Real life is the game that – literally – everyone is playing.
But it can be tough. This is your guide.
You might not realise, but real life is a game of strategy. There are some fun mini-games – like dancing, driving, running, and sex – but the key to winning is simply managing your resources.
Most importantly, successful players put their time into the right things. Later in the game money comes into play, but your top priority should always be mastering where your time goes.
Life begins when you’re assigned a random character and circumstances:
The first 15 years or so of life are just tutorial missions, which suck. There’s no way to skip these.
Young adult stage
As a young player, you’ll have lots of time and energy, but almost no experience. You’ll find most things – like the best jobs, possessions and partners – are locked until you get some.
This is the time to level up your skills quickly. You will never have so much time and energy again.
Now that you’re playing properly, your top priority is to assign your time as well as possible. Every single thing you do affects your state and your skills:
This may sound simple, but the problem is you won’t always know what tasks to choose, and your body won’t always obey your commands. Let’s break it down.
How to obey your own commands
Many players find that when they choose to do something – say “go to the gym” – their body ignores them completely.
This is not a bug. Everybody has a state, which you can’t see directly, but looks something like this:
If your state gets too low in one area, your body will disobey your own instructions until your needs are met. Try studying when you’re exhausted and hungry, and watch your concentration switch to Twitter.
Your willpower level is especially important. Willpower fades throughout the day, and is replenished slightly by eating, and completely by a good night’s sleep. When your willpower is low, you are only able to do things you really want to.
Every decision you have to make costs willpower, and decisions where you have to suppress an appealing option for a less appealing one (e.g. exercise instead of watch TV) require a lot of willpower.
There are various tricks to keep your behaviour in line:
Keep your state high. If you’re hungry, exhausted, or utterly deprived of fun, your willpower will collapse. Ensure you take consistently good care of yourself.
Don’t demand too much willpower from one day. Spread your most demanding tasks over multiple days, and mix them in with less demanding ones.
Attempt the most important tasks first. This makes other tasks more difficult, but makes your top task more likely.
Reduce the need to use willpower by reducing choices. If you’re trying to work on a computer that can access Facebook, you’ll need more willpower because you’re constantly choosing the hard task over the easy one. Eliminate such distractions.
A key part of playing the game is balancing your competing priorities with the state of your body. Just don’t leave yourself on autopilot, or you’ll never get anything done.
Choosing the right tasks
Choosing the right tasks at the right time is most of the game. Some tasks mostly affect your state, e.g.
Others mostly affect your skills:
You need to put time into things that ensure a healthy state – like food and sleep – to keep your willpower high. And then you need to develop your skills with what you have left.
Some skills are more valuable than others. Good ones can open up whole paths like a tech tree:
Others are dead ends:
Combinations of skills are the most effective. It’s very hard to max out one skill to be the best – in fact, that’s often impossible. But it’s much easier to get pretty decent at lots of related skills that amount to something bigger, e.g.
See how psychology just helped you become both rich and attractive? You should study that.
Where you live
Your environment has a constant impact on your stats, skills, and your chances of levelling up.
It’s possible to play the game well almost anywhere, but it’s a lot easier in certain places. If you’re female and in the wrong country, for example, you can’t unlock many achievements.
The odds of anyone being born in their optimal location are virtually zero, so research your options, and consider moving early. Location is a multiplier to all of your skills and states.
Finding a partner
Attraction is a complex mini-game in itself, but mostly a byproduct of how you’re already playing. If you have excellent state and high skills, you’re far more attractive already. A tired, irritable, unskilled player is not appealing, and probably shouldn’t be looking for a relationship.
Early in the game it can be common to reject and be rejected by other players. This is normal, but unfortunately it can drain your state, as most players don’t handle rejection or rejecting well. You’ll need to expend willpower to keep going, and willpower is replenished by sleep, so give it time.
80% of finding someone comes down to being your most attractive self, which – like so much in life – just means putting your time in the right places. If you’re exercising, socialising, well nourished and growing in your career, you will radiate attraction automatically. The remaining 20% is simply putting yourself in places where you can meet the right people.
Money money money
Later in the game you’ll have to manage a new resource called ‘money’. Most players will find money increases throughout the early game, but that this actually introduces more problems, not less.
The most important rule of money is never to borrow it, except for things that earn you more back. For example, education or a mortgage can be worthwhile (but are not necessarily so, depending on the education or the mortgage). Borrowing to buy new shoes is not.
Depending on your financial ambitions, here are a few strategies to bear in mind:
Not fussed about money. The low-stress strategy: simply live within your means and save a little for a rainy day. Be sure to make the best of all the time you save though, or you’ll regret it.
Well off. Choose a career and environment carefully, and be prepared to move often to move up. You’ll need to invest heavily in matching skills, which will cost you time, and be careful not to abuse your state or you’ll burn out.
Mega rich. Start your own business. It’s almost impossible to get rich working for someone else. Riches do not come from work alone, they come from owning things – assets – that pay back more than they cost, and your own company is a powerful asset you can create from scratch. Compound your winnings into more assets, and eventually they can remove your need to work at all.
Your options change as the game progresses. Marriage and children will reduce your time and energy, and introduce more random elements into the game (“Emergency diaper change!”). This makes it harder to develop yourself as quickly.
Older characters usually have more skills, resources and experience, unlocking quests that were previously impossible, like “owning a house”, or “writing a (good) novel”.
All players die after about 29,000 days, or 80 years. If your stats and skills are good, you might last a little longer. There is no cheat code to extend this.
At the start of the game, you had no control over who you were or your environment. By the end of the game that becomes true again. Your past decisions drastically shape where you end up, and if you’re happy, healthy, fulfilled – or not – in your final days there’s far less you can do about it.
That’s why your strategy is important. Because by the time most of us have figured life out, we’ve used up too much of the best parts.
Today’s Apps Are Turning Us Into Sociopaths
By Evan Selinger
While I am far from a Luddite who fetishizes a life without tech, we need to consider the consequences of this latest batch of apps and tools that remind us to contact significant others, boost our willpower, provide us with moral guidance, and encourage us to be civil. Taken together, we’re observing the emergence of tech that doesn’t just augment our intellect and lives — but is now beginning to automate and outsource our humanity.
But let’s take a concrete example. Instead of doing the professorial pontification thing we tech philosophers are sometimes wont to do, I talked to the makers of BroApp, a “clever relationship wingman” (their words) that sends “automated daily text messages” to your significant other. It offers the promise of “maximizing” romantic connection through “seamless relationship outsourcing.”
Now, it’s perfectly possible that this app is a parody (the promo video includes bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto and feminist voice Germaine Greer among the demo contacts), and its creators “James” and “Tom” didn’t share their last names with me. But my 29-year-old interlocutors — one who apparently has a degree in Engineering and Mathematics, the other in Design and Applied Finance — had clearly thought deeply about why relationship management tools are socially desirable and will be increasingly integrated into our everyday lives.
Drawn here and shared with permission is their rationale, which I believe goes beyond just this one app. So even if it’s a parody (indeed, sadly “we can’t tell”), it captures a real automation-app trend and widely held convictions in the tech community we need to pay attention to.
First, some quick background on how BroApp works: It not only sends scheduled texts, but comes preloaded with 12 messages to help users get started. The developers also took steps to conceal the automation going on behind the scenes; in places designated “no bro zones,” the app is automatically disabled. (After all, the jig is up if your girlfriend received an automatic text from you while you’re at her place.) The app even has a rating system that lowers the risk of the same message being sent too frequently.
Despite the fact that the app currently advertises the core benefit of spending “more time with the bros”, it included other scenarios in the initially testing according to the developers: “A girl who used it to message her boyfriend.” Someone who “used it to message her Mum a few times a week.” But let’s put aside the many gender implications for a moment. There’s certainly much to discuss there, and by no means do I want to dismiss the fact that this type of thing exacerbates power differentials and perpetuates the problem of sexism in the tech industry.
Yet the app also suggests something else more subtly problematic that provoked me to focus more on how it functions than the obvious concerns around how it is depicted.
Technology that optimizes for efficiency is good for society
BroApp is good for society, its makers argue, because it can make people happy without adverse consequences. To persuade me of this point, James and Tom presented me with this rosy scenario:
“A guy starts using BroApp with his girlfriend, set to send a message around 12pm each weekday. Guy observes that girlfriend is now much happier when he arrives home from work. Guy is no longer stressed about finding time during a busy day to text. Girl is much happier because her boyfriend is more engaged with their relationship.”
Most interestingly, the BroApp makers depicted this functionality in economic terms — as increasing both agents’ happiness. As they observed, “Isn’t this a Pareto optimal (everybody happier, nobody unhappier) outcome?” But as other economists have observed, the Pareto efficiency doesn’t necessarily optimize for individual freedom.
And that’s not to mention the very algorithmic, linear way of thinking James and Tom share here that glosses over the non-linear, tricky negotiations and nuances of relationships. Narratives of frictionless bliss like the one espoused by BroApp persuade because they depict scenarios where interpersonal exchanges become efficient without degrading the quality of communication. But just as laconic expressions of gratitude undermine the pro-social dimensions of etiquette, using duplicitous technological contrivance to increase the frequency of exchanges between romantic partners chips away at the moral commitments that make these relationships special.
Tech progress is inevitable; it’s “what technology wants” The makers of BroApp believe it is one “small step” in the direction of transitioning to a world depicted in the movie Her, where the character falls in love with an intelligent OS. Even if autonomous OSes remain in the realm of science fiction, the digital assistants that end up attending to our desires will inevitably anticipate our needs and much more. Embracing this inevitability, the makers of BroApp argue that “The pace of technological change is past the point where it’s possible for us to reject it!”
When pushed to further elaborate, they cited the influence of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants and made several strong predictions. “Do we believe that widespread adoption of self-driving cars are inevitable? Yes. … Do we believe that greater than human-level AIs are inevitable? Yes.” And so on. James and Tom then further declared:
“If there is a niche to be filled: i.e. automated relationship helpers, then entrepreneurs will act to fill that niche. The combinatorial explosion of millions of entrepreneurs working with accessible technologies ensures this outcome. Regardless of moral ambiguity or societal push-back, if people find a technology useful, it will be developed and adopted.”
It’s funny that everyone mentions Her. Certainly, the movie promises a new vision for the future of UI design — one where artificial intelligence isn’t isolated tech but a given part of our lives. But to me the film demonstrated how relationships diminish when others represent our intimate feelings for us — feelings we might not have or be attuned to. Meanwhile, things that seem useful in the moment can be disastrous long-term, not least because of emergent behavior. Even the ethics of saving lives with autonomous cars are far murkier than we might think, as my friend Patrick Lin shares here in WIRED. That’s why Lin and I argue companies like Google should have a critically minded A.I. ethics board — the issues are too complex to ignore moral ambiguities.
We can’t (and shouldn’t) reject automation
The other presupposition the makers of BroApp — and arguably other tech-centric developers — make is that as artificial intelligence becomes more expert, we’ll find it harder to reject algorithmic judgment.
If a smart yet inexpensive piece of technology can take some of life’s burdensome weight off our shoulders, isn’t it irrational — an outdated sense of humans-are-better-than-machines pride — to avoid accepting assistance that leads to better sleeping, eating, working, exercising, and even loving?
Of course, there’s all kinds of stuff we’re bad at doing or don’t want to do, and digital assistants, apps, and algorithms can help. I too see our relying on some kinds of outsourcing technology as both likely and helpful. But I also believe extreme dependency is a problem to be aware of. The line separating a beneficial from a self-undermining type of assistance isn’t always clear, and tipping points do exist. We can’t afford to overlook them, much less pretend they aren’t there in the first place.
Tech change elicits discomfort only at first before it changes the norm
Finally, many of the people who are uncomfortable with the type of innovation that changes relationships will experience momentary unease, observe James and Tom. But only momentarily; over time, people’s anxiety or dismay will fade and a new normal will emerge. Proof of this point, the BroApp makers told me, is exhibited by familiar examples of temporary moral panic: kids didn’t forget how to communicate because of text messaging; accusations died down that friendships on Facebook aren’t real; and so on.
The implication here is that after a little time passes, the folks who hyperventilate over automating “sweet messages” will get over it.
It’s true that what we find upsetting and evencreepy can change over time. But there are also plenty of cases where we course-correct because of pushback (sometimes leading to a better end result). And when meaningful distinctions aren’t drawn between different types of cases, we too easily draw false equivalencies. By the logic the BroApp makers use, we should accept that privacy is dead and embrace living in public. But if the Snowden fallout has taught us anything, it’s that the public can be roused to demand accountability and change when it realizes the consequences of seemingly minor decisions in aggregate.
* * *
Ultimately, the reason technologies like BroApp are problematic is that they’re deceptive. They take situations where people make commitments to be honest and sincere, but treat those underlying moral values as irrelevant — or, worse, as obstacles to be overcome. If they weren’t, BroApp’s press document wouldn’t contain cautions like: “Understandably, a girl who discovers their guy using BroApp won’t be happy.”
In our correspondence, James and Tom focus on managing subjective perceptions as opposed to realities. The key, they say, is that a girlfriend will be happy because she’ll “perceive her boyfriend as more engaged”. But focusing on perception misses the point. When we commit to someone, we basically promise to do our best to be aware of their needs and desires — to be sensitive to signs of distress and respond accordingly, not give the appearance of this fidelity and sensitivity. Time-delayed notes do just the opposite: They allow the sender to focus on other things, while simulating a narrow range of attention that obscures the person’s real priorities.
It’s easy to think of technologies like BroApp as helpful assistants that just do our bidding and make our lives better. But the more we outsource, the more of ourselves we lose.
Now, what if people actually use these apps in a meaningful way — to customize and program in their own personal messages, so the app only offloaded the logistics? That could be useful. But the reality is that inertia is a powerful force in human affairs; people are unlikely to take that extra step. And, even if users do, there still remains an important difference between messages becoming items crossed off a to-do list and conveying them in a heartfelt manner during the actual moments it feels appropriate to express them.
James and Tom compared using BroApp to lying to kids about the existence of Santa Claus. But that actually validates my argument: The relationship parents have with young children is a relationship between unequal parties. I would hope that relationships between adult romantic partners are predicated on equality, and don’t revolve around infantilizing behavior.
Why are we still debating climate change?
By Carol Costello
There is no debate.
Climate change is real. And, yes, we are, in part, to blame.
There is a 97% consensus among scientific experts that humans are causing global warming. Ninety-seven percent!
Yet some very vocal Americans continue to debate what is surely fact.
The question is, why?
Trust certainly plays a part.
According to Gordon Gauchat, an associate professor of sociology from the University of Wisconsin, just 42% of adults in the U.S. have a great deal of confidence (PDF)in the scientific community.
It’s easy to understand why. Most Americans can’t even name a living scientist. I suspect the closest many Americans get to a living, breathing scientist is the fictional Dr. Sheldon Cooper from CBS’s sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” Sheldon is brilliant, condescending and narcissistic. Whose trust would he inspire?
But trust isn’t the only factor in why many Americans doubt climate change.
I asked Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. His group has been studying the “why” question for more than a decade.
“We’ve found there are six very (specific) categories that respond to this issue in different ways,” he said.
The first group, “The Alarmed,” is made up 16% of the public. They believe climate change is an urgent problem but have no clear idea of how to fix it.
The second group (27%) is “The Concerned.” They believe climate change is a problem but think it’s more about polar bears and tiny islands than a problem that directly affects them.
The third group, “The Cautious” (23%), are people on the fence. They haven’t made up their minds whether global warming is real or if it’s a man-made problem.
The fourth group, “The Disengaged” (5%), doesn’t know anything about climate change.
The fifth group, “The Doubtful” (12%), do not think climate change is man-made. They think it’s natural and poses no long-term risk.
Leiserowitz says it’s the sixth group, “The Dismissives,” that is the most problematic, even though it comprises just 15% of the public.
“They say it’s a hoax, scientists are making up data, it’s a U.N. conspiracy (or) Al Gore and his friends want to get rich.” Leiserowitz goes on to say, “It’s a really loud 15%. … (It’s a) pretty well-organized 15%.”
And thanks to the media and the political stage, that vocal minority is mighty.
Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told Glenn Beck on Fox News in 2011, “There is no such thing as global warming.” Santorum went on to tell Rush Limbaugh, “It’s just an excuse for more government control of your life, and I’ve never been for any scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative.”
And just last week, tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz told CNN’s Dana Bash, “Climate change, as they have defined it, can never be disproved, because whether it gets hotter or whether it gets colder, whatever happens, they’ll say, well, it’s changing, so it proves our theory.”
Meanwhile, the climate change “counter movement” has been helped along by an infusion of cash from, among others, some in the powerful fossil fuel industry.
A recent study by Drexel University found that conservative foundations and others have bankrolled climate denial to the tune of $558 million between 2003 and 2010.
“Money amplifies certain voices above others and, in effect, gives them a megaphone in the public square. Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat,” writes environmental scientist Robert J. Brulle, the study’sauthor.
The good news is, those uninformed minority voices are being quieted by nature and by those who have powerful voices.
Extreme weather is forcing people to at least think about how global warming affects them directly. And, perhaps more important, many religious leaders, including evangelicals, are now “green.” They concur with the scientific community and take it a step farther. They say we have a moral obligation to save the planet.
Even the enormously popular Pope Francis may soonspeak out on global warming. The Vatican press office says Francis is working on draft text on ecology. That text could turn into an encyclical, or a letter to bishops around the world, instructing that the “faithful must respect the environment.”
Are the robots about to rise? Google’s new director of engineering thinks so…
by Carole Cadwalladr
Ray Kurzweil popularised the Teminator-like moment he called the ‘singularity’, when artificial intelligence overtakes human thinking. But now the man who hopes to be immortal is involved in the very same quest – on behalf of the tech behemoth
It’s hard to know where to start with Ray Kurzweil. With the fact that he takes 150 pills a day and is intravenously injected on a weekly basis with a dizzying list of vitamins, dietary supplements, and substances that sound about as scientifically effective as face cream: coenzyme Q10, phosphatidycholine, glutathione?
With the fact that he believes that he has a good chance of living for ever? He just has to stay alive “long enough” to be around for when the great life-extending technologies kick in (he’s 66 and he believes that “some of the baby-boomers will make it through”). Or with the fact that he’s predicted that in 15 years’ time, computers are going to trump people. That they will be smarter than we are. Not just better at doing sums than us and knowing what the best route is to Basildon. They already do that. But that they will be able to understand what we say, learn from experience, crack jokes, tell stories, flirt. Ray Kurzweil believes that, by 2029, computers will be able to do all the things that humans do. Only better.
But then everyone’s allowed their theories. It’s just that Kurzweil’s theories have a habit of coming true. And, while he’s been a successful technologist and entrepreneur and invented devices that have changed our world – the first flatbed scanner, the first computer program that could recognise a typeface, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and dozens more – and has been an important and influential advocate of artificial intelligence and what it will mean, he has also always been a lone voice in, if not quite a wilderness, then in something other than the mainstream.
And now? Now, he works at Google. Ray Kurzweil who believes that we can live for ever and that computers will gain what looks like a lot like consciousness in a little over a decade is now Google’s director of engineering. The announcement of this, last year, was extraordinary enough. To people who work with tech or who are interested in tech and who are familiar with the idea that Kurzweil has popularised of “the singularity” – the moment in the future when men and machines will supposedly converge – and know him as either a brilliant maverick and visionary futurist, or a narcissistic crackpot obsessed with longevity, this was headline news in itself.
But it’s what came next that puts this into context. It’s since been revealed that Google has gone on an unprecedented shopping spree and is in the throes of assembling what looks like the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on Earth; a laboratory designed to feast upon a resource of a kind that the world has never seen before: truly massive data. Our data. From the minutiae of our lives.
Google has bought almost every machine-learning and robotics company it can find, or at least, rates. It made headlines two months ago, when it bought Boston Dynamics, the firm that produces spectacular, terrifyingly life-like military robots, for an “undisclosed” but undoubtedly massive sum. It spent $3.2bn (£1.9bn) on smart thermostat maker Nest Labs. And this month, it bought the secretive and cutting-edge British artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for £242m.
And those are just the big deals. It also bought Bot & Dolly, Meka Robotics, Holomni, Redwood Robotics and Schaft, and another AI startup, DNNresearch. It hired Geoff Hinton, a British computer scientist who’s probably the world’s leading expert on neural networks. And it has embarked upon what one DeepMind investor told the technology publication Re/code two weeks ago was “a Manhattan project of AI”. If artificial intelligence was really possible, and if anybody could do it, he said, “this will be the team”. The future, in ways we can’t even begin to imagine, will be Google’s.
There are no “ifs” in Ray Kurzweil’s vocabulary, however, when I meet him in his new home – a high-rise luxury apartment block in downtown San Francisco that’s become an emblem for the city in this, its latest incarnation, the Age of Google. Kurzweil does not do ifs, or doubt, and he most especially doesn’t do self-doubt. Though he’s bemused about the fact that “for the first time in my life I have a job” and has moved from the east coast where his wife, Sonya, still lives, to take it.
Ray Kurzweil photographed in San Francisco.
Bill Gates calls him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence”. He’s received 19 honorary doctorates, and he’s been widely recognised as a genius. But he’s the sort of genius, it turns out, who’s not very good at boiling a kettle. He offers me a cup of coffee and when I accept he heads into the kitchen to make it, filling a kettle with water, putting a teaspoon of instant coffee into a cup, and then moments later, pouring the unboiled water on top of it. He stirs the undissolving lumps and I wonder whether to say anything but instead let him add almond milk – not eating dairy is just one of his multiple dietary rules – and politely say thank you as he hands it to me. It is, by quite some way, the worst cup of coffee I have ever tasted.
But then, he has other things on his mind. The future, for starters. And what it will look like. He’s been making predictions about the future for years, ever since he realised that one of the key things about inventing successful new products was inventing them at the right moment, and “so, as an engineer, I collected a lot of data”. In 1990, he predicted that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998. In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov. He predicted the explosion of the world wide web at a time it was only being used by a few academics and he predicted dozens and dozens of other things that have largely come true, or that will soon, such as that by the year 2000, robotic leg prostheses would allow paraplegics to walk (the US military is currently trialling an “Iron Man” suit) and “cybernetic chauffeurs” would be able to drive cars (which Google has more or less cracked).
His critics point out that not all his predictions have exactly panned out (no US company has reached a market capitalisation of more than $1 trillion; “bioengineered treatments” have yet to cure cancer). But in any case, the predictions aren’t the meat of his work, just a byproduct. They’re based on his belief that technology progresses exponentially (as is also the case in Moore’s law, which sees computers’ performance doubling every two years). But then you just have to dig out an old mobile phone to understand that. The problem, he says, is that humans don’t think about the future that way. “Our intuition is linear.”
When Kurzweil first started talking about the “singularity”, a conceit he borrowed from the science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge, he was dismissed as a fantasist. He has been saying for years that he believes that the Turing test – the moment at which a computer will exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human – will be passed in 2029. The difference is that when he began saying it, the fax machine hadn’t been invented. But now, well… it’s another story.
“My book The Age of Spiritual Machines came out in 1999 and that we had a conference of AI experts at Stanford and we took a poll by hand about when you think the Turing test would be passed. The consensus was hundreds of years. And a pretty good contingent thought that it would never be done.
“And today, I’m pretty much at the median of what AI experts think and the public is kind of with them. Because the public has seen things like Siri [the iPhone’s voice-recognition technology] where you talk to a computer, they’ve seen the Google self-driving cars. My views are not radical any more. I’ve actually stayed consistent. It’s the rest of the world that’s changing its view.”
And yet, we still haven’t quite managed to get to grips with what that means. The Spike Jonze film, Her, which is set in the near future and has Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with a computer operating system, is not so much fantasy, according to Kurzweil, as a slightly underambitious rendering of the brave new world we are about to enter. “A lot of the dramatic tension is provided by the fact that Theodore’s love interest does not have a body,” Kurzweil writes in a recent review of it. “But this is an unrealistic notion. It would be technically trivial in the future to provide her with a virtual visual presence to match her virtual auditory presence.”
But then he predicts that by 2045 computers will be a billion times more powerful than all of the human brains on Earth. And the characters’ creation of an avatar of a dead person based on their writings, in Jonze’s film, is an idea that he’s been banging on about for years. He’s gathered all of his father’s writings and ephemera in an archive and believes it will be possible to retro-engineer him at some point in the future.
So far, so sci-fi. Except that Kurzweil’s new home isn’t some futuristic MegaCorp intent on world domination. It’s not Skynet. Or, maybe it is, but we largely still think of it as that helpful search engine with the cool design. Kurzweil has worked with Google’s co-founder Larry Page on special projects over several years. “And I’d been having ongoing conversations with him about artificial intelligence and what Google is doing and what I was trying to do. And basically he said, ‘Do it here. We’ll give you the independence you’ve had with your own company, but you’ll have these Google-scale resources.'”
And it’s the Google-scale resources that are beyond anything the world has seen before. Such as the huge data sets that result from 1 billion people using Google ever single day. And the Google knowledge graph, which consists of 800m concepts and the billions of relationships between them. This is already a neural network, a massive, distributed global “brain”. Can it learn? Can it think? It’s what some of the smartest people on the planet are working on next.
Peter Norvig, Google’s research director, said recently that the company employs “less than 50% but certainly more than 5%” of the world’s leading experts on machine learning. And that was before it bought DeepMind which, it should be noted, agreed to the deal with the proviso that Google set up an ethics board to look at the question of what machine learning will actually mean when it’s in the hands of what has become the most powerful company on the planet. Of what machine learning might look like when the machines have learned to make their own decisions. Or gained, what we humans call, “consciousness”.
Garry Kasparov ponders a move against IBM’s Deep Blue. Ray Kurzweil predicted the computer’s triumph.
I first saw Boston Dynamics’ robots in action at a presentation at the Singularity University, the university that Ray Kurzweil co-founded and that Google helped fund and which is devoted to exploring exponential technologies. And it was the Singularity University’s own robotics faculty member Dan Barry who sounded a note of alarm about what the technology might mean: “I don’t see any end point here,” he said when talking about the use of military robots. “At some point humans aren’t going to be fast enough. So what you do is that you make them autonomous. And where does that end? Terminator?”
The Terminator films envisage a future in which robots have become sentient and are at war with humankind. Ray Kurzweil thinks that machines could become ‘conscious’ by 2029 but is optimistic about the implications for humans.
And the woman who headed the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the secretive US military agency that funded the development of BigDog? Regina Dugan. Guess where she works now?
Kurzweil’s job description consists of a one-line brief. “I don’t have a 20-page packet of instructions,” he says. “I have a one-sentence spec. Which is to help bring natural language understanding to Google. And how they do that is up to me.”
Language, he believes, is the key to everything. “And my project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means. When you write an article you’re not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and Google is devoted to intelligently organising and processing the world’s information. The message in your article is information, and the computers are not picking up on that. So we would like to actually have the computers read. We want them to read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage an intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions.”
Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, he says. It will have read every email you’ve ever written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.
The most successful example of natural-language processing so far is IBM’s computer Watson, which in 2011 went on the US quiz show Jeopardy and won. “And Jeopardy is a pretty broad task. It involves similes and jokes and riddles. For example, it was given “a long tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping” in the rhyme category and quickly responded: “A meringue harangue.” Which is pretty clever: the humans didn’t get it. And what’s not generally appreciated is that Watson’s knowledge was not hand-coded by engineers. Watson got it by reading. Wikipedia – all of it.
Kurzweil says: “Computers are on the threshold of reading and understanding the semantic content of a language, but not quite at human levels. But since they can read a million times more material than humans they can make up for that with quantity. So IBM’s Watson is a pretty weak reader on each page, but it read the 200m pages of Wikipedia. And basically what I’m doing at Google is to try to go beyond what Watson could do. To do it at Google scale. Which is to say to have the computer read tens of billions of pages. Watson doesn’t understand the implications of what it’s reading. It’s doing a sort of pattern matching. It doesn’t understand that if John sold his red Volvo to Mary that involves a transaction or possession and ownership being transferred. It doesn’t understand that kind of information and so we are going to actually encode that, really try to teach it to understand the meaning of what these documents are saying.”
And once the computers can read their own instructions, well… gaining domination over the rest of the universe will surely be easy pickings. Though Kurzweil, being a techno-optimist, doesn’t worry about the prospect of being enslaved by a master race of newly liberated iPhones with ideas above their station. He believes technology will augment us. Make us better, smarter, fitter. That just as we’ve already outsourced our ability to remember telephone numbers to their electronic embrace, so we will welcome nanotechnologies that thin our blood and boost our brain cells. His mind-reading search engine will be a “cybernetic friend”. He is unimpressed by Google Glass because he doesn’t want any technological filter between us and reality. He just wants reality to be that much better.
“I thought about if I had all the money in the world, what would I want to do?” he says. “And I would want to do this. This project. This is not a new interest for me. This idea goes back 50 years. I’ve been thinking about artificial intelligence and how the brain works for 50 years.”
The evidence of those 50 years is dotted all around the apartment. He shows me a cartoon he came up with in the 60s which shows a brain in a vat. And there’s a still from a TV quiz show that he entered aged 17 with his first invention: he’d programmed a computer to compose original music. On his walls are paintings that were produced by a computer programmed to create its own original artworks. And scrapbooks that detail the histories of various relatives, the aunts and uncles who escaped from Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport, his great grandmother who set up what he says was Europe’s first school to provide higher education for girls.
Kurzweil suggests that language is the key to teaching machines to think. He says his job is to ‘base search on really understanding what the language means’. The most successful example of natural-language processing to date is IBM’s computer Watson, which in 2011 went on the US quiz show Jeopardy and won (shown above).
His home is nothing if not eclectic. It’s a shiny apartment in a shiny apartment block with big glass windows and modern furnishings but it’s imbued with the sort of meaning and memories and resonances that, as yet, no machine can understand. His relatives escaped the Holocaust “because they used their minds. That’s actually the philosophy of my family. The power of human ideas. I remember my grandfather coming back from his first return visit to Europe. I was seven and he told me he’d been given the opportunity to handle – with his own hands – original documents by Leonardo da Vinci. He talked about it in very reverential terms, like these were sacred documents. But they weren’t handed down to us by God. They were created by a guy, a person. A single human had been very influential and had changed the world. The message was that human ideas changed the world. And that is the only thing that could change the world.”
On his fingers are two rings, one from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied, and another that was created by a 3D printer, and on his wrist is a 30-year-old Mickey Mouse watch. “It’s very important to hold on to our whimsy,” he says when I ask him about it. Why? “I think it’s the highest level of our neocortex. Whimsy, humour…”
Even more engagingly, tapping away on a computer in the study next door I find Amy, his daughter. She’s a writer and a teacher and warm and open, and while Kurzweil goes off to have his photo taken, she tells me that her childhood was like “growing up in the future”.
Is that what it felt like? “I do feel little bit like the ideas I grew up hearing about are now ubiquitous… Everything is changing so quickly and it’s not something that people realise. When we were kids people used to talk about what they going to do when they were older, and they didn’t necessarily consider how many changes would happen, and how the world would be different, but that was at the back of my head.”
And what about her father’s idea of living for ever? What did she make of that? “What I think is interesting is that all kids think they are going to live for ever so actually it wasn’t that much of a disconnect for me. I think it made perfect sense. Now it makes less sense.”
Well, yes. But there’s not a scintilla of doubt in Kurzweil’s mind about this. My arguments slide off what looks like his carefully moisturised skin. “My health regime is a wake-up call to my baby-boomer peers,” he says. “Most of whom are accepting the normal cycle of life and accepting they are getting to the end of their productive years. That’s not my view. Now that health and medicine is in information technology it is going to expand exponentially. We will see very dramatic changes ahead. According to my model it’s only 10-15 years away from where we’ll be adding more than a year every year to life expectancy because of progress. It’s kind of a tipping point in longevity.”
He does, at moments like these, have something of a mad glint in his eye. Or at least the profound certitude of a fundamentalist cleric. Newsweek, a few years back, quoted an anonymous colleague claiming that, “Ray is going through the single most public midlife crisis that any male has ever gone through.” His evangelism (and commercial endorsement) of a whole lot of dietary supplements has more than a touch of the “Dr Gillian McKeith (PhD)” to it. And it’s hard not to ascribe a psychological aspect to this. He lost his adored father, a brilliant man, he says, a composer who had been largely unsuccessful and unrecognised in his lifetime, at the age of 22 to a massive heart attack. And a diagnosis of diabetes at the age of 35 led him to overhaul his diet.
But isn’t he simply refusing to accept, on an emotional level, that everyone gets older, everybody dies?
“I think that’s a great rationalisation because our immediate reaction to hearing someone has died is that it’s not a good thing. We’re sad. We consider it a tragedy. So for thousands of years, we did the next best thing which is to rationalise. ‘Oh that tragic thing? That’s really a good thing.’ One of the major goals of religion is to come up with some story that says death is really a good thing. It’s not. It’s a tragedy. And people think we’re talking about a 95-year-old living for hundreds of years. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking radical life extension, radical life enhancement.
“We are talking about making ourselves millions of times more intelligent and being able to have virtually reality environments which are as fantastic as our imagination.”
Although possibly this is what Kurzweil’s critics, such as the biologist PZ Myers, mean when they say that the problem with Kurzweil’s theories is that “it’s a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad.” Or Jaron Lanier, who calls him “a genius” but “a product of a narcissistic age”.
But then, it’s Kurzweil’s single-mindedness that’s been the foundation of his success, that made him his first fortune when he was still a teenager, and that shows no sign of letting up. Do you think he’ll live for ever, I ask Amy. “I hope so,” she says, which seems like a reasonable thing for an affectionate daughter to wish for. Still, I hope he does too. Because the future is almost here. And it looks like it’s going to be quite a ride.
The military is weaponizing video games
By Eugene K. Chow
The Xbox Kinect can do a lot more than recognize your dance moves…
The military has long been an object of the video game industry’s fascination. Titles like Call of Duty slavishly pore over the details of real-life weapons, technology, and terrain to create virtual battlefields for their users to wage war on. But in a case of reality mimicking art, the military has started to turn to the gaming industry for help — and not just for training, as one would expect, but for technology itself.
In the arms race for a better user experience, the $66 billion video gameindustry has become so advanced that in some areas it has outpaced the military. The gaming industry’s state-of-the-art controllers, high-tech sensors, and processors have been co-opted, even weaponized, by the Pentagon.
Here, a few examples:
How Xbox Kinect can guard a border
In addition to interpreting dance moves and imaginary swings of a light saber, Xbox Kinect sensors are helping to guard the last remaining front of the Cold War, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides North and South Korea.
After a series of high-profile border mishaps, including a defecting soldier from the North who simply waltzed through the heavily fenced, mine-strewn, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ and knocked on a guard post, the South Korean military turned to the developer of the Xbox Kinect sensor for help.
While existing sensors along the DMZ were effective, they had difficulty distinguishing between animals and humans, resulting in frequent false alerts. Now thanks to Ko Jae-Kwan, who developed Microsoft’s Kinect sensors that allow users to control games using their body movements, the DMZ’s newest sensors are able to separate human and animal movement.
“For its price, the device is very accurate and effective in covering vulnerable areas,”
Planned upgrades include sensors capable of reading biometrics like heart rate and body temperature, features already included in Microsoft’s Xbox One, which was released last year.
To succeed in the retail industry, video game makers must offer highly advanced technologies at affordable prices, which is partly why they are so attractive to the military.
In 2009, the Pentagon purchased thousands of PlayStation 3s to bolster its supercomputer clusters. According to Defense Department acquisition officers, the PlayStation’s processor offered comparable performance to the world’s most advanced chips but at one-tenth the price, making it the most viable option.
Using a Wii to disable a bomb
Meanwhile on the more hands-on side, several drone manufacturers have adapted video game controllers and interfaces to pilot drones as their designs have proven to be the best available.
It’s no coincidence that Raytheon’s Universal Control System, the complex command station that allows drone operators to fly, track targets, and launch death-dealing Hellfire missiles from thousands of miles away, closely resembles a hardcore gamer’s ultimate setup.
In an effort to reduce accidents, Raytheon hired game developers to redesign drone “cockpits” by borrowing technology from the gaming industry including wrap-around wide-screen monitors, Xbox-based processors, and an array of familiar joysticks, switches, and thumb controls.
“Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs?” explained Mark Bigham, business development director for Raytheon’s tactical intelligence systems. “The video-game industry always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction.”
That is exactly why engineers modified a Nintendo WiiMote to control the Packbot, a bomb disposal drone used by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq, after they realized the existing “joypad” interface monopolized the user’s attention.
“Our tests show 90 percent of the operator’s workload goes into driving the robot rather than keeping an eye on the sensor data,” said David Bruemmer, a U.S. Department of Energy engineer who helped design the modified controller.
With the Wiimote, troops are able to control the robots more instinctively as the new control directly translates the movements of the hand into the movements of the robot, Bruemmer added.
Other battle-tested controllers include the widely used Xbox 360’s, which Lockheed Martin modified by removing the logo to help British troops fly UAVs. The U.S. Army has also been spotted using the same controller for ground-based drones.
How virtual reality can alleviate PTSD
Beyond controllers, video games themselves have become effective tools to help veterans struggling with PTSD or even recover from severe burns. Where powerful drugs and other therapeutic techniques have failed, video games have proven enormously effective.
In an experimental treatment, soldiers recovering from severe burns were given virtual reality goggles to play Snow World, a specially designed immersive game that kept their minds off the excruciating pain of having their wounds cleaned or skin stretched.
“Sometimes patients are crying or screaming or begging for you to stop or pleading to God for mercy,” said clinical nurse specialist Morrow. “[Snow World] really changes the nature of what we do.”
Patients reported that they felt less pain when playing the game, required less pain medication, and had a greater range of motion in their burned limbs as their muscles were more relaxed.
The game is fairly simple, consisting of a 3D environment where players travel along a snowy path and throw snowballs at non-moving targets. The virtual reality headsets keep patients from seeing what’s happening to their bodies and the game keeps their mind focused on playing the game rather than the pain.
Other specially-designed virtual reality games like Beyond the Frontas well as mobile apps are helping to treat and diagnose PTSD. A virtual first-person shooting game offers vets a chance to return to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, but in safe way that allows patients to conquer their past traumas and habituate themselves to experiences of fear.
On the less therapeutic side of shoot-em-ups, the Pentagon uses America’s Army, a military-style shooting game, as a subtle recruitment tool. And, taking its cues from the Pentagon, China’s People’s Liberation Army released the not-so-subtle first person shooter Glorious Mission, which inundates players with fiery nationalistic propaganda as they slog through boot camp and ultimately face off against America in a bloody showdown.
As the military is proving, video games are no longer child’s play.
When you manage to overcome your own mind, you overcome myriad concerns, rise above all things, and are free. When you are overcome by your own mind, you are burdened by myriad concerns, subordinate to things, unable to rise above. “Mind your mind; guard it resolutely. Since it is the mind that confuses the mind, don’t let your mind give in to your mind.” [Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook]
Hey, you would too. Death was pretty much in their job description, right?
But research shows training very hard and imagining the worst that could happen are two powerful techniques for promoting calm.
Samurais trained relentlessly. They strongly believed you should always “be prepared” (they were like the deadliest Boy Scouts imaginable.)
Research shows that preparation reduces fear because when things get tense, you don’t have to think.
Who survives catastrophic scenarios like samurai battles? The people who have prepared.
According to Johnson and Leach, the sort of people who survive are the sort of people who prepare for the worst and practice ahead of time… These people don’t deliberate during calamity because they’ve already done the deliberation the other people around them are just now going through. [You Are Not So Smart]
And how about all that thinking about death?
“Negative Visualization” is one of the main tools of ancient Stoicism and science backs it up. Really thinking about just how awful things can be often has the ironic effect of making you realize they’re not that bad.
It’s what the Stoics call, “the premeditation” — that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated.
Okay, but you don’t want to spend all day training in swordfighting or thinking about death. I get that. Frankly, neither do I.
So what’s the key here?
Researchshows the most powerful way to combat stress or anxiety — to stay calm — is to have a feeling of control.
For samurai, training tirelessly and visualizing the worst that could happen gave them a feeling of control while in battle.
The US military dramatically increased Navy SEAL passing rates by teaching recruits psychological methods for gaining a feeling of control.
Without a feeling of control, when stress gets high we literally can’t think straight.
Amy Arnsten studies the effects of limbic system arousal on prefrontal cortex functioning. She summarized the importance of a sense of control for the brain during an interview filmed at her lab at Yale. “The loss of prefrontal function only occurs when we feel out of control. It’s the prefrontal cortex itself that is determining if we are in control or not. Even if we have the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved.” This perception of being in control is a major driver of behavior. [Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long]
Anything that gives you a feeling of control over your situation helps you keep your cool.
So what does it for you?
More information? Practice? Support from others?
That’s the thing that will help you keep your cool like a samurai.
Note I said “feeling of control” — it doesn’t even have to be legit control, just feeling like you do can work wonders.
Even a good luck charm can help — because good luck charms really do work.
Good luck charms provide a feeling of control, and that feeling of control actually makes people perform better with them.
… people with a lucky charm performed significantly better than did the people who had none. That’s right, having a lucky charm will make you a better golfer, should you care about such things, and improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory games. [The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver]
I know what some of you are thinking: Calm? Aren’t samurai the ones always screaming at the top of their lungs while waving a sword?
Thing is, that was a deliberate tactic to frighten their enemies. Musashi explains:
In single combat, also, you must use the advantage of taking the enemy unawares by frightening him with your body, long sword, or voice, to defeat him… In single combat, we make as if to cut and shout “Ei!” at the same time to disturb the enemy, then in the wake of our shout we cut with the long sword. [The Book of Five Rings]
Sneaky. These are the kind of smart ideas that come from a cool head.
The samurai were great warriors. They fought against their enemies in epic battles.
But as Musashi and the others make clear in their writings about being calm, the most important battle is to overcome yourself.
Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men. [The Book of Five Rings]
Almost Human: The Surreal, Cyborg Future of Telemarketing
by Alexis C. Madrigal
Americans are fielding millions of calls from bright, energetic telemarketers, but what they don’t know is that they’re talking to machines… Sort of.
This is a story about how the future gets weird.It’s about how humans interact with each other, and machines, and systems that can only properly be called cyborg.
Let’s start, though, with a man sitting on a couch. His phone rings. It’s a telemarketer for a home security service.
“This is Richard, how are you today?” asks the telemarketer. His voice is confident and happy. His accent is classic American. Perhaps he grew up in Nebraska.
Richard continues, “I’m just calling you with a very special offer. My company, the Home Security Company, is giving away a free wireless home security system and in-home installation.”
The man on the couch tries to claim he’s busy, but the telemarketer parries, “I know you’re busy, but this’ll just take a few minutes,” then soldiers on.
They go back and forth for several minutes before the telemarketer successfully pushes him down the sales funnel to a specialist who will set up an in-home visit.
Such conversations happen millions of times a year, but they are not what they appear. Because while a human is picking up the phone, and a human is dialing the phone, this is not, strictly speaking, a conversation between two humans.
Instead, a call-center worker in Utah or the Philippines is pressing buttons on a computer, playing through a marketing pitch without actually speaking. Some people who market these services sometimes call this “voice conversion” technology. Another company says it’s “agent-assisted automation technology.”
My own wordplay for it would be automatonation, after the great mechanical inventions of the 18th century that simulated complex processes through the artful combination of men and machines. Semi-autonomous telemarketing connects nicely with the developments it parallels in the drone world. “Ventriloquistic telemarketing” has a nice, multisyllabic ring, too.
But perhaps the best term is “cyborg telemarketing.” As one experienced manager in the Philippines told me, “Basically, the agent is just the driver but the system has its own life. The agents work as ears and hands of the system.” At its best, computer system and operator merge like a character from the movie Avatar and his or her steed.
How does this work, in practice?
Let’s look at one company that provides this product, Avatar Technologies, which advertises itself as “Outsourcing Without the Accent.” They created the video above.
The Avatar interface looks like this:
While the man on the couch might was just sitting there talking, the Avatar agent would have been sitting in the Filipino city of Jaro Iloilo, staring at an interface. The keyboard has hotkeys that can play different sound clips that were recorded by a perfect English speaker. Here are two samples Avatar provides on its website, “Dale Harris” from the US and “Samantha” from Australia:
Avatar is not alone in selling these services, though they are the newest company in the field, having been founded in the summer of 2012.I found three other companies that sell cyborg call-center software or services like this, all of which are based in Utah. CallAssistant is headquartered in Logan, Utah, but has several call centers including a small one in the Philippines; Perfect Pitch Technologies has offices in Lehi, Utah and Albay in the Philippines; KomBea is also based in Lehi.
Jacob Munns, the CEO of Perfect Pitch told me that the companies’ location in Utah was the result of “blind luck.” The principals of the three companies had worked together in various capacities but then went their separate ways.
While each place has obviously engineered its own solution, the basics of the companies’ systems are similar. All the audio is pre-recorded and it’s triggered live in response to what a call receiver says. In some cases, a single call-center worker will run two or even three calls at the same time.
The audio breaks down into two categories. The first contains the more scripted bits of salesmanship, which, in CallAssistant technology, are mapped to the number keys. The second set of sounds are the little conversational asides that help make the conversation feel more natural. Hit “L,” for example, and the voice laughs. Hit the equals sign, and the voice says, “Exactly.”
More sophisticated systems have multiple responses for each type of question that might be asked by a call receiver. So, for example, if a customer asks about the company of the telemarketer, one might press Ctrl+C. On the first press, the voice would say, “The name of my company is XYZ.” On the second press, the voice would change tone and wording: “Um yeah I’m from XYZ company?” On the third press, you might get, “It’s XYZ company and we offer ABC.”
In other implementations, the telemarketing humans can step in with their own voices to answer queries. KomBea has gone the farthest with this idea. They practice what they call “accent neutralization.” Their pre-scripted audio is recorded in the location of the call center, using workers who speak perfect, barely accented English. This reduces the difference between voices if one of the humans has to step in with his or her own voice. For example, in booking an appointment, a callee might say, “Come out the 22nd.” The live agent could then say, “Of which month?” before switching back to pre-recorded audio. The goal is to minimize or eliminate the ability of customers to distinguish between the two voices over short stretches of conversation.
“I can promise you that 99 percent of the people do not know that the agent just shifted from pre-recorded to a live voice and back to pre-recorded audio,” KomBea’s CEO, Art Coombs, told me.
All these different measures are part of making the human-cyborg conversation feel “natural,” even though it is anything but. A company that helps firms stay on the right side of American telemarketing regulations looked at CallAssistant’s “Echo” technology, and made this point in a glowing review.
“The Echo technology merely substitutes sound files for the agent’s voice (although the agent can also interject with his or her own voice at any time) and assures positive interactive experiences for the consumer. CallAssistant’s agents interact with callers by selecting the appropriate audio file responses…” the company wrote. “The customer experiences a completely natural conversation complete with laughing, positive affirmation, and most importantly, natural interaction. ”
Let’s just put it out there: This a creepy system. On the Internet, no one may know you’re a dog, but on the phone? It just seems wrong. What good could spring from a bunch of conversations in which one member is ventriloquizing through a machine?
And yet, in the course of reporting this story, in talking with a half dozen people here and in the Philippines, I’ve come to reconsider that initial reaction.
It may be that only a cyborg solution can alleviate the inhumane nature of modern telemarketing labor.
Let’s imagine that cyborg telemarketing makes call-center workers happier, call receivers more satisfied, and the sales companies more successful. Everyone wins.
If that were the case, wouldn’t it make sense to support soundboard-assisted calls, even if they offend our sensibilities about what human-to-human contact should be like?
* * *
For a moment, I want to back up to talk about how I stumbled into this world. A couple weeks ago, Time‘s Washington bureau chief got a call from a telemarketer named “Samantha West” that he suspected was not human.
After some funny tests, like asking the suspected bot what the main ingredient in tomato soup was, Time concluded that the telemarketer, who was working on behalf of an insurance company, was not human. What really got to people was that this “robot” kept denying that it was a robot, which you can hear in this sound clip:
Ever since I started this project, I’ve been looking for the company that created Samantha West. I strongly suspect that Avatar created West, but I can’t prove it. Multiple attempts to contact people at different levels within the company have gone unheeded.
For what it’s worth, the three Utah-based companies denied that West was their creation. All three said that their systems would not work in the way recorded by Time. Their agents would tell the people being called exactly what was going on. PerfectPitch even drops a disclaimer on people at the beginning of the call.
“Every phone call that is made with our technology, we are open about this,” PerfectPitch’s Munns told me. “We actually proactively tell them that we are using pre-recorded audio.”
“In the Kombea world,” Coombs told me, “if someone were to say, ‘Am I talking to a robot?’ the agent has the ability, either with a pre-recorded message or their live voice, to say, ‘You are talking to a live person, but to ensure the information is accurate, I’m using pre-recorded audio messages.'”
“I don’t know if you know anything about Six Sigma,” Coombs asked rhetorically. “But a human being is at best a 2-sigma machine. Which means that humans get things right 92 to 93 percent of the time. If you think about that, if I take a 100 calls, that means that 7 to 8 of those callers don’t get the right information, not because I’m trying to mislead but because I got in a fight with my wife or I hate this call center job or I’m tired and I made a mistake.”
All three CEOs expressed frustration that the first time their fledgling industry has seen the light of day, it is in the context of a shady operation that wasn’t even executed well. “Whoever created Samantha West is not good,” Coombs said.
“We’re not trying to be deceptive,” Coombs concluded. “What we’re trying to do in the industry is combine the human intelligence of a human being with the accuracy and consistency of technology.”
“We think it’s wrong to play that game that was played in that recording,” Munns said. And he wanted it noted, it’s very rare that their agents are asked if they are recordings or robots.
I asked if he had a name for when that happens. “We don’t because it does not happen,” he responded. “We get it maybe once every three or four months. It’s built to work very well.”
These guys want standards put in place that require the disclosure of pre-recorded audio, in one form or another. Being businessmen, they would prefer self-regulation, but one can easily see the FCC, perhaps, stepping in to make sure that happens.
I’ve contacted the FCC for their position on soundboard-assisted calls, but have not heard back.
Perhaps this is ironic, or merely interesting, but if you look at the marketing that all of the companies do, they push the idea that their systems can help people who want to do telemarketing stay within the bounds of the existing American regulations. CallAssistant’s Bills pointed out that a nationwide debt-settlement company is being sued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for deceptive telemarketing calls made by an old-school telemarketing company.
“Consumers thought they were getting something for free, a trial, and they kept getting billed,” he said. “One of my agents can’t do that. The offer is going to be made exactly as it is intended to be. You take away the ability of someone to misrepresent something. You take away the ability to omit required disclosures.”
To hear these companies tell it, if you take away a lot of abilities, perhaps what’s left is a more ideal telemarketing call experience.
For example, the data that they can capture with these systems is far less noisy than what anyone could collect from a traditional call center. That has allowed CallAssistant, for example, to reduce the number of times that an agent tries to keep you on the line after you’ve already said no, which is by far the most annoying thing telemarketers do.
“It became obvious to us we were wasting time with rebuttals that were never going to go anywhere. We were doing too many rebuttals. Not only are you wasting time talking to people if it is only going to convert 1 out of 1000 times. It’s also irritating consumers,” Bills said. “An agent could just sit there and pound someone with rebuttals, but our system won’t allow them to.”
Over and over in these conversations, I wondered how workers responded to the system. Did they feel that they were actually connecting with people, as they sat there pushing the equal sign to say, “Exactly”? Wasn’t there something fundamentally wrong about that?
Then I checked my Twitter account and favorited several tweets. I retweeted a couple, too.
Bills was his system’s original client. He’d been in the movie distribution business, running a call center to do marketing. “Call centers are like water,” Bills said. “They flow to the place of the lowest labor cost. Hence the Philippines and even domestically, call centers are clustered around as low a labor cost as you can get.”
“We had the same problems every other call center has,” he said. “It’s low-paid, low-skilled, entry-level people that frankly aren’t going to be there a lot.”
The company got to thinking about building their own system, which eventually became Echo, the product CallAssistant sells. “We gotta come up with a way that every agent can be as good as our best ones. We didn’t have any biologists on staff, so we couldn’t clone anybody,” he said. “We did have technologists, though.”
The soundboard technology they came up with “really transformed our business. Our conversions improved. Our average order improved. Our complaints dropped off dramatically. Our return-to orders dropped off dramatically.”
As important, it changed the feeling of the call center, too. They no longer had to go around banging a gong for every sale, or offering gift certificates for the day’s high earner.
“The impact on the people was really dramatic. It was one of the things we didn’t expect,” Bills told me. “In outbound sales, it knocked our turnover from 400 percent a year to 135 to 140 percent. And it dramatically changed the characteristics of employing people.”
To be clear, 140 percent turnover is about on par with the fast-food industry. The paragons of employee retention keep their numbers in the single digits. These are still hard jobs.
But maybe this technology makes it a little bit easier.
“It creates detachment,” Bills said. “What we see is that our employees, when they have a successful outcome of the call, they take pride in operating the system effectively. When it doesn’t work, they say, ‘Ahhh that wasn’t me.’ It doesn’t beat people up in the same way.”
The machine absorbs some of the “emotional wear and tear” that comes with the job. CallAssistant can even employ people full time because the “shift fatigue” that hits other outbound telemarketing firms doesn’t set in in quite the same way.
* * *
Though no one quite puts it this way, the number-one selling point for the soundboard technology is obvious to Filipino telemarketers: Americans’ xenophobia. We want to hear from people who sound just like us.
In the course of reporting this story, I was contacted by an experienced Filipino call-center employee and manager who has worked with one of the companies mentioned in this story. Because talking about the industry could negatively impact her future employability, I agreed to her request for pseudonymity. She chose the name Andrea Marie Ugarte.
In an email, Ugarte ticked off the reasons for using voice technology.
1. Accent – some of our agents though can speak English really well have problems with their accents and it’s unfortunate fact that when Americans hear foreign accented agents, they just hang up on us.
2. Quality – the technology improves our quality by a great margin as they deliver 100 percent correct message – no deviation or misleading statements.
3. Productivity – it improves our productivity by more than 100 precent. Since reps do not need to speak and just press buttons, they can handle 2-3 PCs at the same time.
What’s not to love?
Marco Edward Calilao is a Perfect Pitch account manager. He’s the Foursquare mayor of the company’s Philippines office, and maintains several other prominent social media presences. He likes to post photos from his childhood on Facebook, along with portraits of himself in drag.
I asked him, over email, to tell me what the experience of working at a soundboard call center is like. How do people feel about it?
“Based on feedbacks and observations, working on a Non-Voice company such as Perfect Pitch is fun not to mention that there is less stress on the part of the reps, all they just need to do is familiarize themselves on the options that they need to press to have a natural conversation and make sure they have excellent comprehension to fully understand the prospect,” Calilao wrote. “They do not need to have an ‘American’ accent unlike with the usual Inbound or Outbound call center where reps are using their own voice or do their own talking.”
Think about how rough it would be to be told by some single-language-speaking, first-world jerk that you, a college-degreed, up-and-coming Filipino youth, were annoying because of your accent. Now imagine being told that hundreds of times a day. What kind of anxiety might you start to feel each time you opened your mouth?
No wonder people like hitting the button that says, “Hello, I’m Richard!” in perfect Nebraskan English.
“As a manager, I really love this tech as it really helped our company a lot in doubling the production and I didn’t have to worry a lot if my reps are saying the right things… The onboarding process is also faster by 100 percent (works well if you want to start making money),” Ugarte wrote to me. “In a ‘normal’ voice campaign, it takes two weeks up to four weeks to train reps. With this tech, if the reps do not have any experience yet with the system, the training takes up to one to two weeks.”
Working at a place like this might feel like playing a very strange massively multiplayer online game.
Especially when your company sells the fun aspect so hard. Avatar recruits people by having resume parties at clubs (“Applicants get to party at Flow Super club after submitting their resume onsite with our Human Resource department.”) and supporting a local beauty queen contest linked to an indigenous ritual(“Avatar Technologies, a proud sponsor of Miss Iloilo Dinagyang 2014”).
Their YouTube channel shows them holding an American Idol-style competition to celebrate their one-year anniversary. Watch that video. It opens with these words flashing on the screen: “Level Up. Step Up. Stand Out. Work with the pros and be a pro. Come Join the fastest growing, highest paying, most exciting call center in Iloilo.” Then it cuts straight to the Idol-imitation tryouts. About 15 seconds in, behind singing employees, a sign is taped on the wall. It reads, “English Only Policy!”
My first job was as a telemarketer. I wanted to buy a car, so when I was 15, I worked for a summer doing business-to-business outbound sales.
We sold software to manage the paperwork about chemicals used at factories, which are known asmaterial-safety data sheets. Our script ran on a series of linked Word documents, and we were told to stick to reading what was on the screen. My manager, whose name was Jim, asked that we call him Jimbo, and required that we all attend “Wiener Wagon Fridays” at a local hot dog stand. (The Wiener Wagon special was a chili dog piled with Fritos.)
Despite these perquisites, it was a brutal job. Call after call. Hour after hour. Sales did not go well, and the southern paper-mill plant managers that I managed to get on the phone were not swayed by my lispy, northwestern English. At lunch, eating teriyaki chicken out of a styrofoam container from the deli by the bus station felt like heaven compared with the slog of the day.
No one lasted very long; some didn’t even make it to the end of summer. Only a middle-aged woman named Kimberly, who always wore long-sleeved, cream-colored blouses, managed to sell anything. If only we could have cloned her!
But we could never have imagined that we wouldn’t need to. A future in which telemarketers didn’t use their own human voices, but rather computerized systems of pre-recorded audio that let them fake the most-effective accent, was unthinkably weird.
But the present order is equally strange. A world in which mass telemarketing exists, driven by the dictates of the global economic system, means that something like 1.5 million people have to sit in call centers doing telemarketing, and more than 10 million others have to take inbound calls.
Right now, the cyborg systems are making millions of calls, but Coombs estimates that there are “less than 10,000 desks” occupied by agents using these technologies.
Munns says he’s heard that dozens of companies are trying to pull off something like what these cyborg market leaders have.
And if what these men have told me about their call centers is true, we should want this kind of technology to roll out to all the call centers from Vancouver, Washington (where I worked) to Manila.
And yet, I said to Bills, for that to happen, people would have to ignore how their telemarketing sausage was made.
“I think this is the way it all should be done,” he responded. “We need to get the entire universe here to accept how the sausage is made. But once you do that, the entire experience for inbound or outbound, it’s better.”
Could Americans abandon the idea that when they hear a voice on the phone, it matches up exactly with a person in the world, if it meant a better experience for them and a better work life for the people making phone calls?
“They are like robots already,” Munns said, referring to call agents who have to read scripts all day, following a protocol set out by their managers. “The software can improve the experience people are already having.”
Often, when we look around our world at the technologies we have, it’s hard to imagine the series of steps that got us to where we are. If we end up with this weird future of semi-autonomous telemarketing, let this story show why it made sense at the time.
One-Percent Jokes and Plutocrats in Drag: What I Saw When I Crashed a Wall Street Secret Society
By Kevin Roose
Recently, our nation’s financial chieftains have been feeling a little unloved. Venture capitalists are comparing the persecution of the rich to the plight of Jews at Kristallnacht, Wall Street titans are saying that they’re sick of being beaten up, and this week, a billionaire investor, Wilbur Ross, proclaimed that “the 1 percent is being picked on for political reasons.”
Ross’s statement seemed particularly odd, because two years ago, I met Ross at an event that might single-handedly explain why the rest of the country still hates financial tycoons – the annual black-tie induction ceremony of a secret Wall Street fraternity called Kappa Beta Phi.
“Good evening, Exalted High Council, former Grand Swipes, Grand Swipes-in-waiting, fellow Wall Street Kappas, Kappas from the Spring Street and Montgomery Street chapters, and worthless neophytes!”
It was January 2012, and Ross, wearing a tuxedo and purple velvet moccasins embroidered with the fraternity’s Greek letters, was standing at the dais of the St. Regis Hotel ballroom, welcoming a crowd of two hundred wealthy and famous Wall Street figures to the Kappa Beta Phi dinner. Ross, the leader (or “Grand Swipe”) of the fraternity, was preparing to invite 21 new members — “neophytes,” as the group called them — to join its exclusive ranks.
Looking up at him from an elegant dinner of rack of lamb and foie gras were many of the most famous investors in the world, including executives from nearly every too-big-to-fail bank, private equity megafirm, and major hedge fund. AIG CEO Bob Benmosche was there, as were Wall Street superlawyer Marty Lipton and Alan “Ace” Greenberg, the former chairman of Bear Stearns. And those were just the returning members. Among the neophytes were hedge fund billionaire and major Obama donor Marc Lasry and Joe Reece, a high-ranking dealmaker at Credit Suisse. [To see the full Kappa Beta Phi member list, click here.] All told, enough wealth and power was concentrated in the St. Regis that night that if you had dropped a bomb on the roof, global finance as we know it might have ceased to exist.
During his introductory remarks, Ross spoke for several minutes about the legend of Kappa Beta Phi – how it had been started in 1929 by “four C+ William and Mary students”; how its crest, depicting a “macho right hand in a proper Savile Row suit and a Turnbull and Asser shirtsleeve,” was superior to that of its namesake Phi Beta Kappa (Ross called Phi Beta Kappa’s ruffled-sleeve logo a “tacit confession of homosexuality”); and how the fraternity’s motto, “Dum vivamus edimus et biberimus,” was Latin for “While we live, we eat and drink.”
On cue, the financiers shouted out in a thundering bellow: “DUM VIVAMUS EDIMUS ET BIBERIMUS.”
The only person not saying the chant along with Ross was me — a journalist who had sneaked into the event, and who was hiding out at a table in the back corner in a rented tuxedo.
Several Kappas at the table next to me, presumably discussing the coming plutocracy.
I’d heard whisperings about the existence of Kappa Beta Phi, whose members included both incredibly successful financiers (New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Goldman Sachs chairman John Whitehead, hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones) and incredibly unsuccessful ones (Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld, Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne, former New Jersey governor and MF Global flameout Jon Corzine). It was a secret fraternity, founded at the beginning of the Great Depression, that functioned as a sort of one-percenter’s Friars Club. Each year, the group’s dinner features comedy skits, musical acts in drag, and off-color jokes, and its group’s privacy mantra is “What happens at the St. Regis stays at the St. Regis.” For eight decades, it worked. No outsider in living memory had witnessed the entire proceedings firsthand.
I wanted to break the streak for several reasons. As part of my research formy book, Young Money, I’d been investigating the lives of young Wall Street bankers – the 22-year-olds toiling at the bottom of the financial sector’s food chain. I knew what made those people tick. But in my career as a financial journalist, one question that proved stubbornly elusive was what happened to Wall Streeters as they climbed the ladder to adulthood. Whenever I’d interviewed CEOs and chairmen at big Wall Street firms, they were always too guarded, too on-message and wrapped in media-relations armor to reveal anything interesting about the psychology of the ultra-wealthy. But if I could somehow see these barons in their natural environment, with their defenses down, I might be able to understand the world my young subjects were stepping into.
So when I learned when and where Kappa Beta Phi’s annual dinner was being held, I knew I needed to try to go.
Getting in was shockingly easy — a brisk walk past the sign-in desk, and I was inside cocktail hour. Immediately, I saw faces I recognized from the papers. I picked up an event program and saw that there were other boldface names on the Kappa Beta Phi membership roll — among them, then-Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, Home Depot billionaire Ken Langone, Morgan Stanley bigwig Greg Fleming, and JPMorgan Chase vice chairman Jimmy Lee. Any way you count, this was one of the most powerful groups of business executives in the world. (Since I was a good 20 years younger than any other attendee, I suspect that anyone taking note of my presence assumed I was a waiter.)
I hadn’t counted on getting in to the Kappa Beta Phi dinner, and now that I had gotten past security, I wasn’t sure quite what to do. I wanted to avoid rousing suspicion, and I knew that talking to people would get me outed in short order. So I did the next best thing — slouched against a far wall of the room, and pretended to tap out emails on my phone.
The 2012 Kappa Beta Phi neophyte class.
After cocktail hour, the new inductees – all of whom were required to dress in leotards and gold-sequined skirts, with costume wigs – began their variety-show acts. Among the night’s lowlights:
• Paul Queally, a private-equity executive with Welsh, Carson, Anderson, & Stowe, told off-color jokes to Ted Virtue, another private-equity bigwig with MidOcean Partners. The jokes ranged from unfunny and sexist (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Hillary Clinton and a catfish?” A: “One has whiskers and stinks, and the other is a fish”) to unfunny and homophobic (Q: “What’s the biggest difference between Barney Frank and a Fenway Frank?” A: “Barney Frank comes in different-size buns”).
• Bill Mulrow, a top executive at the Blackstone Group (who was later appointed chairmanof the New York State Housing Finance Agency), and Emil Henry, a hedge fund manager with Tiger Infrastructure Partners and former assistant secretary of the Treasury, performed a bizarre two-man comedy skit. Mulrow was dressed in raggedy, tie-dye clothes to play the part of a liberal radical, and Henry was playing the part of a wealthy baron. They exchanged lines as if staging a debate between the 99 percent and the 1 percent. (“Bill, look at you! You’re pathetic, you liberal! You need a bath!” Henry shouted. “My God, you callow, insensitive Republican! Don’t you know what we need to do? We need to create jobs,” Mulrow shot back.)
• David Moore, Marc Lasry, and Keith Meister — respectively, a holding company CEO, a billionaire hedge-fund manager, and an activist investor — sang a few seconds of a finance-themed parody of “YMCA” before getting the hook.
• Warren Stephens, an investment banking CEO, took the stage in a Confederate flag hat and sang a song about the financial crisis, set to the tune of “Dixie.” (“In Wall Street land we’ll take our stand, said Morgan and Goldman. But first we better get some loans, so quick, get to the Fed, man.”)
A few more acts followed, during which the veteran Kappas continued to gorge themselves on racks of lamb, throw petits fours at the stage, and laugh uproariously. Michael Novogratz, a former Army helicopter pilot with a shaved head and a stocky build whose firm, Fortress Investment Group, had made him a billionaire, was sitting next to me, drinking liberally and annotating each performance with jokes and insults.
“Can you fuckin’ believe Lasry up there?” Novogratz asked me. I nodded. He added, “He just gave me a ride in his jet a month ago.”
The neophytes – who had changed from their drag outfits into Mormon missionary costumes — broke into their musical finale: a parody version of “I Believe,” the hit ballad from The Book of Mormon, with customized lyrics like “I believe that God has a plan for all of us. I believe my plan involves a seven-figure bonus.” Amused, I pulled out my phone, and began recording the proceedings on video. Wrong move.
The grand finale, a parody of “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon
“Who the hell are you?” Novogratz demanded.
I felt my pulse spike. I was tempted to make a run for it, but – due to the ethics code of the New York Times, my then-employer – I had no choice but to out myself.
“I’m a reporter,” I said.
Novogratz stood up from the table.
“You’re not allowed to be here,” he said.
I, too, stood, and tried to excuse myself, but he grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go.
“Give me that or I’ll fucking break it!” Novogratz yelled, grabbing for my phone, which was filled with damning evidence. His eyes were bloodshot, and his neck veins were bulging. The song onstage was now over, and a number of prominent Kappas had rushed over to our table. Before the situation could escalate dangerously, a bond investor and former Grand Swipe named Alexandra Lebenthal stepped in between us. Wilbur Ross quickly followed, and the two of them led me out into the lobby, past a throng of Wall Street tycoons, some of whom seemed to be hyperventilating.
Once we made it to the lobby, Ross and Lebenthal reassured me that what I’d just seen wasn’t really a group of wealthy and powerful financiers making homophobic jokes, making light of the financial crisis, and bragging about their business conquests at Main Street’s expense. No, it was just a group of friends who came together to roast each other in a benign and self-deprecating manner. Nothing to see here.
But the extent of their worry wasn’t made clear until Ross offered himself up as a source for future stories in exchange for my cooperation.
“I’ll pick up the phone anytime, get you any help you need,” he said.
“Yeah, the people in this group could be very helpful,” Lebenthal chimed in. “If you could just keep their privacy in mind.”
I wasn’t going to be bribed off my story, but I understood their panic. Here, after all, was a group that included many of the executives whose firms had collectively wrecked the global economy in 2008 and 2009. And they were laughing off the entire disaster in private, as if it were a long-forgotten lark. (Or worse, sing about it — one of the last skits of the night was a self-congratulatory parody of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” called “Bailout King.”) These were activities that amounted to a gigantic middle finger to Main Street and that, if made public, could end careers and damage very public reputations.
After several more minutes spent trying to do damage control, Ross and Lebenthal escorted me out of the St. Regis.
As I walked through the streets of midtown in my ill-fitting tuxedo, I thought about the implications of what I’d just seen.
The first and most obvious conclusion was that the upper ranks of finance are composed of people who have completely divorced themselves from reality. No self-aware and socially conscious Wall Street executive would have agreed to be part of a group whose tacit mission is to make light of the financial sector’s foibles. Not when those foibles had resulted in real harm to millions of people in the form of foreclosures, wrecked 401(k)s, and a devastating unemployment crisis.
The second thing I realized was that Kappa Beta Phi was, in large part, a fear-based organization. Here were executives who had strong ideas about politics, society, and the work of their colleagues, but who would never have the courage to voice those opinions in a public setting. Their cowardice had reduced them to sniping at their perceived enemies in the form of satirical songs and sketches, among only those people who had been handpicked to share their view of the world. And the idea of a reporter making those views public had caused them to throw a mass temper tantrum.
The last thought I had, and the saddest, was that many of these self-righteous Kappa Beta Phi members had surely been first-year bankers once. And in the 20, 30, or 40 years since, something fundamental about them had changed. Their pursuit of money and power had removed them from the larger world to the sad extent that, now, in the primes of their careers, the only people with whom they could be truly themselves were a handful of other prominent financiers.
Perhaps, I realized, this social isolation is why despite extraordinary evidence to the contrary, one-percenters like Ross keep saying how badly persecuted they are. When you’re a member of the fraternity of money, it can be hard to see past the foie gras to the real world
In addition to writing down details of what I saw, I also procured the official Kappa Beta Phi membership roll, a list that includes prominent Kappas like former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, AIG CEO Bob Benmosche, the former heads of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, and Jon Corzine, the former New Jersey politician.
Here, as of 2012, is everyone who belongs to one of the most controversial and secretive organizations on earth.
First, here’s what the program for the evening looked like:
20 Things I Learned While I Was in North Korea
by Tim Urban
Well that was weird.
I was only in North Korea for five days, but that was more than enough to make it clear that North Korea is every bit as weird as I always thought it was.
If you merged the Soviet Union under Stalin with an ancient Chinese Empire, mixed in The Truman Show and then made the whole thing Holocaust-esque, you have modern day North Korea.
It’s a dictatorship of the most extreme kind, a cult of personality beyond anything Stalin or Mao could have imagined, a country as closed off to the world and as secretive as they come, keeping both the outside world and its own people completely in the dark about one another—a true hermit kingdom.
A question, then, is “Why would an American tourist ever be allowed into the country?”
Allow me to illustrate what I believe is the reasoning behind my being let in:
High Level Government Meeting
And so, I was allowed in, along with a small group of other Westerners, accompanied (at all times) by three North Korean guides. And my experience there felt a lot like the route depicted above—we saw Pyongyang and a couple other regions, and the North Koreans we laid eyes on throughout were likely the people faring the very best in the country.
Before I talk about what I learned, I’d like to quickly say hi to whomever from the North Korean government is reading this. Only the highest-level officials have access to the internet in North Korea, and I learned that the job of one of them is to scour the internet for anything written about North Korea and keep tabs on what the foreign press is saying. So hi, and haha you can’t get me cause I’m back home now and I can say all the things I wasn’t allowed to say when I was in your country.
Now that I’ve jinxed myself to certain assassination, let’s get started—
20 Things I Learned
While I Was in North Korea
1) The leaders are a really
big fucking deal there.
That’s not even a strong enough statement. They’re the only deal. These are the big three:
1. Kim Il Sung (1912 – 1994)
He’s their George Washington and their Stalin and their Jesus and their Santa Claus combined, all in the form of one pudgy dead Korean man. He’s the Eternal President—eternal because he had the position abolished for all future so that no one can ever be president again. And they’ve created an almost entirely fabricated story about all of the legendary accomplishments he didn’t accomplish.
There are an estimated 34,000 statues of Kim Il Sung in the country, everything possible is named after him (if they were starting the country today, it would be called Kimilsungland), every adult is required to wear a pin on their shirt with his face on it every day, all students dedicate a large portion of their study to memorizing his speeches and learning about his achievements, and his birthday is the nation’s biggest holiday. They even changed the year—it’s not 2013 in North Korea, it’s Juche 101 (101 years after Kim Il Sung’s birth).
As tourists, we were told to only refer to him as President Kim Il Sung.
2. Kim Jong Il (1941 – 2011)
Kim Il Sung’s son, and the dick we all got to know well in the last decade. It’s said in North Korea that he was born on a sacred Korean mountain top (he was actually born in the Soviet Union) and that his birth caused winter to change to spring (it stayed winter). He’s a really big deal too but like one third as big a deal as his father. Some outsiders question whether people are actually obsessed with KJI or they’re just scared to not act obsessed.
We were told to only refer to him as General Kim Jong Il.
3. Kim Jong Un (1983 or 1984 – )
Despite being the current Supreme Leader, KJI’s son took over well before everyone expected him to with KJI’s surprise death in 2011 (unlike KJI, who had been groomed for leadership for a couple decades before he took over), and while the propaganda machines are superb at depicting the legendary accomplishments of the elder two Kims, no one is really sure what the hell KJU has accomplished. Part of the issue is that the population never heard much about KJU until recently—he has two older brothers who would have presumably taken over had one not been too feminine (i.e. maybe gay) and the other not snuck into Disneyland on a Dominican passport and gotten caught, ruling both out for potential supreme leadership. My sense being in the country was that there isn’t that much genuine hero worship going on for KJU.
That didn’t stop them from making us refer to him as Marshall Kim Jong Un.
And everywhere you go in the country—everywhere—you see this:
I saw these guys so much it eventually started to seem completely normal, and I began referring to them as “the bros” in my head. Their side-by-side portraits are not only in every public place possible, it’s required that they are on the wall in every single home in the country, and there are random spot checks by the government to check on this. Each family is also given a special towel, the only allowed use of which is to shine the portraits clean every morning. Normal country.
There are also a lot of rules regarding the leaders that apply to visitors as well. When you come up to a statue of one of the bros, you must bow. You must also keep your hands by your side and not behind your back. When you take a photo of one of the statues, you must take the photo of the entire body—it’s not permitted to cut off any part of it. If you have a newspaper or any other paper with a leader on it, you’re not allowed to fold the paper or throw it away. Normal country.
Surprising no one, North Korea comes in dead last in the world in the Democracy Index.
2) Everyone lies about
everything all the time.
The government lies to the outside world. The government lies to the people. The press lies to the people. The people lie to each other. The tour guides lie to tourists. It’s intense.
The lies range from big things—the government hammers away at the message that the US is preparing to attack North Korea, the press depicts South Korea as a suffering and American-occupied country, the leaders’ speeches talk about North Korea being the envy of the world with the highest quality of life—to tiny things—we met a soldier at one point we were told was a colonel, and after he left, a retired army major on my tour told me that he had studied North Korean army uniforms and that the soldier was in fact a captain.
Facts are not a key part of the equation in North Korea.
And it can really mess with your mind as a visitor. I’d find myself in these perplexing situations trying to figure out if a lie-spouting North Korean was in on it or not. Was she thinking, “I know this is false, you know this is false, but I live here so I gotta play the game”? Or was she fully brainwashed and thought she was telling me the truth? It was impossible to tell. During interactions, I’d find myself thinking, “Are you an actor in The Truman Show and you think I’m Truman? Or are you Truman and I’m one of the actors?” Are those kids on the street just pretending to be playing for my benefit? Is any of this real? Am I real?
3) Most visitors to the country are forced to stay in the same hotel when they’re in Pyongyang.
You know why they put all visitors here? Because it’s on an island in the middle of the city—
The government’s biggest fear with visitors is that they sneak off at some point and take photos of something they’re not supposed to see, so this island location (with guards surrounding the hotel) is perfect. We were never let out of our guides’ sight during the day and told that we weren’t to leave the hotel at night under any circumstance.
And even when the rest of the country and much of Pyongyang is without electricity, heat or air conditioning, the Yanggakdo is always bright and comfortable—all part of the plan to project a certain image of the country to visitors.
4) Propaganda is
From the suffocatingnumberofbillboardsandmurals to the postcards and pamphletsand newspapersto everythingonTV, the North Korean people are forced to live and breathe North Korean pride around the clock. There’s even a creepy propaganda band, Moranbong Band, whose members were handpicked by Kim Jong Un. This videoof them played in its entirety on both the flight in and out of the country and in nearly every restaurant we went to, and subsequently haunted my sleep. Goebbels couldn’t hold a candle to the Kims.
The propaganda I saw fell into four categories: 1) The leaders and their greatness, especially Kim Il Sung, 2) images of the North Korean military and its might, 3) negative depictions of the US and South Korea, and 4) images of North Korean people living joyous and sunshiny lives.
5) The tour guides apparently don’t find it awkward to constantly refer to Americans as “American Imperialists” even though I’m standing right there.
The postcard pictured in the last item was just the tip of the iceberg. If one half of the North Korean story is “Kim Il Sung is a great man,” the other half is “The American imperialists started the Korean War and lost, and ever since they’ve been trying to kill and rape us all and take the country over, but our great military won’t allow it.”
The North Korean government is very into anti-US sentiment—largely because they’ve figured out a way to blame basically allof their problems on the US and use fake fear of the US to justify being a poor country the size of Pennsylvania that also has the world’s 4th largest army (not to mention spending an unthinkable amount on nuclear weapon technology).
Check out this tour guide translating the soldier’s description of what might happen to the US when they make their attack:
And this anti-US video we were shown on deck of the USS Pueblo, a US Naval ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968 (it’s also funny how he says “people”):
6) It’s not cool to call North Korea “North Korea.”
The correct term is, “Korea.” All imagesof the country depict the whole peninsula, what today is North and South Korea combined. In their view, they are proud Koreans, living in Korea, the south half of which is unfortunately currently occupied by the Imperialist Americans.
7) Kim Jong Un’s exact year of birth is not a subject you should try to gather information on while in the country.
This is because the exact date is not really known, which apparently upsets them.
8) The same physical place can be fancy and shitty at the same time.
North Korea specializes in the simultaneous fancy shitty place. Simultaneous fancy shittiness happens when a poor country tries to act like things are going fantastically. So there will be a gorgeous museum with huge chandeliers and polished marble floors, but the water won’t be running in the bathroom. Or a high-end restaurant with upscale decor that’s also sweltering hot because the air conditioning isn’t working.
I was told that sometimes visitors are all ready to head into North Korea for their tour when they learn that it’s been mysteriously canceled, and the true reason is something like the water not running in the Yanggakdo Hotel that day.
9) North Koreans still talk about the Korean War constantly.
The Korean War is not a part of everyday life in South Korea. The war ended 60 years ago, and today, South Korea has other things to think about, like being a relevant nation with the world’s 15th biggest economy.
In North Korea, the war is a constant topic of conversation, and almost everything North Koreans learn about it is flagrantly incorrect. The big lie they’re told is that the war was started when the US, occupying South Korea at the time, attacked the unsuspecting North to try to take control over the whole country. They’re told that Kim Il Sung valiantly staved off the Americans and the Americans shrank back in defeat, then continued to occupy South Korea until this day.
Of course, the real story is that Kim Il Sung (who was nothing more than a puppet leader installed by the Soviets because they knew they could control him) tugged on Stalin’s sleeve for years, asking him if he could attack the South with Soviet backing, until finally Stalin said “ugh fuck it fine” and the North attacked. The US was, granted, playing a large role in the South at the time, but they were more focused on other things by that point and were caught off-guard. They responded to the North’s attack by heading in with the UN and joining the South in the fight. Whatever your opinion of the US’s role at the time, they certainly did not start the war by attacking the peaceful North.
But facts never stopped the North Korean government before. There are things like this in every newspaper I looked at.
At the Korean War Museum, known there as the Museum of American Atrocities, our tour guide spent the whole time telling us that the Americans started the war—everyone in the room knew the truth except the tour guide.
10) All kids wear the same uniform all the time, even when they’re not in school.
It’s not actually all kids—it’s kids from the most well-off families. But those are the families they let visitors come into contact with, so that’s what it looked like to me.
11) It’s best to just not bring up the huge rocket hotel in the middle of Pyongyang.
The 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, which started to be built in 1987 and still hasn’t finished, would seem to be an odd undertaking for a nation whose economy had stagnated, whose infrastructure was rotting, and which looks like this at night.
But we’re in North Korea, so why the fuck not.
It’s hard to understand from pictures how weird it is that this building is sitting there in the middle of Pyongyang, a city whose other buildings are all small, shabby concrete blocks from the Soviet Era. The picture below shows a typical Pyongyang building in front of the Ryugyong—
12) North Koreans seem to be lacking a sense of humor about the mausoleum that holds the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.
Here’s what our old buddy Kim Jong Il is up to these days—
This is the one picture in this post that I did not take—cameras were strictly forbidden in the mausoleum, otherwise known as the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which experts say cost somewhere between $100 and $900 million to build.
On a visit with many tense moments, the time I spent in here was the tensest. We had to walk single file in and out and bow three times to each of the two bros.
13) North Korea even manages to have dictator-esque traffic ladies.
Kind of mesmerizing to watch.
14) The Mass Games are both breathtaking and disturbing.
Let’s start with breathtaking. Attending the Mass Games was like attending the opening ceremony of the Olympics. It involves 100,000 (!) performers, many of them young children, depicting the glorious history and thriving modernity of North Korea. The backdrop is a stunning tapestry made of 20,000 kids holding up large colored cards (they have a book of cards and can quickly flip from color to color). I don’t throw the word magnificent around very often, and it was magnificent. The Mass Games takes place four days a week for three months every summer.
For the disturbing part, just say the sentence, “North Korea is one of the world’s poorest countries, a place where millions of people are starving, hospitals no longer function, and there is almost no electricity,” and then read the above paragraph again.
In any case the Mass Games is the perfect North Korean event—centered on propaganda, stresses the collective over the individual, and it makes no sense as a priority given the state of things.
You can see pictureshereand here’s a videoI took which shows a sampling of the show:
15) No North Korean people have access to the internet because the government is concerned that people would see things that would make them feel unfairly critical toward the West, and the government would like to protect the West’s reputation by preventing the people from going on the internet.
Yup. That is the story I was told when I asked our North Korean guide why no one can go on the internet. One of the most absurd explanations for anything—apparently the government isn’t even trying to lie credibly anymore.
What the (most privileged) people do have access to is the North Korean intRAnet, a network limited to government-approved North Korean websites.
Naturally, North Korea performs badly in the Press Freedom Index, coming in second-to-last, beating only Eritrea (nice job, Eritrea).
16) Kim Jong Il used a MacBook Pro.
I saw it myself. After seeing his dead body hanging out in the mausoleum, they took us downstairs to a Kim Jong Il museum, which contained awards and honors he had been given throughout his life, a huge animated map showing every route he traveled in his life, and the train he used hundreds of times during this travel (he was scared of flying).
They showed us the inside of the cart, including the room he (supposedly) died in. In it, there was a change of his favorite outfit and on the desk, a MacBook Pro.
Weird to picture Kim Jong Il putting things in his dock, minimizing windows, and opening his Finder, but that’s what happened.
17) Most of the time people walked together, I swear they were walking in step.
Like come on—
18) North Korea is the one place where the museum of ancient times sounds like the good old days.
Normally, going to a museum of any country’s ancient times makes you think, “Thank god I don’t live then.” Whether it’s hearts getting cut out in Mexico, public executions and the Black Plague in Europe, or brutal totalitarian Empires in Asia, it tends to be a lot better to live “now” than “then.”
But in North Korea, as I was hearing the guide tell story after story of ancient dynasties ruling the peninsula, my thought continued to be, “Eh still sounds better than living here now.”
19) Apparently the tears in this video are actually real.
Okay I’m not sure if they’re all real, or if some people are crying because if they don’t they’ll be sent to a labor camp for the rest of their lives. But I had assumed they were basically all faking that level of emotion, an assumption that was debunked when I heard this story:
A New Zealander who worked for the tour company that arranged my tour told me that he was meeting with an employee of the North Korean government’s tourism agency outside North Korea (one of the rare times you’ll ever see a North Korean outside the country), when the news of Kim Jong Il’s death came in. He said the man, at the time, was trying to sign something with a pen, and that his hand was shaking so violently that he couldn’t do it. The man then tore away to the other room, and emerged a couple hours later, face swollen and eyes red. This was a man outside of North Korea with no reason to fake emotion.
A brutal, heartless totalitarian dictator has to play quite the mind tricks on his people to be truly beloved—the Kims are good at what they do.
20) It turns out that there’s a place in the world that will make you enter China and think, “Thank god for this land of boundless freedom!”
And below are some videos from my visit to the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren’s Palace in Pyongyang, a school for children with elite artistic ability. Of course, only children from the highest ranking families even have a chance to attend this school. (And yes, I am now aware that vertical videos are a bad thing, not a good thing.)
Visiting the kids was the saddest part of the trip. They’re just as deserving as any other kids of a good life and it’s pretty heartbreaking that they’re stuck in such a shitty place. The whole population deserves so much better—hopefully something changes there soon.
Monkey brain waves control hand of paralyzed pal
by Clare Wilson
A monkey controlling the hand of its unconscious cage-mate with its thoughts may sound like animal voodoo, but it is a step towards returning movement to people with spinal cord injuries.
The hope is that people who are paralyzed could have electrodes implanted in their brains that pick up their intended movements. These electrical signals could then be sent to a prosthetic limb, or directly to the person’s paralyzed muscles, bypassing the injury in their spinal cord.
Ziv Williams at Harvard Medical School in Boston wanted to see if sending these signals to nerves in the spinal cord would also work, as this might ultimately give a greater range of movement from each electrode.
His team placed electrodes in a monkey’s brain, connecting them via a computer to wires going into the spinal cord of an anaesthetised, unconscious monkey. The unconscious monkey’s limbs served as the equivalent of paralyzed limbs. A hand of the unconscious monkey was strapped to a joystick, controlling a cursor that the other monkey could see on a screen.
From brain to spine
Williams’s team had previously had the conscious monkey practice the joystick task for itself and had recorded its brain activity to work out which signals corresponded to moving the joystick back and forth. Through trial and error, they deduced which nerves to stimulate in the spinal cord of the anaesthetised monkey to produce similar movements in that monkey’s hand.
When both parts were fed to the computer, the conscious monkey was able to move the “paralyzed” monkey’s hand to make the cursor hit a target.
The work demonstrates that it is possible to create movement in a paralyzed limb without directly stimulating the muscles. The next step, says Williams, is to achieve more complex movements, instead of just moving a joystick in two dimensions. “We are hoping to move the arm in many directions,” he says. “To be functionally useful, you have to have fine movements in three-dimensional space.”
Theoretically, the team could have shown the same result using a single monkey and severing its spinal cord but the resulting injury may have obscured the results – and using two monkeys and anaesthesia was more humane.
“It’s the first demonstration of brain-to-spinal-cord information transmission between two animals,” says Rajesh Rao at the University of Washington in Seattle.