Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life

Speaker

Jane McGonigal is an American game designer and author who advocates the use of mobile and digital technology to channel positive attitudes and collaboration in a real world context.

Summary

Jane is a game developer and commonly hears it said that games are a waste of your life, and you’ll regret playing them when you die. She reviewed studies on the regrets of dying people heard by hospice workers and they tended to be the following.

  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
  • I wish I’d spent more time with friends
  • I wish I’d let myself be happier
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self
  • I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me

Games can help with all of these, by playing with others you can be with friends, and virtual avatars allow people to imagine themselves as a more idealized ‘true’ version of themselves. Also, none of the comments were that people wish they’d played fewer games.

Jane spent some time with brain damage after being knocked unconscious. This gave her suicidal thoughts – since she couldn’t do anything and convinced herself there was very little reason to live. She developed a mental Role Playing Game to stave off suicidal thoughts – recruiting her family as allies to battle the bad guys (triggers to stress that caused her pain), and complete simple quests that let her be productive in small ways- cuddling her dog or walking around. By focussing on her alter ego and completing the basic powerups she quickly felt better mentally. She released the rules for the game online as “Super Better”, and many terminal patients responded saying it made them a lot happier and focussed.

People who survive traumatic or near-death experiences often go through post traumatic growth: they clarify their goals, become happier and more productive. They quickly develop traits counter to the regrets of the dying – they live a life without regret. Jane was looking at these benefits, and how people can gain them without going through trauma in the first place. They are related to 4 types of resilience, which can be trained by 4 quests from Super Better.

  • Physical resilience: eg walk 3 steps or put your arms up: physical activity lets the body heal better and withstand more stress.
  • Mental resilience: by snapping fingers 50 times or counting backwards from 100. Mental activity gives you more willpower.
  • Emotional resilience: look through a window or google image search on your favourite baby animals. You can dramatically improve your health by feeling 3 positive emotions for every negative one.
  • Social Resilience: shake someone’s hand or send a message to a friend. This gives you more strength from others.

People who regularly boost these resiliences gain 10 more years of life, and should build the mindset to live that life without regrets. 10 years may finally give you the chance to play some games too!

My Thoughts

Jane promises a lot from her game. The activities at the end seem to be aimed at sick people – giving them a quest to achieve something. I can see this working – by focusing on small goals and victories that will improve their health it will help mentally. I don’t know if a healthy person will get a strong resilience benefit from the same activities, or whether those same traits can be developed by more advanced activities.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to see that resilience can improve your perspective and length of life.

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Dan Pallotta: The way we think about charity is dead wrong

Speaker

Daniel Pallotta is an American entrepreneur, author, and humanitarian activist

Summary

People question the role of charities compared to business. Business will definitely lift the standards in the developing world, but will always leave gaps – people that it can’t support. Some mentally disabled people just want compassion or love, and that can’t be monetised by a business. However, there are perceptions working against the non-profit sector that make it hard to ‘compete’ against businesses

  • Compensation: People react viscerally against charity workers being well paid. However some are extremely well qualified: a CEO of a hunger charity is paid ~$86k/yr and has similar qualifications to a Stanford MBA graduate with an average $400k/yr. Someone on $400k /yr can donate $100k/yr, reduce his tax bill by $50k, be seen as a philanthropist and still be $260k better off than the high-paid ‘parasite’ running the charity.
  • Advertising: Similarly, people do not like the idea of their money being spent on advertising. However, the percentage of people’s wage being given to charity has stayed at 2% for 40 yrs – the only way to gain ‘market share’ in the charity sector is to actually do marketing against the ‘for profit’ sector.
  • Risk: If a charity invests in a fundraising drive and it flops, it ruins their reputation. But if people cannot accept failure, there will be no innovation or improvement.
  • Time: Companies can take years to develop market share before they gain revenue. However donators will not accept a 6yr wait before any funds reached the needy.
  • Profit: For-profit companies can use the promise of future profits to attract capital investment. Charities are locked out of this capital stream.

These disadvantages add up – since 1970 only 144 charities have passed $50million revenue, compared to 46,136 for-profits.

People hold the above perceptions, and it is typified in asking “How much of a donation goes to overheads compared to ‘the cause’?” This question has some problems in it:

  • It implies ‘the cause’ is not helped by overheads. This is not the case, especially if the overheads are spent on ‘growth’.
  • It prevents charities from growing or investing in fundraising. However if fundraising actually raises funds, then it should be encouraged, giving them more money to push towards the cause.

As examples of successful fundraising, Dan describes how $50,000 investment in an AIDs Ride resulted in $108,000,000 extra revenue for research, or $350k investment in breast cancer fundraising multiplied to $194,000,000. However, one year he netted $71 million for breast cancer research and was put immediately out of business. The media and his sponsors turned on him because 40% of his revenue was spent on overheads – in growth, customer service and recruitment.

The focus should not be on overheads, but on the scale of the operation. A company with 40% overheads netting $71,000,000 should be seen as superior to one with 5% overheads netting $71. We need to rethink how charities should work, and focus on whether they are achieving their goals rather than their investment to get there.

My Thoughts

Dan speaks very passionately and puts forward a new perspective, however I can’t help but disagree with him. His focus is entirely from an individual charity’s point of view – where of course it is a no-brainer to invest more in recruitment and marketing. However some of these efforts will not be ‘poaching’ resources from the for-profit sector, but from other charities. This gets worse as charities get bigger, and will generate an arms race between them. The money is coming from outside the charity: donators do not expect that their money is taken and 40% of it used to beg someone else to donate, or convince others to pick this charity over another. This is not an efficient use of money – pure growth implies an ego that ignores what the donators expected.

When someone buys a can of coke, they accept that (made up numbers) 20% goes to the cost of ingredients, 10% to the employees, 10% in packaging / transport, 30% to retailers, 20% in advertising and 10% profits. Dan’s argument is that the same sorts of ratios should be accepted in charities: that if a fraction of the money we give him goes to what he said it would, we should accept it because the rest was used to generate money at similarly poor efficiency from someone else.

I’m also slightly disturbed by the focus of the speech: which was from the point of view of the charity while ignoring results of the fundraising or opinions of the people donating. It is nice that he raised $71million, but what did that money achieve?

I appreciate what he is saying about scale of an organisation, and compensation or risk. But like it or not, people do want a sense of frugality rather than massive structures designed to just support the business.

Anyway, it was a good talk to make you think about your own viewpoints. My reaction above is not because I disagreed with every point in his speech, and not because I didn’t appreciate it.

Naomi Klein: Addicted to risk

Speaker

Naomi Klein is a Canadian author and social activist known for her political analyses and criticism of corporate globalization and of corporate capitalism

Summary

BP Oil spill in gulf of Mexico showed that despite our talk we can’t control nature – despite our best efforts we could not stop the oil from spilling once it started. At the same time, BP’s CEO convinced themselves that the Gulf of Mexico was big enough to absorb the pollution without problem. There was a clear lack of planning to prevent the issue – we have become far too willing to gamble without a plan B or exit strategy. The same culture exists in declaring war or the financial market – where people optimistically pile in and then seem unprepared when things go sour. This becomes expensive for the government, which inevitably bails them out.

At the moment, climate change is the biggest risk game we are playing. There is a lot of doubt about the models which show warming of 2-4 degrees: people asking “what if we act and they are wrong”. Naomi suggests we should instead be asking “what if the models are right”. Why should we wait for perfect certainty in the modelling – we should act if there is a compelling case that we are on track for massive damage to the environment and human health. Instead the arguments have been hijacked by economists who ask bizarre questions to protect economic growth: How late can we act to minimise damage and what is the most temperature change we can accept? In doing so we are accepting a massive risk, when in truth the modelling isn’t accurate enough to perfectly answer these questions.

Risk is accepted in today’s society – we often acknowledge that taking larger risks gives more money if it pays off. Tony Hayward: BP’s former CEO had a plaque on his desk “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail”. Such an attitude is good for attempting a personal achievement like a triathlon, but we should ask our business leaders to consider the possibility of failure and respond to it.

Humanity’s story is about it’s dominance over nature with technology, that we can “slap mother nature in the face”. At the same time, we have a view that the environment is limitless and it can take the damage easily. We have a master narrative that we can do no harm, and if we do then technology will save us. In response to climate change, there are often new technologies that are spruiked as the solution – for example geoengineering which sprays chemicals into the atmosphere to deflect more solar radiation and decrease temperature. These technologies are untested, but are leapt upon as a low effort solution.

We need a new narrative, with heroes being the people willing to take on risky ideas.

My Thoughts

I’ve read some good books on the psychology of operators on shift during the Gulf of Mexico drilling disaster (“Disastrous Decisions” by Andrew Hopkins). What was fascinating is noone thought of themselves as taking a risk. They made mistakes, but the overriding feature was a confirmation bias: that they twisted the alarms and feedback to conform to what they already believed should be happening. For example they suspected the cement job didn’t work, but only tested one failure mode – and when that was ok they carried on without further testing. Everything after that assumed the cement job was fine. They also put an overreliance on a blowout preventer (which pinches the pipe to stop flow) to fix their mistakes, despite knowing this had a high failure rate.

To me it is interesting hearing Naomi’s comments in this context: that people will carry on assuming everything is normal, and ignoring the alarms that say it is not. Once they have internalised what they are doing, it is no longer risky and people become complacent.

Unfortunately, her talk is more a series of examples rather than a solution. Some of these examples are counterproductive, I’ve not summarised a nonsensical rant in the middle against men.

So what is the solution? Is it enough to simply expose people to the risks they take? It is hard enough to convince people that driving a car is dangerous, not to mention the economic system itself.

Seth Godin: How to get your ideas to spread

Speaker

Seth Godin is an entrepreneur and blogger who thinks about the marketing of ideas in the digital age

Summary

For the first few years, the idea of sliced bread was a complete flop – noone wanted it, and noone knew it was available. The original focus was on patents and factories – the technical side of the idea, rather than the commercial. Nowadays it doesn’t matter how good your idea (or product) is, it is only the most widely spread that “win”.

In recent history, the TV-Industrial complex was how companies spread their products. Advertising on TV would give you sales which you could reinvest in TV. Nowadays it just doesn’t work – people have too many choices and too little time to care about advertising – they ignore most of it. The best way to be noticed is to be remarkable, or different. The largest and smallest cars are the best sellers now – because they are different. A chair can sell better as a status symbol, rather than a utilitarian chair.

The TV-industrial complex sold to the masses – these are the people who stopped caring and just ignore it now. Nowadays a better strategy is to appeal to the niche – early adopters or ‘geeks’. These people like listening, and are keen to try something new and to tell their friends about it. They have “Otaku” – an obsession to try something, because that is what they do. It is hard now to market a variety of products that don’t have an Otaku group – that’s why you’ll see much more variety in hot sauces than mustards. Sell to people who are listening and they might tell their friends.

Apple will stream their key note and 50,000 people will watch a 2hr commercial for their products, because these people care desperately enough to listen. They will tell their friends, and this keynote is what keeps Apple so successful. Pearl Jam now sells only on its website (to their biggest fans) and makes a profit every time. Dutch Boy Paint is 35% more expensive but desired for its innovative paint can design, Hard Candy Nail Polish doesn’t appeal to everyone but those who love it talk about it all the time. People want different products, and they want them targetted at them.

Some closing points

  • Design is free when you get to scale, and people who are coming up with something remarkable can make the design work for them
  • The riskiest thing is to safely market at the mainstream. Being Safe now is about marketing at niches. Simply being very good is unremarkable and rarely noticed – you have to also be different.
  • The best way to market a new product is work out who cares and target them directly.

My Thoughts

Seth is fascinating. His talk comes down to really simple points – come up with something remarkable and market it at a group who care. Mass media doesn’t work any more. Reading in other places (though he discusses it briefly in the talk), he has made the distinction between types of marketing:

  • unsolicited ‘Interruption marketing’- TV ads, spam emails. These interrupt what you are doing and demand your attention
  • Permission Marketing – this is opt in – people have agreed to receive more information. They are more receptive, it is more personal, and the advertising is cheaper.

All this makes me wonder how I can become a purple cow 🙂

 

Daphne Bavelier: Your brain on video games

Speaker

Daphne Bavelier studies how the brain adapts to changes in experience, either by nature or by training

Summary

Fears over children playing video games is leveraged by the media for many headlines. While most children play games, most gamers are adults. Daphne is a brain scientist, so has studied the impact of video games on the brain. She notes that excessive gaming is hazardous to the health, but in reasonable levels is generally beneficial. With the amount of time people can play games, she is looking at ways to leverage this power to solve health problems.

Her main focus for these studies were violent first person shooter action games – such as Call of Duty, which in previous tests showed much greater benefits than other games. Her findings were

  1. Gamers have better vision. This is counter to the old story that too much screen time will harm your eyes – gamers could make out small details better and could distinguish between shades of grey (useful for driving in foggy conditions). Games are now being developed to improve patients with poor vision.
  2. Gamers are better at focussing their attention. Again this is counter to the myths, but gamers can track more objects at a time and focus on tests for longer.
  3. Gamers are better multi-taskers: they can switch from one task to another with minimal cost. They performed better in the multitasking tests than ‘multimedia taskers’ – students who report chatting while listening to music and studying.

Most of these findings fly in the face of common wisdom, and show that scientific testing is necessary to test common knowledge.

Daphne used this to try and improve the brains of non-gamers. She assigned them to play first person shooters for 10hrs over 2wks and tested their ability to mentally rotate shapes before and after. They showed a significant improvement after gaming, and maintained that improvement 5 months after the study.

She is now working with game publishers to better integrate the elements of games that improve our brains while still keeping the games fun. This is not an easy or quick thing to do – since people are wary of past efforts at educational software.

My Thoughts

I must admit I am skeptical of some of the studies shown. During the shape rotation one for example she didn’t mention a control group – is it possible the brain is improving as it gets exposed to the same test multiple times? I had a look through her publications (http://cms.unige.ch/fapse/people/bavelier/publications/publication-video-games/) and couldn’t pick out the exact study she was referring to. I hope I am wrong though – it is an interesting result if it is correct.

I am curious about how her work with the gaming companies will end up. If shooting games are already showing these benefits, is she aiming to tweak the games to focus more on the most beneficial points? Or is she trying to build more of these elements into non-shooter games?

Regardless, love the talk. Gaming often gets a bad rap from the media and other old wives tales (of the sort she debunked). It is good to know this is just another round of fear that strikes every generation as the world changes.

 

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius

Speaker

Elizabeth Gilbert is an American author, essayist, short story writer, biographer, novelist and memoirist. She is best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love.

Summary

People associate creative works with mental health issues and a fear that their work won’t be good enough, or not as good as their past work. Indeed a lot of writers in the 20th century have committed suicide or suffered depression. After the massive success of her book “Eat, Pray, Love” Elizabeth believes that her greatest work is now behind her, which is a scary thought. She looked at how to construct barriers between her work and this anxiety about how it will be received.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that an artist had a spirit that helped their work – called a daemon or a ‘genius’. This idea insulated the artist from criticism and narcissism – the work was not theirs and they could not take all the credit or blame. In the Renaissance the language shifted slightly so that instead of possessing a genius the artist was a genius – this makes the artist responsible to their critics. It distorts egos, creates unmanageable expectations, and has been killing artists for 500 years.

Why can’t we go back to the classical period? Does their understanding of creativity make any less sense than our own? Elizabeth describes an explanation of a poem coming to a poet like an approaching train, and having to sprint to a pencil to write it down before it passed never to be seen again. This look at creativity (that ideas just come to you) is common, and it does make it sound as if the artist isn’t fully in control of their works.

A musician (Tom Waits) took a different approach when he was driving down the road and a song just came to him. He couldn’t write it down and didn’t have a tape recorder to sing to, so instead of panicking that he would lose it, he started talking to his daemon. “Can you not see I’m driving”… “If you really want to exist come back at a more opportune moment”… “Otherwise go bother someone else today. Go Bother Leonard Cohen”. Elizabeth tried a similar approach while feeling anxious – telling her daemon she’s doing everything she can, and if the daemon wants a better book he should turn up to work to do his bit.

Elizabeth uses this concept of an external daemon to keep working through the anxiety, or the fear that her next book won’t be as successful as her last. She has to keep showing up to work, and if the daemon on loan to her doesn’t, than so be it.

My Thoughts

I like her idea to dissociate an artist from their work – someone frustrated and tormented constantly is unlikely to keep producing creatively. She speaks convincingly on the subject, and her anecdotes are helpful.

Jeremy Howard: The wonderful and terrifying implications of computers that can learn

Speaker

Jeremy Howard is the CEO of Enlitic, an advanced machine learning company in San Francisco.

Summary

Traditional programming of a computer means telling it in absolute detail how to achieve a task. This is difficult unless the programmer is an expert in the task he is teaching, and prevents the computer being better than the programmer. Machine learning allows a computer to learn on it’s own – as Arthur Samuel programmed a computer to beat himself at checkers. Nowadays machine learning has been successfully commercialised. Google is based on machine learning, LinkedIn and Facebook have learnt how to recommend friends, Amazon can recommend products using machine learning.

Deep learning is an algorithm inspired by how the human brain works, so assuming enough computation time and learning time, there are no limits. For example, deep learning can:

  • Drive cars
  • understand English, translate to Chinese, and read back in Chinese.
  • Image recognition through Deep Learning has an error rate down to 6% – better than human levels.
  • look at an image and identify similar images
  • write a caption for an image
  • understand sentence structure and language.

These are very human-centric that humans are now able to do.

Computers are also exceeding and enhancing human performance. In cancer diagnosis, a computer analysed tumours and discovered some features unknown to human doctors that can help predict survival rate and treatment. Computer predictions of survival were more accurate than humans and the discoveries improved the science of cancer treatment. This system can be developed with no background in medicine, and replaces the data analysis and diagnostics of the medical process. This leaves doctors more time to gather input data and apply treatments. The number of doctors in the developing world is 10 – 20 times less than what is needed, and will take many generations to train enough. If computers can learn to fill these roles, lives will be saved.

On the flipside, computers will wipe out a service industry whose role is to read documents, drive cars, talk. This is >80% of the jobs in the developed world. In the past (eg industrial revolution) a large number of jobs were obsolete at the same time as new jobs came into being, but computer learning is much more disruptive than this since it takes very few people to develop and roll out the algorithms. Once fully rolled out, computers will far surpass humans at an exponential rate – when computers can redesign themselves to be better and better.

To fix the high unemployment, better education and incentives to work will not help if there are no jobs to do. We need to look at this problem differently – by decoupling labour from earnings or moving to a craft based economy. Jeremy asks us all to think about how to adjust to this new reality.

My Thoughts

Google emailed me a Youtube update suggesting I watch this video. As someone who watches a lot of TED talks and an interest in Artificial Intelligence, Google knew I would watch it.

Jeremy makes a lot of good points. Personally I think he used too many examples and it was a little disorienting to follow. Nonetheless, he pulls out the important points. To me his final point is the most important: this massive change in our economy is coming and very few people seem prepared for it. How will we deal with a world with 80% unemployment, where all those jobs are no longer necessary for us to maintain the same standard of living?