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When was the last time you watched a movie where you could control the plot?
Bandersnatch is the first interactive film in the sci fi anthology series Black Mirror. Written by series creator Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade, the film tells the story of young programmer Stefan Butler, who is adapting a fantasy choose-your-own-adventure novel called Bandersnatch into a video game. Throughout the film, viewers are given the power to influence Butler’s decisions, leading to diverging plots with different endings.
Like many Black Mirror episodes, this film is mind-bending, dark, and thought-provoking. In addition to innovating cinema as we know it, it is a fascinating rumination on free will, parallel realities, and emerging technologies.
Pick Your Own Adventure
With a non-linear script, Bandersnatch is a viewing experience like no other. Throughout the film viewers are given the option of making a decision for the protagonist. In these instances, they have 10 seconds to make a decision until a default decision is made. For example, in the early stage of the plot, Butler is given the choice of accepting or rejecting Tuckersoft’s offer to develop a video game and the viewer gets to decide what he does. The decision then shapes the plot accordingly.
The video game Butler is developing involves moving through a graphical maze of corridors while avoiding a creature called the Pax, and at times making choices through an on-screen instruction (sound familiar?). In other words, it’s a pick-your-own-adventure video game in a pick-your-own-adventure movie.
Many viewers have ended up spending hours exploring all the different branches of the narrative (though the average viewing is 90 minutes). One user on reddit has mapped out an entire flowchart, showing how all the different decisions (and pseudo-decisions) lead to various endings.
However, over time, Butler starts to question his own free will. It’s almost as if he’s beginning to realize that the audience is controlling him. In one branch of the narrative, he is confronted by this reality when the audience indicates to him that he is being controlled in a Netflix show: “I am watching you on Netflix. I make all the decisions for you”. Butler, as you can imagine, is horrified by this message.
But Butler isn’t the only one who has an illusion of choice. We, the seemingly powerful viewers, also appear to operate under the illusion of choice. Despite there being five main endings to the film, they are all more or less the same.
The Science Behind Bandersnatch
The premise of Bandersnatch isn’t based on fantasy, but hard science. Free will has always been a widely-debated issue in neuroscience, with reputable scientists and studies demonstrating that the whole concept may be an illusion.
In the 1970s, a psychologist named Benjamin Libet conducted a series of experiments that studied voluntary decision making in humans. He found that brain activity imitating an action, such as moving your wrist, preceded the conscious awareness of the action.
Psychologist Malcom Gladwell theorizes that while we like to believe we spend a lot of time thinking about our decisions, our mental processes actually work rapidly, automatically, and often subconsciously, from relatively little information. In addition to this, thinking and making decisions are usually a byproduct of several different brain systems, such as the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex working together. You are more conscious of some information processes in the brain than others.
As neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris points out in his book Free Will, “You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime.” Like Butler, we may believe we are operating under full agency of our abilities, but we are at the mercy of many internal and external factors that influence our decisions.
Beyond free will, Bandersnatch also taps into the theory of parallel universes, a facet of the astronomical theory of the multiverse. In astrophysics, there is a theory that there are parallel universes other than our own, where all the choices you made are played out in alternate realities. For instance, if today you had the option of having cereal or eggs for breakfast, and you chose eggs, in a parallel universe, you chose cereal. Human history and our lives may have taken different paths in these parallel universes.
The Future of Cinema
In the future, the viewing experience will no longer be a passive one. Bandersnatch is just a glimpse into how technology is revolutionizing film as we know it and making it a more interactive and personalized experience. All the different scenarios and branches of the plot were scripted and filmed, but in the future, they may be adapted real-time via artificial intelligence.
Virtual reality may allow us to play an even more active role by making us participants or characters in the film. Data from your history of preferences and may be used to create a unique version of the plot that is optimized for your viewing experience.
Let’s also not underestimate the social purpose of advancing film and entertainment. Science fiction gives us the ability to create simulations of the future. Different narratives can allow us to explore how powerful technologies combined with human behavior can result in positive or negative scenarios. Perhaps in the future, science fiction will explore implications of technologies and observe human decision making in novel contexts, via AI-powered films in the virtual world.
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Drones. Self-driving cars. Flying robo taxis. If the headlines of the last few years are to be believed, terrestrial transportation in the future will someday be filled with robotic conveyances and contraptions that will require little input from a human other than to download an app.
But what about the other 70 percent of the planet’s surface—the part that’s made up of water?
Sure, there are underwater drones that can capture 4K video for the next BBC documentary. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) are capable of diving down thousands of meters to investigate ocean vents or repair industrial infrastructure.
Yet most of the robots on or below the water today still lean heavily on the human element to operate. That’s not surprising given the unstructured environment of the seas and the poor communication capabilities for anything moving below the waves. Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) are probably the closest thing today to smart cars in the ocean, but they generally follow pre-programmed instructions.
A new generation of seafaring robots—leveraging artificial intelligence, machine vision, and advanced sensors, among other technologies—are beginning to plunge into the ocean depths. Here are some of the latest and most exciting ones.
The Transformer of the Sea
Nic Radford, chief technology officer of Houston Mechatronics Inc. (HMI), is hesitant about throwing around the word “autonomy” when talking about his startup’s star creation, Aquanaut. He prefers the term “shared control.”
Whatever you want to call it, Aquanaut seems like something out of the script of a Transformers movie. The underwater robot begins each mission in a submarine-like shape, capable of autonomously traveling up to 200 kilometers on battery power, depending on the assignment.
When Aquanaut reaches its destination—oil and gas is the primary industry HMI hopes to disrupt to start—its four specially-designed and built linear actuators go to work. Aquanaut then unfolds into a robot with a head, upper torso, and two manipulator arms, all while maintaining proper buoyancy to get its job done.
The lightbulb moment of how to engineer this transformation from submarine to robot came one day while Aquanaut’s engineers were watching the office’s stand-up desks bob up and down. The answer to the engineering challenge of the hull suddenly seemed obvious.
“We’re just gonna build a big, gigantic, underwater stand-up desk,” Radford told Singularity Hub.
Hardware wasn’t the only problem the team, comprised of veteran NASA roboticists like Radford, had to solve. In order to ditch the expensive support vessels and large teams of humans required to operate traditional ROVs, Aquanaut would have to be able to sense its environment in great detail and relay that information back to headquarters using an underwater acoustics communications system that harkens back to the days of dial-up internet connections.
To tackle that problem of low bandwidth, HMI equipped Aquanaut with a machine vision system comprised of acoustic, optical, and laser-based sensors. All of that dense data is compressed using in-house designed technology and transmitted to a single human operator who controls Aquanaut with a few clicks of a mouse. In other words, no joystick required.
“I don’t know of anyone trying to do this level of autonomy as it relates to interacting with the environment,” Radford said.
HMI got $20 million earlier this year in Series B funding co-led by Transocean, one of the world’s largest offshore drilling contractors. That should be enough money to finish the Aquanaut prototype, which Radford said is about 99.8 percent complete. Some “high-profile” demonstrations are planned for early next year, with commercial deployments as early as 2020.
“What just gives us an incredible advantage here is that we have been born and bred on doing robotic systems for remote locations,” Radford noted. “This is my life, and I’ve bet the farm on it, and it takes this kind of fortitude and passion to see these things through, because these are not easy problems to solve.”
On Cruise Control
Meanwhile, a Boston-based startup is trying to solve the problem of making ships at sea autonomous. Sea Machines is backed by about $12.5 million in capital venture funding, with Toyota AI joining the list of investors in a $10 million Series A earlier this month.
Sea Machines is looking to the self-driving industry for inspiration, developing what it calls “vessel intelligence” systems that can be retrofitted on existing commercial vessels or installed on newly-built working ships.
For instance, the startup announced a deal earlier this year with Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, to deploy a system of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and LiDAR on the Danish company’s new ice-class container ship. The technology works similar to advanced driver-assistance systems found in automobiles to avoid hazards. The proof of concept will lay the foundation for a future autonomous collision avoidance system.
It’s not just startups making a splash in autonomous shipping. Radford noted that Rolls Royce—yes, that Rolls Royce—is leading the way in the development of autonomous ships. Its Intelligence Awareness system pulls in nearly every type of hyped technology on the market today: neural networks, augmented reality, virtual reality, and LiDAR.
In augmented reality mode, for example, a live feed video from the ship’s sensors can detect both static and moving objects, overlaying the scene with details about the types of vessels in the area, as well as their distance, heading, and other pertinent data.
While safety is a primary motivation for vessel automation—more than 1,100 ships have been lost over the past decade—these new technologies could make ships more efficient and less expensive to operate, according to a story in Wired about the Rolls Royce Intelligence Awareness system.
Sea Hunt Meets Science
As Singularity Hub noted in a previous article, ocean robots can also play a critical role in saving the seas from environmental threats. One poster child that has emerged—or, invaded—is the spindly lionfish.
A venomous critter endemic to the Indo-Pacific region, the lionfish is now found up and down the east coast of North America and beyond. And it is voracious, eating up to 30 times its own stomach volume and reducing juvenile reef fish populations by nearly 90 percent in as little as five weeks, according to the Ocean Support Foundation.
That has made the colorful but deadly fish Public Enemy No. 1 for many marine conservationists. Both researchers and startups are developing autonomous robots to hunt down the invasive predator.
At the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, for example, students are building a spear-carrying robot that uses machine learning and computer vision to distinguish lionfish from other aquatic species. The students trained the algorithms on thousands of different images of lionfish. The result: a lionfish-killing machine that boasts an accuracy of greater than 95 percent.
Meanwhile, a small startup called the American Marine Research Corporation out of Pensacola, Florida is applying similar technology to seek and destroy lionfish. Rather than spearfishing, the AMRC drone would stun and capture the lionfish, turning a profit by selling the creatures to local seafood restaurants.
Lionfish: It’s what’s for dinner.
A new wave of smart, independent robots are diving, swimming, and cruising across the ocean and its deepest depths. These autonomous systems aren’t necessarily designed to replace humans, but to venture where we can’t go or to improve safety at sea. And, perhaps, these latest innovations may inspire the robots that will someday plumb the depths of watery planets far from Earth.
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When it comes to applications for machine learning, few can be more widely hyped than medicine. This is hardly surprising: it’s a huge industry that generates a phenomenal amount of data and revenue, where technological advances can improve or save the lives of millions of people. Hardly a week passes without a study that suggests algorithms will soon be better than experts at detecting pneumonia, or Alzheimer’s—diseases in complex organs ranging from the eye to the heart.
The problems of overcrowded hospitals and overworked medical staff plague public healthcare systems like Britain’s NHS and lead to rising costs for private healthcare systems. Here, again, algorithms offer a tantalizing solution. How many of those doctor’s visits really need to happen? How many could be replaced by an interaction with an intelligent chatbot—especially if it can be combined with portable diagnostic tests, utilizing the latest in biotechnology? That way, unnecessary visits could be reduced, and patients could be diagnosed and referred to specialists more quickly without waiting for an initial consultation.
As ever with artificial intelligence algorithms, the aim is not to replace doctors, but to give them tools to reduce the mundane or repetitive parts of the job. With an AI that can examine thousands of scans in a minute, the “dull drudgery” is left to machines, and the doctors are freed to concentrate on the parts of the job that require more complex, subtle, experience-based judgement of the best treatments and the needs of the patient.
But, as ever with AI algorithms, there are risks involved with relying on them—even for tasks that are considered mundane. The problems of black-box algorithms that make inexplicable decisions are bad enough when you’re trying to understand why that automated hiring chatbot was unimpressed by your job interview performance. In a healthcare context, where the decisions made could mean life or death, the consequences of algorithmic failure could be grave.
A new paper in Science Translational Medicine, by Nicholson Price, explores some of the promises and pitfalls of using these algorithms in the data-rich medical environment.
Neural networks excel at churning through vast quantities of training data and making connections, absorbing the underlying patterns or logic for the system in hidden layers of linear algebra; whether it’s detecting skin cancer from photographs or learning to write in pseudo-Shakespearean script. They are terrible, however, at explaining the underlying logic behind the relationships that they’ve found: there is often little more than a string of numbers, the statistical “weights” between the layers. They struggle to distinguish between correlation and causation.
This raises interesting dilemmas for healthcare providers. The dream of big data in medicine is to feed a neural network on “huge troves of health data, finding complex, implicit relationships and making individualized assessments for patients.” What if, inevitably, such an algorithm proves to be unreasonably effective at diagnosing a medical condition or prescribing a treatment, but you have no scientific understanding of how this link actually works?
Too Many Threads to Unravel?
The statistical models that underlie such neural networks often assume that variables are independent of each other, but in a complex, interacting system like the human body, this is not always the case.
In some ways, this is a familiar concept in medical science—there are many phenomena and links which have been observed for decades but are still poorly understood on a biological level. Paracetamol is one of the most commonly-prescribed painkillers, but there’s still robust debate about how it actually works. Medical practitioners may be keen to deploy whatever tool is most effective, regardless of whether it’s based on a deeper scientific understanding. Fans of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics might spin this as “Shut up and medicate!”
But as in that field, there’s a debate to be had about whether this approach risks losing sight of a deeper understanding that will ultimately prove more fruitful—for example, for drug discovery.
Away from the philosophical weeds, there are more practical problems: if you don’t understand how a black-box medical algorithm is operating, how should you approach the issues of clinical trials and regulation?
Price points out that, in the US, the “21st-Century Cures Act” allows the FDA to regulate any algorithm that analyzes images, or doesn’t allow a provider to review the basis for its conclusions: this could completely exclude “black-box” algorithms of the kind described above from use.
Transparency about how the algorithm functions—the data it looks at, and the thresholds for drawing conclusions or providing medical advice—may be required, but could also conflict with the profit motive and the desire for secrecy in healthcare startups.
One solution might be to screen algorithms that can’t explain themselves, or don’t rely on well-understood medical science, from use before they enter the healthcare market. But this could prevent people from reaping the benefits that they can provide.
New healthcare algorithms will be unable to do what physicists did with quantum mechanics, and point to a track record of success, because they will not have been deployed in the field. And, as Price notes, many algorithms will improve as they’re deployed in the field for a greater amount of time, and can harvest and learn from the performance data that’s actually used. So how can we choose between the most promising approaches?
Creating a standardized clinical trial and validation system that’s equally valid across algorithms that function in different ways, or use different input or training data, will be a difficult task. Clinical trials that rely on small sample sizes, such as for algorithms that attempt to personalize treatment to individuals, will also prove difficult. With a small sample size and little scientific understanding, it’s hard to tell whether the algorithm succeeded or failed because it’s bad at its job or by chance.
Add learning into the mix and the picture gets more complex. “Perhaps more importantly, to the extent that an ideal black-box algorithm is plastic and frequently updated, the clinical trial validation model breaks down further, because the model depends on a static product subject to stable validation.” As Price describes, the current system for testing and validation of medical products needs some adaptation to deal with this new software before it can successfully test and validate the new algorithms.
Striking a Balance
The story in healthcare reflects the AI story in so many other fields, and the complexities involved perhaps illustrate why even an illustrious company like IBM appears to be struggling to turn its famed Watson AI into a viable product in the healthcare space.
A balance must be struck, both in our rush to exploit big data and the eerie power of neural networks, and to automate thinking. We must be aware of the biases and flaws of this approach to problem-solving: to realize that it is not a foolproof panacea.
But we also need to embrace these technologies where they can be a useful complement to the skills, insights, and deeper understanding that humans can provide. Much like a neural network, our industries need to train themselves to enhance this cooperation in the future.
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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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