Why AI Scientists Must Study Storytelling


Facebook can identify you in a photograph. Shazam can name the song and artist that’s playing on your radio. An autonomous vehicle can identify and track multiple object (signs, traffic signals, vehicles, and pedestrians) all at speeds faster than humans. At first glance, these Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications seem awe inspiring. Surely, they’ll be taking over the world soon, right?


Why? Because they have nothing to do with human intelligence. AI applications perform their magic through training deep neural networks (DNNs)–highly interconnected, matrix-math-intensive models that can only do one thing well, such as identifying a face in a crowd, the name of a song, or a person in a crosswalk. And while data scientists describe these DNN architectures using human brain terminology like neurons, connections, training and inference, there’s little overlap with how people process information. Just consider that the human brain only consumes the power of a 20 watt lightbulb, while the energy required to train a single DNN gobbles up enough energy to run five cars over their lifetime–including the corresponding carbon footprint it leaves behind.

If power consumption doesn’t convince you that AI and human brains function differently, let’s look at each from the perspective of robustness.  DNNs are fragile. A DNN that’s only trained to recognize the studio recording of Earth, Wind & Fire’s September wouldn’t be able to identify the same song performed by EW&F  live. Yet, the ability for humans to identify songs is infinitely more robust. Once we hear a familiar song, we have the broad capability to recognize multiple versions of it. For example, if your friend picked up a guitar and started playing September, not only would those who knew the song be able to recognize it–independent of both key or tempo–they’d also be able to sing along.

Deep learning has tremendous advantages over humans when it comes to the processing large amounts of data, but, if those calculations ever hope to approximate the robustness of the human brain, AI scientists will need to change their perspective. The authors of the academic paper, Neuroscience-Inspired Artificial Intelligence explain the magnitude of the gap succinctly. 

“Human cognition is distinguished by its ability to rapidly learn about new concepts from only a handful of examples, leveraging prior knowledge to enable flexible inductive inferences.” Pp 259

Human intelligence is built upon interacting with the environment around us. We gather information through our five senses, compare that information with prior knowledge, and determine the best course of action. We react to new situations through an age-old series:

  1. assess fatal threats.
  2. Once those are eliminated, we seek to increase pleasure and avoid pain.

And while step #2 mimics the supervised learning (carrot and stick) techniques used to train DNNs, the stakes associated with being right or wrong are infinitely more important to a living and breathing human. Until AI applications can incorporate human emotion into their models, machine intelligence will forever remain limited.

DNNs are handicapped by a fundamental flaw–they neglect the most important part of human intelligence: the human condition. AI Scientists understand these limitations and are looking to other disciplines for inspiration.  They’re looking to neuroscience and psychology to close the gap. But rather than looking at human intelligence holistically, they pursue algorithmic solutions from a bottom-up perspective. The best way for data scientists to find the robustness of the human brain is to look at their experiments through the eyes of a storyteller.

A story is the result of people pursuing what they want…and we all want to remain living. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We must satisfy both our physiological and safety needs before anything else. We can’t worry about the future until we’re confident that we can survive the present.

This fundamental need drives our actions. Instinct alerts us to mortal threats. Our attention is drawn to things that defy our expectations. Our most vivid memories are based on experiential differences (first/last, hottest/coldest, happiest/saddest) while our ability to bond with other humans is built upon shared experiences.

Humans have a superpower–the ability to react appropriately to situations that we’ve never experienced before. Therefore, if achieving the robustness of human intelligence is truly the goal, then AI scientists must expand the scope of their exploration beyond the disciplines of pure logic and seek the counsel of storytellers. Storytellers study human nature–the actions of autonomous beings as they journey through the great game of life. They study these actions in the context of the environments that people live in. They understand how people assess a situation/thing/idea, create hypotheses, test those hypotheses, and then act based on what they learned. And all of those actions depend on the human capacity to trade risks and rewards, as they experience profoundly complex concepts such as love, hate, fear, or exhilaration.

Until DNNs can incorporate these complex concepts, their relative intelligence will continue to remain artificial.

AI Scientists, meet the storytellers. Storytellers, meet the AI scientists.



Photo Credit: Lee, Russell, photographer. Tulare County, California. Farmer teaching his six-year old son to drive his tractor. California Tulare County Tulare County. United States, 1942. Feb. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017817214/.

Tradeoffs are the Spice of Life


Most marketing stories are written as fairy tales, complete with their happily ever after endings. But, that isn’t life, is it?

In reality, life is a series of messy choices. While we’d prefer clean distinctions between right and wrong, frequently we’re asked to choose between bad and worse, also known as the lesser of two evils.

Business, as in life, is a series of nuanced tradeoffs. We’re constantly trading between a project’s schedule and its budget. Or, consider the freemium business model that offers customers a choice between time and money–built on the premise that young customers have more time than money and older customers have more money than time. Those with more time than money are willing to trade advertisement interruptions for free access to content, while those with more money than time are willing to pay for unencumbered access to it. 

People make the right choices for the wrong reasons, the wrong choices for the right reasons, and everywhere in between. They’ll sacrifice today for something greater tomorrow, or choose to risk the longer term consequences of instant gratification. Sometimes their major decisions have minor effects, while seemingly minor decisions prove to have major effects.

Consider some of the most common tradeoffs in life:

  • Saving for tomorrow means not spending today
  • Choosing the devil you know is sometimes safer than the devil you don’t
  • Saving someone from a fire means risking burns
  • Losing the battle might set you up to win the war
  • Pushing through the pain helps you recover from injury
  • Taking one for the team contributes to a win
  • Working two jobs to accelerate saving for a downpayment
  • Laying off a few workers to save the rest

Tradeoffs are the spice of life. Identifying them leads to stories that audiences relate.

So, what are some of yours? Which tradeoffs do your customers make every day?


Photo Credit: Siegel, Arthur S, photographer. Birmingham near Detroit, Michigan. Kitchen utensils hanging below a spice rack with mint, caraway, thyme, and sage jars. United States, 1942. [July] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017878892/.

Our Lives Are Measured by the Stories We Leave Behind


My friend Mike died last month. He was sixty-five.

We reconnected about two years ago through a chance meeting at Mineta San Jose International airport. We started catching up at the Santa Cruz Wine Bar in Terminal B (Mike loved red blends) and continued the conversation on our flight back to Orange County. We talked nonstop, making it feel like one of the shortest one-hour flights I’ve ever experienced.

At this point you’re probably wondering, what does this post have to do with business storytelling? Truthfully? Nothing..and everything…because after attending my third funeral in as many months, I’m feeling a bit introspective and have come to a conclusion:

The true value of one’s life is measured by the stories that people remember after you’re gone.

And so, rather than talking about business storytelling this week, I want to share my favorite Mike story with you.

* * *

First, you need to know that Mike was a very large human being–something like 6’ 9” and pushing to 300 lbs.

One day, Mike found himself jammed into a commercial airline seat on a long flight. He needed to stretch, so he walked to the back of the plane.

“I apologize,” he said to the stewardess with his Arkansas accent. “I know I’m not supposed to be standing here, but that tiny seat is killing my knees and I just need to stretch for a while.”

The stewardess smiled. “You can stand here for as long as you need,” she said.

A few minutes later, Mike noticed an elderly couple that kept looking back at him. That’s when the woman got up and approached. “My husband and I feel so safe with you here,” she said. “Thank you for your service.” As she returned to her seat, the old man flashed Mike a thumbs-up sign.

Mike flagged down the stewardess to get her advice on the strange interaction. “I’m not sure, but I think that couple over there thinks I’m an Air Marshall or something. Should we tell them?”

“No,” she said, gesturing toward a man seated mid-cabin. “You see that guy up there?”

Mike locked eyes with a timid-looking, shell-of-a-man. “Yeah?”

“He’s been nothing but trouble. But, I just pointed at you and said, ‘Now, do I need to have him come over here?’”

* * *


I’ll miss Mike’s wisdom, big heart, and massive hugs. But most of all, I’ll miss his stories: the adventures of running a Medical Devices company, how he sold bags filled with rattlesnakes to make pocket money as a kid, and the tale of an epic basketball battle between him and his Olympian/NBA center brother.

Our lives are measured by the stories we leave behind. What stories will people tell about you?


Photo Credit: Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Headstones at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. Arlington United States Virginia, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2011635737/.

Storytellers Question Their Beliefs


Marvin Minsky, co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, described a fundamental flaw in human thought that he called The Investment Principle:

“Our oldest ideas have unfair advantages over those that come later. The earlier we learn a skill, the more methods we can acquire for using it. Each new idea must then compete against the larger mass of skills the old ideas have accumulated.” 1 

First, we learn something new. Then, we practice applying it. Finally, we enjoy success as it becomes our go-to-move whenever we’re faced with a similar problem. But, what about adopting a new idea, variation, or technique that might solve the original problem better? Minsky suggests that we are so invested in the original idea, that it’s highly unlikely that we’ll adopt the new one.

So, how do we adopt new ideas? Minsky performs periodic evaluations of his old ideas.

“If I still believe something after five years, I doubt it,” he said.2

Storytellers should periodically question what we know. That doesn’t mean we must always change our views or adopt a new idea. Instead, it gives us an opportunity to review our mental inventories, weed out the bad ideas, and bolster the good ones.

One way is to revisit an issue from a different perspective. We are the heroes of our own lives. Darth Vader was the hero of his story, just as Luke Skywalker was the hero of his.

If a story is the result of people pursuing what they want, looking at what each character wants offers different perspectives. Luke Skywalker wants to destroy the Death Star because it stands in between him and the survival of his people. Darth Vader wants to protect the Death Star to quash the rebellion. Both are part of the same story, yet each views the end goal differently.

What do you still believe after five years? Question it. Find someone who disagrees with you. Read a new book about it.  Flip the script. Put something old into a new context.

You might just find a better idea, perspective, or story.



  1. Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1985) p 146.
  2. Stewart Brand, The Media Lab (New York, Viking, 1987) p 104.

Photo Credit: https://www.loc.gov/item/2017696833/

Who Knew Storytelling Could be so Dangerous

Although most of this audience only knows me as the creator of the StoryHow™ Pitchdeck, another has known me as the host of one of the oldest storytelling podcasts, Griddlecakes Radio, now in its 14th season.

And so, rather than bringing you another storytelling perspective this week, I’m going back to my storytelling roots to tell an actual story–in audio form. It’s a story called, Who Knew Storytelling Could be so Dangerous?


The Storyteller’s Kryptonite


The creation of fire requires three ingredients: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Remove any component and fire cannot happen. Similarly, Aristotle taught us that persuasion also requires three ingredients: ethos (credibility), logos (facts), and pathos (emotion). Removing any one of these components inhibits one’s ability to persuade.

For the past four years, I’ve only focused on persuasion from a speaker’s perspective–teaching storytellers the importance of representing all three components in their work. However, I never considered persuasion from the firefighter’s perspective–the naysayer whose job is to remove the fuel, restrict the oxygen, or reduce the heat of ideas. That all changed when I read The Effect of ad Hominem Attacks on the Evaluation Claims Promoted by Scientists, a study that reveals a major flaw in the power of story. Evidently, no matter how hard a storyteller works to present facts, make them relevant emotionally, and to do so in an ethical manner, the fire of persuasion can be extinguished with a simple attack the storyteller’s character.

The study presented two groups (college students and adults) with scientific claims followed by one of three critiques:

  1. an empirical attack on the facts, data, method, etc.
  2. an ad hominem attack on the scientist (misconduct (present or past), conflict of interest, education, sloppy work)
  3. attack both the science and the scientist

The study predicted the following results (from most to least):

  1. attacking both the science and the scientist would have the most negative effect on persuasion
  2. attacking just the science would have the next most negative affect
  3. attacking the scientist would have the least affect.

The results didn’t support their prediction. Instead, it found that attacking the scientist had the same effect as attacking the science. In other words, readers could be swayed against the claim by either a) attacking the data, or b) attacking the character of the individual. And here’s the saddest part of the study. Not only did both attacks have the same effect individually, only one attack was required to erode confidence in the claim. A combination attack on the scientist and the science had negligible effect. Evidently, only one attack was enough to poison the well.

(Note. Misconduct and conflict of interest had the most negative effect, while attacking education and sloppy work had negligible effect)

As someone trained in the sciences (electrical engineering), I found the results disheartening. Pointing out empirical errors is the generally accepted way to vet scientific findings. But learning that a simple character assault is JUST AS EFFECTIVE as attacking the facts–that shook my confidence in human communications.

But, it shouldn’t have been that surprising.

While studying the brainwaves of people listening to stories, Kendall Haven found that the most effective way to change an audience’s perspective is through viewing the character’s actions through the lens of motive. A character with good intentions is loved by an audience while that same character performing the exact same actions with bad intentions is despised.

One doesn’t have to look beyond today’s headlines, tweets, and masked protesters to see how those on both the political left and right choose to denigrate their counterparts by attacking their character as opposed to their ideas. Since it’s just as effective to lob inflammatory terms (bigot, fascist, homophobe, Hitler, Mao, marxist, misogynist, racist, Stalin, transphobe, socialist, supremacist, uneducated, unpatriotic, and xenophobe) as opposed to a carefully thought-out critique, there’s no need to prepare counter arguments. All one has to do is poison the conversational well by implementing a personal attack on the opposition’s motivations to exploit an unfortunate flaw within in the human mind.

Although I’m discouraged by daily evidence of this phenomenon in news headlines and social media posts, I find myself cautiously optimistic. Storytellers make the best communicators and thus we need to consistently exercise our craft. We must rely on the time-tested successes of ethos, logos, and pathos to convey our messages. Then we must sit back and and hope that this crazy part of human history fades back into the dark recesses from which it emerged.