Mr. Brown is nothing if not self-assured. He claims to be able to hack into your brain's natural circuits with his algorithm. If your hi-tech fridge refuses to let you eat at night, blame this cool guy from Silicon Valley.
Mr. Brown still sounded the same after the 4th margarita – brash, animated, and assertive without losing a beat. We are sat at a swanky café a couple blocks away from Venice Beach boardwalk in Los Angeles talking about his love for this part of the country, and why he would not move the company he set up in 2015 at the age of 27, anywhere else. Initially named Dopamine Labs, it was rebranded to Boundless Mind in 2017 to reflect the vision of its founder - shaping people’s minds using irresistible apps that optimize artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
In my journey to understand better how our minds are being hijacked by the newly developed technology, I have come to California to talk to Ramsey Brown, a graduate of the University of Southern California, specializing in design, neuro-atom, computer programming and AI.
I began by asking him about what he sells.
– Behavioral engineering techniques that enable companies to influence their customers. These tools allow companies to draw reactions of pleasure and surprise from their customers. This pleasurable experience in turn leads customers to want to repeat their actions and in that way continue to be committed to the company.
We built a prediction engine that learns each person’s pattern uniquely and predicts the times when ’feel-good’ stimuli should be given to reward a certain action.
– So you provide companies with tech tools that convince customers to do things they - the companies - want them to do?
— Yes, we hack the natural brain circuitry.
Does Mr. Brown grasp the consequences of what he says?
— If there’s an experience on your smartphone that is unexpectedly delightful, he continued, you will become rewired to do that action again in the future. Our brain releases dopamine when we experience pleasure and one of the dopamine-pathways in the brain plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-based behaviors. So people tend to repeat the behavior that makes them feel good. We built a prediction engine that learns each person’s pattern uniquely and predicts the times when ’feel-good’ stimuli should be given to reward a certain action.
— What kind of behaviors are we talking about?
— Let’s say we are working with a company that has an app for running and they want people to use the app every time they run. We give the company a code to include in their app that connects to our prediction engine. After a run, the code sends a message to the engine asking would Ramsay be pleasantly surprised if we congratulate him now? Will he feel good? If a runner is congratulated all the time, he or she won’t feel good. If he/she never gets one, it is a missed opportunity. The right time is a sweet spot between never and always and is different for each person.
My time with Mr. Brown was becoming very sweet. I realized he was one of the cool California guys behind my nephew’s disturbing sneaker addiction.
— That’s where the predictive engine comes in, he went on. It looks at all the past behaviors and analyzes how someone’s behavior has changed as a result of the compliment the running app has previously given, and it predicts the reaction if another one is given. Then depending on the outcome of the analysis, it transmits the decision to the app to say something nice or skip it. The concept can be applied in all sorts of circumstances.
This means Mr. Brown could encourage drinking “healthy” beverages that companies want to sell, or promote certain “safe” stocks to invest in, or to sleep the “correct” number of hours that a chemical company recommends. The idea of good, sane, safe, healthy, better, correct and so on has proved frequently to be on sale to the best offer.
Likes trigger a dopamine hit high enough to alter someone’s behavior
— Are you telling me that it only takes a phrase to change one’s behavior?
— It could be little phrases, high fives, and gifs. It doesn’t matter what you show to users as long as they don’t see it coming. It’s a dopamine hit. It feels good and it works. All you really have to do is optimize that surprise element. In order to do the latter, the predictive engine makes an educated guess about your future reaction, based on past actions and responses. It learns how a person behaves and forecasts future action.
My future action was another question.
— Do the high fives cause dopamine hits that are enough to alter a person’s behavior?
— Data show that even small little interventions from these applications impact how people behave. When behavior changes, people change the story they tell themselves about who they are.
— Wow! Does your attempt to change people’s behavior at the request of your clients possibly lead end-users to develop a form of addiction?
— Yes, but addiction is a word that we use to describe a long-term behavior, or a habit that we have and that we don’t like. Our technique can be used to develop habits or addictions which is an important distinction. Boundless Mind develops habits, though there are lots of apps that develop addictions.
— Hum… How do you decide what is a habit and what is an addiction?
— First and foremost, I am not an ethicist, a philosopher, a policeman or anyone’s parent. I don’t have perfect knowledge or control of what is good and bad, and I would never tell somebody what is good or bad for them.
— What we try to do is to find a series of behaviors that people mostly agree are the things they want to develop, habits considered healthy such as taking your medication, eating healthily, sleeping well, studying hard, spending and saving money wisely, drinking enough water, meditate etc. We work with companies that have apps that help you achieve such aspirational goals.
No one is gonna get off their phones or iPads. We don’t think anyone is gonna win the fight against technology.
— There’s a popular Ted Talk by Yale professor Zoe Chance where she reveals how she got addicted to a step meter, one of these “health” apps. Does this not prove the notion that an uncontroversial app is controversial in and of itself? Do people actually need technology and persuasive tools to tell them how to live better regardless of what anybody may define “living better” to be?
— No one is gonna get off their phones or iPads. So instead of denying this trend, let’s take it where we want it to go. We don’t think anyone is gonna win the fight against technology.
— Is it even a battle? When people open an app that has your code built in it, do they know it?
— And do they know that you are collecting their data in order to change their behavior?
— No, this is part of what we as consumers accept when we download an app or go on a site and click “Allow” in order for companies to improve our experiences. That’s very different than selling your personal information. All we do is try and improve your relationship with technology. And to me, you are a string of numbers, nothing more.
— How many clients do you have?
— About 30. We have to operate under a non-disclosure agreement with many companies due to the nature of the techniques we use. But, I can tell you that we work with Fortune 100 and Fortune500 companies here in America, in Europe and Asia.
— What kind of apps do they offer?
— Fitness and wellness, education, productivity, corporate wellness, social responsibility, financial services, and gaming. Companies trying to help people close the gap between their aspiration and how they behave.
— How do you measure the success of your intervention?
It takes about 21 days to start behaving in the way the app wants you to behave.
— Good question! We run what we call a randomized control trial. Some users of our technology don’t receive it at all, some of them receive a false version and some receive it randomly assigned. Then we measure how they behave and how often they do the things the app wants them to do. After a few times we can use statistical tests to measure between these groups. These tests give us a science grade knowledge of our technology.
— What have you found out?
— For any new user it takes about 21 days to start behaving in the way the app wants them to behave. This is in line with scientific literature on forming habits.
— Does it also mean that after 21 days your clients don’t need you anymore because their users are already glued to their apps?
— Fortunately, our customers have new users and all the new users receive our ‘treatment’ as well. Besides, for somebody who has received the treatment previously, the effect starts to diminish if we take it away.
— What you call “treatment” sounds like a medicine or a drug. If you take it away, will people get back to where they were?
— To keep up with the frequency of app usage requires continuous exposure. That puts us in a good business position.
— You describe technology as a driver for changing human being which is a new way of looking at it. Wasn’t technology supposed to serve our needs?
— I think where we stand now is similar to where we stood a 100 years ago with medicine. A century ago people largely died of infections and diseases. Now they die of anxiety, stress, suicide, obesity, and smoking - diseases of behaviors. Back then we developed better medicines, huge public health campaigns, and we sterilized our food and water. In just 30 years life expectancy grew dramatically. Today technology helps change the mind because habits are hard to change. It closes the gap between who we want to be and how we see ourselves. Needless to say, you can change yourself without technology just like you can live without electricity.
At that precise moment, I saw the sun setting and the street lights taking over. Ramsay Brown could probably go on talking and drinking, drinking and talking, if it wasn’t for his phone notifications reminding him of all the things he needs to do as soon as he leaves this bar.
— How many behavioral scientists are working in this area using technology to change a person’s behavior?
The next big global rush will be to transform people with zombie-like habits, trained by technology to do what companies want them to do.
— It is a small field. I think there are about ten behavioral designers, behavioral scientists, and behavioral economists around in the world. Most of them are in the States, a few in Europe and Asia. The majority work for billion-dollar companies, in and outside the Silicon Valley.
— Do you expect this field to grow?
— Yes, behavioral design will become very important. It is the next space where we will see teams which triumph in designing people’s minds, succeed big time - there’s a lot of financial interest in this sort of work.
Okay. Here’s my tip to investors: the next big global rush will be to transform people with zombie-like habits, trained by technology to do what companies want them to do. Forbes 500 will assume the morale role of deciding what people should want and do in order to live a better and more fulfilled life. Let’s replace what remains of our faith in God by Big Money.
— But are people actually choosing for their minds to be influenced and ‘designed’ by people paid to do this on behalf of corporates?
— That’s why we built Space – an app to stop us using apps compulsively. It delays for ten seconds the appearance of the contents of an app when the user taps it. The ten seconds gives people time to consider if they really want to open the app.
In a typical Valley way, Boundless Mind has built a system to make apps irresistible and simultaneously another app to help the same people avoid that very irresistibility – a smart way to benefit both from the problem and the solution.
— How many people like yourself work in this cross-cutting discipline?
— I hope not too many.
— What’s your guess?
— The skills I have are common, but the combination is unique.
— Therefore, your service must be expensive?
We are going to have sensors that detect our lifestyle in our clothing, our shoes, and even in our medication. Your fridge may know you have a habit of late night snacking and it may find ways to make it harder for you to do it.
— To try our services for 45 or 60 days costs between three to ten thousand dollars irrespective of the number of users. We offer discounts for non-profit organizations. The average relationship size we have is between five to 15 thousand dollars a month.
— When you think of what, where, or how technology will be in 10 years, what do you see?
— Less phone, more voice. We’ll interact with technology with our voice. Technology will become smaller, less in our face, but more important. We are going to have sensors that detect our lifestyle in our clothing, our shoes, and even in our medication. These sensors will understand how we behave.Your fridge may know you have a habit of late night snacking and it may find ways to make it harder for you to do it.
— The day we spend our entire time talking with artificial intelligence is when we will stop realizing that it is driving our choices. At least today, we still notice how much time we spend on our screens. Humans won’t survive if we don’t realize this is coming. It is the reason why I decided to talk to you.
When Ramsey Brown leaves the bar at the end of our conversation, I remain seated, stunned by his words and his honesty. It feels as if he is unaware of the consequences of what he is doing - sneaking into people's heads to convince them to do something, for somebody else’s profit. He is hijacking their lives; even worse, he does it with the proud conviction of being the genius who’s gotten there before others.
The mastery of technology is giving young entrepreneurs an unprecedented, frightening power.
One has to wonder whether the next big ‘gold rush’ will come from transforming people’s choices into zombie-like habits that are dictated by what companies want them to do. Will companies assume the moral role of deciding what people should want into order to live a better and fulfilled life? Are we going into a future where personal will, or our faith in God, is replaced by big money? Is humanity entering the era of virtual humanity? I wonder. As humans we urgently need to address these big unanswered questions.
My next stop will be at a digital addiction rehab center where I will meet digital addicts trying to unshackle themselves from the grip of this technology which is taking over our lives exponentially.
Edited by Thomas Hepher and Kookie Habtegaber