Virtual action heroes doing real good?

April 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

What if the famous game World of Warcraft or any of the popular action and war strategy games would offer the gamers a chance to promote non-violence and peace, while they participate these violent games by shooting, killing, raiding and conquering their enemies? What if we had means to make the games create economic profits that are explicitly directed, by the gamers, to promote peace and nonviolence where they think it has the best chances to do good. This could be in the form of a peace-business model, funding, pay systems, bets, fees, and profit sharing, for example.

What if the gamers’ investments to support their preferred targets, initiatives and activities that promote non-violence, could also be accomplished in the form of a computer game where it is possible to create and enjoy strategies that best promote these valuable aims? What if the game community together could follow, in real time, how they are helping people and what they are accomplishing in Africa, Middle-East and other places suffering from violence and war? This is one of my peace-promotion dreams that Mark Nelson from the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford and Jari Takatalo, my colleague (who also provided the photo of his earlier study in a CAVE environment) have shared with me.

Following the discourse on the potential harmful effects of action games on young players is often colored by stereotypical thinking by the worried academics and journalists, that somehow the players are victims, helpless people, indiscriminate and even inhuman personalities who have no higher or spiritual interests, values and motivation in life.  But what if they are just like you and me, except that they are skillful gamers?

Well, indeed they are. One can already say that the whole generation of boys, and more often also girls in leading western and Asian countries play the computer games daily. There is no sense in thinking that the gamers would somehow be different from the rest of us, it is simply a stupid stereotype that is repeatedly present in numerous articles dealing with the relationship between violent (real) behavior and violent (virtual) game playing. If games would really cause violence, the world would be a total battlefield everywhere already: playing is now a part of the everyday life of the hundreds of millions of young and middle age people all over the world. The numbers just don’t fit.

I’m quite sure that all active players have got enough of these prejudices, are irritated by them, skip the articles, internet sites, and tv-programs that deal with the suggested problems of aggressiveness, and just continue their playing and knowing that “these stereotypes have nothing to do with us”.  I’m even more convinced that the gamers can form extremely powerful communities and individuals who are skillful and motivated to promote good things in life and in the real world, independent of what they do in their virtual gameworlds. We can assume that all people below 30 years belong to this potentially amazing, million scale  force.

But the thought that I like to entertain most, is that a chance to promote non-violence and peace while playing these war, combat and action games, would offer a natural way for the gamers to express themselves as real human beings, even through their avatars, but also, at the same time, to enjoy the specific privilege to do good via gaming, against all odds and giving something back, giving something to think about to these journalists, academics and other one-eyed analysts who are convinced only about the negative effects of game playing and who treat the gamers as non-human victims of technology and game industry.

Anything that is possible in the real world is socially and humanely possible in the virtual gameworlds where these people spend their time just like the rest of us sit in the pubs, restaurants, sports halls, malls, art exhibitions, scientific conferences, and other public places where we will never have the same huge potential to promote peace and non-violence that the gameworlds can now offer, and especially in the future. It would be a shame and bad business not to make this happen.

The scale of the global network of brains and the universe

April 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

Astronomers have recently increased the estimation of the number of stars in the known universe (P. van Dokkum & C. Conroy. A substantial population of low-mass stars in luminous elliptical galaxies. Nature, 2010) and it is now of the order of 3 x 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, or to put it into a readable form,  3 x 1023. While this long line of zeros would not surprise us even if there were 10 zeros more in these numbers beyond our understanding, one of the authors had noticed an interesting coincidence (cf. Huffpost Green): a simple calculation by Conroy suggested that the rough number of cells in the human bodies on earth is also of the order of 1023, in other words, the total number of cells in all the human bodies on earth equals the number of stars in the universe.  This is a reminder of the scale of the scientific challenges facing us in studying the biology of life and especially it gives something to think about for brain scientists who might believe that we have come close in solving the problem of the human brain.  There is another inspiring message in these numbers.

Neural connectivity of the mankind

The human brain has roughly 1011 neurons and each of them has, on average, thousands of synaptic links to other neurons. It is possible that the estimated number of these connections will increase when more is known about the combined hormonal, chemical and electric nature of cell communication. Nevertheless, it is not a monumental mistake to assume that number of synapses per neuron is of the order of 10000 or 104. If we take the human population on earth that is 1010 we can realize that the total number of neuron connections (synapses) on earth, in the human brains, is of the order of 10 11+4+10 = 1025 =  10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000.   I really don’t know what to call this exhausting number but it tells that all the human neural connections are significantly more abundant than the estimated number of stars in the universe. Why should this matter?

Global synaptic connection mass as a theoretical upper limit for human culture potential

One can think of the neural synapses as the structure, mechanism and information architecture through which change and learning in life can take place.  The huge number 1025 of connections in the brains of the mankind invites us to think about the global connected neuron population in all the human brains as the potential network that the human global society and all its cultures have as the resource for developing now and in the future.

Anyone can understand that while a single brain with its 1015 connections has some limitations, the total brain pool has an amazing potential – if it can be used. One cannot avoid thinking that this simple “neuro-cultural computation” provides an immense call to all of us to think theoretically, how much potential we have as a human species and community. In this sense the problem is analogous to the estimation of the number of stars in the known universe.

There is also another, perhaps wild but delicious analogy: stars are connected with each other via gravitation and radiation. Is it then possible to consider the gravitational forces in the stellar systems as an analog to the synaptic connections between neurons and also between different brains? Gravitation regulates the dynamic and mechanic relationships between the stars and galaxies and it determines their ways of communicating with electromagnetic radiation. Not quite similarly, but interestingly though, in the same sense there are only a few material ways of communication between different brains: it has to happen via synaptic activities: the synapses in our brains are used and altered every time we are affected by the nature or by the direct or indirect actions of other human beings and life on earth in general.

In this speculative sense, our environment and other people act on us just like gravitation acts on other stellar systems. But neither of these mechanisms is scientifically understood: how and by which exact mechanism does gravitation affect distant objects or  how the synapses of our brains are changed via external events by direct or indirect communication. All we can right now do in science is to observe and somewhat also predict the constellations of the stars and the changes in the brains (our behavior) but the true underlying mechanisms remain still hidden.

Togetherness via synapses

A sceptic may claim that our brains are not physically connected and that information does not flow directly from a neuron of one brain to a neuron of another brain and that pooling the brain networks together in the calculations as I have done here makes no sense.

But our brains are continuously connected in numerous indirect ways, not least due to the global communication technology: in the way we transform our environment for other to see, feel, experience and live in or in the way we communicate, create and shape cultures around us and globally. An especially effective way to have an impact on others is in the way we transform our environment. It is possible to think that the huge human synaptic connection mass in all human brains is the only known upper limit for the development of the human culture. This potential gives hope: it is difficult to imagine any limitation to our cultural and human development due to this immense information theoretical limit. On the other hand it makes one wonder, what is the nature of this inter-brain networking? How are we, actually, connected with each other’s brains?

Of course we can think about all this from a number of constraining perspectives: human information processing, human physiology and anatomy in general, development and evolution, food and drugs, environmental changes, and any other factors that alter our brains. But nothing in the human life on earth happens without the presence of these synaptic forces of change and we cannot achieve more that this potential allows.  In that sense, it is an inspiring scientific challenge to make these calculations and read their story to the human cultural potential, in  good and bad. These or similar computational considerations can form a basis for looking at the information theoretical constraints that our networked brains provide to the civilization and human beings on earth. Based on these simple computational speculations, these extreme  values are as far as the limits of the known universe. But then of course, it is possible that the theory of synapses collapses and the computed limits will change, just as it is continuously happening in astronomy. The good side of all this is that the limits will be pushed farther.

The photo above is from Stanford, I thank Sayed Shariq for the inspiring synaptic energy.

“Pisa” seniors and life-long motivation

April 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finland has enjoyed the glory of its children who have repeatedly excelled, together with Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong in the Pisa test (Programme for International Student Assessment ) measuring their skills in maths, sciences, and reading. But this is not all, Newsweek has declared Finland as the best country to live in, the overall scores based on the analysis of its life related to health, quality of life, economic dynamism, and political environment.


Based on this, it should be clear to everyone in Finland and in other countries having similar intellectual and human advantages that in the very near future, they will all have an increasingly large number of activity-motivated, skillful, knowledgeable, learning and networked senior citizens. This number increases fast, and provides an extremely valuable human and social capital to any of these advanced countries. The time is also close when facebook will be conquered by the senior citizens who also will form the largest group of computer game players.

Retiring digital natives

The time of digital retired natives is close and we should find out ways to culture this potential in our societies. Strangely enough, when I have mentioned this perspective to people in Finland and in other European countries, their first interpretation, when listening to me, is that I’m just suggesting ways to enrich the life of the elderly, and “to provide a happier end” for them. I call this “Bingo attitude”, a reluctance to see the seniors as a valuable human capital asset. According to that, it is enough to provide “nice life” to the elderly.

Of course a secure life for the retired population is the number one issue, especially here in Scandinavia where we do not see social security as “government spending” but as “government investment”. But we could better take care of this investment here as well. Still there seems to be a social law in this: the younger the listener the higher the probability that he/she assumes that the elderly need only “nice life”, a retirement well deserved. But there are other views.

Being alive – really

”They want to keep us medically alive, so they better offer us something to live for”, was a comment from my friend Jerry White, living in Mountain View, not far from Palo Alto, California.  He is now 83 years old, professor of psychology, an active, witty and visionary colleague of mine. We were both engaged with the EPIC (Earth-wide, Peace, Innovation, Collaboration) project at Stanford and had started a series of discussions about this topic that Jerry had long been thinking about.

After the discussions with Jerry I asked myself the question: Could Finland be the best country in the world in providing an active, ambitious, worth living for, networked, and knowledge-rich life for its retired citizens?  A country of “Pisa seniors”. Progress in this could be a huge benefit for the whole society, not only economically but also in a very wide sense. I wrote about it also in

How should we define this kind of quality of life of the elderly and how should we think about it? Here I suggest some guidelines how to think about it and how to measure the human capital of the senior citizens. Newsweek could perhaps make a great story out of this, but first some background data from Finland.

Case Finland

The total amount of people receiving a pension here is about 1.5 million, which is about 30% of the population.  About 70000 people of age 50+ retire yearly. Roughly a third of them suffer from physical, mental or perhaps social problems so that nearly 50000 people retire in a relatively good health every year in Finland. It can be expected that this number will steadily increase. Furthermore, it is not known what could be done to alleviate the above problems by a meaningful life and activities since often the origin of them is in the working life itself.

But not only are the majority of the retiring people healthy – they also have an excellent, and every year a better educational background. The proportion of women having a university degree in Finland is close to 50% already now and for men it is about 30%. Furthermore, nearly 40% of men and 30% of women have a vocational education. In other words, in the very near future, roughly 50% of the retiring people will have a university degree and 40% will have a vocational education background.

Life-long motivation

I don’t have the data available, but it is no rocket science to claim, that people with such a high degree of education have a life-long motivation and ability to accomplish and learn.  I’m not a big fan of “life-long-learning” concept, in fact I believe it is a harmful concept since it typically looks at rational and productive learning issues and besides, I just don’t see how it could be otherwise? Where did the idea come from that life is not continuous learning? I prefer “life-long-motivation” that looks at the power and color of life and engagement in people. The idea of good life for the retiring people will change.

It is a major mistake to assume that retired people would have, somehow automatically, a low ambition level in what they do. Why should this be the case? This false assumption may not be explicitly mentioned, but the idea hides often between the polite “Bingo attitudinal” comments. In fact, because the retired citizens are not bound by the operational and time-line related constraints and pressures of working life, they can afford a very high ambition level in anything that they do – even higher knowledge ambition than their colleagues in working life. And they have their range of experiences, and networks – real networks of life, work and business, not virtual or facebook “friends”.

Everyone knows what the lean organization development has caused at work places: people don’t have enough time to learn new things, while there is a continuous need for new and improving knowledge. So the question is: how many of the retired people would be competent enough and motivated to be engaged with such organizational and business activities? We don’t know, but we should. I would take a rough guess that if in Finland we were able to offer inspiring ways for the retired people to be engaged with real and ambitious working life then approximately 50% of them per year would be ready to participate. In Finland that would mean approximately 25000 highly skilled people every year. This is about the same amount that our universities accept students per year but the recruitment of the seniors is not a cost but an income to the government.

They never come back?

The main question is, however, would retired people be interested in the presently available ways of working with different partners or partner companies. Probably not, since there is very little variety of such models and there are not many success models to follow. Companies and the young management are not prepared for this either. Besides, the public encouragement to this kind of dynamic work arrangements is practically lacking in Finland where we have an extremely one-eyed and focused discussion and argumentation about making the working career longer or increasing the formal retirement age. This is v-e-r-y stupid policy. Simple as that.

We need new and fresh models for engaging the motivated retiring people with real and ambitious work – for those who want to do it, within their own limits and within their personal comfort zone, but with high ambition level and for the benefit of their partner companies and organizations. Luckily we have people who have realized this and seen its huge potential value. One of them is a friend of mine, Marko Parkkinen one of the leading and visionary entrepreneurs in Finland. But we loose a pool of valuable human and social capita every year if we just let things proceed as usual. There is also a Bingo-risk that after 2-3 years of retirement it becomes difficult to start building the networks and engagement: people find their ways of spending their lives as best they can and that is their right.

Start measuring and improve the awareness of it

A good way to boost this type of offerings for the retiring population is to start measuring it, just like the Pisa study. Once we have measures, it becomes possible to start thinking about improving the situation for the benefit of the people and the society. But how to measure the “Pisa-quality” of the life of the retired people? Here is a first thought -list of indicators that could be used as a basis for such quality measures of senior engagement:

  1. Richness of the network with younger 50- generation people
  2. Richness of the network with other people
  3. Time spent in organizational activities of the third sector
  4. Time spent in business & org life activities
  5. Time spent in studying new topics
  6. Estimated material capital outcome of these activities
  7. Estimated immaterial material capital outcome of these above activities
  8. Experienced subjective quality of all these activities
  9. Attitude of younger generation people towards the retired people

I’m not a specialist in this issue so my numbers can well be biased but I  have used some statistical data to support my arguments and you can find relevant data from, for example in 2009 Suomen virallinen tilasto/Finlands officiella statistik/Official Statistics of Finland.

Quantifying your Self? Need a human-centered data structure?

April 5, 2011 § 2 Comments

Quantified Self is not a distant dream. Miniature cameras, practically unlimited memory capacity, an increasing number of sensors selective to motion, vibration, light, radiation, acoustic signals, chemicals, position, weather, bio substances, pressure and other physical phenomena, together with mobile physiological recording systems, and intelligent devices provide an unlimited architecture for quantifying ourselves. The question is, what to do with all this data and how to accomplish it so that it could provide unforeseen human benefits.

New form of psychology

My first encounter with the Quantified Self (QS) concept took place in a seminar arranged in Microsoft premises, Mountain View, in summer 2010. The audience consisted of a group of innovative people with a background in ict, psychology, anthropology, social sciences, medicine, and other disciplines. They all shared a serious interest in the knowledge revolution that is taking place in the recording and management of human, individual data. When they all, about 150 attendees were asked to describe their QS interest in three words it became clear that a new form of science and practice of multi-disciplinary psychology is being born.

Present recording-oriented human brain sciences and the superficial psychological methodologies will be complemented by the new science that is seriously interested in the real life and living context of the individual. This is something that many modern psychological disciplines have forgotten: authenticity is nearly an alien concept to these disciplines that use their brute force (e.g. simple minded brain recordings combined with simple psychology, exaggerating generalization of the gene impacts on our future, mechanical profiling by personality measures) applications to our lives.

If you don’t believe this somewhat gloomy claim, read any basic book on neuropsychology, cognitive psychology or unfortunately, a book of perceptual psychology. Try finding everyday life, our simple joys, sorrows and life styles in them. Luckily, you can still be delighted by some introductory psychology textbooks that approach the reader by “real-life” examples.

The proponents of QS are designing methods to collect and organize massive amounts of personally relevant data from single individuals – in real time or close to it – from a number of sources like various behavior measures, non-invasive probes, location indicators, body sensors, self-assessments, personal audio or video, health and other personal records, life-event logs, chemical recorders, or even gene data. But I left the meeting in Mountain View somewhat surprised, noticing that not much discussion concerned the strategies for collecting and especially organizing such huge data masses. This will be a real challenge in future.

Human-centered data structures needed

In the Quantified self -approach, the individual is always in the center of all data collection and retrieval, just like we all are, as subjects, in the center of our own information architectures, our own and to-us-relevant world. We manage our perceptual, experiential, motor and thought process data from the first person, me-perspective. Our memory for all this information and knowledge is built on the subject-oriented architecture where information from this perspective can be organized in an intelligent and meaningful way. It is not an accident that our memory is based on the first-person perspective. Its main aim is not the accuracy of retrieval but the subjective relevance of all memory data. This is where computer systems often fail – by being accurate but irrelevant.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no known artificial data structure and architecture model that would be designed for this purpose, i.e. to serve the need for organizing first person oriented data collection, storage, management, and retrieval. I’m convinced that we need to build data architectures that are solely meant to serve this purpose, to manage the first person –oriented data masses. It is not only a question of linking a person code with the data concerning him or her: even if we can relate all the data that we have recorded from an individual or from the sources related to him, we still need a meaningful integration of the data. The principles of this integration are an interesting and ambitious puzzle.

As a thought experiment, try remembering an accident that you witnessed or a visit to a memorable place, long time ago. Typically you first try to memorize the key events, times, places, or people present in them. Essentially you view your own history from the first person perspective by constructing an intimate mental scene and a play that only you can follow. This amazing process is an effective demonstration of the human-centric, first person -oriented data structures and architectures that underlie our memory performance.

Our memory for personal events is not perfect, far from it, but it is always relevant unlike the artificial memory systems that we use. In fact, the worst mistakes made by artificial memory systems are those that have lost the knowledge of the personal relevance of the data. For a human, even in the case of memory slips the subjective material recovered has a personal relevance. We do not make any memory slips or any mistakes: they are nearly always somehow meaningful to us, right or wrong.

Human centric data architecture

The power of the human-centric data  (HCD) architecture is that it allows and preserves the personal perspective, whatever data or information is processed, even when the memories are fabricated, incomplete, under the influence of suggestions, or simply false. Personal relevance is an extremely valuable property of this memory as it helps individuals to survive in complex and even dangerous environments. There is no formal data structure that would describe exactly what personal relevance means.

With a slight exaggeration one can claim that artificial memory systems are designed to store and recover even the slightest details correctly while the recollection perspective is secondary. For the human centric memory, the opposite is true: recollection perspective is primary and the detail accuracy of the retrieved information is only secondary.

In recollecting the distant memories we identify the key elements, enrich them and link them with other relevant memorized events. After a while we have created a coherent memory structure that we can internally view like a movie. It may not be completely true as Elisabeth Loftus and other researchers have shown, but it is amazing how, piece by piece, we weave such a functional lace of memory of experiences. Endel Tulving, the famous cognitive psychologist has described this specific human memory as episodic memory.

Computers and their memory systems don’t come even close to the human memory performance when it comes to remembering events – why?

First of all – the computer has no idea who is memorizing and what. It has not been possible to program a person into a computer. This is the problem of any memory system that is based on the idea of storing objective data without its context and history. The human memory system is a contextual memory that stores both the objects of interest (data) and the context (associated data). Both of them can act as search keys later when needed. That is why smells are associated with the memory of significant events or why certain familiar places feel so wonderful to us.

A problem in dealing with masses of personal (subject-oriented) data is that our present data structures have not been designed to represent, store, organize and recover human-centered information or knowledge. So the question is: what would be the best candidate for a human-centric data base model that would support human/person -centric data processing? There is an increasing need for this type of data structures and data base theory.

I believe that for QS developers as well as for anybody dealing with masses of personal information (which is commonplace today), a subject-oriented data structure can provide a means to organize data in subjectively meaningful and effective manner.

Episodic structure as a candidate for human centered memory base

So, as a candidate for the human-centric memory I suggest here the episodic data structure concept (superficially) that I have discussed with a colleague of mine (Jari Lehto) already for years but never had a chance/time to present or develop it into a product. In a pilot study some time ago with Sauli Laitinen we could  demonstrate the power (and weaknesses) of the human episode structures  for collecting and retrieving our personal experience data.

The basic idea for the human-centered data structure  is simple: an episode is a structure that can be taken as the basic entity in a subject-oriented data structure and the memory architecture can be built on that. There is a lot of literature of episodic memory (cf. Endel Tulving, especially). This is how I define the HCD in general terms:

1. An episode is a structural element of our memory of experiences and actions. When we remember something from our history (like painting a garage, that we used as an example with my colleague) we recollect it as a structure of episodes (going to a shop, buying the paint, preparing the work, doing it, cleaning the place, admiring what we did …). Then, after 2 years we try to recollect from our memory, where did we put the paint cans if we want to know what colors were used? The episodic chain structure of subjective historical data comes to help.

2. An episode includes an actor (me), task/action/goals, relevant content (data, knowledge, associations, perceptions, attentive focus, etc), a temporal window and timeline, and a context (social or other).

3. Episodes are strongly linked with each other so that it is possible to recover detailed data through a linked set of personal episodes. The memory information in the episodes is not exact, but it is always relevant, subjective, and first-person oriented.

4. For an unknown reason, the episodic data structure in the human memory is psychologically very coherent, detailed, and well integrated, almost like our perceptions. This makes it an extremely efficient and robust structure to deposit, store, and recover the essential elements of its data, even after several years.

5. The access to the episodes activates automatically many of its constituents and it provides a very rich collection of subjective data, including the emotional, motivational and social aspects that are strongly interlinked.

6. It is possible to build an episodic data structure that allows matching the data structures of different individuals and even masses of people. This has a huge application potential, some of which I have sketched for specific purposes (not here).

7. Combining numerous QS data sources with and episodic representation and a related data base allows efficient search of subjectively relevant data and experiences.

8. The episodic data base system need not perfect: it can include fuzzy elements, but it must to preserve the personal relevance of all of its data and processes. Of course, it is possible to support a high-performance memory by innovative technologies, but the first-person, subjective data can never be perfect and complete. This is not a problem for our normal human memory.

This kind of an episodic memory system is possible to build and test: I’m curious to follow this development which seems unavoidable in front of the increasingly rich personal data sources and the pressing need to manage the data masses. Episodic architecture and data structures allow the building  a relevant context to all subjective data, including and especially in the QS applications.

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