As Fitbits for Feelings Emerge, Whither Empathy?

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

This is the second posting of my published articles (first one, The Human Bits: The People Under All That Data), As Fitbits for Feelings Emerge, Whither Empathy, published by Techonomy, then by Forbes, and The Huffington Post.

Reflections of a seven-year old girl: That was crazy cool! Growing up in a small, backwoods (back-desert to be more precise) town, I used to read my dad’s copies of Forbes Magazine and proclaim that Steve Forbes should be president, because he knew how to make money, not run the country into the ground financially. I grew up in a red state… Anyhow, having my work minimally associated with Forbes is exciting for me and that little girl.

On Being Edited: The team at Techonomy helped review and edit the piece over a month-long period. This was the first time I’d had help editing an article. It was brilliant! Normally, I’m an anxious writer, who has trouble organizing my thoughts. Adding to that, I’m a grammar nerd (I may have gotten 117% in high school grammar… and nowhere to go but downhill), making for a big, ol’ writer’s block.

However! Rather than giving up on the process (giving in to The Block), I did what I could and sent it to the Techonomy team. They challenged my explanations and, sadly, my, let’s say, “hard to get” sense of humor, and sent a mega track-changed Word doc back to me, full of green, red, and purple squiggly underlines. The more squiggliness, the closer we were to publishing.

Having these guys force me to explain concepts taught me to how to think through an explanation and, in so doing, taught me to be a better writer — importantly, a less stressed writer.

I haven’t figured out how to recreate the process yet, but I’m aware that I can be better with the help from an amazing team and it gives me hope. Ok, here’s the article!

– Eri


Search Google for “empathy + technology” and you’ll read that “Studies have shown that increased dependence on technology has resulted in the diminishing of empathy” and “The Internet desensitizes us to shocking images, diminishing our empathy.” Meanwhile, narcissism (think selfies) and cyberbullying appear to be at all time highs. And reality television is thriving on voyeuristic depictions of human weakness, competition, and cruelty.

A definition of empathy:

The feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.(Merriam-Webster)

Are we losing touch with one another? Are we sinking towards something like Roman civilization, when bloodthirsty spectators eagerly watched men fight to the death in the name of entertainment, now just on high-def screens?

Or could empathy in society actually be enhanced by the capabilities of technology? Could machines sense our emotions better than our friends and family can and broadcast that data to them? It’s not a crazy idea. In fact, wearable technologies are starting to emerge that are specifically designed to give viewers a sense of what’s going on inside another person. They may be crude now, but they will get better.

Believe it or not, people really wear Necomimi ears to reflect metabolic excitement in a way they cannot consciously control. (Photo courtesy Neurowear)

Take a look at the Necomimi product from Tokyo’s Neurowear. It’s a set of brainwave-reading cat ears that perk up when the user is alert or excited and lay flat when the user is calm. Inits concept video, a boy-meets-girl-with-cat-ears story plays out: Boy approaches; girl’s prosthetic EEG-enabled cat ears stand up; girl blushes; boy gets closer.

It is simultaneously ridiculous, cute, and relatable. Holding in feelings of affection is so utterly human. Necomimi takes reservation out of the equation. The wearer implicitly creates a new social contract when putting on the headset: anything that excites or bores the wearer will be plainly obvious to observers, be it an advertisement or a married man. It may not be for you, but some people in Japan and elsewhere are using it.

The GER Mood Sweater from the American company Sensoree relies on galvanic skin response and LED-laden fabric to change color with the wearer’s mood. And Heart Spark, a DIY heart-rate monitor necklace made by San Francisco-based Sensebridge, reveals to the world with flashing lights when the wearer’s heart races.

The Sensory Fiction book-vest takes quite literally the notion that you should "feel" what you are reading. (Photo courtesy MIT Media Lab)

Generating emotion in a viewer is a goal of other new technology.Sensory Fiction, an interactive and wearable book-vest combo created as a prototype by four MIT students, will swell, squeeze, or vibrate against the user as he or she flips pages. Readers can literally feel the plot thicken, joining the protagonist on ups and downs throughout the story.

Empathy changes our brains, hence our behavior. Although empathy-enabling technology can provoke solidarity, it may also contribute to manipulating us, or stimulating irrational decision-making. Politicians and advertising agencies have understood this for a long time. Behavioral studies tell us that we are more likely to donate to orphans identified with photos than with silhouettes. We are also far more likely to opt-in to organ donation when asked in-person by a DMV clerk than on a mail-in form. Images,smells, sounds—which can now be conveyed by various wearable technologies—may subtly guide us toward actions that seem to defy logic. When a would-be elected official rouses audiences with stories of “Mary, the retired grandmother of five, who can’t afford her heart medication,” he is playing on voters’ empathy to win votes for a new healthcare policy, regardless of whether Mary is accurately representative of senior citizens.

The “identifiable victim effect” leads us to become more saddened and outraged by news of the kidnapping and torture of a local girl than we would be by news of thousands dead in a far-off land. Neurally, images of victims activate the nucleus accumbens, an area central to the brain’s reward and pleasure circuit. When we understand the gravity and tragedy of a loss of thousands, it is through reason, not generally because of the effects of images, empathy, and nucleus accumbens activation. Brain-imaging technology combined with data analytics is giving researchers more understanding of the neurological and physiological effects of images and stories intended to produce empathy.

Simultaneously, innovation is exploding in several ways that may add further complexity to the empathy/technology nexus. Advances in wearables as well as smaller and cheaper sensors allow weekend tech-warriors to build their own devices that alter our senses, such as Mitch Altman’s “Brain Machine” glasses that use sound and light to stimulate certain brain activity, or the poking machine armband that delivers a physical poke each time your Facebook friends poke you. These are products made mostly for personal use or demonstration, but they show how easy it is to create devices that shape our experience of the world.

The growth of the Quantified Self movement has made it acceptable (in some circles) to wear your digital heart on your sleeve and, soon, products like the Scanadu Scout andApple’s rumored iWatch, will be able to monitor enthusiasts’ biometrics. It’s not a great leap beyond that to interpreting your emotional state, as the Mood Sweater and Heart Spark are already doing.

The implications of detailed emotional data in business could be far-reaching and extreme. For example, health information coupled with emotional analysis could enable pharmaceutical companies to market drugs in a highly personalized and effective way. Personalized medicine may be beneficial, but imagine ads that can interpret emotions and respond on the fly with targeted messaging. For that matter, any industry with access to such data could fine-tune their advertising accordingly. In mobile gaming,crude emotional targeting is already being attempted, creating personalized and socially networked reward systems. Some argue that games like Candy Crush—today’s top mobile game—are contributing to the demise of gaming by causing millions to spend money on primarily luck-based activities that addict users with the promise of elementary rewards like stars on the screen and social recognition in the game and in social networks. Where will such businesses go as emotional sensing becomes more sophisticated?

The new millenial generation of digital natives frequently shows a greater sense of social responsibility and desire to be connected to one other than previous generations. Many of us want environments, jobs, and products that provide a sense of empathy and fulfillment. Meanwhile, neuroscience, consumer medical devices, and numerous other tools are giving us a deeper understanding of the roots of human sensibility. We may better understand what it means to be human, but the consequences of using these insights are not yet understood. This generation will determine whether we use or abuse empathy.

In the 1987 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” author Neil Postman posited that Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” got it right, not George Orwell’s “1984.” “Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.” More recently, Dave Eggers’s novel “The Circle,” in a sort of homage to “Brave New World,” makes a similar point about the potential dangers of services like Facebook and Google.

Technology and society now intersect at empathy in ways the world has never seen before. To prevent ourselves from fulfilling Huxley’s prophecy, we must be aware of empathy’s side effects. Once technologies that can affect empathy become commonplace, we may need more technology to protect ourselves. If we manipulate empathy, we cannot forget how it works in society—to bring people together.

Eri Gentry is an economist turned biotech entrepreneur and an advocate for science literacy. She is a science and technology research manager at the Institute for the Future, an independent research organization, and a co-founder of BioCurious, the first hackerspace for biotech.

This article was originally published in the Techonomy 2014 Report.

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Have you ever had a dream like this?

Monday, February 9th, 2015

This kid rocks my world.

The Human Bits: The people under all that data

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

(This is the first article I’ve had published, originally printed in the IQT Quarterly, December 2013 edition. It finally struck me that I should put my writings on my blog, so here’s the one, with more later.)

The Human Bits: The people under all that data

You’re an 8 today! The meaning and the uselessness of life-tracking

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

Buster Benson found that the course of his in-person interactions would change based on the information people saw about him online. A casual interjection a coworker would greet him with at the office would look something like this: “You’re an 8 today. You must be feeling pretty good! Let’s talk.” Acquaintances would avoid writing him during periods of heavy email inflow.

Since 1999, Buster has tracked not only the number of emails he received per day but also his scored his levels of morale, health, sleep, alcohol, and caffeine on a scale from 1-10. These numbers were publicly available on his blog. [busterbenson.com] Today, his blog shows his email traffic, how much time he spent walking and eating, how often he was angry or sad, and pictures of him shared around the web. The page greets visitors with the option to “Search all 32,402 entries.”

Buster is a successful Seattle entrepreneur, notably the creator of HealthMonth, a profitable online game in which players try to improve their lives (eat better, get out of debt) by changing one small thing per day for a month. He identifies himself as a husband, a father, and someone who, after 14 years of collecting personal data, is still struggling to find meaning in all of it.

What’s that you say? (And so do I.) This master of self-tracking has spent over a decade analyzing his life and he still doesn’t understand it? We-ell, yes and no. Let’s first try to see it from his point of view. As a pioneer in digital self-tracking, Buster has made some important discoveries about tracking and meaning that can make our own self-tracking a lot easier.

In his recent Quantified Self (more on this below) talk – “Why I Track” – Buster explained how he expected to find correlations in his data that would guide him in dividing and organizing his life. He especially expected to see a positive correlation between having great days and high scores in the short list of meaningful variables he’d curated, which included spending time with family, running, and sleeping 8 hours. To set up the data, Buster tracked individual variables like sleep and mood, then scored each day on a scale from 1-3. (The scale tells him whether he thought he had an above or below average day.)

[http://quantifiedself.com/2012/12/buster-benson-why-i-track/]

Intuition told him that spending more time with his wife would have a positive correlation with above average days. Or exercising more. Or watching a movie. In fact, none of it did. There was no correlation.

Quick primer on correlation: a p value of 1 connotes significant, positive correlation, a p value of 0 means no correlation. A p value of greater than 0.5 implies positive correlation.

Buster hoped for a p value of greater than 0.5. His actual correlation? Negative 0.13. Ouch.

What does this mean for the rest of us mere mortals with a bad habit (or 10) to shake? While Buster’s results were surprising, his desire to track has not lessened. He has actually created a challenge for others to find positive correlations in their data and share it. [bit.ly/self-trackingchallenge] Ultimately, the data do not predict outcomes or guide us into living the perfect lifestyle. But they do offer us a window of introspection through which we can pull out the bits that are meaningful to us. Through tracking every lifestyle variable he could think of, Buster realized that many, if not most, of them were useless, but he also discovered the few that were really important to him. He found that data are important to track, and can be unpredictably useful at different times, but don’t give an accurate view of happiness or meaning over time. We have to develop our own methods for that part.

It is key to understand the human nature that lies beneath the creation of big, personal data as we move towards a more quantified world. Human factors are at the root of why simply prescribing medications doesn’t work — people forget to take them, or whether they’ve taken them. And why those at risk for heart disease won’t walk more or stop smoking. Device makers and health providers are grappling with these issues. And when policy-making and fear-mongering fail to improve our lives, it makes sense to go to center of the issues – to the people themselves. One group leading the pack is the Quantified Self.

The Quantified Self: self knowledge through numbers

When people ask, “what is the Quantifed Self,” its cofounder, Gary Wolf, likes to ask, “What do you think it is?” This line of questioning usually reveals the original asker’s motivations and, sometimes, a story about their own self-tracking. Not pre-defining the Quantified Self for people is an important concept, as (not to sound cheeky) the Quantified Self is whatever you want it to be. It’s quantified – it’s about you. It’s the Quantified (key word:) Self. To understand how that notion came about, let’s go back to the beginning.

The Quantified Self was born in 2008 when Wired editors, Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf, independently noticed the adoption of new technologies for self-discovery. Gary himself had recently used the software SuperMemo, which utilizes an uncommonly practiced technique called “spaced repetition” to learn Spanish in an absurdly short amount of time. Kevin is famed for chronicling the technology age from its inception, including in his 2011 book, What Technology Wants, called “a sharp-eyed study of our abiding need for cars, computers and gadgets” by The New York Times.

The self-tracker is nothing new: farmers noting field conditions and resulting crops or the housewife who monitors her weight against food intake are examples of experiments many of us run in order to lose, gain, or optimize. The trend Kevin and Gary recognized was this experimental behavior taking place in the digital world. They believed that new crops of devices woud become a central to self-tracking. Initially, Kevin and Gary thought the real editorial gems were devices, and planned to blog about the self-tracking tools.

Feeling that they might be missing something, they decided to host a discovery meeting at Kevin’s house in Pacifica, where they invited self-trackers to talk. There was no agenda – it was a “let’s see what happens” affair. And when one guest trickled in late, he was teasingly told to go first, with no other instructions. Unphased, the man pulled out his laptop and opened a spreadsheet that detailed how he had spent every 15 minute chunk in the past year. The story goes that, immediately, the cofounders knew that this – the human side of tracking – was where the real story was.

Since that night, Quantified Self has been a venue for self-trackers to tell their stories, turning the stars into the people and not the tools. Guiding questions for self-trackers are What did you do? How did you do it? and What did you learn?

Quantified Self meetings, literally known as Show&Tells, happen in over 60 cities around the globe and attract about 12,000 people in sum. Enthusiasts include people from every spectrum of society: entrepreneurs, patients, Olympic athletes, health nuts, venture capitalists, and people who simply say they “want to be more awesome.”

The tools

We know that data collection and analysis is no longer an occupation solely of academics, corporate types, governments, and the like, but is fair game for anyone who has access to data. Personal computers, smartphones, and now a bevy of bluetooth enabled devices are changing the players in the big data game, allowing individuals to collect hundreds of data points per second and glimpse their results in real-time.

Data are being collecting in a wide range of devices, from fitness tools like Body Media’s BodyFit, to financial monitors like Intuit’s mint.com. Companies large and small (Omron and Fitbit, for example) have jumped in, creating devices targeted to the individual.

A snapshot of devices

Brain: Emotiv – an EEG headset initially designed for gamers

Stress: emWave – a heart rate variability monitor that trains your breathing

Sleep: Zeo – an EEG headband worn at night that monitors sleep and wake times and sleep stage

Steps: Fitbit One and Zip, Misfit Wearables Shine, Zamzee (for children)

Athletics: Zephyr BioHarness, BodyMedia, Basis health watch

The users

Users of self-tracking devices are as diverse as the devices themselves. What they have in common is that they adopt technology with the aim of gaining personal insights. Typically, the self-tracker cares about just one thing – himself.

Unfortunately, making sense of nascent tools – let alone the influx of piles of data – is not simple. For the person who wants to see through the data, experiments are necessary, and few among us are properly trained in experimental design. Lack of analytical skills can get in the way of finding meaning, making what began as a hopeful endeavor turn into a difficult, and often lonely, experience.

The Quantified Self has been a popular draw because it has the dual use of being a marketplace for human frustration and learning. Asking any Quantified Self attendee why he or she comes to Show&Tells draws the answer “I come for the people.” The presentations, side conversations, and unavoidable human connections often inspire, motivate, give us that “aha!” moment, or plant seeds that we take back to our everyday lives.

I like to say that we’re all a little weird, but we don’t mind it so much when we know we’re not the only ones. We’re programmed to seek families, tribes, communities. This aspect of human nature underlies the success of group weight loss programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig beyond traditional diets, Alcoholics Anonymous, and so forth.

Big Data: What’s in it for me?

While one person examines their life in order to be happier, larger entities (Aetna, the FBI, Google) need to standardize and generalize massive amounts of data across populations in order to make it useful for them. The problem is in motivating the individual to share personal data on behalf of the benefit of a population.

For those who would benefit from big data, it is essential to dive deep before developing a working incentive system for potential data donors. To understand a real person’s motivation to track, and especially to share, we must ask the self-tracker a few simple, but fundamental, questions:

  1. Why do you track?
  2. What, if anything, did you learn?
  3. What now?

Tracking provides a way to understand behaviors and cause and effect over time. Something the human mind is quite poor at doing. Yet, different people have different reasons to pick up a device.

To generalize, self-trackers typically come from one of three camps:

  1. The perennially curious
  2. Those with a disease to monitor or improve
  3. Those who want to be bigger, faster, stronger

The motivations behind each group are different but, largely, self-explanatory.

The Curious are always on the lookout for the next fun – not necessarily important – thing. They’re prone to trying new tools and leaving them on the shelf for the next, new gadget.

Those struggling with a disease are sometimes self-motivated as well as compelled by friends, family, and physicians. There is an obvious pain point that might be remedied simply by becoming more aware of risky behaviors with tracking.

The “more awesome” camp have long been self-tracking, having used gadgets such as heart rate monitors, GPS speed trackers (e.g., Garmin watches), or various nutrition regimens to lose/gain water or muscle. This group insists on quality and accuracy.

As we enter the era of the Quantified Self, it is important to keep good old-fashioned humanity in mind. However, as businesses seek to play in the market, and regulators continue to regulate, the lines between self and device can be blurred.

When humans and devices collide

Philosophical question: If a company implants a pacemaker in your chest, does the pacemaker belong to you?

In Child Development studies, a classic test of understanding (the false-belief task) involves putting a child in a room, who then watches as one man comes into the room and places an object (such as a pair of scissors) in a hiding place. A second man enters the room and puts the scissors in his pocket. When the first person returns, the child is asked by a researcher, “Where will the first person look for the scissors?”

A child’s answer varies depending on age. In early years, nearly all children answer that the first man will look for the scissors in the second man’s pocket. By ages 4-7, children typically understand that the second man doesn’t know the scissors have moved. This fundamental understanding allows us to make rational decisions.

In the pacemaker question, ownership over the device and its data cannot be answered using human reasoning. If the pacemaker is in my body, does that make it mine? Or, does it belong to whomever made it? Did I make the dataset on my heart’s activity?

Hugo Campos is a San Francisco based designer whose self-tracking is at the heart of this debate. Hugo is known in the Quantified Self community as an aesthetic, noted for his beautiful photo food diary, for which he is more cautious about the visual appeal of the food than its nutritional content.

Hugo also has a cardiac defibrillator implanted in his body. Without it shocking his heart a few times a week, Hugo could go into cardiac arrest.

It is clearly in the man’s best interest to have a pacemaker, but Hugo is the kind of guy who doesn’t stop at good enough. He wanted to design his life, including diet, to minimize his cardiac events. So, he exercised more. He changed his diet. He even went vegan for a month. [http://quantifiedself.com/2012/04/hugo-campos-on-going-vegan-in-december/] And all he needed to do in order to see whether his life changes had effected his heart was to see the data from his defibrillator. The only problem was that he wasn’t allowed to see it. [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203937004578078820874744076.html]

Moving forward, ponder this unsolved mystery of the digital age: if you produce data with the aid of technology, who owns it?

PDF of article: Gentry (1)

The kindness of strangers

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

manual labor can suck

manual labor, during which strangers unexpectedly help in small yet bigs ways, can be awesome

Today was an awesome day. I went to look at an armoire for the lab that was listed for free. I’d only short and practical emails with the owner before going over on a Saturday morning

I was sleepy and it was sprinkling. Yeek

After a false start – I actually forgot tools (left them by the front door)! – the owner offered a screwdriver and a drill. After a second false start trying to dismantle a non ikea piece of furniture, she decided she had time to help move the furniture, fully assembled, with her truck, to four cities away

She was also trying to clean out her garage, gifting the lab with a sewing machine and table and meee with the below: a gold encrusted wine and goblet set from Venice, a mid century coffee set and several silver platters. I feel like the little princess after the monkey and that turbaned guy working for her injured dad decorated her prisony attic. In other words, sometimes life is tough but incredible moments and people come along that make you feel so grateful

12 November, 2014 20:47

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014

Odin would please like to must eat now the food

Before that, this David Rose talk

10 November, 2014 21:07

Monday, November 10th, 2014

The Fray! A martini. And making dinner plans for Paris.

9 November, 2014 20:41

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

With Arion at Techonomy & The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay

27 October, 2014 19:45

Monday, October 27th, 2014

Having my car towed from town and country

On the plus side, I got my hair did

29 September, 2014 19:38

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Special dinner at La Bodeguita Del Medio. Love these coconut shell decorations. Thinking of all the things I’d use coconut shells for now and leaning toward coconut shell terrarium

21 September, 2014 20:43

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

An hour late, after a long day of working. Back from Peets via bike. A moment of loving. And potato soup, fresh from the microwave

13 September, 2014 19:59

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

Puppy cuddles post pet food express wash and Kirkburger for Arion and salad from trader joes for me

12 September, 2014 21:41

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Yesterday was Bioprinter meet up filmed by Korean public television guided by Jose C.

Today printing and taking photos of members for our front area. Hi to Tristan and Jon!

8 September, 2014 19:41

Monday, September 8th, 2014

The Ender Games (and Titos back after hiking 218 miles!)

7 September, 2014 19:40

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

Dinner at Indochine with Sol and Arion. Lemongrass chicken, panang fish, and red duck curry.

After Monterey Bay Aquarium with Ceasar, jellyfish, sardines and a surprise visit from Tito and Jeff

I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn

Saturday, September 6th, 2014
 LinkedIn is a fucking maniac, sending connect emails to literally every email address in my Gmail account (due to a single, accidental click by me)
LinkedIn

Eri Gentry would like to stay in touch on LinkedIn.

f3gzsy-hzrjlpdc-1h.gif

30 August, 2014 19:46

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Tommy’s Joynt

Beef brisket sandwich

Proud to be sitting at the family table

After getting a Brazilian keratin treatment at Salon DNA by Matthew G

And putting up these rad shelves at BioCurious

27 August, 2014 19:39

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Wrapping up after dinner with Charles, Michelle and Max!

26 August, 2014 19:37

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Alternative Proteins Alternative Futures IFTF event at NOST

25 August, 2014 20:41

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Odin brought home a praying mantis! And moving cars before pavement.

22 August, 2014 19:38

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

Ender got a bath!

21 August, 2014 19:49

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Bioprinter!

19 August, 2014 20:10

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Put up shelves and shipping my Asus

18 August, 2014 19:38

Monday, August 18th, 2014

Playing laser tag with Ender after a great volunteer meeting and 501c3 status win at biocurious

16 August, 2014 19:38

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

Asking Arion these questions

And eating this taco salad from Sanchos

15 August, 2014 19:37

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Arion tries no sugar added caramel turtle truffle ice cream

12 August, 2014 19:52

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Jabba the Cat

11 August, 2014 19:46

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Redid the whole room!! Heavy stuff

9 August, 2014 19:38

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

At last. Preparing to paint the Odin Ender pair Vena got us for our birthdays. As long as Ender doesn’t knock over the table. [Earlier, picking tomatoes last minute]

5 August, 2014 19:42

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

Watching nasa at biocurious vids from my _just_ delivered super massage chair

1 August, 2014 19:39

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Glowing Plant