Last year I co-authored a report on ‘Human Technology’, which proposes computing is in the midst of a paradigm shift beyond ‘Information Technology’. Its conclusion is that the leading edge of digital technology is in the engineering of feeling states and ethical outcomes.
One smartphone application recently caught my eye as an excellent exemplar of this meta-trend: Soulight. To me, it beautifully illustrates how we are progressing beyond the limited ambition of mere ‘productivity’. In future, all user-centric software will be expected to help us engineer elevated wellbeing.
Whilst in Edinburgh earlier this summer I had the pleasure of meeting its creator, Dr Maciej Zurawski. I hope this edited version of our conversation shines light on the potential of ‘human technology’ for everyone.
MG: Could you introduce yourself to readers?
MZ: I describe myself as entrepreneur, composer, and meditator. These aspects are all reflected in our product. I also have a PhD in informatics from the AI group at the University of Edinburgh.
The history of Soulight is a blend of my interests. Whilst my formal background is in computer science, my informal education is in music composition. In particular, I am interested in the emotional impact of music. This is part of what is now known as ‘affective computing’, which can be seen as emotion engineering. There is an emerging science that formalises these ‘affects’, and what generates specific emotions in humans.
I have also been doing meditation for 14 years. I have now come to realise that meditation is an extremely timely discipline, both in the obvious sense of being ‘in the now’, as well as having increasing importance to today’s world. I am seeing new ways in which meditation techniques can drive technology, where we had previously see a total separation of these domains.
All of these interests have converged into this product. It is being developed here in Scotland, where the environment supports such interdisciplinary innovation.
What’s your role in Soulight, and what is the nature of your company?
My main role is in product management and development, bringing everything together: music, AI, and user interface programming. I am part of an international Soulight commercial and technical team, with people from the UK, US and India.
We have been working here in Scotland together with the Digital Health & Care Institute. They are providing funding for the evidence-based controlled trials.
What led you to create Soulight?
The journey started with a fascination for dynamic music technology and its applications. The way this works is that you take an emotional ‘journey profile’, and the software then generates a track automatically. Initially these systems were built for entertainment in computer games, to be able to evoke specific emotions for players at different points in their quests. We then used the same technology to automate music production for photo slide shows and videos.
As a side project, we began to look at health. It turned out there was so much interest in that area that we committed to it 100%.
What’s the problem people have that Soulight helps to solve?
The problem we help to tackle is a lack of wellbeing, particularly mental wellbeing. Emotional distress manifests in various forms: stress, depression, anxiety, anger. These in turn have negative consequences for physical wellbeing.
Soulight is a mobile wellbeing companion. It acts as it were someone who asks and cares about how you feel. This lets you accept your feelings and become more emotionally mindful. If you are in a negative state of mind, it leads you to something better, just like a friend would. We work in therapeutic paradigm inspired by music therapy, mindfulness, and acceptance commitment therapy.
We are integrating the best ideas from the Western medical paradigm with those of holistic wellbeing associated with an Eastern approach. For instance, we are conducting a controlled evidence-based study with the National Health Service, which is classic science. Other the other hand, we are getting high interest from Asia and India, where there is a perceived need for technological innovation in this space. So we sit somewhere in-between these two worlds.
What we have found is that the packaging of a smartphone application seems to make Eastern ideas acceptable to a Western audience. An app is seen as legitimising the content: it addresses a rational need, is reproducible in a systematic manner, so we can directly see how well it works, and thus quantify its benefits in a scientific manner. In contrast, if another person can do the ‘magic’ for you, it is seen as being merely mysterious ‘woo’. After all, maybe they are only able to do it sometimes?
What’s the experience for users using the application?
Soulight uses an experiential UX paradigm, which means it employs as few words as possible. Instead, we have a formal and scientific way to describe emotional states using music, colour, emoticons, as well as language. This helps to avoid variations due to culture, since there are many more differences in written language.
The application has three modes. The first is to identify your mood. The second lets you explore your mood. The third is a ‘sound and colour’ journey to a different mood.
The main application screen presents a grid of emotional states to help you to identify your mood. On the horizontal axis there is ‘valance’. This is the technical term that can be seen to represent an emotional state from ‘negative’ to ‘positive’. On the vertical axis we have ‘energy’, which runs from ‘low’ to ‘high’. When you press on a mood icon, music plays representing that mood. Indeed, our main thesis is that music is the language of emotion.
You can think of this first stage as being part of the ‘quantified self’ movement, whereby users are guided by the application to become more emotionally mindful. This is done without language or talking to them: it leads their attention in a universal language.
Users can then explore a nearby or opposite emotional state in an ‘emotion space’. The science tells that that exercising emotion mindfulness this way is healthy. It’s a form of personal wellbeing that changes the brain, because we don’t run away from experiences. For instance, when you have a chronic medical condition that you can’t change, you become better at staying with the feelings in invokes and processing them.
The third and final mode allows us to move forward. You might be content with where you are, or you may want assistance to move from negative to positive state of mind. The resulting ‘musical journeys’ are inspired by music therapy and how that invokes emotion.
When these modalities are taken together, Soulight acts as an antidote to dissociative states of mind, where we split our identity away from the present moment’s experience. As such, what we are making is in effect ‘antipsychotic’ wellbeing software, minus the nasty side effects of pharmaceuticals! That said, many users are healthy individuals who simply use it to balance their mood and to feel better.
What’s the technical magic behind Soulight?
For the last five years we have been exploring dynamic musical technology, so every time you go on a ‘musical journey’ it’s a different one. We use a blend of human creativity and machine intelligence to achieve this. The basic musical themes are composed by humans, and are then automatically arranged by machine. The MusicFlow technology evokes the right emotional response at the right time.
These ‘emotion spaces’ are a new kind of user interface paradigm. What Google Maps does for the ‘outside’ universe, this does for your inner world. We do ‘emotion space mapping for your soul’ (which is where our name comes from). When you navigate around, it’s like the Google Street Map car taking pictures of your emotional landscape.
These emotional journeys are also a little bit like physical ones, where you might have to change flights, or connect to a bus. You can’t go straight from one extreme to another. So we help you to navigate within that space.
What’s the impact it has on users?
We have started to do empirical and blind testing of music content. This has been providing testimonials from users: how it helps them to relax after work; how it shifts anxious or depressed states by releasing those negative emotions; how it relieves chronic stress from pain by being more emotionally mindful; how being more accepting of your emotional state helps to relieve negative experiences.
At the moment the feedback is qualitative. However, looking forward, we are data-driven and obsessed about empirically quantifying what works.
How will you make money?
There are two ways in which we will make revenue. The first is for the consumer version of the application. After reaching out to build a user base, we will have a freemium model, with premium content for longer musical journeys via in-app sales.
Once we have the formal scientific testing done, we will consider having a clinical version of Soulight for hospitals and insurance companies. These companies have an interest in managing illness as well as health.
For instance, I have just been meeting with a charity that plans to use Soulight to help those dealing with addiction. They want to be able to better cope with negative, destructive and suicidal thoughts in a safe way. For them, when you ‘find your mood’, it comes attached to certain ideas and beliefs. We can help people to experience them, label them, and let go of things that afflict them. We help people to learn to separate their persistent identity from their transient mood state. This evaluation is being done as a scientific trial using the same wellbeing scale as pharmaceutical companies use.
Where do you see the application heading?
Future versions of Soulight will be more ‘Big Data’ driven. It will use machine learning to adapt to every individual, quantifying their progress, and gathering collective learning. This means it will provide what is best for you in terms of colours and music, intimately personalised to your individual reaction.
The growing amounts of data mean that the app itself can estimate how much it has helped you. To better gauge this we plan to allow the setting of goals, and will add gamification to give a sense of purpose to your reaching them.
What about in the longer term?
People are afraid of AI, and we have stories going back to the 1930s of ‘killer robots’. But if we channel our creativity, AI helps you to heal. That’s our vision, a hopeful one that is an antidote to the many dystopian visions.
The smartphone has been positioned as an extension of self, one that connects us to the outer world and helps us to make sense of it. The leading edge is now focused on help you to navigate within yourself, and to provide a connection to inwards.
Looking further ahead, I see a rapid improvement in mobile device battery life, and wireless network power and range. As we move to wearables and mobile virtual reality, the technology will become ever more intimate and personal.
You will not only be able to explore what is going on inside of you, but also of friends and family. This leads to an even more profound shift, as these technologies become more human-like, fashioned ever more in our likeness. They will assist us in our individual and collective quest for wellbeing, self-awareness and personal growth.
What have you learnt that you didn’t know before?
We are currently living in a digital barbaric period, where the machines do little to help us have a sense of the space inside ourselves, or the freedom that comes from being present to our feelings. We need to nourish this movement towards a more humanised form of technology.
The first key learning is that the world, despite everything going on, is not starved of innovation opportunities. We don’t have enough people thinking about wellbeing and innovating in this kind of way. However, the need (and hence opportunity) is astronomical: the World Health Organisation estimates the cost of poor mental health at $2.5tn. These are intrinsic and universal human needs that are going under-addressed.
The other key lesson is that innovation is organic, where you need to iterate with lots of small steps. There’s not one big ‘eureka!’ step you can take to a better future. You have to treat innovation more like an organism than a machine.
What are the next steps for Soulight?
We are looking for more partners to work with us, to test the application with certain medical conditions, and to integrate it into digital health platforms. Any interested beta testers are welcome to get in touch to give it a try. We are also looking for more composers and music producers, as well as more investors.
The Android application is available for download here for free. I hope your readers try it, and help us to spread the word. The web page soulightapp.com has more information, and people can also sign up for the forthcoming iOS version, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.
To get in touch with Maciej Zurawski you can email him at email@example.com.
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