Written by Christopher Kelly
Feb. 23, 2018
Chris: Dr. Ford, thank you so much for joining me today. It truly is an honor.
Ken: Great to be here, Chris.
Chris: I was just listening to Episode 49 for the second time of STEM-Taaclk. It truly is the most amazing podcast. My whole team here at NBT really, really enjoy it. And obviously, a lot of other people are enjoying it too because STEM-Talk just won 1st place in the science and medicine category at the 12th Annual People's Choice Awards. Congratulations on that.
Ken: Well, thank you, Chris. It's certainly been a lot of fun. There’s a great team here that puts the show together.
Chris: It’s amazing, amazing. Talk about the IHMC. So, the IHMC is largely about extending human capabilities e.g. cognition, perception, locomotion, resilience. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Ken: Sure. IHMC is the acronym. It stands for Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. And we are a not for profit research institute of the Florida University System. And essentially, as you just said, we're focused on developing science and technology in service of leveraging and extending human abilities such as cognition, locomotion, perception, and the rest.
Chris: Can you talk a little bit about how you conduct that research?
Ken: Sure. We start with the human and then we work to identify affordances sort of in the Gibsonian sense for science and technology to enhance our experience and our performance as humans. We then endeavor to develop human-centered technologies that are in service of extending these human capabilities that we discussed earlier. And really, this should not be a revolutionary idea. The reason we, as a species, ever developed technology in the first place was, first, to survive and then to extend the scope of our activity. And that's really what IHMC is all about. So, toward that end, we work on things ranging from human-centered robotics and exoskeletons, to AI, to the study of human performance enhancement and much, much else. This research program you could probably tell is inherently interdisciplinary, certainly intellectually audacious, but equally importantly it's a lot of fun.
Chris: Yeah. It sounds amazing. Absolutely amazing. Some of the words you use are— they’re very good at describing what you do and very articulate. I’m very impressed by them, but I feel like I needed a few examples so that I can make it clear in my mind exactly what that IHMC are doing. So, can you talk about any of the projects that you're working on at the moment?
Ken: Sure. I mean, there are a bunch of really interesting projects here and it's hard to pick from so many. It's like which is your favorite kid.
Chris: It's easy. I’ve already got 1 kid. So, that’s easy.
Ken: Okay. You got it made. You know, I can mention a few here and give you a short description of them and why I think it's interesting. One line of research I've always found interesting here at IHMC is that led by Dr. James Allen. And it's part of a substantial DARPA AI program called World Modelers. And the current state of the art in the construction of world scale models is that they require prodigious amounts of human labor to build the model. And as a result, it's not feasible to quickly build effective large scale models in many topical domains of importance. The research goal of this project then is to automate large parts of building and running such models with the goal of enabling an order of magnitude reduction in time and a significant increase in the scale of the parameter space that can be explored and interestingly a Keyan side of this work has already been developing a large scale world model effectively, requires a collaboration between human analysts and automated intelligence systems. The end result we anticipate will be models that go far beyond what human analysts could achieve alone or what could be produced by fully automatic means.
Chris: That sounds incredibly complicated. Can you elaborate more on what you mean by a model? What questions are you trying to answer?
Ken: Well, let's say that you were interested in civil unrest around the world and conditions that might lead to unrest. And one of those perhaps could be food shortages. Now, many things might account for food shortages, but one of them might be failing crops in your region and a variety of things could affect crop failure, but among them of central importance is weather. So now, you're into economic modeling, weather modeling, crop models. And you can see how this gets very complicated very quickly.
And you need a qualitative sort of reasoner that is above all of that, that feeds the input from one to its output and then puts that as input to the next model and can reason not in a quantitative way only, but also in a qualitative way, about what's happening. And the human analyst needs to be a part of this team, but the human could not do it without the tool. Essentially, the tool acts as a cognitive orthosis and sort of extends the analyst’s cognitive range.
Chris: Can you elaborate further on what you mean by orthotic?
Ken: When we talk about AI and we'll come back to this later I hope— I hope you have questions about AI.
Chris: I do.
Ken: We’ll come back to that later. But essentially, what I mean by a cognitive orthosis is a system that is focused on not replacing or duplicating human cognition, but on amplifying the cognitive abilities of humans. So, just as you might have a knee brace that would an orthotic for your knee or you might have eyeglasses as I do as an ocular orthosis, we are especially interested in cognitive orthosis.
Ken: So, shifting gears a little from that project, which is a very large scale intense AI effort, the next one I'd like to talk about is a NASA project. Dr. Dawn Kernagis leads this project and it will involve researchers from IHMC, Indiana University, and the University of Texas. And the goal is to better understand the effects of microgravity on brain lymphatic outflow and peripheral lymphatic function in response to simulated microgravity. Dawn and her colleagues have hypothesized that the impairment of brain lymphatic function could be detrimentally impacting astronaut performance and of course more importantly really health. Dawn’s team will refine lymphatic function monitoring technology. As you can imagine, this work would also be meaningful in other fields where we have operators working in extreme environments such as high altitude aviators or professional scuba divers, but the initial application will be looking at astronauts’ health and some of the consequences they suffer from long duration microgravity exposure.
Chris: Is there anything that could be done about that or is that not known at this time?
Ken: Well, depending on what you learn, it may elevate the need to provide artificial gravity. So, right now, we're not providing artificial gravity. That's just one example. There could be other countermeasures of course. The thought here is that the brain is not draining essentially to put it in a gross level. The thought is the brain is not draining toxins properly. It was learned a couple years ago the brain has a glymphatic system. The thought is that microgravity may impair its function.
Chris: Okay. Well, let's move on. Can you talk about how the topics discussed on STEM-Talk relates to what goes on at the IHMC?
Ken: Well, there's not really much direct connection. That said, all guests that appear on STEM-Talk are universally selected by the double secret selection committee who works carefully and of course diligently to identify some of the most interesting people working in science and technology. A lot of really interesting people come through IHMC on a regular basis. So, it gives us a wonderful roster of folks for the committees to deliberate on.
Chris: We absolutely love it, but do you ever get this question that I sometimes get asked, which is I’d be listening to podcast, I love it to pieces, what is it you do again? Does anyone ever ask you that?
Ken: Oh yeah, quite a bit. Even at local restaurants. What is in those buildings? Is it something really spooky? You know? People imagine all kinds of things.
Chris: Right. I mean that. There seems to be this disconnect between the topics that you talk about on the podcast and what you really do on a day to day basis at the IHMC.
Ken: Yeah. Maybe about a third of the topics relate to what we do an everyday. Those will be the topics having more to do with engineering, or computing, or space, or human performance, but the other 2/3 really aren't about what we do. They are topics that we find of interest.
Chris: Talk about extending human capabilities. I'm really interested to try and understand where it all ends.
Ken: Well, no one knows where it all ends, but humans have a long history of developing technology to extend our capabilities from the abacus to writing itself all the way to the modern computer.
So, there are lots of ways this could all work out. Some visions of our enhanced futures seem wonderful and others seem somewhat disturbing. Recent developments would lead me to anticipate us humans involving into a new sort of chubby species with huge eyes and agile thumbs. We’ll have like the special thumbs and giant eyes and nothing else. But at the end of the day, you ask where does this all end. My evaluation function for whether something is progress has fundamentally to do with whether and to what extent it elevates the human condition, are we better animals than we were before, smarter, stronger, happier, living in a better culture? That's what I care about. I care about the human aspect of the human machine team. So, there are lots of things that we can do technologically, but it's a separate. An important question is should we do those things? And that's a broader nontechnical, nonscientific societal question.
Chris: Yeah. The reason I ask this question is because when you look back in history, we've developed all kinds of amazing technologies, but one could make the argument that humans are more discontented than ever. So, I remain doubtful that extending human capabilities in the future could make us happier, but would you disagree?
Ken: No. I would not disagree. It depends on which abilities you extend and for what purpose. We are more than devices and tools of production. If you tell me “well, I want to extend your capability so you could work even more”, I already work enough. There are a lot of things we can do that I'm not interested in doing.
Ken: We could develop here— IHMC will be the place to do— a wife kissing computer. And so, my wife kissing duties will be taken over by this abominable machine, but that's my job. So, even though I could do it, why would I invent such a device?
Chris: Right. That's a very interesting point actually. We talk about things that can get measured, get managed, but how do you measure that? Like how do you measure the contentment of your partner? It’s pretty difficult to quantify. Can you talk about capability that is likely to make humans happier?
Ken: Oh, sure. In many ways, I think capabilities such as improved locomotion, you know, locomotion for paraplegics for example. We do a tremendous amount of work in exoskeletons for people that are paralyzed. That's almost entirely a win and there's really no doubt about it or a systems that help people see that can otherwise not see and systems that I would argue permit us to think thoughts that we couldn’t have thought before. I gave you the example of the world modeler, but there many such examples. But the goal at the end of the day for me I think ought to be about human happiness, but most importantly about sort of the human condition. Are we rendering ourselves less capable by virtue of our devices?
Chris: I notice a lot of the IHMC projects involve humans in extreme environments. Why is that?
Ken: Well, there's a couple reasons. As you know, we've always been working on leveraging and extending human performance and resilience. But for the most part, until about 5 years ago, it was mostly limited to computation, which is great, that's what I do, or to electronic chemical means. engineering means, exoskeletons, and exercise devices. Things like we’ve just discussed. But recently, we've also added biological means as a method of human performance extension. And as you know, we do a lot of research for NASA and for the Department of Defense. And these folks regularly put humans in extreme environments, in fact the most extreme. So, this was really a natural direction for us. And when you think about what, say, NASA does with humans, we could never get that through our IRB. If I went to the IRB and said “well, I'm going to accelerate a human at this speed; and when they get to 18,000 miles an hour, they're going to be in orbit and then I’m gonna subject them to 2 different kinds of really hazardous radiation, and a microgravity environment, and then a hazardous descent and reentry and landing”, the committee may be laughing at me after the first sentence and yet these agencies regularly do this. So, we take it as an opportunity because even very high performing humans like astronauts exhibit failure modes when subjected to extreme environments that they were not evolved to fit, as a species were not fitted to these environments.
Human space flight is a good example. And then this leads to really interesting work both to mitigate the failure modes while one is exposed to the extreme environment, but also the failure mode itself can expose insights and produce new knowledge that's applicable to humans here on earth.
Chris: It's incredibly interesting. Can you give an example of some insight that has been useful just for normal people walking around in their day to day lives?
Ken: Well, sure. A good example is in general and I'm grossly generalizing, but that's what one does, human space flight is like extremely accelerated aging. So, normally, human aging takes place at such a slow rate in over such a long period of time. It’s tougher to study. You can study aging in mice a lot easier. These astronauts are experiencing many elements of accelerated aging. So, even if it's only— And I say only. That's a long time. But let's say it's a 3-month exposure. That will have measurable and noticeable consequences and you can then look and see is this parallel to what we see over a much longer time course on earth or is this in some way different and why is it different.
Chris: How is the IHMC different from the traditional academic in culture and structure?
Ken: Probably a lot of ways, but one way is that we have very few rules, but a strong culture. One cannot write a big enough list of rules to accommodate the consequences of a weak organizational culture. So, that's one probable difference. Also, the research side of IHMC has a very flat organizational structure. Largely, we don't have departments. We don't have disciplinary structures, which these things end up sort of at best with goals that are orthogonal to the goals of the main organization. And they often inhibit innovation and they tend to inhibit reinvention of the people that work in them. And then finally, sort of foot stomping that, this lack of academic department structure and the low management burden works together to provide room and encouragement for all of us to reinvent ourselves. We really all have to do that if we're going to continue to be relevant throughout long careers. Otherwise, you’d be that guy who's been there forever. No one knows what he does. He is still doing whatever you did for his PhD dissertation and it wasn't important then and it's not important now and you feel sorry for him. You know what I mean. You know what I mean of those guys.
Chris: You know, as I listen to Episode 49 of STEM-Talk, I realize that you embodied the idea of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. The constant reinvention and embracing the change is for me like the embodiment of the growth mindset. I think it’s fantastic.
Ken: Oh, thank you.
Chris: Talk about how you choose wonderful people versus using it at an agenda because that was another part of that particular episode that really made my heart sing. In fact, it almost invoked an emotional response because it’s just incontrovertibly true, right, is that we have tremendous ambivalence in all the thoughts that we have. And when you hear something like that that’s incontrovertibly true, it’s just a tremendous stress reliever for me. So, can you talk about how you choose people rather than an agenda?
Ken: Well, sure. If we were a football team for example, it would be said about us that we do not recruit by position. Rather, we always pursue the best available athlete. So, in our world, we always pursue the best available scientists whose work falls in some way under IHMC’s mandate, which is, as we've said, looking at how we might improve human condition and extend our capabilities. Well, that’s a pretty strong and broad mandate. So, under that mandate, we always go for the best available scientist and we take it for granted. In other words, it's a necessary, but not sufficient condition, that they be tremendous researchers, but it’s also necessary to be tremendous people. When you bring somebody into an organization like this, it’s sort of adding a person to your family and you wanna be real cautious. We have a saying “If in doubt, leave them out.” Our approach is really, as I said, recruit the very best people. And then whatever it is they do, that's our strategic plan. So, we don't have board retreats and bringing consultants to tell us what the new trendy topic is. We just do what it is we're all interested in. That's our plan. So, by this method, we’re rarely working in an area where we’re not strong.
There are many areas we don't work, but we don't try to. All right? So, we recruit wonderful people and then whatever they do, that was our plan.
Chris: I can say that is such powerful advice for a small business owner like me working with scientists and engineers. I think it's just absolutely amazing. You used a word there that I'm not sure about. You said family. Do you think family is the best word? You know, when I think about family, I love them unconditionally whereas maybe that's not quite true of the people I work with. So, is family the best choice of word?
Ken: No. Family may not be and many are sort of semi-dysfunctional. Probably team is a word that I hear around here a lot. I'll get an e-mail and the heading might be instead of “Hey, you”, the heading might be “Team.” Right? And if you think about a team, a high performance team whether it's a human team or a team composed of humans and machines, something we work on very much, the elements of what makes a good teammate and how teams function is endlessly fascinating.
Chris: Why don't more institutions work like this? So, I've beaten in the professional IT world for over 20 years and I don't think I've ever worked in an organization that does this. And in fact, I've been tortured with trying to implement it. I could think of one big Silicon Valley company that I won’t name, but I spent a year trying to recruit a software engineer to a very exacting specification. And at that time, there were some other big companies that were acting like a brain drain and I was completely unsuccessful. And it was not fun for me. And it wasn't fun for anyone else involved either. So, now you state it like the answer seems obvious. So, why don't more institutions do it?
Ken: I'm not completely sure why. But in some instances, the reasons do seem kind of clear. So, for example, if we were thinking of a traditional academic department with its obligation to cover the scope of a discipline and its teaching obligations, it's then incumbent on that department to ensure that it has an adequate breadth of expertise to cover most of the aspects of a given field. And we don't care about that. We only wanna cover the aspects that thrill and excitement us and we don't have an undergraduate teaching obligation. So, I can see how that would work for us, but maybe not for an undergraduate college say. But also, you know, many organizations operate the way you described. They’re continually seeking to hire folks that have a super narrow skillset or a super clear definition of who they're looking for. And they're typically folks working in the hottest, and most trendy, and sought after fields. And by the time the management gets off its rear end and decides to hire someone into this incredibly hot field, they are always essentially shooting behind the rabbit and will have strong competition for these people. Because if you think it's a hot field, everyone else does too. And they may have missed the opportunity for leadership. You know, we didn't have a strategic plan to be a world leader in bipedal robots. Nobody would have thought that was a good idea. But we were able to hire, I think, the best person, maybe the best 2 people in that area and then the area became hot, popular, and trendy and we were there in a leadership position. We have tried to avoid shooting behind the rabbit. We wanna shoot rabbits that people don't see yet.
Chris: That’s an excellent metaphor. I like it. You’ve clearly built up an impressive network of brilliant friends and collaborators in a broad range of fields. How did you foster these connections? How does that influence your work at the IHMC?
Ken: Well, thank you first of all. Working here is great fun for me. It’s nice to be surrounded by interesting people. My colleagues here certainly fit that bill. How do we meet all of these folks? Well, a lot of ways. One is that, as you know, the government research agencies rely heavily for better and for worse on scientific advisory councils for guidance. And I have served on many of these advisory boards over the years and thereby met many terrific scientists and engineers who became lifelong friends. I tell that story on one of the STEM-Talk episodes— I think it’s Episode 10— about Barry Barish who a couple months ago receive the Nobel Prize in physics. First thing I said to Nancy after meeting Barry one day was this guy— You know, if there's any fairness in the universe, this guy gets a Nobel. Right? Sure enough, 10 years later, it happened. So, one source are all of these advisory groups.
But also, you know, probably a bigger source is we have lots and lots of visitors to IHMC. Some come for weeks. Some come for months. Some come for years. And a lot of folks do their sabbatical here and these visitors are a great source of collaboration, a source of ideas, and they are sometimes some of our best future colleagues.
Chris: Do you have any practical advice for someone like me for fostering these types of relationships? You know, I'm probably never gonna sit on an advisory board for anyone, but I do need these relationships. So, do you have any advice for someone like me?
Ken: From what I've observed from afar, you're already quite good at it. I notice that you turn up at various meetings, some of which are kind of outside your original area of expertise, and learn about them. And I think that's a very smart move. We tend to cast our nets too narrowly and we tend to cast the more and more narrowly the older we get until we don't cast at all. I would argue against that approach
Chris: And so, should I continue to cast wide then? I was computer science before and now I'm more into the biomedical field. Do you think I should continue to cast, and cast, and cast again?
Ken: Oh yes. You can maintain your status in computer science to some degree while learning new things. But the great thing is when you go into this new field, you bring the framework and the perspective that you developed in your previous field. So, I'm also a computer scientist, but a lot of stuff I do on grants and sort of research isn't all computer science. Some of it is space science, but I have an advantage in a way in that I can see that domain through the lens of my primary discipline. So, in the case of computer science, it gives you a strong systems view of things and it gives you a mechanistic view that is more ambitious than you would get from a physical mechanism, but less squishy than one gets in general in biological models. So, I can see how a person could enjoy sort of combining them.
Chris: I know this is a leading question, but do you think it's important to understand the limits of your knowledge? So, I have tremendous doubt over what I know in this new field and I'm very quick to say I don't know. Do you think that's important?
Ken: Yes. I think it's a noble trait. The words that one hears less and less these days is I don’t know. When you couple high performance search engines and good internet connection and overinflated feelings of self-worth, everybody gets a medal. Nobody says they don't know. Mark it down next time you hear that. It’s rare. So, kudos to you.
Chris: Thank you. You know, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about who is going to own all of our data as someone who is formerly a software engineer working for some of these big companies in Silicon Valley and now in the biomedical field and dealing with electronic health records. And at the same time, I've gotten into machine learning and some of the libraries that are graciously published as open source by some of these big tech companies. It’s got me wondering what will happen if Apple, or Google, or Facebook end up owning some of our most important data, i.e., electronic health records. Do you think that these big companies have too much power?
Ken: In fact, I do think that. I didn't used to think that. But over the last decade or so, my thinking on this shifted in a nutshell. I mean, we can talk about this a little bit of length. I’ve been thinking about it. Any organization that would feel the need to have a motto like don't be evil, that's worrisome. I can't imagine calling my colleagues together and say, “Now, here's a newsflash. These are words to live by. Don't be evil.”
Chris: Is that the best we could hope for?
Ken: Yeah. They would look at me like I had 3 heads. Right? They say, “Well, you presume we would otherwise evil. I mean, you know, what are you telling me? Are you telling me to be evil? They would be looking for a new CEO here? So, that, right, upfront got my attention, but especially with respect to platform monopolists. When I say a platform monopolist, I'm talking about people like Google and Facebook among others. I think it's really important to appreciate that you are not the customer. In most cases, you are the product. And when viewed from that perspective, one might rightly ask if they are being compensated adequately for providing the product. And in any case, it's not really a voluntary relationship. I mean, I suppose theoretically one could decide to shun much of the internet and sort of hide from the digital world.
But for most of us, this isn't a viable option. So, interacting with that class of organization, we are the product, but I would argue that we’re not adequately compensated. Now, further, to a large degree, Google for example controls how we acquire knowledge and to a lesser degree Facebook shapes how we communicate. They make decisions about who is promoted and who is ignored, what ideas are acceptable, and what ideas are not, who decides. Just thinking of search engines alone, one can imagine two very dystopian futures. Both bad. The first is a future in which every search engine and social media platform has a clearly stated and consistent political point of view and users gravitate to the search engine and social media platform that best reflects their own views. And we already see this. As for many, the internet and their lives in general have become huge echo chambers where they can adeptly avoid any thoughts or the expression of ideas that make them uncomfortable. And then there is another possible future, which I deem to be even worse, in which through regulation all speech that is deemed unacceptable is not permitted, thus filtering out all dissent as well. You asked a tough question there and it’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year in particular. I mean, earlier this year, the European Commission levied a— I think it was like 2.5-billion Euro fine on Google. That's the petty cash fund for breaching the EU antitrust rules and abusing— I'm quoting here— and abusing its market dominance. But thus far in the U.S., there's been little appetite in that direction, but this could change quickly. These sentiments are very fickle. And finally, about this, I'd like to say a change that I've seen as a computer scientist over my career— I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in Silicon Valley Mountain View area. The Valley used to loathe D.C. I had to go to D.C. a lot ‘cause I worked on these government committees and I worked for NASA, but my colleagues all loathed D.C. And now, they've jumped in with both feet. So, Google, for example, has developed what has been described in the media as a D.C. influence operations that is larger and more sophisticated than nearly any other corporation. According to media reports published recently, they've spent over $10 million on lobbying just in the first half of this year. Now, by itself, hey, do what you want. It's a free country. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I only bring it up as indicative of a change in Silicon Valley. And it's somewhat worrisome in the context of organizations like Google that plays such a central role in our life and really determine what it is we see and don't see.
Chris: I've noticed a shift in Google search results recently where it wants to answer the question without sending me to a website. Have you noticed that though?
Chris: The search engines, they used to be about showing you the websites that are most relevant and could possibly best answer your query. And now, Google wants to eliminate that step.
Chris: They want you to go somewhere else. Which is the best exercise for X, Y, Z? Well, Google could answer that. You won’t have to lick on anything in order to know that. It is. It’s a shift and it is quite worrying.
Ken: Yeah. It’s something new.
Chris: So, what can we do about it? What's the answer here? What can someone like me practically do about this?
Ken: Well, the best solution to this kind of things is always the marketplace when enough people become annoyed with being the product instead of the customer and then other organizations spring up that treat them like a customer. And so, you know, that sometimes takes time and it often takes a reasonably open market and one where there is relative ease of entry to the market. And one might argue that that's not the case for example with search. However, you know, there are competitors like DuckDuckGo for example that doesn’t track the users. But to me, the ideal solution is a market-driven solution though. In some cases, that’s tough to do especially if you're spending 10 or 20 million dollars a year on lobbying. It might be very hard.
Chris: These companies, they’re so sticky though. Aren’t they? Can you imagine how difficult— At least for me, personally, it’ll be very difficult to get Google out my life even if I really wanted to.
Ken: Oh, yeah, it's quite difficult. It requires thought and sort of a purpose.
Chris: Talk about the term “artificial intelligence.” I've heard that you're not really a fan of that term.
Ken: No. You’ve heard right. It’s not a terrible term, but I would prefer that we had thought of it and described it as amplified intelligence or augmented intelligence. And this is for a couple reasons. First, there's nothing artificial about the intelligence displayed by a machine. It's certainly not human-like, but it is a form of real intelligence just as we no longer regard heavier-than-air flight as artificial flight. I mean, we used to call heavier-than-air flight AF. We are rapidly acculturating to the notion of intelligent machines. And the term “artificial” merely means not like a human in that sort of a weird species centric worldview. But perhaps more importantly for nearly all of us working at IHMC, IHMC is less about artificial intelligence and more about amplified or augmented intelligence. And as we discussed earlier, just as eyeglasses can be regarded as a kind of ocular orthosis, AI systems can be usefully construed as a kind of cognitive orthosis. This is interesting and researchers working in this framework then do not set out to imitate human abilities. So, in the early days of AI and even now, a lot of people are doing great work beavering away trying to imitate human abilities. But in this framework, the goal is to extend and amplify our abilities. So, eyeglasses extend and amplify my ability to see, but they’re not an imitation of the eye. This is a shift in perspective that we've seen in the last say 20 years in AI and it seems to be increasing. And in general, the designing fit of these cognitive orthosis and someday I might need a cognitive prosthesis, but I hope it’s not soon, these will require a broader interdisciplinary range that has traditionally been associated with academic units. So, to be serious about this subject, you need a wide range of disciplines including computer scientists, engineers, physicians neuroscientists, social scientists of various stripes, and a bunch of others. And certainly, that's the case here.
Chris: I get a sense that the word “amplification” may be important for acceptance of some of these technologies. So, for example, a radiologist interpreting an MRI or some sort of imagery, if you say to them “oh, we’re gonna get rid of you; instead, we’re gonna automate that task” versus saying to them “well, this is just an orthosis, this is gonna help you do your job better”, I feel like that that’s going to be better accepted. Would you agree?
Ken: Sure. It's a microscope for the mind or a telescope from the mind. I read something recently in some normally semi-serious publication and there are less and less of those. And in the article, it actually said, “Well, we're gonna get rid of doctors. The learning system does this as well.” And it’s like “Oh, my God.” You know? This will not happen any time soon. And if it does, you'll be very sorry.
Chris: I've heard some critics [0:38:21][Inaudible] about the hazards of AI. They speculate that an “AI” might someday become super intelligent and essentially omniscient and hostile towards humans. Can you talk about that?
Ken: For me, this is an amazing transition because, you know, I spent decades of my career arguing with pundits who claim that AI was provable impossible. I mean, people had proofs like a proof. Right? Of course, they were all garbage. That was what you did if you had a spare time and you had a philosophical bent and you worked in the AI community. You would spend a little bit of your side cycles sort of whacking these guys who said your field was impossible. Suddenly, that whole bunch is gone and have been replaced with the assertion that not only is it possible, but that super human AI is so inevitable that it represents the greatest danger ever faced by the human race. So, in only about a decade, the conversation has shifted from you can't do it to shouldn’t do it. So, this has been an amazing experience for me. And when these hands are ringing, they're often rung over imagined dystopian futures in which an AI— the way you said it is the way they said, in the singular— an AI runs amok and takes over the planet and treats us as domestic pets or worse. Ironically, in the fictional accounts of superhuman AI run amok, the source of the hazard is often not that the machine is too intelligent or too artificial, but that it is too human.
So, consider the case of HAL 9000, a fictional system in Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey. HAL had all kinds of issues as you would say in California. He had feelings of pride. HAL was prone to paranoia. HAL had passionately held desires. So, smart as it was, the stress of life was too much for HAL and HAL went mad. How very human of HAL. And then finally, as we've both alluded to, media and pundits have started rather annoyingly to reference an application of AI as in AI in the singular. So, this is misleading at best. It's akin to saying, “Near the end of World War II, the United States dropped a physics on Japan.” No, no, we didn't drop physics. We dropped a bomb. An application of physics, yes, but not physics itself. It wouldn’t have done much damage. AI is like physics in that it's a field of intellectual exploration, creation, scientific discovery, and all that stuff. One can imagine in your endless list of possible applications of AI and these can and no doubt will be used for good or for ill. It's all up to us, but we should not regard some kinds of knowledge as forbidden fruit of the human brain not suitable for further intellectual pursuit.
Chris: Talk about driverless cars. Do you trust them? Do you think they’re coming any time soon?
Ken: Well, yes and no. So, from my point of view, it's a solution to a nonexistent problem. You know, they're typically promoted in terms of increased safety and also that we may be freed from the terrible burden of driving, then we could presumably work more or answer e-mails while commuting I guess. But first, contrary to the safety thing, it's important to appreciate that human drivers are remarkably capable of avoiding serious crashes. Fatal crashes occur about once for every 3.3 million hours of driving. And crashes that result in injury happen once roughly for every 64,000 hours of driving. Now, these numbers could well be improved with better human behavior, less drinking while intoxicated, but they're pretty impressive. And they set an important safety target for AI driving systems, which should at the minimum be no less safe than human drivers. Reaching this level of performance though will be a significant technical challenge that gets nearly all the time swept under the rug. And apart from the performance challenge, which I think is significant as I just said, reflect on how often your laptop or your smartphone has an application fail, or the device itself fails, or it's just for inexplicable reasons runs slowly. I would not want my iPhone driving me around.
Chris: Or when Apple pushed an update where they couldn’t display the i character correctly. Imagine if that happened.
Ken: Of course. Imagine what would happen. You would be getting on-air updates to your automobile, which essentially will be a network with computers and wheels on it and you will get these on-air updates. And oh, you have a 2026 Mercedes. Well, you can only run 10.3.2.6.1, which means the following features don't work in your car can't talk to Volvos from the following era. Imagine the bureaucracy that would be necessary. It will make the FDA look small time just to regulate this. So, I don't think the burden is worth the game. And autopilots are different. That would serve as an aid to me, not to replace me. It would not engender a huge authoritarian bureaucracy, but software for truly automated driving must be designed and developed to dramatically different standards than anything currently found in consumer devices, even well beyond the standards required for aviation. And this verification and validation work is already proving to be incredibly difficult. And breakthroughs in that area did not seem in the near-term horizon.
Chris: I was just about say but isn’t this already true for some of the space and air force technology that already exists? Jet fighters that cannot fly without the aid of software, right? I mean, they just fall out the sky if the software goes wrong. I mean, that's already been done.
So, can it not be done for driverless cars?
Ken: Well, first of all, the number of jet fighters is vanishingly small compared to a few hundred million cars. So, if you have a few dozen jet fighters in the area at a given time, the percentage of those experiencing failure modes at any given time is going to be much smaller [0:45:23][Inaudible] if everything is equal. But not only that, there's much less to run into in the sky and the domain is much simpler. But that said, we have significant problems with these devices and they cost 200 or 300 million dollars a copy and we still have this problem.
Chris: Right. So, in first glance, it seems like a really, really good idea because computers are very good at doing things that humans get bored at quickly and that does happen. I mean, we've all seen it. Driving on the freeway, somebody who got bored of driving and now they decided to do something else. So, you don't think it's a good idea in general or you just think as a practical concern is not gonna happen?
Ken: Well, you know, I'm not excited about it. Even setting aside the technical challenges that I raised, let's go back to our old story. Even if we can do this, should we do this? I actually like the freedom of driving my own vehicle, which I'm sure will not be permitted on public roads within my lifetime. There will doubtlessly be special facilities where older enthusiasts can gather and to engage in automotive activities and lament about the old days when one was free to drive on the road and go anywhere they please without a master. You know, the promise of safety and human freedom are frequently at odds. I mean, neither bicycles nor bows and arrows would likely be permitted to the public if they were invented today. So, for me, I don't want it. Right? I wanna kiss my own wife and drive my own car.
Chris: I love that. You better tell us what kind of car you drive now, Ken.
Ken: I drive a Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro.
Chris: And you get excited about driving that car.
Ken: I don't get excited about its vehicle dynamics. I get excited about the fact that it will go pretty much anywhere that I want to go. And some days in the Gulf Coast, the water is high and everyone is stalled and it’s just a minor inconvenience for me.
Chris: I love that. I love that. Maybe this is a good time for us to shift gears if you'll pardon the pun and let's talk about the ketogenic diet. I know that you’re a longtime follower and a promoter of the diet. Where did you interest come from?
Ken: Well, I first became aware of the diet in— I don't know the exact year, but in the earliest years of the 1970s when I was working to cut weight for wrestling. And really, lots of wrestlers were in starvation ketosis. They just didn't know it. And when you couple the exercise regime of a wrestler with cutting a large percentage of their weight typically, they’re in ketosis. Looking back at it, maybe 4-5 years ago, I was thinking back of my experience as an athlete and I imagined and I still think that the elevated ketone level has something to do with how wrestlers can drop all this weight and yet maintain really substantial muscle mass. That's what sort of steered me into looking at ketones in muscle, which we can come back to later. I'm not really a promoter in a sense. I'm not suggesting that this way of eating or any way of eating is ideal for everyone, but I do think it's of particular value for the older population in terms of both protection against neurodegenerative disorders to some extent and body composition issues.
Chris: And how much do we know about how the ketogenic diet reduces its benefits?
Ken: Well, that's a really complicated question. So, it might require a complicated answer. Okay? So, start with the straightforward part. All right? I would say that we know quite a bit about its effects as a mobile and highly efficient energy source. This part’s well appreciated. So, I'm not gonna dwell on it. Let's just agree that that's the case. Today, many of the most exciting effects though of ketones are those not arising from their energetic properties, but rather from the signaling functions of circulating ketones themselves. In particular, research has identified a whole collection of signaling functions of both beta hydroxybutyrate and acetoacetate to suggest that they might regulate inflammation and gene expression.
If you regulate inflammation, but particularly gene expression, this has serious implications for health and longevity. So, I’ll tell you a few of the research efforts in this area that really caught my attention a few years back. In particular in 2013, I came across an article published in the prestigious journal Science. It was an article out of Verden’s lab where he reported that beta hydroxybutyrate whether endogenous or exogenous is an inhibitor of Class 1 HDACs, histone deacetylases and thereby conferred substantial protection against oxidative stress. And oxidative stress is a very big deal. And to be more specific, this inhibition of HDAC by beta hydroxybutyrate was correlated with global changes in transcription including the genes that encode oxidative stress resistive factors. And then the very next year, that same lab followed up with another paper that strongly makes the point that by the mechanism of ketone bodies regulating HDAC activity that we just discussed, they are thereby involved in epigenetic gene regulation as well. And if you think about it, this is pretty interesting in that ketone bodies seem to link environmental cues such as diet to the regulation of aging. And this kind of makes sense from an evolutionary perspective to some extent. And those 2 papers really piqued my interest because, until 2013, I was mostly interested in the energetic aspects of ketone bodies. And more recently, Sleenan and others did some interesting work that really, you know, sort of solved the conundrum that a lot of people have had. For a long time, it's been well-known that BDNF (brain derived neurofactor) increases after exercise and that's good. And BDNF has shown to enhance mental abilities, reduce anxiety, increase neural plasticity. But until recently and I mean very recently, it had not been known how exercise does this. So, it was accepted that exercise did increase speed enough because you can measure it, but no one knew how. And in a fascinating study, Sleiman et al., showed a that HDACs— remember the aforementioned HDACs that Verdin talked about— that HDACs inhibit the production of BDNF. And as we just discussed, beta hydroxybutyrate inhibits HDACs thereby indirectly increasing BDNF. And it turns out that's the mechanism of how exercise does it. And then carrying on in the steam, just a couple months ago— I think I might have sent these to you. The Journal Cell Metabolism published two really interesting papers related to ketones in the extension of health span and lifespan. Working with mouse models, researchers found extended longevity, cognitive protection, cancer reduction, improved strength and coordination, and immune rejuvenation. The paper from UC Davis in particular showed a 13% increase in median lifespan for mice on the ketogenic diet versus the high carb diet. Now, that might not sound like a lot. But in humans, that would be 7 to 10 years. But more important from my perspective, much more important really from my perspective, those mice retained quality of health much later into life. I stress these are still early days and these are still mice, but some of these mechanisms in mice are very, very similar to those in humans.
Chris: And I should point out that we did an entire podcast with Megan Roberts who is one of the scientists at UC Davis that was involved in that experiment. Very exciting work. Megan is now our scientific director and one of our health coaches. So, I mean, obviously, we're very excited about that.
Ken: Yeah. I had heard that. I think you chose wisely.
Chris: Again, it's like I listen to what you said on STEM-Talk, you know, just choose brilliant people then follow their direction. Right? So, in a recent podcast with Robb Wolf, we discussed whether there might be a certain level of ketones above which we would see optimal results. Do you have any idea if that level exists?
Ken: Yes, of course. First, let me say Robb is a terrific guy. I’m a big fan of his. All around super dude. Now, you ask if I have any ideas whether an optimal level of ketones exist. So, to that, one could say yes and no. Yes, there is probably an optimal level to induce a specific beneficial effect in a given individual, but we are largely ignorant of what that level is. So, as I mentioned earlier, many of the most interesting aspects of elevated ketones are their signaling properties.
And these exist independently from their metabolic effects. So, in general, as I said, it’s not yet known which levels are necessary for these signaling effects. And each of the signaling affects probably requires a different level. More research is needed. But we do know something about the levels. And I think this is what you were getting at. So, I'll run through some things we do know about circulating ketone levels. First of all, I'd like to mention that Virta, you know, Finney and Volek’s Company along with Sami Inkinen is reporting really impressive results with type 2 diabetics. And they get these results mostly in between 0.5 mmol and 1 mmol of beta hydroxybutyrate. Now, that said, would it be better if they could get people to 2 mmol on maybe an intermittent basis? Perhaps yes, but nobody knows for sure in the context of diabetes. In a 2012 paper, and this paper is another one that when it first came out it really got my attention, Shimazu and his team have shown that HDAC inhibition by beta hydroxybutyrate conferred substantial protection against oxidative stress via global changes in transcription of the genes, encoding oxidative stress resistance factors. We just talked about that. But this affect occurred substantially and increasingly at 1 mmol and above. And there was a strong dose response effect. So, this inhibition of HDACs, which we talked about at some length earlier and brings with it many, many good effects, happens at a reasonably high level of circulating ketone. And then according to research conducted by Stephen Cunnane, brain ketone uptake increases in direct proportion to plasma levels regardless of physiological or pathological state. So, Cunnane’s 2016 publication in the annals of New York Academy of Science demonstrated brain ketone uptake is linear over a 600-fold range relative to plasma ketones. So, it's the case that circulating ketone levels clearly matter. What's optimal? We don't know. Several studies on exogenous ketone esters have concluded that reaching blood ketone concentrations of greater than 2 mmol is likely a key mediator of any potential ergogenic affect. And this coheres with my own subjective experience. So, there may be a threshold when we think about therapeutic efficacy for example. And that would likely depend on the disease in question and the person in question. But for most people not engaged in therapy for a specific disease, given what we know right now, the goal should not be a super high beta hydroxybutyrate level, but rather roughly, you know, something in a range. It should vary. We’re variable animals, but maybe in a range from 1 to 3 mmol or to 2.5 mmol. I don't know what the optimum is and with excursions up and down and all around from there end. And as I said earlier, there’s much need for research in humans on this subject. Right now, what we can do is well-informed speculation.
Chris: So, do you think I'm going to be able to drink myself into this state? Do you think the guys at Virta Health should be prescribing exogenous ketones as part of their program?
Ken: Again, nobody knows. I can make an argument either way on that. And when you ingest a high quality exogenous ketone ester, your glucose level immediately drops. I mean, mine drops 15 points. I’ll drink it. Bang! Down 15. But one should not be confused. Raising circulating ketone levels by ingestion of an exogenous ketone ester is not the same physiologic state as achieving it through the diet. There may actually be advantages and disadvantages to each, but they're not the same state. This is an area where a lot more work is needed. I actually suspect due to the signaling properties in particular that exogenous ketone esters will have medical applications— medical is a wrong term— but health and wellness applications that are specific to your condition. And of course, I think they'll be athletic applications.
Chris: Where do you think the ketogenic diet sits in the spectrum of all human diets? Do you think that this is the one true diet that we should all be eating?
Ken: No. Of course. The ideal way of eating will likely vary, you know, amongst people. And it's probably driven by genetic factors as well as the state of metabolic health as well as the disease burden that person might carry, their age, you know, no doubt many other factors.
That said, the ketogenic diet can be a game changer for many or perhaps even most of us in this country particularly in the context of the increasing older population cohort we see in the United States, and in Europe, and many other places. A large percentage of our fellow countrymen are insulin resistant, fat, and sick. And many of the symptoms they display when you walk across the airport, you can sort of say, “Yup, that guy would benefit, you know.” So, maybe it's not ideal for everyone. You know, one could argue it's not ideal for a South American hunter, gatherer living in a remote tribe with 6% body fat. That's not the world we live in.
Chris: An important tool with some important applications.
Ken: Sure. But there's no panacea of diet just as the vegan diet is not for everyone or perhaps anyone. The vegetarian diet is not for everyone. The Mediterranean, what even is that? No one knows.
Chris: That's a good point. Well, let’s shift gears again and talk about exercise. Tell me about how you exercise.
Ken: Well, I mostly engage in whole body resistance training with occasional Tabata sessions typically on something like a rowing machine. And then other than hiking which I like to do in Wyoming in particular and also Maine, other than that, I really do favor resistance training aimed at avoiding age-related loss of muscle and function.
Chris: Okay. Can you talk about what methods you integrate into your training?
Ken: Well, sure. In a nutshell, I use a wide range of methods. With respect to classical resistance training, I typically use what's called hierarchical sets. I occasionally throw in some eccentric movements. I'm a big advocate of blood flow restriction training. I like kettlebells. I like Tabata-style exercise. I’ve been playing around with vibration platform work, you know. And I'm thinking I'm getting substantial benefit from electrical muscle stimulation as well. If you like, we could briefly touch on each of those.
Chris: Yeah. Absolutely. So, let’s start with the hierarchical sets then. What do you mean by that?
Ken: Well, first of all, I'd like to say given all of this and all of this fun stuff we're gonna talk about, my first goal in the gym is to not hurt myself. So, that’s goal #1. That goal becomes more important the more times you've been around the sun. So, hierarchal sets. Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun really in resistive training. This is not new. It's an old school method, but I quite like it. And I have another friend more senior than myself in fact who also advocates it. It’s Art De Vany. But in hierarchal sets, the way I do it is I typically have 3 sets and I quickly when doing them. This means cover your ears purists. This means probably machines to move quickly enough. And the first set would typically be about 15 reps. This is a weight that I could maybe do 16 or 17, but not 18. Okay? But 15. The next set is about 8. And again I want to leave one in the tank or two in the tank, but not three if I can avoid, but we’re imprecise machines. And then the last set is, you know, 4-5. That's close to pretty maximal. So, each set you add more weight. So, by the time you get to 4-5 reps, it's a heavy weight for you. And by this time, you’re well loosened up. You felt the range of motion and you know if anything feels wrong. And you’re ready to go for it for the 4 or 5. But more importantly, you’ve also fatigued out a lot of your slow twitch muscle. And one of my goals is to hit fast twitch muscle. We discussed this at length on Episode 30 of STEM-Talk with Art, but one of my goals, as I age, is I look for exercise techniques that allow me to light up the fast twitch because, as we age, we lose a lot of muscle mass, but we lose strength about twice as fast as we lose mass and you lose power much faster than strength. And so, the muscle that we do lose is almost all fast twitch muscle. So, this is one reason why when you see an older person and they start to fall, they have a very hard time accommodating being out of balance and sort of stumble forward and often do fall. And it's not that they're spectacularly, you know, like their vestibular system isn't working well, though it might be somewhat diminished. We're all out of balance everyday, but a young person accommodates it so quickly.
It's hardly perceivable by use of their fast twitch muscles. And as I mentioned earlier, I don't go to failure. I dislike failing. I don't wanna make it a habit in life.
Chris: How could you learn, Ken? How can you maintain the growth mindset if you never fail?
Ken: Yeah. I dislike failing in general and life will give one enough failures without a conspiring on purpose to fail in the gym. And when you get near failure is when you hurt yourself in the gym.
Chris: Right. And speaking of hurting yourself, I'm thinking about my mom actually who has a broken shoulder as we speak because she’s fallen foul of exactly what you just said, right. She’s lost all of her fast twitch fibers. Now, she can’t balance. And when she falls, she has brittle bones and they break.
Ken: That's it. So, as we get older, one of the goals is to maintain some of our fast twitch. I guess I mentioned eccentric movements. There’s not a lot to say about this, but I am a fan of well-chosen occasional use of eccentric movements. I particularly like to do them in ways that they're very safe. Now, new technology will expand the use of eccentrics, the motor-based technologies. But like with today's common gym technology, they're particularly easy to do on the leg press machine where it's quite convenient. And you know, you press the weight up with both legs and then lower it with just one leg.
Chris: So, it’s the lowering bit. That's what you mean by eccentric.
Ken: Yes. Because one can lower substantially more weight than one can lift.
Ken: So, as Brad Schoenfeld proposed in a recent paper, one benefit of e centric training might be simply related to the higher forces experienced and the greater consequential total work during the session, but heavily loaded eccentric movements often produce really substantial delayed onset muscle soreness. So, if you overdo it on your eccentric legwork, you may walk funny and make little chirping sounds as you move about.
Chris: So, should I be worried about this with some other movements? So, for example, the deadlift, there's no way for me to get the bar up a greater way, but I can lower it more slowly. So, should I be lowering it slowly rather than dropping it?
Ken: Not really. There will be a revolution in this in that the current machines that we have— and of course, free weights are what they were when I was a kid— are really pretty primitive. And eccentrics like eccentric squats for example, that's difficult to do properly unless you have 2 or 3 spotters and they're very robust gentleman and they're willing to follow you around and help you out. Well, I don't live in that world. Right? So, if you can squat say 4 or 5, you can eccentrically lower much, much, much more than that. Right? But how would you ever get the weight up? So, in the new motorized devices, they can provide zero resistance up if that's what you want and exactly all you can handle. So, once this device is starting to— You know, we were working on such a machine here for application in space, but I imagine that they will be moving into the commercial market.
Chris: You know, you've got me thinking a little bit about are these things gonna really make us happier though, you know. I've got my rusty barbell in the garden and I get to work out in the sunshine in my cut-off denims. And now, I have to go to the gym in Santa Cruz to get to a machine that will lift the weight for me. Is this really making humans happier?
Ken: No. The machine that will lift the weight for you and then you have to lower it eccentrically, that would be in your home. That would be actually in your home. Going to gyms is usually a miserable experience where you see all forms of deviancy on display. The one next building to IHMC, I was in there the other day and this guy I know— I mean, I've known this guy a long time. He has a wooden back scratcher. And he's watching some really annoying news show and eating at the same time while being on the elliptical machine sort of sashaying from side to side. I like the vision of your rusty barbell in the garden, but the rusty barbell in the garden might not be just the trick for your mom.
Chris: Oh yeah, that’s true. That’s true. Talk about blood flow restriction training.
Ken: Okay. So, this is one of my favorites. Before leaving and starting on this, let’s make sure that we’re talking about blood flow restriction, not blood flow occlusion, as one often hears it discussed. Right? In blood flow restriction, the cuff pressure is key. So, in blood flow restriction, you apply cuffs to your upper arms as high up as you can or chair legs as high up as you can. And the notion is that the cuff pressure should be sufficient to maintain a good arteriole inflow while occluding or greatly diminishing venous outflow.
So the outflow distal to the occlusion site should be greatly diminished. So, you can press on your palm of your hand and look and see “Oh, I'm still getting good capillary refill. I'm good to go. I've got blood coming in.” What you're reducing is the blood going out. Okay? So, for those wanting to deep dive into BFR like an hour and a half about BFR, I suggest that you check out Episode #34 of STEM-Talk where we interviewed Jim Stray-Gundersen. So, the specific mechanisms of action primarily responsible for the benefits one sees with BFR really are pretty uncertain still I'm sad to say. There’ve been about 14 of them hypothesized and identified. And the theory is that mechanical tension coupled with metabolic stress signal a number of these mechanisms for the induction of muscle growth, but no one knows which of these mechanisms is contributing how much like what's a little player and what's a big player. And different experts have different theories on that as do we. One great thing about blood flow restriction training is it’s wonderful for recovering from injury. It’s great in an aging population because with blood flow restriction training you're using about— you know, it varies with each exercise and with each person— but you're using about 20% of the normal weight. So, if you're a 4 or 5 squatter, you're not squatting with 4 or 5 with these things on your leg. it would be more like 100 or, you know, something close to around 20%. So, this takes a huge burden off your joints. And so, many ex-athletes old and otherwise, even not old, work with some athletic teams just casually. These guys are all busted up. They have bad elbows, bad knees, bad backs. It's a way for them to experience hypertrophy and maintain strength during the season without further risking orthopedic injuries. I mentioned Jim Stray-Gundersen. So, he is arriving here in a few minutes. We're working on our project led by Dr. Adam Anz out at the Andrews Institute. It's a famous orthopedic institute in this area. Works a lot with the NFL. And we're gonna be looking at whether blood flow restriction is increasing the mobilization of stem cells from marrow. So, Adam has hypothesized that part of the observed healing and recovery effect of blood flow restriction training might just be as a straightforward consequence of increased stem cell activity and no one has really pinned that down. So, we're gonna take a look at that with some fancy equipment. And Jim is here to make sure that the protocol is one most likely to induce a response.
Chris: That's interesting that you're not waiting for all the questions to be answered before you make use of the training.
Ken: Right. In fact, I’m a big believer and never waiting ‘til all the questions are answered. By the time they're all answered, everybody knows them and it's too late for you. So, by the time they're— Like we were talking earlier about HDAC inhibition. By the time some of those kind of studies are done exhaustively in humans or the HDAC inhibition causing elevation in BDNF, that will not be done looking at human brain material any time soon. I don't know about you, but I don't have time to wait. So, we each make our best choice. You start to place your bets and you see how it works out. Speaking of blood flow restriction systems, there are two that we have had good success with. I mean, there are others, but there are two that I can say definitely very good. And they use a very similar protocol. One is called Go B Strong and the other is Kaatsu. Kaatsu is the original method from Japan developed by Dr. Sato. I regard these as both legit and excellent. And unless I'm mistaken, Go B Strong is still offering a 15% price reduction with the discount code IHMC.
Chris: Oh, I will of course link that in the show notes. Talk about vibration platform training. It sounds complicated as well.
Ken: It is and we're almost through my Penelope of methods. This is the one that I get less noticeable results from than the others, but I do think there's benefits based on the research literature and my own experience. First of all, I'd say there are several types of vibration training. It's a whole separate rabbit hole you could go down. But I'm gonna limit my comments to whole body vibration training, which in the United States is the most common and it's the best studied variant.
An example of this would be the commercial product known as Power Plate. You see them in like high-end fitness centers and things or in professional team facilities. I have a small one in my office. And even if it does nothing of significance for my fitness level, I quite like it. So, these things you perform exercises on them like goblet squats for example and the platform generates vibrations with the frequency between about 20 and 60 hertz. And the peak amplitudes vary from 1 to 10 mm. So, this can vibrate quite hard or not very hard and you can adjust it. And not surprisingly, the muscle response to this. In the literature, it’s much stronger for the muscles that are closer to the vibration source due to the stronger stimulus. So, if you're doing calf raises on the machine, you should anticipate much more significant response then you would get upstream like on the gluts sore that you would get doing pushups on it. Research also indicates that it's an efficient training method for enhancing muscle strength, muscle mass, and some aspects of postural control and cardiorespiratory fitness especially in the older population. It's something that they can do. Most of the movements with that population were found comparable, but not superior to the games after an equal number of resistance training sessions. So, although it's been shown repeatedly and extensively in the literature to increase lower body muscular strength in athletes and in the elderly as I mentioned earlier. Not much is really known about the effect of whole body vibration on upper body musculature one way or the other. And what I've seen is quite inconclusive.
Chris: Let's talk about electrical muscle stimulation then. Can you explain that?
Ken: Yes. This is a fascinating topic and extensive research has shown that electrical muscle stimulation can effectively increase muscle strength and mass and frequency is a key determinant of the effect one achieves with the session of EMS. So, low frequency stimulation appears to have greater effect on strengthening while higher frequency favors an increase in muscle mass. Interestingly, from my perspective, EMS induces a preferential recruitment of the aforementioned fast motor units because the axons are themselves of larger size and therefore relatively lower electrical resistance than the smaller axons of the type 1 fibers, which are the slow motor units. You hit the fast twitching units harder. So, that's a benefit as I see it. EMS also promotes compositional changes of the muscle fibers (I find this very interesting) and improvements in the oxidative enzymatic activity and glucose uptake. For many and especially the aging population, research suggests that EMS training should focus on stimulating the fast twitch fibers rather than focusing on muscle hypertrophy. And as I mentioned earlier, this is largely because we'd lose strength and power so much faster than we lose mass. In particular, as we age as we discussed, we see a selective reduction in the diameter of the fast twitch fibers and EMS is able to address that. Now, I'm a particular fan. I’ve used lots of different EMS systems. I'm currently a fan of the PowerDot system, which is partly wireless and it uses Bluetooth with your phone. So, it's just so much more convenient using a flexible app that gets updated all the time on your phone rather than lugging around a 1970s looking piece of hardware, you know, that never gets updated, the algorithms most of all been perfect. PowerDot is in my view the way to go these days.
Chris: Sorry if I’m being [1:19:13][Inaudible] here. But so, you're using the device in combination with your normal workout. It’s not a standalone thing.
Ken: Well, there's a variety of ways you can use it. I recommend that you don't start doing that, right? That you start using it simply where you have the electrodes placed as demonstrated in the app or on the videos. This device will contract your muscle to a deeper contraction then you're able to achieve volitionally. So, it's important that the devices be well designed because, you know, you could tear the muscle right off the attachment. So, you can get very strong contractions. Many people, especially older people, aren't able to— We go through, as we age, a denervation of our nerves.
We go through a lot of losses related to our central nervous system’s ability to invoke muscular contraction. And the EMS system can really hit those muscles. And I think it also helps one feel what a powerful contraction feels like. So, I said all that. Right? I have several friends that didn't grow up as athletes, but, you know, they’re fitness guys and they run marathons and things. So, they're always asking me about “Hey, what’s in your bag? What’s new?” You know? And so, 4-5 years ago— Oh, no, it’s only like 3 years ago maybe when PowerDot first came out. I was like “Wow, this is much better.” So, I gave these guys a PowerDot unit to play with. “So here, borrow mine.” And I was hoping that they would hammer some fast twitch muscles ‘cause they're my age and they run marathons. Well, you've converted whatever fast twitch you had to slow twitch. So, another reason why it's a bad idea for old guys to run marathons, but the guy brought it back. And he said, “Oh, that was really painful.” And I said, “Well, what did you set it on?” And he had it set on such a low setting that I think it would not had much effect. One of the tips I’ll give you is when you use electrical muscle stimulation device, don't be timid. I mean, don't be stupid, right, but don't be timid. Don’t go “Look, I feel a little tingling.” No. You should see your muscles contract like you've not seen it contract. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I had a little hassle with an airline because I was on a 20-hour flight. I just read an article about the hazards of sitting for 20 hours, you know, and you might get DVTs and stuff like this. So, I fired up my PowerDot on the plane. And I got cables everywhere. My limbs are flopping all over the place, you know. Maximal involuntary contractions. And I was in business class. And so, I thought I wouldn’t bother anyone. I was far from anyone. But this lady kinda nearby freaked out and called a flight attendant. [Mumbling] Yeah. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she was emoting mightily. And the flight attendant came over and big smile and said, “What exactly are you doing, sir?” And so, I told her and she said, “Wow. That's cool. They ought to give us those.” You know? And she was just happy to hear about it. “Right. What do they cost? What’s the website?” But I find it kind of useful. And if you're traveling, you know, the thing is tiny. Right? You just throw it in your bag and you've got something.
Chris: Interesting. I'll look into that.
Ken: Yeah. It’s kind of fun.
Chris: Talk to me about kettlebells.
Ken: Ooh, I like kettlebells. And I wish kettlebells had come into my life earlier. I actually saw kettlebells in the `70s when I was a wrestler and we were interacting with the Russian wrestling team or the Soviet team at that time. I had no idea what they were. I thought nothing of it, you know. So, I do wish I had interacted with them earlier. As Pavel Tsatsouline, the primary advocate in the United States, likes to say, they’re simple just like your garden barbell, but your garden barbell is more complicated. But they're simple and they’re sinister. I favor what sometimes is known as hard style kettlebell workouts or Russian style. I mostly do swings, goblets, squats, and a variety of carries. And with respective carries, I particularly like farmer’s walks and bottoms up carries. And with the swing, you know, people ask me “Why do you like the swing?” The swing gives us each the rare opportunity to express physical power without negative societal ramifications. So, when you do the swing right, it's a power movement. It's an intense activity. It's not this loping thing that you see in the gym. So, I like to start with swings. It gets the heart pumping. And swings with a heavy bell is kind of like sprinting, but less prone to injury, but I do like sprinting. It's kind of exhilarating. And for those new to kettlebells, it’s is important not to hurt yourself. And I recommend availing yourself of some solid coaching and not just watching Youtube videos. The Strong First Organization is particularly good source of information. And on the coaching front, I recommend Mark and Tracy Reifkind of Palo Alto, California. It’d be worth the flight, let alone a drive.
Chris: Oh, that’s interesting information for me being in Silicon Valley because that wouldn’t be too far. I have been to see a Strong First instructor in Santa Cruz and he was quite brilliant. And you just reminded me that I need to go back and see him.
Ken: Strong First is really doing good stuff. And Mark and Tracy, I think they're very involved in Strong First. Tracy is sort of the swing queen. She has the smoothest, most symmetrical perfect swing that you'll ever see. Mark is my age, ex-athlete. Obviously, he’s not gonna have his perfect swing, but is a tremendous instructor. So, I recommend those two.
Chris: Why don't you do cardio?
Ken: Well, I actually do some cardio.
It depends what you define as cardio. Right? So, I talked about Tabata. I talked about kettlebell swings. And you know, if you do those right, you're quite aware that you're exercising, but I don't like the term “cardio.” You know, in my mind, it conjures up images of boring chronic cardio sessions typically on elliptical machines or the dreaded treadmill. You know, my favorite long duration cardio, as I mentioned earlier, would be hiking in the mountains in Wyoming or a nice long brisk walk really anywhere. And as I said, I like Tabata. I like kettlebell. But long slow cardio in a gym typically looking at a wall or a TV, nope. Life is too short for that stuff. I am just not gonna do it.
Chris: I can tell you what my cardio looks like. It looks like 25 miles an hour.
Chris: Yeah. Descending on a trail in Santa Cruz. And then more recently, it's been with my 1-year-old Blue Heeler nipping at my heels as they fly around at 100 rpm. When he gets really excited like that, he makes these kind of low woofing noises and it’s just so much fun. I can’t get enough of it at the moment. It’s so very different from what you’ve described at the gym.
Ken: Yeah. And so, that would be good cardio. Riding a bike, playing with a kid, playing with a dog, playing Frisbee. That's good cardio.
Chris: I've heard you use the phrase “zoo human.” Can you describe what you mean by that?
Ken: Sure. My phrase, zoo humans is inspired by Desmond Morris’ 1969 book. I recommend it. The Human Zoo. What a great title. Right? And in this book, he analyzes human behavior in modern societies and the resemblance of our behavior to animal behavior in captivity. In particular, he compares the human inhabitants of a large city to the animal inhabitants of zoo. Both groups have their survival needs largely provided for, but at the cost of living in this unnatural and perhaps unfulfilling environment. Very interesting book indeed. But I'd like to point out at least the animals in the zoo can see the bars on their cage. As one walks through an airport, or down nearly any street, or through a Wal-Mart, it seems pretty evident that life in the zoo can produce some unfavorable outcomes. So, I have a tip. Throw away your TV. TV is one of the primary zoo keepers. There are others. But you could start with that one.
Chris: Yeah. I have to agree with you there. Our TV just went to Goodwill last week. Do you think I did the wrong thing? No. Did I just make that someone else's problem by giving it away to Goodwill?
Chris: It sat under our bed for I think nearly 3 years before it went to Goodwill. So, perhaps it's not that valuable. It will just end up in a landfill somewhere.
Ken: No. Yeah. I think you’ve really transferred it to the landfill.
Chris: In a few other podcasts, you've mentioned your annoyance arising from a recent paper on grip strength in millennials. Can you talk about that?
Ken: I'd have to confess that I don't know which podcast you heard, but I didn’t know I talked about it in a few other podcasts, but I remember talking about it in someone's broadcast. And it’s this paper in 2016 that confirmed what I had already suspected. The journal was the Journal of Hand Therapy. And they reported on a study of Americans age 20 to 34 in which they found millennials have significantly weaker hand grips than their counterparts did in 1985. And the differences are large. For example, in 1985, men of 20 to 24 years old had an average dominant hand grip of 121 pounds. You know, that’s not really that bad. In 2015, men of the same age had 101 pounds. This is over a large population. So, this is a major change. Another way to think about this is in a single generation it appears that young men are significantly weaker than their fathers at the same age. One does not normally see a decline of this magnitude in such a short timeframe. It opens up a lot of interesting speculation. A little more on this, in 1985, the typical 30 to 34 year old man could squeeze with 31 pounds more force than the typical woman of that same age was able. Today, the same cohort of older millennial men and women are roughly the same when it comes to grip strength. Now, it would be great if that was caused by the women getting substantially stronger, but that's not what caused it. So, this is a sad state of affairs and a truly amazing change in a single generation.
Chris: What do you think might be causing it?
Ken: Loss of activity and look how kids play now.
I mean, kids used to climb trees and hang like Tarzan in trees and do all kinds of activities that are now deemed too dangerous. The lifestyle of young people now has more to do with their phone than any other thing.
Chris: And why the gender specific differences?
Ken: Not sure. But I thought it was fascinating.
Chris: It is fascinating. Yeah. I will read that.
Ken: And it may be that men have changed their degree of physical interaction with the world more than women have. The kind of activities that used to be considered work, very few people do that kind of work anymore.
Chris: Right. You know, you’re known to exhort people to not be normal. Could you explain that?
Ken: I think I'd like to hark it back to the loss of grip strength. Right? So, we just talked about this loss of grip strength and that is bad. In fact, it's very bad indeed, but it's society's reaction to it that really spun me up. It wasn't just that— And I had kind of guessed this about these guys. It wasn't just that millennials have lost a lot of grip strength on average of course. The societal reaction to it was rather than wanting to address the situation, the official response has been that we need to renormalize the data so that normal reflects our current state of affairs. And I guess that makes sense if you take normal to mean an average among the current cohort in this time and place under study. But when viewed through a longer historical lens, this is not normal for humans over our long history. And a rapid change like this should be the cause for alarm, not rejiggering what counts as normal. Besides, who wants to be normal? Homer Simpson is normal. I once fired a physician for calling me normal. It’s a terrible insult. Later, he apologized.
Chris: It's funny. But you know, it causes problems and you've probably noticed this, you know, in social situations. I’ll give you an example. Last weekend, I attended a Christmas party with my daughter and my wife wasn’t there to protect me. She was away on a weekend away somewhere else. I had to spend some time watching the things that people with 4-year-old kids eat. And honestly, it was terrifying. There was nothing that apart from carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates. You know, the first question is what do you do? Explain to me what you do. It’s just like my worst nightmare, you know. As you’ve explained, I don't wanna be normal. But the same time, it makes me an outcast. And I know that being part of a social group is important. So, do you not think that by pointing this out, you’re creating a different problem?
Ken: No, no, no. It's good not to be normal. You don't wanna be normal. You wanna be outstanding.
Chris: Okay. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as well, not just for the clients that we work with, but also for my daughter who I mentioned is 4. And one of the things I've learned from my experience reinventing myself, you know before, I was a programmer locked away in the back office of a hedge fund somewhere and now I'm working one on one with the athletes trying to improve their health and performance and I realize I found my purpose and it's brought tremendous joy into my life. And I'm wondering how— You know, will my daughter have to go through that same experience working for employees that she's not really interested in and then finally figure out when she’s 35 after a health crisis that something else is her calling? So, how can I avoid that for my daughter? How does one go about finding that purpose is a practical concern?
Ken: That was very well said, but I'll share with you my thoughts on that in a general sense and then I'll turn explicitly to very young people like your daughter. You know, I don't even like the phrase finding my purpose. It's like you've lost it somewhere. It's in the sock drawer. One does not find a purpose. One invents a purpose. You under credit yourself when you said you have a purpose now. No. No. You don’t just have it. You invented it. In my view, too often we hear people talk about and these are actual quotes like “Well, he's gonna take some time to find himself.” Or I have a friend that said his daughter after college was going to spend a year in Europe to find herself. We don't find ourselves. We invent ourselves. When inventing yourself, of course, it's critical to be sure that your invention turns out to be someone you like because you'll spend a lot of time together. But we are each all our own most important invention and it's important to appreciate our first self-invention does not need and probably shouldn't be our last self-invention.
So, you've been many things. I've been a cook, an athlete, a rock and roll promoter, a member of the United States military, a professor, a NASA executive scientist, and a CEO and sometimes several at once. And I hope I have a few more reinventions in me. In today's world, reinvention is increasingly critical. And to do that in today’s world, one must become an autodidactic lifetime learner. And by auto didactic, I just mean essentially self-taught and self-guided without sort of explicit guidance by masters or institutions. But in any case, life is way too short to be bored.
Chris: That’s fantastic. And I realize I’ve fallen into that trap of the fixed mindset again. Oh my goodness. It’s like—
Ken: We all do. Right?
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. No. So, I have one daughter who is 4 and then a baby boy who is on the way. He's due in the next few months.
Ken: So, you have 2 children and one is almost here.
Chris: One is almost here. Yes. So, what advice would you give me for those kids?
Ken: Well, first of all, far be it for me to give real advice on raising children, a subject about which I am largely ignorant, but I can offer some general comments about reinvention and about children and their place in the world. First, I will note that your children are already incredibly fortunate to be born into your family. And as I mentioned earlier, we all invent ourselves, even those who aren't aware of it and even those that aren't very nice inventions, but we all invent ourselves at least once. Our self-inventions like all inventions are not constructed from whole cloth, but are built upon our families, our backgrounds, our education in the broader context of our lives to name just a few factors. So, it would stand to reason to try to provide your children with as much material or building blocks as possible from which to work. Graduation speakers and other sages often offer young people the platitude to follow your passion. Fine, but I don't know what that means and it never really works. Reinvention is not in exercise and fantasy. Be super good at something and you may become passionate about it, but there is no benefit in being passionate about something you're not good at. I once heard Cal Newport suggest that one might usefully think of themselves as a startup that you cannot sell. He then suggested that one should build career capital by becoming super good at rare and valuable skills and then invest that capital into traits you desire like mastery, purpose, and autonomy. I thought he was giving pretty good advice. In my view, we should advise young people to make choices. And as parents, we can help them make choices. They keep their options open. Each of us can look at the choices available to us now and choose does that give us the most promising range of options afterward. In other words, keep your options open. Life is better with more choices. All of us, especially young people, should stay well upwind from as many possibly desired futures as possible. And then finally, my last advice is to help your children avoid cynicism. Skepticism is fine and often healthy, but not cynicism. Life is not a dress rehearsal. We don't get do overs. We are not practicing for real life. This is it. Teach them to be bold and to do dare greatly. And I think this is best accomplished as you are by modeling it in your own life.
Chris: That’s a truly wonderful answer, Ken. Thank you so much. It’s a fantastic place to wrap up. Tell us about how we can find out more about the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition online.
Ken: Well, we have a website, ihmc.us. Of course, we have a newsletter, a quarterly newsletter, which seems to have become biannually and folks can subscribe on the website and then the aforementioned podcasts, STEM-Talk. I recommend all three of those.
Chris: Awesome. Well, this has been truly wonderful, Ken. Thank you so much for your time. At NBT, we all really, really appreciate you. So, thank you.
Ken: Well, thank you. I'm a big fan of this particular podcast.
Chris: That's amazing. Thank you.
Ken: Thank you.
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