How I’m using biological data to tell better stories — and spark social change | Heidi Boisvert

How I’m using biological data to tell better stories — and spark social change | Heidi Boisvert

Articles, Blog , , , , , , , , , , , 100 Comments

For the past 15 years I’ve been trying
to change your mind. In my work I harness pop culture
and emerging technology to shift cultural norms. I’ve made video games
to promote human rights, I’ve made animations to raise awareness
about unfair immigration laws and I’ve even made location-based
augmented reality apps to change perceptions around homelessness well before Pokémon Go. (Laughter) But then I began to wonder
whether a game or an app can really change attitudes and behaviors, and if so, can I measure that change? What’s the science behind that process? So I shifted my focus
from making media and technology to measuring their
neurobiological effects. Here’s what I discovered. The web, mobile devices,
virtual and augmented reality were rescripting our nervous systems. And they were literally changing
the structure of our brain. The very technologies I had been using
to positively influence hearts and minds were actually eroding functions
in the brain necessary for empathy and decision-making. In fact, our dependence
upon the web and mobile devices might be taking over
our cognitive and affective faculties, rendering us socially
and emotionally incompetent, and I felt complicit
in this dehumanization. I realized that before I could continue
making media about social issues, I needed to reverse engineer
the harmful effects of technology. To tackle this I asked myself, “How can I translate
the mechanisms of empathy, the cognitive, affective
and motivational aspects, into an engine that simulates
the narrative ingredients that move us to act?” To answer this, I had to build a machine. (Laughter) I’ve been developing
an open-source biometric lab, an AI system which I call the Limbic Lab. The lab not only captures the brain and body’s unconscious response
to media and technology but also uses machine learning
to adapt content based on these biological responses. My goal is to find out what combination
of narrative ingredients are the most appealing and galvanizing to specific target audiences to enable social justice, cultural
and educational organizations to create more effective media. The Limbic Lab consists of two components: a narrative engine and a media machine. While a subject is viewing
or interacting with media content, the narrative engine takes in and syncs
real-time data from brain waves, biophysical data like heart rate,
blood flow, body temperature and muscle contraction, as well as eye-tracking
and facial expressions. Data is captured at key places
where critical plot points, character interaction
or unusual camera angles occur. Like the final scene
in “Game of Thrones, Red Wedding,” when shockingly, everybody dies. (Laughter) Survey data on that
person’s political beliefs, along with their psychographic
and demographic data, are integrated into the system to gain a deeper understanding
of the individual. Let me give you an example. Matching people’s TV preferences
with their views on social justice issues reveals that Americans who rank
immigration among their top three concerns are more likely to be fans
of “The Walking Dead,” and they often watch
for the adrenaline boost, which is measurable. A person’s biological signature
and their survey response combines into a database
to create their unique media imprint. Then our predictive model
finds patterns between media imprints and tells me which narrative ingredients are more likely to lead
to engagement in altruistic behavior rather than distress and apathy. The more imprints added to the database across mediums from episodic
television to games, the better the predictive models become. In short, I am mapping
the first media genome. (Applause and cheers) Whereas the human genome
identifies all genes involved in sequencing human DNA, the growing database of media imprints
will eventually allow me to determine the media DNA
for a specific person. Already the Limbic Lab’s narrative engine helps content creators
refine their storytelling, so that it resonates with their target
audiences on an individual level. The Limbic Lab’s other component, the media machine, will assess how media elicits
an emotional and physiological response, then pulls scenes from a content library targeted to person-specific media DNA. Applying artificial intelligence
to biometric data creates a truly personalized experience. One that adapts content based
on real-time unconscious responses. Imagine if nonprofits and media makers
were able to measure how audiences feel as they experience it and alter content on the fly. I believe this is the future of media. To date, most media
and social-change strategies have attempted to appeal
to mass audiences, but the future is media
customized for each person. As real-time measurement
of media consumption and automated media production
becomes the norm, we will soon be consuming media
tailored directly to our cravings using a blend of psychographics,
biometrics and AI. It’s like personalized medicine
based on our DNA. I call it “biomedia.” I am currently testing
the Limbic Lab in a pilot study with the Norman Lear Center, which looks at the top 50
episodic television shows. But I am grappling
with an ethical dilemma. If I design a tool
that can be turned into a weapon, should I build it? By open-sourcing the lab
to encourage access and inclusivity, I also run the risk
of enabling powerful governments and profit-driven companies
to appropriate the platform for fake news, marketing
or other forms of mass persuasion. For me, therefore,
it is critical to make my research as transparent to
lay audiences as GMO labels. However, this is not enough. As creative technologists, we have a responsibility not only to reflect upon how present
technology shapes our cultural values and social behavior, but also to actively challenge
the trajectory of future technology. It is my hope that we make
an ethical commitment to harvesting the body’s intelligence for the creation of authentic
and just stories that transform media and technology from harmful weapons
into narrative medicine. Thank you. (Applause and cheers)

100 thoughts on “How I’m using biological data to tell better stories — and spark social change | Heidi Boisvert

  • Kamy K. Roz Post author

    Oh, wow. Next step is to offer us all neurological implants so our brain and subconscious will be able to receive these "personalized", individual contents that adapts themselves according to our feelings through an artificial intelligence device. Conclusion: we'll be entertained to death, thinking we're watching real stuff. Virtual world is appealing, hu?

  • Akhil Deora Post author

    I am grateful to TED because your content helped me a lot I recently started a YouTube channel to help wantrepreneurs become entrepreneurs with some great content.

  • BlueStoneMusical Post author

    Brainwashing people to be idealogues should not be allowed no matter the popularity or moral standing of said ideology.

  • Josh Post author

    You are obviously not a furry. If you were, where's your fursuit. Loooooooooooooooooook, I'm just saying that not all people are like you. Some of us gain from experiences online. Most of you do not. Have a wonderful day and here is a hug *hug*, Signed bink

  • James Blankenship Post author

    These comments are so crazy 😲. Why does so many people look at the negative side of it. She is just trying to inform us of what is possible. I agree she seemed nervous. That's why wore that jumpsuit. So we wouldn't notice how hot she is 😂. I think a intelligent person is sexy.

  • SCDHL Post author

    "Something evil This Way Comes"

  • Geoff Thomson Post author

    Why does TED avoid talking about THIS? M.I.T. ?

  • WolfHeartWild Post author

    while she stresses her good intentions, based on past technologies its actual use will not meet its designers intent

  • SgtMantis Post author

    I bet she's fun at parties.

  • binyamin ibnemjas Post author

    Friends……You just keep look at her eyes . Her eye tell us something true while she telling fakes to us ,,, some kind of mistieriuos fear isn't it she can't talk anything blow up about technology that is she is doing,,,, that fear about her own life.

  • Jimmeh B Post author

    This is nothing new. It's the act of using these devices more than the content seen with them that is destroying society. Yet this fool thinks she can develop manipulative ai's to stop it. As if ai is an answer to anything human, or even remotely effective yet. Not to mention that her system will be exploited and used against the general population.

    We're doomed at this rate.

  • binyamin ibnemjas Post author

    There is her All technologies are true. but controlling of technology is in hand of devilish

  • Scribbli Chheery Post author

    The word biology is so offensive these days I'm surprised she hasn't received backlash yet

  • jandroid33 Post author

    It sounds so evil, putting people into boxes, prisons of their media dna. This should be used to empower people, and not be used by a few evil people to control the rest of society. My anger is burning!

  • ترفيه ومتعه Post author

  • Ronal Rocco Post author

    love her starwars outfit! Another sociologist throwing around scientific terms. Ugg!

  • lisa d Post author

    What moral authority does she have to decide what is “fair” and the right thing to do?
    This is leftist corporate religion.

  • Noor Nabi Post author


  • Noor Nabi Post author

    Very nice

  • Noor Nabi Post author

    Very nice

  • Noor Nabi Post author

    Very l I'll ke

  • sourab majhi Post author

    manupulation of mind is coming

  • Sohail Ahmed Khan Post author

    Beautiful Heidi

  • charop cute Post author

    I feel more harm than good will come out of this technology. 🙁

  • Gabriel Grünberg Post author

    I'm a tech nerd through and through, I love innovation and new ideas. But this has me screaming "STOP". Not for the "weapon" thing. But don't you think media has already created echo chambers where people mostly get told what they already thought was true. This is just creating automated echo chambers. Making sure people never see or hear anything outside of their comfort zone. To me this doesn't seem like innovation, it sounds like the death of it. It sounds like something that will only create bland experiences because it has to fit every possible narrative within it, killing authors/movie makers/game devs ability to create something personal from their mind to yours. Everyone doesnt have to love all media, and that's ok! That's what makes the world interesting. I'm not saying this is scary, I'm saying it's boring.

  • fearl3 Post author

    Sounds like bio technical propaganda to me..Dangerous
    Wouldn't politicans love to use this against citizens.

  • Aaron Hancock Post author

    The effectiveness of her idea relies on people not understanding what is being done to them. Using that information to change people without them understanding what you’re doing is about as close to mind rape as you can get. No thanks

  • Arandor Thinnorion Post author

    It sounds like a biologically optimized form of propaganda—a system developed to get you to think the way they want you to think. Terrifying.

  • in position Post author


  • Lisa Samuelson Post author

    Manipulation by machine…..

  • krwoods125 Post author

    I hate this. Some things should not be tampered with. It's dangerous 😡

  • golderp Post author

    “Biomedia” or the controlling and manipulation of our thought process through visual to brain stimulation has been going on for ages. It’s called Mass Media.

  • Positivity Central Post author

    You shouldn't make it.. I feel something bad could come from this..

  • Mikey Black Post author

    This technology is incredible we are only at the surface too. This lady is on another level, I’m just glad to see someone trying to make an active change in how we view media.

  • walperstyle Post author

    so she's an activist… sigh. Yay, another one.

  • walperstyle Post author


  • Tim Frolov Post author

    Ok so i have to comment a few things here. First, i'd like the sauce for her study ghat found that ''phones and games make people apatic'' cause im not buying it. Secondly i like the idea of specific communication patterns that leave a specific footprint in an individual's mind but i don't understand how would be built the custom content and where is she going to take my biometric data. If she expects me to just give it to her im affraid it's gonna be a bit harder than that

  • Tim Frolov Post author

    Ok so i have to comment a few things here. First, i'd like the sauce for her study ghat found that ''phones and games make people apatic'' cause im not buying it. Secondly i like the idea of specific communication patterns that leave a specific footprint in an individual's mind but i don't understand how would be built the custom content and where is she going to take my biometric data. If she expects me to just give it to her im affraid it's gonna be a bit harder than that

  • Tim Frolov Post author

    Ok so i have to comment a few things here. First, i'd like the sauce for her study ghat found that ''phones and games make people apatic'' cause im not buying it. Secondly i like the idea of specific communication patterns that leave a specific footprint in an individual's mind but i don't understand how would be built the custom content and where is she going to take my biometric data. If she expects me to just give it to her im affraid it's gonna be a bit harder than that

  • Anton N. Post author

    So, there really is a point in making sure that no data about me is collected, in order to avoid being fed that "narrative medicine" then.

  • L. Wayne Mathison Post author

    Biological brainwashing. Not cool.

  • Truthful Chap Post author

    "Power is tearing human minds apart and putting them back together in shapes of your own choosing" O'Brien in Orwell's '1984'.

  • Chillaui 37 Post author

    trying to build a better echochamber with incentive of brain washing…

  • Shamut on EV’s Post author

    Scary! I hope she never gets any money to go on with her horrific plan

  • Mysteroo Post author

    This ted talk is pretty… off-putting.
    I mean, I get that not everyone is a natural at public speaking. So I can shrug off the low-key robotic mannerisms. But the way everyone just suddenly and simultaneously cheer at "media genome" just makes it so much worse. At that point I was still wondering where she was even going with this, meanwhile the audience is already raving??

    Not to mention that the subject is just… weird. Is it wrong of me to ask – who is this person? She introduces herself as someone who's made various pieces of media to make a positive influence… but she doesn't explain how anything she's made accomplishes that. Is she a part of an organization that does produces these things – or does she do this herself? Why spread herself out so thin between so many different topics and media?

    What exactly is the purpose of this "genome" she's describing? Does she hope to utilize it to feed each individual person media that will positively impact their sense of benevolence? How CAN this be utilized WITHOUT giving it to corporate monsters who want to weaponize it?

    It's just all extremely vauge and ominous.

  • lucca bonapaz Post author

    Brainwashing is true, SJ community want to brainwash the population

  • Abhay Bhatt Post author

    What outfit is that?! Does she think she is an astronaut based on Earth?

  • Sandra Nosocialism Post author

    Learn how to gesture please. Sorry about being so blunt.

  • Sandra Nosocialism Post author

    Let me tell you lady that the State Dept has been doing this for years. Good for you though to try to take credit for it. You can not brainwash everyone. What you are trying to do is control ppl by brainwashing them. It's as simple as that. It's disgusting. It's dangerous. You are just a wannabe Hitler.

  • Benjamin Cho Post author

    This is an interesting topic but it's already going on now, let me elaborate.

    At the age of 3 and onwards I was exposed to seemingly harmless TV programs such as the Power Rangers, movies like 007 and video games like Counter-Strike or Day of Defeat.

    Jump some 25 years later, I still remember the Power Rangers seasons and episodes for the first 6 or 7 seasons, realizing James Bond is kind of a psychopath and sociopath, and about 19 years of war games like Counter-Strike has most definitely wired my brain for action.

    The really crazy part?
    I actually sort of wish there was a draft so I could go do some heroic Saving Private Ryan type of deal.

    If all of this is some sort of subliminal propaganda then it's working Uncle Sam.

    The conspiracy theorist in me thinks all this Superhero craze from the past couple decades is propaganda as well. 😄😂🤣✌

  • BlueYakes Post author

    I smell something "weird"

  • Jacob Opstad Post author

    This is fascinating!

  • Charles Aol Post author

    Before any content creators/distributors use this technology for any sort of good, advertisers will have long misused it to get people to buy, and that's assuming political special interest groups don't hear about it first. In our present environment the potential for this technology to be used for any kind of good before it's used to exploit people is virtually zero, and I have a sneaking feeling she's aware of this but is either naive or more focused on its financial potential. We can't hide behind good intentions anymore.

  • Jon Sweemer Post author

    Brainwashing anybody?

  • Finding A Better Way Post author

    Its all about DATA

  • Bella Andrade Post author

    Thank you for showing your face.

  • Benimation Post author

    I feel a black mirror episode coming up..

  • Danyel Henrique Post author

    wtf she dropped a major game of thrones spoiler from nowhere

  • Odinintheflames 2017 Post author

    She needs to be locked up!

  • mostawesomedudeever1 Post author

    Terrifying. This is what happens when you women into science. The feminist agenda.

  • cmonster6 Post author

    So she’s one of the people that are taking our data and using it to manipulate us every day.

  • Jesus Vieira Post author

    This is scary

  • Stephanie Cox Post author

    How do these people not see what they are doing is completely jacked up?!

  • Mat O. Post author

    This was great and all, but were was my guy Ted?

  • Atomicus Aquinas Post author

    She's literally on the cusp of brain washing and propaganda, and thinks this is a good idea? I now know why I dislike marketing so much… Taken to an extreme it looks like abuse or spoon feeding.

  • Alinur Nure Post author

    The world is corruptno matter where you are. And I really dont think that inventing media personalised for every individual would be a smart thing to do, cause I said in the beginning the world is a corrupt place where there is a lot manipulation taking place, even here on youtube. So u better watch your back…jk, but like fr🤭

  • Idaho Potato Post author

    Wow Gattaca brought to life
    And not for nothing
    Never trust someone who wears a NASA-like spacesuit

  • bob vella Post author

    isn't the damage done? she shared her recipe

  • B Welkinator Post author

    Let's see … she starts by saying that her life has been about brainwashing the public with agi-prop which she THEN learns has been damaging her audience (US!) – OK, let's continue listening and see if she's apologetic and remorseful… NOOOooooo she's been building a better machine to mind-f**k us!! No No No No STOPPPPPPPP!!! I can't listen anymore.Ya'll finish it for me.

  • Steven Britt Post author

    The ultimate manipulation tool.

  • Kelvin Lim Post author

    By making her biometricmedia more transparent, her platform will become more subceptible to manipulation, deceit and human hypocrisy. Humans will just become sophisticated and deceitful when they approached technology.

  • Dante Panther Post author

    I appreciate what she is trying to do, but this will be used in some terrible ways down the line. There isn't a way for it not to be with the data gathered

  • David Simmons Post author

    F r e a k

  • John McCormick Post author

    Progressivists hold that human society is a mechanism in need of their expert management. Please see "religious roots of progressivism" to see why they believe they have the authority to do this. They introduced eugenics, "race science" and prohibition, and also supported the knot-see program before it became obvious what the knot-sees were really up to, but even before that, the "progressive" label got a bad name after they got the US involved in WWI, so it was deliberately changed to "liberal". This ensured a confusing and false association with classical liberalism. Whether "liberal" or "progressive" or "leftist" , these people truly believe in their moral superiority over the rest of us and they will not rest until all humans have all been domesticated under their program. Good luck.

  • sinister blade Post author

    I'll be shocked if she is also an AI

  • Bob Frog Post author

    Well, Deary, consider me your sworn enemy.

  • J Attitude Post author

    A more obvious example of this is the melodic pattern of notes that becomes significant in terms of its expected resolution.

    The beauty of a fugue simply cannot be accounted for without consideration of the listener`s expectation and even surprise.

    (Surprise, of course, is meaningless without first having an expectation of something other than what occurs.)

    When one claims that a "particular note" in a piece is one`s favorite moment in the music, it is obvious that one is

    not referring to the simple sound of that one note, but rather to the fact that the note occurs in a pattern of other notes;

    and that, indeed, the very expectation of the composer`s resolution is what thrills the mind.

    It is the choice the composer makes among many possible choices that is significant and has meaning.

    -Michael Gelven

  • J Attitude Post author

    Is Life quality important?
    Can a machine fix problems created by people for people?

  • TheEnd GameFL Post author

    What 109 thumbs down should tell me here???

  • Krunoslav Stifter Post author

    Biological data and social change. I mean what could possible go wrong? Social engineering by radical leftist. As if that went well. Jeez. How many times does history need to record terrible cost of trying this before lessons are learned? How many?

  • Bruce Davis Post author

    Heidi Boisvert let me know if there is anything i can do to help you. You have my permission to use your technology to aid me in becoming more humanitarian. I know you developed this with the right intent, i trust you.

  • Brian Brau Post author

    "Too change your mine…."

  • ONE Post author

    Hey she deserves no applause. Nothing she does helps the human raise progress evolutionarily, but keeps us trapped in a media matrix letting our brains rot away slowly. All her efforts only go into facilitating the rise of AI, and that's the only thing that should be applauding this speech sincerely

  • Brian Brau Post author

    In Summary, she is talking about creating a brainwashing machine to turn people into sjw's

  • rollercam351 Post author

    This is the female Dr Evil

  • Super Crunchy Post author

    Using technology to manipulate people. Disgusting idea.

  • PBB Cell Post author

    Watching her I feel that she's A.I., a very beautiful robot that I'd like to date.😁

  • Kanwardeep Singh Post author

    Company kadmon ka asar
    Sirf das hazar karor ke mai
    Sirf plan des so

  • Daniel Lee Post author

    Nope, nope, and nope. All this will do is reinforce existing biases, instead of presenting a healthy diversity of perspectives. It will destroy empathy between people with different viewpoints and strengthen adherence to dogma. I don't like the idea at all.

  • nagualdesign Post author

    Why did they all applaud when she said, "In short, I'm mapping the first media genome"? It isn't like we've all been waiting and hoping for it, and "media genome" isn't really a thing. I wonder if she tried different phrases out on people using this insidious contraption in order to work out what people who watch TED talks like to applaud.

  • Hakuna Matata Post author

    I just don't get the point. How that machine-made "Biomedia" which measure and manipulate human feelings, reverse the dehumanization of social and emotional incompetence.

  • Hibashira Sakai Post author

    Great! She’s making sure the Internet bubble of one occurs!

  • Fredeline Pierre Post author

    As she is talking she looks like she is forced to do this like she created this thing but saw the disaster and powers at be made her continue like idk I can sorta hear a cry from help in her voice

  • That one dude Post author

    "The road to…"

  • dexm2010 Post author

    Their TV shows and assorted media are purpose-created GARBAGE made to distract and tool you around, if this talk doesn't convince you nothing will. Literally or figuratively, THROW THEIR WORTHLESS TRASH AWAY AND OUT OF YOUR LIFE

  • I. K. Post author

    …and the audience clapped.

  • Mole Post author

    OK. She talks like a robot and she moves like a robot… and she LOOKS like a robot. BTW. She is technically proposing to BRAINWASH people.

  • Da Hooded Crow Post author

    NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE. This is all bad, she's talking about mass-manipulation. Once this door opens we cannot close it.

  • gammoregan Post author

    woo! AI to help with social control and mass manipulation by digital means! This is certainly something.

  • RunDeckardRun Post author

    Has she just stepped out of a flying saucer from a 1950s sci-fi movie?

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