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.