22.05.2018 · Caitlin E. Krause

Mission-1: a Talent’s Perspective

Caitlin E. Krause, Mindfire Talent, documents the experience along the way


Prologue: In Times of Change

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer

As ever, “now” is a time of change. As Marc Benioff has said, “The only constant in the technology industry is change.” It’s an imperative to not only predict what dystopia this future might portend, as the sci-fi fantasy canon from LeGuin to Bradbury, Ex Machina to HyperReality, might show us in rich fantastical imagery, but to use our best knowledge and insight to shape it, rewriting the narrative of dystopian horror into one which involves humanity benefitting from the adoption, augmentation and merge (!) with machine.

The race to harness artificial intelligence through decrypting the brain is arguably the biggest challenge of our time, requiring us to think in new ways that allow for a breakthrough. And, breakthrough development often involves using an understanding of what is in order to form an open vision of what could be. This is not a prescriptive process—it involves trust, determination, and an abandonment of the securities of convention in pursuit of a larger cause. I think this must be how a change movement starts—with that drive, curiosity, and yearning to discover what lies beyond the limits of the known.

So, Mindfire Mission-1 marks a beginning step, leaving the familiar in pursuit of truth.


Part 1: Cracking the Brain Code: The Mission Begins

Last week, May 12-16, thirty-six multidisciplinary “Talents” (I put this term in quotes because this would be our designated title for the Mission) from around the globe gathered in Davos Switzerland to embark on the first of a series of Missions, dedicated to “cracking the brain code.” As one of the Talents on this mission, I’m documenting a bit of the experience along the way. In five years’ time, if not earlier, this journal missive well might serve as one of the beginning testimonials of a journey leading to the solution of one of the prime mysteries – if not the biggest mystery– of existence: to identify and understand the data structure of the brain.

This “cracking the brain code” involves a complete understanding of the mechanisms by which the brain translates inputs, forms an understanding, simulates its environment, transfers knowledge, and makes meaning out of experience (among other qualities and abilities). And, the brain has various particular subsystems—among them parts of the brain dedicated to hearing, sight, emotion regulation, motor function, memory and more—and, these systems all communicate with one another in a way that allows for concerted experience, self-awareness, decision-making, action, and general thought patterns. What is the way by which they speak to one another? In other words, to form a robust artificial general intelligence, what is the code by which we should model?

I start by describing the great challenge of “cracking the brain code” because it is precisely that—the unsolved mystery—that brings us together in this Mindfire Mission. While some might attempt to solve the problem by dividing disciplines and going deeply into separate silos, Mindfire takes an approach that is both ambitious and quite authentic, gathering us together to discuss these ideas and problems, giving them a range of meanings, contexts and applications that reflect our own diverse natures. Ultimately, the deeper we probe into our understandings, questions, assumptions and approaches to the problem-at-hand, the better our ability to invent solutions and AI-fueled possibilities that will enrich humanity.

This is one of the key values of Mindfire—that the questions are as important as the answers, and the pursuit of those questions will be what leads us to an answer to “cracking the brain code” that is beyond what has been able to be achieved up to this point.


Part 2: From Pre-reading to Problem-solving; Poetry to Prototypes

Mindfire Mission-1 provided a combination of background readings and information about artificial intelligence, active lectures about robotics, communication, AI-ethics and more, design workshops, team prototyping initiatives, and extracurricular activities that focused on teamwork and problem-solving skills. The thirty-six talents, along with coaches and Mindfire team members, spent nearly every hour together of the five-day mission (just under 100 hours total, as two were half-days, and some sleep was involved!), running the gamut of experiences.

The variety and depth of Mission-1 left me feeling as if it had just begun when the in-person residency in Davos drew to a close. Perhaps this is part of the intention—to leave us wanting more discussion time; more time to build upon the theoretical approaches, work out common denominators, and build prototypes that test the validity of our speculations. This is the beginning, a critical stage (as ever!). I think of a poem by Bertolt Brecht, The Doubter, which I’ll include to close this post, alongside another favorite poem of mine. After all, poetry has its own code, too, and during Mindfire Mission-1 I began to think of many of my touchstone poems as we discussed the code of ingenuity—how our ideas form and have a semantic meaning, beneath and beyond syntax. There are nuances to be explored, and connections between philosophy, practical applications and poetry, certainly. Many shades.


Part 3: Mentors and Mindful Innovation

During the mission, we also heard from a full range of experts in the AI field, including Sophia’s creator Ben Goertzel, AI lab founder and futurist Rolf Pfeifer, AI ethicist Joanna Bryson, innovation and robotics expert Andra Keay, neuroinformaticist Richard Hahnloser, and luminary physicist Christoph von der Malsburg, among others. Each talk offered its own revelations, as well as a dynamic discussion on our Mindfire web platform that served as an active space for live-time crowd-sourced questions and responses. The takeaways are numerous, and ripe material for a follow-up blog post of its own. I prefer to sketchnote in a journal, while live-posting on the feed, plus managing an occasional birdsong on Twitter, too (!). I’ve found, in my own mindfulness musings, that aiming to multi-task in the digital ecosystem is not necessarily healthy for brain focus, though, and I found myself preferring the live-time, in-person dialogue taking place during Mindfire, following up on the web post-sessions. Perhaps form fits function.

While I could go into great detail about the order (and occasional disorder, quite necessary for discovery!) of each day; while I could describe the range of delectable offerings at delicious Swiss meals, and how we were plied with chocolate during our modelings of brain systems; while I could aim to replicate (or, approximate) verbatim an animated debate we had about learning and adaptation, and go into details about the various brain concepts we sketched in the design workshop, I prefer to mention three prime concepts that, to me, frame the basis of a Mindful Innovation Lab—that is, an environment primed for a breakthrough, embodying the values and culture that set Mindfire apart, as these qualities naturally emerged during the Mindfire Mission-1, and are traits upon which to build as we aim toward the next mission:


1. Openness and Surprise, a basis for discovery

I think it’s Isaac Asimov who is credited with saying the moment of discovery is not an exclamation of “ah-ha”, but a comment of “that’s strange.” In sum, expansive learning and discovery hinges on surprise. Mindfire espouses a dedication to expecting the unexpected. In our first mission, we were adaptive in the plans of the day, sometimes switching up the schedule to accommodate a topic that was emergent as a prime point for discussion and exploration. When we were working, it was under a certain time pressure, sometimes, as is a design tenet, to offer creative constraint. Along the way, we allowed ourselves to be surprised by the array of divergent viewpoints. Instead of favoring elegant dynamics and agreement, we asked each other for explanation of our contrasting views, searching for practical models to illustrate points. We encouraged listening, without demanding stifling conformity. It might look as if we’re all wearing the same white jackets in the pictures, yet our true agreement is in the pursuit of truth; in the spirited element of dynamic inquiry that allows for questioning and deep learning, with multi-faceted range of possibilities that are often surprising, unorthodox and challenging. There is no space for fear in this sort of environment, and certainly no “fronting” by claiming authority over another. Is there any other way to cracking a complex code, beyond the authentic open-mindedness that would lead to surprise? Would an “ah-ha moment”, if so predictable as to be titled this, be a good indicator of a false path? We can keep these questions in mind, approaching the next mission.


2. Presence and Relational Trust, a basis for engagement

Of course, the above environment, one that honors pursuit of truth(s), openness and authenticity, is hard (if not impossible) to form without a base of relational trust and presence. In my work with mindfulness and leadership, I focus a great deal on presence, which might at first sound very basic and elemental. I mean, are we back to Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am?” or can we drive deeper into this analysis of presence? Basically, in order to be present with another, and in a system, we first have to address ourselves and our own intention. We use awareness techniques, as well as deep observation, to gain insights about what it might mean to be contributing to a network of ideas. At Mindfire, we were often paired in close discussion with peer-groups, learning by modeling our ideas, and making time to engage with multiple views. Our mutual and collective trust seemed to be forged quite naturally, at the beginning, as we realized our alignment in the mission to “crack the brain code”! As we investigated some of the values underneath our motivations, it became clear that many of us are driven toward promoting social good, which strengthens our group bonds of trust. There’s more to talk about, discover and appreciate in this arena, too, as the mission continues.


3. Awareness and Respect, a basis for joy

We mention a lot in posts that Mindfire Mission-1 celebrates diversity, yet what does this actually look like in practice? Well, we have physicians, computer scientists, psychologists, neuroscientists, teachers, lawyers, programmers and roboticists in the group, among others. We have diverse backgrounds, mother languages, upbringings, preferences and dance styles… dance styles?!? Yes, we danced together. We laughed together. While it sounds like an adage to “respect each other”, we operated by a code of ethics with a foundation in mutual respect and dignity. To cultivate this practice of respect, self-awareness and awareness of the values of others is the foundation for joy and happiness. It’s a tenet of mindfulness. These are the environments that thrive, the ones that go beyond a notion of tolerance into a territory of care, of honoring the “other” and looking to truly see each other, and to honor the mutuality of freedom inherent in that seeing. Embodied awareness is a form of listening, shared dignity, and, once again, trust. We can use this level of connected network to impact and influence the range and dynamism of our ideas and conversations. We can trust the environment to take risks that will lead to great breakthroughs. It amps up the depth of our understandings, as well as our emotional intelligences, simply by tuning into the collective, allowing for inclusion and joy.

These three arenas– openness & surprise, presence & relational trust, and awareness & respect— served as a firm foundation for Mindfire Mission-1. During these five days, we formed a vibrant community. From the basis of this community, much is possible, as a world opens.

About the author:

Caitlin is a writer, educator, keynote speaker, artist, designer, VR creator and leadership specialist. Curiosity-driven, she actively incorporates research in creativity, neuroscience, design thinking, technology, communication and media to promote compassionate, empathetic experiences and connections on a local and global scale.

Caitlin’s organization MindWise focuses on creating experiences that increase awareness, emotional intelligence and creative learning opportunities to connect with others. She fosters best mindsets in business and education leadership, applying mindfulness to the modern age, with AI and VR involved.