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The human mind can be a confusing and overwhelming place. Despite incredible leaps in human progress, many of us still struggle to make our peace with our thoughts. The roots of this are complex and multifaceted. To find explanations for the global mental health epidemic, one can tap into neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary biology, or simply observe the meaningless systems that dominate our modern-day world.
This is not only the context of our reality but also that of the critically-acclaimed Netflix series, Maniac. Psychological dark comedy meets science fiction, Maniac is a retro, futuristic, and hallucinatory trip that is filled with hidden symbols. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the series tells the story of two strangers who decide to participate in the final stage of a “groundbreaking” pharmaceutical trial—one that combines novel pharmaceuticals with artificial intelligence, and promises to make their emotional pain go away.
Naturally, things don’t go according to plan.
From exams used for testing defense mechanisms to techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, the narrative infuses genuine psychological science. As perplexing as the series may be to some viewers, many of the tools depicted actually have a strong grounding in current technological advancements.
Catalysts for Alleviating Suffering
In the therapy of Maniac, participants undergo a three-day trial wherein they ingest three pills and appear to connect their consciousness to a superintelligent AI. Each participant is hurled into the traumatic experiences imprinted in their subconscious and forced to cope with them in a series of hallucinatory and dream-like experiences.
Perhaps the most recognizable parallel that can be drawn is with the latest advancements in psychedelic therapy. Psychedelics are a class of drugs that alter the experience of consciousness, and often cause radical changes in perception and cognitive processes.
Through a process known as transient hypofrontality, the executive “over-thinking” parts of our brains get a rest, and deeper areas become more active. This experience, combined with the breakdown of the ego, is often correlated with feelings of timelessness, peacefulness, presence, unity, and above all, transcendence.
Despite being not addictive and extremely difficult to overdose on, regulators looked down on the use of psychedelics for decades and many continue to dismiss them as “party drugs.” But in the last few years, all of this began to change.
Earlier this summer, the FDA granted breakthrough therapy designation to MDMA for the treatment of PTSD, after several phases of successful trails. Similar research has discovered that Psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) combined with therapy is far more effective than traditional forms of treatment to treat depression and anxiety. Today, there is a growing and overwhelming body of research that proves that not only are psychedelics such as LSD, MDMA, or Psylicybin effective catalysts to alleviate suffering and enhance the human condition, but they are potentially the most effective tools out there.
It’s important to realize that these substances are not solutions on their own, but rather catalysts for more effective therapy. They can be groundbreaking, but only in the right context and setting.
In Maniac, the medication-assisted therapy is guided by what appears to be a super-intelligent form of artificial intelligence called the GRTA, nicknamed Gertie. Gertie, who is a “guide” in machine form, accesses the minds of the participants through what appears to be a futuristic brain-scanning technology and curates customized hallucinatory experiences with the goal of accelerating the healing process.
Such a powerful form of brain-scanning technology is not unheard of. Current levels of scanning technology are already allowing us to decipher dreams and connect three human brains, and are only growing exponentially. Though they are nowhere as advanced as Gertie (we have a long way to go before we get to this kind of general AI), we are also seeing early signs of AI therapy bots, chatbots that listen, think, and communicate with users like a therapist would.
The parallels between current advancements in mental health therapy and the methods in Maniac can be startling, and are a testament to how science fiction and the arts can be used to explore the existential implications of technology.
Not Necessarily a Dystopia
While there are many ingenious similarities between the technology in Maniac and the state of mental health therapy, it’s important to recognize the stark differences. Like many other blockbuster science fiction productions, Maniac tells a fundamentally dystopian tale.
The series tells the story of the 73rd iteration of a controversial drug trial, one that has experienced many failures and even led to various participants being braindead. The scientists appear to be evil, secretive, and driven by their own superficial agendas and deep unresolved emotional issues.
In contrast, clinicians and researchers are not only required to file an “investigational new drug application” with the FDA (and get approval) but also update the agency with safety and progress reports throughout the trial.
Furthermore, many of today’s researchers are driven by a strong desire to contribute to the well-being and progress of our species. Even more, the results of decades of research by organizations like MAPS have been exceptionally promising and aligned with positive values. While Maniac is entertaining and thought-provoking, viewers must not forget the positive potential of such advancements in mental health therapy.
Science, technology, and psychology aside, Maniac is a deep commentary on the human condition and the often disorienting states that pain us all. Within any human lifetime, suffering is inevitable. It is the disproportionate, debilitating, and unjust levels of suffering that we ought to tackle as a society. Ultimately, Maniac explores whether advancements in science and technology can help us live not a life devoid of suffering, but one where it is balanced with fulfillment.
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Last year, a novelist went on a road trip across the USA. The trip was an attempt to emulate Jack Kerouac—to go out on the road and find something essential to write about in the experience. There is, however, a key difference between this writer and anyone else talking your ear off in the bar. This writer is just a microphone, a GPS, and a camera hooked up to a laptop and a whole bunch of linear algebra.
People who are optimistic that artificial intelligence and machine learning won’t put us all out of a job say that human ingenuity and creativity will be difficult to imitate. The classic argument is that, just as machines freed us from repetitive manual tasks, machine learning will free us from repetitive intellectual tasks.
This leaves us free to spend more time on the rewarding aspects of our work, pursuing creative hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and generally being human.
In this worldview, creative works like a great novel or symphony, and the emotions they evoke, cannot be reduced to lines of code. Humans retain a dimension of superiority over algorithms.
But is creativity a fundamentally human phenomenon? Or can it be learned by machines?
And if they learn to understand us better than we understand ourselves, could the great AI novel—tailored, of course, to your own predispositions in fiction—be the best you’ll ever read?
Maybe Not a Beach Read
This is the futurist’s view, of course. The reality, as the jury-rigged contraption in Ross Goodwin’s Cadillac for that road trip can attest, is some way off.
“This is very much an imperfect document, a rapid prototyping project. The output isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’s a human novel, or anywhere near it,” Goodwin said of the novel that his machine created. 1 The Road is currently marketed as the first novel written by AI.
Once the neural network has been trained, it can generate any length of text that the author desires, either at random or working from a specific seed word or phrase. Goodwin used the sights and sounds of the road trip to provide these seeds: the novel is written one sentence at a time, based on images, locations, dialogue from the microphone, and even the computer’s own internal clock.
The results are… mixed.
The novel begins suitably enough, quoting the time: “It was nine seventeen in the morning, and the house was heavy.” Descriptions of locations begin according to the Foursquare dataset fed into the algorithm, but rapidly veer off into the weeds, becoming surreal. While experimentation in literature is a wonderful thing, repeatedly quoting longitude and latitude coordinates verbatim is unlikely to win anyone the Booker Prize.
Data In, Art Out?
Neural networks as creative agents have some advantages. They excel at being trained on large datasets, identifying the patterns in those datasets, and producing output that follows those same rules. Music inspired by or written by AI has become a growing subgenre—there’s even a pop album by human-machine collaborators called the Songularity.
A neural network can “listen to” all of Bach and Mozart in hours, and train itself on the works of Shakespeare to produce passable pseudo-Bard. The idea of artificial creativity has become so widespread that there’s even a meme format about forcibly training neural network ‘bots’ on human writing samples, with hilarious consequences—although the best joke was undoubtedly human in origin.
The AI that roamed from New York to New Orleans was an LSTM (long short-term memory) neural net. By default, information contained in individual neurons is preserved, and only small parts can be “forgotten” or “learned” in an individual timestep, rather than neurons being entirely overwritten.
The LSTM architecture performs better than previous recurrent neural networks at tasks such as handwriting and speech recognition. The neural net—and its programmer—looked further in search of literary influences, ingesting 60 million words (360 MB) of raw literature according to Goodwin’s recipe: one third poetry, one third science fiction, and one third “bleak” literature.
In this way, Goodwin has some creative control over the project; the source material influences the machine’s vocabulary and sentence structuring, and hence the tone of the piece.
The Thoughts Beneath the Words
The problem with artificially intelligent novelists is the same problem with conversational artificial intelligence that computer scientists have been trying to solve from Turing’s day. The machines can understand and reproduce complex patterns increasingly better than humans can, but they have no understanding of what these patterns mean.
Goodwin’s neural network spits out sentences one letter at a time, on a tiny printer hooked up to the laptop. Statistical associations such as those tracked by neural nets can form words from letters, and sentences from words, but they know nothing of character or plot.
When talking to a chatbot, the code has no real understanding of what’s been said before, and there is no dataset large enough to train it through all of the billions of possible conversations.
Unless restricted to a predetermined set of options, it loses the thread of the conversation after a reply or two. In a similar way, the creative neural nets have no real grasp of what they’re writing, and no way to produce anything with any overarching coherence or narrative.
Goodwin’s experiment is an attempt to add some coherent backbone to the AI “novel” by repeatedly grounding it with stimuli from the cameras or microphones—the thematic links and narrative provided by the American landscape the neural network drives through.
Goodwin feels that this approach (the car itself moving through the landscape, as if a character) borrows some continuity and coherence from the journey itself. “Coherent prose is the holy grail of natural-language generation—feeling that I had somehow solved a small part of the problem was exhilarating. And I do think it makes a point about language in time that’s unexpected and interesting.”
AI Is Still No Kerouac
A coherent tone and semantic “style” might be enough to produce some vaguely-convincing teenage poetry, as Google did, and experimental fiction that uses neural networks can have intriguing results. But wading through the surreal AI prose of this era, searching for some meaning or motif beyond novelty value, can be a frustrating experience.
Maybe machines can learn the complexities of the human heart and brain, or how to write evocative or entertaining prose. But they’re a long way off, and somehow “more layers!” or a bigger corpus of data doesn’t feel like enough to bridge that gulf.
Real attempts by machines to write fiction have so far been broadly incoherent, but with flashes of poetry—dreamlike, hallucinatory ramblings.
Neural networks might not be capable of writing intricately-plotted works with charm and wit, like Dickens or Dostoevsky, but there’s still an eeriness to trying to decipher the surreal, Finnegans’ Wake mish-mash.
You might see, in the odd line, the flickering ghost of something like consciousness, a deeper understanding. Or you might just see fragments of meaning thrown into a neural network blender, full of hype and fury, obeying rules in an occasionally striking way, but ultimately signifying nothing. In that sense, at least, the RNN’s grappling with metaphor feels like a metaphor for the hype surrounding the latest AI summer as a whole.
Or, as the human author of On The Road put it: “You guys are going somewhere or just going?”
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The Demise of Rethink Robotics Shows How Hard It Is to Make Machines Truly Smart
Will Knight | MIT Technology Review
“There’s growing interest in using recent advances in AI to make industrial robots a lot smarter and more useful. …But look carefully and you’ll see that these technologies are at a very early stage, and that deploying them commercially could prove extremely challenging. The demise of Rethink doesn’t mean industrial robotics isn’t flourishing, or that AI-driven advances won’t come about. But it shows just how hard doing real innovation in robotics can be.”
The Human Cell Atlas Is Biologists’ Latest Grand Project
Megan Molteni | Wired
“Dubbed the Human Cell Atlas, the project intends to catalog all of the estimated 37 trillion cells that make up a human body. …By decoding the genes active in single cells, pegging different cell types to a specific address in the body, and tracing the molecular circuits between them, participating researchers plan to create a more comprehensive map of human biology than has ever existed before.”
US Will Rewrite Safety Rules to Permit Fully Driverless Cars on Public Roads
Andrew J. Hawkins | The Verge
“Under current US safety rules, a motor vehicle must have traditional controls, like a steering wheel, mirrors, and foot pedals, before it is allowed to operate on public roads. But that could all change under a new plan released on Thursday by the Department of Transportation that’s intended to open the floodgates for fully driverless cars.”
When an AI Goes Full Jack Kerouac
Brian Merchant | The Atlantic
“By the end of the four-day trip, receipts emblazoned with artificially intelligent prose would cover the floor of the car. …it is a hallucinatory, oddly illuminating account of a bot’s life on the interstate; the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test meets Google Street View, narrated by Siri.”
FUTURE OF FOOD
New Autonomous Farm Wants to Produce Food Without Human Workers
Erin Winick | MIT Technology Review
“As the firm’s cofounder Brandon Alexander puts it: ‘We are a farm and will always be a farm.’ But it’s no ordinary farm. For starters, the company’s 15 human employees share their work space with robots who quietly go about the business of tending rows and rows of leafy greens.”
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Disruptive business models are often powered by alternative financing. In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how mobile is redefining money and banking and shared some of the dramatic transformations in the global remittance infrastructure.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
AI financial advisors and robo traders
Let’s dive right back in…
Decentralized Lending = Democratized Access to Finances
Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending is an age-old practice, traditionally with high risk and extreme locality. Now, the P2P funding model is being digitized and delocalized, bringing lending online and across borders.
Zopa, the first official crowdlending platform, arrived in the United Kingdom in 2004. Since then, the consumer crowdlending platform has facilitated lending of over 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion USD) of loans.
Person-to-business crowdlending took off, again in the U.K., in 2005 with Funding Circle, now with over 5 billion euros (~5.8 billion USD) of capital loaned to small businesses around the world.
Crowdlending next took off in the US in 2006, with platforms like Prosper and Lending Club. The US crowdlending industry has boomed to $21 billion in loans, across 515,000 loans.
Let’s take a step back… to a time before banks, when lending took place between trusted neighbors in small villages across the globe. Lending started as peer-to-peer transactions.
As villages turned into towns, towns turned into cities, and cities turned into sprawling metropolises, neighborly trust and the ability to communicate across urban landscapes broke down. That’s where banks and other financial institutions came into play—to add trust back into the lending equation.
With crowdlending, we are evidently returning to this pre-centralized-banking model of loans, and moving away from cumbersome intermediaries (e.g. high fees, regulations, and extra complexity).
Fueled by the permeation of the internet, P2P lending took on a new form as ‘crowdlending’ in the early 2000s. Now, as blockchain and artificial intelligence arrive on the digital scene, P2P lending platforms are being overhauled with transparency, accountability, reliability, and immutability.
Artificial Intelligence Micro Lending & Credit Scores
We are beginning to augment our quantitative decision-making with neural networks processing borrowers’ financial data to determine their financial ‘fate’ (or, as some call it, your credit score). Companies like Smart Finance Group (backed by Kai Fu Lee and Sinovation Ventures) are using artificial intelligence to minimize default rates for tens of millions of microloans.
Smart Finance is fueled by users’ personal data, particularly smartphone data and usage behavior. Users are required to give Smart Finance access to their smartphone data, so that Smart Finance’s artificial intelligence engine can generate a credit score from the personal information.
The benefits of this AI-powered lending platform do not stop at increased loan payback rates; there’s a massive speed increase as well. Smart Finance loans are frequently approved in under eight seconds. As we’ve seen with other artificial intelligence disruptions, data is the new gold.
Digitizing access to P2P loans paves the way for billions of people currently without access to banking to leapfrog the centralized banking system, just as Africa bypassed landline phones and went straight to mobile. Leapfrogging centralized banking and the credit system is exactly what Smart Finance has done for hundreds of millions of people in China.
As artificial intelligence accesses even the most mundane mobile browsing data to assign credit scores, blockchain technologies, particularly immutable ledgers and smart contracts, are massive disruptors to the archaic banking system, building additional trust and transparency on top of current P2P lending models.
Immutable ledgers provide the necessary transparency for accurate credit and loan defaulting history. Smart contracts executed on these immutable ledgers bring the critical ability to digitally replace cumbersome, expensive third parties (like banks), allowing individual borrowers or businesses to directly connect with willing lenders.
Two of the leading blockchain platforms for P2P lending are ETHLend and SALT Lending.
ETHLend is an Ethereum-based decentralized application aiming to bring transparency and trust to P2P lending through Ethereum network smart contracts.
Secure Automated Lending Technology (SALT) allows cryptocurrency asset holders to use their digital assets as collateral for cash loans, without the need to liquidate their holdings, giving rise to a digital-asset-backed lending market.
While blockchain poses a threat to many of the large, centralized banking institutions, some are taking advantage of the new technology to optimize their internal lending, credit scoring, and collateral operations.
In March 2018, ING and Credit Suisse successfully exchanged 25 million euros using HQLA-X, a blockchain-based collateral lending platform.
HQLA-X runs on the R3 Corda blockchain, a platform designed specifically to help heritage financial and commerce institutions migrate away from their inefficient legacy financial infrastructure.
Blockchain and tokenization are going through their own fintech and regulation shakeup right now. In a future blog, I’ll discuss the various efforts to more readily assure smart contracts, and the disruptive business model of security tokens and the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Parallels to the Global Abundance of Capital
The abundance of capital being created by the advent of P2P loans closely relates to the unprecedented global abundance of capital.
Initial coin offerings (ICOs) and crowdfunding are taking a strong stand in disrupting the $164 billion venture capital market. The total amount invested in ICOs has risen from $6.6 billion in 2017 to $7.15 billion USD in the first half of 2018. Crowdfunding helped projects raise more than $34 billion in 2017, with experts projecting that global crowdfunding investments will reach $300 billion by 2025.
In the last year alone, using ICOs, over a dozen projects have raised hundreds of millions of dollars in mere hours. Take Filecoin, for example, which raised $257 million in only 30 days; its first $135 million was raised in the first hour. Similarly, the Dragon Coin project (which itself is revolutionizing remittance in high-stakes casinos around the world) raised $320 million in its 30-day public ICO.
Some Important Takeaways…
Technology-backed fundraising and financial services are disrupting the world’s largest financial institutions. Anyone, anywhere, at anytime will be able to access the capital they need to pursue their idea.
The speed at which we can go from “I’ve got an idea” to “I run a billion-dollar company” is moving faster than ever.
Following Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, the rapid decrease in time to access capital is intimately linked (and greatly dependent on) a financial infrastructure (technology, institutions, platforms, and policies) that can adapt and evolve just as rapidly.
This new abundance of capital requires financial decision-making with ever-higher market prediction precision. That’s exactly where artificial intelligence is already playing a massive role.
Artificial Intelligence, Robo Traders, and Financial Advisors
On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average suddenly collapsed by 998.5 points (equal to 8 percent, or $1 trillion). The crash lasted over 35 minutes and is now known as the ‘Flash Crash’. While no one knows the specific reason for this 2010 stock market anomaly, experts widely agree that the Flash Crash had to do with algorithmic trading.
With the ability to have instant, trillion-dollar market impacts, algorithmic trading and artificial intelligence are undoubtedly ingrained in how financial markets operate.
In 2017, CNBC.com estimated that 90 percent of daily trading volume in stock trading is done by machine algorithms, and only 10 percent is carried out directly by humans.
Artificial intelligence and financial management algorithms are not only available to top Wall Street players.
Robo-advisor financial management apps, like Wealthfront and Betterment, are rapidly permeating the global market. Wealthfront currently has $9.5 billion in assets under management, and Betterment has $10 billion.
Artificial intelligent financial agents are already helping financial institutions protect your money and fight fraud. A prime application for machine learning is in detecting anomalies in your spending and transaction habits, and flagging potentially fraudulent transactions.
As artificial intelligence continues to exponentially increase in power and capabilities, increasingly powerful trading and financial management bots will come online, finding massive new and previously lost streams of wealth.
How else are artificial intelligence and automation transforming finance?
Disruptive Remittance and Seamless Transactions
When was the last time you paid in cash at a toll booth? How about for a taxi ride?
EZ-Pass, the electronic tolling company implemented extensively on the East Coast, has done wonders to reduce traffic congestion and increase traffic flow.
Driving down I-95 on the East Coast of the United States, drivers rarely notice their financial transaction with the state’s tolling agencies. The transactions are seamless.
The Uber app enables me to travel without my wallet. I can forget about payment on my trip, free up my mental bandwidth and time for higher-priority tasks. The entire process is digitized and, by extension, automated and integrated into Uber’s platform (Note: This incredible convenience many times causes me to accidentally walk out of taxi cabs without paying!).
In January 2018, we saw the success of the first cutting-edge, AI-powered Amazon Go store open in Seattle, Washington. The store marked a new era in remittance and transactions. Gone are the days of carrying credit cards and cash, and gone are the cash registers. And now, on the heals of these early ‘beta-tests’, Amazon is considering opening as many as 3,000 of these cashierless stores by 2023.
Amazon Go stores use AI algorithms that watch various video feeds (from advanced cameras) throughout the store to identify who picks up groceries, exactly what products they select, and how much to charge that person when they walk out of the store. It’s a grab and go experience.
Let’s extrapolate the notion of seamless, integrated payment systems from Amazon Go and Uber’s removal of post-ride payment to the rest of our day-to-day experience.
Imagine this near future:
As you near the front door of your home, your AI assistant summons a self-driving Uber that takes you to the Hyperloop station (after all, you work in L.A. but live in San Francisco).
At the station, you board your pod, without noticing that your ticket purchase was settled via a wireless payment checkpoint.
After work, you stop at the Amazon Go and pick up dinner. Your virtual AI assistant passes your Amazon account information to the store’s payment checkpoint, as the store’s cameras and sensors track you, your cart and charge you auto-magically.
At home, unbeknownst to you, your AI has already restocked your fridge and pantry with whatever items you failed to pick up at the Amazon Go.
Once we remove the actively transacting aspect of finance, what else becomes possible?
Extraordinary transformations are happening in the finance world. We’ve only scratched the surface of the fintech revolution. All of these transformative financial technologies require high-fidelity assurance, robust insurance, and a mechanism for storing value.
I’ll dive into each of these other facets of financial services in future articles.
For now, thanks to coming global communication networks being deployed on 5G, Alphabet’s LUNE, SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb, by 2024, nearly all 8 billion people on Earth will be online.
Once connected, these new minds, entrepreneurs, and customers need access to money and financial services to meaningfully participate in the world economy.
By connecting lenders and borrowers around the globe, decentralized lending drives down global interest rates, increases global financial market participation, and enables economic opportunity to the billions of people who are about to come online.
We’re living in the most abundant time in human history, and fintech is just getting started.
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