You’ve got a Friend in Me – Our Changing Relationship with A.I.

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Since Siri first stepped into our lives in 2011, we’re being introduced to more and more digital assistants. We’ve met Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Google Now. We know them, but do we love them?

Apparently, it’s important that we bond with said digital assistants and snappy comebacks appear to be the surest path to our hearts. So, if you ask Siri if she has a boyfriend, she might respond with, “Why? So we can get ice cream together, and listen to music, and travel across galaxies, only to have it end in slammed doors, heartbreak and loneliness? Sure, where do I sign up?” It seems to know a smart-assed digital assistant is to love her – but just be prepared for that love to be unrequited.

Not to be outdone, Google is also brushing up on its witty repartee for it’s new Digital Assistant – thanks to some recruits from the Onion and Pixar. A recent Mediapost article said that Google had just assembled a team of writers from those two sources – tapping the Onion for caustic sarcasm and Pixar for a gentler, more human touch.

But can we really be friends with a machine, even if it is funny?

Microsoft thinks so. They’ve unveiled a new chatbot in China called Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice). Xiaoice takes on the persona of a 17 year old girl that responds to questions like “How would you like others to comment on you when you die one day?” with the plaintiff “The world would not be much different without me.” Perhaps this isn’t as clever as Siri’s comebacks, but there’s an important difference: Siri’s responses were specifically scripted to respond to anticipated question; while Xiaoice actually talks with you by using true artificial intelligence and linguistic processing.

In a public test on WeChat, Xiaoice received 1.5 million chat group invitations in just 72 hours. As of earlier this year, she had had more than 10 billion conversations. In a blog post, Xiaoice’s “father”, Yongdong Wang, head of the Microsoft Application and Services Group East Asia, said, “Many see Xiaoice as a partner and friend, and are willing to confide in her just as they do with their human friends. Xiaoice is teaching us what makes a relationship feel human, and hinting at a new goal for artificial intelligence: not just analyzing databases and driving cars, but making people happier.”

When we think of digital assistants, we naturally think of the advantages that machines have over humans: unlimited memory, access to the entire web, vastly superior number crunching skills and much faster processing speeds. This has led to “cognitive offloading” – humans transferring certain mental processing tasks to machines. We now trust Google more than our own memory for retrieving information – just as we trust calculators more than our own limited mathematical abilities. But there should be some things that humans are just better at. Being human, for instance. We should be more empathetic – better able to connect with other people. A machine shouldn’t “get us” better than our spouse or best friend.

For now, that’s probably still true. But what if you don’t have a spouse, or even a best friend? Is having a virtual friend better than nothing at all? Recent studies have shown that robotic pets seem to ease loneliness with isolated seniors. More research is needed, but it’s not really surprising to learn that a warm, affectionate robot is better than nothing at all. What was surprising was that in one study, seniors preferred a robotic dog to the real thing.

The question remains, however: Can we truly have a relationship with a machine? Can we feel friendship – or even love – when we know that the machine can’t do the same? This goes beyond the high-tech flirtation of discovering Siri’s or Google’s “easter egg” responses to something more fundamental. It’s touching on what appears to be happening in China, where millions are making a chatbot their personal confident. I suspect there are more than a few lonely Chinese who would consider Xiaoice their best friend.

And – on many levels – that scares the hell out of me.

 

Why Millennials are so Fascinating

Multiethnic Group of People Social Networking at Cafe

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Generation Gap. This referred to the ideological gap between my generation – the Baby Boomers, and our parent’s generation – The Silent Generation (1923 – 1944).

But in terms of behavior, there was a significant gap even amongst early Baby Boomers and those that came at the tail end of the boom – like myself. Generations are products of their environment and there was a significant change in our environment in the 20-year run of the Baby Boomers – from 1945 to 1964. During that time, TV came into most of our homes. For the later boomers, like myself, we were raised with TV. And I believe the adoption of that one technology created an unbridgeable ideological gap that is still impacting our society.

The adoption of ubiquitous technologies – like TV and, more recently, connective platforms like mobile phones and the Internet – inevitable trigger massive environmental shifts. This is especially true for generations that grow up with this technology. Our brain goes through two phases where it literally rewires itself to adapt to its environment. One of those phases happens from birth to about 2 to 3 years of age and the other happens during puberty – from 14 to 20 years of age. A generation that goes through both of those phases while exposed to a new technology will inevitably be quite different from the generation that preceded it.

The two phases of our brain’s restructuring – also called neuroplasticity – are quite different in their goals. The first period – right after birth – rewires the brain to adapt to its physical environment. We learn to adapt to external stimuli and to interact with our surroundings. The second phase is perhaps even more influential in terms of who we will eventually be. This is when our brain creates its social connections. It’s also when we set our ideological compasses. Technologies we spend a huge amount of time with will inevitably impact both those processes.

That’s what makes Millennials so fascinating. It’s probably the first generation since my own that bridges that adoption of a massively influential technological change. Most definitions of this generation have it starting in the early 80’s and extend it to 1996 or 97.   This means the early Millennials grew up in an environment that was not all that different than the generation that preceded it. The technologies that were undergoing massive adoption in the early 80’s were VCRs and microwaves – hardly earth shaking in terms of environmental change. But late Millennials, like my daughters, grew up during the rapid adoption of three massively disruptive technologies: mobile phones, computers and the Internet. So we have a completely different environment for which the brain must adapt not only from generation to generation, but within the generation itself. This makes Millennials a very complex generation to pin down.

In terms of trying to understand this, let’s go back to my generation – the Baby Boomers – to see how environment adaptation can alter the face of society. Boomers that grew up in the late 40’s and early 50’s were much different than boomers that grew up just a few years later. Early boomers probably didn’t have a TV. Only the wealthiest families would have been able to afford them. In 1951, only 24% of American homes had a TV. But by 1960, almost 90% of Americans had a TV.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the values of my generation where shaped by TV. But this was not a universal process. The impact of TV was dependent on household income, which would have been correlated with education. So TV impacted the societal elite first and then trickled down. This elite segment would have also been those most likely to attend college. So, in the mid-60’s, you had a segment of a generation who’s values and world view were at least partially shaped by TV – and it’s creation of a “global village” – and who suddenly came together during a time and place (college) when we build the persona foundations we will inhabit for the rest of our lives. You had another segment of a generation that didn’t have this same exposure and who didn’t pursue a post-secondary education. The Vietnam War didn’t create the Counter-Cultural revolution. It just gave it a handy focal point that highlighted the ideological rift not only between two generations but also within the Baby Boomers themselves. At that point in history, part of our society turned right and part turned left.

Is the same thing happening with Millennials now? Certainly the worldview of at least the younger Millennials has been shaped through exposure to connected media. When polled, they inevitably have dramatically different opinions about things like religion, politics, science – well – pretty much everything. But even within the Millennial camp, their views often seem incoherent and confusing. Perhaps another intra-generational divide is forming. The fact is it’s probably too early to tell. These things take time to play out. But if it plays out like it did last time this happened, the impact will still be felt a half century from now.

Prospect Theory, Back Burners and Relationship Risk

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What does relationship infidelity and consumer behavior have in common? Both are changing, thanks to technology – or, more specifically – the intersection between technology and our brains. And for you regular readers, you know that stuff is right in my wheelhouse.

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Dr. Michelle Drouin

So I was fascinated by a recent presentation given by Dr. Michelle Drouin from Purdue University. She talked about how connected technologies are impacting the way we think about relationship investment.

The idea of “investing” in a relationship probably paints in a less romantic light then we typically think of, but it’s an accurate description. We calculate odds and evaluate risk. It’s what we do. Now, in the case of love, an admittedly heuristic process becomes even less rational. Our subliminal risk appraisal system is subjugated by a volatile cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters. But – at the end of the day – we calculate odds.

If you take all this into account, Dr. Drouin’s research into “back burners” becomes fascinating, if not all that surprising. In the paper, back burners are defined as “a desired potential or continuing romantic/sexual partner with whom one communicates, but to whom one is not exclusively committed.” “Back burners” are our fall back bets when it comes to relationships or sexual liaisons. And they’re not exclusive to single people. People in committed relationships also keep a stable of “back burners.” Women keep an average of 4 potential “relationship” candidates from their entire list of contacts and 8 potential “liaison” candidates. Men, predictably, keep more options open. Male participants in the study reported an average of over 8 “relationship” options and 26 liaison “back burners.” Drouin’s hypothesis is that this number has recently jumped thanks to technology, especially with the connectivity offered through social media. We’re keeping more “back burners” because we can.

What does this have to do with advertising? The point I’m making is that this behavior is not unique. Humans treat pretty much everything like an open marketplace. We are constantly balancing risk and reward amongst all the options that are open to us, subconsciously calculating the odds. It’s called Prospect Theory. And, thanks to technology, that market is much larger than it’s ever been before. In this new world, our brain has become a Vegas odds maker on steroids.

In Drouin’s research, it appears that new technologies like Tinder, What’sapp and Facebook have had a huge impact on how we view relationships. Our fidelity balance has been tipped to the negative. Because we have more alternatives – and it’s easier to stay connected with those alternatives and keep them on the “back burner” – the odds are worth keeping our options open. Monogamy may not be our best bet anymore. Facebook is cited in one-third of all divorce cases in the U.K. And in Italy, evidence from the social messaging app What’sapp shows up in nearly half of the divorce proceedings.

So, it appears that humans are loyal – until a better offer with a degree of risk we can live with comes along.

This brings us back to our behaviors in the consumer world. It’s the same mental process, applied in a different environment. In this environment, relationships are defined as brand loyalty. And, as Emanuel Rosen and Itamar Simonson show in their book Absolute Value, we are increasingly keeping our options open in more and more consumer decisions. When it comes to buying stuff – even if we have brand loyalty – we are increasingly aware of the “back burners” available to us.

 

 

 

Why Our Brains are Blocking Ads

The brain.

On Mediapost alone in the last three months, there have been 172 articles written that have included the words “ad blockers” or “ad blocking.” That’s not really surprising, given that Mediapost covers the advertising biz and ad blocking is killing that particular biz, to the tune of an estimated loss of $41 billion in 2016. eMarketer estimates 70 million Americans, or 1 out of every 4 people online, uses ad blockers.

Paul Verna, an eMarketer Senior Analyst said “Ad blocking is a detriment to the entire advertising ecosystem, affecting mostly publishers, but also marketers, agencies and others whose businesses depend on ad revenue.” The UK’s culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, went even further, saying that ad blocking is a “modern-day protection racket.”

Here’s the problem with all this finger pointing. If you’re looking for a culprit to blame, don’t look at the technology or the companies deploying that technology. New technologies don’t cause us to change our behaviors – they enable behaviors that weren’t an option before. To get to the bottom of the growth of ad blocking, we have to go to the common denominator – the people those ads are aimed at. More specifically, we have to look at what’s happening in the brains of those people.

In the past, the majority of our interaction with advertising was done while our brain was idling, with no specific task in mind. I refer to this as bottom up environmental scanning. Essentially, we’re looking for something to capture our attention: a TV show, a book, a magazine article, a newspaper column. We were open to being engaged by stimuli from our environment (in other words, being activated from the “bottom up”).

In this mode, the brain is in a very accepting state. We match signals from our environment with concepts and beliefs we hold in our mind. We’re relatively open to input and if the mental association is a positive or intriguing one – we’re willing to spend some time to engage.

We also have to consider the effect of priming in this state. Priming sets a subconscious framework for the brain that then affects any subsequent mental processing. The traditional prime that was in place when we were exposed to advertising was a fairly benign one: we were looking to be entertained or informed, often the advertising content was delivered wrapped in a content package that we had an affinity for (our favorite show, a preferred newspaper, etc), and advertising was delivered in discrete chunks that our brain had been trained to identify and process accordingly.

All this means that in traditional exposures to ads, our brain was probably in the most accepting state possible. We were looking for something interesting, we were primed to be in a positive frame of mind and our brains could easily handle the contextual switches required to consider an ad and it’s message.

We also have to remember that we had a relatively static ad consumption environment that usually matched our expectations of how ads would be delivered. We expected commercial breaks in TV shows. We didn’t expect ads in the middle of a movie or book, two formats that required extended focusing of attention and didn’t lend themselves to mental contextual task switches. Each task switch brings with it a refocusing of attention and a brief burst of heightened awareness as our brains are forced to reassess its environment. These are fine in some environments – not in others.

Now, let’s look at the difference in cognitive contexts that accompany the deliver of most digital ads. First of all, when we’re online on our desktop or engaged with a mobile device, it’s generally in what I’ll call a “top down foraging” mode. We’re looking for something specific and we have intent in mind. This means there’s already a task lodged in our working memory (hence “top down”) and our attentional spotlight is on and focused on that task. This creates a very different environment for ad consumption.

When we’re in foraging mode, we suddenly are driven by an instinct that is as old as the human race (actually, much older than that): Optimal Foraging Theory. In this mode, we are constantly filtering the stimuli of our environment to see what is relevant to our intent. It’s this filtering that causes attentional blindness to non-relevant factors – whether they be advertising banners or people dressed up like gorillas. This filtering happens on a subconscious basis and the brain uses a primal engine to drive it – the promise of reward or the frustration of failure. When it comes to foraging – for food or for information – frustration is a feature, not a bug.

Our brains have a two loop learning process. It starts with a prediction – what psychologists and economists call “expected utility.” We mentally place bets on possible outcomes and go with the one that promises the best reward. If we’re right, the reward system of the brain gives us a shot of dopamine. Things are good. But if we bet wrong, a different part of the brain kicks in: the right anterior insula, the adjacent right ventral prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. Those are the centers of the brain that regulate pain. Nature is not subtle about these things – especially when the survival of the species depends on it. If we find what we’re looking for, we get a natural high. If we don’t, it’s actually causes us pain – but not in a physical way. We know it as frustration. Its purpose is to encourage us to not make the same mistake twice

The reason we’re blocking ads is that in the context those ads are being delivered, irrelevant ads are – quite literally – painful. Even relevant ads have a very high threshold to get over. Ad blocking has little to do with technology or “protection rackets” or predatory business practices. It has to do with the hardwiring of our brains. So if the media or the ad industry want to blame something or someone, let’s start there.

Where Context Comes From

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Fellow Spinner Cory Treffiletti told you last week that data without context is noise.

Absolutely right.

I want to continue that conversation, because it’s an important one. It’s all about context. So let’s talk a little more about context. And specifically how we decide what makes up that context.

You might have seen or heard the hubbub that emerged around a tweet from Neil Degrasse Tyson a month ago: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence”

Nice thought, but it ignited a social media shit-storm. Which was entirely predictable. Because we don’t want to be rational. We want to be human. Did 79 episodes of Star Trek teach us nothing?

The biggest beef against #Rationalia was that evidence is typically in the eyes of the beholder. It’s all a matter of context. I’m guessing that the policies that come from evidence in the hands of Republicans will not bear much resemblance to policies that come from the evidence of Democrats. The evidence could be the same but the context is different, because Democrats and Republicans think differently.

Like Treffiletti said – evidence without context is just noise. And our context is only marginally based on evidence. And that’s why #Rationalia – as intellectually attractive as it might be – won’t work.

We as humans understand the world through something called sense making. This is the process we use to build context. In 2006, psychologist Gary Klein shed new light on how we make sense of the world. We start with a frame that captures our current understanding of the situation and depending on the evidence presented to us, we decide whether to elaborate our frame or discard it and create a new frame. So, sensemaking is really an iterative loop that is constantly using our current frame as a reference point.

But here’s the thing. What we consider as evidence depends on the frame we already have in place. It’s the filter that determines what data we pay attention to. And much as Neil Degrasse Tyson would like the governments of the world to be totally unbiased in the filtering of evidence, “that dog just won’t hunt.” It can’t – because we can’t consider data without some context to put it in.

Perhaps someday artificial intelligence will advance to the point where it can pull unbiased context out of random data. Maybe computers will be able to do what we’re unable to – make sense of the noise without assuming a pre-existing frame. But we’re not there yet. And even if we were, we would simply look at the conclusions of the computer and decide whether we agree with them or not. As long as humans are in charge, there will always be a biased filter in place.

So back to Cory’s column. If context is so important, think about where that context is coming from. Who is defining the context and what frame are they operating from? That in turn will define what data you consider and how you consider it.

Perhaps the most important decision before considering data is to be totally clear about what the goal is. Goals, together with experience, form the underpinning of beliefs. Frames are then built on those beliefs. Context comes from those frames. And context is the filter we apply to evidence.

Happiness as a Corporate Metric

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Costa Rica is the happiest place on earth. The least happy place on earth? That would be Botswana.

At least, those are the results according to by the things measured by the Happy Planet Index. The index is a measure of three factors, life expectancy, Experienced Well Being and Ecological Footprint. Western nations tend to do very well on the first two measures, but suck at the third. The index is looking for balance – being happy without raping and pillaging the earth. Here in North America, we still have a ways to go in that department.

In another study – the 2015 UN’s World Happiness Report – a different weighting of factors treated the western world a little better. When we tip the balance towards individual happiness and away from the environment and sustainability; Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Canada topped the rankings. Apparently, snow is good for the soul. At the bottom of the list were Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria and Burundi (it’s hard to believe anywhere scored worse than Syria – mental note: stroke Burundi off my travel bucket list).

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The 4th King of Bhutan: Jigme Singye Wangchuck

In 1971, the 4th Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck was so enamored with the idea of happiness as a goal that he introduced a new measure of a nation’s worth: Gross National Happiness. He believed that the western world’s obsession with materialism represented by Gross National Product shouldn’t be the sole measure of progress. Things like sustainable development, care for the environment, good governance and preservation of culture deserved to be measured as well. In the 45 years since the idea of Gross National Happiness was first floated by his Royal Dragonship, it’s been slow to take, but perhaps it’s time has come. By the way, in the UN survey, Bhutan was in the middle of the pack for happiness, ranking 84th out of 157 countries.

Happiness should be important with companies as well. There’s even an investment fund that invests exclusively in companies with happy employees. But happiness can be an elusive goal, especially when we try to wrestle it to the ground in the way of a hard performance metric in a corporate environment. What exactly are we measuring when we measure happiness? And who’s happiness are we measuring? Our customers? Our shareholders? Our employees? All of the above?

Let’s single out employees. Companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines have tried to make employee happiness a metric that matters. But what makes an employee happy? Perhaps we can find a clue in a recent survey from Ypulse that asked Millennials which companies they’d most like to work at. The top 10 answers were:

  1. Google
  2. Apple
  3. Disney
  4. Non-profit/charity
  5. School/community/university
  6. Hospital
  7. U.S. government
  8. Myself/my own company
  9. Amazon
  10. FBI/CIA

It’s an interesting list. It’s not the list you’d expect from a generation that simply wants to get rich quick. You don’t work at a hospital or the FBI if you want to make big bucks. This is a list that comes from people who want to make a difference. They want meaning. In the words of Steve Jobs, they “want to put a ding in the universe.”

I get that. I recently discovered just how hard happiness is to pin down. After selling my company, I was fortunate enough to achieve financial independence and retire at 51. I should have been deliriously happy, right? Well, I wasn’t suicidal by any means, but I would say my level of happiness actually decreased after I tried retirement. I was at the other end of my career path from Millennials, but meaning remained just as important to me.

In a study of retirement satisfaction published in the Journal of Financial Counselling and Planning, Sarah Arsebedo and Martin Seay found that psychologist Martin Seligman’s positive psychological attributes, referred to as PERMA (Positive emotions, Engagement, [Family] Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment) – don’t go away when we retire. These things are necessary to happiness. For men in particular – and increasingly so with women – we rely on our jobs to provide many of these. This was certainly true for me.

It’s good we’re paying more attention to happiness. But it’s also important that we understand what we’re talking about when we refer to happiness. It has little to do with monetary measures of success. Whether we’re talking nations, corporations or employees, it turns out that happiness means a sense of interconnectedness, contribution and personal values. It means living beyond ourselves and leaving some footprint that won’t fade when we no longer walk this earth.

Ultimately, it means doing stuff that matters.

 

What Would a “Time Well Spent” World Look Like?

Close up of friends with circle of smart phones

I’m worried about us. And it’s not just because we seem bent on death by ultra-conservative parochialism and xenophobia. I’m worried because I believe we’re spending all our time doing the wrong things. We’re fiddling while Rome burns.

Technology is our new drug of choice and we’re hooked. We’re fascinated by the trivial. We’re dumping huge gobs of time down the drain playing virtual games, updating social statuses, clicking on clickbait and watching videos of epic wardrobe malfunctions. Humans should be better than this.

It’s okay to spend some time doing nothing. The brain needs some downtime. But something, somewhere has gone seriously wrong. We are now spending the majority of our lives doing useless things. TV used to be the biggest time suck, but in 2015, for the first time ever, the boob tube was overtaken by time spent with mobile apps. According to a survey conducted by Flurry, in the second quarter of 2015 we spent about 2.8 hours per day watching TV. And we spent 3.3 hours on mobile apps. That’s a grand total of 6.1 hours per day or one third of the time we spend awake. Yes, both things can happen at the same time, so there is undoubtedly overlap, but still- that’s a scary-assed statistic!

And it’s getting worse. In a previous Flurry poll conducted in 2013, we spent a total of 298 hours between TV and mobile apps versus 366 hours in 2015. That’s a 22.8% increase in just two years. We’re spending way more time doing nothing. And those totals don’t even include things like time spent in front of a gaming console. For kids, tack on an average of another 10 hours per week and you can double that for hard-core male gamers. Our addiction to gaming has even led to death in extreme cases.

Even in the wildest stretches of imagination, this can’t qualify as “time well spent.”

We’re treading on very dangerous and very thin ice here. And, we no longer have history to learn from. It’s the first time we’ve ever encountered this. Technology is now only one small degree of separation from plugging directly into the pleasure center of our brains. And science has proven that a good shot of self-administered dopamine can supersede everything –water, food, sex. True, these experiments were administered on rats – primarily because it’s been unethical to go too far on replicating the experiments with humans – but are you willing to risk the entire future of mankind on the bet that we’re really that much smarter than rats?

My fear is that technology is becoming a slightly more sophisticated lever we push to get that dopamine rush. And developers know exactly what they’re doing. They are making that lever as addictive as possible. They are pushing us towards the brink of death by technological lobotomization. They’re lulling us into a false sense of security by offering us the distraction of viral videos, infinitely scrolling social notification feeds and mobile game apps. It’s the intellectual equivalent of fast food – quite literally “brain candy.

Here the hypocrisy of for-profit interest becomes evident. The corporate response typically rests on individual freedom of choice and the consumer’s ability to exercise will power. “We are just giving them what they’re asking for,” touts the stereotypical PR flack. But if you have an entire industry with reams of developers and researchers all aiming to hook you on their addictive product and your only defense is the same faulty neurological defense system that has already fallen victim to fast food, porn, big tobacco, the alcohol industry and the $350 billion illegal drug trade, where would you be placing your bets?

Technology should be our greatest achievement. It should make us better, not turn us into a bunch of lazy screen-addicted louts. And it certainly could be this way. What would it mean if technology helped us spend our time well? This is the hope behind the Time Well Spent Manifesto. Ethan Harris, a design ethicist and product philosopher at Google is one of the co-directors. Here is an excerpt from the manifesto:

We believe in a new kind of design, that lets us connect without getting sucked in. And disconnect, without missing something important.

And we believe in a new kind economy that’s built to help us spend time well, where products compete to help us live by our values.

I believe in the Manifesto. I believe we’re being willingly led down a scary and potentially ruinous path. Worst of all, I believe there is nothing we can – or will – do about it. Problems like this are seldom solved by foresight and good intentions. Things only change after we drive off the cliff.

The problem is that most of us never see it coming. And we never see it coming because we’re too busy watching a video of masturbating monkeys on Youtube.