January 27, 2019
Interview conducted by
“What people don’t realize is that we are on the verge of a paradigmatic shift in thinking on par with the Copernican Revolution,” says Dr. Angel Iscovich. “The way we make our most personal decisions—from our partners, to our health choices, to yes, even our daily routines— is going to transform due to the falling cost of data storage and rising computing power.”
If you only happened to glance at what Dr. Iscovich said, let me repeat the latter part as it bears further mention. According to him, in the future, AI will advise us how to structure our days for the most fulfilling life. It will literally tell us what to do for optimal living. Iscovich’s assertion comes as the result of a new book he is writing with six-time New York Times bestselling author Joe Garner and myself entitled, Time Bubble: The Art and Science of Routine.
An experienced CEO in the healthcare industry, Iscovich is chairman of the Board of Directors for Potentia Analytics, named in 2018 as one of the Top 10 Intelligence Solution Providers by Healthcare Tech. He received his post graduate training in Psychiatry from the Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. While serving as Associate Clinical Professor at the USC Keck School of Medicine in the LA County Medical Center, Iscovich became intrigued by the subject of routine from witnessing how humans behave in stressful environments, such as emergencies. “Interestingly, the harrowing E.R. frontline experience pales in many ways to the environment we all live in today,” says Iscovich. “It’s hard not to be absorbed — and disturbed — by the events of our times: mass killings and unpredictable violence; regional wars, which devastate whole countries, displacing millions; intolerance of others’ race or religious beliefs and personal freedoms. Then there’s political strife, which, as we all know, has become increasingly strident and belligerent. On top of these, we are bombarded daily with a barrage of stimuli and distractions, especially through our smartphones.”
Though Iscovich works in the tech sector, the very eye of the storm when it comes to perpetuating our 24/7/365 go-go culture, his new book bucks 21stcentury conventional wisdom by suggesting the best way to navigate our noisy new world is to reject constant novelty — to reduce the relentless pelting of fresh content minute by minute. Iscovich’s disruptive big idea is that we need to carve out mental space for ourselves away from the madding hubbub to bring order to our lives.
Case study after case study, cited in the book, bolsters Iscovich’s thinking, revealing humans not only require structure, they thrive in it. At every stage of life, people do best when following a routine or what he terms a “time-bubble.” A time-bubble is a kind of mental barrier between the world and the individual, comprised of the activities we choose to occupy our days.
According to Iscovich’s findings, when we stick to a plan — when we do the same things in a predictable fashion — we develop balance and wellbeing, despite the curve balls life throws at us. “The reality is, as biological organisms, our bodies and minds perform best when maintaining an equilibrium,” explains Iscovich. “We feel best when our environment is familiar, and our lives possess consistency.”
We need look no further than the case study of Angel Martinez to witness Iscovich’s theory in action. Prior to serving as Chairman of the Board of Deckers Brands (best known for Uggs and Tevas), Martinez co-founded Reebok. A high performer in the business world, Martinez’s achievements are especially impressive in light of his personal history. A native from Cuba, he didn’t see his parents for more than thirty-four years. His grandmother’s sister and her husband adopted him when he was three-years-old before fleeing to the US. Unfortunately, the Cuban revolution prevented his immediate family from joining him in the South Bronx for decades.
Bereft of a traditional support system and wanting to make his parents proud back home, Martinez vowed to succeed. He built a disciplined personal routine based on the physical act of running. “The summer of my freshman year, I decided I was going to run five miles every single day,” Martinez says. To hold himself accountable, he pledged that if he missed his quota, he would run ten miles to make up for it. “I had a job where I remember getting off at 4:30 p.m.,” says Martinez. “From there, I would go home, and by 5:00, I was off and running. I really had to hustle, too, because I had another job that began at 7:00 p.m., and I didn’t want to miss putting in the five miles I promised myself.”
As Iscovich recounts in the book, Martinez’s self-imposed time-bubble, centered around running, developed within him a strong work ethic, which later paid off handsomely. After graduating from college, he opened running-shoe stores in Mountain Valley and Alameda, which led to Reebok, a tremendously profitable company. Martinez’s example demonstrates Iscovich’s larger point: developing and living within a consistent routine can bring the body the balance it craves. Of course, another word for balance is homeostasis. And as biology informs us, all organisms on Earth strive for homeostasis: to find food when hungry, warmth when cold, shelter from the elements.
But humans strive for other things, too: meaning and fulfillment. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” What’s different about the era we live in as opposed to Nietzsche’s 19th century, is that with the emergence of technology, in particular AI, we needn’t depend on our own brains to develop the best routine; instead we can outsource such decision-making to thinking machines. Why? As it turns out, computers know a lot more about us than we do.
Just consider the Fitbit. Nonjudgmental, available on demand, and endlessly patient, it contains an infallible record of our biometric data. Right now, many users only utilize their devices to monitor their health goals, whether they be getting better REM-sleep or walking a certain number of steps per day. But this only represents a tiny sliver of what’s possible when it comes to AI’s full range of capabilities. What distinguishes third-wave computing (today’s processors) from past computing epochs is their ability not merely to process complex calculations but to offer predictive insights.
Put simply: AI can learn from data sets to offer us helpful suggestions. Our computers can do our thinking for us.
Certainly, it might seem odd to turn to a computer to tell how us how to better live, but there is precedent behind this notion. Already, the AI-based traffic app Waze tells us which route to take to and from destinations. Similarly, dating sites like Match.com and eHarmony rely on algorithms backed by big data to determine romantic matches rather than something as analog as butterflies in the stomach.
It’s important to note turning to technology is not the only answer to solve the crisis humanity finds itself in. Iscovich’s book emphasizes the importance of creating a stable environment while pointing out AI is an invention created by human intelligence and therefore one of our greatest tools and assets. Still, outsourcing how we make life choices to a computer fits within a pattern of evolving thought processes surrounding decision-making. In the last few thousand years humans have shifted beliefs when it comes to which authorities to follow. Once upon a time, kings ruled us with “divine” authority from God. Later, we internalized our decision-making as religion lost its sway and modern liberalist ideas swept the world. However, in the future, it’s conceivable many of our choices will be influenced or made for us through algorithms based on data.
Recognizing our growing dependence on predictive technology, Iscovich is developing a software application offering various routines people could employ to bring balance to their lives — and even possibly attain something as subjective as purpose and meaning. “This idea isn’t as far-fetched as one might think,” says Iscovich. “AI requires data to work. It thrives on information. Our app would function similarly to a smartwatch, learning about a person all day long. It would take in biometric data, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate to learn what’s working in a person’s life and what might be improved.”
Though the app is still in the early stages, Iscovich conceives of a time in the not too distant future when the technology works in tandem with users’ goals. For instance, after analyzing data, the app might suggest new ways to structure your own time-bubble. “It could recommend you break up your day by doing twenty-minute naps or meditations to lower your resting heart rate,” says Iscovich. “It could also get you out of your comfort zone, establishing new neural pathways by suggesting you do unusual activities. It might recommend you take the whole day off to visit a new city. Likewise, it could tell you to explore a museum to get inspired based on what it knows about your interests.”
Though the promise behind the app is its ability to know us better than ourselves and therefore suggest ways to live more happily, it might feel like relying on AI to plan one’s life is akin to cheating. After all, “Know thyself” is the commandment Socrates, the father of Philosophy, once extolled. If humanity’s search for meaning comprises a never-ending struggle to gain knowledge and wisdom through experience and introspection, what happens to us once we let an artificial mind steer the ship? Is this not an abdication of our duties to ourselves? Maybe. But not necessarily.
Burdened by arduous responsibilities, jobs, and duties, existence in the 21st century is far from a walk in the park, even for the most affluent of us. Recognizing how AI-enhanced apps are already optimizing our lives and even saving them in some cases, is it too crazy to believe our computers might one day dream up better modes of living for us? “In my clinical practice, I saw so many patients dissatisfied by the ways their lives were going,” says Iscovich. “They were lost, confused. Miserable. So many of us feel alone and sad today. Why not turn to outside assistance?”
Certainly, technology is no panacea for all of the problems we face as a society and as people. Moreover, even if Iscovich succeeds in developing an app for suggesting our ideal routines, there will never be an app that can live our lives for us. Existence itself will continue to be our privilege — and our burden — as thinking carbon-based creatures. However, with the growing power of AI to improve our quality of life, a time-bubble app just might bring us greater balance, meaning, and happiness.