Why a more diverse workplace is also a more talented one
Ram Charan has spent his working life as a business mentor and consultant to CEOs of global companies. He's the guy that Coca-Cola, KLM, GE, and Bank of America (just to name a few) call when they need help. And he's a firm believer in a diverse workplace. If a 90-year-old can do the job the best, then why not hire them? Raw talent doesn't just exist in ivy league business schools, he says, and that applies to the whole company... from the work floor to the boardroom. Ram's latest book is Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First , and he is brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are essential to the growth and prosperity of today’s companies. When woven into every aspect of the talent life cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are the best equipped to innovate, improve brand image and drive performance.
Would companies be more diverse if A.I. did the hiring?
The best hiring manager might just be the computer sitting on your desk. AI and ethics expert Joanna Bryson posits that artificial intelligence can go through all the resumes in a stack and find what employers are missing. Most humans, on the other hand, will rely on biases — whether they are aware of them or not — to get them through the selection process. This is sadly why those with European-sounding names get more calls for interviews than others. AI, she says, can change that. Joanna is brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are essential to the growth and prosperity of today’s companies. When woven into every aspect of the talent life cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are the best equipped to innovate, improve brand image and drive performance.
How equal parental leave can help close the gender pay gap
It's no small secret that America is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to maternal leave. But studies are finding that paternal leave shouldn't be overlooked, either. Lauren Smith Brody, former editor of Glamor magazine and now a full-time author and founder of The Fifth Trimester movement, makes the case here that dads need time off, too, to bond with their newborns, and that modern companies need to understand and appreciate that. Lauren's latest book is The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby. This video is brought to you by Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are essential to the growth and prosperity of today’s companies. When woven into every aspect of the talent life cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are the best equipped to innovate, improve brand image and drive performance.
Real talk at work: How Amway created a better office for more people
Most people approach talking about difficult subjects as if they were at a debate. That is, arriving at the table (metaphorically speaking) with preconceived notions and ideas. But Amway's VP of Global Litigation and Corporate Law, Claire Groen, knew there had to be a better way. She and the leaders at Amway devised what they call RealTalk, which brings people together to hold conversations on current topics. And when the topics happened to turn into hot-button issues like immigration, the racism at Charlottesville, and so forth, these talks became an incredible conduit to a more inclusive office. People were heard, and in turn listened more to ideas outside of their comfort zone. This resulted in a better and more inclusive culture at Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are essential to the growth and prosperity of today’s companies. When woven into every aspect of the talent life cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are the best equipped to innovate, improve brand image and drive performance.
Breaking the ice: How astronauts overcome their differences aboard the ISS
Look up—you can see the greatest feat of human cooperation orbiting 254 miles above Earth. As commander of Expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield understands the difficulty of cultural barriers in team work, and the life or death necessity of learning to communicate across those divides. The ISS is a joint project between five space agencies, built by people from 15 different nations—and each of them has a different take on what is "normal". Hadfield explains the scale of cultural differences aboard the spaceship: "What do you do on a Friday night? What does "yes" mean? What does "uh-huh" mean? What is the day of worship? When do you celebrate a holiday? How do you treat your spouse or your children? How do you treat each other? What is the hierarchy of command? All of those things seem completely clear to you, but you were raised in a specific culture that is actually shared by no one else." Here, Hadfield explains his strategy for genuine listening and communication. Whether it's money, reputation, or your life that's at stake, being sensitive and aware of people's differences helps you accomplish something together—no matter where you’re from. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are essential to the growth and prosperity of today’s companies. When woven into every aspect of the talent life cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are the best equipped to innovate, improve brand image and drive performance. Chris Hadfield features in the new docuseries One Strange Rock and is the author of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything
How experiencing discrimination in VR can make you less biased
What would it be like to live in the body of someone else? Since the dawn of mankind, people have imagined what it would be like to inhabit another body, just for a day or even for a few minutes. Thanks to the magic of VR, we can now do that. Jeremy Bailenson, the creator of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has designed a VR experience called 1000 Cut Journey that may change the way people see race: by experiencing it firsthand. Jeremy explains to us, "You start out as an elementary school child and you’re in a classroom. You then become a teenager and you’re interacting with police officers. You then become an adult who’s going on a job interview, and what you experience while wearing the body of a black male is implicit bias that happens repeatedly and over time." Jeremy is brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are essential to the growth and prosperity of today’s companies. When woven into every aspect of the talent life cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are the best equipped to innovate, and improve brand image and drive performance.
When data drives diversity and inclusion, good things happen
What makes a job a great place to work? A sense of equity and ownership, says Michael Bush, the CEO of the conveniently named Great Place to Work. They're a global consulting and analytics firm that produces the annual Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, the 100 Best Workplaces for Women list, the Best Workplaces for Diversity list, and dozens of other distinguished workplace rankings around the world. Michael's new book is A Great Place to Work for All: Better for Business, Better for People, Better for the World, and he's brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are essential to the growth and prosperity of today’s companies. When woven into every aspect of the talent life cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are the best equipped to innovate, improve brand image and drive performance.
Neurodiversity: Many mental 'deficits' are really hidden strengths
Color-blindness. Left-handedness. Dyslexia. Autism. These are all different ways in which the brain is rewired differently than the norm. But Heather Heying, evolutionary biologist and former Professor at Evergreen State College, is saying that these so-called differences are really strengths. For example, she relays us a story about her autistic students being far more adept at spotting social dynamics emerging in the classroom, long before non-autistic students. And left-handed people are often way more creative than their righty counterparts. Evolution might suggest that we need these differences to be stronger as a whole. Be sure to follow Heather on twitter: @HeatherEHeying and through her website, heatherheying.com. Heather is brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are essential to the growth and prosperity of today’s companies. When woven into every aspect of the talent life cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are the best equipped to innovate, improve brand image, and drive performance.
- A team of researchers in Queensland says 33% of the Australian population has sizable bone spurs growing at the base of their skulls.
- This postural deformity, enthesophytes, results in chronic headaches and upper back and neck pain.
- The likelihood humans will alter their addiction to this technology is low, so this might be a major consequence of technology.
We knew it was coming. We just weren't sure how it would manifest. Thanks to a series of academic papers by researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, the future is becoming clear.
Humans are growing horns.
For all the talk about the utopia technology is preparing us for, we consistently overlook the physical consequences. Futurists wax poetic about transcending our meat puppets, but as any credible evolutionary biologist or neuroscientist will remind you, consciousness is body-dependent. The tools we use to push forward into a brave new age are weighing us down—literally.
The researchers—David Shahar and Mark G.L. Sayers, both at the School of Health and Sport Sciences in Queensland—noticed that this trend of "horns," rather large bone spurs growing at the back of people's skulls, is more prevalent in young people than older adults.
In a paper published earlier this year in Scientific Reports, they observed hornlike spikes growing in the back of people's skulls that are 10-31mm in length. Shahar notes that bone spurs are considered large if they measure 3-5mm in length. The problem, he continues, is not necessarily the spurs, but the havoc they wreak in the person's skeletal system.
Could Tech Neck be the Cause of your Headaches or Neck Pain?
Every technology comes with consequences. Electric light bulbs were an important step forward, but we're paying for it with chronic sleep deprivation. We're well aware of how cars and industrial farming affect climate change; even the technology of plastic is waging war on innumerable marine species. And us, as we all eat thousands of plastic particles each year.
Three years ago, Shahar and Sayers noticed a troublesome sight in neck X-rays. Enthesophytes, bone spurs protruding from the base of the skull—you can feel them if you check—were appearing in younger patients. Previously seniors that had suffered a lifetime of strain comprised the population for this problem. The team's first paper, published in 2016, noted that 41 percent of young adults studied (out of 218 X-rays) had noticeable bone growth.
Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images
They followed this up with a paper last year, arguing that genetics are not the cause. The skeletal load from staring down at a screen is now an evolutionary trait this technology is causing. Of course, evolution is not necessarily for our benefit. We usually reserve the term for things we like, yet it has no regard for our benefit. (Due to rapidly increasing climate problems, for example, jellyfish will inherit the Earth.)
In their latest paper, Shahar and Sayers note that 33 percent of the population (out of 1,200 X-rays) now exhibits enthesophytes. This postural deformity results in chronic headaches and upper back and neck pain.
The idea that people will stop using their phones is unlikely. Instead, we'll turn into a new species: Horned humans. Shahar says the solution will require a public health effort akin to dental hygiene in the 1970s. He suggests nightly postural training to counter the effects of our head tilts. The difference, of course, is that flossing and brushing is an adaptation to eating, a biologically necessary practice. Staring at a phone for six hours a day is not.
As a fitness instructor, I've spent decades inside of gyms. Long ago I predicted a severe uptick in kyphosis in the younger generation due to the constant hunching forward of their upper bodies. More than three million Americans are treated for this signature rounded back every year, which is usually caused by a lifetime of bad postural habits and lack of mobility training.
Just this morning I observed at least half of the gym members occupied by their phones while exercising: on bicycles and treadmills, between sets while weight training, staring down into some distractive video while on the stretch mats. If phones are in such demand during a time when focus is demanded, we can be certain these bad habits continue throughout the day: walking out of the gym, driving, lying in bed at night. Smartphones constitute the greatest addiction we've decided to pretend doesn't exist as a society.
Like sucking carbon out of the air or burying it into the ground, we'd rather create workarounds to bad habits than actually address the problem. We've come nowhere close to admitting this addiction, so the notion of addressing it is moot. We can imagine a better future, yet in the end, our anatomy is slave to the demands of our brains.
- Many countries made incredible gains in IQ scores during the 20th century, averaging three IQ points per decade.
- Studies out of Europe have shown a reversal of this trend.
- Such declines are not universal, and researchers remain unsure of what is causing them.
Are people getting smarter or dumber? It seems an easy enough question to answer. Researchers look at IQ tests; see if scores go up, down, or sideways; and report their findings. You, in turn, google the question and read an article detailing said findings.
Perform such a search, however, and you will net a surprising amount of contradictory claims. Many, many, many headlines maintain that people today are more acute than ever. Yet many, many, many others assert that recent decades have blunted humanity's mental tools. And each claim is based on studies, surveys, and all-around science.
Which is correct? Before we answer that, we need to figure out what exactly the so-called Flynn effect tells us about the intellectual gains of the 20th century.
The Flynn effect: how people got smarter
In the 1980s philosopher James Flynn noticed that IQ tests were occasionally renormed. The average IQ must stand at 100, but every few years, scores would creep up, and test makers had to add tougher questions to bring the average back down. Flynn crunched the numbers and found that IQ scores had increased, on average, three points per decade. The phenomenon was named the Flynn effect in his honor.
"The implications are stunning," developmental psychologist Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature. "An average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1950, would have had an IQ of 118. If the teenager went back to 1910, he or she would have had an IQ of 130, besting 98 percent of his or her contemporaries. Yes, you read that right: if we take the Flynn effect at face value, a typical person today is smarter than 98 percent of the people in the good old days of 1910."
Of course, Pinker quickly points out, we can't take the Flynn effect at face value. People living in 1910 weren't blithering fools who couldn't wrap their heads around calculus or believed the Earth to be flat. Nor did evolution genetically reengineer our mental software in a mere century.
Rather, the industrialized environments of the 20th century required people to use and think in abstract terms more frequently than previous generations. Not coincidentally, IQ tests such as Raven's Progressive Matrices measure one's ability to think abstractly and apply that ability toward new problems (i.e., one's fluid knowledge).
Pinker provides a telling example. Consider a similarities problem that asks, "What do dogs and rabbits have in common?" The answer is obvious; they are mammals. But in 1900, an average person was likely to answer, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits." This isn't wrong. The answer elucidates a concrete relationship between the two. It's just not the abstract classification that IQ tests look for.
"So, modernity has essentially changed the way we think, to make us better at using broad abstract concepts and applying them to situations that are unfamiliar to us," journalist David Epstein told Big Think. "And it's not to say that one type of thinking is better than the other. That's certainly not the case. [We're] just adapted to different conditions."
The gains haven't been equal in all types of knowledge. As Pinker notes, matrices and similarities have increased by leaps and bounds since 1950; however, arithmetic, vocabulary, and information (i.e., crystallized knowledge) have seen the fewest gains overall. In other words, today we are much better at recognizing patterns in geometric shapes, but only slightly better at remembering the capital of Switzerland. (Or that the latter is a trick question.)
Are we losing intelligence gains?
But the Flynn effect may now be regressing. According to recent studies, the populaces of several countries are essentially bleeding IQ points. One eye-catching example came out of Norway last year.
Norway practices mandatory military service. Conscripted men are required to take an IQ test, providing researchers with a wealth of data. Brent Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg, at the Ragnar Frische Centre for Economic Research in Oslo, analyzed more than 730,000 of these IQ tests, and their results showed 1975 to be the tipping point for Norway's Flynn effect. The country's IQ scores have tumbled downhill since.
It's worth noting that this decline is not necessarily endemic among Norway's entire population. Though the study had a large sample size, it only looked at native-born men, 18–19 years old, and whose parents were also native born. Men of other ages or parental makeup were not accounted for, nor did the study look at women's IQs at any age. (While Norway practices universal conscription today, the law wasn't extended until 2013, so such data were not available.)
Even so, Norway's dip is part of a larger trend. An analysis out of the University of Otago, written by James Flynn and Michael Shayer, looked at intelligence research in various countries. While the declines were not uniform, they were certainly present in the data, particularly among European countries.
Flynn and Shayer found that Nordic nations — namely Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden — will lose an overall average of 6.85 IQ points (projected over 30 years). The Netherlands showed losses at high school but gains in adults and no change in preschoolers. Germany maintained verbal gains but lost spatial points. Interestingly, Britain showed slight gains on Raven's Progressive Matrices but losses on Piagetian tests, another test measuring a test taker's analytic ability.
"Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity," the authors write. "They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset?"
In other countries, the Flynn effect remains in effect. The Unites States continues to gain at the historic rate, while South Korea is gaining at twice that. Flynn and Shayer also believe that developing countries will continue to show gains for some time.
Did smart people dumb down their environment?
What has caused the current slump in IQ scores among some European nations? Researchers aren't sure, but they have some hypotheses.
One hypothesis blames dysgenic fertility. Dysgenics postulates that negative traits can accumulate in a population if not weeded out by selection pressures. In the case of intelligence, the idea goes that above-average intelligence couples have fewer children than those who aren't; therefore, there are fewer intelligent children to pass on their genes. The Flynn effect masked this reality until the inevitable ceiling was hit. It is exactly the setup for Idiocracy.
Bratsberg and Rogeberg push against the dysgenic hypothesis. Their results show Norway's negative trends occurring within families as well as across them. For this same reason, the researchers don't believe immigration is a major factor either. They argue in-family environmental effects are the most likely culprit, though they cannot weed out particular causes and effects. Possibilities include changes in educational exposure, worsening nutrition, and changes in media exposure.
Flynn and Shayer also provide some possibilities. They point out that Scandinavian countries support more advanced educational systems. These education systems may have reached a theoretical limit in their ability "to produce graduates that can generalize and use logic on the hypothetical (mental abilities that pay dividends on IQ tests)."
Scandinavian welfare states may have also leveled the educational attainment between citizens of different classes. Quality education reaches everybody. This could explain the U.S.'s continued gains, as students in poorer areas continue to play catch up with their upper-class peers.
Societies escalated skill requirements in the 20th century. That environment caused IQs to rise. Conversely, Flynn and Shayer note, if 21st-century societies lessen skill requirements, IQs scores will backpedal.
But the question of whether our IQ scores are higher than another society's, whether historical or contemporary, isn't what truly matters. It's whether we've developed societies that support and foster our many different intelligences wisely and purposefully. As Flynn and Shayer point out: "Capitalizing on a people's intelligence, rather than worrying about their intelligence, is the most important thing."
- A new analysis of an ancient Wari brewery suggests chicha helped maintain the civilization's social capital for hundreds of years.
- Civilizations throughout the ancient world used alcoholic drinks to signify kinship, hospitality, and social cohesion.
- The researchers hope their findings will remind us of the importance in reaffirming social institutions and sharing cultural practices — even if over coffee or tea.
Beer is history's happiest accident. Though the discovery probably happened much earlier, our earliest evidence for beer dates back roughly 13,000 years ago. Around this time, the people of the Fertile Crescent had begun to gather grains as a food source and learned that if they moistened them, they could release their sweetness to create a gruel much tastier than the grains themselves.
One day a curious — or perhaps tightfisted — hunter-gatherer hid his gruel away for a safekeeping. When he returned, he found the bowl giving off a tangy odor. Not one to waste a meal, he ate it anyway and enjoyed an unexpected, though not unpleasant, sensation of ease. By pure happenstance, this ancestor stumbled upon brewing.
That's one possible origin story, but we know that our ancestors learned to control the process, and beer took a central role in Fertile Crescent civilizations — so central that Professor Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that beer, not bread, incentivized hunter-gatherers to relinquish their nomadic ways.
Beer may also be proof of a God who wants us to be happy (Dionysus?), because the beverage* would be independently rediscovered by peoples across the ancient world, including those in China and South America.
One such peoples, the pre-Inca Wari Civilization, made beer, specifically chicha de molle, a critical component in their religious and cultural ceremonies. In fact, a study published in Sustainability in April argues that the role was so important that beer helped keep Wari civilization intact for 500 years.
Brewing social capital
Twenty years ago, a team of archaeologists with the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, discovered a brewery in Cerro Baúl, a mesa in southern Peru that served as an ancient Wari outpost. The brewery contained original equipment, clay storage vessels, and compartments for milling, boiling, and fermentation.
The team recently analyzed these on-site vessels to uncover the secrets of the Wari brewing process. Removing tiny amounts of material found in the spaces between the clay, they were able to reconstruct the molecules of the thousand-year-old drink. They then worked alongside Peruvian brewers to recreate the original brewing process.**
Their molecular analysis revealed several key features of the beer: The clay used to make the vessels came from a nearby site; many of the beer's ingredients, such as molle berries, are drought resistant; and though alcoholic, the beer only kept for about a week.
These details suggest that Cerro Baúl maintained a steady supply of chicha, limited by neither trade nor fair weather, and became a central hub for anyone wishing to partake. The Wari would likely make such trips during times of festivals and religious ceremonies. Social elites would consume chicha in vessels shaped like Wari gods and leaders as part of rituals attesting to social norms and a shared cultural mythology and heritage.
"People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," Ryan Williams, lead author and head of anthropology at the Field Museum, said in a release. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations. It kept people together."
The Wari civilization was spread over a vast area of rain forests and highlands. In a time when news traveled at the speed of a llama, such distinct and distant geography could easily have fractured the Wari civilization into competing locales.
Instead, the researchers argue, these festive gatherings (aided by the promise of beer) strengthened social capital enough to maintain a healthy national unity. This helped the Wari civilization last from 600 to 1100 CE, an impressive run for a historic civilization.
Bringing people together (since 10,000 BCE)
A Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows people drinking beer through long reed straws. Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Of course, the Wari weren't the first civilization to use beer to reaffirm bonds and maintain their social fabric. Returning to the Fertile Crescent, Sumerians regarded beer as a hallmark of their civilization.
The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the adventures of the titular hero and his friend Enkidu. Enkidu beings as a savage living in the wilderness, but a young woman introduces him to the ways of civilization. That orientation begins with food and beer:
"They placed food in front of him,
They placed beer in front of him,
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food,
And of drinking beer he had not been taught.
The young woman spoke Enkidu, saying:
"Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives.
Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land."
Enkidu ate the food until he was sated,
He drank the beer — seven jugs! — and became expansive
and sang with joy.
He was elated and his face glowed.
He splashed his shaggy body with water
and rubbed himself with oil, and turned into a human."
Tom Standage, who recounts this scene in his History of the World in 6 Glasses, writes: "The Mesopotamians regarded the consumption of bread and beer as one of the things that distinguished them from savages and made them fully human." Such civilized staples not only demarcated their orderly life from that of hunter-gatherers, they also served a key role in their culture's unifying mythology.
Furthermore, Standage notes, Sumerian iconography often shows two people sipping from waist-high jars through reed straws. The earliest beers were consumed in a similar fashion because technological limitations prevented baking individual cups or filtering the beverage. But the Sumerians had the pottery skills to make such cups and filter the dregs. That they kept the tradition suggests that they valued the camaraderie brought by the experience, a sign of communal hospitality and kinship.
The ancient Greek's similarly used alcohol as a means of maintaining social and political relationships — though their drink of choice was wine.
During symposiums, upper-class Greek men would gather for a night of drinking, entertainment, and social bonding. In Alcohol: A history, Rod Phillips notes that symposiums were serious affairs where art, politics, and philosophy were discussed throughout the night and could serve as rites of passage for young men. (Though, music, drinking games, and sex with prostitutes may also be found on the itinerary.)
Of course, we can amass social capital without resorting to alcohol, which has been known to damage social relationships as much as improve them.
In the 17th century, London's coffeehouses stimulated the minds of thinkers with their caffeine-laden drinks, but also served as social hubs. Unlike the examples we've explored already, these coffeehouses brought together people of different backgrounds and expertise, unifying them in their pursuit of ideas and truths. Thus, coffeehouses can be seen as the nurseries of the Enlightenment.
Relearning ancient lessons
The Field Museum archaeologists hope their research can help remind us the importance social institutions and cultural practices have in creating our common bonds, whether such institutions are BYOB or not.
"This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," Williams said. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."
So, grab a beer or coffee or tea, spend some time together, and raise a glass. Just try not focus too much on whether your friend ordered Budweiser's swill or an overpriced, virtue-signaling microbrew IPA.
* This article uses "beer" to describe any grain-based alcoholic drink. Today, we tend to think of beer as fermented malt flavored with hops, but hops didn't become part of the brewing process until around 1200 CE. As Phillips notes, historians use the term much more broadly.
** In the spirit of bringing some social capital stateside, the Field Museum also teamed up with Off Color Brewing, a Chicago craft brewery, to create a modern variant of the chicha. The brewers used purple corn from Peru and spiced the libation with molle berries. Their recreation is available to try, though its availability is dependent on the brewery's supply of purple corn.
- Philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that humans are likely computer simulations in the "Simulation Hypothesis".
- Bostrom thinks advanced civilizations of posthumans will have technology to simulate their ancestors.
- Elon Musk and others support this idea.
Are we living in a computer-driven simulation? That seems like an impossible hypothesis to prove. But let's just look at how impossible that really is.
For some machine to be able to conjure up our whole reality, it needs to be amazingly powerful, able to keep track of an incalculable number of variables. Consider the course of just one human lifetime, with all of the events it entails, all the materials, ideas and people that one interacts with throughout an average lifespan. Then multiply that by about a hundred billion souls that have graced this planet with their presence so far. The interactions between all these people, as well as the interactions between all the animals, plants, bacterium, planetary bodies, really all the elements we know and don't know to be a part of this world, is what constitutes the reality you encounter today.
Composing all that would require coordinating an almost unimaginable amount of data. Yet, it's just "almost" inconceivable. The fact that we can actually right now in this article attempt to come up with this number is what makes it potentially possible.
So how much data are we talking about? And how would such a machine work?
In 2003, the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, who teaches at University of Oxford, wrote an influential paper on the subject called "Are you living in a computer simulation" that tackles just this subject.
In the paper, Bostrom argues that future people will likely have super-powerful computers on which they could run simulations of their "forebears". These simulations would be so good that the simulated people would think they are conscious. In that case, it's likely that we are among such "simulated minds" rather than "the original biological ones."
In fact, if we don't believe we are simulations, concludes Bostrom, then "we are not entitled to believe that we will have descendants who will run lots of such simulations of their forebears." If you accept one premise (that you'll have powerful super-computing descendants), you have to accept the other (you are simulation).
That's pretty heavy stuff. How to unpack it?
As he goes into the details of his argument, Bostrom writes that within the philosophy of mind, it is possible to conjecture that an artificially-created system could be made to have "conscious experiences" as long as it is equipped with "the right sort of computational structures and processes." It's presumptuous to assume that only experiences within "a carbon‐based biological neural networks inside a cranium" (your head) can gives rise to consciousness. Silicon processors in a computer can be potentially made to mimic the same thing.
Of course, at this point in time this isn't something our computers can do. But we can imagine that the current rate of progress and what we know of the constraints imposed by physical laws can lead to civilizations able to come up with such machines, even turning planets and stars into giant computers. These could be quantum or nuclear but whatever they would be, they could probably run amazingly detailed simulations.
In fact, there is number to represent the kind of power needed to emulate a human brain's functionality, which Bostrom gives as ranging from 1014 to 1017 operations per second. If you hit that kind of computer speed, you can run a reasonable enough human mind within the machine.
Simulating the whole universe, including all the details "down to the quantum level" requires more computing oomph, to the point that it may be "unfeasible," thinks Bostrom. But that may not really be necessary as all the future humans or post-humans would need to do is to simulate the human experience of the universe. They'd just need to make sure the simulated minds don't pick up on anything that doesn't look consistent or "irregularities". You wouldn't have to recreate things the human mind wouldn't ordinarily notice, like things happening at the microscopic level.
Representing the goings on among distant planetary bodies could also be compressed - no need to get into amazing detail among those, certainly not at this point. The machines just need to do a good enough job. As they would keep track of what all the simulated minds believe, they could just fill in the necessary details on demand. They could also edit out any errors if those happen to take place.
Bostrom even provides a number for simulating all of human history, which he puts at around ~1033 ‐ 1036 operations. That would be the goal for the sophisticated enough virtual reality program based on what we already know about their workings. In fact, it's likely just one computer with a mass of a planet can pull off such a task "by using less than one millionth of its processing power for one second," thinks the philosopher. A highly advanced future civilization could build a countless number of such machines.
What could counter such a proposal? Bostrom considers in his paper the possibility that humanity will destroy itself or be destroyed by an outside event like a giant meteor before it reaches this post-human simulated stage. There are actually many ways in which humanity could always be stuck in the primitive stages and not ever be able to create the hypothetical computers needed to simulate entire minds. He even allows for the possibility of our civilization becoming extinct courtesy of human-created self-replicating nanorobots which turn into "mechanical bacteria".
Another point against us living in a simulation would be that future posthumans might not care to or be allowed to run such programs at all. Why do it? What's the upside of creating "ancestor simulations"? He thinks that it's not likely the practice of running such simulations would be so widely assumed to be immoral that it would be banned everywhere. Also, knowing human nature, it's unlikely that there wouldn't be someone in the future who would not find such a project interesting. This is the kind of stuff we would do today if we could and chances are, we would continue to want to do in the far distant future.
"Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor‐simulation," writes Bostrom.
A fascinating outcome of all this speculation is that we have no way of knowing what the true reality of existence really is. Our minds are likely accessing just a small fraction of the "totality of physical existence." What we think we are may be run on virtual machines that are run on other virtual machines - it's like a nesting doll of simulations, making it nearly impossible for us to see beyond to the true nature of things. Even the posthumans simulating us could be themselves simulated. As such, there could be many levels of reality, concludes Bostrom. The future us might likely never know if they are at the "fundamental" or "basement" level.
Interestingly, this uncertainty gives rise to universal ethics. If you don't know you are the original, you better behave or the godlike beings above you will intervene.
What are other implications of these lines of reasoning? Ok, let's assume we are living in a simulation – now what? Bostrom doesn't think our behavior should be affected much, even with such heavy knowledge, especially as we don't know the true motivations of future humans behind creating the simulated minds. They might have entirely different value systems.
You can take the plunge and read the full paper by Nick Bostrom for yourself here.
Check out Nick Bostrom’s TED talk on superintelligencies:
When we think about productivity at work, things like meeting deadlines and producing deliverables come to mind. And while those certainly can be aspects of productivity, many of us overlook how empathy comes into play.
Not only does empathy come with some serious, science-backed mental and physical health benefits, it can also make our work lives more enjoyable and more productive. We spoke with two empathy experts on how, exactly, we can harness the power of empathy to improve our productivity. Here are three tips anyone can try:
It can help explain changes in behavior, allowing you to course-correct
Between parenting challenges, caregiving, or other personal issues, there's a lot that can distract us at work, making us less productive, Helen Riess, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences, tells Thrive.
"One of the biggest mistakes that leaders can make is to assume that a lack of productivity or a lack of engagement is due to not caring about the work, or a lack of understanding the importance of a job," she explains. By using a lens of empathy, Riess says, managers can pinpoint their specific productivity issues and figure out how to deal with it to ensure that the employee is thriving in their position.
Riess gave the example of a scenario of when a member of a team is consistently not meeting deadlines, which results in the rest of the team growing frustrated. In this case, if the manager checks in with the person who is struggling to see what's going on in their life — before they judge them and their work performance — it gives the person a chance to explain that they are caring for a sick parent. Once they find this out, the manager can then provide the person with additional guidance and give the team the opportunity to step up and fill in or show compassion in other ways, helping team productivity by making sure deadlines are met and work is completed.
It decreases misunderstandings and conflicts
Nothing can derail a project or task at work like a misunderstanding, but using empathy as a way of understanding emotions and motivations can help, Karla McLaren, author of The Art of Empathy: A Complete Guide to Life's Most Essential Skill and founder of empathyacademy.org, tells Thrive.
"So many workplace hassles stem from a lack of perspective-taking, or an attempt to avoid emotions — which is impossible," she explains. "Skilled empathy — which includes a capacity for emotion regulation — can strengthen relationships, help people weather conflicts, and increase understanding and compassion throughout the workplace." For example, many studies, particularly of the health care workplace, suggest that empathically skilled workers increase patient satisfaction, reduce stress and conflict, and help practitioners and clients feel that they are effective, heard, and valuable, McLaren says.
A 2007 study found that physicians who are empathetic with patients during what can be emotionally charged conflicts during their treatment have the ability to reduce anger and frustration in the interaction. This logic can be applied to conflicts between co-workers as well. When we demonstrate that we're taking the time and energy to understand our colleague's challenges or perspectives on something, it may help to de-escalate situations that may otherwise have gotten heated, taking away from the productivity at their workplace.
It helps us give & receive feedback more effectively
Giving and receiving feedback at work is an important part of productivity, allowing us to make adjustments as needed to improve at our job. At Thrive, we're all about compassionate directness when it comes to feedback, and empathy is a big part of that.
One way to incorporate empathy into giving feedback is to start with a question like, "How do you think things are going?" or, "How are things going for you?", according to Riess. This may allow someone to open up about an area in which they're struggling, which may be hurting their productivity. "To begin with a question instead of 'Can I give you some constructive feedback?' sets the tone of openness and curiosity," she adds.
Another option, Riess says, is to ask a person how they'd prefer to receive feedback — whether that means writing it out in an email, talking about it in person, or discussing over the phone. "Just knowing what channel they receive feedback in the best [is helpful] because sometimes people need to digest it a little bit before they can talk about it," she explains.