All posts by Misha

Master Class: How to build consumer-facing AI startup – with Shai Rosen

We met with Shai at HyperWellbeing event here, in Silicon Valley – in Computer History Museum, actually – where gathered leading players in the emerging consumer technology industry of Wellness-as-a-Service. This fusion of wearable, mobile and big data technologies shapes the third wave of computing revolution – “intimate” one – that takes on the baton from mobile and personal computing. To quote Martin Geddes, “PC was ‘hyper productivity’. Smartphone is ‘hyper presence’. Wearables will be ‘hyper wellbeing'”.

Suggestic is not Shai’s first startup, but seems to be the most hi-tech and consumer-oriented so far. Even in the crowd of bleeding-edge wellness apps and biosensors, it stands out as system addressing very down-to-earth need by employing moonshot technologies.

Building B2C AI-powered business is tricky, as this lucrative space is traditionally dominated by heavy-lifters like Google and Apple. Nevertheless, Suggestic is progressing just fine.

I’ve asked Shai to share his methods, and he kindly agreed. Tune in to learn, among other things, how to…

  • find a niche worth dominating
  • zero-in on your value proposition
  • discover what “personalization” actually mean
  • design and utilize user feedback, active and passive
  • have healthy dose of gamification
  • introduce augmented reality
  • get an edge by creating API from the very beginning
  • and much more

 

We expect that Suggestic and other solutions in other areas get there at some point. At the point that we can really, really, really give you a good suggestion, not only something that’s healthy for you but something you’re going to like, something that’s available, something that really reduces your mental effort, gives you more energy, makes you feel better and impacts your long-term health for the better. — Shai Rosen

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Hello everyone. Misha is here, and today I’m joined by Shai Rosen, founder and Chief Marketing Officer of the Suggestic. Suggestic is a personalized nutrition coach, the virtual coach which specializes on the nutrition part. But I guess I would let Shai to describe what it is. Shai, welcome.

Thank you Misha. Thank you for having me. In very few words what Suggestic is – at least in the part facing the consumer – an ultimate artificial intelligence powered nutrition coach. What we did is – what we’re still doing is – basically trying to extend or augment the work of whatever a nutrition coach would do with a client, with a patient and make it automated, in your pocket, being available, being there to help the user, to help you 24/7. The goal behind that is helping the people adhere in the best way possible to their diets.

Yep, and we actually met with Shai on this inaugural event of the Hyper Wellbeing movement, which is Wellness-as-a-Service, and there we saw a whole bunch of companies which are trying to get better and better sense of how our bodies and minds are doing. What I think is setting Suggestic aside is not just measuring but actually providing advice on the data. It’s closing the loop of learning about you and putting this knowledge at service to you. Tell me just how you came about this idea. Are you targeting any particular group of people at this point?

The truth is it’s been an ongoing process with many iterations. It’s interesting that you mentioned that because one of the beginning initial principles that we thought about in the process of figuring out exactly what we’re trying to do, what we wanted to do was around that exactly. The actual way we started is I met with my current co-founder and CEO Victor Chapela. You know Victor gave a presentation on that at the Hyper Wellbeing event. We happened to coincide in that we both sold the previous companies and we got together and we said, “Okay, what do we want to do next?” We agreed that we wanted to work together. We had all this experience in consumer-focused products and artificial intelligence and advanced technology and we wanted to stay in that area. What we did is we sat down and we started thinking about what are the problems that we’re excited about and would like to tackle this time? Victor, for example, was coming from the financial sector. I was coming from the more eCommerce or commercial sector. We both decided we wanted to do something with a bigger social impact.

We thought about two big points. We thought about the education at some point and we thought about health. We ended up deciding to go for health, and the reason behind that was it was a common ground that we both have. We saw a urgent need. Obviously there’s an urgent need in education as well but we saw an urgent need in healthcare and we figured out that we had better chance since our background fit better with the possibilities of different things we could do in the health industry. The first thing that we did is we spent a couple of weeks actually trying to learn everything we could about the industry. We’re two completely outsiders to an industry, even though I’m a med school dropout. It was just a couple of weeks that I was in med school.

In this process of trying to figure out what’s broken with the industry we came up to a bunch of conclusions and we realized one of the big problems is we are accumulating a lot, a lot of data and some of it great quality data, some of it not so much. We found out that obviously there exists an issue with the quality of the data, but we saw a bigger issue with actually what to do with that data and the suggestions and the recommendations, the intelligence around that data. It happens that I personally, for example, I think on a day to day basis I probably measure, I don’t know, 20 or 30 different data points. There’s sleep and work and heat and temperature and air quality. I have all this data and the truth I don’t do much with it. It just sits there in different systems that ,by the way, don’t talk to each other. That was one big thing.

The other big thing that we found out that was interesting for us was the lack of personalization in general in everything around health. It is lack of personalization tracing back all the way from the way we do studies and research to everything that happens after that, how we recommend medication or how to recommend diets. We both are particularly interested and fans of nutrition. We decided it was an interesting and powerful way to enter into the health market from an unregulated perspective or less regulated perspective. As we started advancing through the project and talking to people about it and raising capital and actually started building a product, we realized it’s not only an entry point, it’s the base of health. There always a lot we could talk about, specifically the power of nutrition, but I think we’re targeting a different concept right now.

In that process we founded Suggestic slightly over two years ago and, as I said before, that there were a couple of weeks of doing research and trying to understand the market and talking to a lot of people from just anyone in the street to doctors to people in the healthcare industry in hospitals and dietitians, and coaches, and fitness instructors and people that own gyms, and people in the insurance industry and so on, and tried to gather as much information as we could. To really paint a picture of everything there.

In the first few weeks of the company what we did we really focused on building our algorithms. We started from the back to the front. We started figuring out what’s the technology, what’s the brains we need to build behind the operation? We started doing that and then we actually had when we started on the front side basically trying to figure out … We had all these capabilities as a technology player, but now how do we put them in front of the consumer in a way that makes sense to them? What you see now is Suggestic – if you download the app – because the app, the whole idea of the chat bot, of this coach came out after let’s say one and a half year of iterations. We had a completely different product before, based more on cards and images, something that looks more like a Google Now. The problem is that a lot of the data that we use in the back doesn’t have images for example.

The product itself looked great on the mock-ups and then when we starting building it and realized the data doesn’t match the product. We went through a process of different iterations to find that out, and obviously it happened together with this … Everyone started talking about bots and conversational interfaces and so on. We jumped aboard that ship. For now.

Nowadays, then people talk about intelligent assistance, they usually just mean something which understands natural language, right? The response usually is not that intelligent at all, it’s just the fact that you can talk to the thing and it talks back to you somehow makes the impression of talking to an intelligent entity, which is usually not the case. Choosing to use natural language does not make intelligent assistance yet. It’s just intelligent interface to the assistance that you provide. I think that makes perfect sense. I’m curious you mentioned number of iterations. Was that done based on a feedback from users?

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. We did all these iterations based on different kinds of feedback. The feedback came from all these different sources and everything ranging from potential users, potential partners, investors, ourselves. Obviously when you fall in love with a, not with a solution, but with a problem that you want to solve and then you come up with different solutions and you start exploring those solutions and trying to figure out which one of those solutions really better match the needs of the market. What we did is we’re trying to explore moving forward which solutions had the best fit with the problem, again, in different types of people. It’s obvious when you start finding out is that different version of the solution or different solutions for the same problem feel different for different type of people, right? On the one side the solution for a nutrition coach is very different from how the solution feels to a doctor, to an MD, and how it feels different for a person that’s very into nutrition to someone that’s not totally out of nutrition. It feels very different from someone that’s battling or dealing with a chronic condition versus someone that’s just trying to lose weight or someone that’s basically building a better version of themselves by deciding to, I don’t know, go vegan or go vegetarian or go Paleo or whatever it is that they feel it’s better for them.

What we started finding out, and again it happens in every industry and in every product. The same problem happens to a lot of people, but people receive it in very different forms. What we started to do is … well, there are a few things. You start mapping out which groups of people have the best fit with the solution you’re proposing, and obviously how big is that group of people. If you have a great solution that is only going to work for ten people, that’s interesting obviously. It has some interest, but then maybe it’s not interesting from the commercial side. It may have value to have a very simple solution that solves a piece of the problem for a lot of people but then it’s not relevant enough or not magnitudes of order greater than whatever is out there, so that people say, “Yeah, it’s nice.”, but it definitely doesn’t solve the key problem in a way that they would drop everything that they’re using or that they’re doing right now and move to your solution.

As we went through these iterations, we found a middle ground. I think one of the best things that we did is that process of, again, mapping out these very different groups of people, niches, groupations of people with a similar problem and then try to figure out who has the biggest problem with less solutions out there and how could we help them. It’s interesting what we found out it our case – we found out that diabetes can be very managed and even reverted in some cases, as research suggests, with nutrition. There’s obviously a big need, a market with many solutions around other stuff, around logging, or around a reminder to take pills, or about devices to measure your glucose. But almost nothing around actually giving suggestions of what people should eat.

And, at the same time, there is so much information out there, so confusing, and so much very amazing content, and so much shallow and researched suggestions. That’s where we started. We started building a tool for people with diabetes. What happened is after we started building the product and talking to more people, and now specifically focused on that, we started to fill in this problem/solution picture. It’s a natural pull from the market.

I’m curious, where did you get the people you spoke to? You said you came completely outside of the industry, so I guess you didn’t have any kind of previous lists or anything like that. How did you go about acquiring these early adopters?

Yeah, that’s a good questions. Basically doing a little bit of everything. It’s the digital version of knocking on doors. Engaging with people on different social networks. There’s groups of people from all kind of diets and interests on Facebook, on Twitter, Reddit, different communities. There are obviously communities and websites that are specializing in different things. There are meet-ups like Bay Area Type 2 Diabetic group that’s also interested in the wearable technology. There’s all these groups of people and obviously it’s a lot of work. I can say – and I’ve seen in our case and I’ve seen it in other people – that it gets … we get lazy about it, or it gets annoying to keep on talking to people about the same problem over and over, but then obviously it’s amazingly rewarding.

How did you narrow down on the Diabetes Type 2 people? Did you have some kind of market segmentation? Did people voluntarily share this information about themselves? How did you come up with the profiles, so to speak, with the persona for your first version?

Yeah, so there’s two things. What happens first is that in particular type 2 diabetes is a problem we know very well. It happens that both Victor, my co-founder’s father, and my father are both type 2 diabetics, well were, they both passed away relatively recently. Victor, my co-founder, was diagnosed at some point with pre-diabetes. We understood how it works in general. Obviously through them, through the doctors and by living with them for so many years gave us … – obviously, this is very different than living it, I can’t argue with that – but it gave us a general idea of how to talk to people that are going through that process. That exactly helped us to build, not actually one persona but a few personas. That obviously we started talking to people and to friends.

What happens, what I’ve seen a lot is when you start a new company you have these ideas, you feel that your idea is a trillion dollar idea. You don’t want to share it with anyone unless it’s a very advanced technology or something. But at that stage the best return on investment is actually start talking about it and that’s how you get feedback. What happened to us a lot in the beginning is that we were talking about it and people would say, “Oh yeah, I have a friend who has type 2 diabetes. You know, you should talk to her. You should talk to him.” That’s what we did. We did that a lot – directly talking to people and finding people through connections or through networks or groups of people. We did a lot of testing value propositions via ads. We would run ads on Facebook for people with a Type 2 Diabetes interest, and then we would present maybe 20 different value propositions and figure out what people click on.

Could you give an example of what were the value propositions? Just show us how that could be formulated.

Yeah, so for example one of the early things I remember we were interested in knowing is if people, for example, cared more about … Again, there’s two things here. Even though the underlying technology and the underlying solution don’t change much, there’s a lot about how you present it to the user. Obviously you go back and forth. You have an idea. You have a general idea for a solution that you’ve presented and then you presented many different ways. That particular way that seems to catch better in the market, so then you take then and then you back and do the product with that in mind.

In our case, for example, we had, for example, a big initial question of are people interested in the technology itself – because, you know, we are from the technical background so it was super exciting to say, “Yeah, it’s powered with artificial intelligence!”, and all those things. We were curious, do people see more value when they see the words “artificial intelligence”, or not? Are people more interested in personalization? Are people interested in genetics maybe? If you basically narrowed it down to personalization, then you have many different ways of addressing personalization. You can address just in general, say personalized diet. You can address it from, say, for some people it’s just important that they can say it’s gluten-free or vegan, and it matches my personal preferences. For some people personalization means that it uses my genetic information or my blood lab test information, my pulse and so forth. In the technology side exactly the same thing. Again, so we start building this matrix of different value propositions and then you test it out with different languages, different images, trying to figure out what draws attention.

What was the winner in your case? What value proposition resonated the most?

Not that surprisingly, the underlying technology was not particularly interesting. Obviously, if you send them by location, say, if you go to the Bay Area, then all those people are more interested in technology side, but again, in most cases it never happened that technology was more of interest, or more actionable, or more relevant for people versus, for example, personalization. Personalization was a very big issue. For example, in May we saw a lot of interest in people when we mentioned genetic testing or genetic-based nutrition. What we did was we build this list of people and we actually talked to them, and the thing that we realized is that when we say genetics it’s just a proxy for personal. It’s as personal as it gets, it’s your DNA. It’s not that people, I do but most people don’t, have their genetic sequencing and probably don’t even know much about it but the idea of DNA, of genetics, makes sense as well. “This is me. This is going to be 100% about me.” That was very relevant for one side. Definitely that was very deep.

The second thing had to do with the contextual availability of information. It’s interesting that one of the things that happened, and I’ve seen in happen a lot in Suggestic and previous companies and with other companies, that people sometimes are very excited about a concept and then when you talk to them you realize that even though they say one thing, the real need is different. It goes back to this old sentence from Henry Ford that said “if I went and asked people what they want they wanted a faster horses”, right? You see it happening. It’s quite funny. It’s very interesting. People are very interested in the personalization side and when we started talking to them they really didn’t know exactly what it meant. They knew it was important. What we realized is that it needs to feel, obviously it needs to be personalized to create good results, but also it needs to feel very personalized. That was, by the way, a big motivation for why to build the chat bots.

At the other side is this idea I was mentioning of whatever information we’re giving people needs to be relevant in their context. I don’t know if you’ve ever been with a nutrition, a dietitian or coach or something like that, but what happens, for example, and I tried it many times in different types of people in different parts of the world, and the experience is relatively similar.

What usually happens is you have an initial conversation. You define your goals. I want to lose weight. I want to gain muscle mass. I want to be healthier. Or my doctor told me I need to eat better. That happens a lot. I have no idea. I don’t want to do it. My doctor told me I should come. You get weighed and you get your height and they measure you waist or whatever it is, and then they say, “Okay, now we’re going to build a program for you and you’ll get this.” I’m exaggerating obviously a little bit. It’s not every case, but you get this copy they take out in the drawer of the desk. It’s a photocopy that’s been copied 25 times over and over. “Yeah, here’s your plan.” If you get some personalization usually it’s in the form of “Oh, you say you don’t like onions so let me scratch that down from the paper. You can replace that with, I don’t know, potatoes or whatever.” Whatever, or here it says one portion, you can have two because you are a big guy.

Then you take this paper and you say, “Okay, now what do I do with this? Half of the things that are here I don’t like.” I go to a supermarket and say, “Half of the things here they don’t sell it in my local grocery store. There’s no kale or quinoa here.” That’s a lot of cases, and then you have all these other cases. Lunch I usually eat at the work cafeteria or I eat in the restaurant next door, so what’ll I do then? I work late or work nights. What do I do now? I don’t live in California. There’s not all these healthy restaurants around me. I live in the middle of whatever. There’s only McDonald’s, so what do I do then? And so on. You start realizing that version of personalization in terms of it’s not about the program itself, it’s about telling you in this situation this is what you should do now.

For us, the best example of that is Waze, the GPS app, the navigation app. Think about it from this perspective. It’s something that I personally love this concept and when, at least in my case and I’ve seen it over and over, but when you start driving for the first time with a GPS, especially with Waze, that gets better at handling the traffic and all these things. So, you start using the Waze, and sometimes you say, “Okay, this is interesting, ” but then you get all these weird routes that you’ve never seen before in your lives and it seems like so far and then it says, “Yeah, you’re going to get there in 15 minutes and that doesn’t make any sense to you so you go against it. You say, “No, it doesn’t know anything. It’s totally wrong. I’m going to go my way.” Then it takes you half an hour and you say, “Okay, maybe I should’ve listened to it.”

You keep on testing the GPS. You keep on testing the app and then at some point you realize it’s actually much better than you at doing that job of suggesting the best route. When you reach that point what you actually do, and what most people do, kind of let go of that mental process and just completely endorse it and give it to the app. Say, “Okay, you know what Waze? I’m sitting in my car. I do this ride from the home to the office every day twice a day, sometimes more, and I know the way be heart. I don’t want to even think about it. I just click on the app, you tell me what to do.” Now we’re like monkeys now. We just drive and turn right, turn left and keep on moving forward. I think that’s in many ways what we need or what we want to liberate some of the mental process of choosing, of understanding. If you’re an expert driver, if you love to drive, if you love the city and you’re looking around obviously you want to do your own route and do whatever you like to do, but for most people we just want to give that responsibility of making those choices to someone that knows better about the traffic, knows better about the city and it knows you better.

We expect that Suggestic and other solutions in other areas get there at some point. At the point that we can really, really, really give you a good suggestion, not only something that’s healthy for you but something you’re going to like, something that’s available, something that really reduces your mental effort, gives you more energy, makes you feel better and impacts your long-term health for the better.

Does the app allow you to provide user feedback? Say you suggest some kind of meal and say the user accepts this option or rejects it. I’m curious how the feedback loop is organized? How exactly do you learn about this particular person?

The feedback loop that powers our technology is actually one of the most powerful things I believe we have. It’s been filed for patenting, by the way – in case anyone’s listening. Joking. Not only that, but it’s one of the first things we thought about, the importance of the feedback loop. Basically yeah, so what we do is the process, imagine it like a big circle. The process is we start by taking existing nutritional programs or diets, science-based or validated. For example, we have taken currently into the platform over 25 programs. Everything from something simple as a vegan diet to something more complex like the American Diabetes Association Nutrition Guidelines for people with type 2 diabetes or the DASH diet, which is recommended by the American Heart Association. Then what we do, we take that information that exist and has been scientifically validated, it’s already recommended by doctors for example, or dietitians. We take that and we encode it as a base in the system. You, as a user, you can say, “Okay, so I want to start with that as a base, a paleo diet or a ADA Nutrition Guidelines.” On top of that you add whatever additional personalization that you for sure know you need. For example, I hate onions. I don’t do dairy and …

Allergies.

I don’t like cilantro. Allergies or just preferences in general. There’s a lot of those. That’s the base. That’s a very early version of a personalized program. Then what we do is we start giving you suggestions based on that through the app, through the chat bot interface. As we give you those suggestion you give us feedback on those. You’re able to say, “You know, this is wrong.” Wrong can be this doesn’t match my diet. “No, you told me this was vegetarian but it has meat.” That happens.

That’s a particular problem with anything that has to do with artificial intelligence. Stupid in the beginning and it gets smarter very fast, but your early users need to be very understanding, very passionate about it to really give the feedback to say no, this is not vegetarian, this has meat and it has this type of meat. You can say to him it’s wrong or you can say I don’t like it. You can say I do like it. You can save it as a favorite. You can add it to your log if you have it, maybe you’re sitting in a restaurant. Maybe you’re sitting at the Cheesecake Factory and it’s 40 pages of mostly very highly caloric, full of fat food, but there’s some very actually good options in there. We try to match those. Maybe you have a salad and maybe you have a, I don’t know, chicken with salad, whatever it is. I don’t know.

Then you say, “Oh yeah I had that and I need to add it to my log.” We take that information. All that information goes back to the log and we try to figure out. Obviously that helps us in a different way. It helps us clean and improve the data in the system and it helps improve the recommendations particular for you and for people like you. We can say, Misha in particular likes these and then we can say but he’s following a vegetarian diet, so if many people that are vegetarians like this then it makes sense that more people that are vegetarian like this. You can figure there’s a lot of stuff happens in between, just this simplification of it.

Then there’s the active feedback which is basically looks like clicking “I like this”. Then there’s the passive feedback. The passive feedback is the sensor data, your location for example. Right now, are you at a restaurant or you at home? When you open the app we try to figure out person spends around this time of day he’s at home, it’s around breakfast time so we shouldn’t suggest, I don’t know, a grocery list. We should suggest maybe something that we know you have at home and that you can cook, maybe do eggs this way or cook this thing that way, whatever it is. That’s passive feedback. That’s data that we gather even from these things that we recommend and you never clicked on, you never looked at. That’s also feedback that we use.

Do you have to do much of an explanation of the choices you present to the user? Does it play any role or it always ends up, boils down to the “try it, say if you like it or not”. How do you measure the motivation mechanism?

Yeah, so as I mentioned in the beginning, one of the most important things that it underlies the way we relate to the user is we think of it as user success. What we think when we start everything is how can we help the user be successful? In this case success means whatever they have as a goal, but it’s health related. How can we help them be healthier? Since we’re talking of nutrition because they’re in this case, and in most cases in that specific context means how do we help the people be successful in terms of adhering to their diet more times a day in average? Basically it’s about sticking to your diet, which people find most difficult.

People start new things and try new things, but the long-term problem is sticking to it. By the way, one of the interesting things is that there are not so many things in nutrition that have been scientifically proved. The reason behind that is that … As a group we have a Chief Medical Officer and everything I’m saying related to that. I’m not quoting Suneil but it basically comes from him. One of the problems with nutritional studies is that it requires really big, big groups of people and very long time. In the research world usually those things happen less. It’s easier to get, if you’re a pharmaceutical company and you have your budget and all the tests and studies to validate your drug, but if you’re a researcher at a university it’s harder to get a budget to a 20 year, 20,000 peoples research about the powers of broccoli. Less interesting.

There’s not much that we do know for a fact in long-term. The only thing that we do know is that if you adhere to a healthy diet in the long-term, that has positive effects. That’s very clear for everyone. Nobody can argue with that. What we did is try to figure out how do we help you adhere to that diet in most of your meals most of your time. What we try to do with this concept of the adherence score, what we do is, as you try out the app obviously, you will see actually every time we give you a recommendation we actually give you a score. Maybe you’re following a Paleo diet and you have salmon with some veggies and something like that then you’ll get this has a very high adherence score in terms of how that much is a Paleo diet. If you have a cheesecake and that has a very low adherence score.

There’s obviously additional gamification process where we’re trying to show very clearly to people, know what’s healthier for them. We really don’t know that much, but what really, really, really matches their diet that they chose, for whatever reason, that this is the best for them. Does that make sense?

Yeah, yeah. Perfect. You mentioned you had data but you tried to use some kind of visuals in your chat bot or did I misunderstood that?

You saw that on the demo, yeah.

That could be it.

Yeah, it’s a new interface that we’re working on using augmented reality. Again, if the underlying intelligence, or let’s call it Suggestic brain, doesn’t really change. What changes is the interface. One way of interacting is through the chat bot. We’re working with a number of companies that are really in touch with our “nutritional brain” via APIs and they connect directly and they use that intelligence in their own applications, in their own platforms. Then we’re working on this additional user interface or user experience that relates to augmented reality, which basically you put your phone on top, for example, of a restaurant menu. We’ll do real-time scoring, adherence scoring and nutritional knowledge as to what’s there in the menu.

Yeah. I was about to ask how you handle situations when something, for example, is not covered, not in your data base. If user even can to report what he had for lunch if it was not in one of the options you provided. It looks like you’re making advances in this area as well.

Yeah, it’s a work in progress obviously. There’s so much things that we want to do, that’s for sure. Hopefully we’ll get there as we move forward.

That’s awesome. Let me clarify. You don’t have to be diabetic type 2 or whatever to use the app, right?

You don’t.

I guess these are the people who would be the most motivated to use it, right? Because I guess diet is probably one of the key recommendations for them, but anybody can use it, right?

Yeah.

Like you said, you enter your preferences and it goes by those.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). It happened because of this. We started, as I said, with focus on diabetes and then as we started building and had a very early version of product and starting showing it to people they would ask us, “Hey, but what about me? You know, I’m not diabetic, I just want to eat healthier”, or I want to eat this way and that way. We said, “Let’s just …” Given the way it was built we could encode and build all this additional interactions with different programs to make it available for everyone.

Yeah, that’s awesome because when I first saw it I thought, “Well, that narrows it down, it’s for fighting diabetes,” and I felt left out because I don’t have the condition. Yeah, now I understand that this is something anybody can use.

Yeah, absolutely.

Shai, this is totally awesome. Thank you so much for sharing this stuff. Where people can find you to learn more about work you do?

My pleasure. A quick way is Suggestic.com. Obviously we’re in Twitter, Facebook and most social networks. iOS users can download directly Suggestic on the app store – just type Suggestic, you’ll find the app. Sign up, enjoy. Please do send me every feedback that you can find. If you’re not iOS user – it happens, I’m an Android user first…

Yeah, me too.

Do sign up, do follow us. We’re working on an Android version and hopefully sometime next year it will be available.

Okay, so you are already working on the Android version?

We’re beginning to.

You have a plan for it. Okay, okay, good. Because that’s another thing… Usually when people go mobile, they go iOS first, and as an Android user you also feel a bit left out. But I know. You’ve got to start somewhere.

Exactly. I had to buy iPhone just for this.

All right man, thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure, and talk to you soon!

Thank you Misha so much, it’s my pleasure too.


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Case Study: The Guardian Avatar – with Martin Geddes

Recently, I got a unique opportunity to jump on a video call (recorded video call – listen to it to appreciate the irony) with Martin Geddes, co-founder and executive director of Hypervoice Consortium. Martin shared his thoughts on the trajectory of telecoms and mobile industries, the problems it raises and the solutions it calls for. Tune in to learn, among other things,

  • Why people are not comfortable with their voice being recorded
  • What is missing from the dominant computing paradigm and the way we engineer software
  • What makes phone the original ‘internet of things’ thing
  • How the Guardian Avatar is a virtual identity, a “fourth wall”, and a meta-verse browser
  • Why most of current wearables are worse than useless, and what they should do instead
  • Why existing Internet infrastructure is inadequate for ‘internet of things’
  • If artificial intelligence is a right tool in the world of sensors
  • What is the real threat of artificial intelligence
  • What question you should ask yourself as technologist
  • We pretty much figured out computer programming. What’s next?

Martin Geddes is a consultant and authority on future telecoms business
models and technologies. He is formerly Strategy Director at BT’s network
division, and Chief Analyst and co-founder at Telco 2.0. Martin previously
worked on a pioneering mobile web project at Sprint, where he was a named
inventor on 9 patents, and at Oracle as a specialist in high-scalability
database systems.

He co-runs public workshops on Future of Voice and Telco-OTT Services, as
well as providing speaking, consulting, training and innovation services to
telcos, equipment vendors, cloud services providers and industry bodies. He
is currently writing a book on the future of distributed computing, called
The Internet is Just a Prototype.

Martin holds an MA in Mathematics & Computation from University of Oxford.

 

“We are potentially entering the most wonderful of eras. We can engineer good relationships and happiness. We are also entering into one of the most horrific of eras where it’s North Korea everywhere. May be both, at the same time. It’s going to be weird and wacky.” — Martin Geddes

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Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself, the work you do, and how that led into exploring the future of the communications?

Okay. Let’s take the long arc to this story. Yes, I’m deeply geeky. Before I’d even left school, I was working with a friend of mine to design CPU instructions sets. I went off to do a degree in Math and Computation 25 years ago, so basically, theoretical computer science. The thing I was rewarded for was thinking about formal methods of proof of software correctness. Then, in the 1990’s, the easiest way of making a good living without working too hard was to work in the IT industry. I spent my time building artificial intelligence systems in Lisp for manufacturing, working through building back office systems for banks doing check clearing. I was a consultant at Oracle for four years. I was very focused on the traditional software industry and automating IT processes.

Then in 2001, I got seduced into going across the Atlantic to go work for Sprint, and join a phone company. I was transitioning out of that world of IT into another technology domain: telecoms. I knew what networks were, but never had to deal with one; not really. Famously, the phone company is centered on one particular tool of technology, which is voice. We’ve got computers held to our ears, of all places, but not to our hearts. Imagine if only it was our noses! After all, they are like our ears and our mouths! We have a whole network industry dedicated to the replication of this sensor data between our ears and our mouths, done at a distance.

I got into telecoms and having done a degree in theoretical computer science, so I pretty much grasped how this computing thing worked. “I think I’ve got this nailed.” Then I got into telecoms. It’s like, “Wow!” It’s technology, but it’s all different and it’s pretty weird. They’ve got their own language, their own way of thinking and I’m a bit lost. I found myself in this dot com business in Kansas City, trying to build open communication platforms for the wireless web. This unexpectedly turned into a whole new career, which is trying to understand what makes the telecom industry work. I figured out IT during 1990s, and I kind of almost have got there with telecoms 15 years later.

There are two main things that I’m interested in and that I work on. One is the network itself. All networking computing is now just distributed computing. There isn’t the cloud, there isn’t the network, there isn’t the PC. It’s just distributing computing. There’s only one business. I’m interested in the future of how that infrastructure works at a very deep level.

The other thing is the people. The separate journey I’ve undertaken of learning and discovery about people and organizations. We have hearts, we smell; we aren’t technology. It’s been a journey inspired by thinking about the future of voice, which has led me into a much wider world. That’s the broad space in which we’re playing with these new ideas: people, technology, and the interaction of the two.

As I understand it, you formed Hypervoice Consortium… back when?

About five years ago, I was doing a piece of consulting work for a client. This company has come with a very clever new way of capturing conference calls, and relating together what you’re saying with all the notes you’re typing, moving through your PowerPoint slides, tagging moments, assign actions, and so on. They were linking all that together into a new kind of time-based data object. This object was searchable and navigable, but they were having some trouble describing it to people in the world: what it was, what it meant and why it was useful. They hired me to come along and I was kind of, “Yeah. Uh-huh, uh-huh”. I had a hot chocolate. They had a coffee. Hmm. “I think you’ve just built the first hypervoice system.”

That idea of linking of things together in time in the activity stream around voice is the core. It’s like hypertext, where there are relationships between various objects in a spatial metaphor. Instead, this was a temporal metaphor.

So that resulted in me working with the CEO of the company and we created the Hypervoice Consortium. It seemed to be a rather lonely place, a bit like doing hypertext in the 60’s and 70’s before the Web. We were engaging with a whole community of people who are working on the future of voice.

We got some sponsorship from some very kind large companies. I had the pleasure in 2014 of going away and spending a large chunk, over a year, thinking about researching the future of voice with my colleagues. In the process, we interviewed thirty experts, across virtual reality, disability services, electric cars and a whole vast range of different subjects.

We were reading lots of books and articles, and watched TED talks in near-lethal doses. It meant going away and having week-long retreats to think about this stuff, integrate it, and draw a big map to the world. In that process started to have… and “A-ha… Ooh…” moment. Even with us as “experts”, there was the sense of how the assumptions we came into this project were suspect. There was a bigger picture.

Can you give us a layout … What was this picture?

There was an on-going hypothesis, that’s on SlideShare: “The future of communications 2024”. We had these ten different ideas about how communication had improved over a decade. The AI bots would join us in conversations, and our conversations would be recorded and managed in different ways, and contextualized in different ways. Devices would change and become more ambient. We had some refinement on those basic ideas and the way of organizing them.

What we quickly found was that our radical ten year vision into the future of the phone call had only one problem with it, which was that it was already happening.

We weren’t good futurologists, as we weren’t even present-ologists. So, we had to go back to the beginning, and we were forced to rethink at a much deeper level what the future of human communications is like. What does it mean to communicate, what is it actually for? How does it happen when you mediate those communications (as you can see with us talking right now) through digital technology?

There was a critical “aha!” moment. We had been interviewing all of those people using this hypervoice conference calling tool to capture all of our notes and organize our stuff.

We started each call with, “Hello Mary, thank you for giving us an hour of your time, we really appreciate it. We understand you’re an expert at social robotics (or whatever it is). Would you mind if we recorded this call just for note taking purposes of doing this report.” Of course they didn’t care. “Yes, absolutely, no problem.” … We hit “record” and then heard in an automated voice… “This call is being recorded.”

It eventually dawned on us that we had spent the first minute of every one of those calls going through a negotiation process to record the call. In this case, because of the nature of the invites and the relationships we had, the answer was always “yes”. However, the contract around that recording had not been captured. The “this call is being recorded” moment was after we said we would only use it for note taking purposes.

The exact terms under which the call can be recorded were not captured.

Hey, it was not captured! It has been negotiated manually by humans by voice. So we started to realize the implications…

The other thing was that, over and over and over again, people were telling us, “Look, there’s all this great new technology and it sounds interesting, but I don’t like recording my calls. I don’t trust you to do that.” Not us personally, but the phone company, Google, whoever it is. “Nobody is trusted with my voice.” We type in search terms, do a bunch of stuff online. But the moment it came to bio-sensed human data, my intimate data from my body and my voice – no. Nah, nah, NAH!

It was clearly something of importance… There’s a boundary that’s being crossed here that needed attention. We started to realize that the figural issue wasn’t the clever things you can do with voice. Me, a computer science degree from Oxford. Kelly, my colleague, she has a Harvard degree, and she is smart tech CEO. We’ve been rewarded in our lives for our ruthless ability at logic. The whole IT industry is being self-selecting people for their logical thinking. “Can you code? Can you program?” “Oh, yes, we can do that!”  “We’ll now promote you to a team manager for coders.” “We’ll now promote you to a product manager!”

That’s fine when what you’re trying to do is automate the back end of a bank to do clearing systems. The moment you try to deal with humans, in their human state, we’re entering into a new domain. In some ways, even recording voice is “programming” a human, by performing the computing “identity function” on voice. “Yeah, I stored it and brought it back. I’m programming humans.” So there’s an echo, a shadow of you, out in the world.

It required a new way of thinking, a new paradigm. Now, there’s a second ah-ha moment. The first one was that we were not paying attention. The clue was in the interviewing process that we ourselves were engaged in. The second one was that we were out on a retreat at my colleague’s house up in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. There were four of us there. There was me, my business partner Kelly Fitzsimmons. We’re both GenX’ers, and we had two helpers, including Lindsay, who’s our marketing guru, a millennial.

And that’s when we were analyzing all of the stuff, she’s going, “you two aren’t very touchy feely, are you? You want all these logical outcomes, don’t you?” And whist we were there, there was this mysterious sound when we would be talking. A beep. A few minutes later another beep. We started looking around the house. Is it the smoke alarm, is something upstairs malfunctioning? The thermostats? Is it the oven, the microwave? After quite a lot of searching, because it was a minute or two from beep to beep, we found the refrigerator door was ajar by a tiny amount. The fridge was going, “Beep!”

At that kind of point, the penny dropped (or at least the cent dropped), and the whole thing came together. Like, “Ah, right, so, the fridge is telling us there’s something wrong”.

The fridge knows what’s wrong.

It knows what’s wrong, and it’s trying to indicate wrongness. But it is offloading the sense making of that wrongness to us. In the process, it’s causing us a feeling of anxiety and frustration. The logical thing is to just close the fridge door.

There are three aspects to this puzzle. Is it Plato, or Aristotle, I cannot remember. The basics from which a good argument is built are that there are logos, pathos, and ethos. Appeal to logic, appeal to feelings and appeal to ethics, to what’s right. We as computer science-y type people had really strong, good, 20/20 vision into logic, and we were really half blind into the feelings and the ethics. So when we go back to the, “Can I record this call?” moment, we were engineering an ethical outcome to the call.

To continue doing that in the future, it would have required us going to the, “By the way, do you mind us recording this call? It’ll be stored in Iceland, under my enterprises data retention policy. We may run it through an analysis program that checks for mental health conditions of people we do business with. Also, I do have a relationship coach program that is telling me when I’m interrupting people because I know that’s my bad habit. Or I’m not listening properly, or I’m talking in a strange funny foreign accent. Slower, faster. By the way, what’s your enterprise data retention policy, and can we spend the next five minutes negotiating that? Also, you’re roaming and you’re using a device from company A on platform of company B under enterprise C.”

The whole call would be taken up with the process of negotiating the recording of the phone call. So we should have been, from a logical perspective, totally unproductive. We would have got the ethical outcome but it would have felt awful. So there are things you have to pay attention to in addition to engineering a logical outcome.

“Phone calls that can be recorded and searched.” Great! But you also had to engineer an ethical outcome, too, so that there was an appropriate management of the power relationship and transparency. Thirdly, you also had to pay attention to the feelings. How would people feel what’s happening around this? Do they feel unsafe about having their bio-sensed data captured?

Logos, ethos, pathos. You need to look at technology and engineering problems through all three of those lenses.

We start to think, “How can we help to solve this problem? How can we reconcile the huge potential benefits we can see from capturing the tone of your voice, or your galvanic skin response during a conversation, or your heart rate? Your eye focus… Am I making appropriate eye contact with you?” In looking at a wider world of how our human bodies can be integrated into tech, voice just happens to be the precursor, the harbinger, of a general world of sensors for a set of things.

The original and best “internet of things” thing is the telephone. We put a microphone sensor into everyone’s house, and a speaker, to relate somewhere else.

The idea of the Guardian Avatar came from one of the things we did with the senior technology industry member. He talked about a Guardian Angel, and we stretched that idea.

The “Guardian Angel” helps to take care of the ethos bit. We stretched it to think more of the pathos as well, and the logos. The resulting Guardian Avatar is the digital shadow of you. It’s a digital doppelganger who helps to act on your behalf, and protect you in this metaverse, in this emerging synergistic hybridized digital-physical world.

It’s a little bit like how Doc Searls has written about the idea of vendor relationship management. You have corporation. They use customer relationship management to gain power over you as the individual. You can use vendor relationship management services to gain power over them. You’re kind of having a third party and a fourth party. Some companies kind of act as vendor relationship managers. Maybe you’re some credit checking bureaus, or even some trip advisor. Is this company over there one that you should do business with? Are they ethical?

The Guardian Avatar was conceived initially as a way of thinking about the process of automating that negotiation, the outset of this interaction. This Google “Hangout on air” we are doing, can you now go and resell this? Is this a creative commons use by whatever company? I didn’t sit down here and agree with that! My life is busy. I don’t want to spend time having to negotiate what’s going to happen with this recording. Which archives will this be put into? Which distribution systems? Will this be put on Facebook? I don’t like Facebook very much. I don’t think they’re necessarily a very ethical business. I have no means of expressing that. If this is going to be put on YouTube and sold, how is my cut going to be negotiated? Whatever it is.

So we need systems in the world that represent us. That look after us. There is one inescapable fact which is to the best of my knowledge each of us has precisely one body. (Some people claim to have a different experience which is rather suspect.) So, ultimately, in some sense there can only be one Guardian Avatar for each of us. There can only be one identity that represents our body in that virtual space and virtual sphere. It doesn’t mean it’s a single piece of software. It just means that, conceptually, there is only one shadow of me. Like if I stand outside in the sunshine, there is only one shadow of me.

The Guardian Avatar was born as a way of framing the problem. You can think of it in several ways. One way is that it’s the next generation browser. Today’s browsers require us to go into the virtual world. To pretend that the world is thirteen inches across, or four and a half inches across. We’re about to enter a world of mixed reality. Cyberspace is over. We’re now in cyber meatspace. It isn’t just a call recording for voice, and the future of the phone call. It’s about how, when I meet you in the street, or I’m within 200 meters of you in the street, how a computer is going to mediate our relationships. Your friend is in the same supermarket – do you still want to rush to meet them because your basket is full of fifteen bottles of vodka?

Or you might just not have time to have a conversation.

Or, “It’s a great party. You might want to come to this.” Whatever it is. We are creating a symbiotic future between us and our tech. We have been doing it a century. However, this technology accelerates that process enormously.

The Guardian Avatar, firstly, is a browser for the metaverse. Just like a web browser is a very different thing to a green screen terminal, but conceptually it’s a portal into another world. This is the browser for the hybridized world.

Secondly, it’s a thinking tool. If you’re in the world of theater, there’s the idea of the fourth wall. On the stage, there’s the back wall, two side walls, then there’s this big wall between you and the audience. It’s referred to as the fourth wall. Of course, there is no “wall”. Some plays deliberately pierce the fourth wall. The actors walk off the stage and interact with the audience. I’ve been in a play that was entirely about the fourth wall. People have tried to reverse things. The play was called “The Audience”. It’s a thinking device to think about the space and the relationship between us as the actors on stage and the audience in the world.

It’s also a practical type of technology. There’s a long list: homomorphic encryption, and some data hiding-sharing things. There are all kinds of info and security tools and techniques for managing, negotiating, revealing information, storing it in appropriate ways. What we haven’t done yet is…

In some ways this is a conceptual re-foundation of what computing is. In two or three senses. When people like Allan Turing or Church or von Neumann put together the idea of computers, they saw them as symbolic devices, transformers of symbols into other symbols, with some sort of rules along the arrow of time. They missed out several things, as they had to.

They were not thinking about the internet of things. There was not the concept of the symbol coming from an animal, like me, was there? The menagerie of life does not appear in the computer textbook. Where did those symbols come from? Secondly, therefore, the privacy of those symbols, was not thought of as a first class object in computing. Only the transformation of the symbols was. Storage – first class object. Compute – first class object. Communicate – first class object, in the sense of, you wrote the symbol onto ticker tape and sometime later the Turing machine took it off. There was unexpressed communication. Security, that wasn’t there. Any Turing machine, you can connect anywhere on the ticker tape. There was no idea where the two things that were associated with each other and the boundary. So that was missed out from the theory. And performance, that was sadly lacking too. All these actions, they happened in time, but the amount of time that elapses is not defined.

In the foundations of computing, we got some things great and some things are missing out: about identity, security, privacy, performance. Now we have a challenge of taking the systems we’ve built over the last fifty-to- sixty years and re-factoring them in light of the fact that we have failed to engineer these things correctly. We’ve attempted to retrofit them onto a basic model, but the essential model of what it means to program and to compute doesn’t include programming the human and doesn’t include critical aspects that represent the interest of the humans.

It’s as if computing lives entirely inside the logos box. The pathos and the ethos, what ethical outcome or feeling state am I engineering, have no meaning in that box. If you ask, computer science doesn’t have… You can come out of a three, four year degree in computer science not having mentioned the words ethics and feelings. This is a problem, because the entirety of the future of computer science is engineering ethics and feelings. There is a fundamental disconnect. In some sense, computer programming, it’s over, it’s done. Stop. We’ve figured it out. Just don’t do it in JavaScript, that’s evil. You’ll be held responsible for anything that happens as a result of using JavaScript. Please use languages that are safe and well typed. That’s not good enough, right. That’s aesthetic. What you also have to understand is what would be the impact to the human.

A simple example that I’ve used over and over again is I’ve been using a program called f.lux on my Mac here. Apple produced sort of similar things on the iPhone. So towards the evening the blue light on the screen gets turned down, because we have a pituitary gland that issues melatonin, that actually thinks the world is blue and it’s still daytime. Therefore we cannot sleep as well.

The device driver between my laptop, here, and this screen-y thing here does not include any concept of a human watching it, the impact of the pixels lighting up on a human. We have missed out entirety of the model of a human in computing. Whoops. It’s like, “You have been calmly sat in front of your computer for eighteen hours without moving. Maybe you can move.”

Now it becomes a crisis, as we move into the era of wearable tech.

I won a Galaxy Gear S smartwatch and I wore it for months as an experiment, and it was worse than useless. It was a device I would pay not to wear, because all of my notifications coming into my phone, and my wrist kept on being vibrated and my attention was being shattered by this device. Every time I’d go for a walk and stop walking, it goes, “Congratulations”, all gamified. I’m like “Buzz off!” I’ve just had my walk, I don’t need to have any praise now. It’s like, how does that serve me? It doesn’t.

Whereas, I’m in an unfamiliar city. There’s a nice walk over that way, yeah! I see you’ve got an hour on your schedule. Simple example, I was at Boston Logan airport staying in the Hilton at the airport. A good hotel. You can walk all the way from Hilton through the terminals to the terminal I was supposed to go to. The default in all the instruction is to take the bus. Actually, it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk, and guiding me to use my legs to go to the terminal, that’s good.

I have a theory that most of the exercise in America actually happens in airports. The primary purpose of airports is not to travel, it’s to cause Americans to exercise, and walking through to the gates.

The Guardian Avatar is part of the nature of the new demand, which is helping us to live better. My friend, Lee Dryburgh, is running a new conference in November in Silicon Valley on Hyper Wellbeing. Not only how can we be healthy, but how can we engineer happiness and how can we also optimize our lifetimes.

We are predictably stupid. Computers can tell when we’re about to have a bad relationship, a marital meltdown. They can help us. To implement that we need a way of engineering these things and you cannot do some of these things with the conceptual tools from the 1940’s and seventies. We have to go back to the basement and rethink what computing is and what a computer is for in the world of sensors. And privacy and performance and security become first class design objects – like they are in other disciplines. When you build a skyscraper, you don’t send in thousands of people and load it up and see when it falls down and say, “Hey, actually, maybe that will be useful as an office building after all.”

Just like this video voice interaction we’re having. It is not engineered. This is the result of an emergent performance outcome between Lithuania and wherever you are, and it could stop right now. It could go away tomorrow. There are serious negative scaling problems in the Internet that people aren’t aware of generally. This Internet is basically pretty screwed. It’s just not going to last in its current form. So we have a very serious engineering problem that we have to get back to some basic science. To define performance requires new math. To define security, to define what privacy is. To engineer systems, engineer frameworks that make it impossible to do stupid things from the outset.

Just like JavaScript is not really an accident waiting to happen, it’s an accident that happens everywhere. If you have well typed computer languages, there’s a set of mistakes you just can’t make. A lot of the mistakes that are happening is… If our voice goes into a containerized system with a set of privacy invariants around it that no programmer can violate, and application program can not violate the underlying operating system or Guardian Avatar or whatever that’s taking care of it, then we’re in.

If we’re going to let people run amok and do the equivalent of JavaScript in the internet of things, we as a society are screwed. We have no idea what we’ve got ourselves in for, because there’s a fundamental lot of trust going on. People don’t want their voices recorded. They’re going at-scale with all the opportunities of machine intelligence in sensing, all are being falsely seduced in trusting it.

It’s like, Siri comes over with an “I” and talks with you as if it’s got a soul. It pretends it’s a highly elocuted evil imbecile. It speaks beautifully. It has no ethics whatsoever, and it’s basically stupid. By presenting itself as a human … By giving a human voice to that interface, it is making you think that it will act human-like in its ethical stance to you, in its intentional stance to you. We are opening ourselves up to a Pandora’s Box of problems. The Guardian Avatar is a way of dealing with that.

We also need to build a new Internet. I give thanks to the 1970’s prototype, it’s been quite interesting. No, we don’t need a “Save the Internet” campaign. We need a “Destroy the Internet” campaign, and we need to build another one, which actually has performance, security, privacy, and resilience that’s actually built in as first class design objects.

I highly recommend everyone to go to the hypervoice.org. On the front page they have a video which gives a really mind-blowing illustration of what life might be with a Guardian Avatar on your side.

There’s a two minute video, there’s also a free report which captures the essence of our thinking, and I also published on SlideShare a presentation on the Guardian Avatar concept.

Do you know of an example of something which exists in real life? Something which gets close to that kind of experience?

Yes, it’s all over the place if you look for it. Every web browser has a TLS security negotiation to secure a connection. You can choose one web browser of your own, open source. You can go to this website and the two of them will interact and set up an appropriate communication which is secure. There is a whole world of companies, you would not believe how many companies are out there at the moment, are building wearables and mobile devices to help engineer our living spaces and look after your wellbeing.

One of the ones I really like is called soulight. S-O-U-L-I-G-H-T. There’s a new version coming out soon. It’s only on Android. It helps you be mindful of your current mood and energy state, and takes you on a little musical journey between moods.

Imagine a machine not far from now in the future that sees you’re getting very stressed in the world about something. You get off the plane, you’re tired, there’s a long queue at the security. You’re starting to lose it. The kids are going crazy. In your little earpiece it starts to play a little bit of rock music, whatever it is, that it takes to bring a new state. You raise your energy slightly, whatever it is.

There are other examples, and it’s like, oh my goodness there is so much of this stuff going on but people haven’t realized that it’s a new industry. Information technology is done. It’s finished, it’s over. Thank you. It was lovely. Human technology is where it is now.

Just like electric motors. We don’t go around obsessing about electric motors anymore and the electric motor industry. We don’t think, “Yes! I’m going out and buying an electric motor device. What kind of motor does it have inside of it?” My phone vibrates – I don’t care about how it vibrates.

The IT components just become background objects. They have to have predictable properties. What we’ve got either has no properties, has no concept of privacy or association control as an engineered object, or have emergent properties or have accidental properties or have mis-described properties. If you want to build, it isn’t about the internet of things. Who gives a shit about the things, right? It’s us I care about! If you want to build the metaverse, the hybridized human-computer world, which serves our needs to be healthy and happy and to flourish, then you need the right tools for the job.

Even to record this phone call may require a huge amount of signaling and AI to happen in just a few seconds as a phone call comes in, in order to negotiate between all of those actors as to how it’s going to be dealt with. And if the automated terms of service lawyers can’t deal with it, we may turn around very quickly and be like, “Do you approve?”, blah. It isn’t the media transport of the voice that is the hard problem, it’s the “decision matrix” that has to make all those choices that is the hard performance engineering problem.

The current internet is just a prototype. The Web, it’s kind of the new green screen. The hybrid reality metaverse full of sensed data, bio-sensed data, intimate data, requires a different infrastructure. Good news, we’ve solved all of our problems!

I wonder if any areas of our computing will be immune to this new thing. I mean, can stay in the old paradigm of Turing machine.

It’s not that the Turing machine is wrong, it’s just that it has nothing to do with humans or performance or security. So, it’s a bit like running an old IT infrastructure in a virtualized container. You have MS-DOS running inside Windows, or Linux running inside a virtual hypervisor or whatever it is.

We can keep the old stuff. We can even keep TCP/IP, which is the JavaScript of networking, but only slightly worse. We can keep those things, but we need to very carefully contain and bound them and control what goes across those boundaries, because what’s inside of them isn’t safe. It’s like an 1830’s steam engine that blows up and burns people to death occasionally, and we kind of got used to that for a while, but then maybe realized that steam engines don’t have to blow up all of the time and go on fire and incinerate people.

Basically, the computer programming part of the software engineering is done, we’ve figured out that part. The idea is that now, software engineering should take into account all of these other aspects.

As my colleague, Lee Dryburgh, Hyper Wellbeing event inventor describes it, we are moving from computer programming to people programming. And the mistake being made is going from artificial intelligence (in which computers are more humanlike) to identity augmentation, which is to give humans superpowers from computing. We’ve got it backwards, so artificial intelligence is the wrong problem. It’s not how you solve it, it’s not a problem. How do I give myself superpowers of empathy and understanding, which is a … Well it’s not artificial intelligence but its very nature is rooted in logos, not ethos.

It’s people who were the old crowd who could cope with assembler and early operating systems. It’s our brains wanting to immortalize themselves through intelligence. Even Turing… The concept of the computer came partly due to loss of his friend Christopher, or whatever, as a teenager. Computing was invented to deal with a pathos problem which is Turing’s grief.

If you’re a technologist and you’re not able to wear three eyes – logos, ethos, and pathos – and see the world through all three, you’re not complete. If you don’t think about, “How will this make the user feel, and is this the right thing to do?”, you’re not doing your job. Even in my first year of university doing formal methods of software design. You write a formal spec, a formal language, it’s an algorithm, whatever it is. There was no concept on how to capture feeling. The idea of feeling wasn’t even a relevant problem to be considered. It didn’t exist.

Like you mentioned, to start factoring in this thing, we’ll really need to build a model of that, a model of the human. So do you know of any efforts or advances in this area?

Yes, there are many, many, many companies building little parts of the problem to deal with various aspects of our bodies and behaviors. You think of Google. Google is not an artificial intelligence company. It’s not a search company. Google is a human behavioral manipulation company. That’s what it does. This is not a positive or negative value judgment on them, it’s just a statement of fact. They can do positively wonderful things with it, and they can do evil things with it. In some ways, some propaganda is good. In the sense of propaganda saying green vegetables is good. Behavioral manipulation that causes you to stand up and move around a bit, after you’ve spent two hours sat down, is good.

There are lots of companies working on wearable tech, often under the healthcare label. Like my colleague Lee says, people haven’t yet grasped that the future of mobile is well-being. It isn’t instant messaging or Snapchat. There is only one thing we want which is to feel good, in the right way. If you just do crystal meth in your veins and then you feel good, then yeah. It satisfies the pathos but not the ethos. May be logical, yes, you’ll feel great but the ethos is a bit troublesome. That’s why you need to integrate all three.

A lot of the tools we’re building pathos-wise are very weak. It’s like, it feels good but where is ethos? Now you start to think about how to model ethical problems. Where is the module you can buy – the open source module – about the ethos part of the human OS? Different people might have a different idea about what the appropriate ethos is. If the only ethos is going to be defined by corporations who want to strip mine our identities and strip away our identities and make money from them, we are in a lot of trouble. We are in a lot of trouble. The threat from artificial intelligence, it’s not the one I think people have been positing. It’s a hyper amplifier of power of the power structures in society in a way that… If you think inequality is bad now, whoa. The dystopian possibility is extraordinary.

Therefore there is a requirement for people on this call listening to this to think about what kind of world you want your children, and grandchildren, and great grandchildren to live in, and how can you help work back from them being at the end of their lives and thinking “That was a good life”. What does it take? It may require some deep radical restructuring. Not just technology, but how we think of society and relationships, and our relationship to the world around us. Being a computer programmer with coding skills, I’m sorry, I’m hoping JavaScript disappears.

From the technological threat [point of view]… The whole ethical component, you can build it in. Is there is the threat that once the technology become more advanced and more self-aware and self-preserving that the whole ethical module of it will become just an obstacle for some of the problems it will try to solve?

Let me give you an example. An example: Microsoft with the free upgrades to Windows 10. It got to the point where they up classified it into a recommended upgrade for part of the standard computer upgrade of the security system. In other words, they forced you to upgrade and even if you close the little red cross box when offered the upgrade, it did it anyway.

Where is the overlay piece of software which semantically mediates between me and that Microsoft offer and says, “That is toxic.” So for me, this is a Mac. I used to be on Windows. I will not touch a Microsoft operating system. It’s like, “You’ve burned me out like that. Never again.” For me, if I had allowed that to happen, I’ve got a five year old PC laptop. The drivers wouldn’t have worked. The whole thing would have gone wrong.

It felt like a digital assault, like I had been violated. Other people have felt violated, but the feedback mechanism between lots of people experiencing the pathos of anger and that collective causative action by them, that loop is missing today. The ethical violation and the anger it results in could have stayed separated in the world. We cannot say actually, “Microsoft, you’ve just caused a lot of people to get really upset,” because we can’t measure upset or disgust.

In this case we have Microsoft. We know where to direct the anger, or maybe the Guardian Avatar would protect. Basically, we should really trust the Guardian Avatar not to come either to any contract with Microsoft. Or not develop its own idea of what’s good for us, which might be not exactly good for us but good for it.

So, think of how a lawyer acts for you. When you go to use some software in the cloud or anywhere else, regard the Guardian Avatar as your terms of service lawyer. You have all of these terms of service and it’s your automated terms of service lawyer. You have all these contracts of adhesion today. This is a political problem as well. The nature of the contracts that we are being forced to enter into with cloud service providers are not one of free will in the free market. Let’s stop pretending that they are. Over time there is a competition between Amazon and Google and Facebook or whatever. At any one moment you have very little choice. I have chosen to cut myself off from Facebook because they have violated my privacy, and I will never do business with them again as a result. It would take a written apology from Mark Zuckerberg for me to ever to do business with them again.

Yes, it’s expensive, but until you and I are willing to do something different, and refuse to engage with services and systems that are working to fix with Guardian Avatar or whatever it is. The right thing to do is say, “Actually, no, you can’t record this call,” and, “Hey, Siri, piss off.”

[Siri on Martin’s iPhone goes: “I’m not sure I understand”. Martin and Misha both laughing.] You can’t script this stuff. Siri has no ethics. Siri doesn’t love you.

I really like your cat and dog analogy of the computer systems. I think that really brings it home. They just don’t really care about you at the moment.

There’s lots of people who care about the future of the web, the internet, blah, blah, blah. These messages, net neutrality, other stuff. Nastiest problem, and sometimes wrong problem or bad solution. You need to be thinking about the next problem, which is the metaverse, human-computer symbioses or blends of identity and reality, worlds of sensors. The centrality of privacy, the fundamental assault on our ability to act as independent entities and agent in this world, because our decisions will be manipulated or constrained by the corporate control systems around us.

We are potentially entering the most wonderful of eras. We can engineer good relationships and happiness. Instead of correcting our vision we can correct our wonky psyches, wonderful! We are also entering into one of the most horrific of eras where it’s North Korea everywhere. May be both, at the same time. It’s going to be weird and wacky. You can’t reinvent the web, that’s a prototype, let’s move on.

Okay, Martin. Thank you. Thank you so much. That was quite a deep dive into the future of computing and I think I’m still decompressing from it. Thank you so much. If people want to learn more about that, where do you think they can go?

Firstly, go to my website, martingeddes.com. Sign up for my newsletter and I will send you lots of mysterious things. There is a bit called the “think tank” where I organize some older articles. On SlideShare I have produced tons of stuff over the years, some of which is good.

There’s a new mathematics and calculus and algebra around network performance science and engineering called ∆Q. It’s very hard to find, because in Google you cannot type terms that come from two alphabets. It’s perfectly search engine de-optimized. I have a reading list for it. If you want it [go to www.qualityattenuation.science]. It’s not hard. My twelve year old daughter gets it, but if you’re Cisco Certified Engineer, it gets a bit harder.

Get to my website, drop me an email, contact me. mail@martingeddes.com or anythingyoulike at martingeddes.com – it always gets to me, and I will send you relevant stuff and I will answer your questions too if I have time.

Awesome! Thank you so much, Martin. Take care and see you in the bright future!


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Behind “I don’t have time” façade

“I don’t have time” is the most common obstacle to making any change in your life. Everybody is so busy these days, that “I don’t have time” sounds very understandable, valid and, well, unsurmountable. Even though every one of us is gifted with 16 hours of time every single day. And that’s after investing whole 8 hours in a good night’s sleep – one of the best investments of your time!

It’s like basic income, but with automatic investment. Every minute of your life you invest exactly one minute of your time, intentionally or not. The good news is that you can CHOOSE your investment options, and some of them are very, VERY profitable.

You actually have so much time that you constantly emit it, like sun emits light. And like sun, we usually emit it in all directions. And like with light, you can concentrate it at the point of your FOCUS.

It’s clear that “lack of time” is not a real block. It’s a façade. “I don’t have time for that” serves as a politically correct euphemism for “I don’t really care about that”. Somehow, the former is universally relatable, and the elicited empathy softens the blow of the latter. It’s okay to use “I don’t have time” in social interactions as long as it serves you, but being brutally honest with yourself, you would never use it as a real reason. Certainly not when you’re talking about living your dream life.

Now, how to figure out what is hiding behind the façade? Remember the power of “appointment”. When you have an appointment with somebody, you just show up at the agreed upon place on the agreed upon time. Even if you don’t, “I didn’t have time” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse. You must present some valid reason. Hence, If you want to figure out what’s hiding behind the façade, just make an appointment with yourself. Literally, reserve an one-hour slot every day to “Live my dream” or “Kill it”. Mark it on your calendar, as you would mark a massage spa visit (you like massage, don’t you? You don’t know? Well, make an appointment with a massage spa.) The first time you cannot make the appointment to enjoy yourself, you’ll know what really is blocking your flow.

I rarely miss this appointment, but I’m late sometimes. Because I’m in flow with my previous task. I find it a defensible excuse.

But for the sake of not having any excuses, I build in a half-an-hour buffer in between one hour tasks. Why one hour? Besides being good round number that is just 1/16th of your available daytime, one hour (or to be precise, 57 minutes 😉 followed by 17 minutes break was found to be optimal stress/recovery cycle. “Power of Full Engagement” recommends 90-120 minutes of focus followed by about 30 minutes of recovery. So, what seems to work the best for me is having about an hour and a half allocated for each task with the expectation that at least 15 minutes will be spent in some sort of relaxation (which might be just a different type of flow). These numbers are more of a guidelines to illustrate the principles of stress/recovery cycles and buffer. For more on buffer as an essential tool, see “Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown.

While buffers mitigate the risk of task over-flow (pun intended ;), there is another phenomenon that might delay your rendezvous with flow – procrastination. While some might consider procrastination a useful thing, and others try to make it a creative one, delay is a delay, and we don’t have time for that. (Literally, there is no time in our calendar that is scheduled for “delay”, is there?) I see procrastination as manifestation of my fear of the “struggle” – that hump you need to get over to meet the promised land of flow. Solution? Make the hump really small, like 15 minutes small. Commit to work on the task for only 15 minutes. After that time, you are free to move on to another one – unless you’re in the flow by that time, that is. Again, your interval for entering the flow might vary, but the principle of committing to only the bare minimum of time required for entering the flow is solid. In one sentence: you commit to focus on a task for about 15 minutes, having the option to work on it for up to 90 minutes. Rinse and repeat.

More likely than not, you’ll be in the flow when 15 minutes run out. Awesome. Now we need to stay there. This is easy, since flow has the only one enemy – distraction. This is the reason flow is so fragile these days – technological advances made attention our most valuable resource, but comparably advanced technologies are employed to extract as much of that value from us as possible. And that on top of internal flow rivals like doubts about ourselves, worries about the future (a.k.a. anxiety) and regrets about the past (a.k.a. depression).

We’ll take later about how to deal with distractions. But while we are on the topic of time – there is time of the day that is the least subject to distractions, both internal and external. It is morning. This is the time to tackle your most important task. Before events or demands of the day even had a chance at your attention. While people you care about are either asleep or busy with their own most important tasks. Mornings are traditionally considered the most productive time, and the reason is exactly that – flow is uninterruptible in the mornings. That not only hints us strongly about the best time for the most important stuff (hint: morning), but also gives a clue how to make any time of the day morning-like productive (clue: eliminate distractions).

If you really cannot find an hour in your schedule, make an hour in your schedule. Wake up 1 hour earlier. Just be sure not to withdraw from your investment account – get enough sleep. Go to bed earlier. Why not just do that in the evening than? You are likely to be tired in the evening, and that doesn’t help with flow. Some people, like Tim Ferriss, are more productive in the night, but generally, “If You Wouldn’t Wake Up Early to Do Something, You Probably Shouldn’t Stay Up Late For It Either.”

Note that “I don’t have time for that” becomes meaningful again – it simply means, there is no time allocated for that in my calendar. Symmetrically, reserving a spot in your calendar for something effectively creates “time for that”. While “I don’t really care about that” might sound impolite, “it’s not a priority for me” rather commands respect. Ability to say “No” in a graceful manner requires internalizing one’s values and purpose, and that is respectable.

Granted, not all time slots in your calendar created equal. We just saw one example of that – mornings. And you might notice that throughout the day there are times when you’re more readily take on one or another type of tasks. It might depend on whether it’s pre- or post-lunch time, pre- or post-exercise time, do you prefer to knock off newest tasks first, or do you let them to simmer in the back of your mind for some time.

Tracking your time is the best way to become aware of these patterns. There are tools for any taste – from the least intrusive tools like your internet browser history, to the most reflective like Toggl, to the simplest like pen and paper. No matter what is your tool of choice, the mere fact of tracking your activities would likely make you more selective about what you spend your time on. Also, once you declared in some form what you intend to do for the next hour or so, it is less likely that you would respond to a distraction. If there are some advantages of following a plan to the letter, this is one of them.

Besides, looking back at your day in some quantitative manner (e.g. knowing exactly how much time you spend on Facebook) will help you realize that you DO HAVE TIME, it’s just that it can be used more intentionally. No need to play robot and, say, promise to never login to Facebook again – that most likely lead to breaking the promise and hating yourself for that. Besides, going through what your friends were up to recently is likely to satisfy some of your emotional needs like reconnecting with people or places. But there is a point of diminishing return, or even negative return, when you end up feeling drained and guilty, rather than moved and inspired.

I found that categorizing activities into areas of my life that they are supposed to support or improve – health, wealth, family, relationships, career, calling etc. – have this healthy effect of asking yourself why you are doing whatever you are doing. It also helps you to see if any particular area of your life has been deprived of your attention recently. Tagging activities works even better, since an activity can have multiple tags, instead of just one single category. For example, having chat with friend over lunch would be tagged as contributing to both your health and your relationships, and your commute time can be repurposed for reading or listening audiobooks. Just be sure not to let multi-tagging degrade into multi-tasking, when you try to do many things at the same time and failing to focus on any of them. No focus – no flow – no joy. For example, listening to an audiobook at playground is likely to frustrate both you and your kids.

But even if you’re busy with a worthy task, chances are that it’s taking you way more time than it could have. You have probably heard of Pareto principle, also known as 80-20 rule. It states that in majority of cases, 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the causes. That means that you have likely spent 80% of the time on only 20% of what you have achieved. Ridiculous? Why would anybody do that? Two reasons – perfectionism and the need for closure.

Perfectionism is the mindset that if a task is not done perfectly – at 100% – then it has very little value. If this is really the case, then it is very likely that the task just have very little value, period. 100% is practically not achievable. It is just a wrong task. As Pareto principle suggests, 80% of value can be achieved at 20% completion – when the task is the right one. Excellence – as opposed to perfectionism – is exactly about doing the right task, rather than doing a task right. Think effectiveness versus efficiency, impact versus effort, value versus price. (As I write this during holiday season, another analogy comes to mind: presence versus presents. Spending with loved ones – being fully present and listening and caring – just 20% of time we might spend hunting gifts and bargains in overcrowded malls is what would really make difference in their lives.)

Okay, but how to find the right task? The truth is that usually you know exactly what needs to be done, and how good is good enough, but you keep polishing anyway. Why? Because, well, if it’s not good enough, it’s going to fail, right? Perfectionism is usually a manifestation of the fear of failure, and we’ll talk that at length later. For now, just keep in mind Facebook’s motto “Better done than perfect” and stop doing non-essential tweaking. And if you really not sure what is the best course of action, devote equal share of available time to testing each of the alternatives. Let them face the reality, and the one that had the greatest impact is the one worth pursuing further.

Need for closure is a different beast. The thing is that our psyches hate loose ends. We have innate desire to do away with any uncertainty we are facing. By itself, this drive might have some healthy effects – like tendency to finish task as soon as possible. But the most pedantic of us might start looking for ways to make sure we never have to deal with this problem again. Not just crossing the Ts and dotting the Is, but making an assumption about what else might go wrong , and go fixing that as well. And so on and on, causing the scope of the original task grow uncontrollably. A bit different mechanism than with the case of perfectionism, but with the same result – spending way more time then needed, on something of a questionable value.

Classical horror story is creating product nobody cares about. It was this epic waste of time that prompted Eric Reis to rethink product development, start Lean Startup movement and coin the term Minimal Viable Product, among others. The idea here is that the way to remove uncertainty about the reality is not to postulate the way it must be (which feels more like denying both uncertainty and reality), but to gradually discover the way it really is. Do the bare minimum that would allow you to move forward, be that choosing an option among many or coming up with just a single one.

Fear of failure (perfectionism) and fear of uncertainty (need for closure) might look alike and hard to distinguish. Fortunately, there is no need to that, as the antidote is the same in both cases – explore alternatives quick and dirty.

Lastly, if you do have to interrupt in the middle of the creative flow – it is not necessarily a bad thing. For one thing, if you switch to something that requires less intense concentration, the creative process would still run in the background (like in the “relaxation” phase mentioned earlier), likely leading to new insights and “Aha!”s. Also, leaving your work incomplete would drive you to come back to it sooner, and would help you get up to speed faster, avoiding the “blank page” effect.

So, go ahead and reserve a couple of hours in your calendar daily, and have fun playing, hacking and experimenting!

The only skill you need to succeed as entrepreneur

What does it take to build profitable growing sustainable software business – without a cent of external capital or top coding skills?

It takes a validated business idea. When your leads stop you midway through the pitch, and ask you to “shut up and take my money”, it is as good validation as it gets.

Pre-sale is the best validation.

It takes funding. Able and willing to pay customers are your best investors. They would gladly pay in advance for building a product that promises to make their pain go away. They don’t want a share of your company or a seat on the board of directors. If you listen closely, they already know where your business should be doing next. And if you deliver on your promise, they will you generate you PR no money could buy.

Customers are the best investors.

It takes technical talent. And these days hiring the best takes more than stock options or good hourly rate – it takes sense of purpose. Show the talent how this work would get him or her closer to where they want to be – and help make the world a better place along the way – and you’ll get 10x worth your payroll and never have to fire a soul.

Inspiration is the best incentive.

It takes powerful allies. But what can you offer somebody who is miles ahead of you? Testimonials and referrals are the lifeblood of every good business. Share publicly what you’ve learned from the people you admire, what works and what doesn’t and why. You benefit from their leadership, so you’re doing your tribe a service by letting them know about your idols. Persuade to give them a honest try.

Leads are the best compliments.

How do you get all these?

You learn about people – your customers, your employees and your idols. You get to know their dreams, hopes and fears better then they do. And then you learn to talk about that at length and in their own words.

Yes, it is hard upfront work, but it gets you disproportionate results. That’s what gives you the edge in the world where everybody and their grandma can get a professionally looking website for $100. Unfortunately (or luckily 😉 very few understand what it really takes to create a successful business.

Learn this one skill from masters like Ramit Sethi and Dane Maxwell, who helped thousands of student build their own online empires.

Learn how to call for action.

Why flow state is the gateway to wellbeing

So, why do you love being in flow?

The question might sound silly. You know why – being in the flow feels awesome! Remember the last time you’ve spent an hour chatting away with a good friend, and it felt like 5 minutes? Or were “in the zone” for three hours creating a masterpiece that you’ve been proud of ever since? In flow, time disappears, and takes all your worries and self-doubts along for the ride. You are wired-in, or in the groove, or in the pocket, or having runner’s high, or having helper’s high… “High” seems to be a synonym for “flow” whenever it’s politically correct. No wonder everyone wants to be in the flow! Wait, isn’t it a bit unhealthy to be “high” all the time?

Good point. There is still an important distinction between flow high and other highs. Remember the last time you’ve spent afternoon browsing that thing called Internet? It all started with “quickly” checking your Facebook notifications, then there was that hilarious YouTube video, then 59 foolproof ways to succeed in life, and next thing you notice is that it’s dark outside. Remember how drained and self-loafing you felt afterwards? That felt very flowy while it lasted, but all you get in the end is hangover. It’s the high of consuming.

Flow high is the high of creating. Of pushing yourself. “It’s an escape forward from current reality,“ explains Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “whereas stimulants like drugs lead backward”.

So, the good news is that flow is not only the tastiest, it’s also the healthiest thing out there. Let me count the ways.

Happiness

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered flow state during his study of happiness. In that study, people were paged a few times a day and were asked to describe what they do and how they feel at the moment. Flow state emerged as the pattern of the activities that reportedly were making people feel happy. While it doesn’t always feel “flowy” to enter the flow state – “struggle” and “anxiety” are the commonly reported precursors – the breakthrough of connecting the dots and creating something completely new brings the true joy and that superhuman feeling of being unstoppable. No surprise here – studies show that all five most potent reward drugs that our bodies can produce – dopamine, endorphin, anandamide, serotonin, oxytocin – get released into the system while in the flow. But you don’t really need any scientific evidence to know how awesome it feels to resurface after spending a few hours in the flow!

Being happy – feeling good about where are you at the moment – is extremely important. Vishen Lakhiani, co-founder of extremely successful company Mind Valley, calls happiness the new productivity. For happiness is the foundation that gives you sense of stability and confidence much needed for taking risks in pursuing your vision. Being happy and pursuing vision seems the recipe for personal fulfillment. Happiness without vision feels superficial, while vision without happiness is the source of anxiety and stress. Laughing, practicing gratitude and kindness are the well-known (and universally affordable) cures for un-happiness. But flow allows you to build up the foundation of happiness while you are stretching yourself in the pursuit of your vision. That comes especially handy to those of us who readily delay gratification, sometimes to the point of being self-deprived of any fun in their lives – flow comes packed with fun!

Productivity

Another thing that most of these bodily drugs do is enhancing different aspects of our performance, both mental and physical – pattern recognition, learning abilities, memory consolidation, reaction time, accuracy of movements and judgments. Top athletes get into the zone to push the boundaries of what believed to be possible for our species. Top executives report being five times more productive in the flow. Top VCs use “flow state percentage” metric to evaluate startups potential. But again, while these examples demonstrate how profound the phenomenon of flow’s performance boost is, it’s very likely that you experienced that first-hand on a few occasions.

The secret to top performance is simple: focus. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. By definition, the thing you focus on receives your time, your thoughts and your efforts – they just don’t have anywhere else to go! If you feel that they just dissipate, it means that your focus is spread among too many things – to the point that the share of energy one individual thing receives barely makes any impact on it. If you reduce that all the way down to ONE thing, it will receive ALL of your energy – and there is no obstacle or challenge can that cannot be melted and evaporated by this awful lot of energy. As Tony Robbins says, “Where focus goes, energy flows”.

So, the real secret to top performance is how to stay laser-focused. And this is where flow comes into play. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi characterizes flow experience as one when “what we feel, what we wish and what we think are in harmony” – as opposed to prevalent scenarios when “… mind is not in complete chaos, but there is quite a bit of entropy in my consciousness – thoughts, emotions and intentions come into focus and then disappear, producing contrary impulses, and pulling my attention in different directions.” Flow is state of the ultimate focus.

Creativity

Creativity and productivity – exploration and execution, divergent and convergent thinking, thinking slow and fast – are the two main themes of every success story. Luckily, flow helps with both. Highly focused processing of the relevant information constitutes the first phase of the creativity process – known as preparation, digesting the material, or even struggle.

What comes next is outsourcing the combinatory play with the accumulated information to subconscious – by disengaging from the problem. For example, by switching to an unrelated task, preferably one that stimulates imagination and emotions, but deprives you of any more information. Effectively, information processing shifts from analytical to intuitive, silencing the inner critic and allowing unrelated concepts associate freely and thus create new ideas. This phase is known as “incubation”, or “unconscious processing”, or “relaxation”, and is commonly regarded as very important step, even if somewhat counter-intuitive one. In case of flow, this is achieved with transient hypofrontality – temporary reduction in prefrontal cortex activity, caused by the intense focusing.

The result is that sudden illumination, the a-ha moment, the breakout, when the pieces fall into their places, dots connect and your bulb lights up with an insight. That’s when the process finally start feeling flowy. This is when the real creative work begins: the final phase is idea verification, when it meets the reality and gets shaped into its exact form. This is hard conscious work, and that’s where many good ideas are lost, so flow’s productivity boost is very welcome here. Flow allows us to tolerate a bit longer that discomfort of not having a solution, and that extra pondering time yields more creative one.

Creative work not only greatly benefits from the flow state, but is itself one of the most flow-prone activities. Creativity is all about identifying new patterns and establishing new connections. Besides, while being creative you take risks – from the risk of coming up with something nobody cares about, to the risk of not being able to handle the criticism – constructive or otherwise – that any worthy idea evokes. Fortunately, evolution recognized both risk taking and pattern identifying as important survival mechanism for humans, and hence these activities are rewarded with influx of dopamine. This pleasure chemical not only heightens your motivation, but also increases your focus, and, thus, drives you deeper into the flow, closing the virtuous circle.

Health

Transient hypofrontality also takes place during physical exercise, and likely to be at least partially responsible for anxiety-inhibiting and antidepressant effects physical exercise is known for. Flow has similar effect – reduced activity in prefrontal cortex and amygdala results in less thinking and worrying, and more feeling and doing. Meditation and flow, both being states of focused awareness, share a lot of health benefits. One important distinction though is that flow is an “active” state – you’re getting healthier while you’re getting things done! Moreover, scientific studies show that the promotion of flow can benefit those suffering from a range of negative emotional conditions, such as self-disgust, guilt and feelings of inferiority.

What flow basically does is it provides direction to our train of thoughts, that otherwise go ANTs (automatic negative thoughts). ANTs are artifacts of our lizard brain constant scanning for danger in our environment, when it tries to play out the worst possible scenarios and attempts to generalize based on the immediate – and often rather superficial – observations. They are the source of all this “always”-“never”-“woulda-coulda-shoulda” worries in your head. Just imagine how lighter would you feel without them! And that’s what flow gives you. Not only does it silence your inner critic, it gives your brain concrete task to focus on, preventing all this harmful wandering about. Granted, any kind of “busyness” would likely to distract you from negative thoughts, but accomplishing your goals while in flow would remove the very ground from under these thoughts.

There is something else going on – beyond purely psychological benefits. “When a person is in a state of flow, all five potent neurochemicals massively amplify the immune system,” explains Steve Kotler. “Stress-causing hormones are flushed out of body in flow, and the autoimmune and nervous systems go haywire. Flow brought me from seriously subpar back up to normal, and it can bring normal people to Superman.”

You can reap well-being benefits of flow even when you take a break from creative tasks. Runner’s high – a euphoric feeling of being invincible, close relative of flow state – is part of the reason many runners wake morning after morning to pound the pavement. And benefits of regular aerobic exercise stretch far beyond the short-term euphoria – improved blood circulation, reduced body fat, lowered cholesterol, and better self-esteem.

And then, there are some extreme examples of the effects flow can have on our physical bodies. “You want to know how I did something like jump the Great Wall on a fractured ankle,” says Danny Way, legendary skateboarder, says. “I can’t really answer that. All I can tell you is what I already told you: When I’m pushing the edge, skating beyond my abilities, it’s always a meditation in the zone”

Action

Taking action is the best (the only?) remedy against any doubt or worry, and the only way to make dreams come true. Unfortunately, taking action is also the hardest thing to do. All productivity and self-help advice seem to boil down to this single one: TAKE ACTION NOW. All the variety of the offered tactics and strategies are reflection of the fact that for different people triggers are different. And the redundancy with which pretty much every message is delivered is justified by the fact that it takes an average person 7 times to hear an idea before they take an action on it. Most often, it’s the personal example of somebody whose background and story resonates with you and makes you feel you can achieve the same that motivates you to make the first step. In some cases (like mine) it’s the mere beauty and simplicity of the idea that make it irresistible to act on it. But in the end the trigger doesn’t matter, even though it usually gets all the credit. What really matters is taking action once, discovering the power of it and making it your habitual answer to any doubt.

Flow state turns any action into a joyful experience, and that helps a great deal with forming that ultimate habit – taking action. It makes the process of finding what actually works (and eliminating what doesn’t) as engaging as riding the wave of sudden inspiration and daydreaming about all the things that might work. It makes working on an idea as exciting as coming up with an idea. And the efficiency with which you can iterate through ideas while in the flow defeats the usual excuse for not taking action: “… but what if this is not the right option and I’ll just waste time going down that path? Let me first think that through…”. The fundamental fallacy of this approach is that you can always find a reason something might not work. Instead, get into the flow, have fun, give the idea your best, and you’re likely to make any approach work. Or at least eliminate one that surely doesn’t. Thomas Edison proverbially did that about 1,000 times before he found the way to make lightbulb work.

Limitlessness

Once you focus on the task at hand, once you stop thinking and take action, doubts disappear. In flow action and awareness merge, and that leaves no room for self-consciousness and, consequently, for self-sabotaging. You don’t waste time and energy assessing potential outcomes and how they might reflect upon you. Instead, you take action that would provide you most immediate feedback, and act on that feedback. Rinse and repeat. With practice, your natural reactions get the finesse and polish you were originally trying to think through your way to. That’s how you become “natural’ at anything, when you natural reaction reflects the best on you.

Removing self-consciousness from between an idea and the action effectively disables your limiting beliefs, it just doesn’t give them a chance to chime in. You stop eliminating your options out of fear of failure, rejection or embarrassment. And with that the only person who could ever limit you is gone. When you get in the flow, you get out of your own way. Sky becomes the limit. Your tools become direct and natural extension of you, giving your actions preciseness and effortlessness. You become rewarded by the action itself, without labeling any outcome as “success” or “failure”. Any action is success. In other words, you cannot fail, unless you don’t take action.

One can say that it’s just a feeling of limitlessness. But your feelings and emotions are the ultimate reason you take any action. To paraphrase Henry Ford’s famous quote, “If you feel you can – you can, if you feel you cannot – you cannot”. So when you feel limitless, you ARE limitless.

Play

What else is self-rewarding, favors means over the end, doesn’t care about “right” or “wrong”, involves a highly engaged but non-stressed frame of mind? Play. Play is the easiest way to get into the flow, and that’s why children like to play so much and spend all time available to them playing. It’s namely the flow state that makes play so attractive, so modern game design employs heavily science of flow, while video games soundtracks are gaining popularity as productivity enhancing ambient music. Adults mostly consider “play” as an alternative to “work”, either a luxurious or a wasteful alternative. However, most creative and accomplished people advocate adopting child’s mindset in life and business and getting playful in order to solve any serious problem.

How cool is that – getting work done (superbly!) while playing?! But that’s exactly what happens in flow state. Staying engaged with the task at hand while not stressing about any established approaches gives you permission to “play” – see things with child’s curiosity and question basic assumptions. That’s what more often than not leads to an original solution. And if you don’t feel like reinventing a particular wheel every time, challenge yourself to create your recipe for the task, and outsource it, or even automate it – and leave to yourself only the problems you love playing with! And that’s how flow state lets you play all day long – completely guilt-free! Just wrap into flow any challenge you’re facing – and here you are, feeling like a gamer, killing it like a workaholic.

Mastery

10,000 hours of deliberate practice. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”, that’s what it takes to master anything at a world-class level. At 8 hours per weekday, that’s 5 years. As much as we would love to be able to freeze time, mastering a subject is probably one of very few cases when the faster time runs the better. Luckily, that’s what flow offers. Another characteristic feature of the state is “time dilation”, or losing the sense of time. It’s a side effect of the general loss of awareness of your surroundings caused by the deep concentration. Interestingly, at times it manifests itself as time slowdown – when you’re able to process huge amount of incoming information much faster than in unfocused mode. But in general, the result is the ability to put into the activity tremendous amount of time without realizing that (since any “realizing” is turned off while in flow).

Human ability to delay gratification – proverbial backbone of any achievement – is rather scarce, and even then usually comes at an ongoing cost of willpower, another scarce resource. Flow guides through an alternative path to mastery – where you get rewarded at each step. In this mode, even committed hedonists can go for miles and achieve new heights – as many extreme athletes did. And even the lucky ones who find special pleasure in working hard towards “bright future” can make their willpower last longer in the presence of smaller but more regular rewards.

On top of that, flow gives not only subjective shortcut to the mastery, but objective reduction in time required to obtain new skills. There is fundamental connection between flow and learning, stemming from the fact that flow happens when the challenge slightly exceeds your current skill level, and, hence, some learning is required. Even though the skill-challenge gap needs to be small in order to trigger flow, constant “compound learning” does wonders. As Internet meme goes, “Small daily improvements are the key to staggering long term results”. Flow makes these regular improvements easy and joyful.

Simplicity

It’s just amazing that all these great benefits, and all the complexity of neuroanatomy, neuroelectricity and neurochemistry that makes them possible, is accessible via very simple channel: focus. Just immerse completely in whatever you are doing at every moment, and all these good things will happen to you.

Granted, with the abundance of opportunities, notifications and entertainment these days it’s harder than ever to concentrate on anything. But what that really boils to is having the tiny habit of focusing on a task for about 15 minutes, and then the flow takes over. Flow follows focus. Granted, it takes personal energy management and priorities management to have capacity and clarity needed to focus on the right things. But then again, these are tasks as any others, and flow state can help tackle them as well. Besides, for what technology took away from us by constant distractions, it can pay back by guarding our attention when that matters.

There is a number of conditions that simplify entering flow state (known as flow triggers), but they seem helping to unblock our innate desire to explore and create, rather than adding some secret sauce into the mix. To borrow Headspace’s “blue sky” analogy, we’re always in the flow – unless we are distracted by external events or internal doubts. Learning to quickly identify and deal with these “blocks” is the way to be in the flow as much as possible, and reap its numerous benefits.