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The Molecule Behind the Golden Rule

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

We have this deep evolutionary system that motivates us to care about complete strangers

I want to start out by telling you about a woman that I interviewed in the San Diego County jail a couple of years ago. Let me call her Lisa. Lisa had been arrested for the 13th or 14th time for possession of methamphetamine for sale. She had served time many times. And I was part of a team that was interviewing her to understand how she had gotten to where she was and if we might help her change the course of her life.

You have to imagine this tiny little room in the county jail. We’re sitting almost knee to knee, about to have a long clinical interview. She’s in an orange jumpsuit, her hands are shackled, and there’s a guard outside the door. Slowly I start talking to her, asking her questions. “When did you first start smoking marijuana?” She said age thirteen. And then I asked, “When did you first start smoking methamphetamine?” She said age thirteen.

So what’s the natural question? “Gee, what happened to you when you were 13?”

She said, “Oh, my mom was a meth user, and she wanted to have someone to party with, so she introduced me to meth.” And then she started to cry, and she said, “And now when my mother calls me in prison to say she loves me, I can’t say it back to her.”

Breaking all appropriate clinical protocol, I said, “I don’t think you have to. Your mother did a terrible thing to you.” And indeed, Lisa had been raped because of meth, she had prostituted herself to get meth, she had married a man who was a meth user who beat her regularly, once fracturing her skull. She had two teenage children who lived in a state far from her because she couldn’t care for them. And she supported herself — though she was homeless — by selling meth.

The deeper question, then, I think, is how is it possible for a mother to do something so horrendous to her child? The trivial answer is, well, her brain was addled by drugs. But when she invited her daughter to start using meth, she was not high, right? She was sober. And she made a decision, a very bad decision.

So then the larger question, which I spent about twelve years in my life trying to understand, is why do any of us treat each other well at all, particularly when no one is looking?

I’m staying at a hotel right now and all the windows in my room are open because it’s hot. My computer is in there, all my stuff is in there. It would not be hard to just walk in there and take all my stuff, right?

Why do I have the windows open? Because I have a sense somehow that it’s safe based on the environment, the people. Earlier, I sat next to this stranger, Marissa, and we were chatting. And she didn’t look stressed out or anything, even though I’m some giant stranger.

How do we do that? How do we navigate through the sea of strangers that we all live in without having something in our brains that tells us who to be around and who not to be around, who is safe and who’s not safe? That’s what we began studying around 2001.

Oxytocin, this molecule that’s classically associated with child birth and breastfeeding, is released in all kinds of settings in which humans have positive social interactions, and it plays the role of a safety-signaling molecule. So when I see Marissa, her brain releases oxytocin, she feels safe to be around me, and now we can interact with each other.

Now, if I did something scary and crazy and weird, her stress hormones would turn on and she would immediately get away from me. Part of this story is that we have this built-in ability to come together as human beings to form relationships with people we have no direct genetic relationship to, and we can extract value from those relationships.

I want to tell you a little about how we’ve actually done this science. These field studies are fun. They show that this really works in the world that we live in.

`Maybe there’s a reason why people behave nicely even when they don’t have to. There is a rich literature in social animals showing that oxytocin allows members of the same species to identify burrow-mates. This is generally done by smell. So when I see my friend Bavindra — but I don’t really see him, I smell him, and he’s in my burrow — I think, Bavindra, he is my friend, I like him. And my brain makes oxytocin and then we can affiliate; we can huddle up for warmth or for safety.

Human beings, I thought, might do the same kind of thing. We don’t initially smell each other, but we recognize through all kinds of signals like body language that someone is safe or not safe. And we can do the same thing. We can affiliate and get all the value of relationships, except as human beings we do it very broadly.

We do it all of the time. We can’t help it. On airplanes, in meetings, all the time we see people we like, they’re friendly, and we can do projects with them or we can form friendships or romantic relationships. It’s all the same molecule. But in 2001, this was really a heterodox.

One of my colleagues actually said, “Paul, this is the world’s stupidest idea. It’s a career-ending decision.” I said, okay, maybe, but there is a big animal literature, and there must be a way to measure oxytocin in humans.

He said, “It’s irrelevant, just a female hormone,” indicating that if this is for women, it can’t be that important.

This was a guy, by the way. And I said, “Yeah, but men’s brains make oxytocin too. There must be a reason why.”

He said, “It’s just residual. You know, it’s not important.”

I said, “Well, I think I can test this, and if I can test it, then I can actually determine for men and for women or for both if oxytocin really matters.”

We decided to tempt people with virtue and vice by using money. Here’s the experiment. Let’s do it, we’ll do it right now. We’ll split the room in half. So half of you guys have $10. You guys have $10, too. You get matched up by computer. We don’t do face-to-face interactions because, since it’s a reproductive hormone, imagine if you’re sitting across from a cute guy or girl, of course you will be totally nice to them. We know that. We don’t want that confound. You’re matched by computer to somebody. You’ll have ten dollars and you’re randomly assigned in this pairing. And it says you’re first decision-maker or you’re second decision-maker. And here’s the task: If you are first decision-maker, you can give up some of your $10, ship it by computer to the other person you are matched to.

You can’t see them, you can’t talk to them, you make just one decision. Whatever you send comes out of your account and gets tripled in the other person’s account. Then the second person gets a message by computer saying, “Person 1 sent you say $15. With the $10 you got for joining the study, you now have $25. Do you want to keep it all, or send some amount back?” No one will know, you get paid in a different building. You’re totally in private.

So the standard view in economics was that if you’re Person 2, money is good. I think it’s a sort of caveman economics: “Oh, money good, me keep money.” It almost never happens in these experiments. What we see happening is that the more money someone sends you, the more money you tend to return to that person.

Person 1 has to sacrifice to make Person 2 better off. What do they expect you to do? Share the money with me, all right, and almost everybody does that. We didn’t care how people feel, we just followed the money. A kind of a Jerry Maguire approach to research: Show me the money, I’ll show you what I care about.

We did blood draws before and after, and we found that the more money you received as the second person in this transaction, the more your brain made oxytocin, and the more oxytocin your brain made, the more money you reciprocated.

This is actually really amazing. This basically blows up all standard economics, and it tells us something important about human nature: Oxytocin is the biological basis for the golden rule.

You play nice with me, I’ll play nice with you — usually. And the “usually” is where the story gets interesting, so I’ll get to that in a minute.

So we’ve done this now for hundreds of people, and in 95 percent of them, their brains make oxytocin and they reciprocate the money.

The next question we asked was, is this just a trust molecule or does it apply to a larger set of moral behaviors? I’m using the word “moral” here in an agnostic sense. I have no religious or philosophical tradition that I’m trying to support. I just mean those social behaviors that we recognize as positive: social behaviors like generosity, trustworthiness, honesty, compassion.

I’m going to study all the behaviors I can. I have a great tool now, and actually oxytocin is hard to measure and has a very short half-life — it is a quick on/off switch. Meaning, if I cause your brain to release oxytocin and you trust me, you don’t leave that switch on because you might run into some bad guy, and this guy might steal all your money.

So we had to do very rapid blood draws. Oxytocin degrades at room temperatures. You have to get the blood fast to keep them cold. So we have to work out these kinds of protocols that now everybody uses, which is great. But it wasn’t an obvious thing when we started.

And I should say lastly that the oxytocin in your blood actually reflects what’s going on in your brain because oxytocin is an evolutionarily old molecule. It actually pre-dates mammals. And we can see in humans we have many more receptors — particularly in the front of the brain — for oxytocin. We’re kind of hyper-social. We are social with people we don’t even know, and it’s because we’re much more sensitive to oxytocin.

We studied that by just changing these tasks over and over and over until we could figure out when this effect kicked in and when it didn’t. In addition, because nothing in the brain or the body happens in isolation, we wanted to make sure that we could actually show a direct causal relationship between oxytocin and these moral behaviors.

We did that by manipulating the oxytocin system. We took these really big drills and we drilled into people… No, we didn’t do that. Instead, we developed this nasal inhaler with which you can spray oxytocin in your brain, it will actually go in your sinuses and kind of leak into brain after about an hour. And it turns out that when you give people intranasal oxytocin, we can turn on moral behaviors like opening up a garden hose. They just spurt out.

People know what they’re doing with others, they just don’t care as much about their own welfare and care more about others. So I think oxytocin is this little molecule that evolved in mammals to motivate care for offspring, and when your brain releases oxytocin, it’s signaling that I’m a member of your family. So it causes us to treat strangers like family, and that’s really beautiful.

We have this deep evolutionary system that motivates us to care about complete strangers.

One of the questions that we asked was, what is the feeling that people have when their brains make oxytocin? Could you tell your brain was making it? The short answer is no, but let me tell you how we discovered it. I had a graduate student in my lab, now a faculty member at Claremont, who’s a social psychologist. He said that in social psychology, we use all kind of things like videos to try to change people’s social states. I wonder if it changes people’s physiologic states, too?

Well, I’m not so keen on that because I don’t want to rely on people telling me how they feel. I’m more interested in behavior. Anyway, he presented this little video that he got from St. Jude Children’s Hospital about a little boy with cancer, and the video runs 100 seconds. I’m not going to play it for you today because the last time I played was at a law conference at UCLA, and several lawyers actually cried when they saw it, and you guys are aware lawyers don’t have souls, right?

So, you nice people would definitely cry, too. It’s quite sad and it’s actually a real case. The little boy’s name is Ben and he died of terminal brain cancer. So it’s emotional, and we took blood before and after and people watched this video and then did these same share-the-money tasks. What we found was that the more oxytocin your brain made, the more empathic you felt towards Ben and his father; you felt emotionally connected to them. So that’s really interesting. And, people who watched the video were generous towards others and to a childhood cancer charity.

So now we have this underlying psychological mechanism that the physiology induces. For example, it’s not that I don’t want to steal Bavindra’s phone — I really do — it’s just that I’m going to feel bad if I do that. And then he’ll feel bad. If I’m a social creature, and if I have any sense of empathy, I’m going to feel bad because he feels bad and then that feeling makes me not want to steal from him.

I think that’s the same reason why in our studies people donate money to childhood cancer charity. When people’s brains release oxytocin, they’re giving up their money — even though we’re torturing them with needles and all kinds of things, they’re giving their money to the childhood cancer charity, not because they can fix Ben, but because they feel terrible that a child was suffering. Again this is a really beautiful thing about human beings — that we care about people at a distance. It’s not just the face-to-face interactions; it’s really the connection to the entire human family.

So why are people moral? What’s the punch line? We can think of three ideas. One is that we’re moral because God made us that way. So as a scientist, I don’t know if God exists or not, it’s not my place to say that; if that works, fine. I’m just not going to go there. Well, we’re going to go halfway there — I’ll tell you about that later.

The second is the government is watching us. Big Brother is here. There must be cameras in this room somewhere, we’re all being recorded, the NSA knows everything we’re doing. I can’t cheat because I’ll get caught, right? Well, these experiments give people a lot of privacy, you can do whatever you want to do, and honestly there are all kinds of situations we’re in which no one knows what we’re doing.

And the last idea is that, as social creatures, we actually care about what the other humans think about us. You know, we say we don’t, but of course we do. And this idea actually is quite old and traces back to Adam Smith, who you guys may remember from Econ 101. He wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. It turns out The Wealth of Nations was his second-best book. His best book was written 17 years earlier. It was called a The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It turns out Smith was a moral philosopher, and he was a kind of a nobody in Scotland — no one heard about him. He writes this book in 1759, and Smith becomes an absolute rock star in Europe.

He’s having dinner with the king of France, he’s hanging out with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin. He developed the first fully terrestrial theory of why people are moral, and he said, “Why are we moral?” Because we have what he called “fellow feeling.” If I do something to hurt somebody, I share that emotion. Since I don’t like pain, I avoid doing those things.

If I do something that brings you joy, I get to share that joy. I like doing that. So most of the time, I’m going to behave in a way that keeps me embedded in the social fabric in which I am. So why is this Smith’s best book? Because he revised The Wealth of Nations three times, he revised The Theory of Moral Sentiments six times, including on his deathbed. He thought it was his more important work.

We have this sense of emotional connection to others which works as sort of a moral compass. It doesn’t always work, and that’s the second half of this lecture.

It doesn’t always work, and when it doesn’t work, the neuroscience is really interesting on what shuts down morality. Smith was doing this by intuition and casual observation of people. But now we can run experiments to ask what inhibits this response, what promotes this response.

But I think he was mostly right. So we can’t help but feel empathy when we see the dog, the homeless person, the child with cancer, and that motivates us to do things that improve our social standing, that make us better human beings, that motivate us to serve others which is just amazing to me. And now we know why.

I want to give you a cautionary note on how not to improve society from a moral perspective. When we first published the research for the oxytocin inhaler, the media frenzy was enormous and overwhelming and mostly wrong. We used synthetic oxytocin, a drug, to show the direct causal relationship between oxytocin and positive social behaviors. We spent most of our time in the intervening six or seven years working on the large variety of situations that causes your brain to make its own oxytocin, and how that affects your behavior. Synthetic oxytocin administration is not the way to improve society.

That’s what I really want to talk about. That’s where the rubber hits the road. Everyone isn’t nice all the time. Why is that? That’s what we started investigating. It turns out that there’s a larger brain circuit that oxytocin activates which I call the HOME circuit, Human Oxytocin-Mediated Empathy circuit, and this circuit utilizes oxytocin and two other neuro-chemicals.

I’ll spend thirty seconds on this because it’s important. One is called dopamine, which is this reinforcement-learning chemical. So when we do something that’s nice, say, I hold the door for Ken and he says “thank you,” our brain makes a little oxytocin and it releases this little reinforcement chemical that says, “Oh, that’s nice. Apparently he must like it when you do that, you should keep doing that.”

We learn from an early age that these are the important behaviors that help sustain us in the community of humans. Second, oxytocin facilitates the release of serotonin, a neuro-chemical you all have heard about. When you have more serotonin, you have an improvement in mood and reduction in anxiety.

So social interactions change body states. So it actually feels good to do good for others.

Given that, the question is what inhibits activity in the circuit, and what promotes activity?

The first is something that you all have experienced, which is high levels of stress. When you’re super-stressed out, you are not your best self, right? You’re grumpy, you’re cranky, you’re not nice to people.

Then what do you have to do the next day? You’ve got to go to your spouse, to your work colleagues or whatever, you say, “I was such a jerk yesterday, I’m sorry.” “I was having a bad day, I got in a car accident and my dog died.” Whatever it is, we understand that. We can have a bad day, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, you’re just having a bad day.

So high levels of stress inhibit the release of oxytocin, and we become less focused on others and more on ourselves. We’re in survival mode. It turns out that moderate levels of stress increase oxytocin release. So for all the single folks out there, for your first date, I recommend riding a roller coaster, tandem skydiving, or bungee jumping. You have this big arousal response and you really want to now be with this person. Or just flying out of the Aspen Airport, I think that will do it, too.

So high stress is one inhibitor. The second inhibitor for oxytocin is the most important chemical for half the people in this audience, which is testosterone. When we administer testosterone to men and compared their behavior to themselves on placebo, men on testosterone are more selfish and more entitled.

For those of you with teenage boys at home, this is not news to you. Why is that testosterone focuses our brain on ourselves? It’s like your brain whispering to you, you have the best genes on the planet, you’re a little god, everyone should bow down in front of you. Now, this is not only valuable for people with teenage boys at home — it turns out that if you win a chess match, your testosterone goes up.

If you do anything challenging, your testosterone goes up. Testosterone goes up both in men and women. It turns out that in men it’s about ten times higher than in women, so the effect is more egregious. But for both sexes, testosterone increases make interactions all about you.

You are the center of attention. By the way, what happens when you speak in public? Your testosterone goes up. So I’m sorry, I’ll try to be more empathic later. So we know a lot about how this system works. We also know that for every study we’ve done in twelve years, on average women release more oxytocin than men. Again, not surprising. Women are nicer than men, we know that. Except when they’re not. Now you know why.

So it turns out that estrogen primes the brain to be more sensitive to oxytocin. And it turns out that progesterone inhibits this response. So it puts on a little brake.

Women are nicer than men but also more complicated.

We also looked at developmental factors that affect oxytocin. Animals that are abused or neglected, not cared for by the mother, have fewer oxytocin receptors, particularly in the front of the brain, which is part of the feel-good circuit.

We studied women who have terrible life histories, who as children were repeatedly sexually abused. So really long-term sexual abuse. We find about half of them don’t have a functional oxytocin system. And they’re socially withdrawn, they are clinically depressed, they have a lot of difficult issues.

On the other hand, the other half was resilient against that abuse, and it didn’t depend on the length of abuse, the extent of the abuse. So the oxytocin system seems fairly robust to moderate amounts of abuse, although all abuse is bad for sure. This system is mostly protected, but enough abuse shuts this system down. By the way, we talked about methamphetamine earlier. Stimulants, like methamphetamine and cocaine, also damage oxytocin receptors. This may be one reason stimulant addicts become socially withdrawn.

I said earlier that 95 percent of people we have tested in a variety of situations release oxytocin in the appropriate way and reciprocate, but 5 percent don’t. Who are the 5 percent? About half of those are people who are just having a really bad day. They are stressed out, but otherwise they are okay people.

The other half have all the attributes of psychopaths.

Last summer my lab and I spent two weeks in the cornfields of Wisconsin at a treatment center for criminal psychopaths. And we took blood from a 161 of these wonderful human beings, all men, and we found that on average when they watched that cancer kid video that makes lawyers cry, nothing. They don’t produce oxytocin. One hallmark of psychopathology is a lack of empathy. It’s not that these individuals are necessarily planning to hurt others. They just don’t care. They see individuals as a tools to an end. They’re going to use you for sex or for drugs or for money. You’re just a hurdle they have to jump over. They just don’t have the same feeling that we do. So they’re dangerous. I recommend you avoid them. Not good people to be around. It’s 2 percent of the free roaming population; it’s around 40 percent of prison population.

But 2 percent isn’t bad, right? Three percent of people are having bad days, and 95 percent are releasing oxytocin and behaving quite nicely. Most of the time, for most people, the system works pretty well. But how do we really know it works well? I’m going to show you some experiments we’ve done around the world in different populations, not just in North America or Europe, and also what I think one of the interesting legal implications, a defense against criminal responsibility.

Let me tell you about a case of a gentleman named Hans Reiser. Reiser was a rising star in the Internet world in Silicon Valley. He started a couple of companies. One of those hit big. He’s married. They have a little child together, a little girl. And at some point, his wife decided she is going to divorce Reiser. And then what happens?

She goes missing. You wonder how that happened, right? It’s always the spouse. You guys know that, you’ve seen all the crime shows, you’ve seen the data, particularly when a woman dies. About 90 percent of the time it’s the spouse. So Reiser is arrested, but they have not found the body. He goes to trial and by the last day of the trial, it’s clear that he’s going to get convicted, and he’s up for the death penalty. So he agrees to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty. He’ll get life in prison if he shows them where the body is.

They go to the Berkeley hills, and he shows them where he dumped her body. He’s in jail for life in San Quentin. After a year at San Quentin, he writes a four-page handwritten appeal in pencil to the governor of California requesting a new trial, citing my research, claiming that his lawyer had what I’ve called oxytocin deficit disorder, ODD. He’s saying his lawyer was a psychopath. Think of the irony of this. Reiser is clearly a psychopath and he’s claiming his lawyer couldn’t represent him fully because his lawyer wasn’t empathic enough.

So that appeal was turned down. I didn’t get to be on the stand as an expert witness (yet). But this is coming, and I think that’s a conversation we need to have as a society.

If my genes made me do it, if my lack of oxytocin made me do it, am I fully responsible for that act? I don’t know.

I’m going to conclude with what you can do with this information. As I started writing my book The Moral Molecule, I spent a bunch of time thinking about why I spent ten years of my life trying to understand morality.

It started out with work I had done on cross-country levels of trust which are predictive of countries’ levels of prosperity. High-trust countries have more social interactions. More social interactions lead to more economic transactions that create wealth that sustains prosperity. The highest trust countries in the world, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, are very homogenous and have good governments. There is almost no social strife. Everything works well in these societies. So trust is a very good measure of a well-functioning society. That’s the dishonest answer about why I studied oxytocin.

Once I understood trust at the country level, then I wanted to understand it at the individual level. But I started writing the book, and I realized that I had another motivation for this, and it was driven by this woman, Sister Mary Maris Stella, also known as…my mother.

My mother was a former Catholic nun. And when I was a child, mom was the ultimate moral authority in our house because she was trained and we were not. You know, the white glove test: dust in your room, you could be going to hell. So mom was a little experimenter with her family, and God bless her, she just passed away about a year ago. But as I got older, I thought, why does mom know best, or why is promoting a top-down morality? Why do some words in a book apply to me?

Why isn’t there a ground-up morality? Why don’t we know what morality is? So I rejected her views, and because of that, in our experiments, we asked the most simple questions about people’s religious beliefs, but basically I didn’t want to touch this issues, it’s the third rail of science. We just asked things like “Do you believe in God?,” “Do you pray?,” “Do you go to church?” None of that really mattered for the experiments, it didn’t affect oxytocin, and it didn’t affect people’s behavior. We just ignored it.

And as I was writing the book, I thought to myself, you should actually address this issue. So we got permission to actually go into churches and take blood before and after religious services, everything from Buddhist to Quakers to Protestants. And we went to different rituals that have the aspects of religious services, but aren’t religious at all.

We had soldiers march around our lab for fifteen minutes and took their blood. We went to folk dances and took blood before and after people danced. And we found in all these situations that a majority of people would release oxytocin, and when they did that, they felt closer to the communities they were in. We did not find that the release of oxytocin changed their sense of connection to God or some ultimate reality.

We used lots of different words to get at this issue. So whatever that feeling comes from, it doesn’t seem to be an oxytocin effect; it’s driven by something else. But I still think that these rituals, just like weddings, are important because they connect us to communities.

So this story I’ve told to you sounds like a kind of human universal, and this work has been replicated now by lots and lots of labs. And we can talk about all the details of the studies if you want, but one question that also nagged me was, is it really universal? Because honestly we did these studies first on college students in the U.S. and in Europe. Then we did free roaming humans. We found in all the same response.

But what about as far away from the developed world as we can get? So to address that question, I flew for thirty hours to the highlands of Papua New Guinea, which is a rainforest. There are 700 distinct languages in Papua New Guinea. It’s the Stone Age there. No running water, no electricity, no bathrooms. I was embedded in a village for a week and took blood before and after an ancient war dance was done by indigenous tribe members. It was really an amazing and life-changing experience. This tribe, it’s about 1,000 people. They live in huts. They live way in the highlands, too far from any markets to grow cash crops. They trade pigs for brides.

It’s really an amazing place in many ways. None of these men had ever been to a doctor or dentist in their life, so they had never seen their blood drawn. So it was an interesting experience for them.

So we had them do the dance. We did a baseline blood draw, had them do their dance for twenty minutes, and then took their blood again. These people are pretty healthy. They’re vegetarian. They do do drugs because they’ve got a lot of spare time. So they smoke pot which, you know, not surprising for you guys in Colorado, and they also use an indigenous drug called betel nut which stains their gums red. It’s a euphoric, and so some of them are kind of spaced out.

Anyway, what we found is that just like in all the other rituals we studied, a majority of men who danced in this ritual released oxytocin, and when they released oxytocin, they felt more connected to the community, they said they were more willing to volunteer to help their community. For example, they are subsistence farmers. They just grow roots, tubers, broccoli, and collect nuts. The people who are addicted to betel nut don’t tend their plots.

What happens to the drug users? Do they starve? I mean, what happens to their plots? They said, “Ah, no, we just take care of it for them. There’s this real sense of community in which if you’re not able to feed yourself, we’ll just take care of you, no big deal.”

So it looks like oxytocin is a universal factor in promoting morality. A moral molecule. The Papua New Guinea experiment was so compelling for me because if you remember this old saying from World War II, FUBAR, this is the FUBAR experiment. Everything went wrong. The liquid nitrogen evaporated on the flight. It was gone. The generators, the voltage was wrong, that didn’t work. We had all these things set up. We had an anthropologist who had to work with this tribe, who had arranged all this. We had gotten permission from the government. Their government, our government, lots of permissions. It took two years to do this. And you’re exhausted, and you get there, and you can do nothing.

So I’m in the village. People are sitting around the hillsides kind of watching the show, the weird white people with cameras coming in. And there’s nothing I could do. The crew was trying to work on getting more liquid nitrogen. In fact, I was so freaked out the camera crew told me, “We do this for a living, you need a break, just take a break.” So I sit down on the grass. People start coming over, looking at me, and in Papua New Guinea, they’re very touchy, they like to touch your hands. And I’m thinking, oh my God, I have to eat with these hands, like, we’ve brought all our own food. Where’s the Purell? Oh my gosh, the body odor is powerful.

And then the little children came up to me, and they started looking at me and I started making faces at them. I don’t speak in this language at all of course. I started making faces, I started playing with them. All of a sudden, we were laughing, we were having fun, and I just relaxed and enjoyed this wonderful opportunity to be in people’s homes.

Amazing people. And I felt so close to my village. So when I got ready to leave with our blood samples, with more liquid nitrogen coming in from Tokyo, we have to get down the mountain and get these things back to LA. And the chief who’s got a fifth grade education says, “Stop, you need to sit down, we have gifts for you.” So I sat down. And the film crew sat down.

These people have nothing. They have no money at all and they made me this beautiful hand-spade, and the chief had someone translate into English a little note that said “In our village, all leaders have hand-spades to till their fields to feed their people, and we thought you needed a hand-spade.” Isn’t this amazing? That’s amazing.

So how stupid are we if we can’t connect to the people around us where we speak the same language, we’re in the same culture, and yet we go around the world and we’re connecting to people who are in some sense totally different than us and another sense, completely the same as us. They have the same things, they love their kids, they want to have a good life. They want to be healthy, they want to enjoy themselves.

We have this sense of morality or appropriate social behaviors, and one of those is trust. As I said earlier, we showed that trust is a big engine for prosperity at the level of countries, and when prosperity is higher, if that wealth is shared equally enough, it means we’re reducing poverty, which reduces the stress people have, which gives them the luxury of releasing more oxytocin, increasing morality.

If prediction by the neuroscience were true, we should see evidence for it.

When we look at cross-country data, we find measures tolerance for people who are different than ourselves increases with income. We find that happiness levels increase with income.

And we recently looked at this in individuals — those who release more oxytocin are more satisfied with their lives. Why? Because they have high quality relationships of all types — romantic, with friends, with family, and even with strangers.

I want to tell you what happened to Lisa, the prisoner. Lisa was either going to serve a three-year jail term for her sentence or do a — a three-year jail term usually is a year-and-a-half for good behavior. So it’s a year-and-a-half in jail or a year-and-a-half in lockdown rehab. And through a series of interviews she was eligible to do a year of lockdown rehab. She learned about drug use. She learned how to stay away from the cues that motivate drug use.

Her goal was to get out of San Diego, where she had been sucked into this drug lifestyle, and move to the state where her children lived. And she indeed did that. The last I heard from her, she had rented an apartment in the same city in which her children lived with her aunt and uncle. And she was beginning to rebuild her relationship with her children. She wasn’t able to care for them yet, but at least she started to rebuild that relationship. And the last note she sent me, she said she had not contacted her mother.

So what’s the take-home? Oxytocin is sometimes called the love molecule. It makes us care about our offspring, our romantic partners. My lab showed that it also makes us care about complete strangers. And we looked at lots of ways we could cause oxytocin release, and one of those was touch. In rodents, if you stroke the belly, you can cause the release of oxytocin. I thought, oh, that’s a good experiment. You’ll come in, I’ll rub your belly and then… That’s kind of weird, right? So I thought, maybe I can do an experiment where you come in and have all the participants hug each other for like ten minutes.

So what’s wrong with that experiment? First of all, I get sued because someone gets their butt grabbed, and that’s not good, and also it’s just creepy, right? So instead we thought, who gets to touch you who you don’t know? Your doctor. Your hairstylist. Your massage therapist.

So we did this study at UCLA, and this was the easiest recruiting of a study we’d ever done. You came in, you get a blood draw, you get ten minutes professional massage therapy, another blood draw, then do a “share the money” task. We found, indeed, that touch released oxytocin and made people much more generous towards strangers. So I thought, how do I apply this to my own life?

I decided some years ago to refuse to shake hands with people and begin to hug everybody. So the students in my lab like to tease me, and they starting saying you’re Dr. Love now, you’re hugging people. Whatever. Anyway I had a reporter come down a couple of years ago from Fast Companymagazine. He wanted to interview me, be in some experiments. It’s always kind of weird when reporters come out because I don’t really know what they want from me and why they’re there and — anyway, he’s getting ready to go, so I said, “Before you go I’m going to give you a hug because I’m the oxytocin guy and I’m all about connection.”

So he titles his article “Introducing Dr. Love.” So I’m outed now as Dr. Love. At first I was kind of unhappy, I’m a serious scientist, I do this work every day. It’s hard, you know, we spend a lot of money on experiments. We work hard to do this work right.

But then when I thought about it, I thought, what a great thing he gave me. I get to go places and talk about love.

Love is a biological reality. Your brain is designed for love. We need love. It’s super important to us. We’ve shown that touch not only increases oxytocin, it reduces stress hormones and improves the immune system. So we need those social relationships. So I encourage you to embrace the “L” word, tell the people around you that you love them.

Even at work, I encourage people to say “love.” It just means I’m interested in you as a human being. I care about what happens to you. And generally people will reciprocate and care about what happens to you as well.

That’s how oxytocin works. I can’t force you to love me, I can only give you love. In the same way, I can’t make my brain make its own oxytocin, but I can give you the gift of oxytocin by, for example, giving you a hug, and you will generally reciprocate. You might even try to use the “L” word.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

These Are the 3 Most Important Trends of the Next Decade

The cable cars in use in the city slums in Medellin, Colombia on January 5, 2013.
Kaveh Kazemi—Getty Images The cable cars in use in the city slums in Medellin, Colombia on January 5, 2013.

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

We can’t continue to delude ourselves that things will get back to “normal” someday

Ten years ago, who would have predicted the rise of the sharing economy, the omnipresence of social media, or that selfies would take the world by storm? And given the rapid pace of change our world continues to experience, it is almost impossible to predict what our world will look like in 2024.

But that was our mission of sorts at this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, which was celebrating its 10 years of thought-provoking, and world-changing, discussions.

In a conversation with the Washington Post’s Phillip Kennicott, I made the case for why building resilience is among the most important priorities of our lifetime, provoked by the three trends I believe will most shape the world for the next decade:

The first is the rapid, astonishing pace of urbanization. With a global population headed towards 9 billion by mid-century, people will be mostly located in cities, in increasingly fragile ecosystems.

The second is climate change, which, over the past decade, has emerged as an undeniable threat to cities, institutions, and businesses. For example, hot weather kills more Americans than all other natural disasters combined, and experts predict that summer heat waves will only worsen, leading to even more illnesses and deaths.

The third trend is globalization. Vulnerability in one place leads to vulnerability in another. Economic shocks and infectious diseases travel quickly, without mind for man-made borders. This will only continue to intensify.

These three factors form a crucial social-ecological-economic nexus, one that has huge—and, frankly, frightening—implications, especially for cities. The shocks and disruptions we experience today, like floods, wildfires, acts of terror, and pandemics, will only get more frequent, more intense, and more dangerous for more people. At the same time, cities also must confront chronic stresses, like crime, which develop more slowly than shocks but are equally devastating over time.

We can’t continue to delude ourselves that things will get back to “normal” someday. They won’t. It’s a losing game to continue to devote our resources to recovering from disasters that, by now, we should know to expect.

And it’s not just about keeping bad things out. Resilience ensures that a city —or other entity—can continue to operate at its highest function on its best and its worst days. It’s a lever for unlocking greater economic development and business investment, as well as improved social services and more broadly shared prosperity.

This is what I call “the resilience dividend.” It has two components:

  • First, it’s the difference between how disruptive a shock or stress might be to a city that has made resilience investments, compared to the degree of disruption the same city would face if it hadn’t invested in building its resilience.
  • Second, it’s the package of co-benefits that investing in resilience can yield to a city—job creation, economic opportunity, social cohesion, and equity, to name a few.

Let me offer an example from my book, The Resilience Dividend, to be released this November.

You may know that Medellin, Colombia was once the most dangerous city in Latin America. For decades it was trapped in a downward spiral of violence and poverty, amid daily tragedies of murder, corruption, drugs, absence of services, and economic disparity.

In the 1990s, the city began to test new ideas and investments to create more resilient communities. One such focus was on mobility and transportation, ensuring that its most vulnerable and impacted communities were better integrated into the fabric of this city, with real access to work and to a variety of services including community centers, public art, health care facilities, and schools. To do this, they developed the first urban “cable car,” or gondola lift, which connects to the city’s subway system. They also built an escalator system climbing the hill to isolated communities, cutting the walk time from the hillside to the economic center of the city from about thirty minutes to about six.

These systems also serve a crucial function as an evacuation route in times of disaster, such as a mudslide or an earthquake, but are also integrated the poorest and most isolated communities into the city center, which has helped to cut down on crime.

Medellin is just one of many cities around the world working to build resilience.

Indeed, last year, The Rockefeller Foundation launched our largest resilience effort yet—100 Resilient Cities, a $100 million initiative to help 100 cities around the world increase their resilience to shocks and stresses, leveraging public finance and the resources of the private sector.

Thirty-two cities have been named so far, with the next group to come later this year: The competition for the second round opens to cities on July 23rd. The cities receive four types of support:

First, support to hire and empower a city Chief Resilience Officer, or CRO, a central point of contact within each city to coordinate, oversee and prioritize resilience activities.

Second, cities receive support to develop a resilience strategy that analyzes and mitigates their vulnerabilities and build on their unique strengths.

Third, cities in this network have access to a platform of services leveraging resources significantly beyond our own to support solutions that integrate big data analytics, technology, resilience land use planning, infrastructure design, and new financing and insurance products.

And fourth, cities become members of the 100 Resilient Cities Network, a peer-to-peer network that shares new knowledge and resilience best practices and fosters new connections and partnerships.

We believe that by creating a market for resilience products and services in 100 cities, more civil society and governments, and more private sector companies, will be incentivized to push the limits of technology and innovation, which will benefit all cities.

For example, exciting resilience innovations have come out of the 3-D printing revolution. In New York Harbor, we are rebuilding after Sandy with a new system to create pilings to replace the aging and cracking ones that support the city’s docks and piers. They’re produced by a massive 3-D printer using “digital concrete,” a new material that is more resilient because it is more flexible, adaptive and strong—and far more cost-effective to build.

That’s just one example of the kind of resilience service helping cities get an economic leg up while better preparing for what’s next. A community that takes advantage of these innovations can deliver incredible benefits for all its citizens, including its poorest and most vulnerable members—not only in times of distress, but each and every day.

Whether the next shock hits today or in 2024, the resilience dividend can help cities to survive, and even thrive, despite the shocks that come their way. The next ten years will see more of what were thought to be only 100-year occurrences.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

We Should Fear the Glitch That Took Down the NYSE

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Here is why we should fear the glitch that took down the NYSE.

By Zeynep Tufekci in the Message

2. Can we keep juvenile offenders out of jail by teaching them how to read emotions?

By Kelly Hubble, Katharine L. Bowen, Simon C. Moore, Stephanie H.M. van Goozen in PLOS ONE

3. To fight the wildfires that plague the west, loggers are helping hack forests.

By Elizabeth Harball and ClimateWire in Scientific American

4. It’s time to short coal.

By Carl Pope in Bloomberg View

5. On the brink of radicalization, Tunisia’s youth need a jobs program.

By Alexander Martin in the Conversation

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Science

The Cloud Will Be the Key to Our Robotic Future

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are the 5 elements of cloud robotics

Robots haven’t yet lived up to their potential, but they’re about to benefit enormously from the Cloud. I’ll describe how a new generation of robots can use wireless networking, big data, machine learning, open-source, and the Internet of Things to improve how they assist us in tasks from driving to housekeeping to surgery.

The roots of this trend go back to the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web was first introduced. I was a young professor at the University of Southern California directing my grad students in a robotics research lab. One afternoon they came to my office and showed me something that blew my mind. On my desktop computer, they launched Mosaic, the first web browser. We explored some of the first web sites, including one where anyone could view a live camera pointed at a coffee pot in a college student lounge. The camera was rigged up by Cambridge University grad students to check when there was a fresh pot available; what you might call “disruptive caffeination.”

That night, my students and I stayed up late in the lab brainstorming about how we could take that idea further. Instead of passively watching things with webcams, could we use the Web to let remote visitors actively move and change the environment in our lab using our robot?

Rather than having the robot do something boring like stacking blocks, what if it could tend a garden filled with living plants? We took an industrial robot arm and fitted it with a digital camera, an irrigation system, and a pneumatic nozzle to pick up seeds. We installed it at the center of a custom circular aluminum planter three meters across and filled it a half-meter deep with potting soil and some starter plants. We designed a graphical web interface that anyone could access to view, water, and plant seeds in the garden by moving the robot.

The Telegarden went online in the summer of 1995. Word got around, and within weeks, thousands of people were visiting this community garden. Many came back regularly to water their plants. There was a chat room where people would post requests saying they were going on vacation and asking if someone could water their plants. Thousands of seedlings began to sprout, and the Telegarden quickly became overgrown. It turned into a study of the Tragedy of the Commons.

We were surprised; we’d been concerned that gardening might be the last thing people would want to do online (this was ten years before Farmville). After a year we were invited to install the Telegarden in a museum in Austria, where it remained online, 24 hours a day, for nine years.

To our knowledge, more people operated that robot than any robot in history.

The Telegarden was the first active device on the web, MIT Press published two books about it, and soon many other devices and systems were connected to the web.

Since then, the field of Robotics has advanced considerably. There are now hundreds of research labs and over a dozen journals. There are over 5 million service robots like the Roomba vacuuming homes and offices and over 3000 robots assisting surgeons in operating rooms around the world. There have also been major advances in digital cameras, inertial motion sensors, and other sensors. When Microsoft introduced the Kinect 3D camera for gaming, it was a major breakthrough for robotics, providing a low-cost way to obtain 3D point clouds that can help robots navigate and manipulate. In 2012, President Obama announced the U.S. National Robotics Initiative with over $70 million in new funding for research.

But robots are not yet folding our laundry or loading our dishes into the dishwasher. These mundane chores are fiendishly difficult for robots. The essential problem is uncertainty. Put yourself in the position of being a robot: everything around you is blurry and unsteady, low-resolution and jittery, you can’t really tell what things are, where they are, and how they are moving. You can’t perfectly control your own hands, it’s like you’re wearing huge oven mitts and goggles smeared with Vaseline. I hope you’re having some sympathy now for robots.

I believe the Cloud is the key to a new generation of robots. Take Google’s robot car. The car uses the network to access Google’s enormous database of maps and satellite and Streetview images and combines it with streaming data from GPS, cameras, and 3D sensors to monitor its own position within centimeters, and with past and current traffic patterns to avoid collisions. This gives Google an enormous advantage over automobile companies like Toyota and General Motors.

Why is Google interested in Robots? Because Google understands the Internet.

BTW, I like Brad Templeton’s observation: “A robot will be truly autonomous when you instruct it to go to work and it decides to go to the beach instead.”

Although robots have been on the Internet for 20 years, in 2010 James Kuffner, a brilliant researcher at Google, coined the term “Cloud Robotics.” The Cloud isn’t just a new name for the Internet. It’s a new paradigm that uses the Internet in new ways. Think of Google Docs. Anyone can send Microsoft Word documents over the Internet, but Google Docs is different: The document and the software don’t live on your computer. Everything is stored in the Cloud using remote server farms with shared memory and processors. This is helpful because you don’t have to worry about your disk crashing or maintaining and updating your software or hardware. The Cloud also provides economies of scale and makes sharing data across applications and users easier than ever. (Of course, it also raises huge privacy and security concerns.)

Here’s what I see as the Five Elements of Cloud Robotics

1. The first element concerns memory. The 2012 indie film Robot & Frank is a masterpiece that offers a unique and I think quite realistic glimpse into the future (like the 2013 film Her by Spike Jonze). A man is growing older and becoming forgetful. His kids send him a robot to help him around the house. It cleans up for him and reminds him to eat healthy and to water his garden. When I saw this film, I could imagine myself wanting a robot like this to remind me to eat kale, take my meds, and do my situps, but also to keep me company, reminding me of relevant memories, maybe even telling me jokes based on current events and what’s happening in my environment. But such household robots aren’t available yet. One problem is that there are thousands of objects in a typical house.

Consider designing a robot to declutter your house. This is very important for anyone who has kids and especially for those of us who are getting older. When a senior citizen drops something on the floor, they may not notice it because of poor eyesight. Even if they see it, it’s not easy to reach down and pick all these things up. But the consequence of slipping and falling can be catastrophic; if you break your hip, for example, it could lead to being bedridden, which leads to loss of circulation and depression. After a certain age, things left on the floor can be fatal.

What if a robot could work quietly while you are sleeping or at work, picking things up off the floor and putting them where they belong? The problem is that no matter how well you program the robot, no matter how many objects it stores in its onboard memory, there will always be something that it hasn’t seen before. Like this new remote control I bought to advance my slides. If it fell on the floor, my robot may not know what to do with it. Is it a chocolate bar? Does it belong on my desk? In the fridge? Or in the garbage?

Fortunately, any robot that’s working in your house will be connected to a wifi network. So it has access to a vast library of information on the Internet, where there’s information on almost every object imaginable. It’s an enormous amount of information, and it’s constantly growing. The problem is that keeping all that memory onboard the robot in your house isn’t feasible. But the Cloud makes that information available on demand. The first element of Cloud Robotics is Big Data.

2. The second element of Cloud Robotics addresses limitations in onboard computer processing. Robots can carry at most a few computers, and there are many problems that require far more computation than those can provide.

Robots are starting to use a statistical approach known as Belief Space.

One exciting approach is to model the environment, sensors, and actions using probability distributions. The mathematical term for this is Belief Space. I know that sounds like something spiritual or from science fiction. But it’s shorthand for Partially Observed Markov Decision Processes (POMDPs). To solve them, to find the optimal action in this context, requires taking the convolution of several distributions. This quickly becomes infeasible as the probability distributions become more complex, multi-modal, and non-parametric.

Finding solutions requires an enormous amount of computing power. Belief Space was considered intractable until very recently, when we gained access to clusters of computers on demand through the Cloud. Such computing power also facilitates statistical optimization, machine learning, and planning motions in high dimensions with many simultaneously moving robots. The second element of Cloud Robotics is Cloud Computing.

3. The third element of Cloud Robotics uses the fact that humans are increasingly connected over the web, exchanging information with each other. Here’s an example. I was born in Nigeria, and I went back there a few years ago. I was surprised to find that there was an enormous interest among students in robotics. In Africa, like all countries, when kids they see a robot, it’s very physical, it’s something that they can identify with, and it catches their interest. Robots are a “gateway drug” for getting students interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). I met students in different areas of Ghana that were excited about robots, but in many cases they didn’t know about each other.

Robots are a “gateway drug” for getting students interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

I met a wonderful professor, Ayorkor Korseh, at Ashesi University. We decided to start the African Robotics Network. And the idea was that we wanted to connect all these groups around not only Ghana, but all over Africa, who are interested in robots, and allow them to learn from each other and develop new tools and new ideas.

Existing educational robots are still relatively expensive. We saw the need for an ultra-affordable robot for education. We created a website and announced a worldwide Design Competition. We set the price target at US $10. We figured that was completely ludicrous but it would get people thinking. After four months we received 28 submissions. Many elegant designs: but the grand prize winner really surprised us.

It was a robot that was made out of a Sony game controller. A designer named Tom Tilley modified a game controller, which anyone can get surplus for about $3 or $4. There are two motors that are built into it that create vibration as you are playing the game. He took them out and attached two wheels to them. The body of the game controller became the body of a mobile robot. He also added lights, but he wanted something that would detect when it bumped into something.

He realized that he could use the two thumb switches on the top. The problem was that when he tested it, the thumb switches wouldn’t react; they needed more leverage. So he needed a counterweight for the thumb switches. He thought about what might work that would be available on fairly low cost and came up with a brilliant idea: lollipops.

What kid could resist a robot with two lollipops on top of it?

Tom calls it the “Lollibot,” and you can find detailed instructions on how to make your own on the web. The total price for all the parts comes to $8.96 (and that includes the lollipops)!

Another exciting development is ROS, the Robot Operating System. It’s an open source software library that has changed the field of robotics. It’s the Linux for robots. When someone comes up with a new algorithm, he or she can immediately load it into ROS and make it accessible to other researchers around the world. The third element of Cloud Robotics is Open-Source: shared access to human ingenuity: code, data, and designs.

4. The fourth element of Cloud Robotics is based on robots communicating directly with each other. Consider Amazon, which has to rapidly fill thousands of orders for books and other products, packing boxes with items that can be located all over huge warehouses. A company called Kiva Systems designed a new type of robots to address this problem. The robots move around storage racks filled with boxes of items. There can be hundreds and thousands of them in a warehouse, and they increase efficiency amazingly. What makes it all work is that these robots are all talking to each other. They are constantly communicating. They work together to coordinate traffic patterns, and if conditions change, like one robot finds a bit of grease on the floor, it instantly alerts the others to avoid it. The fourth element of Cloud Robotics is Robot-to-Robot Learning: robots sharing data and code to collectively improve their performance.

5. The fifth element of cloud robotics concerns error modes, where the robot can’t determine what to do. If you work in robotics, you realize there is always going to be situations where the robot doesn’t know what to do.

When a robot gets stuck, it could ask a human for help.

The Cloud could provide access to call-centers with humans standing by to diagnose the robot’s data and video to suggest steps for recovery, when all else fails. I realize this is the opposite of what happens today, where you call technical support and a robot voice answers. One key to making this work is for the robot to monitor its confidence levels, so it can recognize when it is sufficiently uncertain and needs to stop and request help. So the fifth element of Cloud Robotics is Crowdsourcing.

Until now, Robots have been viewed as self-contained systems with limited computation and memory. Cloud Robotics suggest an exciting alternative where robots access and exchange data and code via wireless networking.

The Five Elements of Cloud Robotics are:

  1. Big Data: indexing a global library of images, maps, and object data,
  2. Cloud Computing: grid computing on demand for statistical learning, and motion planning,
  3. Open-Source: humans sharing robot code, data, algorithms, and hardware designs,
  4. Collective Robot Learning: robots sharing trajectories, control policies, and outcomes that can be analyzed with statistical machine learning methods and
  5. Crowdsourcing and call centers: offline and on-demand human guidance for evaluation, learning, and error recovery.

Cloud Robotics will build on related effort including the “Internet of Things,” “IBM’s Smarter Planet,” General Electric’s vision of the “Industrial Internet,” and Siemens’ concept of “Industry 4.0.” These approaches have enormous potential but also open a Pandora’s Box of issues related to privacy and security. But when robots have their heads in the clouds, the sky’s the limit.

Why We Love Robots is a five-minute short documentary film (co-directed with my wife, award-winning filmmaker Tiffany Shlain) that combines cultural references and found footage to explore our human fascination with robots and emerging research in Cloud Robotics. It was nominated for a 2104 Emmy Award and won a “Botscar” (Robot film Oscar) at the 2014 Robot Film Festival.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How To Engineer Serendipity

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

It isn’t happy accidents—It’s a state of mind

I’d like to tell the story of a paradox: How do we bring the right people to the right place at the right time to discover something new, when we don’t know who or where or when that is, let alone what it is we’re looking for? This is the paradox of innovation: If so many discoveries — from penicillin to plastics – are the product of serendipity, why do we insist breakthroughs can somehow be planned? Why not embrace serendipity instead? Because here’s an example of what happens when you don’t.

When GlaxoSmithKline finished clinical trials in May of what it had hoped would be a breakthrough in treating heart disease, it found the drug stank — literally. In theory, darapladib was a wonder of genomic medicine, suppressing an enzyme responsible for cholesterol-clogged arteries, thus preventing heart attacks and strokes. But in practice it was a failure, producing odors so pungent that disgusted patients stopped taking it.

Glaxo hadn’t quite bet the company on darapladib, but it did pay nearly $3 billion to buy its partner in developing the drug, Human Genome Sciences. The latter’s founder, William Haseltine, once promised a revolution in drug discovery: After we had mapped every disease to every gene, we could engineer serendipity out of the equation. Darapladib was to have been the proof — the product of scientists carefully picking their way through the company’s vast genetic databases. Instead it’s a multi-billion-dollar write-off.

Big Pharma is hardly alone when it comes to overstating its ability to innovate, although it may be in the worst shape. By one estimate, the rate of new drugs developed per dollar spent by the industry has fallen by roughly a factor of 100 over the last 60 years. Patent statistics tell a similar story across industry after industry, from chemistry to metalworking to clean energy, in which top-down innovation has only grown more expensive and less efficient over time. According to a paper by Deborah Strumsky, José Lobo, and Joseph Tainter, the average size of research teams bloated by 48 percent between 1974 and 2005, while the number of patents per inventor fell 22 percent during that time. Instead of speeding up the pace of discovery, large hierarchical organizations are slowing down — a stagflationary principle known as “Eroom’s Law,” which is “Moore’s Law” spelled backwards. (Moore’s Law roughly states that computing power doubles every two years, a principle enshrined at the heart of technological progress.)

While Big Pharma’s American scientists were flailing, their counterparts at Paris Jussieu — the largest medical research complex in France — were doing some of their best work. The difference was asbestos. Between 1997 and 2012, Jussieu’s campus in Paris’s Left Bank reshuffled its labs’ locations five times due to ongoing asbestos removal, giving the faculty no control and little warning of where they would end up. An MIT professor named Christian Catalini later catalogued the 55,000 scientific papers they published during this time and mapped the authors’ locations across more than a hundred labs. Instead of having their life’s work disrupted, Jussieu’s researchers were three to five times more likely to collaborate with their new odd-couple neighbors than their old colleagues, did so nearly four to six times more often, and produced better work because of it (as measured by citations).

The lesson? We still have no idea how to pursue what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously described as “unknown unknowns.” Even an institution like Paris Jussieu, which presumably places a premium on collaboration across disciplines, couldn’t do better than scattering its labs at random. It’s not enough to ask where good ideas come from — we need to rethink how we go about finding them.

I believe there’s a third way between the diminishing returns of typical organizations and sheer luck. In Silicon Valley, they call it “engineering serendipity,” and if that strikes you as an oxymoron (which it is), perhaps we need to step back and redefine what serendipity means:

  1. Serendipity isn’t magic. It isn’t happy accidents. It’s a state of mind and a property of social networks — which means it can be measured, analyzed, and engineered.
  2. It’s a bountiful source of good ideas. Study after study has shown how chance collaborations often trump top-down organizations when it comes to research and innovation. The challenge is first recognizing the circumstances of these encounters, then replicating and enhancing them.

Any society that values novelty and new ideas (like our innovation-obsessed one) will invariably trend toward greater serendipity over time. The push toward greater diversity, better public spaces, and an expanded public sphere all increase the potential for fortuitous discoveries.

The flip side is that institutions failing to embrace serendipity will ossify and die. This is especially true in our current era of incessant disruption, as seen in rising corporate mortality rates and a surge of unpredictable “black swan” events. (Nassim Taleb’s advice for taming black swans, by the way? “Maximize the serendipity around you.”)

Finally, the greatest opportunities for engineering serendipity lie in software, which means we must take great care as to who can find us and how, before Google (or the NSA) makes these choices for us.

It’s no coincidence Silicon Valley is obsessed with serendipity. Everyone is familiar by now with the origins of the Post-it Note, Velcro, corn flakes, and Nike’s waffle sole, to say nothing of Teflon, Kevlar, dynamite, and vast swaths of modern chemistry and medicine. The Valley’s contributions include microprocessors and inkjet printers, while Steve Jobs didn’t discover desktop computing or the mouse until a reluctant visit to Xerox PARC in 1979 — which beget the Macintosh and everything after.

When Yahoo banned its employees from working from home in 2013, the reasons the struggling company gave had less to do with productivity than serendipity. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” explained an accompanying memo. The message from new CEO Marissa Mayer was clear: Working solo couldn’t compete with lingering around the coffee machine waiting for inspiration — in the form of a colleague — to strike.

Google and Facebook have gone Yahoo one better. Rather than sit back and wait for serendipity to happen, the search giant has commissioned a new campus expressly designed, in the words of its real estate chief, to maximize “casual collisions of the work force.” Rooftop cafés will offer additional opportunities for close encounters, and no employees in the complex will be more than two and a half minutes away from one another. “You can’t schedule innovation,” said David Radcliffe, but you can make introductions — as both Googlers and Mayer know well. The latter attributes the genesis of such projects as Gmail, Google News, and Street View on her watch to engineers meeting fortuitously at lunch.

Meanwhile, Facebook has hired architect Frank Gehry to build “the perfect engineering space: one giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together,” founder Mark Zuckerberg explained. The goal of each company is the same: to create the best conditions for spreading the most valuable kind of ideas — the hunches locked inside our skulls until a felicitous combination of circumstances sets them free.

Mayer’s demand for proximity ignited a debate that’s still raging: What’s the best way to work, together or alone? Finally breaking her silence on the matter in the spring of 2013, she conceded “people are more productive when they’re alone,” then added, “but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together. Some of the best ideas come from pulling two different ideas together.”

She’s right. (Not that Yahoo has many ideas to show for it.) We experience moments of serendipity daily, each with potentially huge payoffs down the road. But because we can’t predict which ideas will collide and fuse, we cling to boring productivity and efficiency. We not only run our lives but our entire economy this way, using GDP and even grosser statistics to measure progress that has never unfolded in a straight line. Life is emergent and unknowable — we’re just terrified to manage it that way. And because we only attribute our success to serendipity after the fact (if at all), we typically consign it to anecdotes (e.g. Post-it Notes), turning to them only when the numbers don’t add up. The problem is that more and more of the most important numbers — including patent applications, R&D budgets, and even economic growth — have stopped adding up.

We take the pace of innovation for granted. We assume that like Moore’s Law, the rate of scientific discoveries and inventions is smoothly accelerating. But we’re wrong. A growing body of research suggests the opposite is true; Eroom’s Law rules. That this is happening in nearly every industry means something deeper is at work — that the corporation itself is reaching its limits when it comes to invention. Like the long-dead societies he’s excavated, Joseph Tainter — who’s most famous for his book The Collapse of Complex Societiesbelieves companies have become too rigid and hierarchical to survive disruption, seeking only to discover what they already know. What’s missing is serendipity.

The same phenomenon that produced a gusher of new research papers at Paris Jussieu once produced the laser and transistor at Bell Labs and breakthroughs in linguistics and acoustics at MIT. It’s still happening in places like IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, where a chance meeting of a physicist and biologist in a hallway a few years ago led to a tiny microchip able to single-handedly sequence long strands of DNA. It’s no accident that the Watson Research Center produces more patents per year than any other building in the world, and IBM more than any other company.

In all of these cases, serendipity was responsible for the bridging of what the University of Chicago sociologist Ronald Burt calls “structural holes,” which appear when org charts and other formal structures create gaps in the informal network of experts floating through a company, campus, or city. In a landmark study a decade ago, Burt found that managers who straddled holes between teams and domains consistently produced better ideas than those who did not (and were rewarded accordingly). “This is not creativity born of genius,” he wrote. “It is creativity as an import-export business.” The easiest way to discover an idea, it would seem, is to borrow one.

Burt’s findings have been borne out again and again; in one study, a slight increase in serendipity generated more revenue and projects while speeding up their completion. (Contrary to Mayer’s mea culpa, it appears bumping into people makes you more productive, too.)

There’s a rich vein of research running through sociology, anthropology, network science, and management theory explaining how serendipity increases one’s “absorptive capacity,” i.e., our ability to recognize, assimilate, and put to use knowledge from outside our personal experience. Other studies demonstrate how successful firms harness serendipity to lower the costs and barriers to collaboration. And still others suggest that how we share “non-redundant information” across a social network is more important than the experience or credentials of any one person in the network itself, which explains how scattering scientists across a campus at random could vastly improve the quality of their work.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about all of these examples is that they were unintentional. Serendipity may not be luck after all — there is a hidden order to how we find new ideas and people — but we will never realize more than the tiniest fraction of its potential as long as we treat it that way. So how do we go further and actually plan for serendipity?

The first step takes place in our own minds. A few years ago, an Australian psychologist named James Lawley realized that no one had mapped the experience of serendipity before. Upon re-reading the letter in which the British aristocrat Horace Walpole coined the word in 1754, he noticed the fabled Three Princes of Serendip “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Today, all anyone remembers are the accidents. But equally important is sagacity, which the chemist Louis Pasteur famously called “the prepared mind.”

“What kind of mind is it?” Lawley asks. “One that thinks more systematically than simple cause-and-effect.” In other words, it’s a mind that’s open to the unexpected, to thinking in metaphors, to holding back and not jumping to conclusions, and to resist walls between domains and disciplines. It’s a mind that looks a lot like Joi Ito’s.

Ito is a former DJ, venture capitalist, and entrepreneur who moved to Dubai on a whim to get a better feel for the place. (That’s when he wasn’t traveling 300 days a year.) “My job was running around mostly making connections,” is how he describes it. That was before he was picked to run the MIT Media Lab, despite never finishing college himself.

Headlining a panel at 2013’s South by Southwest titled “The New Serendipity,” Ito talked about the qualities he’s cultivated within himself — being “antidisciplinary” and retaining his “beginner’s mind” — which he hopes will guide the Media Lab. “We aim to capture serendipity,” he said. “You don’t get lucky if you plan everything — and you don’t get serendipity unless you have peripheral vision and creativity.”

That’s also true for the next step, which is engineering serendipity into organizations. For all the talk of “failing faster” and disruptive innovation, an overwhelming majority of companies are still structured along predictable lines. Even Google cancelled “20 percent time,” its celebrated policy of granting engineers one day a week for personal projects. To capture serendipity, the company is looking at space instead of time — hence the design of its new campus, in which everyone is just a short “casual collision” away.

But how can we do a better job of bringing people together than installing bigger cafeteria tables, adding another coffee machine, or locking all the bathrooms but one? A start would be to tear down the walls preventing colleagues in one department or company from bumping into peers from another. That’s what AT&T has done with its worldwide Foundry network, where selected startups and entrepreneurs work alongside its own engineers as well as those from partners such as Intel, Cisco, and Ericsson. One of these startups, Intucell, improved AT&T’s call retention and throughput speeds by 10 percent and was later bought by Cisco for $475 million. In general, Foundry teams have cut the development time of new products from three years to nine months.

It’s telling that the Foundry outpost in Silicon Valley is stationed in downtown Palo Alto, where the chances of someone dropping in on their walk back from lunch are substantially greater than in some exurban office park. Cities are the greatest serendipity engines of all. They began life at crossroads as places to exchange goods and later ideas with others you would never encounter on the farm.

Only recently, we’ve come to recognize great ones for what they are — not as collections of skyscrapers (which China can build but can’t fill), but as the sum of their dense, rich, and overlapping networks of people. “They’re not a set of people, they’re not a set of roads; they’re a set of interactions,” says Luis Bettancourt, a physicist who describes cities as “social reactors.” Like the sun, they’re places where strangers collect, collide, and fuse — releasing tremendous heat and light in the process. What makes a city great, in other words, is how well its people are connected — to the city itself and to each other. And to make a city better, you have to engineer serendipity.

Which is what Tony Hsieh is trying to do in Las Vegas. Much has been written about the Zappos CEO’s flailing efforts to terraform downtown into a desert facsimile of Brooklyn or the Mission district, but his instincts are correct. He envisions every bar and coffee shop around the company’s downtown campus as an extension of its conference rooms, inviting strangers to work alongside his employees. He fervently believes blurring the line between the city and his company will make people in both smarter, happier, and more productive. “If you accelerate serendipity,” he says, “you’ll accelerate learning.”

To ensure that happens, he’s imported dozens of tech startups for his employees to learn from. Stipulated in their contracts is a promise to spend “1,000 hours per year of serendipitous encounters” downtown, searching for collisions and conversations. While it remains to be seen whether Hsieh can build a successful creative class company town, he’s right to believe the energies of the city are greater than any one company.

The final piece is the network. Google has made its ambitions clear — as far as chairman Eric Schmidt is concerned, the future of search is a “serendipity engine” answering questions you never thought to ask. “It’ll just know this is something that you’re going to want to see,” explained artificial intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil shortly after joining the company as its director of engineering.

One antidote to this all-encompassing filter bubble is an opposing serendipity engine proposed by MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman. In his book, Rewire, he sketches a set of recommendation and translation tools designed to nudge us out of our media comfort zones and “help us understand whose voices we’re hearing and whom we are ignoring.”

As Zuckerman points out, the greatest threats to serendipity are our ingrained biases and cognitive limits — we intrinsically want more known knowns, not unknown unknowns. This is the bias a startup named Ayasdi is striving to eliminate in Big Data.Rather than asking questions, its software renders its analysis as a network map, revealing hidden connections between tumors or terrorist cells, which CEO Gurjeet Singh calls “digital serendipity.”

IBM is trying something similar with Watson, tasking its fledgling artificial intelligence software with reading millions of scientific papers in hopes of finding leads no human researcher would ever have time to spot. Baylor’s College of Medicine used it this way to identify six new proteins for cancer research in a month; the entire scientific community typically finds one per year.

Baylor’s experiment — much like Paris Jussieu’s unintentional one — tells us something profound about the potential for new discoveries. Rather than compiling ever-bigger data sets or throwing more bodies at a problem, we need tools, organizations, and environments geared less toward efficiency — which is suffering from decreasing returns — and more toward what John Hagel III and John Seely Brown call “scalable learning,” in which serendipity is crucial.

So, what if we borrowed Ayasdi to power a social serendipity engine — one to identify who’s nearby, parse our hidden relationships, and make introductions? How would it work? We’d want it to be as easy as Tinder, which now owns half the mobile dating market. Next, we’d need context — why do I want to meet this person? Tinder works because its logic is binary: Swipe right or left. Everything else is harder.

That context exists somewhere in our data exhaust. For example, Relationship Science has mapped the connections between 3 million members of the 1 percent using publicly available information from more than 10,000 databases. Its customers use it to trace paths to their quarry via colleagues, corporate boards, and alma maters, with each link graded into strong, medium, and weak ties. Meanwhile, a startup named Rexter mines users’ email, calendars, and contacts to calculate the value of their connections and assign tasks accordingly. And, of course, there’s no shortage of sensors available — from smartphones to beacons to “sociometric badges.”

Now, take all of that and run it through Ayasdi’s digital serendipity engine. We could conceivably perform the equivalent of Baylor’s Watson experiment with the researchers of Paris Jussieu, plugging hundreds if not thousands of structural holes in months or even weeks, rather than fifteen years. What would we find then?

Usually, when I describe this vision, someone will reply, “But that isn’t serendipity!” I’m never quite sure what they mean — because it isn’t random or romantic? Serendipity is such a strange word; invented on a whim in 1754, it didn’t enter widespread circulation until almost two centuries later and is still notoriously difficult to translate. These days, it means practically whatever you want it to be.

So, I’m staking my own claim: Serendipity is the process through which we discover unknown unknowns. Understanding it as an emergent property of social networks, instead of sheer luck, enables us to treat it as a viable strategy for organizing people and sharing ideas, rather than writing it off as magic. And that, in turn, has potentially huge ramifications for everything from how we work to how we learn to where we live by leading to a shift away from efficiency — doing the same thing over and over, only a little bit better — toward novelty and discovery.

This essay was made possible with the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

How to Go From Evaluation to Inspiration

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

Inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated

We live in a culture saturated with evaluation.

In school, we learn to take tests. We take the tests, and depending on the outcome, either feel really smart or really stupid. We then prepare for college entrance exams. And then graduate entrance exams. And then occupational entrance exams. Then on the job, we are constantly being evaluated, evaluated, evaluated. With all this evaluating, we have little time left for inspiration. We have little time left to explore the full range of possible roles in life, and see which really activates us.

This matters.

In a culture obsessed with measuring talent, ability, and potential, we often overlook the important role of inspiration in enabling potential.

Inspiration awakens us to new possibilities by allowing us to transcend our ordinary experiences and limitations. Inspiration propels a person from apathy to possibility, and transforms the way we perceive our own capabilities. Inspiration may sometimes be overlooked because of its elusive nature. Its history of being treated as supernatural or divine hasn’t helped the situation. But as recent research shows, inspiration can be activated, captured, and manipulated, and it has a major effect on important life outcomes.

Inspiration has three main qualities. Psychologists Todd M. Thrash and Andrew J. Elliot have noted these core aspects of inspiration: evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation.

  1. Inspiration is evoked spontaneously without intention. People are usually inspired by something, whether it’s an inspiring role model, teacher, or subject matter. Which is all the more reason why we ought to create the conditions for inspiration.
  2. Inspiration is transcendent of our more animalistic and self-serving concerns and limitations. Such transcendence often involves a moment of clarity and awareness of new possibilities for oneself as well as others. As Thrash and Elliot note, “The heights of human motivation spring from the beauty and goodness that precede us and awaken us to better possibilities.” This moment of clarity is often vivid, and can take the form of a grand vision, or a “seeing” of something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there).
  3. Inspiration involves approach motivation, in which the individual strives to transmit, express, or actualize a new idea or vision. According to Thrash and Elliot, inspiration involves both being inspired by something and acting on that inspiration.

Inspired people share certain characteristics. Thrash and Elliot developed the “Inspiration Scale,” which measures the frequency with which a person experiences inspiration in their daily lives. They found that inspired people were more open to new experiences, and reported more absorption in their tasks. Openness to experience often came before inspiration, suggesting that those who are more open to inspiration are more likely to experience it. Additionally, inspired individuals weren’t more conscientious, supporting the view that inspiration is something that happens to you and is not willed. Inspired individuals also reported having a stronger drive to master their work, but were less competitive, which makes sense if you think of competition as a non-transcendent desire to outperform competitors. Inspired people were more intrinsically motivated and less extrinsically motivated, variables that also strongly impact work performance.

Inspiration was least related to variables that involve agency or the enhancement of resources, again demonstrating the transcendent nature of inspiration. Therefore, what makes an object inspiring is its perceived subjective intrinsic value, and not how much it’s objectively worth or how attainable it is. Inspired people also reported higher levels of important psychological resources, including belief in their own abilities, self-esteem, and optimism. Mastery of work, absorption, creativity, perceived competence, self-esteem, and optimism were all consequences of inspiration, suggesting that inspiration facilitates these important psychological resources. Interestingly, work mastery also came before inspiration, suggesting that inspiration is not purely passive, but does favor the prepared mind.

Inspiration is not the same as positive affect. Compared to the normal experiences of everyday life, inspiration involves elevated levels of positive affect and task involvement, and lower levels of negative affect. Inspiration is not the same state as positive affect, however. Compared to being in an enthusiastic and excited state, people who enter an inspired state (by thinking of a prior moment they were inspired) reported greater levels of spirituality and meaning, and lower levels of volitional control, controllability, and self-responsibility for their inspiration. Whereas positive affect is activated when someone is making progress toward their immediate, conscious goals, inspiration is more related to an awakening to something new, better, or more important: transcendence of one’s previous concerns.

Inspiration is the springboard for creativity. Inspired people view themselves as more creative and show actual increases in self-ratings of creativity over time. Patent-holding inventors report being inspired more frequently and intensely than non-patent holders, and the higher the frequency of inspiration, the higher the number of patents held. Being in a state of inspiration also predicts the creativity of writing samples across scientific writing, poetry, and fiction (as judged by a panel of fellow students) independent of SAT verbal scores, openness to experience, positive affect, specific behaviors (e.g., deleting prior sentences), and aspects of the product quality (e.g., technical merit).

Inspired writers are more efficient and productive, and spend less time pausing and more time writing. The link between inspiration and creativity is consistent with the transcendent aspect of inspiration, since creativity involves seeing possibility beyond existing constraints. Importantly, inspiration and effort predict different aspects of an activity. Individuals who exerted more effort writing spent more of their time pausing, deleted more words, wrote more sentences per paragraph, and had better technical merit and use of rhyming in poems, but their work was not considered more creative.

Inspiration facilitates progress toward goals. In a recent study conducted by Marina Milyavskaya and her colleagues, college students were asked to report three goals they intended to accomplish throughout the course of the semester. They then reported on their progress three times a month. Those who scored higher on the Inspiration Scale displayed increased goal progress, and their progress was a result of setting more inspired goals. Therefore, people who were generally more inspired in their daily lives also tended to set inspired goals, which were then more likely to be successfully attained.

Importantly, the relationship between inspiration and goal progress was reciprocal: goal progress also predicted future goal inspiration. As the researchers note, “this suggests that goal progress and goal inspiration build on each other to form a cycle of greater goal inspiration and greater goal pursuit.” Finally, inspired individuals reported experiencing more purpose in life and more gratitude.

Inspiration increases well-being. In another study, those who were exposed to Michael Jordan’s greatness experienced higher levels of positive affect, and this increase in positive affect was completely explained by their score on the Inspiration Scale. This inspiration was not transitory though, predicting positive well-being (e.g., positive affect, life satisfaction) three months later! Inspiration was more strongly related to future than to present satisfaction. The extent to which inspiration lasted was explained by self-reported levels of purpose and gratitude in life.

These findings show that inspiration matters a lot, which may cause someone to feel pressure to become inspired and helpless to do so considering the evocative and spontaneous nature of inspiration. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert rightly expresses this concern in her inspiring TED talk. I agree with Gilbert that one should not put pressure on oneself to become inspired. These key scientific findings suggest that inspiration is not willed– it happens. Knowing this should free you from the pressure to make inspiration happen.

This does not mean that inspiration is completely outside your control. Contrary to the view of inspiration as purely mythical or divine, I think inspiration is best thought of as a surprising interaction between your current knowledge and the information you receive from the world.

There are things you can do to increase the likelihood of inspiration occurring. Research shows quite clearly that preparation (“work mastery”) is a key ingredient. While inspiration is not the same as effort, effort is an essential condition for inspiration, preparing the mind for an inspirational experience. Openness to experience and positive affect are also important, as having an open mind and approach-oriented attitude will make it more likely that you will be aware of the inspiration once it arrives. Small accomplishments are also important, as they can boost inspiration, setting off a productive and creative cycle. Another incredibly important, and often overlooked trigger of inspiration is exposure to inspiring managers, role models, and heroes.

To become personally inspired, the best you can do is set up the optimal circumstances for inspiration. As a society, the best we can do is assist in setting up these important circumstances for everyone. An easy first step is simply recognizing the sheer potency of inspiration, and its potential impact on everything we do.

It’s time to shift from a culture of evaluation to a culture of inspiration.

I personally can attest to the power of inspiration. As a child in special education, I had no identity, purpose, or passion. I was thoroughly uninspired. Until one day, a special education teacher questioned my place in the school hierarchy, causing me to question my own perceived and self-imposed limitations. That moment changed everything.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


IBM Says It Has Created the World’s Most Powerful Computer Chip

Surprise, surprise — it's component parts are smaller than ever

Abating concerns of slowed innovation, tech giant IBM announced on Thursday that it had created a new computer chip with approximately four times the processing power of today’s top models. Though there are now working models of the new chip, IBM has not yet revealed when it might be available for commercial use.

The new chip features seven-nanometer transistors, half of the 14-nanometer transistors that are currently the industry standard. This innovation removes Moore’s law—which states that the transistors in a densely integrated circuit will double every two years—from jeopardy through at least 2018. IBM now believes it will be capable of building microprocessors with 20 billion transistors.

IBM says that the new chip was made possible in part by utilizing silicon-germanium rather than pure silicon.

[New York Times]

TIME psychology

How You Can Slow Down Time

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Look into your experience

“This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.”

– Gollum, The Hobbit

Time has long seemed to be one of humanity’s greatest foes, a mysterious force that we really only seem to notice when we are its victims. At the end of a vacation we might ask how time went by so fast. When stuck in traffic we wonder how it can move so slow. But it’s rare for us to reflect happily on its passage.

In the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca’s essay “On the Shortness of Life”, the first-century Stoic rebuts the oft-heard claim that life is too short: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing… our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.” Seneca argues that we must watch how we spend our time the same way we tend to guard our money.

But what is it that he suggests we save our time for? The study of philosophy, an occupation which brings us out of time completely and allows us to converse with the greatest minds of old – this is what Seneca most valued. On the off chance you don’t share his enthusiasm, modern psychology offers another perspective.

Why does time pass so quickly?

Time Warped is a book by Claudia Hammond which explores the way our minds perceive time. To Hammond, the acceleration of time that we feel isn’t just an error, a trivial mark of our mental weakness. It is an essential aspect of the world of time in which we humans live. Time as we know it does not steadily progress along a linear path, it changes in pace as we look at it forwards and backwards, influenced by our memory and attention. To understand the human struggle with the passage of time we must understand it as a human struggle.

Why does time pass so quickly? Looked at closely you should be able to answer this for yourself. When you are engaged in an activity which you enjoy or which fully captures your attention, you may find that you’ve completely lost track of time and more of it has passed than you had thought. On the other hand, boredom slows it down. Regarding the larger scale of weeks and months, many researchers have found that time seems to have passed more quickly when we have had less new experiences. This explains why many feel that time passes faster as they grow older. The first couple decades of life are filled with new experiences as we sample what life has to offer. Looking back this time seems to have been so well packed with activity that we imagine it must have passed quite slowly. But as we get older and find the patterns most comfortable to us we often notice time speeding up in retrospect, as our memories are filled with less of those new stand-out events.

How do we make time go slower?

Using this information, Hammond offers some suggestions for combating the ailments of time. If you wish to look back and feel that your time has been long and well-spent, actively fill it with new activities. But, she warns, you may find that the relaxing but less note-worthy preoccupations you appreciate are not so much worse. Alternatively, when faced with a block of bored time she suggests the obvious: Find something to keep your attention. She recommends giving the practice of mindfulness a try, closely observing the world around you.

In the book Hammond addresses a myriad of similar topics which share one interesting thing in common: When we look to battle the mysterious withering force of time, we never combat it directly. This is because time was never really fighting us. Our memories may make us fear that we are wasting away. Our boredom may drive us insane. But time looks on, simply serving as a marker to us, a mysterious but unthreatening experience composed of mental processes. You’ll have a hard time escaping it, maybe you’ll save yourself some trouble if you befriend it?

“A book no more contains reality than a clock contains time. A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let’s not kid ourselves – all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.”

– Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

This article originally appeared on Bit of News

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

It’s Time to Catalyze Public Innovation Education for Government

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The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

Opportunities for collaboration have never been greater

A countless number of the expert speakers and innovators at #AspenIdeas Festival are either current or former government leaders who are helping guide the process of where and how communities, philanthropy, arts, and business can come together to solve the most intractable issues of our time.

From a discussion with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) on mass incarceration, to Improving Urban Public Schools with Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D-Chicago) and Preventing Violence in America with Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D-New Orleans), civic leaders face many of the same challenges of the past century. But this generation of civic leaders are often tasked with solving them without the time, training or talent to match current needs — regardless of relevance or cost effectiveness.

As we’ve noted before, governments are hamstrung by legacy processes while a fast-moving public demands increased responsiveness. At the same time, opportunities for collaboration between the public and private sectors have never been greater. As one local government leader put it, “We’re now riding the second wave of civic pro-bono and civic innovation.”

So how can 20th century government effectively scale 21st century solutions to resolve these intractable challenges?

Well, to capitalize on the immense interest in civic collaboration, governments at all levels need training to leverage this new generation of public-private partnerships. Civic leaders and public employees could benefit from executive-level training in public sector innovation to:

· Get familiar with the opportunities and the obstacles;

· Learn how to avoid conflicts of interest and how to match the right partners to the right projects;

· Make agile development and rapid prototyping work in the public sector, and when to leverage open source tools versus proprietary tools;

· Leverage both new and well-established financial (and financing) tools to better align incentives for private investment in public services.

Best of all, key elements of this approach do not require new infrastructure:

Leverage existing partners, networks, and facilities. Cross-sector approaches are being deployed in cities across the country such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Take for example the recently launched Aspen Urban Innovation Lab that hosts deep-dive roundtable dialogues for its Urban Innovators in Residence that include cross-sector participants to examine pressing issues in D.C.

Engage cutting-edge private sector partners. Cross-sector partners can leverage networks of highly-trained professionals to design effective certification standards, deliver new and compelling executive education, and deploy innovative new approaches in tandem with public sector partners.

Apply modules from curricula developed at places such as the Presidio Institute, University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business, Stanford d. School, University of Chicago, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Design for agile. Government doesn’t need another static approach to training. Standards and certification should always address the latest thinking, approaches, and technology. Cross-sector, eternally iterative networks can make this a reality.

What’s needed now is what a friend calls the “connective tissue” — and it seems to us that Aspen Institute — which has the convening power as well as the “air” (research, policy, thought leaders and influencers) and “ground” game (community leaders, advocates and others) could be the answer.

This article was originally published by The Aspen Institute on Medium

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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