The Aggregate: Public Speaking Made Easy // Artificial Intelligence Hits the Beach
“Aggregate is a unique word. As a noun, it indicates different elements brought together in the same place. As a verb, it seeks to collect and assemble disparate pieces to create a more cohesive whole. This column seeks to do both of those things; breaking down some important stories in print journalism each week and presenting them in more bite-sized pieces.”
Public Speaking, but Make it VR
The New Yorker – Lauren Mechling, “A Virtual-Reality Program to Conquer the Fear of Public Speaking”
According to a survey from the National Institute of Mental Health, the fear of public speaking is more common than that of spiders, heights, and even death—which, to be fair, makes sense if you consider the fact that you can’t be forced to give a presentation if you’re dead. However, as luck would have it, there are a number of developers using VR technology to design programs aimed at helping people overcome a variety of phobias, with public speaking being included as one of them. In her article for The New Yorker, Lauren Mechling reports on her experience using one of these virtual reality programs, delving into some of the tricks of the trade that stand to make these programs so promising.
“Though virtual reality is better known for its ability to keep gamers up all night, it is also a proven aid for those suffering from a panoply of fears, including a fear of heights, a fear of insects, and dental and pre-surgical anxieties. Since the nineteen-nineties, clinical trials have shown that this field of technology can be just as efficacious as traditional exposure therapy—a phantom spider is just as good as a real one, in other words.”
Exposure therapy is used to treat a wide variety of anxiety disorders, and it seems only fitting that the practice is finally getting the 21st century update it deserves. Even in their infancy, many of these programs seem to be working for many people, which is a win-win for developers and patients alike. In theory, it is easier to control these virtual realities and monitor a patient’s response to treatment using supplemental technology built into the programs. Also, in practice, it is a lot safer to expose someone to a swarm of VR honey bees than a swarm of real ones, for instance.
“For a twenty-dollar monthly subscription fee, Ovation grants glossophobes unlimited practice in simulated settings that Marshall devised with his five-person core team, which is based out of Somerville, New Jersey. These settings include Classroom, High Rise (a meeting room in a skyscraper), Courtroom, and various iterations of Hotel Banquet and Conference Halls. Users select seats at tables or in rows and choose crowds that are small or large. The audience members are renderings of real people […]”
Ovation is just one of the handful of companies developing virtual reality programs designed to provide users with personalized exposure therapy-type scenarios. The unlimited access allows users to tailor their practice and improve at their own pace, and for someone like Lauren Mechling, the unique, personalized experience allows users to come into the strategies that work best for them.
“The program designates a grade at the end of each playback, factoring in gaze distribution, pace, pauses, reliance on filler words, and hand activity. Five days in, my scores still hovered around seventy per cent […] As my hours spent behind goggles moved into the double digits, I became accustomed to pacing around the kitchen and talking to myself. I dropped lines that felt extraneous, simplified sentences that tripped me up. My speech became tighter, and my relationship to it began to take on the slightest edge of boredom.”
This is a shining example of technology with the potential to improve the quality of life for a lot of people. Using technology to learn about – and in turn become less fearful of – the world around us is a noble goal, and I hope to see more innovations like this in years to come. Until then, don’t forget to number your flashcards.
Shark-Spotting, but Make it AI
The Atlantic – Jeremy Hsu, “Can AI Stop Shark Attacks?”
This article was selected for a couple of reasons. First, the warm weather here in Southern California has people spending more time outdoors, and specifically at the beach. Second, who doesn’t love a good article about artificial intelligence? In this piece, Jeremy Hsu explores some of the countries and companies that are pairing up and bringing shark-spotting AI to the big leagues, implementing them at tourist hotspots, like Bondi Beach in Australia and Cape Town in South Africa. Humans have a long and fraught relationship with these mysterious predators, and the best way to minimize the threat to both humans and sharks has long been a topic of debate among politicians and the public.
“[S]upporters of AI-assisted shark surveillance hope such systems might offer a middle ground for Australian political factions that frequently fight over lethal versus nonlethal approaches to dealing with shark attacks. And as technology start-ups look to peddle their innovations to hot spots for human-shark encounters not just in Australia, but from California to Cape Town, conservationists are hopeful that they might one day encourage a more peaceful coexistence between sharks and humans in general.”
This seems to be the general sentiment behind shark-spotting AI, and there are already a variety of systems that are being tested and implemented around the world.
“One example of Australia’s heightened shark surveillance involves drones that conduct hourly patrols over 40 beaches in New South Wales and eight beaches in Queensland on the country’s east coast. […] n addition to identifying swimming hazards like rip currents, a dozen of these drones carry an AI algorithm called Shark Spotter, which can tell the difference between objects such as swimmers, surfers, boats, rays, dolphins, and sharks.”
While the likelihood of being attacked and/or killed by a shark remains incredibly low, the social anxieties around these animals (thanks to movies like Jaws) have left the fear of sharks at the forefront of many beachgoers concerns. Hsu points out that cities and countries that rely on beach tourism often suffer worse from the perceived threat of sharks than the actual threat, which is where this artificial intelligence stands to have the most positive effect.
“But the impact of shark attacks is not limited to the rare tragedy of limb or life lost. […] if such technologies can help Australia strike a better balance between protecting humans and protecting threatened marine species, it could mean a lot less blood in the water—and increased buy-in for such innovations elsewhere. As it stands, the high price tags have not dampened the enthusiasm of Australian start-ups for market expansion.”
The fear of sharks probably isn’t disappearing anytime soon, and consequently the demand for surveillance and safety technology probably isn’t going anywhere either. If this is a solution that will keep beachgoers happy and sharks safe, then it de-FIN-itely seems like technology is worth investing in. (Sorry for the pun, but I couldn’t resist).
Thanks so much for reading, and we’ll see you again next week.