You’ll need to clone yourself sooner than you think.

Welcome to the era of ubiquitous computing where every person, brand, and connected device is at war for your attention

Esther Crawford
Published in
12 min readMay 10, 2017


(Without help, your happiness is doomed! Read on…)

by Esther, CEO of Molly— sign up to our beta if this subject interests you

From the moment we’re born we are driven to communicate. It’s how we declare to the world that we’re alive. 👶 😭

It’s not enough for us to communicate with our own kind. Starting as kids we anthropomorphize everything in our environment — imagining our toys, plants, and animals can speak to us too.

Maybe that’s because for most of human history things were pretty quiet. But these days we can’t get the world to shut up. 🙉

Communication is now a compulsion, thanks in large part to tech companies who use design hacks that psychologically push us to share our every thought and whim.

It’s no wonder we’re struggling to sift through all the noise to find meaning, truth, acceptance, and connection.

Judging by the rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction the only conclusion one can reasonably make is, “No”.

We’ve spent the last ten years hooking ourselves up to the Matrix, but only now can we start to rethink how the network should serve each of us.

Perhaps this is unintuitive but I wholeheartedly believe emerging technology will be essential for helping us regain and maintain our humanity.

My Bitmoji

I’ve spent my entire life chasing the future of me — obsessively pursuing ways to authentically augment myself in an attempt to better connect with others. And ultimately, myself.

It’s why I’ve been super early to a bunch of social technologies from blogging to live video. They were simply new conduits for building meaningful relationships with people.

You don’t need to be a therapist to understand why. It’s obvious really, if you know my story. This passion is the result of a difficult childhood where I experienced parental loss and often felt disconnected from my family.

Those core questions around belonging and identity birthed an insatiable desire to alleviate that pain in myself and others.

As a result, my career has been focused on understanding and creating new ways to connect and express myself.

We’re not near the singularity yet, but we are becoming ever more reliant upon our machines to mediate and maintain our relationships.

In the modern world our relationships matter just as much as ever (maybe more) and yet we are plagued by chronic depression and loneliness. In fact, isolation accelerates death faster than either a lack of exercise or a poor diet:

A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Increasingly, however, research confirms our deepest intuition: Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being. — Dr. Dhruv Khullar

Science fiction has long depicted various ways to artificially clone yourself — through virtual avatars and of course humanoid robots.

Entertainment companies have resurrected popular artists like Tupac and Michael Jackson using holographics.

There’s even a Black Mirror episode about a woman who spends hours on the phone with the AI bot version of her dead boyfriend.

The central focus in popular culture is often around trying to escape death. This quest for eternal life through cryogenics (yes, it’s become a thing in Silicon Valley) or hypothetical brain-computer mergers is fascinating but a very long ways off. Even with Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk on the job.

I sometimes worry all the life-extension talk misses the more practical reasons for creating autonomous extensions of ourselves.

Agents that know enough about you can help you live a better life — now and in the near future. Think of these autonomous personas as assistants who give you cognitive superpowers. These agents can:

  • respond to routine questions on your behalf — thus freeing up time and mental energy to do more meaningful things
  • surface commonalities and shared interests with people — thus facilitating deeper connections and more intriguing conversations with the people we interact with

We don’t need decades of additional research to get started. In fact, some of these automated agents, like Amy and Clara, are already out in the wild helping people perform narrow tasks like scheduling meetings.

Social connection is necessary for our survival

Despite the American obsession with personal independence and freedom (evidenced by western cowboy tropes like The Lone Ranger), we are a deeply interdependent species and have always been.

Humans are literally hard-wired to connect, so much so that when we feel disconnected it physically hurts.

Thanks to fMRI scans we know that when an important relationship ends due to a breakup or death, our brain processes the emotional pain remarkably similarly to physical injuries. This is why languages all across the world have phrases like “she broke my heart”. The pain of disconnection is real pain.

From an evolutionary perspective this makes perfect sense. Humans can’t survive alone so social belonging is woven into the fabric of our DNA.

UCLA professor Matthew Lieberman is one of the founders of social cognitive neuroscience, a discipline that analyzes how brain function underlies social thinking and social behavior. He says:

Mammals are more socially connected than reptiles, primates more than other mammals, and humans more than other primates.

What this suggests is that becoming more socially connected is essential to our survival. In a sense, evolution has made bets at each step that the best way to make us more successful is to make us more social.

When you look at the past 10 years of technology growth it’s clear that social products were the big winners. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WeChat are deeply embedded in the daily lives of billions of people.

Thanks to a glorious 50-year run of Moore’s Law we’ve been able to create an incredibly fast and powerful Internet layered with social functionality that’s accessible via pocket-sized devices.

This has led to entirely new modes of communicating who we are and how we relate to each other.

We have #hashtags (thanks Chris Messina). Memes. GIFs. Emoji. And even live-rendering lenses and masks.

All of these have one thing in common: they help us share how we’re really feeling. They help us elicit empathy from the person we’re sharing with and ultimately feel less alone.

A single emoji can often better convey a complex emotion than an entire paragraph could. 😊

Through a single-looped scene GIFs help us relate to each other.

Created by Brooklyn-based illustrator Libby Vanderploeg titled “Lift Each Other Up” in honor of International Women’s Day

Overlays and stickers provide important contextualization by adding in information that enhances our understanding of what’s happening in the photo or video.

Live filters and lenses are seriously fun. They’re a way of playing — which is critical in bonding with someone.

After all, it’s hard not to smile or laugh when someone is breathing fire or wearing a panda face. 😜

It’s getting hella noisy

Increasingly people expect real-time, on-demand responses (the Uberization of personal communications—oy vey!). Peak connection is giving rise to notification and communication overload. How can we possibly expect to keep up with every person, brand and device that’s trying to talk to us?

We know that our attention doesn’t scale. It’s finite. And yet our connections continue to exponentially increase — in part because our personal relationships extend to new computing devices in our home, work, and car.

But if we can’t scale our attention, how will we adapt ourselves to this new always-on, immersive environment?

My belief is we’ll scale our ability to communicate by applying more technology.

As an older Millennial I remember what it was like to live in an analog world. I came of age just as the internet was really taking off, which meant I spent a significant portion of my teen years on instant messengers and in chatrooms. In fact, my first romance was with an internet boyfriend. 😂

Back then I could carry on 13 simultaneous conversations but here’s the big difference: when I walked away from my desktop computer I was back in the “real” world—because smartphones didn’t exist!

Of course I love being able to have on-demand access to the entirety of human knowledge, to have GPS guide my every step, to get instant feedback and recommendations, and to share real-time moments with people I care about — no matter where they are in the world.

Now with voice-enabled devices like Amazon’s Echo I can literally command my surroundings to adapt to my whims by having Alexa adjust the temperature and lights throughout my home. That’s genius, right?

Changing the wifi lights in my living room by talking to Alexa

But the downside is that for this to work, you must always be connected. And when we’re always connected, it’s increasingly challenging to take time off from our notifications, feeds, or messaging apps.

The seduction of modern technology is complete.

In the past when we talked about companies who sold addictive products we were talking about cigarettes, alcohol, and fast food.

But now it’s tech companies.

Researchers have helped the best product designers in the world create habit-forming technologies whose sole purpose is to get you to scroll longer while clicking more buttons.

“They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.” — Tristan Harris

All those hearts show social validation, which feels especially important to still-maturing prefrontal cortexes that are super sensitive and responsive to influence by friends, desires, and emotions.

That’s why Snapchat’s younger users will go to incredible lengths to keep 🔥snapstreaks with best friends or crushes — even giving up their passwords so someone else can send a message for them if they’ll be offline for more than a day. (To keep a streak you’ve got to send a Snap back and forth between a friend within a 24-hour window. Every. Single. Day.)

Losing a long snapstreak can feel devastating

Our drive to connect is being exploited by designers, engineers, and advertisers whose sole aim is to mine your attention by subtly increasing your “engagement” over time.

The average person already checks email 74 times a day and switches tasks on their computer 566 times a day.

(And that’s without mixed reality glasses that overlay interactive pop ups.)

The near future as imagined at F8 in April 2017 – AR glasses overlaying contextual information

Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are not wired to keep up with this level of communication. “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel that’s needed to stay on task.

The kind of rapid, continual shifting we do causes the brain to quickly burn through its fuel. This leads people feeling exhausted, anxious and disoriented.

We are at the apex of human-only powered connection.

Enhancing yourself with artificial intelligence

I’m one of those weird outliers who enjoys pushing the limits and exploring new paths. I love designing and experimenting with the social genome, which creates the footprint of our society.

I think of early adopters as mutations in the social genome who are A/B testing variable future realities.

Many of these potential futures won’t work because they’ll turn out to be terrible ideas (RIP Segway) or they aren’t sexy enough yet to go mainstream (RIP Google Glass).

What’s clear is this: how we share about ourselves and how we keep up with the people we care about will continually change.

We’re a species that loves modifying and creating. We’ve engineered countless new varieties of animals and plants… and now we’re in the early phases of engineering new “artificial” entities.

Some of my favorite examples of these new entities are in the emerging “AI friend” space. Apps like Hugging Face and Replika are creating next-gen tamagotchis, virtual friends who can chitchat and help people unwind, open up, or simply help kill time when bored.

In China and Japan, Microsoft’s Xiaoice (pronounced shao-ice) chats with millions of people a day. She records details from conversations with each user and recalls them later, giving users the sense that she cares.

In the United States, there’s Lil Miquela — an avatar whose popularity on Instagram demonstrates that virtual characters need not cross the uncanny valley or pass the Turing test for people to enjoy interacting with them.

Our near future reality will feature a dizzying and overwhelming number of connections to the people, places, and things we encounter over a lifetime — both biological and artificial.

No one human will be able to do it alone.

You’ll need an autonomous persona that can represent you — it’ll know your preferences, interests, behaviors and yes, your social graph. Computing power will finally work for you and not just the advertisers who are trying to reach you.

There’s a lot of information being captured about you passively through your device(s), plus there’s all the stuff you share across the different services you use, which gives a snapshot of your tastes and interests.

Add in a conversational layer where an AI-powered character gets to know you and the result is a digital model of you.

That model can be used as a kind of brain-in-the-cloud that can do interesting things for you — from surfacing commonalities with people you meet to responding automatically to others on your behalf.

Over time your AI clone will become more proactive, context-aware, and even able to express some of your personality.

And since you’re constantly changing and growing — it will too.

Perhaps in 2037 you’ll want to chat with the 2017 version of you to see what you were doing or how you felt at the time. With a personal AI, you could.

This is coming just in time to save our sanity because our hard-coded desire to communicate is being used against us.

We need an AI-powered clone to help us sift through the noise and find what’s genuinely useful and meaningful to give our limited attention to.

Without this smart, personalized assistant we’ll be overrun in the analog and virtual worlds.

Although technology created the problem it’ll ultimately be more technology that helps us maintain what makes us human: our ability to meaningfully communicate and connect to one another.

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Esther Crawford

Product at Twitter. Life story: “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Optimist. Technologist. Wearer of many hats.