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

Monday, October 17, 2016

Tools 2: Tools That Do Our Work

Anyone who is working at a job in any scientific field is aware of how new technological tools have increased their ability to explore almost any question, and to do so a thousand times faster than anyone could thirty years ago.  Genetic studies that would have needed thirty years to observe twins to grow-up can now be done in a matter of hours by looking at their DNA.  The availability of techniques such as CRISP-R are dramatically changing the way people are attacking genetic diseases.
The Super-Collider is another widely-publicized research tool that is allowing cosmologists to answers questions about the formation of our universe. We are beginning to get answers to questions that had previously been based only on faith.
Watson computers are not only playing chess and Jeopardy, they are being used as a “clinical decision support system.” This machine can process four terabytes of information in the a tiny fraction of the time that it takes your doctor to stare at the ceiling and try to recall what he knows.
Advances in brain science have are being done using improved FMRI machines as well as PET scans and variations of electronic brain stimulators.
The list of fields that have been totally changed since the start of the new millennium is endless.  It goes from the examination of ancient scrolls to the exploration of asteroids. No one who does any kind of research or scientific inquiry today does it in the same manner that their predecessors did as little as twenty years ago.  If they are they are wasting time.

Of course, it isn’t just science, technology has now disrupted almost every job in every field: farming, journalism, law, music, art, even waiting on tables and doing dishes. Delivery services such as UPS now not only monitor their trucks and packages, they can monitor how fast each driver is driving, and how many packages they deliver in an hour.  Almost every job, from analytics to zeppelin construction, has their own specifically designed software packages to guide the workers.  The trend is that the software and hardware is quickly replacing most of the workers, and doing a better job.

Increasingly, unpleasant jobs are being done by bots and robots. Assembly lines, which are full of repetitive tasks, such as those that build cars, sort medicines, and fill soda bottles were one of the first adaptations of using machines to replace workers.  Machines don’t  get tired, don’t take breaks and remain accurate.  Robots go into burning buildings,  Robots disarm bombs.  Robots clean-up hazardous waste. Robots go into battle,  Drones observe, track and can kill enemy combatants, (and sometimes their families).

Robots are being designed to take over more tasks. It has become clear that any job that pays under twenty dollars an hour can probably be performed better by a robot.  That includes the cooks at McDonalds and home health aids.  There are studies the show that many elderly and somewhat demented people respond very well to being guided, reminded, and talked to by robots. There are also robots that can take a person’s blood pressure and monitor other important bodily functions.  They can do this while the persons sits at home. Many people do this for themselves with small devices such as Fitbits or other health apps, of which there are now thousands. Once any doctor, insurance company or therapists gains access to the information on your cell-phone they will know much more about you than you know about yourself.
A self-driving car, which is right on the horizon, is a specialized robot.  In fact, they are here, just waiting for the laws to catch-up.  Eventually, these will be easier, safer, more fuel efficient, more time efficient, and cost less.  Self-driving cars will probably eliminate traffic jams, as they will be in touch with each other, know alternate routes, and not be subjected to the random actions of individual drivers. They will put hundreds of thousands of people out of work.

All of these things are just the most obvious kinds of technologies that will all almost certainly become part of our lives in the not very distant future, probably within twenty years.  They will alter the kinds of skills that will be necessary for people to successfully run their lives. There will be a need for physical exercise, but that will  be in the service of keeping your body healthy or for athletic pursuits.  The need to use human muscle power to do manual labor will be greatly diminished.  
This will change the nature of human bodies and, since we know there is a strong mind/body connection, that will change people’s thoughts and emotions..  For me, as a psychologist, I have no way of predicting if people will feel more relaxed, capable and able to enjoy themselves, or if these changes will result in more obesity and sickness. Will we develop an awareness that our lives are so much more dependent upon different kinds of machines, or will this just happen, drop by drop, until many of us think differently, solve problems differently, and slowly change into a different form of our species?

There will be a continued deterioration in many skills that were very basic to human adaptation.  I suspect that people will lose the sense of where they are in the world, how to get from place to place, how to traverse difficult terrain, and how to find your way home on your own.  All of these will probably become competitive sports, but most people won’t bother to learn those skills.
I am just one or two generations away from the time when people had to grow their own food. Many also hunted, fished and trapped for protein, or else they raised and slaughtered animals themselves.  My generation saw the rise of supermarkets, shopping malls, and strip malls, all with huge parking lots. I learned how to drive when i was sixteen and that gave me the freedom to live on my own, go anywhere I wanted, see friends easily and get myself to work.
The next generation who comes into the developed world will probably not have to shop, cook, or drive.  They will probably not even have to keep track of what they need, as all they will have to do is ask the descendant of Amazon’s Echo to make sure that they have all their supplies of food, milk, bread, wine and wafers.  Most of the usual supplies will be on a regular delivery schedule and be put on the shelves, or into the refrigerator.  Many of our meals will be specifically designed for us and come completely prepared and placed directly on the table by a friendly robot. All of these things are very possible, but only for those who can afford them.

The effects of all of these work saving tools are two-fold.  They make life physically easier for people, both at work and at home.  There will be no need to carry heavy parts and tools, to use a hammer or saw, or drive or fly hundreds of miles.  No need to vacuum the floor, walk up and down the isles of supermarkets, or clean-up after grandpa.  It will all be done by robots and the Internet of Things.
Another positive effect will be to eliminate human error.  Self-driving cars will be safer and more efficient than human drivers.  They will not be affected by bad moods, loud music, texting, traffic, or road rage.  That will be true for trucks and planes also. Already, computers tally bills more accurately, make change, keep track of who is buying what, give out rewards, and keep records, with no mistakes.  They are unaffected by fatigue, repetitive actions, ADHD, the urge to steal, or flirting with customers. They are vulnerable to hacking.
The unintended effects of these technological advances will take place in our brains.  It will be more pronounced in the brains of the children who will be raised surrounded by all of theses robots, interconnectedness and embedded artificial intelligence.  What skills will they need besides coding, wanting, and fending off social media attacks?
Other questions revolve around the unresolved issues regarding if machines are doing all the work, what will people do? If people aren’t working, how can they afford these devices?  Will we just play games or will we learn to get along with each other?  
Or, will our primitive urges still be the most powerful and we still divide into tribes and use all of these new tools to destroy each other?

What is clear, especially clear at this moment, is that our so called leaders are pretty clueless and unprepared for what is coming.  Most politician don’t understand the technology and have trouble using email.  They all, from your town council member to the President of the U.S. are talking about creating better jobs when they should be thinking about how people will live if one third of them work, or if everyone works fifteen hours a week. What about security?  What about privacy? What about generating enough power for all of these machines without ruining the planet?  
These are just the most obvious of the questions that need to be confronted starting now.  I haven’t heard a word about any of them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Fancy Tools - 1


This will come as no surprise to any of you but I am writing these words on a laptop computer.  I am sitting at my desk at home but I could be in my office at work, or in a local coffee shop, or in a hotel lobbying Boston, or a hotel lobby in Mumbai, or the airport in Timbuktu.  Most of the world is not at all surprised by this, but my twenty year-old self would have been writing with a pencil in a spiral notebook, misspelling twenty percent of the words.
In a few paragraphs I will cite some research done by Dr. Dietrich Stout, of Emory University, who is a neuro- anthropologist, a profession that did not exist ten years ago.  I first read about his research in a magazine, but when I wanted to learn more I just clicked on a search engine and I was connected to 364,00 references to him in .53 seconds.  I’m sure that none of this is surprising to any of you, but again, when I was in college, way back when the world was colder, the Celtics were champion every year and Bill Russell was paid $100,001 for the season, I may still have received a magazine describing Dr. Stouts’s work.  But to learn more I would have had to go to the library and search through the stacks and hope to find the right anthropological journal among the hundreds of journals in the library.  Now of course, here are thousands of journals, and almost all of them are accessible in .53 seconds, right here where I am sitting.
Clearly, my computer is a tool, a complex, electronic tool that is connected to a power source. One of the distinctive behaviors that have differentiated humans from other species is our ability to make tools.  We are not the only species that can do this, but we have certainly taken this concept further by far than the crow who uses a stick or the orangutan that uses a rock.  Birds can fly, but we have built planes.  Whales can live under water for hours, people can stay under water for months. As far as we know there is no other species that uses calculus. 
We have reached the level of tool development at which tools are totally interwoven into every aspect of our lives. It has become impossible for us to live the lives we do without them.  We live in homes that are heated and cooled.  We move from place to place in cars, boats, trains and planes.  We use tractors to plant our food and huge harvesters to bring in in from the field. There are refrigerated trucks and planes that ship the food all over the world. We have drugs to kill harmful bacteria, and drugs to keep our hearts beating and drugs to relieve pain. Yes, there may be some people who try to live their lives “off the grid,” but it is impossible for them not to be affected by those whose lives are lived on the grid, even if it is just the negative effects of climate change and pollution.
This brings us to Dr. Stout’s work. He has been studying what happens to people’s brains when they learn to use tools.  He is starting at the beginning.  He is watching what happens to the  brains of people when they learn to make and use the first tools that humanoids made 500,000 years ago, which was before our species, homo sapien, emerged. He has been teaching himself and many students how to make stone axes. He is using more sophisticated tools to watch the changes that occur in their brains as they learn. First he used FDG-PET,  fluorodeoxyglucose positron-emission tomography, then he used an MRI , magnetic resonance imaging, to explore how learning to make tools improved the brains of our ancestors. 
Dr. Stout and his colleagues have been able to show that learning a new skill, a skill that is difficult to learn and takes a great deal of practice, will produce changes in the brains of people of any age. These are the kinds of changes that once they are learned, give the person an adaptive advantage.  The people who learned to make and use axes had a better chance of surviving than people who didn’t.  These people also learned to show others whom they associated with, their tribe, how to make tools, and that gave the whole tribe an advantage, and so their society changed, along with their brains.
That is what is happening today.  We are all learning to use new tools, and new tools are being invented and created at a much faster pace than they were 500,000 years ago. Obviously, the rate of change is much faster.  We will not wait another few thousand years to turn an axe into a spear, or a car into a driverless car.
The speed of creation of new tools has been greatly amplified because we now build tools to build tools.  In order to build new planes we first write software programs to write software to design the programs to build the planes. We have already built the computers to run the software. Our lives have become so involved with our tools that the most important skill a person needs to live well and prosper is to be able to control the tools.  However, in many ways, it now often seems as if our tools have such a strong impact on our lives that they control us.
Our tools, especially the electronic ones, have greatly accelerated the speed of change, and this will continue to accelerate due to the changes it creates.  The electronic tools we create help us make those tools faster, help us aggregate more data, which helps us find more patterns and create new algorithms, which shows us more options.. These options are communicated at an increasing speed to everyone and anyone who will make use of that information to create new tools.

If they have not already, these tools have changed the way almost everyone on earth lives their lives.  Jobs have shifted all over the world because people who are in company headquarters in New York can know instantly what production is going on in China, how quickly the product can be shipped to Denmark, and how much money will be sent to the bank in London.  Money itself is only an electronic blip on a screen, and can move at almost the speed of light.
This kind of instant, world wide communication has changed how people meet, learn about each other, and in many cases mate and start families.  I have had several patients who have made friends with people thousands of miles apart, sometimes on other continents. Based on virtual communications they have decided they are in love and have left what they considered boring, unfulfilling lives to seek love and romance miles away.
Yes, several have been swindled and fooled and have returned broke and broken hearted.  But I have seen several people who have found what they had hoped for, or at least enough of it to begin new lives.  One woman left Massachusetts for Hawaii, another young woman had a young man come from Alabama, and another woman began a romance with a soldier who was in Iraq.  He came home wounded, had his leg amputated and a prothesis put one, and then they got married.
All of this would have been very difficult before 2005, when Facebook began, and helped the world to keep in touch.  There were dating sites earlier than that, Match began ten years earlier, but by 2005 a huge portions of the world was on the Internet.  In 2007 the first iPhone was sold. The world, and our brains, have been changing rapidly ever since.
If learning the skill to make a stone axe changes the shape and connectivity of a person’s brain, what does learning to write computer code do to the brains of young, or old, coders?  Is the shape of my eighteen month old my granddaughter’s brains altered as she learned to take my smart phone and push the right spots on the screen to find Elmo? If getting a ping on the corner of your field of vision every twenty seconds alerting you to some new bit of information, one of which may make you change the entire piece of work you’ve been doing for two weeks because this new piece of information says that three old pieces of information are now deemed questionable, what does that do to your brain? or blood pressure? your emotional stability?

The biggest impact of the rapid development of all of these electronic tools has been on our ability to expand our knowledge about who we are, how the world works , and even the universe that we live in.  Since the beginning of the new millennium more has been discovered and learned in every field of science than had been known in the previous four thousand years.  A research question that could never have been asked thirty years ago can now be answered in a week, sometimes in seconds.  So much of wha I learned in college and graduate school is now considered obsolete, or just plain wrong because so much of it was based on speculation, or the best possible guess, when now we have very clear data.  
It is often pointed out that the warehouse size computers that were used to guide the first moon landing did not have the computing power of an iPhone 5.  If we use all the tools we now have we could solve almost all of the world’s problems such as hunger, climate change, water distribution and disease.  The obstacles that remain are financial and political. We are still searching for tools to help interpersonal relationships, and then to get people to use them.

Many questions keep floating into my consciousness: Is this what we want? How can we choose? How can we adapt to these changes?  What skills will be necessary to live and prosper in this new world?  Who will possess those skills?  What about all the rest of the people?

Friday, September 30, 2016

Stem Cells

It’s HubWeek in Boston.
What’s that?
That is Boston’s festival of science, medicine, art and technology.  They call it a Festival of the Future.  It is sponsored by Harvard, MIT, Mass General Hospital and the Boston Globe.  It lasts a week and has a few hundred events, ranging from breathing exercises to groups of scientists explaining their work to the general public.  
The “general public” in Boston and Cambridge is not very representative of what is usually considered the “general public.”  The group at these meetings are generally very informed, very intellectual, very scientifically involved. The people in the audience are either quite young and academic, or older and successful. The presenters and the audience at these meeting is also very diverse.  People from literally all over the world.  These are people who not only represent every continent and race, but often several continents and races are combined in one person (not very diverse politically, however).
The first event I went to was a discussion by a panel of doctors and scientists who are developing a cure, not just a treatment but a cure, for Type-1 diabetes.  They already have learned how to take stem cells and get them to evolve into the beta cells that make insulin.  In Type-1 diabetes these beta cells have been destroyed by the patient’s own auto-immune system. The presenters had formed a team from Harvard, The Joslin Clinic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and a bio-tech laboratory that will do the manufacturing.  
They were working on a method to take a persons’ blood and from that produce stem cells with that person’s own DNA.  Then they then use the proper enzymes and RNA procedures to turn those stem cells into the kind of beta cells that make insulin.  These cells had been destroyed by the person’s own immune system, and thus created the Type-1 diabetes. The beta cells would then be injected into the person so they could again be able to naturally monitor their own glucose level and produce their own insulin to convert glucose into the kind of molecules the body needs for energy.  They have already done this for mice, and now they are beginning to see if it can work in humans.
Obviously, this is very complex.  The panel members were all excited about their progress and felt that they will be able to overcome the many obstacles they still face. They also made it clear that the availability of this treatment is still years away.
To me, this is one of the many examples of how we are entering into a new world.  We are on the brink of really understanding how we are constructed, and how we can get into the most basic structures and fix some of the flaws.  This is radically different from how medicine has worked until now, which has been to do our best to treat the symptoms. I have a close family member who has Type-1 diabetes and I see every day how she has to treat her symptoms.  It also feels as if the companies that have worked on the medicines she uses see her as much as a revenue stream as they do as a patient.  The treatments of so many diseases these days are designed to have a patient take medicine regularly to stay healthy, thereby keeping a life-long revenue stream going for the company.  There are very few actual “cures” for chronic diseases so far.  
I realize, in part, that is because finding the underlying, causal mechanism for any such disease is very complex, as these people made clear.  Still, the profit motive does play a role in what kind of medicine is developed.  The presenters on this panel are not paid by any drug company.  They work for universities and hospitals.  They had to fund their own company to make the supplies they will need, and that company will lose money for a long time.
Unfortunately, another factor that has delayed the progress of this group has been politics.  Again, it was objections from the right-wing, anti-scientific community.  As I said, these people feel that their methods are still five to ten years away from application.  But for the eight years of the Bush administration they were prevented from using any government money to develop stem cells.  Somehow Vice-President Cheney decided that developing stem-cells encouraged abortion and had to be stopped. Therefore people who were alive would have to continue to suffer and possibly die, due to the misconception that this was protecting some unborn zygotes.
Of course, it seems nuts and foolish.  But as a psychologist I know better than most people that logic and reason is not how any of us make decisions.  So much depends upon the people we hang around with, the information we get, the lens through which we view the world, and how comfortable we are with change.

A lot is changing now. We all feel it.  This is one, very positive example. But, as I said, we are beginning to deal with the basic building structures of humanity.  It is very complex.  That makes it all a bit unpredictable, exciting, yet also frightening.

Friday, August 12, 2016

My Mission:

During the last few months I have been reading many of the posts one The Mission.  I read how people are trying to help others find pathways improve their careers, their finances, their relationships, and where they fit into the world.  Most are focusing on short and intermediate time frames.  I am older than most of your readers, almost as old as Bernie, and I am interested in the longer term. I wonder about the lives of my children and grandchildren. 
I read how many of your readers are working hard to create a future that will be different in many ways from how we live now, and hopefully, it will be better. 
My Mission, is to start a discussion about that: where are we going?  What are we creating?  Why? What do we want?  What may be the unintended consequences?
I want help people think with a wider perspective.  What will happen to their lives, to their families, to communities, to the world as a result of all of these changes?

I am proposing to write a series of essays, each 1000 to 2000 words, which highlight the many significant changes that are affecting all of us.  These essays will describe changes in areas such as technology, genetics, families, population demographics, the earth’s environment, sources of energy, and medicine.  Most importantly, I will focus on how all of these areas interact with each other to increase the impact on our lives.
At the end of each essay there will be a few questions for people to consider.  These questions are designed to help people clarify how they want to participate and benefit from the opportunities that are being created.  I hope to be able to stimulate a discussion about how each of us can influences the direction and consequences of all of this change.  The flux will always be with us. We can either be swept up and dragged along by the swift current, or we can take some actions now to control the direction of the river, while we each choose the best ways to steer our own kayaks.

Ch-ch-ch Changes

Things are changing. Many things already have.  The world is being disrupted.  More change is coming, and coming faster. Constant change is now the norm.
As we change the world, the world is changing us, as a species.  The type of tasks we need to survive and prosper are different than they were fifty years ago when I was just facing the world as a young adult.  Everything in the world moved much slower.I had to search for information in places well beyond the palm of my hand. The information I could find then, especially in sciences, was probably less than a third of what there is now.  What I was learning in graduate school about Psychology at that time has mostly been disproven or relegated to the archives of “long ago.”
All of the sciences are completely different than fifty years ago.  So are almost all of what happens during the daily lives of everyone in the developed world: how we communicate, how we work, where we work, how we get food, what we eat, how we spend our leisure time, how find mates, how we create our families, what constitutes a family……. Almost every aspect of our lives has been affected by changes in technology, medicine, and the changes in our biological environment and our social environment.
The result of all of these changes is that the people who do well in the future will require different skills than the ones who are doing well now.  In many ways, they will be different kinds of people.
What will you be doing in ten, twenty or thirty years? What about your children or grandchildren?  Do you know how all of these changes will affect you, and them?  Do you think you will be able to choose the benefits these changes offer while avoiding the dangers?  Do you think you know what is coming or will it all just happen to you, and you will have to struggle to cope?

We are living in an fascinating time, a chaotic time.  Many of these new developments are marvelous and fascinating, but so much is happening so quickly that many people are feeling very insecure. I have been a psychotherapist for over forty years and I have witnessed how, even though in many ways our lives are much easier, there still has been a widespread rise in the amount of stress, anxiety and depression in people all over the world. 

On the positive side, it is clear that more than any other time in history, many people are very aware that there is a lot going on. This is good, but we have to take advantage of this realization. We have to ask ourselves many difficult questions, and they are questions that we will each have to answer for ourselves.  There really is no one best way forward. But if you don’t consider many of these questions, you could be swept away and who knows if you will like where you end up.
That is my Mission: to highlight the impact of some of the many changes in our lives, to make the issues clear, and to ask some questions.  My purpose is to start a discussion so that we can all share ideas and perspectives.  We all hope to build a better future. Let’s create the future we want instead of letting it shape who we become.

* * * * *

1. Hey Gottlieb!

Let me begin with a hypothetical:

It’s sometime around 1885.   You are about to attend a meeting with Gottlieb Daimler and a few of his buddies. He is the guy who constructed what is generally recognized as the prototype of the modern, gas-powered, internal combustion engine.
Let’s get all of those innovators together and brainstorm about the long-term consequences of their new product.  Do they have any idea of the effect it could have?  Is there anything they might do differently if they could see how the world looks today?

The invention of the internal combustion engine was the beginning of one of the great technological transformations of the world. That technology changed the world dramatically in ways that we take for granted today.  Almost all of the those changes are seen as “progress,” but many of the secondary consequences are a bit troubling. 
Here are a few of the obvious changes: 
— There has been a great reduction in the need for backbreaking human and animal labor.  
— The improvement in the transportation of people and goods has totally transformed how people live, work, and relate.  
— People are now spread across the world and still get to wherever they need to go, rapidly and easily.  We have cars, trains, planes, buses, trucks, and boats. 
— We have billions of miles of paved roads to help us get places.  We can live in suburbs or exurbs and still work in cities.
— Internal combustion engines now do our farming, build our buildings, pave our roads, fight our wars and blow our leaves away. 
— There is no part of our lives that has not not been affected, and in may ways made much easier.

Of course, there have been some unintended consequences:

— The burning of fossil fuel has been a major contributor to changing the atmosphere and heating our planet. There is now the possibility that it will cause great harm to many people.
— Easy, rapid travel and big machines have allowed people to live in climates and environments such as deserts, jungles  and mountain tops in a way that has destroyed a great deal of the natural balance between the flora and fauna of our planet,  
— There has been an unmeasurable amount of corruption and a great many wars fought to insure access to the gas and oil needed to run these internal combustion engines.  Many of the poorest and most oppressive countries in the world have become unbelievably rich due to having vast deposits of oil and gas.
— Wars have been fought involving the entire planet, resulting in the deaths of millions of people, mostly due to the more destructive power of the planes, battleships and tanks that have been powered by internal combustion engines.  

No one would think to place the blame for the destruction, corruption and pollution on  the people who designed and built those early engines. They had no way of even imagining what was gong to transpire in fifty, or a hundred years after their spark-plugs began to ignite the fuel in those cylinders.  They were really just trying to find something that was stronger, easier to care for, and more dependable than a horse or an ox. 
But perhaps, if there was a way of trying to consider the long-term possibilities, some small revision may have been made the could have kept many of the strengths while avoiding many of the difficulties.  A man named J. J. √Čtienne Lenoir tried, in 1858  to make an engine using hydrogen as fuel.  Perhaps we should have stuck with that.

Today, we are in the early stages of many such transformational technological creations. Due to the interactions of science, technology, entrepreneurship, and rapid communications, many of these new creations are appearing at once.   We are developing digital technology, nano-technology, and quantum technology.  We are making amazing advances in genetics, engineering, medicine , brain science, robotics, virtual reality, and human/machine combinations. We are working on new, clean sources of energy that will be necessary to keep all these things operating   We are also seeing huge migrations of people who are blending together to create new communities. This is leading to large shifts in the values, expectations and behaviors of everyone, all over the world.
We have the opportunity to use many of these advances in communications and technology to anticipate, in ways that no one possibly could have back in 1885, what the consequences of all of these changes could possibly be. Since we are at such an early stage in so many of these advances we should try to use our new powers of analysis and prediction to help us make choices of what we want to achieve and how we want to use it?  
How can each of us determine which parts of this new world we want in our lives?  We have learned that we cannot depend on governments or corporations or any institutions to be watching out for our best interests. We have to be able to watch over them. 
There will be scientific studies, algorithms and protocols to direct us, but we need to be sophisticated enough to understand them and know what they are designed to do. The hope for the future is that we will gain more freedom and prosperity.  These changes will affect our lives and the lives of future generations, Now is the time to choose, and we need to choose as wisely as possible.
That is why I am writing this series of essays.  They will contain descriptions of many of aspects of our lives which are rapidly changing.  At the end of each section will be questions 
i hope you ask yourself, and discuss with your family and friends. I hope you will add your comments here.  It should help you decide, as much as possible, which of all of the new possibilities you want in your life, and which ones would lead you away from the kind of life you hope for. I hope you will pose your own questions.  The more people who are involved, the more successful we will be. We should all be part of the process of making the new world a better place to live in, and one in which we can all live there together, in peace, with freedom, prosperity, health and happiness.


1.   How much time do you spend on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Linked-In, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube,Tumblr, Instagram, etc)?
Do you control it, or does it control you?
Are you getting what you want more than you are bothered?
How many apps do you have to help manage your other apps?
Can you stay away?  FOMO?

2.   If you are experiencing some strange physical symptoms, would you rather have your diagnosis be determined by a your personal doctor? a Watson computer? or a combination of the two?
Which would your doctor prefer?
How old is your doctor?

3.  How much different will our lives be in 2045, the year I turn 100? There are many predictions you can look at: Ray Kurzweil, Kevin Kelly, Michael Bess, Steven Kotler, many VC people, as well as Mad Max. Many others such as sci-fi writers or corporate think tanks.
What are some of the things we do now that will amaze people in 2045?
That we:
— Let humans drive cars and fly planes?
— Eat food that comes directly out of the ground or the ocean?
— Work more than fifteen hours a week?

All of these questions, and many more will be discussed in the weeks ahead.
Please join me by pushing the green heart and adding a comment in the discussion.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

I'm back.
I'm starting to write about new things.  The past was prologue.  
I'm putting some test drafts here for the 20 of your to read.  I have not done anything to broaden the readership of this blog, but that may happen.  We'll see.

Something’s Happening Here

1. Realization

Way back In the Spring of 2012 I was sitting across across from  Carrie, an attractive, articulate, sixteen year-old young woman.  She had come to me because she was having panic attacks. These attacks often came when she was studying for exams at school.  She said sometimes she felt as if her head was going to explode, and at other times that she couldn’t breathe.  Carrie spoke in a very animated fashion about how difficult it was for her to maintain her excellent grades and still keep up with the constant influx from her social connections.  As she spoke her voice cracked a little and her dark hair fell in front of her dark eyes that would fill, but not overflow with tears.  Her parents, Sandra and Joyce, were sitting in my waiting room, while her friends, many of them, were wondering where she was and why she was not answering their text messages that were making her phone ping every thirty seconds.
I have been a psychotherapist for over forty years and have been closely involved in thousands of people’s lives, yet that was the memorable moment when it became undeniably obvious to me that I was living in a new world; a world that is not only creating changes in how we all live, it is creating changes in who we all are. Changes that will alter the basic make-up of our species,.
The changes are technological, environmental, genetic, and societal.  The most powerful changes are the result of how all of those factors interact.  This new world will increasingly require  people to learn different skills in order to adapt and succeed.  Many of the ways of thinking and acting that were adaptive and helpful two or three generations ago, are no longer useful; others are now counter-productive. The time and effort that our ancestors needed to learn how to hunt or to grow for food has been replaced by knowing how to talk to Siri or an Amazon Echo.
Our grandparents lived in a world that was very different from the one that their grandparents lived in.  The early twentieth century was a time of change, especially compared to the early nineteenth century. It was a time of significant industrial and mechanical advances. The pace of that change has continued to increase so that now, in the early twenty-first century, we live with constant change.  We expect it to continue. But as we are changing the world, the world is changing us. 

For thousands of years the personalities, beliefs, and behaviors of all people have been shaped by the same basic forces: our genetics, then our families, then our communities, and we are all also limited or enhanced by our general health.
Who we all are, as individuals, begins with our own genetic structure, 99.9% of which we share with every other member of our homo sapiens family. We are all the product of millions of years of evolution. All human babies are born with the genetic scripts that have been passed from generation to generation, with occasional mutations, for two-hundred thousand years. 
Next, we are all plunked into a family grouping, whatever shape  takes:  two parents, a tribe, a refugee camp, a single parent, a mother and a sperm donor, whatever.  This “family” immediately begins to teach us their version of how the world works.  We all quickly begin to understand how we are expected to behave in order to get what we need.. We have to adapt to that specific environment to survive.  Babies are very dependent so we all had to learn fast.
The third powerful influence on our behavior is the community, the subculture in which we find ourselves as we emerge into the world.  This consists of our friends, our school, our church, our neighborhood, our diet, the climate,  and all of the experiences that we find outside of our family, which now, of course, includes all of the Internet and social media.
These three factors interact with each other to shape us all. To this mix of influences we have to add our health.  If we are strong and robust we can partake in much of what we wish.  If we have a major illness or deformity, our lives will be different, not worse necessarily, but different. If we are obviously different in some way it will cause many people to react to us differently. Most people will be kind and helpful, but others will be mean, many will just look away.  We, in turn, will react to their reactions to us. Everything interacts.
Combined, these influences shape what we  believe, and how we think, feel and act.  It has been this way since our ancestors first walked upright and formed groups.
To me, Carrie is the symbol of how these basic, long-standing forces are beginning to change. The pace of these changes will only increase.  Carrie was conceived in a petri dish.  An egg was taken from one of her mothers and fertilized with sperm from an anonymous man who was selected from a profile in a data base.  Her parents were not allowed to be married at the time, but they were living together. As soon as the law was changed they got married. Carrie has a little brother now, and they all live in a happy, caring family.  The community in which Carrie lives accepts her family without question. These are circumstances that her grandparents would not have believed possible.
The visit with Carrie happened in 2012, and already so much from that time seems out of date. This is mainly due to new technologies, and to the new scientific knowledge that these technologies have helped us acquire.  The aspects of Carrie’s life that seemed unusual then are commonplace and well accepted now. In just the past few years there  have been changes in all of the basic powerful forces.  There has been constant scientific advances in our understanding our own genetics., many new variations in the definition of a family; major shifts in demographics and composition of societies around the world, and significant advances in medicine.
All of these changes have affected the expectations of how Carrie will live her life. The skills she is learning, and how she learns them, are changing.   Her life will be vastly different than the life I lived, growing up in the middle of the twentieth century.  All of these things are not only changing how people behave, they are changing our DNA, our bodies and our minds.  Some of it is intentional; most of it is not.  The more we all are aware of what is happening to us, the better prepared we will be to make good use of the changes we feel are beneficial.  We also need to stay vigilant,so that we can avoid the ones we don’t wish to have thrust upon us.

1. Do you know anyone who has two mothers or two fathers?
What do think of it?  How old are you?
Are there some kinds of family combinations that would make you uncomfortable?
Polygamy?  Three fathers with six children?
2, Take a look at yourself in a mirror.
Are you White?  Do you realize how that has affected your life?
Are you tall?  Well endowed? Have a symmetrical face?

3, How close are you to the members of your family?
Do you feel you have absorbed their values, or have you explicitly rejected them?

4.  What is your favorite piece of digital equipment?
How long have you had it?
When will you need to replace it?

Did you think you needed it before you learned there was one?