Positive Technology: Controlling the Vacuum Cleaner…with your Mind

This week, I had the chance to do something remarkable (at least in my book): I controlled a computer with my mind. I attended a talk given by Sven Gabor Janszky who is one of Germany´s eminent futurologists. During his presentation, I volunteered for an experiment: he put a device (a kind of headset) on my head (see photo below) that serves to detect my brainwaves (electroencephalography; EEG). The data is then fed into a laptop that is able to identify individual patterns of brain activity. Basically, an algorithm learns what your brain does when you think a specific thought.


First, the algorithm needs a baseline. For about 20 seconds, it registers what you do when you don´t think of anything at all (what neuroscientists now call the default network). Then, you´re given a task. For example, you see a cube on the screen and the goal is to move that shape from the center to the left of the screen. So, there are two trials of just 8 seconds. In that time, the algorithm learns what your brain does when you think/imagine “Cube, please move to the left!”. After that, you´re able to move the cube just with mind – as long as you are pretty consistent with regard to your mode of thinking while trying to move the shape.

In a second experiment, my goal was to make the cube disappear – which is harder because basically our brain is not made to think about things that are not there. But I also managed to that after just two trial runs. It was really easy. You can have a look at the exact same procedure via this TED talk by Tan Le:

There are a couple of really good news in this story: First, I do have a brain. I could watch it on the screen and see it do its magic. Hey, I mean you can never be sure until you see it. Second, making that cube move around was really easy. The whole procedure only took about three minutes. And finally, the technology behind it all isn’t that expensive any more.

So for me, the question is: will this be a piece of positive technology in the near future? We´ll see. I´m very sure the military are all over it already, trying to fly jets or tanks that way. I mean, if you can move an image on a screen, you can also move a vehicle. Which brings us back to the post´s title. Maybe, in the near future, we will be able to operate the vacuum cleaner sitting in an armchair watching reruns of the X Files.

But then, there might be use cases that are far more beneficial. If there´s a distinct brain pattern for “Cube, please move left!” – then there could also be a distinct brain pattern for, e.g., “I feel like my life has a meaning”, or “I feel grateful and at peace with myself and others”. And if that were the case (and the technique became so cheap as to make it a mass-market product) then it could become a powerful tool to prevent people from slipping into depression or other psychological disorders.

I´ll stay tuned…

Listen to the Founders of Self-Determination Theory, Edward Deci & Richard Ryan

If you are a regular visitor of Mappalicious, you know by now that I´m a big fan of Self-Determination Theory and adjacent frameworks such as Self-Concordance Theory. These concepts have been developed roughly at the same time as central tenets of Positive Psychology – without necessarily being regarded as “part of” Positive Psychology (don´t ask me why, I guess it´s just a consequence of different research agendas/”brand building”).

Recently, I stumbled upon a TEDx talk given by Edward Deci where he explains the foundations of SDT. In addition, there´s a nice intro to the framework by Richard Ryan given at a SDT conference. Listening to the two SDT co-founders will give you a great and lively overview of the core concepts and some of its applications. Enjoy!

The Ultimate Piece of “Positive Technology”? The Driverless Car!

Traffic Jam

Via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yesterday, I did something that I have done just twice this entire year: I drove a car.

I was booked to give a talk in a smalller city near the North Sea coast and had to drive up there for about three hours. As I do not own a car, I had to rent one and then took to the famous German Autobahn. Yes, you´ve read correctly: I´m a German man and I don´t own a car. And in fact, I´ve never had one and I probably never will in this life.

And yesterday, I was powerfully reminded of why this is the case: because it´s a stupid waste of time. I wonder how many billion hours of human consciousness are lost each and every day because people have to sit behind a steering wheel staring at the car in front of them (or the empty road if things go well). How many books could be read in that time? How many blog posts or love letters could be written? How many business plans could be created?

I wonder how many billion hours of human consciousness are lost each and every day because people have to sit behind a steering wheel staring at the car in front of them.

Ok, not each and every country has the same quality public transportation system as Germany does (I take busses, trains, and the occasional cab to go basically everywhere). And yes, I do concede some people have fun while driving. Supposedly, it gives them a sense of freedom and being in control. And yes, driving a car, you can listen to music, you can make phone-calls using a hands-free kit, and you could even see driving as a mindfulness exercise – but let´s be honest here: how many people really do this on a regular basis? It´s no surprise that CEOs and other “VIPs” typically have a chauffeur. Their time is seen as too valuable to be driving a car. But isn´t that true for all of us?

That´s why I believe that driverless cars will be one of the most important pieces of (positive) technology to hit the market in the near future. Yes, it´s not that far away. If you´re interested, please check out this superb article that´ll tell you that they are already driving around on our streets, at least in some parts of the USA – and they are already (at least) as safe as the average human driver.

The point of market entry can and will be postponed by a couple of years, mostly because of juridical problems in the context of accountability (Who´s responsible when a driverless car causes an accident?) – but as always, those things will be worked out at the end of the day. Market entry will probably be postponed by the car manufacturers themselves, because they will – ironically –  be the biggest losers in this game (and that´s some very bad news for Germany, as millions and millions of jobs depend on the automotive sector). But it´s going to happen.

Here´s what we´re going to see in my imagination: Google will buy Tesla and afterwards Uber. Google has the navigational data and the necessary technologies in robotics and visual detection, Tesla has premium eco-friendly cars and especially the battery technology, and Uber will supply the reservation system. Of course, there could be lots of other contestants, but I don´t think this stunt can be pulled of by small start-ups – there´s too much money involved in R&D.

So, why is all of this bad news for car manufacturers?

Because personally owning a car is one of the most inefficient things a lot of us do. Cars that are not commercially used just stand around at least 90% of the day. And when we use them, we use them inefficiently. We´re driving alone most of the time instead of using up all of the available space, and we´re bad drivers in the sense that we do not take the shortest available route, that we create traffic jams, and so on. So basically, once the technology will be market-ready, the demand for cars is going to plummet to (my personal estimation) some 20% percent of the current level within a couple of years. This is also consistent with most surveys of Gen Y – most of them want connected and flawless mobility, but do not want to own a car. We will need to have a sufficient supply of driverless cars and they will have to be replaced regularly because they will be used almost without rest periods. And of course, some people still will want to own a car – just because. But otherwise, there´s going to be a lot less of them. And believe me, this is very(!!) good news for mankind, except for the automotive industry (and cab/truck drivers, probably).

Driverless driving means

  • more efficient usage (less standstill, more car sharing, always use of shortest distance etc.) = less cars = less use of fossil fuel/less pollution and other natural resources (this also pertains to the manufacturing process);
  • saver travel as driverless cars will produce far less accidents. More than 30.000 people are killed in the USA per year in car accidents. Most of those are caused by human error. Driverless cars will overlook fewer objects and they will also communicate with each other. This will not only minimize accidents but will also more or less eradicate traffic jams – as cars will be driving in a kind of convoy and otherwise, actively try to avoid crowded routes;
  • less stress and burnout and other health-related issues (see this Time article for an overview over negative effects of commuting);
  • massive unharnessing of human consciousness as people will be able to concentrate on more productive issues that steering a car from A to B.

The biggest hurdle to take (apart from the juridical challenges mentioned above) is the quality and cost of the visual detection unit that ensures the autonomous car does not hit other objects. The one that Google uses right now for their projects supposedly costs around 80.000 US$ per unit. But if you take a look at, e.g., the development of the cost for computer storage over the past decades, you basically know it´s just a matter of time until a system will be available for the mass market.

Positive Psychology is entering German Mainstream and Business Media

A couple of times, I´ve written about how German mainstream culture and Positive Psychology may just not be a perfect match. In spite of this, German mainstream media outlets start to discover the topic, especially reporting on the connection of being happy/satisfied and positive work outcomes. Heré, I´ve compiled a list of pieces that were published in 2013 and 2014.

Glück im Job - Zeit

#NotJustSad: Why we desperately need Positive Reinforcement and Flow to be Happy

Over the last couple of days, the hashtag #NotJustSad has been a trending topic on the German Twitter feed. It was created by a journalist in order to raise awareness for depression and was quickly picked up by mainstream media. The goal was to counter the popular notion that people with depression just need to “get their act together” in order to be “normal” again.

Quite obviously, there are different types of depression – or rather, different ways for depression to “arise”. Some types are clearly endogenous, a sickness of the body, e.g., as a by-product of a strong and continuous imbalance with regard to certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.

Yet, over the last days, I was also strikingly reminded of how our everyday behavior may either promote or act as a buffer against bouts of (minor) depressive episodes. Today, I was in a very bad mood all day long. I suffered from what typically is called cabin fever. For the last seven days, I had to stay at home because of “hand, foot and mouth disease”, a pretty harmless but highly contagious and annoying children´s malady I acquired from the Little Guru. When it hits you hard, you´re basically unable to walk for a couple of days, and in addition, you´re mostly incapable of using your hands thanks to painful blisters. As a consequence, I ended up watching TV for most of the time, I managed to get through three seasons of “The Walking Dead” and some other enthralling stuff.

So you could say I was pretty amused most of the time. But still my mood declined from day to day, culminating in today´s bout of huffishness. So I finally went out for a coffee and thought about my situation. Seen through the lens of Positive Psychology, I guess this is what happened: over the last days, I suffered from…

For me, this is a strong reminder of how “intentional activity” is crucially important for our (psychological) well-being. Watching TV can generate a feeling of flow, but it is a fake kind of flow. Yes, I was excited and had fun. Yes, I (sort of) met new people (and a lot of zombies…). I might have learned a bit, and I even accomplished something (getting to the end of season three…). But beware – none of that is the real deal.

As I´ve also mentioned in my recent TEDx talk, we have to go out and meet other people. We need to get stuff done in the real world, and the real world has to provide us with feedback. This is not to say that all of us can fight off any kind of depressive episode at all times. But we should all be aware that a stitch in time saves nine…


Nico Rose - Flow