Introducing 2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellows Sean Gourley and Amishi Jha

2010 PopTech Science and Public Leadership fellow Sean Gourley is a mathematician who has spent the last seven years using math to understand war and insurgency. If that sounds strange (or completely fascinating; this is PopTech, after all), what’s even better is that the work he’s done on war has given him a tool set that allows him to understand a range of technological systems.

Sean Gourley

“Technology, like war, defines the world we live in,” Gourley said. “And, like war, we don’t understand it very well.”

Gourley recently set out on a quest to map the world’s technology using a mathematical framework. Technology companies are legion and effectively categorizing them presented a unique challenge. “Companies at the front of innovation, like 23andme which is part biotech, part social network, can’t really be put into buckets,” Gourley said. “The really interesting stuff is between the buckets.”

Gourley needed a mathematical equivalent of DNA mapping so he asked the obvious question: is there a technology genome? The first challenge was to define entities, collect as much information about those entities as possible, and then compare the companies against each other. The comparisons reveal similarities and differences until eventually singular characteristics – genes – emerge. To date, he has collected 20 million documents on 21,000 entities and discovered 28,000 tech genes. “Comparing two companies is interesting,” he said. “It becomes really interesting when it’s 2,000 companies.”

Amishi Jha

2010 Science Fellow Amishi Jha is a brain scientist who is working on ways to train brains to pay better attention. Jha says the brain has big problems: there is too much stuff crammed into them (limited capacity) and the brain is severely constrained in its ability to act on what’s out there.

Given this dilemma, the brain’s strategy is selection – it is biased in favor of what’s important in the moment. Irrelevance is relegated to distraction. “This is executive control,” Jha says. “Separating the signal from the noise allows us to maintain and memorize relevant information. The attention you pay is similar to talking on your phone in a really busy restaurant. It is working memory’s job to take that information and manipulate it.

As everyone knows, failures of attention and working memory happen all the time. But, like a remote control, the brain is able to rewind and fast forward. This isn’t particularly helpful when you aren’t paying attention, nor is it particularly helpful to not be engaged in the present.

“The most important thing we need to do to keep the button right on play,” Jha said. “How do we cultivate attention to ensure that we are paying attention to the present moment?” Turns out there are 2500 years worth of ancient texts and at least 30 years of empirical research dedicated to mindfulness.

“When you feel stressed or anxious, you are not in the moment,” Jha said. “What we are trying to do is take mindfulness as a training tool and apply it to high-stress situations.”

Jha’s approach to mindfulness has important implications not only for people such as doctors and nurses who work in high-stress situations; there are also possible implications for those who might face high-stress situations in the future such as soldiers.

(Photos: Kris Krüg)

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