Space Aliens or Killer AI Robots? Which ones are gonna get us?

Tamandua, a small anteater, Pantanal, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil

I’m listening now to a super-fun book from my Audible account, that’s right up the alley of all kinds of fans of this page. It’s called Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control, by Stuart Russell . I highly recommend it. Russell is a full professor at UC-Berkeley, and constructs measured rational arguments about the need for AI regulation, instead of defaulting to his authority, of which, as an internationally famous scholar and Oxford grad, he has plenty. Further, he’s implicitly an evolutionary thinker — his solution for the problem of out-of-control AI is adding some self-doubt to the AI, with a reverential response to individual human preference, which is exactly one v-memetic/value set click up, with different scaffolding, than the current objective-driven AIs that we have out there now.

Caveat: I don’t have the hard-copy — just the audio book — but I do still recommend this book. This piece may get a couple of details wrong, but most of what I’ll write is conceptually pretty solid. I also have not finished the whole book — and may update this piece when that happens.

Russell frames the problem of whether we should worry about super-intelligent AIs, no matter how far out in the future they are, by equivalencing to the question “what if we knew space aliens were going to show up 50 years in the future?” His short answer is this — we better get prepared.

And while I don’t disagree with his premise — he’s RIGHT — we should get prepared — for those that understand the empathetic implications of this work and how Conway’s Law would dictate the structure of an AI, this is not the best way to start the book. Any super-intelligent civilization that finally travels to Earth is expanding the temporal and spatial scales of their own consciousness, as well as mastering maintenance of their personal ecosystem over potentially millions of years, as well hundreds of light-years. More importantly, they are doing this sentient development OUTSIDE our human system.

And since I’ve made the case multiple times that sentience is sentience is sentience, it’s safe to assume that such creatures are far more evolved than we are, and operating from a much more connected, wise and evolved v-Meme/value set. No one’s going to fly interstellar distances to do something as stupid as mine our planet for rare earth metals. Or stop by Earth for a billion-or-so people snack. That’s an egocentric projection out of our own deep Survival value set. For those that want to see all that unpacked, and why you shouldn’t believe people like Stephen Hawking, this is a super-fun piece that I wrote, and don’t cringe when I re-read it. (Not true for everything on this blog!) Short version — interstellar space aliens are already likely enlightened.

But evolutionary AI is an entirely different problem. AI is something we create, and as such, will reflect us, dependent on both the social structure of the group creating the AI, as well as its v-Meme/value set. That’s the implication of Conway’s Law — the design of the system maps to the organization that creates it. And that nasty bit of reasoning, The Intermediate Corollary, that states that social structure maps to knowledge structure before it gets to instantiation in the design, is a bugger when it comes to AI. Like it or not, we intrinsically are going to transfer SOME value set into our AIs. And that value set, whether we understand all the implications or not, without deliberate attempts at growing empathy, is going to be a low empathy solution.

And this is where Russell’s analysis shines. He frames the development of AI around the fact we will create AIs to reach goals, (Performance/Goal-Based value set/v-Meme) and while he doesn’t have an explicit value evolution structure like the work on this blog, he calls out the scaffolding that’s going to mess us up — namely Authoritarian/Egocentric value set concentration by the AI wanting to replicate itself, as well as the fundamental Survival v-Meme/value set desire by the AI to survive. And that needs to worry us. If we build a cognitive engine strong enough to reach certain goal levels, there’s no telling what that AI’s neuroplasticity will come up with as far as that Survival strategy.

We’re already seeing what folks in the aerospace industry call “lack of configuration control” in algorithmic search, which is a form of AI in itself. We often cannot tell exactly why a given search routine does what it does — it just “does” it. Implicit in this is that unspecified dynamics are programmed in, whose results are unanticipated. In the world of aerospace, every structure on an aircraft is supposedly isolated, or exists with defined coupling, to every other part. When unknown coupling between parts produce unpredictable behavior, the plane design is said to “lose configuration control.” It is no different for software systems, and this is a pressing problem as we develop more complex algorithms.

For those that like talking historically about the progress of philosophy, Russell provides (not surprisingly – he’s an Oxford scholar) a lot of details, as he very gingerly places them under the bus. They’re not quite sufficient, and of course, he’s right. I just wrapped up listening to a long discourse on Utilitarianism and how it’s not up-to-snuff. No single philosophy can be, because current philosophy is Authority-driven. And no matter how profound someone can be, if they’re like any normal philosopher, they’re still stuck on Intellectual Flatland, with a limited range of perspectives.

Russell does a fair job of dismissing the various Pollyannas of AI, that say we have nothing to worry about, or that we should worry about the presence of a super-intelligence when it shows up. He criticizes many developers in the AI field actually from a value-set perspective, accusing them of Tribalism! So cool! He’s off by a v-Meme click — it’s actually a mapping into the low-empathy Authoritarian v-Meme/value set, but he correctly dismisses their arguments as belief-based, In-group/Out-group conflicts, and fundamentally not data-driven.

One of the things he kind of alludes to, but a point that needs to be made, is that there’s nothing that says folks that develop AI are the ones that really are best suited to understanding the implications of their work. In fact, we shouldn’t really expect it at all. Experts are going to stack in hierarchies, be it research labs or university campuses, and while they might succeed with very complicated/sophisticated thinking, their silos are still real, and their social system will inevitably fail to develop most of them in the ways of both broad and deep consequential thinking. It’s not that a familiarization with the technology doesn’t matter — certainly understanding current AI techniques and capabilities ground one in the possible/cognitive. But in many ways, they do not open the door to the metacognitive — knowing what you don’t know. If all our researchers were as wise as Sai Wong, the old Chinese man whose horse ran away, we’d be in a better world. Good news, bad news, who knows?

And it’s not like turning to philosophers, or social scientists, is going to necessarily provide answers either. They suffer from the same low evolution/high sophistication thinking that the researchers suffer from.

I’m loathe to criticize Russell’s analysis, because it’s such a good one. But there are some things I hope he considers. Submerged in his own Legalistic hierarchy (albeit an international one!) he does praise rationality, or really perfect logic, as the unachievable, but desirable goal – a rather low value set/v-Meme goal, though he does rescue himself with his solution. Evolution has given us fuzziness and heuristics because that turns out to be a deep Survival strategy, especially for the collective. Having freaks isn’t a bug — it’s a feature, and a way of storing low probability-of-use information.

He also fails to consider that maybe we might generate the ultimate super-intelligence, but we would still be unlikely to listen to it, especially if it required us to do something to facilitate its success. We might be game to help it solve cancer, but when it comes to global warming, or any other complex problem, the same political forces will resist change of our energy infrastructure.

And then there’s the inevitable inability of humans, dependent on their developmental level, to even understand what a super-intelligence might be saying. Sentience is sentience is sentience, and the same ceilings of understanding are going to be in play with humans relating back to the AI itself. Going back to the Space Alien problem, I’m convinced that if a group of friendly aliens showed up, we likely wouldn’t understand their solutions for us except through the lens of magic. And needless to say, I’m not the first person to have that perspective.

One thing to dump into the debate that Russell peripherally alludes to, but is integral to an empathy-oriented analysis, is temporal and spatial range of action. Russell does start talking about the value of altruism, with an example of creating an AI that is so altruistic, it takes off for Somalia to help ostensibly starving people on the other side of the globe. Here’s hoping he takes a look at understanding how an AI might be coupled to a human master, not just in examining preferences, but in optimizing the behavior of itself, with restricted sidebars (we call them laws!) across a person’s social network.

And, of course, Russell doesn’t spend much time understanding networks of agents, and how they might work together. Here’s hoping he reads some of my stuff on structural memetics. The idea of a networked collective intelligence isn’t broached, though it is actually inevitable. Computers in a stand-alone fashion weren’t much. But once we got the Internet, well we all kinda know what happened next.

One framework that Russell doesn’t capture very well is the cognitive/metacognitive risk of powerful AIs. While most of the book directs itself toward wondering and warning about unpredictable, emergent behavior — a very real danger, and one that must be taken seriously — there’s also the problem of deliberate construction of AIs that map value sets that are quite terrible from their creators. And while I absolutely do not want to be dismissive of the threat from the former, I’m more worried about perfecting the technology explicitly that lets small and medium robots go out and hunt people. This is a function of power and money, and we cannot escape our own need to evolve. As the old Bedouin saying goes, “Some people fear the future. But I fear what has already passed.”

So — get his book. I think it’s a great one for a book circle. And weave some of the v-Meme-y, goodness in there. Then you can appreciate the foresight of the author, as well as help us all iterate our deeper concerns as we plunge into this unknown space.

Raising Kids — the Empathetic Basics — The First Rule – Pay Attention

Brother Chasing Brother

My wife, a trauma psychologist, and I are collaborating on a new project — a set of short pieces on raising children, that she can translate into Mandarin for both the Taiwanese and Chinese markets. The hook is around raising a child to be an entrepreneur. My own son is one — he’s 21, and didn’t want to go to college. So, after a short stint working for in programming a UAV autopilot, and a brief attendance at L’Ecole 42, he and a buddy punched out and founded what is now They relatively recently closed their Series A round, so they’re on their way. 

His brother, two years younger, is a little more typical, but even he has no problem standing up a small business. I never taught them any of the business stuff — so trust me when I tell you it’s not that.

Will they be successful? They’re doing great! Statistics say 25% of all companies making it this far survive, so we’re still pretty far from a successful exit. But he’s on the journey, and there are numerous things he and his brother did learn along the way that I’ll write about. 

Point of order — I’ll repeat this header for all these pieces. And yes — they are much simpler than most of the typical material on this blog!

The First Rule – Pay Attention

Starting Age – 3

Lifetime Practice

In order for children to be successful in life, let alone entrepreneurism, they must be aware of their surroundings.

But in order for your child to be aware of their surroundings, YOU have to first be aware of your surroundings.  You have to practice.  

How do we practice? Everyday life. The best element to practice on, though, are other people.  And they are available everywhere.  In shopping malls.  On sidewalks. Places where children play. Recognize other people.  Learn, and say their names.  Children will pick up on the notion that you can recognize other people in venues other than just the home.

Give yourself a test – how far do you look around when you sit down in a restaurant?  Practice keeping an awareness distance of 2 meters. Don’t obsess – just look around before you sit down. Play a game.  Ask the child if they saw the person two tables away was wearing a red scarf, or other noticeable item.  Expand the distance as they get older.

With your child, a great place to start learning to pay attention is in the grocery store.  Have your child help you find items you wish to buy. If they make a wrong choice, do not scold the child – instead, take the item, and communicate to the child while you evaluate it.  Take their input, and play-act perhaps a little, that you’re considering their judgment before returning it to the shelf.  Creating them as an agent, and extension of your awareness will feed their desire to look outward.

Learning how to ride a bike is a great opportunity for the child to learn how to self-regulate while under stress and paying attention.  Find a bike path that is uncrowded, and ride at a pace in front of the child not so far that the child feels unsafe, but must look around.  I used to take my two boys chasing me at carefully selected times on city streets, when they were deserted (but the boys didn’t know.)  It was high adventure following their father in a place they had become accustomed to seeing danger, and knowing they were partially responsible for themselves. Chasing a parent in a safe-in-reality, but differential environment for a child teaches coordination with others, as well as situational awareness.  Runs through forests and trees make the child aware of their need to keep up, as well as how they must adapt to changing circumstances. After they follow for a while, make them lead.

Regardless of who comes to your house, if your child is in the vicinity of that purpose, they should greet that person, even if they only immediately exit back to their playtime activities.  The older the child, the more formal and appropriate the greeting.  This is something I notice that we have lost from our protocols. 

Part of paying attention is realizing that there are consequences for not doing so.  One of the rules I implemented early on in my parenting strategies was called ‘Talk the talk – walk the walk.’  One of the ways young boys especially get hurt later in life is playing games of ‘dare’ with other young males.  There is a tree that really shouldn’t be climbed, or a jump into the water that is not safe.  Responding to peer pressure, the young male takes a chance to prove himself to his peers, in an uncontrolled environment, and ends up severely injured or dead.

I realized that the reason this happened to kids was poor emotional self-separation with others in a peer group, as well as no training in evaluating risk.  I was especially concerned with diving, as I had escaped serious injury or possibly death in a diving accident myself when I was 16.  

How did I do this with my boys?  First was understanding the need to interrupt the positive feedback cycle of people daring more and more dangerous things.  The way one does this is actually counterintuitive.  You make a rule where, in a given situation where risk is involved, if the child swears they will do something, you force them to follow through.

This is AFTER, of course, you’ve decided the activity is safe in the first place.  If the child expresses a desire, ask them to evaluate the situation for safety.  “Pay attention” is the first phrase out of my mouth.  If the child then commits, you do not allow them to back out.

If this practice is started when they are very young (I started doing this with my sons at age 5) the jumps are small.  But they will build assessment into their thought process, so when you are NOT there, they will end up in an emotional, ratcheting spiral that could end  in tragedy.

A story – we were floating down the Lower Salmon on a multi-day family raft trip with a close friend of mine, George, that does stand-in as the boys’ uncle.  Conor was 4, and Braden was 6.  There were a series of rapids where the adults consider it safe to swim down through the waves.  Conor had heard us talk about this, and had told us he wanted to jump off the raft and swim through the waves.  I told him that he could consider it, but first, he would have to look at the rapidand make his decision there.  

We approached the rapid. Of course, all was safe.  But the decision was his – I asked him.  “What do you think?”  He said that it looked good.  “Do you want to do it?” I asked.  He said “yes.”  I said “Talk the talk, walk the walk!”  He agreed.

We floated another 100 m downstream.  He was sitting on the edge of the raft.  “I changed my mind,” he said.  George looked at him.  “You know the rules,” he told Conor.  Conor got a long look on his face, and then immediately bailed off the back.  

And there is another deep, inner lesson.  Do not act, or NOT act, out of fear.  Act out of assessment and your rational experience, or others’ rational experience.

When Conor swam the rapids, he had a great experience.  But the lesson was learned.  Now Conor is a high-expert skier, taking big jumps and hucking 30’ cliffs at speed. But he slows down, and assesses unfamiliar terrain.  He does NOTHING on a dare.  It is a lifetime practice to master the First Rule.  But he is on the path.

Very important, as you move into this rule, is understanding children’s developmental limits.  A child below the age of 8 can see mountains, but they cannot truly process mountains – objects past a distance of 20’ are meaningless. Ask a young child about the bug on their shoe.  That is something they can understand.  

Time periods matter. Asking a young child to maintain focus for too long is also cruel.  During all your training, you must pay attention to the child as well!

Through all the practice, you are working on the child’s brain so that you stating the rule is not nagging. It is tied to the child’s larger experience, and triggers a richer set of responses than just “do what you’re told!” You must be creative yourself, though. You must think of situations where it appears that you might lead, but in reality, the child must navigate correctly.

And by doing so, you are laying in the deep foundation of entrepreneurship. You are giving the child the confidence to pay attention to their surroundings, which will be the business environment they find themselves in, and act.

Raising Kids — the Empathetic Basics – Introduction

Father and Son, Misool, West Papua

My wife, a trauma psychologist, and I are collaborating on a new project — a set of short pieces on raising children, that she can translate into Mandarin for both the Taiwanese and Chinese markets. The hook is around raising a child to be an entrepreneur. My own son is one — he’s 21, and didn’t want to go to college. So, after a short stint working for in programming a UAV autopilot, and a brief attendance at L’Ecole 42, he and a buddy punched out and founded what is now They relatively recently closed their Series A round, so they’re on their way.

His brother, two years younger, is a little more typical, but even he has no problem standing up a small business. I never taught them any of the business stuff — so trust me when I tell you it’s not that.

Will they be successful? They’re doing great! Statistics say 25% of all companies making it this far survive, so we’re still pretty far from a successful exit. But he’s on the journey, and there are numerous things he and his brother did learn along the way that I’ll write about.

So, without further ado, here we go! This is the introduction of a multi-part series.

Raising the Entrepreneurial Child

With the rapidly changing global economy, there are lots of conversations going on now on how to raise one’s child to succeed in the new, entrepreneurial economy.  I am lucky enough to have a unique vantage point on how to do this.  I have run a large entrepreneurial engineering clinic at the university level for over 25 years, as well as raising both of my own sons to be entrepreneurs.  

Whether they are “successful” entrepreneurs, I leave you to judge.  They are a bit young for final analysis – one is 21 and the CTO of a cryptocurrency/blockchain start-up, and recently closed his Series A round. He now supervises about 11 programmers both locally and remotely.  My second son is a bit more traditional – doing well in college, but also has run a series of smaller (much smaller!) ventures, including a car detailing business, as well as a boutique tennis shoe resale operation. 

The three principles I will start our discussion with are not just the key to raising an entrepreneurial child.  They are also key to raising a child that will love you, and care for you in your old age.  But raising such a child will also require you to do work on yourself, as your behavior must serve as the gold standard example that the child will emulate.  If you expect to raise a child that is much better a person than you, without doing the work on yourself, it may happen.  But the odds are much lower.

The three principles that we will elaborate on in this class is teaching your child the following:

  1. Pay attention.
  2. You are responsible for yourself.
  3. You are responsible for others.

The idea behind these three basic principles is that you will raise your child first to be aware of his/her surroundings, so they are equipped with awareness.  Secondly, you will teach the child to process external events within the context of taking care of themselves, and their own safety. Finally, you will expand the child’s ability to see others and seek to understand THEIR needs outside of their own interests.

How does this fit into the idea of raising the entrepreneurial child?

  1.  The child that is aware of their surroundings, will grow into an adult who is also aware of their responsibilities and their environment, and will see and seek opportunities for starting a business.
  2. The child that can take care of themselves knows how little they actually need for their well-being, so when they go through the difficult part of launching a business, they know they can survive the tough times, because they have persevered through similar experiences in their childhood.  They also know how to self-regulate so they can run the long race necessary to launch a business.
  3. The child that can take care of others will, of course, be a loving and caring child to their family.  But by mastering this skill, they will also develop empathy to read customers, and maintain a customer base – a vital skill for any entrepreneur.  Far too often, young entrepreneurs fall in love with their ideas, instead of thinking how to adapt their ideas to a business model.  A child that learns to take care of others does not sit passively by and waits to be told what to do.  A child that can take care of others reads others’ needs, and adapts their business model to the current situation. Plus, a child that has been paying attention AND taught to take care of others will look outward into the world for opportunities that will generate a successful company.  You must have both characteristics to succeed.

These are the three principles.  As you can see, they are not just principles to make money.  When properly exercised, they will make the child a successful business person.  But they will also make them a successful husband, or wife, and bring blessings into the family far beyond money.

Turning Correlation into Causation – How Deeper Knowledge and Insight is Generated

My chief writing partner – Mac

Correlation implying causation — as we’ve heard it 1000 times, don’t believe it. And it’s true — DON’T believe it. Well, at first glance. It’s so easy to come up with funny examples — all you really have to do is match one upward (or downward) trend with another, and if the rate of change/slope/timescale for the change is the same, ta-da! Instant high correlation! Buzzfeed walks through some funny ones in that link above, like the increase in global average temperature being indexed to an increasing pirate shortage.

You can lay these examples out at your next round of drinking games and speculate exactly WHY decreasing numbers of pirates might be behind Anthropogenic Global Warming (not enough shipping sunk?) but hopefully, you’ll maintain some healthy level of skepticism and scrutiny.

Before we sink into the deeper knowledge AND empathy structure analysis here is the most basic rule-of-thumb behind deciding if correlation actually IMPLIES causation — identifying a physical mechanism or dynamic that involves both topics. You’ve got to at least get to Legalistic/Algorithmic value set to have a hope of understanding a real connection. Is one of these really what mathematicians call an independent variable of another?

This is really an offshoot of the fun parlor game I just recommended above. But it does involve synthesizing knowledge from outside the field, and really takes apart the conspiratorial thinking relatively quickly. Does organic food cause autism? Can you link a mechanism in the brain that causes autism to some lack of pesticide consumption? Or can you draw two or three causal links that takes you from your incipient need to eat pesticides to protect your unborn children from autism? If you can’t, well, you have to STFU.

There’s a deeper way to understand correlation vs. causation, though, and it gets us back to the Knowledge Structure stack, and one of the core concepts of this blog — Reliability vs. Validity. Pure correlation consists of taking two different data streams, with attached temporal/spatial scales (or some other independent index — look, gang, don’t ‘gotcha’ an old digital signal processing expert with that shit!) and then, well, correlating them.

If you need the math to feel comfortable, well, start here! Do not be denied!

But that’s the end of the math for us. Let’s get down to business.

Correlation, as expressed above, is itself an algorithm that poops out a number that shows how well two data streams match. Let’s just post the Knowledge Structure understanding that flows from social structure below so you can remind yourself of where all this flows from, empathy- and human interaction-wise.

Basic Social Structure/Knowledge Structure Diagram

Someone walks into your office with two columns of numbers. You have no idea where those two columns came from — they’re just two columns.

So… you accept the Authority of the person trotting into your life with these two columns of numbers that they actually mean something. Susie says “I’ve been doing research on pirates and Anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and there’s some extremely disturbing trends I’ve observed in the data. From my vantage point, we better start recruiting pirates stat!”

You don’t really know Susie very well. She seems nice enough, and she DOES have the official title of Data Collection Master, given to her (ostensibly) after a long process of certification/education. So, you take that AGW and Pirate data and feed it into your Excel spreadsheet Algorithm— you ARE, after all, titled Data Analyst Master — and poop out a near perfect correlation of the two streams. All this “makes sense” to you. After all, Susie has an impressive title. And so do you.

You have no reason to believe that Susie has fudged the data (let’s get rid of the psychopathic distortion angle here.) She’s acting in good faith, and so are you. If she walks in with the same data, and asks you to analyze it, you’ll get the same answer. Both of you know how to create a data set, and analyze it.

What this means is that the analysis is REPEATABLE — as well as RELIABLE. That sounds pretty good. But that’s what both social structures are known for. REPEATABLE and RELIABLE sounds good to scientists. They don’t want to hear that the data can change its mind. This knowledge structure maps well to their social structures, and as such, everything makes sense.

But the problem with the social structures producing the data (as we’ve represented it) is that they are CLOSED systems. You’re inside the organization making/recording the data, or you aren’t. Someone can’t just walk through the door and start handing you Pirate population numbers, or records of AGW temperature. Which means, in our theoretical example, the data is not GROUNDED outside the implied experience of either Susie or yourself. It’s subject to your beliefs (Pirates are a GREAT solution for AGW!) and really not much else. And like as not, both the data streams were also collected INDEPENDENTLY. The Pirate Census organization went out and counted pirates. The AGW recorded ocean temperature equally separately.

What that means is someone can walk through the door and potentially influence you (they might show some pirate atrocity that might cause you to re-think your earlier support of increasing the number of pirates!) and it might gross you out enough to change the result. Or something else — you might see the data and remember your Correlation Organization binds you to a code of honor that says you’ll just push the buttons and give Susie back the magic number. There are many potential scenarios.

But if we want CAUSATION, we’re going to have to walk up the Knowledge Structures, that emerge from Relational Structures that are also valid. Above our heads are four relevant Knowledge Structures, all of which might complicate things, but in the process of doing that complexifying, will increase (or decrease) the VALIDITY of the conclusion.

Causation might be established by a high Performance observer in the field, noting that when a pirate ship sails through a bay, the ocean temperature drops. Such an observer would be more believable if they were trained, say, in pirate identification and census, or in ocean temperature measurement. They would be more believable because, once again, they would be a more RELIABLE observer. The process of pirate observation certification would certainly help — even as it comes from the lower Value Sets/Relational Structures. But it’s the boots on the ground and watching the connected phenomena happen that would lend to better appreciation of causation. That observer would use their own judgment (hence the need for agency, and a functional heuristic) on how to interpret various data streams to position their Pirate Observation Ship (POS!) and their temperature probes to establish a meaningful connection.

And if there were a larger Community of POS-s , they could increase both reliability and validity. Or they could blend a different set of perspectives to lend credence to the correlation.

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s that additive perspectives matter. When you go out and interview people, you have to integrate their personal experience into our larger understanding of how pirates and ocean temperature function. When I think about Nora Bateson’s “Warm Data” construct, these two levels fall into that category. Often we can’t get to a generalized equation relating overall ocean temperature to lack of pirate passage. But we can combine the testimonials of lots of people to get at some aggregate sense of the truth. (“Arrr, we were just hoisting’ the Jolly Roger when the temperature in the ocean dropped 5 degrees!”)

What the next two levels of social structure offer — Global Systemic, and Global Holistic — are Knowledge Structure constructions that are now far more overarching than Warm Data, or anything we’re collecting from grounded heuristics of varying validity, with different observers. We’re either getting a methodical system laid out to actually validate our correlation (Global Systemic) or an overarching set of mathematical equations (like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) that can tell us what ocean temperature and pirate density is around the globe — and matches the data – true Global Holistic thinking. The Holy Grail of Pirate effects on climate.


Let’s do a more simple comparison (that’s real!) to show how all this actually matters. Let’s say I have three scientists together at a conference. They’re all specialists in measuring the force of gravity. But let’s pretend they haven’t figured out anything BUT how to measure downward force on an object falling to the Earth. No Newton’s Law – which is pretty close to Global Holistic — we use it to calculate spacecraft trajectories to Jupiter, after all!

All our scientists are in Legalistic Hierarchies, which means that they have access to methodically collecting data as part of their core knowledge structure. They all belong to the Downward Force Measuring Society, and have been trained to follow exquisite procedures to come up with their results. No agency required! And no relational trust either. So no empathy.

Scientist #1 stands up, and says “We’ve been doing a fine job measuring this downward force on balls in our lab in East Skeezix, NY! Our test objects are accelerating toward the ground at 9.81 m/s2 consistently!”

Scientist #2 stands up, and says “We ALSO have been doing a tremendous job measuring gravity in West Windy, OK! We as well have been dropping small balls, and have recorded an acceleration of 9.81 M/s2 consistently!”

Scientist #3 stands up, and says “I’ll bet if you drop a ball over in the Walmart parking lot on the other side of town, you’ll record an acceleration of 9.81 m/s2 as well!”

What do the other scientists say? Stuck in the lower value sets/social structures, they pronounce “You CAN’T say that. You DIDN’T make the measurement!”

Reductionist science at its finest.

The series ‘Genius’ in the first season covers the life of Albert Einstein, and the episodes I watched actually cover the various conflicts in the Value Sets pretty well. The German empiricists were not so far off from the gravity scientists above when Einstein announced his Theory of Relativity. Compounding the hatred was the fact that Einstein was Jewish, and the Nazis were coming to power. That certainly didn’t help.

And it was none other than Einstein’s mentor, Max Planck, that said, science advances one funeral at a time. Mostly — or from large, connected communities, or the vanishingly rare heads of singular geniuses. And, let’s face it. Most of us are not Einsteins.

What’s the takeaway? We establish RELIABILITY with the lower social structures. We establish VALIDITY through grounding with the outside world with the higher social structures. And we had better have a method that supplants our innate tendency to jump to a conclusion that supports our beliefs. Understanding the role of case studies, as well as larger deep theory helps us to make sure we fill in the blanks in both arenas.

And the core of valid case studies, or trusting the right people? Empathetic development. It always comes back to that.

What’s the potential for future peril that we might see, if we can’t get this lesson? The disconnected example I used above – pirates and AGW seems pretty silly. The problem is that AI is moving rapidly into the space where seemingly distant outcomes can be supported convincingly by pretty sophisticated analyses. Advanced biometric analyses of faces (which are heavily race-dependent!) are now possible. Similar correlative mechanisms are being used to identify potential shop-lifters and such. One can see relatively quickly that a deeper understanding of this whole correlation vs. causation is going to be at the root of a lot of ground wars in lots of our society. There’s no guarantee that we’re going to evolve a deeper understanding of how faces work before we identify the superficial characteristics associated with race and ethnicity.


Understanding College Students’ Mental Health — Dr. Gregg Henriques

Howler Monkey Family Meeting, Pantanal, Brazil

I’m on a list serve, founded by friend and author, Daniel Goertz, of The Listening Society and Nordic Ideology. For the most part, the posts are esoterica from philosophers mostly outside the academy — which makes it somewhat interesting, in that Integral domains are covered. But every now and then, some material gets posted that I think really gives deep insight into the problems the world is facing. This guest blog post is one of those posts. Written by Dr. Gregg Henriques, who also writes on ‘Theory of Everything’ kinds of subject matter (he’s the author of the Tree of Knowledge framework for attempting to unify psychology) drilling down into how our young people’s minds are changing is vital as we course-correct through this deeply turbulent societal time. Gregg’s work is somewhere between more surface-level psychology and my own deep, system-y stuff.

So… without further ado — here’s Gregg’s piece.

Understanding College Student Mental Health

Given my writings on the college student mental health crisis (see here, here, and here), I am often asked, “What is really going on with the increases in demands for services and reports of serious mental health challenges?” and “If it is a real problem, what can we do about it?”

Here is the short story, at least for the USA:

We are seeing a dramatic increase in demand for services on college campuses. A big portion of this increase is almost certainly a function of a change in attitude about the meaning of therapy and being in distress. That is, it used to be that folks were much more reticent about acknowledging distress and seeking therapy, and now they are much more open about both. Indeed, I think this is a major change that is driving the increases in demand. In other words, in the past many people did have lots of emotional trauma that was basically denied, crushed, avoided, etc. Over the past 20 years, the mental health industry and culture have opened their hearts so to speak to this pain.

That is the good news. Unfortunately, there is more to the story. I think the data are clear that definitely are seeing real increases in mental health problems, most significantly in the area of anxiety, depression, and self-harm/suicidality. My view is that our society went from being unhealthily repressed 50 years ago to opening up sensitivity to injury and negative feelings. However, we opened up those doors without also cultivating anti-fragile, stoic, character building virtues. In other words, we fostered much greater access of vulnerable feelings, but did not help foster adaptive regulation. Instead, we have tended to simply validate the experience of threat and victimization and assert that everyone had a “right” to be protected without being clear about how to be a responsible adult who was adaptively regulated in a mature way. Not only that, but as Jonathan Haidt and others note, we have become obsessed with safety (what they call “safetyism”) in a way that cultivates a sensitivity to injury that leaves folks who have neurotic temperaments to be essentially “raw nerves”. I have heard a number of people claim that millennials are “spoiled.” I think it is more that they are overprotected by helicopter and snowplow parents and an unspoken philosophy of safetyism. In such parenting contexts, the victimized response of the child is reinforced, which can breed a toxic sensitivity. 

Finally, it must be acknowledged that parenting philosophy is only a piece of the puzzle. A strong case can be made that our fractured society, broken educational system, information overload, screen addictions, and disconnect from nature is breeding a massive feeling of alienation, perhaps especially in this generation. I view the “mental health crisis” as one of the great meta-crises facing us in the 21st Century.

Given that, let’s move to the second question: “What can be done to address this issue?” First, I believe that society needs some significant evolution in terms of both what we value and how we relate to each other. As this blog notes, I think we are facing a “meaning crisis” and are deeply confused about shared notions of what is good and true. In terms of college students, this means that education should be more focused on developing depth and character virtues and philosophies of the good life. Consistent with this blog’s mission, I believe that we should also be fostering empathy and values clarification across multiple levels of analysis.

More specifically for college students, I believe we need to raise awareness about mental health challenges in general and foster accessible narratives for dealing with them. For example, see this blog that provides an overview and this follow-up blog on addressing the issues and maintaining mental health. I also think colleges should cultivate the development of well-being centers, like this one found at George Mason University. And, I think psychologists should be working on assessment protocols that provide students a coherent map of their well-being and offer them guided interventions that foster healthy emotional and character development. For example, I developed an integrated approach to psychological mindfulness called CALM MO, that teaches individuals to become more reflective and responsive rather than reactive, and how to cultivate a “Metacognitive Observer (the MO; also stands for “modus operandi) that is Curious, Accepting, Loving-Compassionate, and Motivated toward Valued States of Being. A recent dissertation showed this was an effective 90 minute workshop. In addition, I have been involved in courses on well-being and adjustment that empirically demonstrated improvement in key domains.

The bottom line is that the world is changing. Fast. We need to be aware of the impact changes are having on our mental health and perhaps especially the mental health of our youth and we need integrative and empathetic models that foster emotional and relational health, optimal identity development, and a growth toward virtue attitude.

Dr. Gregg Henriques is Professor of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University in the APA-Accredited Combined-Integrated Doctoral Program in Clinical and School Psychology, where he formerly served as program director. Dr. Henriques received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Vermont and did his post-doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania, working with Dr. Aaron T. Beck. He teaches courses in psychotherapy integration, personality theory, personality assessment, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and engages in clinical supervision. Dr. Henriques’ primary area of scholarly interest is in theory development, having authored many professional publications on theory and practice and the book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology. He regularly shares his ideas about philosophy, psychological theory, psychotherapy, and politics in a popular Psychology Today blog called Theory of Knowledge, and he has started a Theory of Knowledge Society. He also studies depression, personality disorders, character functioning and well-being, and is working to develop a more unified approach to psychotherapy. He is an APA Fellow (Division 24; Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) and a licensed clinical psychologist in Virginia.

Understanding The Deep Value of Values

Four years ago…in the Tuscan Countryside

Lately, I’ve been trying to explain the core concepts of this blog in more easily understood terms.

One of the most important concepts I talk about are the v-Memes from Spiral Dynamics, which I’ve started referring to as Value Sets. I think I’ve seen the master himself, Don Beck, refer to them as value sets as well, so I’m happy to attribute the term to him.

People see the ‘meme’ word, and basically can’t get a picture of Kermit staring out a window in the rain out of their head. Memes are a whole lot more than this, but just so everyone’s clear on all this, this is what MOST people think about when I say ‘meme’.

I’ve started using the term Value Set to characterize a list of values associated with a given social structure. Values are drivers of behaviors, and that’s super-important to understand. They are not the behaviors themselves. Individual behaviors, because they arise from a combination of both values and context — cannot always be attributed to a specific Value Set. Different contexts and different values can lead to identical behavior — which means that behavior is not a very good indicator of deep motivation. Think about it this way — there’s a hundred different reasons why you’d give someone a gift, from the deeply charitable to the positively Machiavellian. And every different reason might be driven by a different set of values.

A simple way to understand this — a given value or values are a person’s internal/emergent driver to a given behavior. Context is the external set of conditions that drive a person/agent to do something.

OK — so here we go. A Value Set is a coherent group of values that work together to create a social structure. Since we’ve been bathed in Authoritarian sadness lately, it’s always easy to come up with examples in that space. Two values that create the social structure —

  • The person above you is “righter” than you
  • If there is a conflict, you must defer to the information above you

Consider the situation of a military unit in battle. Your commanding officer orders you to charge up a hill. You say “hey, that’s gonna get me killed!” He says “No, it won’t. You’ll save the day!” Because you’re in a Authority-driven hierarchy, you charge up the hill, regardless of the data stream your own eyes and ears are taking in. The social structure counts on the value of him having a greater spatial and temporal range than you, and therefore more accurate information. It also counts on your deference to authority. You have to suppress your obvious fear and, well, run up the hill. Even if potentially it could kill you.

Coherence is what makes values powerful. When values are interlocking, the result is emergent social behavior, which manifests itself in some sort of social structure. If you believe, for example, that you can score people’s performance through some algorithm, it should be no surprise that you end up with some version of a hierarchy that emerges from the application of a scoring metric and a set of accompanying rules. My son’s tennis team embodied this perfectly. There were a set of rules regarding activities that added or subtracted points that determined order of play, or seeding — definite status activity.

These value sets generate greater complexity of potential outcomes as individuals in a given social structure evolve. Evolution, and its primary vectors — training and experience — mean more independence and awareness. The combination of these creates agency in the people in the social structure — the ability to act thoughtfully and consider more factors over an increasing span of time and space.

And now — agency, and its amount, feeds back into social structure, in how it must function in order to create both information coherence and coordinated action.

And finally, empathy itself is directly related to the value set in the operative social structure. Should information move up and down the chain-of-command? Is the only thing you need to be interested in is someone else’s pain? How about following along with the exercises? Value sets are going to cue you in on the work you need to do on developing empathy with, and within your team.

The theory I use for categorization of Value Sets is called Spiral Dynamics, invented by Clare Graves and his student Don Beck, and augmented by others — notably Chris Cowan, who was Beck’s partner for many years. Spiral Dynamics recognizes eight canonical Value Sets, each nested evolutionarily, increasing in complexity, as one moves up the Spiral.

OK — let’s back up and review.

  1. Value sets are groups of values that generate social structures. Canonical value sets are given by theories like Spiral Dynamics, that recognize eight different types.
  2. Social structures are stable human network configurations that create relationships so humans can find coherent meaning and coordinate action.
  3. The type of supportable social structure is dependent on a.) the agency of the individual (whether they act independently at the scale demanded) and the level of empathy between those individuals. This varies — ever heard the expression ‘that person doesn’t have the ability to be friends’?

Value sets also work outside our group, instead of just internally. Just as shared value sets coordinate actions and provide information coherence inside a closed group of individuals, those powerful signals DO NOT STOP at the group boundary. Similar abilities for understanding and coordination are created between groups if they share the same value set. Or between individuals from different groups. When you meet someone that shares your value set, it is far easier to develop a friendship. Misunderstandings fall away. Gauging intent becomes automatic.

Value sets also serve as containers for generating shared, specific knowledge. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also come to realize the incredible power of shared, coherent value sets. Why? Because I forget specific things. I used to have a near-photographic memory (I could replay scenes from my life in my head, and never forgot appointments and such) and actually developed quite a few bad habits around that capability. Why write things down when I could just push the button in my brain that would deliver recall?

What value sets do, and the social structures that evolve from them, as covered extensively on this blog in other places, is create similarly configured KNOWLEDGE STRUCTURES in the brain. And here’s the thing — those knowledge structures act like multi-faceted, often fractal containers/spreadsheets. All a person has to do to regenerate forgotten knowledge is take a couple of pieces, drop it into the container/spreadsheet, and then the value set supplies the connecting information to regenerate the surface-level knowledge that we need to navigate our world.

On a more immediate action level, we do this all the time on a superficial level with our good friends. If it’s a Friday night after work, all you have to do is say “Weekend beers — 5:30?” and everyone ends up at the same watering hole with a beer in their hand. Value sets are more meta- and do functionally the same thing with larger mental models and worldviews. A couple of points (“Brexit, anyone?”) and you know you have intellectual coherence, safety, and a path forward — which in the case of Brexit, may well lead you to the pub!

What’s interesting is that such value set matching works even between adversaries. I’ve written previously about Trump and Kim Jung-Oon (or any other dictator out there.) Trump and Kim, even if they have conflicting superficial positions, deeply understand what is important to both. Trump’s quotes on the status of North Korea, a country that diverts so much money to its military that its people undergo regular famines. “He’s the head of a country, and I mean, he’s the strong head, don’t let anyone think anything different,” Trump said during an interview on Fox & Friends. “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” (Trump later walked back his comment, attributing them to sarcasm. You decide.)

This matters more and more as complexity increases. Complexity means that there are more colors, details, actions and such to remember. Matching value sets trigger shared meaning of limited signals, increasing the likelihood that two people communicating with each other will capture the essence of each other’s circumstance. That limits misunderstanding, and once again, enables coherent and coordinated activity.

Consider you’re attempting to hit a set of production goals across a larger organization. The goals have been well-defined by leadership, and you’ve developed good relationships, where you deeply understand the perspectives of other co-leaders who may be upstream or downstream from your operation. Because you all share a performance value set, you’re confident that those players are also working to hit shared targets. Those shared targets, likely enshrined as metrics, mean all you really need to know you can communicate in a couple of numbers across the system boundary of your unit.

But it’s more than that. If you know them, you’ll also be familiar with their lower-level scaffolding value sets. You have some level of trust that besides wanting to hit the same goals, you also are following the same ethical and safety rules (Legalistic/Absolutistic value set one level below,) there’s appropriate authority distributed through the organization to get things done (Authority value set,) and you all have a larger scale identity (Tribal/Magical) on what it means to be part of your organization. Like a complex watch meshing gears, it will all work together. And maybe, all that is required is a couple of cues passed across your unit’s boundary upstream and downstream.

Value Set Conflict is a big deal — when we attempt to work with others with whom we don’t share the same Value Set. I’ve written a whole sequence of posts starting here on what happens when value sets/v-Memes collide. So I won’t repeat that information — just remember that v-Meme and value set mean the same thing!

In conclusion — here are the basics for you, moving forward.

Understand the different Value Sets and what they entail.

Think about how those values generate social structure, and through that, knowledge structure.

Think about how limited data will activate coordinated activity for people with the same Value Set.

Realize the work that must be done to elevate the empathy in your people inside that social structure so they can play to more evolved Value Sets.

Quickie Post — Republicans and Trump’s Impeachment

Outside Huangshan, Anhui Province, China

I’ve avoided writing about Donald Trump’s antics for a while, mostly because they’re predictable IF you accept the fact that Trump is a relational disruptor extraordinaire, and a narcissistic psychopath.

What people seem to be stumbling on is the behavior of Republican senators, and why they haven’t united to throw Donald into the wood chipper yet. If you ask me, it’s coming, and soon. At the same time, their behavior is a classic example of how the Authoritarian v-Meme works.

Let’s review. Social structures, created by shared values aggregated into a Value Set/v-Meme, using a brain-wired set of common Knowledge Structures, create coherence of information, and the potential for coherent action in a group of people. That’s how you get people to work together. There’s a shared, emergent behavior that comes when people’s brains line up not just in specific information, but also in time and space.

And all these things are governed by the level of empathy.

So.. if I had to arrange these things in a line…

Value Set=>Social Structure<=>Knowledge Structure=>Information Coherence=>Coherent Action

So… let’s review the Authoritarian v-Meme, which few would disagree is a.) running Trump’s Brain, and b.) most of the Republican party at the current moment.

  1. Authoritarians sit in a hierarchy/power structure.
  2. Truth in that power structure is decided by the person above you in that structure, and moves downward.
  3. In-group/out-group dynamics are dominant.
  4. If you’re in the In-group, you believe! (core value)
  5. If you’re in the Out-group, you don’t believe — but become depressed. (core dynamic)
  6. If you’re depressed, you’re easy to control. (core dynamic)
  7. The group moves together in the same direction pretty much from external forcing. Your beliefs are installed from the outside, causing you to move. Or you’re depressed, and you shuffle along with everyone else.
  8. Agency is low. You don’t suddenly get to decide you DON’T get to go with the crowd.
  9. Culture (which can come from any of the value sets, but with origin unknown) creates modest sidebars for constraint of behavior.

With this in mind, let’s consider former Senator Jeff Flake’s comments yesterday. Flake said that “at least 35 Republican senators would vote for impeachment if it were a secret ballot.” This is totally consistent with the value structure of the Republican party. Inside the social structure, those senators’ actions are constrained, as Trump is the apex of the Authoritarian pyramid. BUT — these senators also exist in the broader culture. If they could mask the effect of social structure, 35 would vote against Donald Trump. That’s what Flake is really saying.

The aggregated total system of their shared brain wiring is creating some serious cognitive dissonance about now. What WILL happen is, as the momentum builds for impeachment (modes and ways) this group will move en masse, over a very short time toward impeachment, as other leaders in the Republican party abandon Trump’s authority. There are signs that this is already happening far up the Authoritarian pyramid, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell siding with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on release of various parts of the intelligence portfolio.

What’s the takeaway? The actual social system is working according to its driving physics. Once one understands and analyzes the information flow, everything is going, well, according to plan. The emergent plan. And how else would 35 Republican senators be expected to act? All this isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

When will they flip is anyone’s guess. Why? It’s a collective limbic/basal ganglia decision point. That means it’s an impulsive switch — either on or off. And when it turns to ‘Off’, it will be because the threat of inherent trauma (massive losses in the next elections) will create the Survival v-Meme neuroplasticity to remove Trump from office.

My guess is most of them, in the trauma space, are in fright, freeze and fight. But before long, we’re going to see this turn to flight.

Stay tuned.