According to Sharena Rice, tech for good is transformative because it has the potential to help people be their best selves. She believes that if we demand that companies create products with this goal in mind, we can see a world where technology helps us instead of hinders us. Sharena sees potential for technology to improve our lives in many ways, but she is also quick to point out that any one of the foundations that tech is built on (philosophy, science, and technology) is shaky, the whole system falls apart. This is why she believes it’s so important that we have a clear vision for how we want tech to improve our lives before we allow it to become a part of our everyday lives. Only by doing this can we avoid the pitfalls of tech addiction and ensure that tech is used for good.
You can listen to the audio here or watch the video below.
In this Influential Visions podcast interview with Sharena Rice Phd we discussed the following:
- Sharena Rice is a neuroscientist, cybernetician and storyteller with a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Michigan.
- She has served as co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Intvo (computer vision for pedestrian behaviour prediction) for over two years, is a Scientific Advisor of Valence Vibrations (transmitting emotions from tone of voice as visuals or wristband haptics), and trained as a resident Dharma Worker in Ann Arbor’s Zen Buddhist Temple.
- She believes that philosophy underpins science which underpins technology and that if any one of these foundations is shaky, the whole system falls apart.
- Sharena sees potential for technology to help people be their best selves, but only if we demand that companies create products with this goal in mind.
- With too much spare time on our hands comes the question of what will we do with it? Productivity cycles show us that we may not have as much free time as we think – people will still need to work the same number
- Human suffering is a fascinating matter because we may want to prevent it, but it is part of human nature
- Sharena Rice uses the term “invert suffering” to mean taking whatever does seem to be making us suffer and thinking through it somewhat differently.
- Kim-adele Randall believes that everything is either a lesson, a blessing, or both.
- Nathaniel Schooler says that when teams developing technology are more diverse, the programs become less biased.
- Sharena Rice came up with the idea that weather should be one of the parameters taken into account when predicting pedestrian behaviour
- Sharena Rice is excited about technology’s potential to help people live their best lives.
- She believes that wearable devices can help people stay healthier for longer.
- Technology can also provide opportunities for economic empowerment and accessibility.
Why. So I am privileged today to be joined again by Kim-adele Randall, who everyone probably knows by now, and, and also Nish Ranasinghe, and we are having a great conversation, hopefully with Sharena Rice from across the pond and Sharena Serena rice is a neuroscientist, cybernetician and storyteller.. And she’s got a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Michigan. She’s studying neural circuits and brain rhythms. So that’s, that’s particularly interesting. She served as co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Intvo (computer vision for pedestrian behaviour prediction) for over two years, is Scientific Advisor of Valence Vibrations (transmitting emotions from tone of voice as visuals or wristband haptics), and trained as resident Dharma Worker in Ann Arbor’s Zen Buddhist Temple. . So that’s, that’s very interesting and yeah, I know you’ve got an avid interest in as well, and you, you you’ve trained as a DMA worker in the Buddhist temple, so that’s, so that’s very interesting. So thank you so much for, for joining us really, you know, I’m not, I’m not sure about kicking off with this one fat question cuz you, you, you know, it may be just too much of a big question it, but no, I think thank you. First of all, for, for joining us, the question that that I wanted to sort of kick off with was how do you conceptualize the relation between philosophy science and technology?
I think of it this way, it’s that philosophy underpins science and science underpins technology. So then if you have a shaky philosophical foundation in terms of how you go about finding the truth, then what do you have at the end of the day, but hype that is not substantiated by anything real. And it is kind of notable that in society, the way that things are talked about is that technology, it tends to be at the pinnacle of things. If you want to get a good job, then usually a person is pushed into a technology field, partly because it can be patented and sold unlike scientific laws or about the workings of nature. And then philosophy is being a philosopher, even considered a job these days. And yet at the same time, there is this matter of how do we take the truths and how do we use them in the best possible ways in application for this to really create great effects for society and for what we can do as humans in expanding potential all.
Wow, it true, isn’t it? I mean, they, they all interlink. And I think with like with anything, if our foundations are rocky, then we don’t have, we don’t have a lot of hope due for where that’s going. And, and I guess our philosophy grows with us, doesn’t it, as we go through life, based on our experiences, the people that we, you bump to the, the, the opportunities that, that life offers us, whether they be pleasant or an opportunity to grow, which is often the case, I guess, all of, all of that shapes. So is it, would it be right in thinking that whilst it, to your point underpins everything, actually, both of them are ever moving and, and therefore it almost has to loop background to continue learning. Would that be a fair assumption?
Yeah. In a way I think of it as up cycling as well where it’s just like, okay, there is an upward spiral, hi, haggle has talked about this, where there is some sort of, there’s an antithesis and a synthesis. So as history progresses, then there continues to be in a way disagreements that leads to some sort of insight and progress. And so, it’s great to see that happening over time.
Yeah. Because it is true, isn’t it? I mean, we live in a world of polarity. So for every, there’s a down for every left, there’s the right. So I guess as we continue to evolve and have those discussions, have those debates sometimes have those disagreements, it allows us to start to see things from a slightly different viewpoint. And I guess that’s where progress is really made. Isn’t it, once we’re able to see a, a new side that can be explored.
Yeah. And one way that I think about this is that often in technology ethics, it said, oh, artificial intelligence is biased or technology is biased. But the thing is that any system that has a viewpoint at all, it has a bias because bias is literally well seeing something from an angle, but while people, they, they would often say that they want to expand their perspective. They would almost never say that they want to expand their bias, which is kind of a funny dichotomy. So then I think of it kind of terms of, if you have multiple different perspectives and they’re integrated into a fuller view of what is then this can at times help people to solve problems more accurately or more precisely
Sharina that, I mean, everything that you’ve said, I’m kind of in awe and I’m, I’m sort of sitting there thinking, God, I don’t, you know, it’s still difficult to visualize or from what, what I’m thinking is is that at the moment, the only application that I can see or, and my meagre mind can see is the application of social media and how that has be, has evolved over the last sort of 10 to 15 years and evolved from being something that was intentionally sort of had good intentions. But then obviously we know that some of the things I think you’re talking about is things like trying to map pedestrian behaviour or, you know, you know, what I understand by that is kind of standard human pat behaviour patterns and for grow, grow, grow a presence, or grow an application in that way. However, obviously with, with social media, we’re seeing that can have good and bad applications and it can be taken, be good in good context, but also quite bad from a psychological, for example perspective. What can you see as being some of the better applications of modelling those patterns of behaviour and what, you know, what kind of stuff are you working on to ensure that, you know, the ethics of a system is maintained in a good way, rather than trying to capitalize on something by modelling sort of, you know, of gambling or addictive behaviours, for example,
Looking back, there are some things that may have been considered repetitive behaviours that have actually been considered a good thing. So for example, in the temple, we done chanting and prorations, which are both repetitive activities, but the point of it partly was that we were not going through the motions, but that we had to be in what we were doing our mind and our body being connected. So it’s not like you could just chant without your heart being in. Otherwise the priest would point that out and say, you need to chant and you need to be there. And we need to hear you through this. It’s not just making sounds. It’s not just repeating the same thing over again. And this is notable in a world where user experience research, for instance, it often takes behaviours at a, a surface level and has this, this underpinning philosophy of don’t make me think to it. So in a world where our products are designed often to have us not think about things, this can help us to reserve some bandwidth for things that are actually important to us. But then there’s the question of, are we sacrificing short term conveniences for long term lack of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is also quite a fuzzy term, because it can be hard to measure things such as, okay. How, how much are you here when you’re here? Or how much are you mentally paying attention to things? So the way that I think about this is that in general, if, if our postures towards technology and creations of technology were to help people to be the, their best selves and people demanded that of their technology and people demanded that of companies that they invested in, then perhaps there could be a better world in terms of technology that truly does serve humanity in the long term.
Very good. Very interesting. Very interesting. So what do you think about this, this productivity cycle that we are in at the moment, according to according to MIT, we’re actually in a productivity curve and we’re at the beginning of this curve, right? So do you think that people are going to have problems with, with having too much spare time on their hands and, and, and worrying what they’re going to do with it?
I think that people, they never have too much spare time on their hands. Well, most of the time they do not, because whenever there is spare time, then it will be filled with something, whether that is spending time with their friends and family that is usually said to be the best part of the productivity, boom. But I think that there is a bigger undertone of culture in terms of things. People need to work for a certain number of hours a week in order to gain their benefits and to be considered fully employed. So then in that case, I think that people will still end up working about the same amount. There is the question though, of how much they can create from that time, as well as how, whether they go from, from idea ideators to actuators, or if they are mostly doing the actuation of tasks, it is good to have humans ultimately make the decisions for what is created rather than completely having that up to a machine.
Partly because humans, they tend to be good at analysing broader situations, including situations that have never happened before machine learning. It can only work backwards. So if we’re trying to train on things, but historically a similar situation has never happened or there is somewhat of a monkey wrench that is put into a place, a single variable that changes everything. Then there is the question of who is accountable at end of the day, if not a human or a group of humans. And that accountability, I think is a major matter of why it’s important to have humans in the loop.
Fascinating. It, it just, I could chat you all day with the whole, how, how all of them linked together, isn’t it, and how the, how it all comes background to that requirement for us to continue to grow our collective thinking. And I think that is the part isn’t it that the, the human brain brings in it’s that ability to be able to have that debate about things that haven’t happened, but might happen particularly, cuz there’s so many conspiracy theorists out there that love to create something that, that hasn’t happened yet, which obviously machines aren’t able to do. And it’s, I guess it’s how they work in sync together. Isn’t it? So that they add value rather than detract from anything that’s happening organically
So what do you think is the next trend?
I think the next trend is talking about how Elon Musk is collecting Twitter. It seems to be a very prevalent thing right now. It is all over the news aside from, it’s not really predicted.
It’s very, interesting, isn’t it? So, so, you know, I know it’s, it’s part of your mission in life to, you know, take away as much suffering as possible and invert it right through matters of humans and machines. But do you think that there are a too many Legos that are kind of just slowing, slowing the whole thing down and too many people that are just like, just don’t want to embrace this, this new wave of, of technology
Human suffering is kind of a fascinating matter, partly because we may want to say have a child who never suffers at all and then give them everything that they want, but yet they will still suffer for instance. So, so what do we do with that? And what do we do with human nature, which tends to suffer even if we have the best possible can do in all of human history. I think that it’s partly a matter of storytelling and storytelling in a sense is a technology that humans have used ever since. Always, I think also that a reason why I use the term invert suffering as much as possible or take as much suffering and invert it is because the things that do make us suffer a lot of them, they will still be there. There will still be conflicts between people in the world.
There will still be various strifes and things like inequalities and problems that just arise. But then there’s the question of how do we orient ourselves to them? We going to continuously dwell on what isn’t perfect or things that are upsetting to us, or are we going to, to orient towards them differently and possibly be somewhat amused by them. And I tend to find that a better life comes from just being amused. The many things that happen. It’s not a story unless something goes wrong and sometimes things that are terrible, they serve as someone’s life guide because they didn’t think that anyone else would have that problem. And yet they find you and then they go, wow, this can really help me with whatever I’m doing. So I think that taking whatever does seem to be making us suffer and thinking through it somewhat differently, or from another perspective, it can help us to, well, we may still have our sufferings there, but the way that we hold it and the way that it doesn’t make us quite as tense, perhaps it is, it is a more healthy way to be.
I love that. So true. Sorry, Nish. I think you’re about to say something as well, but it’s so true, isn’t it? I think, you know, one of the things I’ve learned in life is that everything is either a lesson, a blessing, or both, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time, it gives us something that we didn’t have before it allows us to, to grow and, and you come to the other side of it and look back and go, wasn’t that bad. Really? I survived it. I think sometimes when we do change the change, the label, we change the outcome don’t we change the way we view it. We change how we change, how it impacts us. And I, whenever anything challenging comes my way, just like shout, plot, twist, and run at it, see what happens next. Cause we are, we are living a life of stories and, and I love that you, that you shared that too, is that, you know, we’ve been, we have been using stories since the caveman drawings, so right back at the very beginning and it’s how we teach and it’s how we learn. So I think the ability to be able to use storytelling and I think having technology help us do that might help us to stop a lot of the conflict because conflict usually comes from misunderstanding, misinformation, miscommunication. So if we can better understand each other, hopefully we can remove some of those and therefore create a nicer environment that replenishes all, you were going to say something, so I’m going to shut up. Well,
I was just going to say like, I loved that. What you, you said about it’s ne it’s not a story unless something goes wrong because it’s so true, right? As humans, we spend so much time worrying about things going wrong and thinking that we are wrong because we think a certain way or someone else is wrong, because they think a certain way. And actually, if we embrace imperfection and if you think about how the whole world in creation is actually one big accident, depending on how you look at it, you know, I’m sure a tree didn’t intend to become a tree or, you know, flower didn’t intend to become a flower, but they’re both. They both are what they are and they’re both beautiful to, to everyone. So, you know, it, it is that idea of collectively collect, accepting each other’s imperfections and also your own imperfections and realizing that actually you don’t have to be, have to be perfect. Like I’m talking in the middle of trying to plan a wedding and you know, this weekend trying to, trying to reassure people that things do not have to go to plan because it, something will go wrong. Something will be forgotten. And so, and relieving that kind of so much of anxiety and stress is down to this notion of being perfect, whether that be a perfect mother, a perfect husband, perfect wife, perfect person.
So I love that. The idea of that, you know, and even, applying that to your job and working in technology and building software solutions, it’s a case of, you know, if, if something is tested and it goes wrong, this notion that you’ve failed, the technology has failed because it’s, it’s been tested, it’s gone wrong. Well, wasn’t a test meant to test the thing so you can make it better. So it’s meant to go wrong. Isn’t it? You know, so it’s all this, like, it’s just a really interesting spin on, on, on, on the whole notion of philosophy technology and also bringing the whole concept of mindfulness imperfection into it is, is yeah. Like you say, Kim and is, is absolutely fascinating. So I can see her talking to you all day as well.
It sounds, we are both recovering perfectionists.
I think we all are. I think we all are most, most certainly, but you know, what, what, what you both were sort of talking what you were all talking about. There really, it’s very interesting because you know, we are all in a state of development, right? Like Google is always being redeveloped. We’ve got all of these programs that are always continually patching and they’re continually redeveloping adding new features, but also with, with the AI and actually the way that it’s being trained and programmed, when the teams are more diverse, then we are, we are slowly becoming less biased because the teams are, are actually more diverse. So they are putting different perspectives on things that perhaps originally were just white programmers, you know, guys sitting around drinking coffee and, and, and everything else in, in my opinion.
Yeah, it is great to think about what is the truth, the truth to solve the problems at hand and what are our blind spots in that? And by the truth, the truth to solve the problem at hand, it is often the case of things like, okay, how do we define our original parameters to solve this machine learning problem? A lot of people, they want to apply artificial intelligence to every problem that artificial intelligence can be applied to, which is it’s, it’s useful, especially if it’s useful. And it does solve the problems that we do want it to solve. But sometimes in defining these parameters at first, for instance, we get the wrong parameters or we realize something later. So one matter in artificial intelligence, ethics for instance is, well, I was once in a conversation where someone suggested, well, you only store the data for as long as you need it.
And then after that, then you delete all of the data. And I told him that that doesn’t make very much sense, especially if you are in a technology start-up, which doesn’t have the funds to recollect all of this data again, if they realized five months after they had already deleted it, that there is another parameter that they should have looked at. For example, when it comes to pedestrian behaviour prediction, one of the parameters that I came up with a few months into this, that wasn’t original was the weather because weather can have effects on how a person moves through their road scene and it can have effects on what kinds of clothes people wear and the length of clothes and whether their legs might be obscured by say, a long trench coat or something like that. So then in that case, I think that it is useful. A lot of times to story data, we are quite certain in that, that we have what we need in terms of the truth is truths and that there isn’t much, or anymore that we can do with it. At least for the time.
I love that concept of the truth, use truth that be saying, which is the best truth we can have today based on the information that we’ve got. It doesn’t mean to say it’s going to be a perfect truth because, you know, as we’ve said earlier, but perhaps all recovering perfectionist, but we, we have all grown up with this notion that we should all be perfect. And yet actually the truth is we’re all perfectly imperfect. It’s our imperfection is our perfection. And, and I, I guess the more that we can utilize that, we are that embracing that difference. The fact that our imperfections are what helpers get through the bias and create a new view because we’ve all got a different imperfection to bring to the party. Might hopefully help us also continue shape that debate. Isn’t it, and change that label so that we can, can grow in a less harmful way to ourselves and be more mindful.
I just loved that whole concept of, of giving yourself permission to go with the best that you could do with the information that’s available right now, and then know that you can keep going back and evolving and changing, you know, and like learning from it and viewing it from a, a different parameter to your point with the, with the data, not just checking it out. Cause we think we’ve done it from the first set of parameters and then find, oh, we didn’t look at this, or we’ve not thought of that because something changes. And sometimes those changes can be seemingly not important to what you’re doing. So, you know, thinking about the weather as an example, when you’re looking at people’s pedestrian behaviours, wouldn’t automatically spring to mind, you think, oh, they’re gonna walk to school the way they walk to school, they’re gonna come back the way that they come back. And yet, you know, I know when it’s the school run, it’s torrential rain. I walk a hook up a lot faster and I’m probably a lot less concentrating on what’s around me and much more concentrating on trying to keep the hood on my head and the hood on my child while I, we don’t get too wet. So it’s, it is those parts that say one external factor can totally change how people react to a normal situation. And it’s how we help technology to learn from that. I guess,
Indeed, in a way, we are trying to create semblance of human intuition through a lot of matters of technology while human intuition in the sense of being correct where possible of course, some things that are considered imperfections in one scenario will be considered really strong strengths in others. For example, let’s say that a person is very obsessive, that them with finding errors in something that would otherwise get them say checking their drawer multiple times to make sure that there is enough of a certain utensil there.
So I think that when it comes to what a min a winning mindset is, for instance, it is, it’s not a mindset of optimism, but a mindset of optimization in terms of not just finding the best situation, because sometimes you can’t assume that the best situation already exists, especially given the differences of all kinds of individuals, but creating states or possibilities stacking cards in, in the favor of your mind for setting yourself up for success. So for example, if we assume that we are completely separate it from our environments, then we’ll find probably quite soon that we are wrong about that. So that part of this comes through the ways that we organize things within our surroundings, the head priest of my temple would often say, okay, if you’re having a bad day, then you should go and clean your room. Or when was the last time you cleaned the restroom?
And then after, after doing some of that organization of things that are outside of us, then inside of us would feel quite a bit better and more organized itself because it’s more optimized. So it is adaptive. And I think that part of this story of becoming a good optimist, not one who is so attached to things, being perfect, but attached to, to matters of, okay, how, how do we grow and how can we be more correct in the long term, even if we are wrong. A lot of, of times in the short term that can be useful for thinking through what is rather than telling ourselves stories that in a sense stories are a hypothesis. A lot of them are, and if we can test them, then that can help us find out more about our strengths and what works for us and what doesn’t work for us, which may or may not work for someone else.
It’s not often I’m lost for words to be fair. These guys are laughing. Kim was, Kim was smiling the same as me because we, we basically both of us like Kim has just painted her whole house and I’ve just moved into a brand new place with every, and everything’s, well, it was set up completely, but then, but then when everything is perfect, then we look for imperfections. This is what’s interesting. Like the brain just seems to look for these things that are not correct. Right. And we have to kind of fix those as well. It’s a, it’s a real, really funny, funny world we live in. It really is
The thing, like you said at Sharena, it’s that whole part of saying, once you take yourself outside and you know, I, I did go on a bit of a crazy, crazy stint. I, I had something that wasn’t working well in my life. And I decided to focus instead on decorating my little girl’s bedroom because I couldn’t control what was happening. So I was like, well, I’ll go and do that. I can do something nice. That’s external. And it felt so much better. So I then became a one woman decorating machine that has gone through my entire house and decorated every single room in three weeks while still working and managing the Easter holidays. Everyone’s like, what are you doing? I was like, but it feels great. It’s like to actually just focus on something that’s not in my head. It’s like ti things up, getting, getting rid of the clutter, getting rid of the rubbish and what I found when I got, got to the end of it.
And I literally finished it yesterday was I feel like my mind’s so much freer somehow in, in kind of spending that time, cleaning the external environment within which I live I’ve ended up clearing the internal environment of which I live. So I, I, I loved that. That kind of, they were teaching you the same thing. Cause I hadn’t realized I was doing that. And yet inadvertently I have done just that in the last, in the last three weeks and you’re right. It really does make a, a difference. Doesn’t it, it, somehow it create, it creates the space for you to find what’s important.
And sometimes we do create things that are imperfect in our trying to make things as perfect as possible. One story that I like to tell is making a birthday cake for my sister when she was in high school, we were both in high school. I, and well when this cake came out of the oven, it was lopsided. And then I go, well, maybe I can, I can make this better by, by putting some frosting on it. And maybe people won’t notice so much. So then I tried putting frosting on this cake, but you can just imagine that this eventually turns out also very sloppy so that now there is a sloppy cake with some sloppy wording on it, happy birthday, Melina. And then I go, oh, now everyone’s going to see how terrible this cake is. And it’s going to be the worst. My sister comes downstairs, she looks at this cake and then she broke out laughing saying that this is the best cake she’s ever had.
And then her friends seem to enjoy it very much too, because it’s perfectly imperfect. There are very few things that are more charming than a lopsided cake and especially lop cake with sloppy. Decorate from your older sister who doesn’t know how to paint with frosting. Apparently. So then the next year I was asked to also decorate her cake and I realized part way through that. I could not put the words happy birthday Melina on the cake. So it just said happy day, Melina, it was absurd. But the thing is that everyone loved it because it wasn’t something that you could just manufacture and buy. It was a matter of someone who really cared to go the extra frosting or the extra mile in a case.
I love it. Well, it’s done with love, wasn’t it? It was, it was done with love and care. And I think people really, really appreciate that. You know, and they know that you’ve taken time because we can go and buy something, but we didn’t have to. Yes, we had to part with money, but we didn’t really have to part with very Michelle’s. Whereas when you stand and make a cake and frost, the cake and, and ice it and I feel your pain, I cannot write with Ising either. I often blame scar. She did it. She’s five poor, but it is that it, it is that piece of say actually I gave you something that was the most precious thing we can give anybody, which is time
Indian. And if you ever need a cake decorator who will maybe charming, but imperfect, then I am here.
Classic. So before you go, Sharena, I wanted to ask you one last question. What, what excites you most about, about where we are with technology right now?
I think the most exciting thing is the matters of helping more people live their best life. I think that technology has allowed people in a lot of countries that wouldn’t otherwise have economic opportunities go from having very little, to being able to do something that is meaningful with their lives. For example, a lot of software, it can scale to the point where it affects millions of people to be able to do that with your or work. It is, it is very empowering. I also think that when it comes to matters of accessibility, in terms of people who need medical technology is also that technology can help humans to well, to stay healthier for longer. This kind of started well, the wearable technology revolution, it seems to have mostly started with Fitbit and then it eventually evolved to more and better devices over time, such that it’s normal for us to wear wearables days and nobody really questions that, you know, the number of steps that you took for instance. So I think that having more data and more data in the hands of people who need it and whom it’s relevant to it can help a lot in determining, okay, what is the next thing that I need to do in order to improve or, or keep things going well, even though sometimes that feels like we still have to roll our sleeves up and make it a project
That’s fantastic. Very interesting. I’m very interested in, in the future of jobs and how people can actually, you know, you can predict what jobs are going to be out of fashion in the next few years. And at actually you can, you can analyse people’s skillsets, behaviours, mindset, and everything in order to give them the right kind of educational plan. Right. I I’m fascinated by that. And we’re going to talk about that. I think over the next few weeks in a, in another interview, but we’d love to, we’d love to interview you again. It’d be, it’d be super at some point in the next few months, because it’s been, it’s been just, just, just fantastically. Interesting. And I think a lot of people will find this very interesting. So I will put your links wherever this is available and people can, people can look for you on LinkedIn. I think so your doctor Sharina rice PhD, and they can find you, if they, if they search for you. Right.
Super, super well, thank you so much. Did you want to say anything? You ladies before we scoot off,
Just thank you so much, Sharena. It’s been fascinating and I’m really looking forward to next time.
Yeah, absolutely. Sharena it was great meeting you. Thank you so much.
Thanks very much for listen. Thanks very much. Listen, please make sure you share this episode with your friends and business connections and don’t wherever you listen.