Out of my Gourd!

Out Of My Gourd coverThis blog and it’s sister The Odd is Silent are coming soon as a book!  I have a request for my author readers and friends.

I am trying to learn about the mechanics of publishing books and, as you may have picked up, I tend to learn best by doing things hands-on. With this in mind, I undertook to self-publish a collection of blog posts from The Odd is Silent and Ask An Aspie, focusing on those that are humorous and/or about autism.

As you may have also picked up on, I don’t do anything without an element of fun, and often that fun comes at my own expense. Which is how you can help. I would like to have quotes about the book from other authors to put in the “praise for this book” section  – these will be anything but. For example:

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Overcoming social anxiety

There are many Aspie groups on Facebook and naturally I’m in a couple of them.  The following question showed up in my feed and my response sort of outgrew Facebook.

My 18 year old daughter is high functioning autistic and about to graduate high school with high honors. She does NOT want to go to graduation. As she so reasonably says, she will get her diploma anyway so why go through the anxiety of the ceremony. I am torn on how much to push her. The school is wonderful about making accommodations for her. Any thoughts about this?

My immediate response was to let the girl decide.  But then I thought about how different I am today than the unemployable, abrasive, and socially inept teen who preceded me.  So I still say let the girl make a decision and abide by it, but also approach it with a specific strategy.

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Intentcasting…to a roach?

OK, so it’s a robot and not a roach. But it is a robot that *looks* a lot like a roach. Researchers at Bielefeld University are experimenting with emergent behavior on a robot platform they named Hector. Their software thus far has been reactive. The new software aims to give the robot “what if” capabilities to solve problems it has not been programmed for. This would imbue the robot with independent goal-directed behavior – i.e. robot intentions.

But beyond that, “they have now developed a software architecture that could enable Hector to see himself as others see him.” In other words, they gave it theory of mind and their ultimate goal is for it to be able to sense the intentions of humans and take these into account when formulating responses and actions. They want it to be self-aware. Though the rest of the world will probably see in this the parallels to Skynet of Terminator fame, to me the more interesting part to me is the notion that it will sense human intention.

Perhaps this is because the current crop of “smart” devices seems very autistic to me. Though they have a wide range of apparent intelligence, they respond only to what they can directly sense, and only within a context of which they are the center. The inability to make inferences about humans, and in particular to understand their intentions, is a typically autistic cognitive deficit. While it is possible to emulate this to some extent, it is often perceived as inauthentic and creepy, which may be why I write about it so much.

Bielefeld University's Hector robot

Bielefeld University’s robot Hector is close to being self-aware

The quest by the marketing industry to provide targeted messaging tailored to your specific interests and intentions very much parallels the autistic experience. Any given product or brand seeks to better understand how it is perceived by humans. Or to put it another way, products and brands lack theory of mind and the ability to infer human emotions and intentions from non-verbal communication. They lack cognitive empathy

Like any autistic person, they attempt to mitigate their cognitive deficits by gathering data, observing reactions, forming a model of human behavior, calculating appropriate responses, then improving data sources and refining the model over time. When humans do this we call it vocational training and independence skills. When vendors do this we call it ad-tech. Both groups tend to wonder why people at large often perceive it as creepy.

But it is worth wondering whether this is appropriate.  Certainly it is intuitive because in a world where as much as 90% of communication is non-verbal, the expectation is not to have to accommodate those with cognitive deficits, but rather that they learn to overcome the deficit.

Body language is an oxymoron

Body language is an oxymoron

But if you are autistic or know someone who is, how often have you said or heard “why don’t people just say what they mean?”  But in neurotypical society the first rule about the rules is you don’t talk about the rules.  Among neurotypical people, telling people what the rules are destroys authenticity.  It creates the assumption that the person’s words and actions are merely a reflection of what you want from them.

But that need not be the case with commercial transactions.  As Doc Searls explains in his book The Intention Economy, using brute-force computing power to analyze your behavior in order to guess your intentions is grossly inefficient.  It would be easier to implement a system in which you can just broadcast them.  Or intentcast them, as he dubbed it.  Vendors are starting to embrace the concept and discovering it actually works.  Let us consumers tell you what it is we want, gather that info en masse to minimize sampling error, and then go produce and deliver it.  That works.  Who knew?

Hector the robot at Bielefeld University is essentially autistic. With the addition of self-awareness and the ability to infer human intentions, Hector may cross the line to creepy. We’ll find out shortly.  Much will depend on how he is architected and what our expectations are in terms of robot authenticity.  Is that even a thing?  Can a robot be “authentic” in the sense that humans are expected to be?


JT (Jibo Terrestrial) phone home!

The consciousness of most of our iconic sci-fi robots like C3PO and Robbie was modeled after that of humans – it was self-contained and part of the robot itself. Even though the Star Wars bots could access the networked world, they didn’t send their sensor data back to a central mother ship to be interpreted, processed, and turned into instructions for the robot to follow, then transmitted back. Everything happened locally. Contrast this with our real-world robots that use the mother ship architecture. Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google [x], Jibo, Pepper, etc. all phone home more often than ET. If you use these products, their vendors have access to all the data they send back to the mother ship. Because that data is potentially very valuable, it would be naive to believe that it will be discarded once its benefit to you the user has been realized.

It remains to be seen how the software coming out of Bielefeld will work, but one hopes that some aspect of self-awareness will be so incompatible with processing latency as to strongly favor local processing. If that is true and the new robot architecture is more like science fiction of yesteryear than the science fact of today, there is some hope that someone, somewhere on the planet will finally use intention detection in a non-creepy way that primarily benefits the individual and not the vendor. It might also give us insights that will improve the lives of autistic people by helping us learn to infer human behavior in non-creepy ways.

On the other hand, if you ever read about Hector in Ad Age, we are all doomed. Skynet will have awoken. And it will have a really good deal for you.


This is cross-posted from my business blog at IoPT Consulting because of the autism connection, and edited slightly to explore more of the autism topics.  The original is posted here.

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Friendship, filters and fireworks

What a rough day.  My best friend needed some surgery and I agreed to pick him up from the hospital, take him home and stick around until he was able to get around on his own.  I was to wait for his call once he cleared the recovery room.

But when he did call, it was to say he had to stay overnight.  There had been some complications and he was waiting to be admitted.  Could I pick him up tomorrow?

“Sure, what time?”

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Just say “no” to hate

Chef Arnold Abbott made the news for refusing to stop feeding the homeless despite multiple arrests because in Fort Lauderdale, Florida feeding the homeless is illegal.

In Florida it is the homeless that are the problem rather than the fact of people having no place to live and starving in the street. Well, Florida and like 20 other states that criminalize homelessness.

Some days I can barely muster enthusiasm to continue living in a world so devoid of compassion. They say autistic people have no empathy but when I read how the law is perverted to inflict emotional, economic and physical harm on people – in the name of religion, no less! – I feel their hopelessness so deep within my heart and so profoundly that I come close to giving up on ever making a dent in the encroaching culture of hate.

But I have raised to kids who are smart, compassionate and kind, and I stick around because the difference I make through them ripples forward through time. And for my family and the people I meet through my work because I’m able to make the world a bit better for them and through them. And to stave off the worst of the hopelessness, I commit random acts of kindness by donating my time, money, or expertise, or just doing small kindnesses like letting someone merge into traffic while everyone else is rushing to close gaps between them and the next car.

In the greater scheme of things, my contribution of kindness and compassion to the world is a lone drop in a sea of hate and I have no illusions that it turns the tide. But the tide turns only through collective action of millions of us lone drops acting individually and impacting collectively. We can refuse to let our elected representatives inflict harm on others in our name without protest and we can directly intervene in ways large and small, relentlessly, tirelessly, with hope, compassion and in the faith that enough others are doing the same to collectively make a difference even if we don’t see the effects immediately.

If you have not already, will you join me as a kindness ambassador?


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Dealing with depression

I spend a lot of online time in communities of autistic people and, this being the holiday season, lately there have been a few people in crisis posting to the forums.  As an Aspergian I always hesitate to respond to someone depressed because…well, we’re known for being socially inappropriate, right? Every time we open our mouth, a friendship is on the line and that’s tough enough. But when it is someone’s mental state or their life on the line, the stakes are a bit higher and I become paralyzed with fear that I’ll say the wrong thing and make the situation worse.

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Michael asks: What brings you happiness in your life?

Well, it isn’t the number 42.  In the end it turns out, at least for me, to be what they always say it is – do what you love, in service to others.

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