How diversity melts away our biases, and technology is the great equalizer
The most revelatory answers in life come from complex, diverse populations. Technology can open our eyes to what we're missing and destroy our subconscious biases in one fell swoop.
Beau Lotto is a professor of neuroscience, previously at University College London and now at the University of London, and a Visiting Scholar at New York University. His work focuses on the biological, computational and psychological mechanisms of perception. He has conducted and presented research on human and bumblebee perception and behavior for more than 25 years, and his interest in education, business and the arts has led him into entrepreneurship and engaging the public with science. In 2001, Beau founded the Lab of Misfits, a neuro-design studio that was resident for two years at London's Science Museum and most recently at Viacom in New York. The lab's experimental studio approach aims to deepen our understanding of human nature, advance personal and social well-being through research that places the public at the centre of the process of discovery, and create unique programmes of engagement that span the boundaries between people, disciplines and institutions. Originally from Seattle, with degrees from UC Berkeley and Edinburgh Medical School, he now lives in Oxford and New York.
Beau Lotto is a professor of neuroscience, previously at University College London and now at the University of London, and a Visiting Scholar at New York University.
His work focuses on the biological, computational and psychological mechanisms of perception. He has conducted and presented research on human and bumblebee perception and behavior for more than 25 years, and his interest in education, business and the arts has led him into entrepreneurship and engaging the public with science.
In 2001, Beau founded the Lab of Misfits, a neuro-design studio that was resident for two years at London's Science Museum and most recently at Viacom in New York. The lab's experimental studio approach aims to deepen our understanding of human nature, advance personal and social well-being through research that places the public at the centre of the process of discovery, and create unique programmes of engagement that span the boundaries between people, disciplines and institutions. Originally from Seattle, with degrees from UC Berkeley and Edinburgh Medical School, he now lives in Oxford and New York.
Beau Lotto: If the process of seeing differently is the process of first and foremost having awareness of the fact that everything you do has an assumption, figuring out what those are—and by the way, the best person to reveal your own assumptions to you is not yourself, it’s usually someone else, hence the power of diversity, the importance of diversity. Because not only does that diversity reveal your own assumptions to you, but it can also complex-ify your assumptions. Because we know from complex systems theory that the best solution is most likely to exist within a complex search space, not a simple search space, simply because of statistics. So whereas a simple search space is more adaptable, it’s more easy to adapt, it’s less likely to contain the best solution.
So what we really want is a diversity of possibilities, a diversity of assumptions—which diverse groups, for instance, enable. But also diverse experience. So one of the best ways to diversify, complex-ify your search space, your assumptions, is through experience. And one of the great ways to do that is actually through technology. So we think about technology, and most of our technologies are good technologies. But what defines a great technology? What is a transformative technology?
The good technologies are the ones that enable us to do what we can already do faster, easier, more efficiently. And that’s because so much of our society focuses on efficiency. It’s about maximizing performance. We’re great engineers but we’re crap philosophers. We’re very good at making things more efficient, but that’s only one side of innovation.We also need the other side of innovation, which is creativity. And so the best technologies are the ones—in my view—that make the invisible visible. They enable us to see things that we could never have seen before. They create assumptions. They expand our space of assumptions. We typically think, of course, of digital technologies, but we can also think of the telescope, the microscope. In fact we can even think of the sail.
So the sail was in one sense invented on the Nile, because the currents the wind go in opposite directions. So you could sail up current and then you could float back down. But what the sail enables us to do was to travel, which meant we could see different ecologies, different cultures. Which, when approached in an open way, enabled us to not only challenge but expand our assumptions, because we would have incorporated their biases into our own. So you could view it in a different way. The best transformative technologies enable us to travel. But not just travel physically. Travel in our minds. So a book, writing, this also leads onto things like augmented reality and even virtual reality. So in our case we’ve actually done experiments and created a whole platform in augmented reality to see if we can explore how the brain makes meaning by engaging with a new layer in the world. Not to replace the real world but to expand it.
Another example is the feelSpace belt. So what this was was a belt that was, in fact, a belt, right. It went around your waist, and effectively what it did is it vibrated in the direction of north, which effectively gave people the ability to see what they couldn’t see before. They made the invisible visible. And what happened is that people would consciously make reference—well initially they just felt a vibration—and then they started incorporating it into their movement and into their navigation consciously.But eventually it became unconscious to the point that when they actually removed the belt they felt insecure. So effectively they were almost turning people into birds, who are able to detect magnetic north in their migrations. And the brain was able to adapt and redefine normality based on this new information that it was getting. But not just the data, the meaning of the data by physically engaging with the world. Because only in that sense did it come to literally make sense.
Being close-minded is like being in handcuffs—you can't let yourself out, someone has to pop the lock for you. That's why diversity matters, says neuroscientist Beau Lotto. Meeting others unlocks our perception. We spend our lives in the cuffs of our own assumptions, but encountering people who think and act differently teaches us so much about ourselves, and what we may have been blind to up until that point. If creativity is the act of thinking differently, then surrounding ourselves with a diversity of people, with diverse life experiences, can radically expand our field of possibility. Technology is another way to do that, says Lotto, and if you leaf through history it's apparent that the most radical technological breakthroughs are the ones that have expanded our perceptions: the printing press gave us books, which let us see other people's stories; the telescope gave us the universe, which gave us curiosity (and humility); the ship gave us mobility, which gave us cultural and material trade. Technology enables us "to see things that we could never have seen before," and it makes the invisible visible, says Lotto. The more layers of meaning we can detect—whether through diversity or technology—the better we're able to think, innovate, and connect. Beau Lotto's new book is Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently.
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Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.
- Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
- The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
- The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Oldest Cave Art Found in Sulawesi<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a9734e306f0914bfdcbe79a1e317a7f0"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/b-wAYtBxn7E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
Can computers do calculations in multiple universes? Scientists are working on it. Step into the world of quantum computing.
- While today's computers—referred to as classical computers—continue to become more and more powerful, there is a ceiling to their advancement due to the physical limits of the materials used to make them. Quantum computing allows physicists and researchers to exponentially increase computation power, harnessing potential parallel realities to do so.
- Quantum computer chips are astoundingly small, about the size of a fingernail. Scientists have to not only build the computer itself but also the ultra-protected environment in which they operate. Total isolation is required to eliminate vibrations and other external influences on synchronized atoms; if the atoms become 'decoherent' the quantum computer cannot function.
- "You need to create a very quiet, clean, cold environment for these chips to work in," says quantum computing expert Vern Brownell. The coldest temperature possible in physics is -273.15 degrees C. The rooms required for quantum computing are -273.14 degrees C, which is 150 times colder than outer space. It is complex and mind-boggling work, but the potential for computation that harnesses the power of parallel universes is worth the chase.