Why Good AI Should Kick Your Assumptions in the Groin

AI is short for more than just 'Artificial Intelligence'. At this crucial stage in its design, we have to decide whether we want it to merely serve us, or to challenge and augment our many selves.

I like to say that the real future of AI is not artificial intelligence but augmented introspection. All of these different theories of mind and theories of self create opportunities for redefining what we want augmented introspection to be.
Look at Eric Byrnes transactional analysis: parent, child, adult. Different ways of thinking about the self. Freud: ego, id, super ego.

Let's use the enormous research that has gone on in psychology about the nature of the self,
The nature of the self as in the individual and the nature of the self as the self relates to other people, and let's use technology to create versions of the self that allow for more efficacious, more effective, more creative, more innovative, more productive interactions.

I think it's important to draw a distinction between a cognitive tool and an enhancement and a multiple self or a version of one's self that amplifies, exaggerates, improves, enhances, augments some attribute that really matters to you. So here's a simple way of thinking about this. We have Google Maps. It tells you a way to go. You're in a hurry. You're in such a hurry that you're prepared to dare I say cut corners and go through a stop sign or two. That's your bold impatient self. Well, should Google Maps make a recommendation that supports your bold impatient self?

Or you're doing research on Amazon, you're looking for books to read on a certain subject, you don't want the mainstream books that you, the typical average normal you ordered, what about the you that looks to challenge your fundamental assumptions, to stretch your thinking? What if you had a recommendation engine that recommended stuff for you to read that pushed your thinking? That challenged you? That kicked your assumptions in the groin? That's a different kind of a tool.

Now, what do these things have in common? The self is about agency. It's about choice. You, however you want to define it, choose. What I'm saying AI, machine learning and recommenders and smart recommenders bespoke customer recommenders make different is that you can pick different frontiers, different boundaries of yourself. What aspect of yourself do you most want to enhance and advance? What aspect of yourself do you want to mitigate or suppress? I think this cuts both ways. I think we're going to see versions of the self that allow for greater compassion, less impatience.

So I think it's important to think of the self in a symmetrical way. What are the aspects we want to improve and augment? What are the aspects that we wish to mitigate or ameliorate? What's the common denominator? Give people the choice. This is why I like recommendation engines so much. They're not called you have to do this engines, they're not you have to buy or watch this engines, they're recommendation engines and you choose. What I'm proposing is we're choosing from the span and portfolio of multiple versions of who we really are or who we might become if that's what we want.

What I have found so fascinating in this is there's so much exciting and compelling and groundbreaking work in psychology, sociology, behavioral economics about what is the self, who is the self. There's Nobel Prize winning work from Daniel Kahneman thinking fast and slow about the immediate self and the more thoughtful slow process self. There's Marvin Minsky, the late Marvin Minsky one of the pioneers in artificial intelligence who talked about a society of mind and the modular brain. There's Robert Kurzban. There's Jonathan Haidt. There's social psychologists and anthropologists who are looking at who is the self. “What's the difference between one's self and one's identity?”

And you know what the common denominator to all of this is? You are not you. There is no such thing, according to empirical scientific research, there's no such thing as the self. In fact the metaphor that many people use is that your mind is like a committee, and that depending upon time of day and your mood and how your brain, we're talking about brain and mind is working, you might make one kind of decision or choice versus another. One self or aspect of the self may dominate over another.

There's a wonderful essay by, again Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling on the challenge of command, personal command, self command and he talks about all of these competing selves as to whether you will follow this advice, go this pathway, honor a commitment, et cetera.

My insight is let's use these different dimensions of self as a design opportunity. Let's look at the society of mind and say what kind of digital tools should support this kind of society? Daniel Kahneman thinking fast and slow, what kind of nudges do we want to support the faster brain versus the slower one?

Bits and slices of this are already becoming a reality. It's easy to imagine scenarios where people who care about self-improvement, dare I say selves improvement, look at their technologies and say I want to be a better leader. I want to be a better manager. I want to be a more persuasive or influential designer.

We begin with tools that enable to do that, but then we say well if I keep using these sorts of tools in these sorts of ways I become a different self. What does that self look like? What kind of digital avatar or simulation or scenario can I create to see if that's the kind of self I should be. And that ties into the point about agency. I want to see what my most compassionate self looks like. I can use a textual analysis, sentiment analysis to become more influential in my emails, in my chats, in my presentation, but does my becoming more influential mean that I'm also becoming more manipulative? I don't want to be manipulative. These are the kinds of challenges that augmented introspection create. Who do we want to be? Who do we want to be?

What kind of people do we want to be? The reason why I focus so much on employees in the workplace is that we live in a time where we're not just concerned about losing our jobs to smarter machines, we're worried about how do we create value? How do we become more productive? How does ten years of experience not be one year of experience ten times?

We've already seen a complete revolution of digital tools. We're already seeing the first and second generation of bots and agents coming into the workplace. Completely understandable. Not enough. Not enough. Self-improvement is going to come from selves improvement.

What if AI stood for 'Augmented Introspection' as well as 'Artificial Intelligence'? We've been given a precious do-over opportunity in this emergent time of AI technology, where we can choose to re-design our cities and our selves to align more closely with what we want those things to be. So -- what do we want it to be? Michael Schrage, MIT research fellow and innovation leader, thinks we need to push past the base-level notion of AI servants and assistants. What individuals need to succeed economically and personally are digital tools that can augment (or suppress) our selves — that's right, plural. Schrage's vision of AI is informed by theories of mind developed by cognitive scientists and behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman, Marvin Minsky, Robert Kurzban and Jonathan Haidt. "According to empirical scientific research, there's no such thing as 'the self'. In fact the metaphor that many people use is that your mind is like a committee, and that depending upon time of day and your mood... One self or aspect of the self may dominate over another," says Schrage. So what aspect of yourself do you most want to enhance and what aspect of yourself do you want to mitigate? AI will help you do that. It will not, however, be a passive pushover that bends to your flaws: great AI, says Schrage, will "kick your assumptions in the groin." Take the example of an online book recommender. A truly intelligent and introspective tool will not just show you books that echo what you've read in the past, it will suggest books that are completely outside of your wheelhouse. It will not simply serve you, it will stretch your thinking. Michael Schrage's most recent book is The Innovator's Hypothesis: How Cheap Experiments Are Worth More Than Good Ideas.


7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
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Credit: Aalto University.
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