Heard on NPR

"Expressed Emotions" in Everyday Interactions: Acceptance vs. Intervention with Family and Friends

Invisibilia_solutions_final_wideI've listened to the most recent episode of NPR's Invisibilia, The Problem with the Solution, three times in three days, crying a little less - and understanding a little more - each time I listen. I believe the emotional impact stems from my experience as a son, a husband, a father and a friend ... and more specifically, how "expressed emotions" - criticism, hostility and emotional over-involvement (essentially, expressions of non-acceptance) - have affected me and those I love.

The Invisibilia story focuses on mental illness, and how the traditional American mindset of wanting to fix problems can be counterproductive in dealing with people who have mental illness, i.e., the problem is [our preoccupation with] the solution. In the town of Geel, Belgium, people with mental illness are boarded by townspeople for, on average, 28 years. Studies have shown that people with mental illness who are placed in community settings (like Geel) after treatment are less likely to relapse than when they return home to live with their own families. This is likely due - in part - to the fact that host families are not related to their boarders, and are thus not attached to or over-involved in fixing or curing their boarders' mental illness. Instead, the boarders are accepted as they are.

As a resident of the Broadway Housing Communities - a project for recreating the culture of Geel in America - so aptly noted in an Invisibilia interiew, "Everybody has a touch of mental illness". Everyone I know has at least gone through periods where they have experienced "an unhealthy condition of body or mind", and many of those I know best have suffered a great deal from chronic unhealthy thoughts and emotions. In fact, it is the revelation of sufferings - and the sharing of how we are working through some of these unhealthy thoughts and emotions - that have formed the basis of the strong bonds I feel with my closest friends. And I have a growing appreciation for the suffering experienced by people I don't know well, and the way that suffering underlies some of the behaviors I find hardest to accept. As William Wordsworth observed:

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

I don't mean to equate the suffering of what some call "the worried well" with the suffering of those with serious schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other types of mental illness highlighted in the Invisibilia story. I just want to say I can relate to suffering emanating from chronic unhealthy thoughts and emotions ... and to the effect of acceptance vs. intervention on that suffering.

I believe a great deal of suffering is caused by emotional over-involvement, and the various verbal and non-verbal ways that family members - especially parents (or grandparents) - try to "improve" us.

Invisibilia co-host Lulu Miller, who included her oldest sister's mental illness - and her family's response to it - as a recurrent theme throughout the story, noted that her older sister "had been quietly accepting this message that she was somehow not good enough" throughout her childhood, and the part that breaks me down and gets me sobbing every time (even now, simply copying and pasting the following text from the show transcript), is her father's candid admission of insufficient empathy in dealing with his oldeest daughter:

She was 2 or 3. And she was having a huge freak out at 3 in the morning, just screaming and yelling in her bed. And I went in there, and I got angry at her. And I sat on her bed, and I was trying to calm her down. And I was sort of holding her shoulders, and I got angry at her. I said stop it, stop it. And I remember in her tears - as I was getting angrier, in her tears, she kept saying I can't help it. I can't help it. And I didn't hear that. It's - it's something I will always regret that my feeling anger instead of empathy - didn't know what I was doing as a father.

This feeling of insufficiency resonates deeply with me, and not just in my role as a father. If I had to single out the unhealthy thought that has created the most emotional suffering throughout my life, it is that I am not good enough. I have written before about my theory of how this inner conviction of unworthiness evolved; here, I'll simply note that I trace part of the origins partly to the effects of growing up in a household in which a family member suffered from mental illness - my father's alcoholism - and partly to the effects of my maternal grandfather's efforts to "improve" me through what I now recognize as "expressed emotions".

As an adult, I have found that some of my wife's well-intentioned efforts to "improve" me have inadvertently only served to deepen the void, and I am sure some of my efforts to "improve" her have had similar unintended consequences, especially when expressed with anger rather than empathy. I know both of our children have suffered from some of their parents' efforts to "improve" them. My son has confirmed that the two times that I exploded in anger toward him - rather than opening to empathy for his underlying suffering that gave rise to the behaviors to which I was reacting - both had a significant negative impact on him, and at least one of my daughter's lingering emotional wounds was inflicted by an angry expression of parental disapproval intended to "improve" her.

Which leads me to wonder whether acceptance always trumps intervention when interacting with family members. We naturally want our spouses and children to be the best they can be, and part of the role of a parent is to teach our children how to thrive. That said, I believe that "expressed emotions" (as defined above) are always harmful to both the senders and receivers of the expressions. I suppose that there are ways to encourage "improvement" that do not involve criticism, hostility or emotional over-involvement - the improv comedy practice of using "yes, and ..." rather than "yes, but ..." come to mind - but and in interpersonal interactions, I find it challenging to seek or promote improvement in another person without at least implying that someone is not good enough. Amid my increasing uncertainty, I am more and more inclined to err in the direction of acceptance rather than intervention.

In my journey toward greater acceptance, I have encountered a number of other sources of inspiration that are well aligned with the wisdom expressed in the Invisibilia episode. Before closing, I want to share a few of these here.

Radical-Acceptance-150Tara Brach teaches that one of the ways that we perpetuate the trance of unworthiness is by focusing on the belief that something is wrong, something is missing, and the way to break out of this trance is to embrace a radical acceptance of ourselves and others.

Both our upbringing and our culture provide the immediate breeding ground for this contemporary epidemic of feeling deficient and unworthy. Many of us have grown up with parents who gave us messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too demanding, shy or loud. An indirect but insidious message for many has been, “Don’t be needy.” Because our culture so values independence, self-reliance and strength, even the word needy evokes shame. To be considered as needy is utterly demeaning, contemptible. And yet, we all have needs—physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. So the basic message is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are.”


Meditation practices are a form of spiritual reparenting. We are transforming these deeply rooted patterns of inner relating by learning to bring mindfulness and compassion to our life. An open and accepting attention is radical because it flies in the face of our conditioning to assess what is happening as wrong. We are deconditioning the habit of turning against ourselves, discovering that in this moment’s experience nothing is missing or wrong.

The_invitationOriah Mountain Dreamer also invites us to embrace acceptance in her poem (and its elaboration in a book of the same name), The Invitation:

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

And this theme of acceptance is further elaborated in her Prelude to her second book, The Dance:

What if there is no need to change, no need to try and transform yourself into someone who is more compassionate, more present, more loving or wise?

How would this effect all the places in your life where you are endlessly trying to be better?

What if the task is simply to unfold, to become who you already are in your essential nature- gentle, compassionate and capable of living fully and passionately present?

How would this effect how you feel when you wake up in the morning?

What if who you essentially are right now is all that you are ever going to be?

How would this effect how you feel about your future?

What if the essence of who you are and always have been is enough?

Brene_brown_tedxhoustonThere are many other inspiring invitations to practice greater acceptance, but I'll allow myself just one more: Brene Brown's TEDxHouston talk on Wholeheartedness, which evoked a similar response as the Invisibilia episode (I watched the video three times in the span of a few days, each time revealing another layer of deeper emotional resonance and meaning).

The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it. What underpinned this shame, this "I'm not good enough," -- which, we all know that feeling: "I'm not blank enough. I'm not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough." The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability. This idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.


when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough" ... then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.

And so, at least in this moment, the kindness and gentleness in me sees the kindness and gentleness in you. Namaste.

The Games We Make Up About Ourselves: Interactive Narratives of Personal Transformation

I'm not a gamer, but a segment in last week's On The Media, Personal Video Games, inspired me on several levels, offering insights into the ways that game designers are utilizing their craft to enable others to more effectively relate to their personal trials and tribulations. I've long been fascinated with the stories we make up about ourselves, and even though I rarely play online games, having played the games mentioned in the segment, I can appreciate how adding an interactive dimension can make the heroes' journeys embodied in those stories more accessible.

Dys4iaCo-host Brooke Gladstone interviewed three game designers about their games, and the personal challenges those games were designed to recreate. Anna Anthropy designed the game Dys4ia to capture the dysphoria she experienced as a trans-woman throughout a 6-month odyssey of seeking out and undergoing hormone replacement therapy. "I made the game to communicate all the frustration of the experience of dealing with the medical industry, dealing with society, my own gender dysphoria, and also the hope that comes out of it after struggling up what is basically a mountain". The game has 4 levels:

  1. Gender bullshit (making the decision to start hormone replacement therapy)
  2. Medical bullshit (dealing with the medical industry, finding a clinic, getting tested, ...)
  3. Hormonal bullshit (being on hormones, dealing with wild mood swings)
  4. It gets better? (the hope and eventual realization of achieving a new place of comfort)

While I can't personally relate to being or becoming transgender, I can relate to several challenges that arise in accompanying a loved one on an interminable health odyssey such as the one embodied in the game: struggling with difficult decisions about medical procedures, dealing with the labyrinthian medical industry, interacting with friends and family who want to help but don't fully understand, coping with [someone else's] mood swings and experiencing varying levels of hope and despair about whether things will get better.

ThatWasYesterdayMichael Molinari designed the game, That was Yesterday ("A personal journey about learning to move forward in life"), to embody a different type of transition, his move from a small town in New Jersey to San Francisco to take a new job (designing games). I have to admit that I was skeptical when I first heard his description of the game, which depicts "a wall you need to face away from, and in order to get through the wall, instead of bumping your head against it, you need to look to the past and find all the things that help you drive forward ... When you face away from this wall, which kind of represents problems and fears and whatever, you think it might be this dense wall, and it kind of recedes and moves back. The key there is to exercise patience and wait for the wall to disappear, and once it's off the screen, then you're able to turn around, face forward and start moving through life a little bit further."

Even playing the game, I found it disconcerting that the only way to "win" - i.e., avoid being blocked by the wall - was to turn away from the wall, which I initially interpreted as a form of denial. However, upon further reflection, I could see how the game might represent the wisdom of the serenity prayer: grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. One of the new dimensions of awareness that my wife and I have learned about functional gastrointestinal disorders is the tight loop between stress and disease, and how sometimes the best solution to dealing with the angst of not knowing the source of or solution to recurring bouts of pain and discomfort is to just let go ... to figuratively face away from the impenetrable and implacable wall.

[Update] Maria Popova has distilled some related wisdom in her (Brain Pickings) review of Jonah Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, highlighted in the following excerpt:

When we tell stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problem was impossible. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthrough. We tell the happy ending first.

 The danger of this scenario is that the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost. Because it’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.

Lackadaisium Sebastian Janisz designed another game about beating your head against a wall, Lackadaisium, which embodies his struggles with depression and loneliness. "I started making it just to kind of relieve myself, because I was feeling all this emotion, or more like a lack of emotion. I thought maybe making this game would make me feel better. Essentially, what I wanted to try and do was make it so that when you play it, because of the way the game play is designed, you'll start to feel how I felt." Unfortunately, the game only runs on Windows platform, and I'm a Mac user, so I have not yet played this game, but I can certainly relate to struggling with depression and loneliness.

Several insights and connections emerged throughout the interview. Anna's observation that games are about rules reminded me of the pervasiveness and permeability of finite and infinite games that I first discovered via James Carse. Sebastian's observation that he made the game for himself, and Michael's surprise that when others play his hybrid semi-autobiographical game, "some people had more personal experiences than I even had when I was making it", both reflect Carl Rogers' wisdom that what is most personal is most general. The raw vulnerability embodied in these games provide compelling examples of authentic player journeys - vs. trendy and shallow gamification - that Amy Jo Kim has articulated and championed so effectively.

RiseOfTheVideogameZinestersFinally, Anna's closing observation - perhaps elaborated further in her book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form - that amateur games can be viewed as both an art form and a reaction against the creeping conservatism of the game industry reflects the rise of the do-it-yourself movement, and raises the possibility that game design may provide a compelling channel for following Doug Rushkoff's exhortation to Program or Be Programmed.

The Gaps, Crap and Gumption Traps in Creative Work


ThisAmericanLifeThe poster above reflects hard-won wisdom acquired and shared by Ira Glass, host of PRI's This American Life, emphasizing the importance of perseverance in developing mastery of creative production. While Glass focuses on storytelling for radio and television, his insights and experiences about the gaps between ambitions and realizations - and the connections between quantity and quality - relate to wisdom I've encountered from masters of the crafts of filmmaking and maintaining motorcycles. I believe this wisdom applies to any creative endeavor, and I would argue that storytelling is an essential ingredient in every creative enterprise, as the creative things we produce and consume comprise an integral part of the stories we make up about ourselves.

The poster is derived from a video interview posted in August 2009 (Ira Glass on Storytelling, Part 3 of 4) in which he describes both the frustration and importance of making stuff that is still "kind of crappy" as an unavoidable part of the apprenticeship required for the journey to master craftspersonship ... and, according to Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything is crap anyway.

Being_Wrong_Kathryn_SchulzIra Glass is my favorite interviewer, and so I was intrigued when he was interviewed by another experienced interviewer, Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong. The interview, which appeared in a June 2010 Slate article, On Air and On Error: This American Life's Ira Glass on Being Wrong, offers some glimpses of the wisdom captured in the pithy poster above:

One of the reasons I was interested in doing this interview is because I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It's not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.

WoodyAllen_AmericanMastersIn a recent American Masters documentary on Woody Allen, the prolific writer, actor and director shared a similar perspective on the need to produce lots of stuff. Although the documentary is no longer viewable online, an interview with Robert B. Weide, the documentary filmmaker - a filmmaker filming a filmmaker - is available, in which Weide shares Allen's Quantity Theory:

You ask him [Woody Allen] about his endurance and his longevity over 40 years, and how prolific he is, doing a film a year for 40 years, as a writer and a director, and in many of them, an actor. And he says, "You know, longevity and endurance have their place, those are accomplishments of a sort, but those aren't the accomplishments I care about, which is to make a really great film." He says that he's working on the quantity theory, which is that if you just keep knocking them out, one picture after another, just keep making them and making them, some of them won't be that great, but every now and then, one will come out good.

ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenanceAllen's Quantity Theory brings to mind the Metaphysics of Quality, and the idea of a gumption trap that Robert Pirsig described in his classic 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for life, and explores a variety of gumption traps - externally induced out-of-sequence reassembly, intermittent failure and parts problems as well as internally induced traps arising from value rigidity, ego, anxiety, boredom and impatience - and ways of addressing and overcoming them. I won't include the full text of Pirsig's hypothetical course in Gumptionology 101 here, but the following passage gives a sense of his perspective, and its relevance to the views shared more recently by Ira Glass and Woody Allen:

Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined "irreplaceable" assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things "gumption traps."

There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.

Pirsig's ideas about gumption were part of the inspiration for this blog, and I have consciously and unconsciously encountered some of these traps when writing - and not writing - posts here. When I look back on my early posts, many of them now seem like crap ... and I don't think any of the posts I've written - or anything I've produced in any other realm - have ever quite closed the gap between my ambitions and my realizations. I suppose blogging gives me a channel through which to work out - or at least work with - the ongoing tension between striving and acceptance.

Finally, speaking of blogging, I first encountered the poster at the top of this post a few weeks ago at the top of a post at Tim Kastelle's blog (which I always enjoy) on How to Make Things Look Simple. Tim found it amid one of the longest chains of Tumblr reblogs I've ever encountered, but further searching suggests that it was originally created by Sawyer Hollenshead. In digging around for the source, I also found a plain text version of the Ira Glass quote on a blog maintained by NPR's Fresh Air associate producer Melody Kramer, which I'll include - and conclude with - here, as I find it more readable (though less striking) than the poster:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb

We are all interconnected and we have responsibility for each other.

I_Am_Because_We_Are_coverThis is the interpretation of the Swahili word, ubuntu, offered near the start of a short, inspiring interview with photographer Betty Press by NPR Weekend Edition Sunday host, Audie Cornish two weeks ago. The interview focused on the incredible photographs celebrating the lives of people in Africa compiled over a 20-year period in a new book by Press, I Am Because We Are: African Wisdom in Image and Proverb. The NPR web page for the segment, A Photographer Changes The Focus In Africa, includes a selection of 7 of the 125 black and white photographs from the book. The images are striking, but given that this was a radio interview - on NPR, no less - I was a bit disappointed that, with the exception of the quote above, the proverbial dimension of African Wisdom was largely omitted from the segment ... and, well, talking about photographs is like writing about music ... which, of course, is like dancing about architecture.

ubuntu_logoAlthough I have never been there, I have been interested in Africa since inadvertently becoming an unofficial spokesperson for Nokia's efforts to empower people in developing regions with mobile technologies at PopTech 2007 (and several subsequent events). And as a technology guy, I have long interpreted ubuntu as a reference to a Debian-derived version of the open-source Linux operating system. I was intrigued, though not entirely surprised, to discover the origin of the term, which does seem well-aligned with the philosophy embodied by this evolving software artifact. So after learning more about the broader - and deeper - interpretation of ubuntu from Betty Press, my appetite was whetted for more examples of proverbial African wisdom to be revealed during the course of the interview.

Unfortunately, there were no further examples of proverbs offered on NPR - during the interview or on its associated web page - and while the book's web site offers a gallery that include additional photos, there are no examples of the proverbs in the book ... although the its proverbial aspects are highlighted in the following endorsement by Joanne Veal Gabbin on the main page:

A wise one said Proverbs are the palm wine with which words are eaten. Proverbs, like poems, are concise, loaded with metaphors, wisdom, nuance, and the rhythms of life…

At $39.95, this is not an inexpensive book (well, at least, not in my book), and I wasn't sure I wanted to make the investment. As much as I am moved by visual images, words are my primary source of inspiration. The book cover says "Proverbs compiled by Annetta Miller", and so I don't know if the division of labor is, in part, responsible for the primacy of images vs. words in nearly all the marketing materials (I cannot find a web page for Ms. Miller, but her bio suggests she has been involved in compiling other collections of African wisdom).

Having purchased and now received a copy of the book, I can attest to the captivating imagery contained in the photographs. Many of the proverbs of the book reflect wisdom that I've encountered in proverbs arising in American, European and/or Asian cultures - perhaps reflecting the universal nature of many of the most meaningful insights and experiences we share as human beings - but a few stood out as particularly poignant pronouncements of perspicacity. I wanted to help compensate for what I see as a deficit of attention to the proverbial wisdom in the book by sharing a few of my favorites:

The world is a mirror; it looks at you the same way you look at it. [North African proverb]

Our children are living messages sent to a future we may never see. [Nigerian proverb]

What you help a child to love is more important than what you help her to learn. [Sengalese proverb]

If you educate a man you educate an invdividual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation). [Ghanaian proverb]

If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance. [Zimbabwean proverb]

These last two are especially resonant, after having recently attended a David Whyte poetry reading, in which he and representatives of a local organization, Young Women Empowered, shared some proverbial wisdom about the importance of empowering [young] women and for the need for all humans to courageously speak out in the world. Whyte also spoke of embracing different forms of beauty, and the images and words in I Am Because We Are are a powerful illustration of beautiful forms that arise in the people and places of Africa.

A Compelling, Compassionate, Critique of Conservative Extremism by David Frum

NewYorkMagazine_20111128_politicscvr_150the [Republican] party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong

[David Frum on the GOP’s Lost Sense of Reality (New York Magazine, 20 November 2011)]

David Frum, former economics speechwriter for former U.S. President George W. Bush, offers a sharp critique of the Republican Party in an interview with NPR's Steve Innskeep yesterday, David Frum asks "When did the GOP lose touch?". The interview was prompted by Frum's recent article in the current issue of New York Magazine, which is impressive in its breadth and depth ... and, I would argue, its compassion.

I often feel incensed at some of the things I hear and read conservatives saying and writing. Frum's article helps provide some context for some of the perspectives presumably felt and sometimes articulated by some conservatives, but does so largely without being condescending. I'm reminded of one of the central tenets of non-violent communication: communication designed to induce fear, shame and/or guilt in a listener often arises from conscious or unconscious fear, shame and/or guilt on the part of the speaker. I'm also uncomfortably reminded of my own tendencies toward projection and rejection ... which are [also] reflected in the subtitle of Frum's article:

Some of my Republican friends ask if I’ve gone crazy. I say: Look in the mirror.

I highly recommend reading the entire article, and its complementary companion article by Jonathan Chait, who until recently was senior editor at The New Republic, How Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable (although frankly, I did not find Chait's article as compelling ... or compassionate). Here, I wanted share a few excerpts highlighting some key observations Frum makes regarding the rightward GOP shift(s).

  • On Fiscal Austerity and Economic Stagnation:
    ... the big winners in the American fiscal system are the rich, the old, the rural, and veterans—typically conservative constituencies. ... Any serious move to balance the budget, or even just reduce the deficit a little, must inevitably cut programs conservative voters do like: Medicare for current beneficiaries, farm subsidies, veterans’ benefits, and big tax loopholes like the mortgage-interest deduction and employer-provided health benefits. The rank and file of the GOP are therefore caught between their interests and their ideology—intensifying their suspicion that shadowy Washington elites are playing dirty tricks upon them.
  • On Ethnic Competition:
    [In a National Journal article based on a Gallup poll of Republican voters, Second Verse, Same as the First, Ron Brownstein reports that] "... noncollege whites are the gloomiest: Just one-third of them think their kids will live better than they do; an equal number think their children won’t even match their living standard. No other group is nearly that negative." Those fears are not irrational. ... It is precisely these disaffected whites—especially those who didn’t go to college—who form the Republican voting base.
  • On Fox News and Talk Radio:
    Extremism and conflict make for bad politics but great TV. Over the past two decades, conservatism has evolved from a political philosophy into a market segment. An industry has grown up to serve that segment—and its stars have become the true thought leaders of the conservative world. The business model of the conservative media is built on two elements: provoking the audience into a fever of indignation (to keep them watching) and fomenting mistrust of all other information sources (so that they never change the channel).
  • On [what I would call] unenlightened self-interest:
    We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information. ... [sinister GOP] billionaires do exist, and some do indeed attempt to influence the political process. ... Yet, for the most part, these Republican billionaires are not acting cynically. They watch Fox News too, and they’re gripped by the same apocalyptic fears as the Republican base. In funding the tea-party movement, they are ­actually acting against their own longer-term interests, for it is the richest who have the most interest in political stability, which depends upon broad societal agreement that the existing distribution of rewards is fair and reasonable. If the social order comes to seem unjust to large numbers of people, what happens next will make Occupy Wall Street look like a street fair.
  • "a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation":
    Some call this the closing of the conservative mind. Alas, the conservative mind has proved itself only too open, these past years, to all manner of intellectual pollen. Call it instead the drying up of conservative creativity. ... In the aftershock of 2008, large numbers of Americans feel exploited and abused. Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.

Frum finishes off the article with a call for conservative moderates to speak up:

I refuse to believe that I am the only Republican who feels this way. If CNN’s most recent polling is correct, only half of us sympathize with the tea party. However, moderate-minded people dislike conflict—and thus tend to lose to people who relish conflict. The most extreme voices in the GOP now denounce everybody else as Republicans in Name Only. But who elected them as the GOP’s membership committee?

Silent majority_for_peaceDuring this period of increasing protests against inequality and injustice - on Wall Street and other streets in America, as well as on streets and squares in Egypt and elsewhere around the world -  I'm reminded of earlier widespread protests against the Vietnam War ... and former Republican President Richard Nixon's claims during that period to be the spokesperson for what he called the silent majority, and his largely successful efforts to divide and polarize the American people ... and claims made by the more recently self-appointed Republican spokespeople of real Americans.

However, harking back to that earlier period of protest also reminds me of the wisdom of an inspiring liberal who, like Frum, [also] called for moderation in words and actions in the cause of promoting change: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

Although Frum and King espouse different perspectives on the types of changes that are likely to lead to a greater Good, a vigorous, non-violent debate seems like the most likely course to lead toward improvements in politics and society.

Usability and confusability in Health IT: doctor-computer interaction vs. doctor-human interaction

20111109_doctor_hospital_electronic_35A segment on the Marketplace Tech Report, Health care providers having trouble with new technology, caught my ear yesterday. The story included health and safety concerns raised by one of the authors of a 197-page report, Health IT and Patient Safety: Building Safer Systems for Better Care, published by the Institute of Medicine this week:

Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health and an author of this report as well says, "One of things that happened in Pittsburgh, in the pediatric ICU was that when the electronic system was put in, it really changed the way doctors and nurses interacted and the way they worked together. Physicians started spending a lot less time at the bedside and they were spending a lot more time staring at the computer screen, and interacting less with nurses and interacting less with patients. And there's a lot of information you pick up when you speak directly with people that when you go to purely electronic communication, you miss."

Two diametrically opposed possible explanations for the increased inattention of doctors to their human colleagues and customers (aka patients) came to mind:

  • the health information technology (HealthIT) systems are so well designed that doctors are becoming engrossed in the wealth of information newly available to them
  • the new HealthIT systems are so poorly designed that doctors are being needlessly distracted by confusing and unintuitive interfaces that require significant attention to navigate effectively.

HealthITandPatientSafety_coverAfter downloading and skimming the report [a pre-publication version of which is available as a free PDF], it appears that the latter explanation is most on point. Chapter 4 of the report, Opportunities to Build a Safer System for Health IT, includes observations, analysis and recommendations for usability, workflow and other human-computer interaction (HCI) issues involved in the design of effective Health IT systems. The report includes chapters on other topics involving information and technology (many of which incorporate elements of HCI), but it is encouraging to see such a strong human-centered focus on what is, by definition, a very human-centered domain.


Among the observations shared by the committee who authored the report is a strident call for usability as a mission-critical factor:

The committee expressed concerns that poor [Health IT] usability ... is one of the single greatest threats to patient safety. On the other hand, once improved, it can be an effective promoter of patient safety. [emphasis added]

Among the relevant references they recommend for improving usability:

Unfortunately, I don't currently have the time to dig more deeply into the report or the wealth of references it cites (I have 75 midterm Operating Systems exams to grade in the next 36 hours). However, in my [re]new[ed] role as educator, I will be teaching a class on HCI next quarter and am pondering how I might indulge my increasing interest in computer supported cooperative healthcare and find ways of focusing on healthcare issues as a stimulating and worthwhile problem domain for undergraduate students learning about HCI.

Having recently read a compelling NYTimes article on Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It's Just So Darn Hard) - which emphasized the increasing importance of design, projects, problem solving and social service to motivate students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) - I'm eager to put some of these ideas into practice.

[Update: The New York Times has a related article on doctor-computer interaction, which focuses on the distraction caused by highly engaging IT devices and services that are not designed specifically for healthcare: As Doctors Use More Devices, Potential for Distraction Grows (found via a post on Distraction at Josephine Ensign's "Medical Margins" Blog).]

Airborne telepresence robots: 1995 & 2011

image from www.prop.org In introducing a short Marketplace Tech Report story about a floating blimp telepresence avatar this morning, host John Moe somewhat sarcastically said "Oh, no: not another floating blimp telepresence avatar story!", highlighting the rather unusual nature of a story about a "blimp-based boss". The story, reported by producer Larissa Anderson starting at the 3:08 mark, was about a floating remote-control telepresence robot that can enable people to remotely interact with - and perhaps unexpectedly look over the shoulders of - coworkers. It is a rather unusual story, but perhaps not quite as novel as some may believe. I was immediately reminded of some early research my friend Eric Paulos did at UC Berkeley on "Space Browsers" and other examples of what he called Personal Roving Presence (PRoP) in the 1990s.

After following some links to learn more about the Marketplace Tech Report story, I discovered an article - and embedded video - by Jim Giles in New Scientist about Telepresence robots go airborne. The New Scientist article references a CHI 2011 presentation last week by Tobita Hiroaki and colleagues at Sony Computer Science Laboratories. The associated alt.chi paper, Floating avatar: telepresence system using blimps for communication and entertainment, includes a reference to the earlier work by Eric Paulos and John Canny (which was started in 1995 and presented in the CHI 1998 video program). Given that the more recent example of floating telepresence robots by Sony CSL is currently making the rounds in the popular press, and my abiding interest in promoting accuracy in science reporting, I wanted to highlight the earlier work at UCB outside of traditional academic publication citation threads.

image from www.boingboing.net image from www.boingboing.net Somewhat ironically, just last week, I mentioned another example of robotic telepresence "then & now" in the class I'm teaching on Computer-Mediated Communication. A 2005 BoingBoing post by David Pescovitz on Telerobots Separated at Birth highlighted the similarity between a wheeled successor of Space Browser, what Eric called PRoP 2, and "Sister Mary", an example of what InTouch Health calls RP [Remote Presence] Endpoint Devices).

Separated at birth? At left, Sister Mary, a telerobot offered by InTouch Health that enables physicians to conduct their rounds remotely. Sister Mary is now being tested at St. Mary's Hospital in London. Link and Link

At right, Eric Paulos and John Canny's Personal Roving Presence (PRoP), a telerobot that "provides video and audio links to the remote space as well as providing a visible, mobile entity with which other people can interact." PRoP was developed at UC Berkeley in 2001 1997. Link

image from www.open-video.org Unfortunately, I can't find an embeddable online video of Space Browsers, but I did find a 3-minute video on PRoP: Personal Roving Presence from the CHI 1998 Video Program at the Open Video Project (which includes a storyboard of images from the video and a link to a downloadable 31MB MPG video of PRoP).

I'll include excerpts of coverage of airborne telepresence robots from 1995 and 2011 below.


Interfacing Reality



Space Browsers: A Tool for Ubiquitous Tele-embodiment

The first PRoPs were simple airborne tele-robots we named Space Browsers first designed and flown in 1995. The Space Browsers were helium-filled blimps of human proportions or smaller propelled by several lightweight motor-driven propellers. On board each blimp was a color video camera, a microphone, a speaker, and the electronics and radio links necessary to enable remote operation. The entire payload was less than 600 grams (typically 400-500 grams). We used the smallest blimps that could carry the necessary cargo in order to keep them as maneuverable as possible. Our space browsers ware able to navigate hallways, doorways, stairwells, and even in the confines of an elevator. We experimented with several different configurations, ranging in size from 180x90 cm to 120x60 cm and shapes from cylinders and spheres to "pillow-shaped" rectangles. We found he smaller blimps were best-suited for moving into groups of people and engaging in conversation with minimal disruption since they took up no more space than a standing person. The browsers were designed to move at a speed similar to a human walking.

The basic principal was that a user anywhere on the internet could log into a browser configured to pilot the blimp. The system used a Java applet to send audio to the blimp, to control its locomotion and retrieve audio and visual information. As the remote user guided the blimp through space the blimp delivered live video and audio to the pilot's machine using standard tele-conferencing software. The user could thus observe and take part any remote conversation accessible by  the blimp. These blimps allowed the user to travel, observe, and communicate throughout 3D space. He could observe things as if he was physically there.


Telepresence robots go airborne

03:40 12 May 2011
Jim Giles, contributor, Vancouver, Canada

Picture the scene: your boss phones to say he is working from home. A calm descends over the office. Workers lean back in their chairs. Feet go up on desks - this shift is going to be pretty chilled.

Suddenly, a super-sized video feed of your boss, projected onto to the front of a helium-filled balloon equipped with a loudspeaker, floats silently into the room and starts issuing orders from above your head. Not such a good day.

This blimp-based boss, which brings to mind the all-seeing Big Brother of George Orwell's 1984, is the creation of Tobita Hiroaki and colleagues at Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo. Its eerie quality hasn't escaped Hiroaki - he says that his colleagues described the experience of talking to a metre-wide floating image of a co-worker as ">Tobita Hiroaki and colleagues at Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Tokyo. Its eerie quality hasn't escaped Hiroaki - he says that his colleagues described the experience of talking to a metre-wide floating image of a co-worker as "very strange".

The project does have some non-sinister applications. It's part of a wider movement aimed at making "telepresence" who medical specialist>telepresence" possible. Imagine a medical specialist who can't make it to a regional hospital, but needs to consult with a patient there. Or an academic expert who wants to deliver a lecture remotely. Telepresence researchers are working on technology that can get a representation of these people into the room. To put it another way: telepresence lets you be in two places at the same time.

A warm welcome at Willamette University Opening Days

image from willamette.edu We brought our daughter down to Willamette University this week and enjoyed a warm welcome during their Opening Days orientation program. I had written about our short tour of small colleges in the Pacific Northwest last March, which included Willamette and several other schools she was considering. Meg eventually applied to and was admitted to several very good schools, some of which included attractive scholarship offers. The overall package of education quality, campus life and scholarship offered by Willamette seemed to offer the best fit for her aspirations, and our experience at opening days only reinforced the sense that she had made the right decision.

Bearcat move-in squad TIUA move-in squad When we arrived at the Salem, OR, campus after our 4-hour drive Thursday morning, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a group of Willamette Bearcats football players and students from Tokyo International University of America - which is affiliated and collocated with Willamette - who offered to carry Meg's stuff up to her dorm room. The football players have traditionally helped new students who are on the team move in; this year, Scott (second from left in photo to the left) said he thought it would be a nice gesture - very much in keeping with the traditions of community service at Willamette - to help all students move in this year. TIUA also has a strong tradition of community service. A collection of students from both groups came right up to the van, each grabbing an armful of stuff, and had all of Meg's things outside her room in under 5 minutes. This was the third time we've been to the campus, and each time we had a positive experience, but I have to say that this initial greeting made a powerfully positive impression on us.

image from www.willamette.edu After lunch at Goudy Commons, we attended the Welcome Program for New Students and Families, which included presentations by Willamette President M. Lee Pelton, VP of Enrollment & Financial Aid Madeleine Rhyneer and Opening Days Coordinator Emma Larkins. Among the things we learned was that this year was the first time that Willamette admitted fewer than 50% of its applicants; other statistics revealed on the welcome page for the class of 2014 include a median SAT score of 1870 (50 points higher than last year's class), a median high school GPA of 3.79, and over half (51%) ranked in the top 10% of their high school graduating class (a 10% increase from last year). We also learned that many of the Opening Days coordinators are pretty good dancers.

The students and their families were then separated, and Amy and I attended a session on Campus Life at Willamette. I had never heard of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) before - even though it was enacted in 1974, and so was in force when I attended college - but we learned that a student must sign a waiver for the university to release any information about any aspect of the student's life and work at the school. We also learned about a range of counseling and other support services available to students at the college.

Having been deeply disturbed by a recent NPR series on campus rape - an estimated 20% of women are sexually assaulted at some point during their college career, and even at the most progressive institutions (with respect to this issue) only 10-25% of men found guilty of sexual assault are expelled - I asked about the prevalence and policies regarding sexual assault on campus. Margaret Trout, Director of the Bishop Wellness Center on campus, said that the prevalance of non-stranger sexual assault at Willamette is consistent with the national average, and that a survivor can choose whether to press charges with the Salem police or through the Willamette judicial system; if they choose the campus judicial system, and the perpetrator is found guilty, that person will be expelled. She also said that the campus has trained student volunteers who serve as sexual assault response allies, and this has increased both the reporting and effective response to sexual assault on campus. On the one hand, I was reluctant to raise the issue in the session (or in this post), but on the other hand, I think it is very important that parents - and students - be aware of how prevalent this problem is, and how ineffective many schools are in dealing with it.

After the campus life session, parents and students enjoyed a nice picnic dinner while being entertained by the Los Palmeros Mariachi band. We discovered that a friend and former colleague from the Seattle area also has a son who is an entering freshman at Willamette, and that the son's best friend - whose older brother is a junior at Willamette - is also a freshman there. It was nice to reconnect with local friends and to discover that there is a tradition of siblings attending the same school (not that we have any preconceived notions that what is appealing to Meg will be appealing to Evan).

We then attended an evening session on Residence Life at Willamette, where Resident Assistants were on stage to answer any questions parents or students might have about living on campus. Willamette does not have any campus-wide policy with respect to "quiet hours", instead imposing 24-hour "courtesy hours", relying upon the discretion and judgment of the students to respect their peers, but also allowing individual dorms (and residences) to dictate specific rules if individual discretion and judgment do not match residents' expectations of courtesy. Other topics that were emphasized were the importance of locking doors, windows and bikes (the exclusive use of U-shaped Kryptonite locks was encouraged both in this session and the earlier session on Campus Life).

We spent the night at the Grand Hotel in downtown Salem - whose #1 rating on TripAdvisor is well-deserved - and enjoyed such a restful sleep that we missed the early morning sessions on the second day. However, we did attend the Opening Convocation at 10:30, with a keynote by Jonah Lehrer. That was such an inspiring experience in and of itself, I'm going to split that off into a separate blog post [update: I've posted my notes on Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College]. For this post, I'll simply note that I was also inspired by Dean Marlene Moore's opening remarks during the convocation, in which she invoked a metaphor of "curriculum as conversation", encouraged both curiosity and confusion (the latter being one of the best routes to eventual clarity), and emphasized the importance of the journey (the college experience) over the destination (the degree).

I'll finish this post by observing the synchronicity of Meg having bought Lehrer's most recent book, How We Decide, in June, before the convocation speaker was announced, and so the selection of Jonah Lehrer as the convocation speaker just adds more corroboration (for me) that Willamette was, indeed, the right decision.

Minority Report and Recent Advances in Pervasive Personalized Advertising

Several recent articles I've read about new developments in tracking and advertising in different countries - most of which reference the science fiction movie, Minority Report - reminded me of a quote often attributed to science fiction author, William Gibson:

The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed

The articles describe the ways that various technologies - from special-purpose global positioning system (GPS) devices and face recognition software to general-purpose radio frequency identification (RFID) chips and web browsers - can be used to record information about us, and make it available to prospective advertisers in order to provide more contextually relevant advertising in a broader array of contexts.

The success of these increasingly pervasive personalized advertising systems depends, in part, on how they address three fundamental questions:

  • How much control do viewers of such advertising have over the information that is recorded?
  • What benefits do the viewers receive?
  • What risks do they perceive?

The Minority Report analogies refer to scenes in which iris scanning technology is used to identify shoppers in order to present customized messages. In the scene above, John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) is offered audio and visual invitations to try products and services from Lexus ("the road you're on, John Anderton, is the road less traveled"), Guinness ("John Anderton! You could use a Guiness right about now.") and American Express Travel ("Get away, John Anderton; forget your troubles") as he makes his way through a mall on his way to board a train. People in this advertising scenario have little control over being identified (short of, say, eyeball transplants), do not appear to derive any direct benefit, and the risks of ubiquitous identification and tracking go well beyond potentially irritating personalized advertising: an elite Pre-Crime unit of the police may want to apprehend you before you commit a crime you don't even know you're going to commit. These factors may explain why reviews and reactions to this scenario, including the references in these recent articles, are almost universally negative.

OysterCard On Sunday, the Daily Telegraph published an article by Richard Gray on Minority Report-style advertising billboards to target consumers, describing a system being developed by the IBM Smarter Planet program in which RFID chips - using near field communication (NFC) with a range of about 4 inches (10 cm) - are used to identify people. Few additional details are provided about the system, but the technology suggests that some kind of explicit "check-in" will be required in order for people to be identified. The article alludes to the Oyster Cards used in the London Underground and other transportation systems as being a compatible technology, and the recent announcement that all of Nokia's new Symbian phones will come equipped with NFC in 2011 suggests that the availability of NFC-enabled devices will continue to grow. I can imagine a context in which "check-ins" used for one purpose (gaining access to a train platform) could be used for another purpose (targeted advertising on nearby displays and/or speakers). If customers are given the control to explicitly opt in to such a system, and were rewarded - perhaps by subsidized fares associated with their cards (or phones) - then I believe the benefits would be perceived as outweighing the privacy risks for at least some of the potential users.

NEC_NextGenerationDigitalSignageSolution Sunday's article references another Daily Telegraph article by Andrew Hough earlier this year with a similar theme - and a similar title ('Minority Report' digital billboard 'watches consumers shop') - but with a different technology. NEC is developing a Next Generation Digital Signage Solution that combines large displays, video cameras and face recognition software designed to determine the gender and approximate ages of the person or people in front of the display. An AFP report two weeks ago, Tokyo trials digital billboards that scan passers-by, refers to a Digital Signage Promotion Project in which 27 high-tech advertising displays were deployed in commuter stations in Tokyo. I suspect this is a pilot of the NEC system, although NEC is not mentioned anywhere in the report.

While potentially less invasive than the RFID-based approach - inferring age and gender rather than requiring individual identification - the use of cameras may instead be perceived as more invasive, depending on how people believe captured images are being handled, e.g., deleted, saved for internal use only or potentially sold to third parties. There is certainly less control afforded to potential users, aside from cloaking their faces as they pass by. The proposed benefits described in the earlier Daily Telegraph article appear to be targeted primarily toward the advertisers, who potentially will be able to target advertising toward specific demographic groups in proximity to the displays. However, the more recent Telegraph article suggests that personalized advertising might offer indirect benefits to viewers, in that they "may help reduce costs that are passed onto the consumer by reducing the amount of poorly targeted advertising" ... perhaps reflecting progress toward addressing a problem observed by John Wanamaker, the father of modern advertising:

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.

TrySomethingNewWithOmo Another advertising campaign - costing $1M - seeks to move pervasive personal advertising from public and semi-public places into the home. In an article asking Is Your Detergent Stalking You?, Laurel Wentz at Advertising Age reports that Omo Detergent has inserted GPS devices in 50 boxes of new, improved detergent scattered in stores throughout Brazil. Owners of the special boxes will be tracked down in their homes - or, I suppose, wherever the detergent box comes to rest for a period of time - whereupon they will be presented with a free video camera and invited to participate in a special company-sponsored event. I don't know enough about Brazilian culture to predict how consumers in that country will respond, but given that they are not informed whether or not any particular box of detergent can be tracked - it's a surprise - I can imagine reactions that may range from the kind of ecstatic joy expressed by those contacted by the Prize Patrol unit in Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes commercials to the abject terror felt by those who are tracked down by John Anderton's Pre-Crime unit in Minority Report.

FacebookAdsMuffinTop The Wall Street Journal just launched a series of articles on Internet spyware that may be tracking information through your web browser. In the first installment, The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets, Julia Angwin reports that the top 50 web sites installed 3,180 cookies, flash cookies or beacons on computers that visit their web sites, which are then used to either personalize ads shown to the user directly or sold to third parties who aggregate the data. Many users may already be aware of the use of web browser tracking technology, but the extent of the tracking may be disturbing to some, and considerable convenience must be forfeited in order to control the tracking. Perhaps even more disturbing is the potential for the algorithmically personalized advertising to intrude into intimate dimensions of our lives, resulting in psychological harm. The article describes a case of a 17 year old girl whose browsing behavior led to her being [correctly] categorized as someone interested in weight loss programs. Although accurate, the advertising was not always welcome: "I try not to think about it…. Then [the ads] make me start thinking about it." Two years ago, Rachel Beckman wrote a related article for the Washington Post on Facebook ads target you where it hurts, subtitled "My Facebook page called me fat", describing the recurring emotional pain experienced by a user repeatedly exposed to targeted advertising like the Muffin Top ad shown on the right.

The audio and visual advertisements soliciting John Anderton's attention were for products and services that he probably did not mind being associated with - luxury cars, beer and travel to exotic locales. Thinking back to issues I raised about the prospects of personalized, publicly displayed promotions of personal care products in a drug store (represented by OlayForYou screens at WalMart), I wonder what kind of reaction Anderton - and the movie audience - might have to personalized, publicly displayed advertisements for more intimate or personal products and services in a mall - say, Viagra, Hair Club for Men, or WeightWatchers (and as I type these, I can already envision some of the spam comments I'll get on this post).

CoCollage-Trabant Despite my concerns about potential abuses and/or unintended consequences that may arise in an era of increasingly pervasive personalized advertising, I believe that well-designed active environments that can sense and respond to people in contextually appropriate ways can offer benefits that outweigh the risks. My own work on proactive displays has involved the linkage of different sensing technologies - infrared badges, RFID, Bluetooth mobile phones and magetically-striped loyalty cards - to social media sites in order to bring some of the richness of what we share in our online social networks into the physical spaces we share with others. Revealing the interestingness of the people nearby, e.g., through showing their photos on a large display, creates new opportunities for enhanced awareness, appreciation, interactions and relationships. Although some of the users of these prototypes have found them intrusive or otherwise undesireable, many users found them sufficiently advantageous to explicitly opt in, and even those who have not opted in have enjoyed seeing the social media (mostly photos) shared by others on the nearby displays.

One of the challenges we have faced in these systems - which I sometimes describe as bridging the gaps between people by bridging the gaps between online and offline - is how to bridge the gap between cool research prototypes to sustainable and pervasive product or service. The only way I can envision this happening is with advertising revenue streams, which is the path we were pursuing with CoCollage. A few of the other current generation digital signage solutions include user-generated social media along with advertiser-generated media in their mix (e.g., LocaModa and Aerva), but I think there is still considerable room for next generation digital signage solutions to provide increased control and benefits for their users, to help compensate for real or perceived risks ... and avoid the currently inevitable comparisons to Minority Report.

Paro, Personal Robots, Emotional Intelligence and the Need to be Needed

ParoRobots Paro is a personal robot that looks like a baby harp seal and responds to changes in light, sound, temperature and touch. Research and development in artificial intelligence has traditionally focused on linguistic, logical or mathematical intelligence, although robotics has also involved the quest for imbuing machines with spatial and kinesthetic intelligence. Paro, however, seems designed more to embody emotional intelligence. And I would argue that the secret superpower of Paro is its ability to evoke emotions and address our fundamental need to be needed.

I recently heard an NPR interview with Amy Harmon about her NY Times article on Paro, A Soft Spot for Circuitry, in which recounted a number of interesting responses from Millie Lesek, an elderly woman who cared for Paro in a nursing home. Paro was first presented to Mrs. Lesek by a staff member who said she needed someone to babysit the robotic pet. Mrs. Lesek was happy to fulfill that need, forming a special bond with Paro, and eventually developed a stronger sense of being needed: “I’m the only one who can put him to sleep”.

Some researchers referenced in the article express concern about substituting a robot for a person - or a real pet - in relationships. However staff members at another retirement home noted that Paro tends to facilitate human interactions when other people are present (the way that real pets often do) rather than replace them. And when family, friends or staff are not - or cannot be - present, using a machine to evoke emotional responses and elicit a feeling of being needed seems like a powerful therapeutic tool ... with far less care and feeding required than real pets.

JoJo knows how to get attention I've long nursed a pet theory that the primary therapeutic benefit people derive from pets is not so much that our pets love us, but that we can love our pets ... with far less fear of the rejection we risk in loving other people. That is, it's the expression or giving of love rather than the receiving of love that really opens up the heart - and promotes other emotional and physiological benefits. Reading the article about Paro, I'm inclined to revisit and revise this theory. Perhaps it's not just loving someone - human, animal or robot - that makes us feel complete, it is the [perception of] being needed by someone we love that helps us feel like we matter ... like our life has purpose.

I remember reading about a study several years ago - that I cannot track down at the moment - in which a person who was asked to do a favor tended to express closer feelings toward the person asking for the favor than the favor requester tended to express toward the favor responder. That is, I'm more likely to feel closer to you if I feel you need me.

CheapTrickInColor The band Cheap Trick was also on to this back in 1977, with a somewhat less scholarly expression of this basic need:

I want you to want me.
I need you to need me.
I'd love you to love me.
I'm beggin' you to beg me.

TuringTest Returning to a more scholarly thread, the Turing Test was proposed in 1950 as a way to determine whether a machine was intelligent. The idea was to have a human interrogator in one room, and a computer and another human in another room, communicating only via written or typed questions and answers. If the interrogator was unable to differentiate which respondent was the machine and which was the human, the machine would be said to have achieved human-level artificial intelligence. 

Paro, however, represents an attempt to achieve embodied intelligence, which could not, by definition, be tested using a scheme in which the machine is isolated from the human interrogator. It is clear from Harmon's article that many of the people who interact with Paro do not believe that Paro is a real baby seal, and I don't know whether they would ascribe much logical intelligence to it, but I do suspect, based on the responses elicited from many of those who interact with it, that it is well on its way to demonstrating significant emotional intelligence.