Markets and meanness have hit all-time highs. On the one hand, stocks are hot right now. That said, political division is at its highest point in modern times, internet trolling has become a professional sport, and thousands of Americans are dying what Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton calls “deaths of despair”: suicides, opioid overdoses, and other related individual and ultimate catastrophes. Why is this happening, when the economy seems to be in the chips? At the center of this summer of our discontent stand what I consider to be the two largest intertwined deficits in modern America: happiness and kindness.
Our sister fund Joyance focuses on discovering and supporting entrepreneurs whose products deliver “delightful moments”, times when an individual can step out of the hurly-burly of obligation for at least a little while, and find a bit of joy, calm, confidence, release from anxiety or pain. Research by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert and others has shown meaningful relationships and interactions are key to this. One powerful enabler of healthy relationships is kindness.
In the current overheated environment, it is all too easy to blame today’s kindness deficit on the unprecedented proliferation of new technologies. While it is true that social media, immersive video games, smartphones, and other recent developments have transformed the way we live, love, eat and work, and consequently have played a role in many modern neuroses, to argue that technology itself is to blame reflects a lack of imagination. In fact, emerging science and technology may even not only ameliorate these problems, but solve them completely.
One way to think about kindness is as a kind of reinforced feedback loop. In this view, kind behavior relies upon three key factors: natural temperament, learned behavior and reciprocity. The first regards the type of temperament most innate and natural to your behavior. It has been shown in several peer-reviewed studies that some of us are naturally kind from the days of diapers and on, and others more contentious in the way to confront the world. The second regards experiences and outside influences that teach us to behave in certain ways. Many people report transformative media experiences, such as a film or novel, as crucial to forming their own behavior and leading them toward becoming more compassionate and empathetic towards others. For others, some form of spiritual practice such as meditation or scripture study has been important to both modeling their actions and ideals and nurturing the development of kindness and empathy. Regarding reciprocity- it is both natural and confirmed in the laboratory that when one is nice to another, the other tends to be kind back. They might even take it a step further, and share that positive emotion with others in a social amplification of love.
While the core of kindness is innately human, it is certainly the case that technology can still help develop and accelerate kindness-based positive feedback loops in the next two to six-year time frame. I believe, along with the partners at our funds, that many of these opportunities could be quite lucrative for investors as well. Two areas in particular will drive this value creation: reciprocity and learned behavior. I will refer to these here as kindness-making and kindness-training technologies.
Kindness-Making Tech: Kindness-making tech is a set of software, hardware and applications that will help make the world of a given user or organization appear to be a kinder, friendlier and more hopeful place, and encourage more positive and pro-social behavior in return. There are numerous opportunities here.
1. Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Assistants. Imagine a Siri or an Alexa that knows you better than you know yourself. How you shop, when you go to bed, who you like to talk to and when you like to talk to them. And everyone you’ve ever talked to, period. But, instead of simply optimizing user experience or engagement with all of that data, imagine that this assistant uses it to curate a set of information that is positive, uplifting, and inspiring. The kind of bot that seeks to bring you joy and make you want to be a better person.
2. SaaS platforms that optimize for pro-social activities. While current SaaS platforms optimize for operational efficiency and competitive advantage, as this maxes out, many organizations will come to learn what Google has learned through hiring some of the most talented HR professionals and statisticians in the world- a happy workforce is a productive workforce. Consequently, work platforms will arise that incentivize pro-social behavior in the workplace. The worker who brings sunshine into the office will prove as valuable--perhaps more valuable--than the most heads down productive cube jockey.
3. Robotics. A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar… and they meet the nicest bartender they have ever met. And she happens to be a robot! There are plenty of opportunities to create pleasant and engaging Interpersonal experiences that can help stimulate a sense of reciprocity, in fields ranging from hospitality to restaurants to senior and elderly housing. We can begin now to imagine the perfection of empathy in a new generation of emotion-centered technology.
Kindness-Training: Kindness-training tech includes transformative media experiences, software, and biometric equipment that helps train a person toward becoming a more kind and compassionate person. Unlike kindness-making tech, which creates a pleasant external world that can engage a reciprocal positive feedback loop, kindness-training tech engages with a user with the goal of crafting them into a better individual. Below are some potential applications:
1. AR/VR experiences. Imagine visiting a slum in Delhi or a 1940s Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, in a fully-immersive virtual reality environment. Might that not make one a more compassionate and empathetic person, at a level even more effective than film and literature? Or engaging with another person, and receiving real-time data on their emotional response to your behavior vis-à-vis AR data overlay- might that not also incentivize better behavior? Or at least a deeper recognition of bad behavior or greater sensitivity toward the impact on others our behaviors have?
2. Today, we already see meditation and mindfulness apps that help one to train their focus on kindness and gratitude, and journal apps that put people in closer touch with their feelings and Interactions with the world. What is coming soon, though, are systems that tie into rich information from inside our bodies and brains. This will bring biology to neuroscience with impacts we can scarcely imagine today.
3. Biometric technologies that provide real-time data. Kindness and compassion are often accompanied by a set of positive physiological markers, such as the release of oxytocin, lowering of blood pressure, and other markers. Entrepreneurs that develop technologies capable of monitoring these states and teaching users real time about situations that made them happier and those that did not, and perhaps networks of these devices emphasizing the importance and utility of kind and pro-social behavior, could both unlock value and social utility.
I believe it is clear that technologies that curate and accelerate kind behavior have the potential to unlock enormous value for individuals, organizations, and society as a whole. Entrepreneurs that capitalize on this opportunity will perhaps one day be looked upon quite kindly by not only their customers, but also their investors.
By Social Starts/Joyance Intern Robert Walker Cohen