A few months ago I purchased Fitbit watches for my children and myself. My goals were twofold. First, I was hoping that they would motivate all of us to be more active. Second, I wanted to foster a sense of competition (including fair play and winning) within my children. Much of their pre-High School experiences focused on “participation,” as many schools feel that competition is bad. Unfortunately, competition is everywhere in life, so if don’t play to win you may not get the opportunity to play at all.
It is fun seeing them push to be the high achiever for the day, and to continually push themselves to do better week-by-week and month-by-month. I believe this creates a wonderful mindset that makes you want to do more, learn more, and achieve more. People who do that are also more interesting to spend time with, so that is a bonus.
Recently my 14 year-old son and I went for a long walk at night. It was a cold, windy, and fairly dark night. We live in fairly rural area so it is not uncommon to see and hear various wild animals on a 3-4 mile walk. I’m always looking for opportunities to teach my kids things in a way that is fun and memorable, and in a way that they don’t realize they are being taught. Retention of the concepts is very high when I am able to make it relevant to something we are doing.
That night we started talking about the wind. It was steady with occasional gusts, and at times it changed direction slightly. I pointed out the movement on bushes and taller grass on the side of the road. We discussed direction, and I told him to think about the wind like an invisible arrow, and then explained how those arrows traveled in straight lines or vectors until they met some other object. We discussed which object would “win,” and how the force of one object could impact another object. My plan was to discuss Newton’s three laws of motion.
My son asked if that is why airplanes sometimes appear to be flying at an angle but are going straight. He seemed to be grasping the concept. He then asked me if drones would be smart enough to make those adjustments, which quickly led to me discussing the use potential future of “intelligent” drones by the military. When he was 9 he wanted to be a Navy SEAL, but once he saw how much work that was he decided that he would rather be Transformer (which I explained was not a real thing). My plan was to use this example to discuss robotics and how you might program a robot to do various tasks. I wanted him to logically break down the actions think about managing complexity. But, no such luck that night.
His mind jumped to “Terminator” and “I, Robot.” I pointed out that there is spectrum between the best possible outcome – utopia, and the worst possible outcome – dystopia, and asked him what he thought could happen if machines could learn and become smarter on their own. His response was that things would probably fall somewhere in the middle, but there would be people at each end trying to pull the technology in that direction. That seemed like a very enlightened estimation. He asked me what I thought and I replied that I agreed with him. I then noted how some really intelligent guys like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk are worried about the dystopian future and recently published a letter to express their concerns about potential pitfalls of AI (artificial intelligence). This is where the discussion became really interesting…
We discussed why you would want a program or a robot to learn and improve – so that it could continue to become better and more efficient, just like a person. We discussed good and bad, and how difficult it could be to control something that doesn’t have morals or understand social mores (which he felt if this robot was that smart it would learn those things based on observations and interactions). I told him about my discussions with his older sister, who wants to become a Physician, about how I believe that robotics, nanotechnology, and pharmacology will be the future of medicine. He and I took the logical next step and thought about a generic but intelligent medicine that identified and fixed problems independently, and then sent the data and lessons learned for others to learn from. We’ll have an Internet of Things (IoT) discussion later, and I will tie back to this discussion and our Fitbit wearable technology.
After the walk I was thinking about what just happened, and was pleased because it seemed to spark some genuine interest in him. I’m always looking for that perfect recipe for innovation, but it is elusive and so far lacks repeatability. It is possible to list many of the “ingredients” (intelligence, creativity, curiosity, confidence (to try and accept and learn from failure), multi-disciplinary experiences and expertise) and “measurements” (such as a mix of complementary skills, a mix of roles, and a special environment (i.e., strives to learn and improve, rewards both learning and success but doesn’t penalize failure, and creates a competitive environment that understands the team is more important than any one individual). That type of environment is magical when you can create it, but it takes so much more than just having people and a place that seem to match the recipe. That critical mixing component is missing.
I tend to visualize things, so while I was thinking about this I pictured a tree with multiple “brains” (my mental image looked somewhat like broccoli) that had visible roots. Those roots were creative ideas that went off in various directions. Trees with more roots that were bigger and went deeper would stand out in a forest of regular trees. Each major branch (brain / person) would have a certain degree of independence, but
ultimately everything on the tree worked as a system. To me, this description makes so much more sense than the idea of a recipe, but it still doesn’t bring me closer to being able map the DNA of this imaginary tree.
At the end of our long walk it seemed that I probably learned as much as my son did, and we made a connection that will likely lead to more walks and more discussions. And in a strange way, I can thank the purchase of these Fitbit watches for being the motivation for an activity that led to this amazing discussion. From that perspective alone this was money well spent.
Science has been interesting to me for most of my lifetime, but it wasn’t until my first child was born that I shifted from “interested” to “involved.” You see, my daughter was diagnosed with Systemic Onset Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (SoJIA – originally called Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, or JRA). As I wrote it a brochure, this was a big name for such a little girl. She was only 15 months old at the time, and there was very little research on the topic back then. This was also a time a few years before the breakthroughs of biological medicines like Enbrel were being used on children.
One of the things that I found is that this disease could be horribly debilitating. Children often had physical deformities as a result of this disease. As a first time parent difficult to imagine that life for your child. Luckily, I had just started a company and it was starting to be successful, so I decided to finds ways to personally make a tangible difference.
As someone new to “major gifts” and philanthropy I quickly learned that some forms of gifts were more beneficial than others. While most organizations wanted you to start a fund (which we did), the impact from that tended to be more long-term and less immediate. I met someone who showed me a different and better way (here’s a post that describes that in more detail).
I didn’t want to blindly give money. Rather, I wanted to treat these donations like investments. In order to be successful I needed to understand some of the medicine and some of the science in these areas. That started a new era of independent learning in my life.
There was a lot going on in the fields of Genetics and Genomics at the time (here’s a good explanation of the difference between the two). My interest and efforts in this area led to a position on the Medical and Scientific Advisory Committee with the Arthritis Foundation. With the exception of me, these were talented and successful physicians who were also involved with medical research. We met quarterly, and I did ask questions and make suggestions that made a difference. But, unlike everyone else on the committee, I needed to study and prepare for 40+ hours for each call to ensure that had enough of an understanding to add value and not be a distraction.
A few years later we did work for a Nanotechnology company (more info here for those interested). The Chief Scientist wasn’t that interested in explaining what they did until I described some of our research projects on gene expression. He then went into great detail about what they were doing and how he believed it would change what we do in the future. I saw that and agreed, but also started thinking of the potential for leveraging nanotechnology with medicine.
I was listening to the “TED Radio Hour” while driving today and heard a segment about entrepreneur Richard Resnick. It was exciting because it got me thinking about this again, and this is a topic that I haven’t thought about much for the past few years (the last time was contemplating how Actian’s analytic products could be useful in this space).
There are efforts going on today with custom medicines that target specific genes. The genetic modifications being performed on plants today will be performed on humans in the near future (I would guess 10-15 years). The body is an incredibly adaptive organism, so it will be very challenging to implement anything that is consistently safe and effective. But, that day will come, and many people will be upset when it finally does.
It’s not a huge leap to go from genetically modified “treatment cells” to nanotechnology. Just think, machines that can work independently within is, do what they are programmed to do, and more importantly identify adaptations as they occur and alter their approach accordingly. To me, this is extremely exciting. It’s not that I want to live to be 100 – because I don’t. But, being able to do things that have a positive impact on the quality of life for children and their families is a worthy goal from my perspective.
Keep learning, keep an open mind, and see what you can personally do to make a difference. You will never know unless you try.