all different colors, sizes, styles and backgrounds. Most of them are doing it because it is fascinating, helpful and exciting. Money is hardly a consideration. They want knowledge. They want to make the world better. They are amazed that given what we know today, so many people can still get so angry at each other over such irrelevant things.
What are these diverse groups of people doing? Here in this building they are developing new ways to fight cancer. Some of the treatments are already in use. They were not available five years ago. In the building a cross the street, where the conference is being held, a woman named Canan Dagneviren is describing how she is building “a mechanically-adaptive, mirco-fabricated device for chronic treatment of neurological disorders.”
Dr. Dagneviren was born and educated in Turkey, and then she came to do her graduate work in the U.S. She may or may not be a Muslim. I am sure that many people in the U.S. would yell at her to go back to where she came from. I am sure that the in-flow of people like her, who would love to come here to study, explore and create, will be diminished because of the unwelcoming atmosphere that has been created by this election.
The funding for this research comes from a combination of foundation money and a lot of government grants. But the flow of the government money has been cut by a conservative Congress. It will be worse under Trump, a man who doesn’t understand science, doesn’t want change and seems frightened of innovation.
But even he, with all of his Presidential powers can’t stop the changes from coming. They are pouring in over the fibre-optic network. They are moving in next door. They are the electric, self-driving cars that will be on the highway. They are keeping us healthy. They are warming our planet. They are taking away our jobs. They are making some new people very rich.
These new technologies could be saving the lives of many more people. They could be feeding many hungry people all around the world. They could be controlling greenhouse gases. They could be helping us all live longer, healthier, more prosperous and creative lives. But obstacles get thrown in their path because people are afraid of change. Unfortunately, the backlash seems to always be a part of the process. Change, even when it is clearly beneficial, never comes easily. Adaptation and evolution can take a long time, and many species don’t survive.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

I’ve Been Replaced!


Even doing a most Human Task
For that last fifteen years I‘ve been waiting for this to happen. I could see it gaining on me, but following Satchel Paige’s advice I din’t want to turn around. I began to suspect this was coming when the fees that insurance companies paid us for psychotherapy began to drop.. My colleagues thought it was due to the cheaper costs of people with Masters’ degrees, but I what knew better: chat bots and A.I.
In 1966, before there was a word for “chat-bots,” Joseph Weizenbaum at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory created Eliza, a computer program that was designed to respond to typed questions with simple responses, mostly repeating what the typer said, or saying “tell me more.” You can talk to a slightly improved Eliza on this web-site: http://www.manifestation.com/neurotoys/eliza.php3
I’ve been a psychotherapist for over forty years. I can look at people and tell when the words they are saying are covering up what they are feeling. I’ve learned how to gently push people to look deeper into themselves and open up.
There were many times when I sat with couples who were trying to sort out the difficulties in their relationship. Often one of them had been caught acting like some of our past or future Presidents, which the other partner found upsetting. The guilty party would be very apologetic and swear on their children’s heads that it would never happen again.
After years of witnessing these acts of contrition I can accurately determine whom to believe and who was still attempting to deceive. I had developed two methods which aided my intuition. The first was that I became a close observer of faces. There are very subtle differences in the coordination of the muscles between the eyes and the mouth. I’m not sure if I could tell from a picture. I think it was more about how they move, or don’t move, together.
I also had the advantage of working in a small city in which everyone knew everyone else’s business I often had either the third member of the love triangle, or her roommate, or his sister, or someone else who was bothered by what was going on, who was also seeing me for psychotherapy. They had no idea that I was seeing this couple, but it bothered them enough to bring it up in their own sessions.
However, those years of experience; that unique talent, has now been learned by a tv camera that is connected to a computer that runs a “deep learning” artificial intelligence program. I saw a demonstration of one of them two months ago at The Harvard Innovation Lab during Hub Week in Boston. The program, developed by a company called Affectiva,, would focus on a person’s face, and determine their emotional state. According to their marketing materials it has developed “norms built on the world’s largest emotional database of more than 25,000 media units and 4 million faces analyzed in 75 countries.” They also state that “we are humanizing technology.”
I my view they are taking a big step towards dehumanizing psychotherapy.
There is a lot of research that shows that we humans are social creatures. We have evolved to care about each other. Those of us who have better social relationships, especially close ones with partners, family and friends, do better in life. Those people live longer, happier, healthier lives.
One of the major healing factors of psychotherapy as been that the patient feels a connection to an understanding, caring, non-judgmental person, especially one who has some knowledge and status, like someone you call “doctor.” Would it be possible to “transfer” such feelings of trust and hope onto a machine?
Apparently, it is. In fact, there are studies that have been done with war veterans who have stated a preference to talk to a responsive A. I. program. When asked why, many of the veterans explained that when they would recount some really gruesome battle field experience, such as having to shoot an eight year-old girl in the head because she was carrying a bomb, they could feel the reaction from any human counselor, even another vet. But a machine could be empathic and still not be upset.
Also, during the years of Facebook. Twitter, Snapchat and even Medium, people have been conditioned to seek “likes.” Those little electronic bits of encouragement evoke the positive feelings of accomplishment, hope and happiness in response to any kind of feedback on social media. It keeps people coming back. It keeps people wanting more. Each little thumbs-up, heart or smile, makes us feel a bit more connected, clever and important.
During the last ten years there have been over a dozen companies that are using artificial intelligence and deep learning to not only monitor human emotion, they are building machines that can respond in an artificial empathic manner, reflecting the emotion of the real human. In addition to responding to facial features these programs can respond to the tone of voice and the content of the conversation. There is a program that goes deeper than the facial expressions and monitors the blood flow in the muscles of the face. They feel that this can reveal when someone is trying to hide there emotions. There are also new ways of tracking other physiological components of emotions, including heart rate, neurological responses, stress and arousal levels, and other physical activities.

Could this be psychotherapeutic?

The technology is probably available today for you to sit in front of a screen, and by talking to a deep learning machine, you could diminish your emotional difficulties and improve your life. The machine could watch and listen to you, monitor the content of what you say and determine the emotions that you are feeling. It could probably tell if you are angry with your mother, have suspicions about you spouse, are exaggerating your accomplishments or are lying about your drug use. It could offer soothing, compassionate responses, as well as questions that would push you to explore the origins and complications of your difficulties. It could point out your errors in judgement without insulting you, and probably help you sort through ideas and find better solutions.
What is new about this is that the more these deep learning machines “practice,” just like a good clinician, they get better. They would learn more about your emotional patterns and your responses. You could report back and tell them what you felt was successful and helpful. In addition, they could also get information about your physical conditions to see if your blood pressure was staying under control, or your cortisol levels were diminished. It could know if you sleep better after your sessions, and if you are generally happier and more productive. It wouldn’t have to depend on your verbal reports during the first fifteen minutes of the session. If necessary you could have a breathalyzer app added to the protocol.
Another big advantage is that your virtual, deep learning therapist would always be available, and the sessions could be as long or short as you felt necessary. You wouldn’t feel you were intruding on your therapist over the weekend. The therapist would never be tired, preoccupied by the troubles in his own life, or worrying about the fees. It would come with graphs and analytics that would help you monitor your own progress, and it could give you smiley faces and heart emogis whenever you did well.
Fantastic! 😀
Fantastic? 😟
Are there dangers with this? Sure are! Many.
So much depends upon the values and philosophies of the programmer. What gets reinforced? Does it just allow you to go down your own crazy path? Does it have a goal of making you a better cog in a conformist society? Those things are not yet clear.
The big question is: what about people? Will some people become much more comfortable with a compassionate machine and still find ‘live” people to anxiety provoking, too demanding and too annoying?
Life can be tough. Each of us “live” people have our own agenda. We want something from you, just as you want from us. That’s what relationships are. That’s why they work. That’s why they don’t work. If the machine annoys you you can unplug it. That’s not good to do to a partner.
Remember, technology is a tool. Many new innovations are offered to us every day to help us live better, easier, happier, healthier, more efficient, creative, productive and satisfying lives.
But what all those words really mean is up to each of us, individually and as a society.
Choose wisely my friends.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fighting the Tides of Technology


The seasons are changing. It gets dark early up here on the New England coast. I walked down to the beach and there was a stiff wind blowing across the dunes, chopping up the water. I had not checked the tide clock before I left the house so I couldn’t tell if the tide was going out or coming in. It goes out a few hundred yards on this beach, so the difference is dramatic. I could have reached into my pocket and looked at the tide app on my phone but I decided to use my primitive human senses and watch the water. As I stood near the water I could tell after the third wave came rushing towards me that the tide was coming in quickly.
I can’t stop the tides, no one can. People can build a dike, a dam or levy, and hold the water back, direct it or control it. Those measures can work for a while.. The tides are constant and will keep coming, long past my lifetime. They may keep rolling in for a few billion years until the sun explodes. But unlike the tides our human societies are now in constant change, mostly due to new technologies, and despite the current chaos, and the efforts to hold on to old ways, no one can stop those changes from coming either. As Kevin Kelly said, it’s Inevitable.
There is a battle going on to direct the tide of new technologies that are engulfing us and the winner has not yet been determined. It is a confusing struggle as it is difficult to tell who is on which side. Sometimes the innovators and developers are really on both sides at once. On one end there are the applications of technology that can bring progress toward the goal of making people’s lives healthier, happier, more prosperous and creative. At the other end there seem to be many new developments which are being used to manipulate and/ or exploit people. The determination of what will be considered beneficial has become more a question of philosophy than technology or computer science.
The New York Times, a source that I consider reliable, ran an article on November 20, 2016, about a company called Cambridge Analytics, which was based in Cambridge, UK, and funded by Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire who supports many conservative causes and candidates. This company was hired by the Trump campaign.
What the company does, and I would guess that there are similar companies which work on the liberal end of the spectrum, so this isn’t a political rant, gathered data on people’s personality traits, mostly through on-line sites such as Facebook. They offered people the chance to take a personality test, a test designed by my profession (Psychology) to determine the degree to which someone possesses the personality traits of Openness, Conscientiousness,,Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (OCEAN). The person got to see how they scored on all of these, and so did the company. Facebook also gave the company access to the names and profiles of each individual. It is easy to understand how that knowledge can be used to design specific ways to approach an individual to sell them something, even an ideology. It could help determine what kind of information this person would find persuasive and how it should be presented.
I am older than most Facebook users, in fact right now I don’t even have a Facebook account and my LinkedIn profile needs to be updated. My training as a Psychologist placed a strong emphasis on trust and confidentiality. It was strongly believed that people who came for therapy would be much more open and revealing if they were assured that nothing of what they said would ever be told to anyone. We were granted a legal basis, which was not total, but almost, for doctor-patient confidentiality. Many of my colleagues of my age are amazed at how people one or two generations younger than we are seem more than willing to put the details of their lives, and in many cases their bodies, out into cyberspace for anyone and everyone to examine and analyze. This OCEAN test from Cambridge Analytics was offered for free and probably gave no assurance that the information would remain anonymous, yet thousands of people took the opportunity to explore their personality and just give so much of their psychological profile away. If you think about it, we all have given out all of the most intimate details of our lives in order to have the conveniences offered by technology. Our credit scores, our credit card expenditures, our driving records, our arrest records, our income, what we are willing to pay for, how far we will travel for a lower price, our religion, our friends….everything is out there and accessible. Your health record may be protected by HIPPA laws, but your pharmacy purchases and your doctor visit co-payments are easily discovered. There are hundreds of companies gathering data about all of us without our knowledge. In return they often feed us information that they think will interest us. We usually don’t know the origin or the accuracy of that information.
We get ads for things we were looking for. We get ads for things related to what we were looking for. We get news about the news pieces we read. We get news about what are friends are reading, doing or thinking about. We get medical information and medical suggestions. We get all kinds of news, about entertainment, sports, arts, politics, weather, finances, and anything else we ever showed an interest in. It flows in like the tide, constant and from many sources: on-line, in print, through individual apps, on the radio, on TV, even from actual conversations with people, much of which is the kind of gossip that has gone on for centuries.
There has always been gossip and news. There has always been propaganda and false news. The Spanish American War was probably started because of a greatly inflated threat delivered in huge headlines. The difference is in the volume, as the flow is continuous, and constantly being revised and updated, or else one “most important event” is quickly superseded by another.
Another major difference comes from these analytics. We are each targeted individually, in ways that have been designed to connect with our fears and desires. You looked at that shirt but didn’t buy it for $39. If you buy it within the next hour it will be $29, just for you. You signed this petition, now we will ask you for money for that cause. We can tell you supported the police in Ferguson, so we will flood you with pro-Trump information.
Is this evil or helpful? Why not get $10 off the price of a shirt, or maybe it will go to $20? Many people use the information from their FitBit to motivate them to exercise and stay healthy. There are mindfulness apps that help people focus and calm down. There are many apps that help people monitor and control their spending. We get information about how to be a better parent, a better investor, a better cook, even a better lover.
Today’s world demands that we develop different skills if we are to survive and prosper, as individuals and as a society. When I was in graduate school the search for information was difficult and time consuming. Much of what we could find, even in most of the sciences, was based on methods that were inexact and somewhat speculative, but it was the best we had available at the time.
Today, due to new technologies, the is a fantastic amount of new knowledge in every field of science, most of it demonstrating how complex we are as individuals and as a society. The skills we need today involve much more critical thinking and questioning than information seeking and following instructions. Few people get three year apprenticeships under the supervision of a craftsman. Increasingly we are taught by machines about how to run machines. We are given many contradictory pieces of information about the same topic. We barely have to to reflect upon how to make a decision when more information becomes available.
That’s why these issues become a question of philosophy. What do you want your life to be like? What do you want to accomplish? What are your values: Money? Family? Safety? Creativity? Harmony? Peace? Justice? Equality? Fun? What makes you feel good, better and best? Why?
I don’t know if these questions can be answered by an algorithm. I’m sure there is technology that shows you what you do with your time, energy and money, which gives a picture of what your priorities really are. But it is up to each of us to determine if that is really what we want to be. Then we have to weed through all of the information that comes flooding in, so that we can design our own path and choose our own future.
It is often a very difficult task. The tide keeps coming in, and there a hidden rip-tides that can pull us under.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Pay Attention!

For years I did my best to help people change.  From working closely with people, and watching my own life, it became clear how difficult it is to make any significant changes in one’s life. Just try to lose weight and keep it off.  

What immediately becomes apparent is that people are not logical. We lead with our emotions. We have evolved to act quickly to survive. “Friend, food or foe?” had to be an instant decision for our long-ago ancestors . So many studies have shown that we use our logical thinking to justify an emotional decision.  We rationalize more easily than we change.

How many times have I sat with a woman whose was living with a guy who mistreated her, cheated on her, stole from her, knowing that if I told her to just leave then I would be the one she would never see again?  She was not going to leave until she was emotionally ready. She would have to work through all of the strongly intertwined emotions of love/fear/sexual attraction/ loss and loneliness.  Even when the right thing to do is obvious, it’s never easy.

Now all of us, all over the world, are struggling with major changes; changes that have affected almost every area of our lives.   We have been through this before, and it was a struggle then too.   Over a hundred years ago many new, disruptive technologies were being developed and introduced into the lives of people in the more developed countries around the world. Many agrarian societies were transitioning into industrial societies.  The “Industrial Revolution” moved people from farms and fields into factories and cities. One generation began to live very differently than their parents.

How well did the world handle that transition?  Many of the conditions of the time were chronicled in the works of Charles Dickens. He wrote about the struggles of the poor, the children of the factory workers and of life in the big industrial cities. There was poverty, pollution, disease and crime.  The American Civil War was fought in the early part of the Industrial Revolution as machines began to replace individual labor. The energy policy of the slave states was coming to an end.

The culmination of the use of all the new engines and mechanical marvels was the biggest, most meaningless waste of human life in history:  The First World War. That was a war fought between crumbling forms of governments, run by aristocracies that were almost totally out of touch and unconcerned about the people they ruled.  Millions of those people suffered horrible deaths fighting for causes that were never very clear to them, so they called it “patriotism,” and “love of the homeland.”

Now, a hundred years later, another major disruption is affecting the lives of almost everyone in the world. Since we are now causing disturbances in the planet itself, the consequences of these changes are impossible to avoid. Even the people sitting blissfully on a beautiful south sea island can see that their little patch of paradise is being covered by rising tides. 

Everyone’s lifestyle is being threatened in some way, and just like we do as individuals, as a society, we resist. Change is uncomfortable. It takes energy to adjust.  We can’t tell who will benefit and who will suffer, but we quickly suspect that we will get the short end. Those who are in power feel threatened because they may lose control.  Those who are out of power have learned that they always lose, no matter who wins.


Since there is no job or profession that functions the way that it did twenty years ago, everyone feels a bit insecure. Anxiety is the malady of our times.  So much is different and new. Families can be composed differently than twenty years ago. There are families of just men, just women, a single person and child, a man who was a woman living with a woman who was man. Babies can be made in several different ways, with up to five people involved in the process of creation. 

We are again, involved in wars, but they are, at least for now, more limited.  They are also being fought very differently than they were a hundred years ago, as we now have the use of drones and suicide bombers. In many ways these weapons consist of limited fire-power, but are the kinds of weapons that create a constant sense of terror. Danger is unlikely, but it feels ever-present.  Something could happen anywhere, at anytime, to anyone.

During the Industrial Revolution big machine changed the way people worked, and how things were made.  Many things that had been made slowly, by hand, were now made quickly, and in great quantity, by machines.  Clothing is a clear example. Manufacturers began to use assembly lines to make furniture or cars. Transportation went from horses and barges to cars and trains. Communication went from letters delivered in days or months, to a telegraph, and then telephone.  Someone invented a typewriter.  Everything began to go faster.

Now, in our digital age, everything goes faster still.  But the revolution is not just about work and making things, or transportation, or communication, although all of those things have been radically disrupted. This time there are a lot of changes in the kinds of things our minds and brains need to do.   Our brains are constantly being bombarded with new information.  The information comes in many forms, speech, pictures, videos, music, virtual reality, augmented reality, symbolic noises such as pings, beeps and buzzes.  Much of the speech, videos, music and noises are created by machines and played on machines.  We are often speaking to bots or some other kind of artificial intelligence that guides us through a menu, answers our questions., or tells us we have an appointment. Part of the new skills we have to learn in this world is how to sort out the real from the machine created, and the truth from the semi-truth, distortions or outright lies.  That is proving more  and more difficult to do.

Whether we realize it or not, many algorithms do our thinking for us.  They guide our medical care, They select stocks for our 401Ks, They offer suggestions about what we should read, or what music we will like.  They tell us what to eat and how much more we should exercise. They manage our money. They pay our bills for us automatically, and on time. They instruct us about what roads to take to get from here to there.  Without realizing it, we are turning much of our thinking process over to machines.  I discussed this before the election in: https://medium.com/choosing-our-future/thinking-about-thinking-350b2d401656#.ma4698my6


How will our minds and brains adapt? Will all of these thinking aids enhance our decision making abilities? Will we become less dependent upon emotion and more guided by research that shows what actions have a higher probability of working out?  Or will we become increasingly dependent upon machines and  as a result lose our ability to think, and to solve difficult problems?

My initial answers to those questions, based only on forty years of dealing with how people think and make decisions, is that some people will do marvelously well and use all of these new aids to great advantage.  Others will, in ways that I will discuss shorty, be more victimized and manipulated.  Still others will remain on the outside, hardly aware of what is going on, and will suffer as society moves on without them.

It is the second group about whom I have the most concern. I also feel that they may be the largest demographic.   They are the folks who just want to live their lives in peace and harmony.  They want to work at a decent job, take care of their families, have a good  fun, relaxing time when they’re not working, and just go along to get along.  These are the people who feel that if they take care of themselves, their families and their own responsibilities, then our society, and whoever is running it, should do a good enough job to not mess things up.  Life is difficult enough for everyone, especially if you have, or you are, an adolescent kid.  
Obviously, this is a dangerous assumption.  The people who have run almost every country, anywhere, have always found ways to mess it up.  They usually do that by taking too much control, and by allowing corruption.  But by not taking enough control, things can get bad also. There will always be some people who will take advantage of others, whether they are in or out of government.  Those who do not pay attention are the ones who are most easily exploited. 
What we have learned is that we have to pay attention, not just to government, but to everyone who is trying to get at your mind and your money.  These days that is a lot of folks, and there are lots of ways to do that, many more than ever before. Our lives are a constant stream of inputs from everywhere: family, friends, neighborhood organizations, political parties, banks, stores, tech companies, health companies, drug companies, media companies, TV, cable, movies, video games, augmented reality games, your work, your boss, your FitBIt, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and your dog. It’s constant, and it’s addicting. We can’t turn it off.  In fact we keep turning it on, like that rat pushing the lever for a reward.

It has become a chore to be selective.  There are many apps that help organize and prioritize your apps. It is very difficult to determine whom to trust, what to believe, and how to respond. Most people tend to stick with what’s familiar, and that allows them to miss what is going on on the other side of the mountain.  We could be watching football when the volcano blows and we wouldn’t know about it until our phone gave us an emergency text. By then the lava could be fifty feet away.. There may have been other warnings put out on-line but they weren’t on Facebook so we didn’t know.

Also, and more dangerous, we don’t know who has all this Big Data that has been gathered about us.  We only know that many companies and organizations do.  In many ways they know more about our behavior patterns than we do.  They know where we go, what we buy and how much we are willing to spend,  They know whom we hang-out with, and what we like to do with them.  They know what we eat, how much we weigh, and if we exercise.  They know if we drink or take drugs.  They can tell how much sex we are having and probably with whom. They, whoever “they” are, know more than this, and we don’t really know who they are, what they know, or what they are doing with all of the data.

And, if you don’t pay attention, they will sculpt your behavior.  If you like this, you’ll like this better, and here is a coupon for it. For you, the price is $39.99, but I’m charging him $109 because I know he doesn’t care.  He likes to feel rich.

Many people know the system and can work it to their advantage. They take the bargains they want and leave the rest.  They have developed their own core values and they know how to stick to them.  But most people look around to see what is happening.  They want to be part of the flow and hip to what’s going on.  These days that can be very dangerous, and it’s is going to get worse.

My advice is PAY ATTENTION!!.  Stop, as Dr. Kahneman says, and Think Slowly. Choose your own future.

Love and Kisses,


Thursday, November 10, 2016

It’s Much More Complicated Than That!





I
Trump won.
For me, who now spends too much time on the Internet, it wasn’t a surprise, but it is still a great disappointment.
For all of us who are educated, secular, informed, and who try to think rationally, believe in science, keep most of our emotions under control, and read the NYT and the New Yorker, this victory is hard to endure.
How could a man who lies about everything, seems to know so little, and campaigned on racism and misogyny, be elected to lead the land of the free and the home of the not really so brave?
It’s really not so difficult to understand. (I wrote about it before the election here https://medium.com/@therapistmumble/it-isnt-just-the-coal-miners-it-s-most-of-america-that-got-left-behind-8e2c153343bf#.26xmk8o7v )
Trump was brilliant. He gave simple answers to complex problems. He played up fears and stayed away from reason. He invoked a mythological past and avoided the real present and looming future.
That worked because what is really going around the whole world is very confusing to everyone. In involves complex interactions of many factors, and that makes every outcome uncertain. Working hard does not guarantee success as much as working smart. That makes the divide between the rich and poor even greater. Most of the “working hard” jobs are being replaced by machines, algorithms and robots. That includes doctors and lawyers, as well as the garment workers in Vietnam. Soon we will have driverless cars, trucks and planes. We don’t really need waiters any more. We no longer go to department stores or malls, unless we are poor and out of date.
The people who are doing well, those who work smart, or whose parents or grandparents did, now compose an international class. They are not necessarily loyal to one country. Scientists are working all over the world, they go to international conferences and read international journals.. The money to finance new companies comes from hedge funds, sovereign funds, venture capitalists, and investment banks that are international. All major corporations have offices all over the world, and they send people all over the world to work in them. The people in all those professions know each other and work together. They have formed their own class.
They have no contact with the White couple in Wisconsin who lost their union jobs, or the Black family in Flint who can’t drink the water.
One thing that became very clear from the election results is how much all of us are living in our own bubbles. We associate with, and think like, the people in our own neighborhood. The Blue states were very Blue. The Red states were very Red. In the swing states the rural areas were very red and the urban areas very blue. In the Blue areas the LBGTI people flourish, and there is a great deal of diversity. In the Red areas, not so much. There is more religion in the Red areas, while the Blues are more secular.
It is the interaction of these evolving demographics with all of the changes consistently being introduced into our world by technology that most of the people who voted for Trump find so unsettling. The Tump voters are attracted to the idea of living in an America when it had half the current population. That’s when men worked nine to five for a decent wage, if they were White. Women stayed home and baked cookies ( and always ready for sex). If you got cancer, had a heart problem or drank too much then you died at fifty, but health care was paid by your employer..
Neither of our current political parties, or anyone that I can think of ( tell me if I’m wrong) who is in the political sphere now, has any idea of how to deal with this much change. They don’t really understand how the new world is working so they still try to solve the old problems. They try to create jobs, control the deficit, and keep everyone in their place. Those problems are no longer relevant. That leaves older people feeling confused and younger people feeling screwed.
We all know that Trump can’t bring the jobs back, immigrants are not the problem, and women have more of the necessary skills to do well in this environment.
What no one can tell us is what life will be like when driverless Ubers take us to very expensive restaurants, Watson tells us when to take our pills, Tinder tells us whom to date, Amazon tells us what to buy, Facebook tells us what our friends are doing, and Wells Fargo is automatically deducting our student loan payments from the bank accounts where our unemployment benefits are automatically deposited. Our Amazon Echo will play us music, turn on the lights and order food. Women will be taking care of their mothers and going to book groups while men will be having virtual-reality sex with images of Melania.
Yes, those of us who really care about others, and it is half the nation, should continue to do what we can to establish real justice and equality for all. That is something that America has always carved into marble, but it never paid attention to the “all.” We need to do that even if it means trying to bring about a single payer health plan and a guaranteed annual wage. Those ideas will always be a tough sell here in profit-oriented, private-enterprise, free-market USA.
But while we keep trying, we have to realize that there will be a strong resistance due to the influence of a few thousand years of human culture. This pull is so strong that it seems that it must come from our genes. One such primitive behavior is a man’s to need to dominate women. Those alpha-male types have always seemed to feel that it is their role to force themselves onto women in order to spread their sperm, or just to get their rocks off. Women have learned to tolerate that, knowing the harm that resisting can bring. Another very strong tendency is to fear people who we don’t know, especially if they are a different color, worship a different god, or cook food that smells weird. In such cases it seems justifiable to slaughter a whole lot of those people. We do that out of fear that they will rape our women, take our food and cut our throats. That’s not an unreasonable fear. Those things still happen: Rwanda, .Bosnia, Syria, ISIS.
Those kinds of tendencies make it very difficult to convince any group of people to share their food, shelter and money with a group of different people whom they don’t even know, even if they live in the same country.
That is why our way forward to a peaceful, just and more verdant world is not clear. These problems are new, different and very complex. They are different than the usual struggles between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, North and South. We have to take into account that demographics are changing, science is changing, medicine is changing, relationships are changing, families are different, what it takes to make children is different, and the climate is changing rapidly and dangerously. The skills that people will need to survive in the next few decades will be different than the skills people needed during the past few hundred years.
These problems will need different kinds of solutions than anyone in any political party is offering. The first step is to recognize that. We need to find a way to get over the anger, develop some modicum of trust, and look at what’s going on. If not there will be more people left behind, a bigger division between the have and have nots, continued conflict, and a lot of dead fish.
Please note:  This post was first written for my other blog which can be found at https://medium.com/choosing-our-future
I have been posting more stuff there than here.  I would appreciate it if you would sign up for Medium and check it out.


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Tools that Think for Us

Section - A  — Big Data and Algorithms

In March of 2016 a computer named Alpha Go, took another big step towards showing that our new tools are capable of solving more complex problems. It beat the world’s best GO player at that ancient game which has almost an infinite number of moves. This was more difficult than just combing through tons of data like Deep Blue did when it beat the worlds’ best chess player, Gary Kasparov, in 1997, or when Watson beat Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings at Jeopardy in 2011. In this contest, Alpha Go beat Lee Se Dol four matches to one.  It showed that a software program developed at Google could learn from experience and improve its own performance.  
The program was designed to improve itself based upon it’s successes and failures, even in very complex circumstances. That’s what smart humans do, but the machine’s approach was very different.  Another major difference between the machine and human competitors, is that the machine was unaffected by fatigue or psychological pressure.  Lee Se Dol emphasized that difference in his post-match interview. "It is different, there's no doubt. First of all, its not human. It took time for me to get used to its playing style," Lee said."It's not shaken up psychologically and stays focused right until the end," he said.  
It seems that one of the reasons that Lee is such a great champion is his ability to read his opponent and to push a person to his limits. People react when they feel they have made a mistake or if they think they are beginning to lose (see: Trump).  That was not true with Alpha Go.  Observers felt the machine made a strategic error early in the last match, but that didn’t upset it  — it was unaware of it really, since it is not really “aware” of anything, and it never gets “upset.”  As play continued it was able to make the necessary corrections.  
Besides the obvious advantage of computing power, it is this  lack of emotion that is the major difference between people and our machines and tools.  Machines have no prejudices or biases; they just look at the data.  And the data is another big difference.  The start of the new millennium was the time that the term “Big Data began to gain a lot of traction.  People in many fields were realizing that the amount of information that was being produced, and the amount of different factors that computers could collect and analyze, was way beyond what any human mind could keep up with, or make sense out of.  
“Big Data” is now the term for how machines do that job for us.  Big Data is the answer to the problems of being overwhelmed by the five “Vs” of information: Volume, Variety, Velocity, Variability and Veracity.  What many people don’t realize is how pervasive the use of Big Data has already become in our lives, and it will play a much greater role in the future.   It is what every retailer uses to follow what we have looked at, what we bought and then determine what they can sell us next.  It is what every political party uses to see who we may vote for, and how they can try to change our mind.  It is how sports teams decide what players deserve a lot of money.  It is what your insurance company uses to decide how much risk there is in your life. It is what doctors are using to help with diagnoses and treatment.
For several years now I have been trying to persuade my colleagues who do psychotherapy to take advantage of the capabilities of Big Data to improve their diagnostic skills and clinical interventions.  The overwhelming response I’ve received has been that would be one of the most counter-productive and anti-clinical actions anyone could take.  It would remove the element of therapy that is most important to making it work, the “human” element.
I strongly agree with that.  Because what  the “human” element really means is to make a decision based upon intuition, and emotion.  A person’s intuition comes from his or her own experience and that experience is very limited compared to all the data that is complied by a super-computer.  Likewise an emotional decision, which is a major element in almost all human decisions, is very biased as it is based upon that person’s immediate, protective needs, or short-term desires. This is true, even for therapist (imagine that).

Big Data takes the huge volume of data that is feed into it.  Sorts through it all with great speed (velocity). It finds regular, reoccurring patters in the Variety of the data, and can check on the Veracity of those patterns.  It does this with no pre-conceived ideas ( If it had a mind it would be an open mind, but of course, it doesn’t have a mind), and it does it all much faster and more accurately than any person can.
Big Data can find early indications of depression in ways that no clinician can.  In fact it can detect signs of depression even earlier than the person who is becoming depressed. There are examples of machines showing that when a person’s activities show minor changes, that it could either be a good sign or a bad sign.  If a man has been going to Home Depot, or Auto Zone almost every weekend for five years, and then he stops going, it may indicate that he has found a girlfriend who he values more, or he is getting depressed and no longer cares about his home or car as much as he always had.
There are many such patterns that Big Data already has about all of us.  We all have generated data that gets fed into huge data bases that are kept by retail companies, credit card companies, governments, political parties, and who knows who else.  It is not hard to track what we buy, how we spend our disposable income, what books and movies we watch, how much we exercise, what kinds of foods we eat, who we spend time with, and what vices we enjoy.  From all that it is easy to generate what we are about to do next. “People who listen to David Bowie also like David Bryne” is one of the more innocuous examples. If anyone could access the data you have voluntarily complied on you phone they would know much more about you, and be able to make more accurate predictions about how you will behave than you probably could for yourself.
But the main advantage / disadvantage of Big Data is that it doesn’t care. It shows things that are counter-intuitive, or that people don’t want to accept, for example that children who are raised with two parents of the same sex grow up to be heterosexual at the same rate as children of children raised by heterosexual parents, or that Republicans have the same general IQ level as Democrats, or that it’s better to have LeBron on your team than Stephan Curry.
These computer tools we have created will only get better at what they do. As we can see from the GO game, they will improve by correcting their own mistakes. Many more of our decisions will be guided by computer algorithms. This will be true for large scale decisions such as finance, city planning, health care, and elections, as well as individual decisions, such as our choices in music, restaurants, schools, or job fitness. 

Do we want this kind of guidance?  Will we accept it and use it?  Will we even be aware of how much we are being influenced?  How many of these algorithms are made for our best interest, or are the there to promote someone’s profits?



Coming Next:  Section B: But We Are Human