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Tech For Our Brains: The Future of Wellness?

Anna Shen September 14, 2018

The world’s most important thinkers on consciousness say the next human agenda is happiness, longevity, and augmentation. Headlines now hail technology’s ability to enhance mental capacity. But Nichol Bradford has been central in defining and organizing the growing movement around this topic long before it was popular.

As executive director and co-founder of the Transformative Technology Lab, Bradford believes the world has only 15 years to head in the right direction. If we choose the right path, she says, we’ll unlock the world’s potential by letting everyone contribute and collaborating with each other to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

“We need to successfully navigate ‘the crunch,’ a combination of changes in economics, technology, and environment,” she explains, adding that software and automation are estimated to replace 800 million jobs by 2030. Environmental issues such as climate change, clean food production, waste disposal, and energy generation are paramount. Wealth inequality is rising, as the wealthiest 1 percent of the population now owns more than half of the world’s wealth.

“We are at a critical point between two futures — abundance or permanent and massive inequality, Star Fleet or Hunger Games,” Bradford says. “I believe the tipping factor will be the psychological health of humanity.”

Bradford aims to support the growth of technologies that can expand mental health, emotional wellbeing, and human psychological capacity and, therefore, truly elevate the human race. Her work is informed by real-world exposure, including high-level executive positions and an MBA from top-rated Wharton.

I sat down with Bradford to discuss what drives her work, the tremendous responsibility she feels, and how transformative technology can help solve the world’s problems.

What drives the work you do?

Nichol Bradford: I have a profound sense of urgency. Our technologies are on exponential curves, but human development is not. The gap is dangerous to our ability to fully thrive as well as navigate the changes that are coming. Closing the gap will include technology because of its ability to create scalable, affordable products that are accessible to all. By many objective measures — like decreases in infant mortality, access to electricity and clean water, or girls in school — human life is better off than ever. And while the last few years have witnessed great advancements in human technical capacity, if you track the global psychological data, you will see a worldwide surge in stress, anxiety, loneliness, depression, and suicide.

The numbers, while sobering, don’t include those feeling a general lack of engagement, happiness, meaning, or connection. Going further, the rise in automation will replace “do-ing” jobs with “be-ing” jobs. To even be employable, people’s levels of self-awareness and their ability to connect with others will be central to their success. TransTech is about helping to address these problems, not only to support those who are suffering, but also to make exponential wellbeing possible.

How do you define Transformative Technology?

NB: Transformative Tech consists of medically- and scientifically-validated technologies that support mental health, emotional wellbeing, and human thriving. It consists of tech that ranges across a psychological spectrum, from support for stress, anxiety, and depression, to self-awareness and connection, to even expanding the mental and emotional capacity of humans. TransTech is one of the next mega-sectors because the brain, the mind, and human consciousness are central to the next chapter of human evolution and society. It’s an incredibly exciting time, because it is clear that we need some scalable method to help reduce stress and bring peace to mankind.

There are countless products that can truly impact human wellbeing. We just published a list of hundreds of companies and products that are available today. Many of these technologies work across the spectrum, so products initially used to optimize athletic performance now have an application for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These technologies can be scaled to the millions — or the billions.

You’ve said that the biggest problems facing mankind aren’t technical. They are human. Can you explain?

NB: I believe we actually have all of the resources we need to save the human race, but it begins with helping people answer the basic question mankind has asked throughout the ages: Who am I? Technology remains just a tool that people use, so the minds of the people developing and using tech are just as important as the tech itself.

What can be done to help humans thrive into the future?

NB: I believe that, as humans, we need to look at how we learn the soft skills that are most important. Today, we rely on culture to teach the things that matter most: self-awareness, collaboration, creativity, and communication. The planet is home to more than 7 billion people. We cannot rely on culture and one-to-one conversations to get these skills out to a critical mass of people.

This is where TransTech and exponential technology can help — not as a replacement, but as a complement and amplifier of humans. We need human-centered design, value-based metrics, and use cases structured around enhancing and supporting human inner development.

What has influenced your work?

NB: Meditation and contemplative traditions. Around the world, humans have been pushing on the known boundaries of mental and emotional capacity for several millennia. They documented what they experienced, and today neuroscience and massive data-driven psychological data sets are doing the same.

What are some of the most interesting new technologies within TransTech?

NB I’m very interested in technologies that amplify our higher natures, our greatest teachers, or our trained mental health practitioners. I believe the designers of TransTech products could help us amplify our collaborative and altruistic side.

Chatbots will soon recognize emotion via facial expressions, text, and audio. This is the beginning of the use of chatbots that will be able to give support and comfort to humans. I see a world where people have a variety of tools available for different times and needs. I track products that allow us to sense, measure, and stimulate human physical and emotional states.

I’m also in love with products that pick-up biodata unobtrusively in the background or in an all-in-one device, so that people can track data without thinking about it. The microbiome, too, is fascinating. Researchers are starting to sequence it — and we are beginning to understand how important gut health is to wellbeing. It turns out that people who are depressed often have a level of disturbance in their gut biome. The research is nowhere near causation yet, but it’s interesting.

Can you offer some other examples of technology that holds the potential to boost wellbeing on a broad scale?

NB: There is a great sleep tracker with some of the best data accuracy in the market. Another company focuses on social anxiety, and provides a human therapist in real time, as well as exercises and text support.

I love things that stimulate the Vagus nerve, which is now being recognized as a major player in human psychological state, and I am really interested in smart scent. For example, say you’ve had a stressful day at work. You can have a smart scent distributor that would know you had a bad day — and when you walk into the house, it would smell like lavender, which is calming.

You can also find tech products focused on people who suffer from PTSD or baby monitors that record that heartbeat of the mother.

What’s next for wellness-related technology?

NB: Our inner landscape is one of the next great frontiers for technology —  though not one without traps. In order to use tech to heal and shape our minds, we need to develop the ability to directly affect our psychology and capacity.

When we can turn the knobs and levers of our mind at will, yet we still have a gaping “hole” that we seek to fill from outside ourselves, we face a danger of losing authority to the very algorithms that will help us engineer our pleasure. We must actually wake up. Welcome to the next great revolution in technology  —  human mastery of the mind.

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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