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The borders between the real world and the digital world keep crumbling, and the latter’s importance in both our personal and professional lives keeps growing. Some describe the melding of virtual and real worlds as part of the fourth industrial revolution. Said revolution’s full impact on us as individuals, our companies, communities, and societies is still unknown.
Greg Cross, chief business officer of New Zealand-based AI company Soul Machines, thinks one inescapable consequence of these crumbling borders is people spending more and more time interacting with technology. In a presentation at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco last month, Cross unveiled Soul Machines’ latest work and shared his views on the current state of human-like AI and where the technology may go in the near future.
Humanizing Technology Interaction
Cross started by introducing Rachel, one of Soul Machines’ “emotionally responsive digital humans.” The company has built 15 different digital humans of various sexes, groups, and ethnicities. Rachel, along with her “sisters” and “brothers,” has a virtual nervous system based on neural networks and biological models of different paths in the human brain. The system is controlled by virtual neurotransmitters and hormones akin to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, which influence learning and behavior.
As a result, each digital human can have its own unique set of “feelings” and responses to interactions. People interact with them via visual and audio sensors, and the machines respond in real time.
“Over the last 20 or 30 years, the way we think about machines and the way we interact with machines has changed,” Cross said. “We’ve always had this view that they should actually be more human-like.”
The realism of the digital humans’ graphic representations comes thanks to the work of Soul Machines’ other co-founder, Dr. Mark Sager, who has won two Academy Awards for his work on some computer-generated movies, including James Cameron’s Avatar.
Cross pointed out, for example, that rather than being unrealistically flawless and clear, Rachel’s skin has blemishes and sun spots, just like real human skin would.
The Next Human-Machine Frontier
When people interact with each other face to face, emotional and intellectual engagement both heavily influence the interaction. What would it look like for machines to bring those same emotional and intellectual capacities to our interactions with them, and how would this type of interaction affect the way we use, relate to, and feel about AI?
Cross and his colleagues believe that humanizing artificial intelligence will make the technology more useful to humanity, and prompt people to use AI in more beneficial ways.
“What we think is a very important view as we move forward is that these machines can be more helpful to us. They can be more useful to us. They can be more interesting to us if they’re actually more like us,” Cross said.
It is an approach that seems to resonate with companies and organizations. For example, in the UK, where NatWest Bank is testing out Cora as a digital employee to help answer customer queries. In Germany, Daimler Financial Group plans to employ Sarah as something “similar to a personal concierge” for its customers. According to Cross, Daimler is looking at other ways it could deploy digital humans across the organization, from building digital service people, digital sales people, and maybe in the future, digital chauffeurs.
Soul Machines’ latest creation is Will, a digital teacher that can interact with children through a desktop, tablet, or mobile device and help them learn about renewable energy. Cross sees other social uses for digital humans, including potentially serving as doctors to rural communities.
Our Digital Friends—and Twins
Soul Machines is not alone in its quest to humanize technology. It is a direction many technology companies, including the likes of Amazon, also seem to be pursuing. Amazon is working on building a home robot that, according to Bloomberg, “could be a sort of mobile Alexa.”
Finding a more human form for technology seems like a particularly pervasive pursuit in Japan. Not just when it comes to its many, many robots, but also virtual assistants like Gatebox.
The Japanese approach was perhaps best summed up by famous android researcher Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, who I interviewed last year: “The human brain is set up to recognize and interact with humans. So, it makes sense to focus on developing the body for the AI mind, as well as the AI. I believe that the final goal for both Japanese and other companies and scientists is to create human-like interaction.”
During Cross’s presentation, Rob Nail, CEO and associate founder of Singularity University, joined him on the stage, extending an invitation to Rachel to be SU’s first fully digital faculty member. Rachel accepted, and though she’s the only digital faculty right now, she predicted this won’t be the case for long.
“In 10 years, all of you will have digital versions of yourself, just like me, to take on specific tasks and make your life a whole lot easier,” she said. “This is great news for me. I’ll have millions of digital friends.”
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We often get so fixated on technological progress that we forget it’s merely one component of the entirety of human progress. Technological advancement does not necessarily correlate with increases in human mental well-being.
While cleaner energy, access to education, and higher employment rates can improve quality of life, they do not guarantee happiness and inner peace. Amid what appears to be an increasing abundance of resources and ongoing human progress, we are experiencing a mental health epidemic, with high anxiety and depression rates. This is especially true in the developed world, where we have access to luxuries our ancestors couldn’t even dream of—all the world’s information contained in a device we hold in the palm of our hands, for example.
But as you may have realized through your own experience, technology can make us feel worse instead of better. Social media can become a tool for comparison and a source of debilitating status anxiety. Increased access to goods and services, along with the rise of consumerism, can lead people to choose “stuff” over true sources of meaning and get trapped in a hedonistic treadmill of materialism. Tools like artificial intelligence and big data could lead to violation of our privacy and autonomy. The digital world can take us away from the beauty of the present moment.
How we use technology can significantly impact our happiness. In this context, “happiness” refers to a general sense of well-being, gratitude, and inner peace. Even with such a simple definition, it is a state of mind many people will admit they lack.
Eastern philosophies have told us for thousands of years that the problem of human suffering begins with our thoughts and perceptions of the circumstances we are in, as opposed to beginning with the circumstances themselves. As Derren Brown brilliantly points out in Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine, “The problem with the modern conception of happiness is that it is seen as some kind of commodity. There is this fantasy that simply by believing in yourself and setting goals you can have anything. But that simply isn’t how life works. The ancients had a much better view of it. They offered an approach of not trying to control things you can’t control, and of lessening your desires and your expectations so you achieve a harmony between what you desire and what you have.”
A core part of feeling more happy is about re-wiring our minds to adjust our expectations, exercise gratitude, escape negative narratives, and live in the present moment.
But can technology help us do that?
Applications for Mental Well-Being
Many doers are asking themselves how they can leverage digital tools to contribute to human happiness.
Meditation and mindfulness are examples of practices we can use to escape the often overwhelming burden of our thoughts and ground our minds into the present. They have become increasingly democratized with the rise of meditation mobile apps, such as Headspace, Gaia, and Calm, that allow millions of people globally to use their phones to learn from experts at a very low cost.
These companies have also partnered with hospitals, airlines, athletic teams, and others that could benefit from increased access to mindfulness and meditation. The popularity of these apps continues to rise as more people recognize their necessity. The combination of mass technology and ancient wisdom is one that can lead to a transformation of the collective consciousness.
Sometimes merely reflecting on the sources of joy in our lives and practicing gratitude can contribute to better well-being. Apps such as Happier encourage users to reflect upon and share pleasant everyday moments in their daily lives. Such exercises are based on the understanding that being happy is a “skill” one can build though practice and through scientifically-proven activities, such as writing down a nice thought and sharing your positivity with the world. Many other tools such as Track Your Happiness and Happstr allow users to track their happiness, which often serves as a valuable source of data to researchers.
There is also a growing body of knowledge that tells us we can achieve happiness by helping others. This “helper’s high” is a result of our brains producing endorphins after having a positive impact on the lives of others. In many shapes and forms, technology has made it easier now more than ever to help other people no matter where they are located. From charitable donations to the rise of social impact organizations, there is an abundance of projects that leverage technology to positively impact individual lives. Platforms like GoVolunteer connect nonprofits with individuals from a variety of skill sets who are looking to gift their abilities to those in need. Kiva allows for fundraising loans that can change lives. These are just a handful of examples of a much wider positive paradigm shift.
The Future of Technology for Well-Being
There is no denying that increasingly powerful and immersive technology can be used to better or worsen the human condition. Today’s leaders will not only have to focus on their ability to use technology to solve a problem or generate greater revenue; they will have to ask themselves if their tech solutions are beneficial or detrimental to human well-being. They will also have to remember that more powerful technology does not always translate to happier users. It is also crucial that future generations be equipped with the values required to use increasingly powerful tools responsibly and ethically.
In the Education 2030 report, the Millennium Project envisions a world wherein portable intelligent devices combined with integrated systems for lifelong learning contribute to better well-being. In this vision, “continuous evaluation of individual learning processes designed to prevent people from growing unstable and/or becoming mentally ill, along with programs aimed at eliminating prejudice and hate, could bring about a more beautiful, loving world.”
There is exciting potential for technology to be leveraged to contribute to human happiness at a massive scale. Yet, technology shouldn’t consume every aspect of our lives, since a life worth living is often about balance. Sometimes, even if just for a few moments, what would make us feel happier is we disconnected from technology to begin with.
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Google Turns 20: How an Internet Search Engine Reshaped the World
Editorial Staff | The Verge
“No technology company is arguably more responsible for shaping the modern internet, and modern life, than Google. The company that started as a novel search engine now manages eight products with more than 1 billion users each.”
Why Technology Favors Tyranny
Yuval Noah Harari | The Atlantic
“It is undoubtable…that the technological revolutions now gathering momentum will in the next few decades confront humankind with the hardest trials it has yet encountered.”
AI Can Recognize Images, But Can It Understand This Headline?
Gregory Barber | Wired
“In 2012, artificial intelligence researchers revealed a big improvement in computers’ ability to recognize images by feeding a neural network millions of labeled images from a database called ImageNet. …In other arenas of AI research, like understanding language, similar models have proved elusive. But recent research from fast.ai, OpenAI, and the Allen Institute for AI suggests a potential breakthrough, with more robust language models that can help researchers tackle a range of unsolved problems.”
Quantum Computing Is Almost Ready for Business, Startup Says
Sean Captain | Fast Company
“Rigetti is now inviting customers to apply for free access to these systems, toward the goal of developing a real-world application that achieves quantum advantage. As an extra incentive, the first to make it wins a $1 million prize.”
How Realistic Are Sci-Fi Spaceships? An Expert Ranks Your Favorites
Chris Taylor | Mashable
“For all the villainous Borg’s supposed efficiency, their vast six-sided planet-threatening vessel is a massive waste of space. The Death Star may cost an estimated $852 quadrillion in steel alone, but that figure would be far higher if it employed any other shape. That’s no moon—it’s a highly efficient use of surface area.”
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By now, you’ve probably seen Google’s new Duplex software, which promises to call people on your behalf to book appointments for haircuts and the like. As yet, it only exists in demo form, but already it seems like Google has made a big stride towards capturing a market that plenty of companies have had their eye on for quite some time. This software is impressive, but it raises questions.
Many of you will be familiar with the stilted, robotic conversations you can have with early chatbots that are, essentially, glorified menus. Instead of pressing 1 to confirm or 2 to re-enter, some of these bots would allow for simple commands like “Yes” or “No,” replacing the buttons with limited ability to recognize a few words. Using them was often a far more frustrating experience than attempting to use a menu—there are few things more irritating than a robot saying, “Sorry, your response was not recognized.”
Google Duplex scheduling a hair salon appointment:
Google Duplex calling a restaurant:
Even getting the response recognized is hard enough. After all, there are countless different nuances and accents to baffle voice recognition software, and endless turns of phrase that amount to saying the same thing that can confound natural language processing (NLP), especially if you like your phrasing quirky.
You may think that standard customer-service type conversations all travel the same route, using similar words and phrasing. But when there are over 80,000 ways to order coffee, and making a mistake is frowned upon, even simple tasks require high accuracy over a huge dataset.
Advances in audio processing, neural networks, and NLP, as well as raw computing power, have meant that basic recognition of what someone is trying to say is less of an issue. Soundhound’s virtual assistant prides itself on being able to process complicated requests (perhaps needlessly complicated).
The deeper issue, as with all attempts to develop conversational machines, is one of understanding context. There are so many ways a conversation can go that attempting to construct a conversation two or three layers deep quickly runs into problems. Multiply the thousands of things people might say by the thousands they might say next, and the combinatorics of the challenge runs away from most chatbots, leaving them as either glorified menus, gimmicks, or rather bizarre to talk to.
Yet Google, who surely remembers from Glass the risk of premature debuts for technology, especially the kind that ask you to rethink how you interact with or trust in software, must have faith in Duplex to show it on the world stage. We know that startups like Semantic Machines and x.ai have received serious funding to perform very similar functions, using natural-language conversations to perform computing tasks, schedule meetings, book hotels, or purchase items.
It’s no great leap to imagine Google will soon do the same, bringing us closer to a world of onboard computing, where Lens labels the world around us and their assistant arranges it for us (all the while gathering more and more data it can convert into personalized ads). The early demos showed some clever tricks for keeping the conversation within a fairly narrow realm where the AI should be comfortable and competent, and the blog post that accompanied the release shows just how much effort has gone into the technology.
Yet given the privacy and ethics funk the tech industry finds itself in, and people’s general unease about AI, the main reaction to Duplex’s impressive demo was concern. The voice sounded too natural, bringing to mind Lyrebird and their warnings of deepfakes. You might trust “Do the Right Thing” Google with this technology, but it could usher in an era when automated robo-callers are far more convincing.
A more human-like voice may sound like a perfectly innocuous improvement, but the fact that the assistant interjects naturalistic “umm” and “mm-hm” responses to more perfectly mimic a human rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. This wasn’t just a voice assistant trying to sound less grinding and robotic; it was actively trying to deceive people into thinking they were talking to a human.
Google is running the risk of trying to get to conversational AI by going straight through the uncanny valley.
“Google’s experiments do appear to have been designed to deceive,” said Dr. Thomas King of the Oxford Internet Institute’s Digital Ethics Lab, according to Techcrunch. “Their main hypothesis was ‘can you distinguish this from a real person?’ In this case it’s unclear why their hypothesis was about deception and not the user experience… there should be some kind of mechanism there to let people know what it is they are speaking to.”
From Google’s perspective, being able to say “90 percent of callers can’t tell the difference between this and a human personal assistant” is an excellent marketing ploy, even though statistics about how many interactions are successful might be more relevant.
In fact, Duplex runs contrary to pretty much every major recommendation about ethics for the use of robotics or artificial intelligence, not to mention certain eavesdropping laws. Transparency is key to holding machines (and the people who design them) accountable, especially when it comes to decision-making.
Then there are the more subtle social issues. One prominent effect social media has had is to allow people to silo themselves; in echo chambers of like-minded individuals, it’s hard to see how other opinions exist. Technology exacerbates this by removing the evolutionary cues that go along with face-to-face interaction. Confronted with a pair of human eyes, people are more generous. Confronted with a Twitter avatar or a Facebook interface, people hurl abuse and criticism they’d never dream of using in a public setting.
Now that we can use technology to interact with ever fewer people, will it change us? Is it fair to offload the burden of dealing with a robot onto the poor human at the other end of the line, who might have to deal with dozens of such calls a day? Google has said that if the AI is in trouble, it will put you through to a human, which might help save receptionists from the hell of trying to explain a concept to dozens of dumbfounded AI assistants all day. But there’s always the risk that failures will be blamed on the person and not the machine.
As AI advances, could we end up treating the dwindling number of people in these “customer-facing” roles as the buggiest part of a fully automatic service? Will people start accusing each other of being robots on the phone, as well as on Twitter?
Google has provided plenty of reassurances about how the system will be used. They have said they will ensure that the system is identified, and it’s hardly difficult to resolve this problem; a slight change in the script from their demo would do it. For now, consumers will likely appreciate moves that make it clear whether the “intelligent agents” that make major decisions for us, that we interact with daily, and that hide behind social media avatars or phone numbers are real or artificial.
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Leah Weiss believes that when we pay attention to how we do our work—our thoughts and feelings about what we do and why we do it—we can tap into a much deeper reservoir of courage, creativity, meaning, and resilience.
As a researcher, educator, and author, Weiss teaches a course called “Leading with Compassion and Mindfulness” at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, one of the most competitive MBA programs in the world, and runs programs at HopeLab.
Weiss is the author of the new book How We Work: Live Your Purpose, Reclaim your Sanity and Embrace the Daily Grind, endorsed by the Dalai Lama, among others. I caught up with Leah to learn more about how the practice of mindfulness can deepen our individual and collective purpose and passion.
Lisa Kay Solomon: We’re hearing a lot about mindfulness these days. What is mindfulness and why is it so important to bring into our work? Can you share some of the basic tenets of the practice?
Leah Weiss, PhD: Mindfulness is, in its most literal sense, “the attention to inattention.” It’s as simple as noticing when you’re not paying attention and then re-focusing. It is prioritizing what is happening right now over internal and external noise.
The ability to work well with difficult coworkers, handle constructive feedback and criticism, regulate emotions at work—all of these things can come from regular mindfulness practice.
Some additional benefits of mindfulness are a greater sense of compassion (both self-compassion and compassion for others) and a way to seek and find purpose in even mundane things (and especially at work). From the business standpoint, mindfulness at work leads to increased productivity and creativity, mostly because when we are focused on one task at a time (as opposed to multitasking), we produce better results.
We spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our families; if our work relationships are negative, we suffer both mentally and physically. Even worse, we take all of those negative feelings home with us at the end of the work day. The antidote to this prescription for unhappiness is to have clear, strong purpose (one third of people do not have purpose at work and this is a major problem in the modern workplace!). We can use mental training to grow as people and as employees.
LKS: What are some recommendations you would make to busy leaders who are working around the clock to change the world?
LW: I think the most important thing is to remember to tend to our relationship with ourselves while trying to change the world. If we’re beating up on ourselves all the time we’ll be depleted.
People passionate about improving the world can get into habits of believing self-care isn’t important. We demand a lot of ourselves. It’s okay to fail, to mess up, to make mistakes—what’s important is how we learn from those mistakes and what we tell ourselves about those instances. What is the “internal script” playing in your own head? Is it positive, supporting, and understanding? It should be. If it isn’t, you can work on it. And the changes you make won’t just improve your quality of life, they’ll make you more resilient to weather life’s inevitable setbacks.
A close second recommendation is to always consider where everyone in an organization fits and help everyone (including yourself) find purpose. When you know what your own purpose is and show others their purpose, you can motivate a team and help everyone on a team gain pride in and at work. To get at this, make sure to ask people on your team what really lights them up. What sucks their energy and depletes them? If we know our own answers to these questions and relate them to the people we work with, we can create more engaged organizations.
LKS: Can you envision a future where technology and mindfulness can work together?
LW: Technology and mindfulness are already starting to work together. Some artificial intelligence companies are considering things like mindfulness and compassion when building robots, and there are numerous apps that target spreading mindfulness meditations in a widely-accessible way.
LKS: Looking ahead at our future generations who seem more attached to their devices than ever, what advice do you have for them?
LW: It’s unrealistic to say “stop using your device so much,” so instead, my suggestion is to make time for doing things like scrolling social media and make the same amount of time for putting your phone down and watching a movie or talking to a friend. No matter what it is that you are doing, make sure you have meta-awareness or clarity about what you’re paying attention to. Be clear about where your attention is and recognize that you can be a steward of attention. Technology can support us in this or pull us away from this; it depends on how we use it.
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