The Behavior Analytic Singularity:  What It Is and How It Could Mean the End of Behavior Analysis

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By Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Here lies Behavior Analysis. S/he was a beloved mentor and teacher to so many. S/he meant so much to all of us, helping us establish our careers and giving us a sense of purpose in a world of mentalism and explanatory fictions. Behavior Analysis taught us the importance of data collection and the value of reinforcement over punishment. S/he set the example for so many unknowing psychologists by championing single-subject design and simplifying research. Behavior Analysis had an enormous capacity and will to live, which s/he later operationally defined in observable and measureable terms.

And then suddenly, it happened. S/he became ill from the singularity, and not enough behavior analysts thought it was important enough to address. Most of us just shrugged our collective shoulders and said, “S/he will always be with us, because no one understands behavior like we do.”  S/he will be missed…all because of the singularity…

Could this possible future be a reality? 

Well, let’s start by explaining what a singularity is, and then we can decide whether or not the end is near. A singularity is a commonly used term in mathematics, natural sciences, technology, and literature. A mathematical singularity is a point at which a given object is not defined. A natural science singularity is represented by the breakdown of laws in physics, like the phenomenon of black holes. A literary singularity is represented by some kind of “point of divergence” where a historical event has two possible outcomes. And finally, a technological singularity is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies are so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change. In other words, it’s when AI overtakes human capacity for thought. All of these singularities are undifferentiated, immeasurable, infinite, and undefined. In other words, they present uncertainty.

So what does that have to do with Behavior Analysis?  Well, what if there comes a time when the status of our field is uncertain? 

We currently live and work in a golden age of Behavior Analysis; there is more work in our field than there are workers, conference attendance is up, and the line graph representing the number of newly- minted BACB certificants that Dr. Carr shows at major events is on a constant increasing trend. Universities are clamoring for ABA programs, and even the president said he wanted to use “behavioral science” to better serve the American people…whatever that means.

All of this data indicate a healthy and vibrant field positioned to do great things for mankind. But will this last forever?  New research and technology could remove the need for our cherished science. Technology is evolving more quickly now than it ever has in the history of our planet. Technological advances occur every day at record speeds in the most important areas of applied science, transportation, communication, medicine, and robotics.

With all of these technological advances, doesn’t it stand to reason that some enterprising researcher could develop a cleveshutterstock_337768766r, more cost effective way to treat Autism and train parents?  Someone really smart once said, “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination” (German Patent Clerk).

Could that be possible?  Could someone create a machine that would have our best traits and enhance our most salient flaws?  Machines are more consistent implementers of our protocol and more accurate collectors of our data. Consider these two examples:

I watched an interesting commercial recently about IBM’s supercomputer, Watson, and Ashley Bryant, a schoolteacher.

After Watson tells Ashley about all of the combined knowledge it has collected regarding cross-referencing aptitude and developing curricula, Ashley simply asks, “How do I keep them quiet?” [referring to her students]. Watson responds, “There is no known solution.”  Isn’t there?  How long before Watson figures out how to conduct an FBA or how to build a behavior program?  Would it even be called Behavior Analysis when he reports it?

I was fortunate enough recently to have been part of the first Behavior Analysis and technology conference Tech-B-5-cmykcalled “Tech B.”  (Sponsored by MiABA)

At Tech B, accomplished researchers in the areas of robotics and Behavior Analysis have been working with the NAO robot to introduce an automaton that does ABA Therapy independent of a 1:1 human therapist. 

So if technology is moving forward at light speed, where does Behavior Analysis fit into this design?  (This is where the singularity comes into play.)

We are uncertain of what role our field will play in the future.

Well, I believe the answer lies within something I call the “Behavioral Network.” Now, the Behavioral Network hasn’t been created yet. It’s currently under construction and it resides online. However, the foundation for this network and the basic elements needed to create it are online as well.

To understand what the behavioral network is and how it affects us, it’s important for us to identify the foundation for this network: something we are all familiar with—namely, the “social network” or how we connect with people online.  We have been developing the social network since the turn of the 21st century and now over 65% of the population using some form of social media to connect with others. 

NAO Robot

NAO Robot

So, the question emerges:  Now that we have connected everyone online, what do we do with them? 

Well, I think the next few decades will be spent creating the Behavioral Network, where the behavioral contingencies that we use to change behavior and the structure in which that is decided will be built. But here is the interesting difference between the Behavioral Network and the Social Network (And where we fit in), The “Behavioral Network” won’t be about connecting people. It will focus primarily on shaping and maintaining behavior, specifically your online behavior: where you go, what you do, and how you do it online. And this construction will occur with the raw materials that we call principles of Behavior Analysis.

Now, fortunately for us, the Behavioral Network is currently under construction. Web designers and programmers are working right now to create this complex framework and that means we have time to introduce them to the gospel of Behavior Analysis. We have an opportunity as academics, researchers, and practitioners to make a difference for billions of people. We didn’t before … we had to shape behavior one person at a time. But now with the advent of this behavioral network and the use of technology, we can make change on a global scale.    

As cool as this concept sounds, unfortunately I didn’t come up with this idea; someone else did. About seven years ago, while watching a presentation by Janet Twyman at ABAI (awesome presentation, Janet rocks) she brought up pioneers and innovators at a company called SCVNGR that have developed this concept already and have termed it the “Game Network.” Instead of using only behavioral terminology readily used by behavior analysts, they have developed their own terms and phrases to describe our principles, and they call them “Game Dynamics.” Here is a portion of the their list and THEIR associated definitions:

Behavioral Contrast:  The theory defining how behavior can shift greatly based on changed expectations.

Chain Schedules:  the practice of linking a reward to a series of contingencies. Players tend to treat these as simply the individual contingencies. Unlocking one step in the contingency is often viewed as an individual reward by the player.     

Contingency:  The problem that the player must overcome in the three part paradigm of reward schedules.

Fixed Interval Reward Schedules:  Fixed interval schedules provide a reward after a fixed amount of time, say 30 minutes. This tends to create a low engagement after a reward, and then gradually increasing activity until a reward is given, followed by another lull in engagement.

Fixed Ratio Reward Schedule:  A fixed ratio schedule provides rewards after a fixed number of actions. This creates cyclical nadirs of engagement (because the first action will not create any reward so incentive is low) and then bursts of activity as the reward gets closer and closer.

Reinforcer:  The reward given if the expected action is carried out in the three part paradigm of reward schedules.

Response:  The expected action from the player in the three part paradigm of reward schedules.

Anything look familiar?  What’s next?  Are they going to steal our lunch money as well?

***Something we sometimes forget is that principles in Behavior Analysis were NOT invented by behavior analysts; they were simply discovered. It is our analysis that is unique to Behavior Analysis and our precise verbal descriptions of these processes that make them exclusive to us (i.e. We don’t own the patent on behavior, it is a phenomena that anyone can observe and report on!)***

Or at least we thought they were exclusive to us. So the question becomes:  how do we get our analysis of these phenomena into the mainstream?

Here are some suggested steps toward avoiding the meteor-sized singularity swirling around the behavioral universe just waiting to crash land and kill our field:

Develop more knowledge workers, and focus less on frontline staff.  The NAO robot will be able to conduct therapy, but someone still needs to program the little job-stealer.

Master instructional design and learn to code. Online applications and virtual reality are the future, and although big companies and universities can create cool software that has bright lights and slick animations, they still don’t understand behavioral contingencies—not yet anyway. So find work helping to create and better the Behavioral Network.

Tell everyone about Behavior Analysis, and be fearless in your presentation: “So Behavior Analysis can help make things a little better?” … “No, Behavior Analysis can and will improve the behavior of every person around the world.”    

My last suggestion is using a concept called MindShare. MindShare is a marketing term that refers to the development of consumer awareness or popularity. Another way to look at MindShare is that when people think of examples of a product type or category, they are usually limited to specific brands, such as:  Coke, TIVO, Kleenex, Drano, Aspirin, XEROX, Band-AID, Spandex, or Yo-Yo.

I think, no, I know we can accomplish this as well. My hope is that one day we can avoid the singularity, and when someone doesn’t understand a behavioral phenomenon, they will say:

How do you Behavior Analyze that?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

References:

Ashley Bryant IBM Watson on Education. (2016, January 4). Retrieved January 29, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-umbokNLGQ

Office of the Press Secretary. (2015, September 15). Executive Order — Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People. Retrieved January 29, 2016, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/15/executive-order-using-behavioral-science-insights-better-serve-american

Schonfeld, E. (2010, August 25). “SCVNGR’s Secret Game Mechanics Playdeck.” Retrieved January 29, 2016, from http://techcrunch.com/2010/08/25/scvngr-game-mechanics/

“The Game Layer on Top of the World.” (2010, July 1). Retrieved January 29, 2016, from http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_priebatsch_the_game_layer_on_top_of_the_world#t-38552

AVV_MG_9885Adam Ventura, M.S., BCBA is a graduate of Florida International University and has been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) since 2008. Adam is the founder and CEO of World Evolve, Inc., a behavioral organization located in south Florida. Adam has been working in the field of applied behavior analysis for over 10 years and has experience working with children and adults with varying disabilities. Adam was a member of the local review committee in Miami, Florida for over three years and is currently a member of the behavior analysis and practice committee (BAPC) for the state of Florida. Adam also currently serves an adjunct professor in the psychology department at Florida International University where he has been teaching undergraduate courses in behavior analysis since 2009. Adam is also the co-founder of two public benefit corporations, namely, The Code Of Ethics for Behavioral Organizations (COEBO) and the Miami Association for Behavior Analysis (MiABA). Adam’s experience has extended beyond the clinical realm and into the business world as he has been responsible for creating several new businesses with and without partners in various industries. Adam’s current focus is on business ethics and technological applications of Behavior Analysis.  You can contact him at adamvent@gmail.com.

 

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3 Comments on "The Behavior Analytic Singularity:  What It Is and How It Could Mean the End of Behavior Analysis"

  1. I really enjoyed this article. It was fun and thought provoking. And now I’m about to disagree, which I hope you (Adam – and everyone else, I guess) will take as evidence that it was fun and thought provoking.

    The way you write about the ABA singularity, it sounds like it goes hand in hand with the AI singularity, in which case, resistance is futile. It’s going to happen. And when it does, the world will be upended. That could be amazing for people. That could be terrible for people. They call it the singularity because they just don’t know what that will be like. At that point, computers won’t need people to program them. They’ll do it to each other.

    That point isn’t just a behavior analysis problem; it’s a human being problem. What are we all going to do with our time?

    Personally, I’m hoping it happens sooner rather than later. I’m 41 years old and, if you look at my family history, I probably have another 40-45 years. Though it scares me; I really want to see what happens. And, if its possible, have my consciousness moved into a very athletic robot – preferably a 6’6″ shooting guard from North Carolina.

    Anyway… really enjoyed the read. Thanks for making me think.

  2. Very interesting read. So much so that I began to write a lengthy exposition of mine own on my relationship to the field, and my thoughts on its place in society. However, it steadily grew into something much too large for a comment. I will thus simply thank you for the stimulating prompt and leave the following link..
    http://supervidoqo.blogspot.com/2016/02/a-simple-thing-like-behavior.html

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