Over four years ago, Kai Koerber survived the Parkland school shooting. Hear his feelings about what has transpired in the United States since that day.
Kai also shares that he doesn’t want that day to define him as a victim, but rather as a hero. Listen in to learn more about what he has been up to and shares with us his ideas for societal reform through the use of technology.
Kai Koerber is a Parkland shooting survivor, technologist, mental health activist, and founder of both Koer A.I., Inc (the creator of the Joy App) and the mental health nonprofit the Societal Reform Corporation (https://societal-reform.org/). He has made appearances on various television shows like The View and The Daily Show and has been featured in dozens of publications including INSIDER, People Magazine, TIME Magazine, and The New York Times.
Kai is heading into his senior year at the University of California, Berkeley. His current focus is on launching tech projects which focus on mental health, public safety, and tech for social good.
Follow The Joy app on Instagram @joy.apphq or his personal account @kaistonekoerber.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling into the show today we have Kai Koerber. Kai is a Parkland shooting survivor, mental health activist and founder of the nonprofit the Societal Reform Corporation. He has made appearances on The View, The Daily Show, and has been featured in dozens of publications, including Time magazine and The New York Times. Kai, welcome to the show.
Kai Koerber: Thanks, man. Happy to be here.
Gabe Howard: So, Kai, let’s address the elephant in the room first. For years, the Parkland shooting was described as one of the deadliest school shootings in recent history. But back in May, in Texas, another school shooting occurred that was sadly deadlier than Parkland. As a Parkland school shooting survivor, what emotions came up for you upon hearing that news?
Kai Koerber: Well, I can tell you that going back to Parkland for a second, at least in terms of recounting my experience there, that entire event transformed what Valentine’s Day meant for me for years. So, of course, Parkland happened on, you know, 2/14/2018. I had to personally make the effort to redefine that day in my life and not make it mean something that was truly horrific and a reminder of a horrible experience and a horrible, horrible event in my community was something that I really had to take time to work on. So I know that Uvalde is having to do the same thing, and every time that anniversary rolls around, those same feelings arise. And it can be just as difficult as the day that you’ve experienced it to kind of come to terms with the actual effects of what happened and really just have to accept that as the new reality and how that horrible experience becomes the new normal in terms of its after effects. And so obviously with Uvalde becoming the deadliest mass shooting now or one of the deadliest, it’s definitely a lot more horrific as well, because these are children that never got to really see any part of their adult lives. We in Parkland were coming into our own and we got to experience kind of a brief taste of what was to come. But these kids, I remember when I was their age, you know, I wanted to be an artist. And, you know, obviously I’m a tech guy now, so that’s kind of transformed. But I, I think it’s truly terrible that this person has robbed these young people of their right to dream and their right to grow into creative and playful people. And that that really is what breaks my heart more than anything else, is that this goes deeper than any of the other shootings that I can remember in my own life personally.
Gabe Howard: Whenever something like this happens, one of the things that everybody does is they scramble to figure out what to do. And I have noticed, this is Gabe Howard personally, I’ve noticed that all of the people involved in those conversations don’t tend to be the impacted. They’re not the Kai’s of the world, Right? They’re not they’re not the survivors of the shootings. They’re, they’re people very, very removed. They’re also often not even young people. I don’t think any of these committees, these these discussions include elementary school kids, for example. They don’t include high school kids. They just they just include a bunch of people who weren’t there. Maybe they’re from the community, but they’re often adults from the community. And it occurred to me maybe somebody should ask somebody who is there and we have that opportunity. Okay, what do you, I hate to use the word recommend, but what are your thoughts on some sort of resolution to the mass violence problem that we seem to have in the United States right now?
Kai Koerber: You know, I think I think it all starts with humanizing the issue, as you said, because people have, especially in government, this assumption that young people and, you know, we in Parkland, you know, largely proved this notion to be wrong. They have this notion that people are not capable of voicing clear and concise opinions regarding these kinds of serious, sophisticated and tragic situations. And so I’ll say that. I mean, even just watching the interviews of some of these kids from Uvalde who survived, you really see that this experience has almost aged them in a way. And so they are able to kind of convey how they’re feeling and really humanize what happened. So it’s not just what laws should be placed, you know, I’ll get to that. But in terms of just understanding that this is a circumstance that affects real people. Removing yourself as somebody who should be considering this is something that could happen in your backyard, you know, could happen to your family. You know, I know tons of people. I remember I visited Christchurch the year before it happened. Before the year before the shooting in Christchurch. And, you know, they were all like, oh, nothing can happen here. You know, people in Christchurch actually, and I thought this was crazy because I grew up on the East Coast, like New York, New Jersey, people would go to sleep in their homes and leave their doors unlocked. That to me was was crazy. Even in towns like that, where safety is kind of taken for granted, people didn’t think it could happen there and it happened there. I would say that humanizing the issue and understanding that it can happen anywhere, is part of the solutions as well.
Kai Koerber: In addition to that, you have the legislative angle, which is, you know, things like red flag laws, universal background checks, HR8, things like that, common sense gun laws that just makes sense, things that are really meant to assure the safety and security of every individual who is a citizen of this country or, you know, just visiting and going really just in passing. You know, you don’t want to be affected by this and you shouldn’t feel like you can’t be because that’s for somebody else. It’s not for you. I think there has been this overwhelming, you know, strange belief that these circumstances are separate from certain groups of people versus others. And we’ve seen time and time again that that is not the case and that safety should not be taken for granted, that we should pass these laws, We should humanize the issue by bringing survivors more deeply into the conversation. And we should also invest more heavily in mental health care. And so for me, I worked really hard. I worked with a bunch of world experts on to kind of produce, you know, mindfulness resources and material that we’ll be launching in an app. And all those things are really important. And also just, you know, making sure these people in these communities have the mental health and mindfulness and holistic mental health resources that they need to kind of come back as stronger people going forward. So those are the three forms that I would say are very important, which, you know, to repeat is humanizing the issue, passing legislation that makes sense and investing very deeply in holistic and deeply involved mental health care for every individual involved and also peripherally involved as well.
Gabe Howard: I want our listeners to know a little more about you than than just Parkland school shooting Survivor. And in your bio, you say that you’re an outspoken entrepreneurial engineering type now. I understand what all of those words mean separately, but when you put them together, I got a little confused because I don’t think I’ve ever met an outspoken engineer. My grandfather was an engineer, and he and his colleagues were incredibly introverted. And when I think of outspoken, I think of people like myself, people loud. The I just I really think of all the Gabe Howard’s of the world. So before we move on, can you tell our listeners what you mean by outspoken entrepreneurial engineer?
Kai Koerber: Well, I’ll give you my background as I answer that question. Me I grew up in a very interesting household. So as a kid, we would have my. My grandfather was a mathematician and also a Wall Street analyst for a time. And my uncle, a rocket scientist and my grandfather was also really big into having historical debates about world phenomena, I guess. Back in the day, it was 2008 was going on around then in the world. So I was always very deeply tapped into what was going on in the world from a historical context and also really just wanted to communicate with my grandfather as far as you know, because he would use he would use differential equation techniques or kind of principles in casual conversations. And so kind of when I got to elementary calculus, I would try to work those into conversation to fit in in my household because those are the conversations that we would have was, oh, if you take the derivative of this, you can obviously see that this is yadda, yadda, yadda. That was commonplace amongst most of the people in my family who had a math background. And so I’d say, you know, between that and the historical historical context of our dinner table conversations as well was probably one of the biggest driving factors in why I would call myself that. And also really seeing I had a strong female role model, my mother and my life who started the tons of businesses. And so seeing that and seeing her be successful in her own right in a lot of respects was really something that kind of molded my personality to be entrepreneurial in my mother and to be kind of engineering oriented in my grandfather, in my uncle, and also care about the circumstances of the world, you know, dinner table conversations and really try to understand how we could apply various different techniques and avenues to real world and important circumstances from a day to day basis.
Gabe Howard: Do you think that there is an engineering solution to this? I think I’m curious about that because in my mind, this seems very much like a social problem. But but you’re sort of looking at it through an engineering lens. And I think that’s very interesting.
Kai Koerber: Yeah. So, you know, I’ll go a little bit deeper into this as well. So I from the mental health angle, I traveled throughout the, you know, the country and the world giving mental health keynote speeches. That’s something I did when I was in high school in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, because I, I really felt that that was something that was really lacking, was this overwhelming focus on gun control and legislation. And obviously that’s tremendously important. And it has 100% a place in this discussion and it needs to be implemented. But the other part that was deeply neglected for the first couple of years was the mental health side of the equation. And so for me, being coming from a technological background and also speaking background, I tried to approach this in the following way. So when I was, you know, when I would give my keynote talks, I noticed that people really loved the exercises that I would create that were tailored towards specific emotional states. And so me being kind of an entrepreneur and an engineer, I was like, How do I scale? This was the big question. And so I decided to get I actually became friends with one of the world experts in emotion theory and mindfulness over at UC Berkeley. And so he and I worked together to assemble a thousand mindfulness materials or mindfulness practices that cover a range of meditations and contemplative mindfulness techniques.
Kai Koerber: And so to kind of relate the emotion analysis part of this to the I guess, equation in terms of the technology I’m developing is to scale the practices that I created for my talks, where I guided them towards specific emotional state. I created an app that users could just open up, talk to, say anything they want, and the app will recognize how they’re feeling from the sound of their voice and recommend mindfulness content to them in real time. So that kind of filtering your mindfulness experience based on your real time emotional states was a big thing that I felt would be a huge scalable factor in delivering the kind of experience that I wanted over a large body of people, and also just helping people feel better in a casual sense as well. So that’s the overwhelming, you know, solution to mindfulness or mental health end of the spectrum that I want to deliver towards, you know, communities across the country that have been affected by gun violence and also just who struggle with mental health situations as well, or people who just having bad days. It’s for anybody, really.
Kai Koerber: And so then I realized I could roll this technology into mental health, being the emotion analysis product I described before called the Joy App. And so over the course of the next couple of years, we’ll be rolling a stuff like that out. And so being an entrepreneur and a technologist and a current UC Berkeley student, you know, for me, I believe that the future is really something that has to pair with legislation and technology in order to achieve true kind of safety balance for every single individual in this country. You can’t do one without the other. And I think to think in that way and to not work with big tech or to not work with tech companies that have innovative ideas would be something that would be a huge misstep in the protection of our children going forward and also the regulation of the mental health states of just anybody in this country, providing them with a means to feel better at any given moment of the day.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Parkland shooting survivor Kai Koerber. Whenever the younger generation starts talking about apps, I think there’s this collective eye-roll from people my age, the over 40 crowd. We all just shake our heads and start mumbling that it just seems like, like bullshit. And, on one hand, it sounds very impossible. It sounds like science fiction when you say that there’s an app on my phone that can tell my emotions from the sound of my voice. I honestly think bullshit. But we do live in a time where I can text my wife and say, Hey, we should take a vacation. And suddenly every ad I see for the rest of the day is about vacation spots. And the ads are so individually tailored, they know what I like.
Gabe Howard: Whenever I start talking about taking time off. My wife gets ads from Disney, I get ads from Las Vegas. I take my sister, for example. She loves the outdoors, she loves backpacking. So whenever she discusses taking time off, she gets beaches and backpacking trips. My parents, whenever they talk about leaving town, they get cruises. So clearly these sophisticated algorithms already exist and they’re selling us stuff and we all see it. We all use them. The evidence is everywhere. We know that it exists. So it’s not a difficult thing to pivot that if this technology can be used to sell us stuff, then this technology can be used for other things. Now we can argue about whether or not that’s a good thing, but we know it’s out there. And, you know, for the most part, people don’t really seem to care. But as soon as you say that you want to apply that exact same technology or algorithm to emotion, suicidality, mental health, I really feel like a large section of society really goes back to rolling their eyes. It’s basically a lot of, again, the over 40 crowd who just think that that entire concept is ridiculous and that it won’t work. It really seems like people your age are on board. But the rest of, rest of us old folks are not.
Kai Koerber: Yeah, I’ll say that. I guess the funny answer to this is we had a lot of old people work on the development of this, and so they believe in it. And these are world experts over at Berkeley, Stanford and Harvard that created the practices that are experts in emotion theory and development of emotion analysis technology. And so people have dedicated their entire lives to this at tons of top schools. And so I can say that the best way that I can ease the naysayers or, you know, kind of encourage them to believe is that there are experts and great people working on this and have spent their entire lives really doing this. And I’ll also say that the Joy app, which is the app that I mentioned earlier, that can recognize the user’s emotional state in real-time based on the sound of their voice and recommend mindfulness content to them in real-time will be the first of its kind when it launches.
Kai Koerber: Because that’s been another actually a huge problem in the space is that nobody’s been able to process the audio fast enough of unlimited duration to be able to have it produce a real-time classification of emotions or recognition of emotions. And so we’re very proud to have been the first company to be able to produce something like that. This company held beta has been really fun to use. But I’ll say that these are all things that are totally possible. And so we know that this is something that works. We know that we can do this and we know that we, in particular, you know, being my company, Koer A.I. is fully capable, given the experts that we have, you know, to be able to build something of higher quality than is typically out there. We know that we can do all these things. And so I would say that having the technology can only help. It will not hurt.
Gabe Howard: But couldn’t it hurt? I’m really thinking about privacy here. Now, maybe that isn’t a concern for a lot of people. It it’s honestly fascinating to me that we have devices in our homes that are actively listening and we can ask our TV to turn on. And it will we can we can say to our phones, play the Inside Mental Health podcast and it’ll start up no problem. People buy this stuff on purpose and they really like it. Now, I, I personally don’t like it. It’s one of the reasons that I never bought Alexa because I just I don’t want to feel like I’m being monitored, like people are listening in on me. 24/7. I just, I just honestly have like a creep factor to it. But again, that’s just me. Is this something that people should be concerned about with your app?
Kai Koerber: You know, one of the things I can say from a scientific point of view is that people are concerned in terms of the privacy circumstance for privacy concerns regarding things like Alexa or your TV, for instance, is that those models or those algorithms that are trained to understand what you’re saying are vastly different in terms of their capability than what we’re talking about. So what we’re talking about is a comparatively much more basic or simple. It accomplishes much more of a simple task than the complex task of analyzing speech and then processing that for its actual contextual value. So understanding what was said and how they said it, and then applying those to recommendations for further content later on for consumer or commercial purposes. For us, I would say that this would not be analyzing what you’re saying. It would not be.
Kai Koerber: We really don’t. We honestly, just as a company, don’t care about what’s being said. The design of this product could not be, I guess, more positive in that we don’t have some kind of a strange, Machiavellian, you know, I guess, profit maximization goal in mind for this particular product at all. So I would say that the top to bottom, this product was design from the Parkland shooting survivor. I designed it specifically to make sure that we were privacy in the best way possible as well. I 100% understand the concerns surrounding what the Alexa or your TVs or things that sound like they were out of Minority Report, but it would not be. This would not be something to that scale. We’re analyzing a completely different sound all together. We are not processing the context of what is being said.
Gabe Howard: I’m thinking of The Dark Knight, the movie with The Joker, where at the end of it, it shows Batman using everybody’s cell phone and all of the screens to figure out where the Joker is. I know that that’s a movie, but is that kind of a visual representation of what you’re going for?
Kai Koerber: Um, in the sense that you have. Well, I want to stray away from the visual component because I feel like that that particular example is really infringing on an individual’s privacy, which is something that I’m totally against. We’re not going to be analyzing the visual component of the information in the scene and not individual voices or individual key words. I hope that’s clear.
Gabe Howard: Kai, this is all just fascinating. It’s amazing to see what you’ve been working on for these past few years since Parkland. I have to say, it does sound like science fiction to me, but self-driving cars sounded like science fiction to me as well. And look where we are with that technology. I am super glad that you are the outspoken entrepreneurial engineering type. I think your work is incredible. Your first product is out. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Kai Koerber: Yeah, the Joy app an app on your phone that directs you to mindfulness materials based on your real time and vocally expressed emotional states from a thousand different mindfulness practices from world experts at Berkeley, Stanford and Harvard. And really, this is going to be something that redefines the entire mindfulness space. And so we feel that’s going to be a really impactful product in the coming months and years. We’re very excited for it.
Gabe Howard: Kai, thank you so much for being here. Where can folks find you online?
Kai Koerber: Yeah. So for me personally at @KaiStoneKoerber, Instagram, Twitter and you know Kai Koerber on LinkedIn if you want to add me there. And for our website it is ProjectAEI.com. That was the website for our research project that we’ve since incorporated into Koer A.I. Incorporated. So we’ll be doing some stuff to kind of adjust that later on. But for now we are ProjectAEI.com. You can read about all our cool stuff and see some of the stuff that we’re working and really just experiencing some of this new revolutionary stuff we’re working on. So yeah. Join our waitlist and I look forward to reading some of your comments and suggestions regarding some of the stuff that we’re working on.
Gabe Howard: Kai, thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it.
Kai Koerber: Thanks so much, man. You know, it’s been an honor.
Gabe Howard: You are very, very welcome. And a giant thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” I’m also an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me just by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free. And do me a favor? Recommend the show to a friend or family member or a colleague. Referring the show is how we grow, and I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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