Alpha Wolves: It’s a Myth!

By Shlomo Maital

     In the latest edition of the Science Friday podcast, guest host Maddie Sofia spoke with Dr. Dave Mech, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey and author of the 1970 bookThe Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.     His book contained passages about the alpha wolf:  the ‘top dog’ that claws its way to the top of the pack and leads it.  Ultimately this became a symbol for human power and dominance.

     Over 25 years ago, the myth of the alpha wolf was debunked.  It is simply not true.  Wolf packs are formed when a male wolf mates with a female, and they have pups.  The male and female are the ‘alphas’, by genetics not by ‘tooth and claw’, and their offspring are privileged, when other wolves without the elite genes join the pack.  (Sound a bit like business dynasties?).  Hyena packs and spotted dogs in Africa work that way too.

     Yet the alpha wolf notion survives and thrives.  Why?  It’s a kind of anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics to, for example animals.  Humans may behave that way, and hence choose to attribute it to wolves as well. 

      Maybe humans should aspire to resemble wolves.  Building a strong, loving family  is a whole lot different from the false theory of tooth-and-claw competition to lead.    Dr. Mech continues his study of wolves (specifically, the fascinating reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, which has done amazing positive things to the ecology) and of course recognizes the debunking of alpha wolves.

Fear of Missing Out: No mo’ Fomo!

By Shlomo Maital

      There are many negatives associated with aging; I’ve met a few, as an 80-year-old.  But one of the positives is freedom from fomo – fear of missing out.  I’ve been amply blessed with a full and satisfying life, full of what the Hebrew Bible calls chesed,  grace.  And I have an antidote to fomo —  an old, obscure article I published, in 1986, which refutes an economic axiom that more choice is better than less.* 

     Choices can confuse, cause stress – and cause fomo.   Less choice can be far better than more.  I call as witness a supermarket shelf, 20 feet long, with infinite varieties of breakfast cereal.  When all you want is Corn Flakes.  The manufacturers expand choice to grab more shelf space (and more sales), even though they know it does not make us happier or healthier.

    Writing in The Economist, Sept. 26,  British psychoanalyst Josh Cohen notes that one of the few benefits of the COVID pandemic was that it suspended our fear of missing out.  When everything is closed, shuttered, locked down – including us – there is nothing to miss.  So, he asks, did this experience also teach us how to handle fomo better?

    No.  Fomo has us firmly in its grip, apparently.

    Cohen writes:  “My heart tends to sink when fomo, or fear of missing out, comes up in my consulting room. Sufferers beset by fomo believe that out of all possible options available, one alone is right for them. Once they are trapped in this mindset, other people – friends, colleagues and the endless proliferation of digital acquaintances on social media – are liable to become avatars of the life they should or could have had.”   

     I believe this is a source of much angst and stress among teenagers.  On social media, they see their peers, who are smarter, thinner, more athletic, better dancers, better singers, more popular – and become depressed.  I’ve written about this in my Jerusalem Report column, “Teens in Trouble”.

     Cohen continues:  “In its most debilitating form, fomo is the expression of roiling discontent with yourself, a conviction that if my life was really that good, it wouldn’t be mine. It is the compulsion to locate value beyond one’s own experience. Seen through this filter, other lives are engines of perpetual momentum. Ours are stuck crawling in traffic.”

     Today, we can access an endless variety of other lives and other people,  and comparing them to our own is natural and human. 

     I believe that free-market capitalism is partly at fault.  So does Cohen.  Business interests endlessly seek to make us discontented with what we have now, so we will buy new stuff, more stuff.   They sell the axiom, that happiness is having more, rather than being content with what we have:

     Cohen: “There can be no doubt that advertising and social media have greatly exacerbated the human tendency to denigrate opportunities we have in favour of those we don’t. The itch of consumer desire is forever inflamed by the same forces that offer us so many different ways to scratch it.”

     What is the solution – apart from old age, which alas can also harbor deep-rooted feelings of wrong turns (for example, I deeply regret becoming an economist, rather than a medical doctor)?  

     I have no idea.  First step is awareness.  Don’t let the marketing gurus foment fomo in you.  Some of that new stuff is much worse than the old.  Trust me.  And retell your own story, not as missed chances but as doing the best you could, given what you knew and what you had. 

* S. Maital.  “Prometheus Rebound: On welfare-improving constraints”, Eastern Economic Journal, XII (3), July 1986, 337-344.    

Phantom of the Opera:  Farewell!

By Shlomo Maital  

     Phantom of the Opera, the long-running Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber, will close on Sunday (April 16).  It opened 35 years ago, in 1988, in New York’s West End theater The Majestic, and is the 2nd longest running West end musical, after Les Miserables.   Worldwide, it made $6 billion in revenues, and grossed $1 billion on Broadway alone.

    As a kid in Regina, Saskatchewan, I recall seeing the 1943 movie Phantom of the Opera, first to be filmed (by Universal) in Technicolor.  It reused the old Opera Garnier interior set created for the 1925 film.  It was scary – and wonderful. And memorable. 

     How was it born?  Composer Andrew Lloyd Weber wandered into an used-book bookstore, came across the old 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux, and saw possibilities in the story of Christsine Daaé, the beautiful soprano who becomes the obsession of the masked genius living in the subterranean labyrinth beneath the Paris Opéra.

   The Phantom of the Opera musical took 125 people (cast and crew) to stage it.  And famously, it had its chandelier, which shot from the stage to the center of the theatre and came crashing down at the climax of Act I. (The crash was not preserved, as the years went by).

     Some of the numbers:  It was the most profitable entertainment event, until The Lion King surpassed it in 2014.  It has been seen by over 140 million people in 183 cities across 41 countries.

     What is its appeal?  Simply – a great, engrossing, unique, original story.  With wonderful music.

     Bye, Phantom!  You made a lot of people happy – and probably rescued Broadway, in the doldrums in the 1980’s as New York suffered from filth and crime.  There are 41 theaters now and largely, doing well. 

Why Experts (and We) Fear AI

By Shlomo Maital   

  Recently, Elon Musk and Steve Wosniak (co-founder of Apple) were among co-signers of a letter warning of the dangers of AI, and calling for suspending all work on it for six months.

  Among the co-signers was Dr. Stewart Russell, among the world’s top experts on AI.  He is professor of computer science at Berkeley,  director of the Coley Center for Ethics Science and the Public there, and  author of the book, Human Compatible Artificial Intelligence and The Problem of Control.

    He was interviewed on the latest edition of Science Friday by Ira Flatow.  Here is a summary.  (Caution:  This blog is much longer than usual, 984 words).

     The real danger of AI?   What happens if we develop a super-intelligent AI, that is so much smarter than we are, it can simply negate any of our efforts to control or restrain it.  Science fiction has dealt with this in great detail.  Here is Prof. Russell’s views:

       “In my view, the AI systems that are currently being developed and the ones that have been released recently based on a technology called large language models, represent a type of technology that is intrinsically very difficult to understand and very difficult to guarantee that it will behave in a safe way. So in a very immediate sense, it presents risks, not the sort of apocalyptic risks of taking over the world and extinguishing the human race, but real risks. For example, last week in Belgium, a man was reported to have committed suicide directly as a result of his relationship with one of these chatbots, which was actually advising him and as it were, holding his hand, uh, while he was in the process of committing suicide. The reason why these systems are, are very hard to provide any guarantees for is that they are enormous black boxes.”

    “A large language model is something that very simply predicts the next word given the sequence of proceeding words in a text or in a conversation.   and  you can use that for an interactive conversation. If you put in a question, then it will start generating words that look like an answer. And how do you make them? You start with the blank slate of about a trillion parameters in an, in an enormous, what’s called neural network. You do about a billion trillion random modifications of those parameters to try to get that network to become very good at predicting the next word from a training set that is maybe 20 trillion words, which is roughly comparable to all the books that the human race has ever written in the history of civilization. So that system, when you interact with it, displays remarkable abilities. And I don’t wanna disparage it in the sense that it can provide lots of benefits for users, for companies, but it’s a black box.

     “We do not understand anything about how it works. And the only way we have to get it to behave itself, for example, not to advise people on how to commit suicide, is to essentially say bad dog or good dog. And that’s the process that open AI, the creators of G P T 4  went through to try to get it to behave itself. Um, they just hired a lot of people who would engage in lots of conversations, and every time it did something they don’t like, they would say bad dog. And if it produce a good answer, they would say, good dog. And then hopefully the system would adapt its parameters to produce bad behavior less often. And they proudly announced that in terms of these forbidden things like advising people to commit suicide, telling people how to make chemical weapons, uh, giving unlicensed medical advice, that it was 29% better than the previous iteration of their system.

  “But 29% better is still a very long way from perfect because they have actually no control over it. So we are simply asking that before you get to deploy a system that’s going to affect the lives of millions or even billions of you take sensible precautions to make sure that it doesn’t present undue risks and that it remains within predictable guidelines and so on. So that’s the real reason behind this request for a moratorium, I think there are longer term issues at stake here, not from the present systems, but from future generations of AI systems that may be much more powerful still. And they present correspondingly much greater risks.

   “Theoretically we don’t know when that type of system, which we call sometimes artificial super intelligence, we don’t know when that’s going to arrive. But if it does arrive within our current approach to how we build AI systems, in particular these black boxes, we would have no way of ensuring that it’s safe in the sense that its behavior is actually aligned with what the humans want the future to be like. And then you’re basically setting up a chess match between us and a system that’s actually much more intelligent than us and has already thought of every possible countermeasure we could try,  and so that’s in a real sense, the loss of human control over the future. So that’s the risk that Stephen Hawking is talking about.

” I want to emphasize the current systems do not present that risk as far as we know, to the extent that we understand them at all, which is not very much. We think they have some fundamental limitations on their ability to plan their future activities. But at the rate of progress we’re seeing in AI, we need actually to develop methods to ensure that when we build systems that are more powerful than us, we somehow retain power over them forever. If that sounds like a  difficult problem, it’s because it IS a difficult problem.”

Learning Innovation from Camels & Goats

By Shlomo Maital    

    In many years of studying innovation, I’ve come to know and talk with many creative people.  A common trait of all is that they are, well, (I hesitate to say this)…. weirdos.  They think differently.   They are somewhat introverted.  And they find unusual solutions to hard problems. 

   Now comes some confirmation from a truly weird source:  Hoofed animals.  Scientists studied how a dozen different species of hoofed animals solve a problem – getting a beloved food out of a cup with a lid.

      Writing in the New York Times, Veronique Greenwood reports:

   “In a study published on Wednesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Mr. Caicoya and his colleagues reported that around 38 percent of the animals avoided the cups entirely. Of those who approached a cup, 40 individuals managed to take the lids off to reach the food. Eighty-six percent of the dromedaries and 69 percent of the goats managed to get the goods.”

     “What was linked to success, as well as to willingness, was an individual animal’s social position. Close observation of the animals allowed the researchers to construct hierarchies of their social groups. They found that animals that were outcasts or low in the pecking order had less fear of new objects, more willingness to explore them and a greater chance of getting the prize.”

     Goats and camels live in harsh environments.  So evolution has made them stubborn problem-solvers.  But within their herds, there is social position. And it is the outsiders who seem to be most innovative.

     Believe it or not, there is a real lesson here for businesses.  Weirdos, outsiders, introverts, socially awkward – they are often sidelined, fired or ignored.  They don’t fit the corporate mould.  This is in part why small startups thrive, then slumber and lose their creativity when they scale up and become ‘domesticated’.  I always advise large companies trying to be more innovative, to find the weirdos/creative types and cultivate them. 

    The goats and camels who got the lids off?  They had little to lose, because they were already outcasts.  So, why not go for it?  In organizations?  Big shots have much to lose, if they propose wild ideas and are greeted with laughter and scorn.   They don’t want to become the ‘goat’.  

   They apparently do not know – GOAT stands for greatest of all time.  Emulate the goat, people, and you can become a GOAT.

The Future of Healing: Growing Spare Parts

By Shlomo Maital

Nabiha Saklayen  

   Nabiha Saklayen is CEO & co-founder of Cellino, which makes personalized stem cell-derived therapies.    She received her Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard University as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) International Fellow.  

    In her TED talk, featured on NPR’s TED podcast with Manoush Zomorodi, she explains how her startup (and others) may one day enable growth of spare parts for failed body organs, using “induced pluripotential stem cells”.

For example:  Take a person suffering from Parkinson’s.  Take a sample of their blood, transform their blood cells into stem cells, from there into neurons, and transplant the neuron (brain cells) to replace the offending brain cells that cause Parkinson’s!  

       Here is Nabiha’s explanation of the future of healing.

     “My grandma passed away due to diabetes. If the technology were available at the time,  we could have used her stem cells to generate new pancreatic cells (which produce insulin), and it could have cured her. Now, unfortunately, stem cells are notoriously difficult to engineer. One fundamental problem relates to how they’re made, which involves taking a patient’s blood cells, adding chemicals to those blood cells to turn them into stem cells.    Now, during this chemical process, you never end up with a perfect set of stem cells. In fact, you get a very messy plate of cells going in different directions — towards the eye, brain, liver — and every random cell must be removed.

          “Until recently, the main way to remove cells was by hand. I remember the first time I visited the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.   I watched a highly skilled scientist sitting at a bench looking at stem cells, evaluating them one at a time and removing the unwanted cells by hand. It’s a slow, tedious and artisanal process,  which is why generating a personalized stem cell bank today costs about one million dollars.

           “Now, using a donor’s stem cells is much cheaper.  I started using lasers to engineer human cells, and when I talked to biologists about it, they were amazed.   Here’s why.  Scientists are always looking for ways to make biology more precise. Sometimes cell culture can feel a lot like cooking,  take some chemicals, put it in a pot, stir it, heat it, see what happens,try it all over again.

           In contrast, lasers are so precise,  you can target one cell in millions at precise intervals —    every second, every minute, every hour — you name it. I realized that instead of doing this tedious process of stem cell culture by hand,  we could use lasers to remove the unwanted cells. And to automate the entire process,  we decided to use machine learning to identify those unwanted cells and zap them. Algorithms today are great at finding useful information and images, making this a perfect use case for machine learning.

      “Here’s how it works.  Take some blood cells, put it in a cassette.

Add chemicals to those blood cells to turn them into stem cells like always. Now, instead of having a human look for those unwanted cells and remove them by hand,  the machine identifies the unwanted cells and zaps them with a laser. As you can see, this entire process happens by machine.  The computer decides when and how often to print the cells and uses a fully automated system to run the process.   After repeated pruning,  you end up with a perfect culture of your stem cells, ready to be banked and used at any time.   In the future, we’re going to have stem cell farms with stacks and stacks of hundreds and then eventually millions of cassettes, each cassette a personalized bank for one human.

   Nurses will take a sample of your (umbilical) cord blood right at birth and ship it off for cultivation,    so that for the rest of your life, your stem cells are on file, banked,  ready to go, should any medical need arise.”

   This is not science fiction.  It will happen and perhaps sooner than we might imagine.  Nabiha, born in Saudi Arabia, has brought amazing creativity to the US, linking the physics of lasers with the biology of stem cells.  Kudos to brilliant immigrants!


Plants That Talk

By Shlomo Maital   

    You could not make this up.

     When people are hurting,  they complain.  Whine, cry, grumble.

     Well – so do plants.  Honest!

     Prof. Lilach Hadany, Tel Aviv University, tried a moonshot experiment.  She set up ultrasonic microphones next to plants, in sound-dampening acoustic boxes tucked away in a basement away from outside noise.  Inside the boxes, “thirsty tomato plants emitted about 35 clicks per hour.   But plants not water-stressed kept mostly quiet.   …Stressed tomato plants make distinctive clicking noises that can be picked up by the microphones…scientists condensed the sounds and brought them into the range of human hearing.” 

     A machine learning algorithm was able to tell the difference between tomato clicks and tobacco plant clicks…and between thirsty plants and well-hydrated ones.

      What causes the sounds?  Plants do not have vocal chords.   Why are they making the sounds? 

      Scientists don’t know. 

      But for me —   I intend in future to talk to our plants a lot more.  If plants can talk, maybe they can listen. 

        Only – what in the world does one say to an orchid?   You’re incredibly beautiful?  They know that.  How are you today?   When do you plan to bloom?  That might stress them. 

        Maybe, just a few bars of the BeeGees – one two three four, stayin’ alive…. Stayin’ alive…..

A First Amendment Obligation:  To Listen

By Shlomo Maital    

    This is a follow-up to my previous blog, Are You Listening?

      New York Times opinion columnist Pamela Paul (former longtime editor of the New York Times book review) wrote on March 30 about “The Most Profound Loss on Campus Isn’t Free Speech. It’s Listening.”

    Free speech in the US is anchored in the he First Amendment.  Enacted in 1791, it “prevents the government from making laws that regulate an establishment of religion, or that prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, or the right to petition the government for redress of grievances.”  It was one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

    Initially the First Amendment was interpreted narrowly.  Today the Supreme Court interprets it broadly, permitting what is close to hate speech. 

     But there is a fundamental problem.  Free speech is of no value without free attentive LISTENING.

     Paul recounts an experience in college.  The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a brilliant jurist and arch-conservative, came to speak at Brown University, a liberal Ivy league school, in 1991.  She recalls: “We knew our enemy and we hated him” —  including the ‘bigoted’ Jesse Helms or pugnacious Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole. 

    And Scalia?  “He wiped the floor with us…  In answer to our indignant questions, he calmly cited rebutting cases.  We fulminated and he reasoned, and when we seethed he lobbed back with charm….I left humbled.”

     Recently, at Stanford Law School, students repeatedly interrupted a speaker, an appeals court judge, whose views they disliked.  A Stanford administrator asked, “Is it worth letting someone speak if some students consider that person’s views objectionable, even abhorrent?”

    The answer is yes.  We listen.  Paul asks, “What gets lost if we don’t let that person speak?”

    We need an amendment to the First Amendment.  You have the right to free speech.  And – this is a tough one – you have an obligation to listen to stuff you dislike.  Really listen.  Because if we don’t listen to others, what’s the point of free speech?  “Free” speech without attentive listeners is not speech at all, it is futility. 

    Paul cites one study showing that “only 21 per cent of marriages today are politically mixed (Democrat and Republican).”  Democrats are especially unlikely to have friends from across the political divide.

    I find it hard, bitter, angering and disgusting, but – from time to time, I do dial in to Fox News on cable TV, to hear what they are saying.  I wonder how many Fox News listeners (they are the most numerous of all cable news TV viewers, making Fox News incredibly profitable) dial in to CNN or MSNBC. 

     Free speech?  A key part of democracy.  Polite respectful and attentive listening?  Equallly important – and today, largely missing. 

      Are you listening?

Are You Listening?  Really?

By Shlomo Maital    

  Are you listening?  To the person with whom you are speaking?


  Media all over the world have reported on massive demonstrations in Israel, protesting anti-democratic legislation by a far-right coalition government driven by vengeance.

     Watching TV news for the past three months has been torture.  Panels of experts scream at each other —  for balance, of course left and right are present – and do their best to shout over the words of their counterparts, lest the TV audience hear what they have to say.  Even in good times, we Israelis rarely let our counterparts finish a sentence before busting in.

   But lately?  Mutual deafness. 

    I found an old (2004) TED talk by the Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi.  He is the author of the pathbreaking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, which brings the words of 100 creative people who describe the experience of full immersion in writing music, words, or painting. “The ego falls away, time flies…your whole being is involved and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  He dubbed this “flow”.

   According to Csikszentmihályi’s 2004 TED talk, one’s mind can “attend to 110 bits of information per second!”.   Per second!  That means – if we are listening, really listening, we can absorb a huge amount of information.

   But here’s the catch.  “Decoding speech takes about 40-60 bits of information per second.”  That is, simply translating the words we hear to a form the brain can comprehend. 

    That means, only about half of our ability to comprehend what we are hearing, say 50 bits per second, remains for processing what we hear – comprehending, analyzing, thinking, feeling.

     Provided we are really listening.

      But are we?

      We Israelis seem to invest processing ability in two things.  First, yelling and screaming over the words of our counterpart.  Second, thinking about our own responses to the silly nonsense our counterpart is saying – which we barely bother to try to comprehend. 

      No processing ability is left to listen, comprehend, ponder, process, and absorb. 

       There is no dialog.  There is only debate.  Only one side in our brains – our own. 

        I have had foreign visitors who have asked me, during their stay in Israel:  Do you Israelis really dislike one another? 

         I have to explain, embarrassedly, no, we actually do like one another, but our culture does not include listening to one another. 

          Maybe we Israelis are not alone.   Do Republicans and Democrats really listen to one another in the US? 

           I can’t do much to change Israel’s culture of mutual deafness.  But as an individual, I can personally try harder to listen to the person with whom I am speaking, let them finish their thoughts and sentences, think about what they are saying, listen carefully to it,  and do my best to engage in a productive dialogue, which is characterized by mutual respect and consideration.  

         Not only is this morally right. It is in our self-interest.  Because if you do not, cannot, listen to others, you are losing the chance to learn great things every single hour of the day.

         When we truly open our ears, only then do we really open our minds.  And there is nothing desirable or useful about a closed mind.

Kids Look Beyond the Obvious

By Shlomo Maital

    My wife and I have raised four kids.  Anyone who has children knows how amazingly creative those little minds are.  And research proves it.  Five-year-olds break the Torrance Creativity Scale.  Why?  Because we haven’t yet taught them what is impossible, unfeasible, impractical.  Anything goes for kids.  Then we send them to school.  And there, they are taught the rules, the constraints, what is rather than what could be.  The Torrance Scale plummets.   

    Amazingly, some kids survive school with their creativity intact.  We see this in some of our grandchildren. 

    U. of Michigan psychologist Susan A. Gelman has done pioneering research on this.  In her recent American Psychologist article, *   she observes that “children often extend beyond the tangible ‘here and now’ to think about hidden, intangible, abstract or nonpresent entities.”   In concrete terms:  For kids, a cardboard box can be a truck, a house, or …anything. 

     Here is a dilemma which I think is largely unsolved.  We have to teach kids physics, chemistry, math —  in other words, how the real world works. 

     How do we do this, while at the very same time,  cultivating their wild imagination and wild ideas, that go beyond conventional reality? 

     How do we train teachers to impart this skill and square the circle:  Discovery vs. Discipline?  Imagination vs. reality? 

      I think we first need to train the teachers.  But in college, I doubt this issue is addressed.   So parents can do a lot.  Just encourage wild ideas.  Go for toys that foster imagination – simple wooden blocks, rather than reality-based toy figures.  With my grandchildren, instead of reading story books,  we write our own, drawing the pictures on a sheet of paper.  We “hand off” – I start, with a lonely giraffe, or a hungry crocodile – and hand off to my grandchild.   

   I worry a lot about the vast quantities of creativity that we erase in our schools.  I worry about my former MBA students,  senior R&D engineers, who job description involves creative thinking but who tell me they long ago lost it. 

    In an age when Chatbots and AI can process day-to-day information, the obvious,  new value will attach to creative thinking, looking beyond the obvious.  Robots will do the humdrum.  Humans will have the ideas – if only they could.
Gelman SA. Looking beyond the obvious. Am Psychol. 2023 Mar 9. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36892919

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital