Category Archives: philosophy

The future of God – Militant atheists shouldn’t behave like religious nuts

Another ‘we need to learn to get along‘ blog that fills G in my alphabetic ‘future of’ series.

Extremism hides in all sorts of places.

Atheism – not believing in the existence of a god – is a perfectly sound and rational assessment of the observable universe, a reasonable conclusion to come to, and I won’t say a word against it, but atheism isn’t the only reasonable conclusion available. Atheists don’t have a monopoly on rational thought. Sadly, some atheists have taken to being militant, started to make lots of regulatory demands and generally attacking and trying to oppress those who disagree with them. Militant atheists have always existed but their numbers have grown and they have been making a lot of noise lately. I am not alone in thinking that is not a healthy trend. Bigotry is unpleasant wherever it is found. Let’s be clear: atheism is perfectly reasonable but militant atheism is just another form of bigotry. Some militant atheists say they hate religious people because they are intolerant, without realizing the hypocrisy in such a statement. They compound bigotry with stupidity.

I won’t consider the virtues and faults of any belief set here, nor discuss my own stance, which has varied over time considerably. I will only argue against extremism and bigotry.

Although many have tried hard, and it is certainly easy to pour scorn on the idea, you can’t actually prove that there is no god. The observable universe can be explained without needing any reference to a creator but that doesn’t prove there wasn’t one. Personal religious experiences can be dismissed by citing possible psychological explanations, but they could be genuine. Without experiencing something first hand, it’s hard to know what you’re trying to explain away, or whether your explanation makes any sense. In the absence of proof, you make your own observations, listen to the arguments on both sides, you weigh up the sanity and intelligence and possible agendas of people claiming first hand religious experience and of those who have strong faith, and then you make up your mind which ones are most convincing to you. Then you sit on that side of the fence. You could decide to sit on the fence and be agnostic if you think there is a reasonable case for both sides, or if you don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort thinking through something that isn’t terribly important to you. You may even swap sides now and then. But what you can’t reasonably assume is that everyone who reaches a different conclusion from you is an idiot.

If a lot of smart people believe in something, they might all be wrong but there also just might be something in it. A superficial and contemptuous cherry-picking glance at their religion won’t tell you anything about its underlying truths. Lots of people have been atheists in the past, it’s hardly a new idea. Lots of them were strongly convinced they were right but were later converted to a faith. Believing there is no god ends up just as much a belief as believing that there is. You can fiercely argue on probabilities or about whether particular faiths are dumb, but it doesn’t change the fact that you simply can’t prove it either way. Atheism may not be a religious faith, but in the absence of proof and in the presence of the evidence of billions who genuinely believe the opposite, atheism is still just an unprovable belief.

Being an atheist is still perfectly reasonable, but it should therefore be accompanied by a degree of intellectual humility. The majority of atheists accept that it is possible to come reasonably to either conclusion about a god and manage to find the humility and to live alongside those of faith. Many people haven’t given the matter a great deal of thought and that’s fine too, provided they too live peacefully side by side with others who do believe something or nothing.

Sadly, this increasingly vocal minority of militants don’t want to live peacefully side by side with those who believe in a god. Militant atheism, where the humility is absent, is simply misplaced intellectual arrogance and bigotry. Assuming that you are smarter than all those people who believe, that you fully understand their belief mindset and can clearly see where and why they are mistaken, even though all those people can’t see it for themselves in spite of endless study – that is quite a conviction of your own intellectual superiority over the vast number of your fellow people. Some of those that believe probably have higher IQs than you, are better qualified, have been around more, investigated the religions more thoroughly, with less prejudice, some have read the various writings for themselves, and thought it all through in more depth. They haven’t all just listened to superficial mockery of things that may have been misrepresented or dragged out of context by someone with an agenda to push. They haven’t just blindly absorbed a celebrity tweet and joined in the oppression of believers so they can look cool and trendy without bothering to expend any effort thinking it through for themselves. With all that background, are you still sufficiently convinced that your intellect and judgment is so superior to all those people’s that you’re prepared to be a militant?

That’s quite a conviction to have. Most people who hold it shouldn’t and aren’t as smart as they think they are. Being atheist just means holding an honest and reasonable belief alongside billions of others holding theirs, but becoming a militant atheist renders you no more deserving of respect than those militant religious extremists you despise; your position and your behavior are essentially the same – I’m right, you’re wrong, therefore I should be in control and you should do as I say, and I have the right to walk all over your rights, because my beliefs are less primitive, more enlightened, more important than yours. That’s not a reasonable position. Religious militants have brought much misery to the world throughout history, but this new bunch of militant atheists are no better. They are just religious oppressors in different uniforms.

Atheism is a respectable faith that there is no god. Militant atheism is just another extremist faith followed mostly by people who think they are smarter than they are and by those who want to seen as fashionable but are too intellectually lazy to think for themselves so just parrot their favorite celeb. Neither is a laudable role.

Atheism is reasonable. Agnosticism is reasonable. Some religious faiths are reasonable. Militant religion isn’t. Militant atheism isn’t.

Technology 2040: Technotopia denied by human nature

This is a reblog of the Business Weekly piece I wrote for their 25th anniversary.

It’s essentially a very compact overview of the enormous scope for technology progress, followed by a reality check as we start filtering that potential through very imperfect human nature and systems.

25 years is a long time in technology, a little less than a third of a lifetime. For the first third, you’re stuck having to live with primitive technology. Then in the middle third it gets a lot better. Then for the last third, you’re mainly trying to keep up and understand it, still using the stuff you learned in the middle third.

The technology we are using today is pretty much along the lines of what we expected in 1990, 25 years ago. Only a few details are different. We don’t have 2Gb/s per second to the home yet and AI is certainly taking its time to reach human level intelligence, let alone consciousness, but apart from that, we’re still on course. Technology is extremely predictable. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is just how few surprises there have been.

The next 25 years might be just as predictable. We already know some of the highlights for the coming years – virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, advanced AI and conscious computers, graphene based materials, widespread Internet of Things, connections to the nervous system and the brain, more use of biometrics, active contact lenses and digital jewellery, use of the skin as an IT platform, smart materials, and that’s just IT – there will be similarly big developments in every other field too. All of these will develop much further than the primitive hints we see today, and will form much of the technology foundation for everyday life in 2040.

For me the most exciting trend will be the convergence of man and machine, as our nervous system becomes just another IT domain, our brains get enhanced by external IT and better biotech is enabled via nanotechnology, allowing IT to be incorporated into drugs and their delivery systems as well as diagnostic tools. This early stage transhumanism will occur in parallel with enhanced genetic manipulation, development of sophisticated exoskeletons and smart drugs, and highlights another major trend, which is that technology will increasingly feature in ethical debates. That will become a big issue. Sometimes the debates will be about morality, and religious battles will result. Sometimes different parts of the population or different countries will take opposing views and cultural or political battles will result. Trading one group’s interests and rights against another’s will not be easy. Tensions between left and right wing views may well become even higher than they already are today. One man’s security is another man’s oppression.

There will certainly be many fantastic benefits from improving technology. We’ll live longer, healthier lives and the steady economic growth from improving technology will make the vast majority of people financially comfortable (2.5% real growth sustained for 25 years would increase the economy by 85%). But it won’t be paradise. All those conflicts over whether we should or shouldn’t use technology in particular ways will guarantee frequent demonstrations. Misuses of tech by criminals, terrorists or ethically challenged companies will severely erode the effects of benefits. There will still be a mix of good and bad. We’ll have fixed some problems and created some new ones.

The technology change is exciting in many ways, but for me, the greatest significance is that towards the end of the next 25 years, we will reach the end of the industrial revolution and enter a new age. The industrial revolution lasted hundreds of years, during which engineers harnessed scientific breakthroughs and their own ingenuity to advance technology. Once we create AI smarter than humans, the dependence on human science and ingenuity ends. Humans begin to lose both understanding and control. Thereafter, we will only be passengers. At first, we’ll be paying passengers in a taxi, deciding the direction of travel or destination, but it won’t be long before the forces of singularity replace that taxi service with AIs deciding for themselves which routes to offer us and running many more for their own culture, on which we may not be invited. That won’t happen overnight, but it will happen quickly. By 2040, that trend may already be unstoppable.

Meanwhile, technology used by humans will demonstrate the diversity and consequences of human nature, for good and bad. We will have some choice of how to use technology, and a certain amount of individual freedom, but the big decisions will be made by sheer population numbers and statistics. Terrorists, nutters and pressure groups will harness asymmetry and vulnerabilities to cause mayhem. Tribal differences and conflicts between demographic, religious, political and other ideological groups will ensure that advancing technology will be used to increase the power of social conflict. Authorities will want to enforce and maintain control and security, so drones, biometrics, advanced sensor miniaturisation and networking will extend and magnify surveillance and greater restrictions will be imposed, while freedom and privacy will evaporate. State oppression is sadly as likely an outcome of advancing technology as any utopian dream. Increasing automation will force a redesign of capitalism. Transhumanism will begin. People will demand more control over their own and their children’s genetics, extra features for their brains and nervous systems. To prevent rebellion, authorities will have little choice but to permit leisure use of smart drugs, virtual escapism, a re-scoping of consciousness. Human nature itself will be put up for redesign.

We may not like this restricted, filtered, politically managed potential offered by future technology. It offers utopia, but only in a theoretical way. Human nature ensures that utopia will not be the actual result. That in turn means that we will need strong and wise leadership, stronger and wiser than we have seen of late to get the best without also getting the worst.

The next 25 years will be arguably the most important in human history. It will be the time when people will have to decide whether we want to live together in prosperity, nurturing and mutual respect, or to use technology to fight, oppress and exploit one another, with the inevitable restrictions and controls that would cause. Sadly, the fine engineering and scientist minds that have got us this far will gradually be taken out of that decision process.

Morality inversion. You will be an outcast before you’re old

I did my religious studies exams in 1970s Ireland. We were asked us to consider euthanasia and abortion and how relevant attitudes and laws might change during our lifetimes. Looking back, I’d say we’ve seen a full inversion in both.

My point in this blog isn’t right or wrong but how quickly the random walk of acceptability in modern Western society can take someone from proper to pariah.

I believe it is dangerous for society if its views on morality swing fully and quickly between extremes, especially since technology ensures that people can access decades-old material and records and views easily. What you do today may be judged today by today’s morality, but will also be judged by the very different morality of 2050. You could well become a pariah for activities or views that are perfectly acceptable and normal today. Today’s photos, videos, selfies, tweets, chat records and blogs will all still be easily searchable and they might damn you. The worst thing is you can’t reliably predict which values will invert, so nobody is safe.

Let’s looks at some examples, starting with the two examples we did for Religious Studies – abortion and euthanasia. Remember, the point is not whether something is right or wrong, it is that the perception of it being right or wrong has changed. i.e what is the ‘correct’ fashionable view to hold?

Abortion was legal in 1970s Great Britain, but was far from socially accepted. A woman who had an abortion back then may well have felt a social outcast. Today, it is ‘a woman’s right to choose’ and anyone wanting to restrain that right would be the social outcast.

Euthanasia was universally accepted as wrong in the 1970s. Today the UK’s NHS already implements it via ‘The Liverpool Care Pathway’, almost 1984’s Doublespeak in its level of inversion. Recently some regions have rolled euthanasia out still further, asking patients over 75 years old whether they want to be resuscitated. Euthanasia is not only accepted but encouraged.

Meanwhile, assisted suicide has also become accepted. Very clearly wrong in the 1970s, perfectly fine and understandable today.

Homosexuality in the 1970s forced people to hide deep in a closet. Today, it’s a job requirement for reality TV, chat show hosting and singing in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Gay marriage would have been utterly unimaginable in 1970s Ireland but it would be very brave indeed to admit being in the No camp in today’s referendum campaign there.

Casual sex had its inversion decades earlier of course, but a single person still a virgin at 20 feels ashamed today, whereas anyone having sex outside of marriage before the 1960s would be the one made to feel ashamed.

A committed Christian in the 1970s was the gold standard of morality. Today, being a Christian labels someone as a bigoted dinosaur who should be denied a career. By contrast, being Muslim generates many competing moral inversions that currently results in a net social approval.

The West in the 1970s was the accepted definition of civilization. Now, the West is responsible for all the World’s troubles. Even history is not immune, and the morality of old wars is often up for renewed debate.

Even humor isn’t immune. Some TV comedies of the 1970s are seen as totally unacceptable today. Comedians have to be very careful about topics in their jokes, with today’s restrictions very different from and often even opposite to 1970s restrictions.

These areas have all seen total inversions of social acceptability. Many others, such as drugs, smoking, drinking, gambling, hunting and vegetarianism, see more frequent swings, though not usually full inversion. Still more practices are simultaneously acceptable for some social groups but not for others, such as oppression of women, mutilation, violence, sexualization of children, and even pedophilia.

In every case, attitude change has been gradual. In most, there have been some successful pressure groups that have successfully managed to change the direction of shame, one case at a time. Orwell’s 1984 has proven superbly insightful, realizing how social interaction, the need to feel accepted and the desire for status, and even language can be manipulated to achieve a goal. So successful has that been that shame and doublespeak have become the weapons of choice in left-wing politics, though the right haven’t quite worked out how to use them yet.

With these forces of inversion proven to be highly effective, we must question where they might be used in the future. What do you do or say today that will make future generations despise you? What things are wrong that will become right? What things that are right will become wrong? And what will be the arguments?

In case, you haven’t read the preceding text, I am not condoning any of the following, merely listing them as campaigns we may well see in the next few decades that might completely invert morality and social acceptance by the 2050s.

Drugs in sport – not taking them once adverse health effects have been conquered could be seen as lack of commitment. It is your duty to achieve the best performance you can.

Genetic modification and selection for babies – If you don’t approve, you are forcing people to live a life less than they could, to be less than they should. If you don’t give your kids the best possible genetic start in life, you are an irresponsible parent.

Owning a larger house or car than you need – You are not successful and high status, you are a greedy, utterly selfish, environment destroyer denying poorer people a decent life and home.

Resisting theft – the thief obviously was deprived, almost certainly by an oppressive society. It is you who are stealing from them by preventing social disadvantage from being addressed. Your property should be confiscated and given to them.

Pedophilia – Based on the failed 1970s PIE campaign which may find the field is soon ready for a rematch, if you don’t support reducing the age of consent to 9 or even less, you may soon be portrayed as a bigot trying to prevent young people from experiencing love.

Eating meat – you are utterly without compassion for other lives that are just as valuable as yours. What makes you think nature gives you the right to torture another creature?

Making jokes – all humor comes from taking pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. Laughing is violence. Take that smile off your face. You are a contemptible Neanderthal!

Managing a company – employment is exploitation. All decent people work with others as equals. What makes you think you have the right to exploit other people? Shame on you!

Having a full-time job – don’t you know some people don’t have any work? Why can’t you share your job with someone else? Why should you get paid loads when some people hardly get anything? Why are you so special? You disgust me!

Polygamy – who made you God? If these people want to be together, who the hell are you to say they shouldn’t be? Geez! Go take your Dodo for a walk!

Getting old – you seem to think you are entitled to respect just because you haven’t died yet. Don’t you realize millions of babies are having to be aborted just because people like you so selfishly cling on to another few years of your worthless life? The sooner we get this new limit enforced at 50 the sooner we can get rid of nasty people like you.

Patriotism – all people are equal. You want to favor your country over others, protect your borders, defend your people, uphold your way of life? That is no more than thinly veiled excuse for oppression and racism. Your views have no place in a civilized society.

Well, by now I think you get the point. A free run of values with no anchor other than current fashion can take us anywhere, and in time such a free-wandering society may eventually encounter a cliff.

In modern atheistic Western society, right and wrong is decided, it is no longer absolute. Moral relativism is a highly effective lubricant for moral change. The debate will start from whatever is the existing state and then steered by anyone in an influential position highlighting or putting a new spin on any arbitrary cherry-picked case or situation to further any agenda they wish. Future culture is governed by the mathematics of chaos and though there are attractors, there are also regions of very high instability. As chaos dictates that a butterfly wing-beat can lead to a hurricane, so feeble attention seeking by any celebrity could set a chain of events in motion that inverts yet another pillar of acceptability.

A related question – for which I don’t have any useful insight – is how long moral stability can exist before another inversion becomes possible. If and when the pendulum does start to swing back, will it go as far, as fast, or further and faster?

 

 

 

 

 

Prejudice is an essential predictive tool

Prejudice has a bad name but it is an essential tool evolution has given us to help our survival. It is not a bad thing in itself, but it can cause errors of judgement and misuse so it needs to be treated with care. It’s worth thinking it through from first principles, so that you aren’t too prejudiced about prejudice.

I like a few people, dislike a few others, but don’t have any first hand opinion on almost everyone. With over 7 billion people, no-one can ever meet more than a tiny proportion. We see a few more on TV or other media and may form a narrow-channel opinion on some aspects of their character from what is shown in their appearances. Otherwise, any opinion we may have on anyone we have not actually met or spent any time with is prejudice – pre-judgment based on experiences we have had with people who share similarities.

Prejudice isn’t always a bad thing

Humans are good at using patterns and similarities as indicators, because it improves our chances of survival. If you see a flame, even though you have never encountered that particular flame before, you are prejudiced about how it might feel if you stick your hand in it. You don’t go all politically correct and assume that making such a pre-judgment is wrong and put your hand in it anyway, since it may well be a very nice flame that tickles and feels good. If you see a tiger running towards you, you probably won’t assume it just wants to cuddle you or get stroked. Prejudices keep us alive. Used correctly, they are a good thing.

Taking examples from human culture, if a salesman smiles at you, you may reasonably engage some filters rather than just treating the forthcoming conversation like any other. Similarly, if a politician promises you milk and honey, you may reasonable wonder who will pay for it, or what they are not telling you. Some salesmen and politicians don’t conform to the prejudice, but enough do to make it worthwhile engaging the filters.

Prejudices can be positive too. If you see some nice strawberries, you probably don’t worry too much that they have been poisoned. If someone smiles at you, you will probably feel warmer emotions towards them. We usually talk about prejudice when we are talking about race or nationality or religion but all prejudice is is pre-judgement of a person or object or situation based on any clues we can pick up. If we didn’t prejudge things at all we would waste a great deal of time and effort starting from scratch at every encounter.

Error sources

People interpret situations differently, and of course experience different situations, and therefore build up quite different prejudice databases. Some people notice things that others don’t. Then they allocate different weightings to all the different inputs they do notice. Then they file them differently. Some will connect experiences with others to build more complex mindsets and the quality of those connections will vary enormously. As an inevitable result of growing up, people make mental models of the world so that they can make useful predictions that enable them to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats. The prejudices in those models are essentially equations, variables, weightings and coefficients. Some people will use poor equations that ignore some variables completely, use poor weightings for others and also assign poor quality coefficients to what they have left. (A bit like climate modelling really, it is common to give too high weightings to a few fashionable variables while totally ignoring others of equal importance.)

Virtues and dangers in sharing prejudices

People communicate and learn prejudices from each other too, good and bad. Your parents teach you about flames and tigers to avoid the need for you to suffer. Your family, friends, teachers, neighbors, celebrities, politicians and social media contacts teach you more. You absorb a varied proportion of what they tell you into your own mindset, and the filters you use are governed by your existing prejudices. Some inputs from others will lead to you editing some of your existing prejudices, for better or worse. So your prejudices set will be a complex mix of things you have learned from your own experiences and those learned from others, all processed and edited continually with the processing and editing processes themselves influenced by existing and inherited prejudices.

A lot of encounters in modern life are mediated by the media, and there is a lot of selective prejudice involved in choosing which media to be exposed to. Media messages are very often biased in favour of some groups and against others, but it is hard to avoid them being assimilated into the total experience used for our prejudice. People may choose to watch news channels that have a particular bias because it frames the news in terms they are more familiar with. Adverts and marketing generally also have huge influence, professionally designed to steer our prejudices in particular direction. This can be very successful. Thanks to media messages, I still think Honda makes good cars in spite of having bought one that has easily had more faults than all my previous cars combined. I have to engage my own rationality filters to prevent me considering them for my next car. Prejudice says they are great, personal experience says they are not.

So, modern life provides many sources of errors for our prejudice databases, and many people, companies, governments and pressure groups try hard to manipulate them in their favour, or against others.

Prejudice and wisdom

Accumulated prejudices are actually a large component of wisdom. Wisdom is using acquired knowledge alongside acquired experience to build a complex mental world model that reliably indicates how a hypothetical situation might play out. The quality of one’s mental world model hopefully improves with age and experience and acquired knowledge, though that is by no means guaranteed. People gain wisdom at different rates, and some seem to manage to avoid doing so completely.

So there is nothing wrong with prejudice per se, it is an essential survival shortcut to avoid the need to treat every experience and encounter with the same checks and precautions or to waste enormous extra time investigating every possible resource from scratch. A well-managed prejudice set and the mental world model built using it are foundation stones of wisdom.

Mental models

Mental models are extremely important to quality of personal analysis and if they are compromised by inaccurate prejudices we will find it harder to do understand the world properly. It is obviously important to protect prejudices from external influences that are not trustworthy. We need the friendly social sharing that helps us towards genuinely better understanding of the world around us, but we need to identify forces with other interests than our well-being so that we can prevent them from corrupting our mindsets and our mental models, otherwise our predictive ability will be damaged. Politicians and pressure groups would be top of the list of dubious influences. We also tend to put different weightings on advice from various friends, family, colleagues or celebrities, sensibly so. Some people are more easily influenced by others. Independent thought is made much more difficult when peer pressure is added. When faced with peer pressure, many people simply adopt what they believe to be the ‘correct’ prejudice set for ‘their’ ‘tribe’. All those inverted commas indicate that each of these is a matter of prejudice too.

Bad prejudices

Where we do find problems from prejudice is in areas like race and religion, mainly because our tribal identity includes identification with a particular race or religion (or indeed atheism). Strong tribal forces in human nature push people to favour those of their own tribe over others, and we see that at every level of tribe, whether it is a work group or an entire nation. So we are more inclined to believe good things about our own tribe than others. The number of experiences we have of other tribes is far higher than it was centuries ago. We meet far more people face to face now, and we see very many more via the media. The media exposure we get tends to be subject to bias, but since the media we choose to consume is self-selected, that tends to reinforce existing prejudices. Furthermore, negative representations are more likely to appear on the news, because people behaving normally is not news, whereas people doing bad things is. Through all those combined exposures, we may build extensive personal experience of many members of a group and it is easy to apply that experience to new encounters of others from that group who may not share the same faults or virtues. One way to reduce the problem is to fragment groups into subgroups so that you don’t apply prejudices from one subgroup incorrectly to another.

Inherited experiences, such as those of columnists, experts brought into news interviews or even the loaded questions of news presenters on particular channels are more dangerous since many of the sources are strongly biased or have an interest in changing our views. As a result of massively increased exposures to potentially biased representations of other groups in modern life, it is harder than ever to maintain an objective viewpoint and maintain a realistic prejudice set. It is very easy to accumulate a set of prejudices essentially determined by others. That is very dangerous, especially bearing in mind the power of peer pressure, since peers are also likely to have such corrupted prejudice sets. We call that group-think, and it is not only the enemy of free thought but also the enemy of accurate prediction, and ultimately of wisdom. A mental model corrupted by group-think and inherited biases is of poor quality.

Debugging Prejudices

Essential maintenance for good mental models includes checking prejudices regularly against reality. Meeting people and doing things is good practice of course, but checking actual statistics is surprisingly effective too. Many of us hold ideas about traits and behaviors of certain groups that are well away from reality. Governments collect high quality statistics on an amazing range of things. Pressure groups also do, but are far more likely to put a particular spin on their figures, or even bury figures that don’t give the message they want you to hear. Media also put spins on statistics, so it is far better to use the original statistics yourself than to trust someone else’s potentially biased analysis. For us Brits, http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/index.html is a good source of trustworthy official statistics, relatively free of government or pressure group spin, though finding the data can sometimes involve tricky navigation.

It is also a good idea to make sure you consume media and especially news from a variety of sources, some explicitly left or right wing or even from pressure groups. This ensures you see many sides of the same story, ensures you stay aware of stories that may not even appear via some channels, and helps train you to spot biases and filter them out when they are there. I read several newspapers every day. So should you. When I have time, I try to go to the original source of any data being discussed so I can get the facts without the spin. Doing this not only helps protect your own mental model, it allows you to predict how other people may see the same stories and how they might feel and react, so it also helps extend your model to include behaviour of other groups of people.

If you regularly debug your prejudices, then they will be far more useful and less of an error source. It will sometimes be obvious that other people hold different ones but as long as you know yours are based on reality, then you should not be influenced to change yours. If you are trying to work out how others might behave, then understanding their prejudices and the reasons they hold them is very useful. It makes up another section of the world model.

Looking at it from a modelling direction, prejudices are the equations, factors and coefficients in a agent-based model, which you run inside your head. Without them, you can’t make a useful model, since you aren’t capable of knowing and modelling over 7 billion individuals. If the equations are wrong, or the factors or coefficients, then the answer will be wrong. Crap in, crap out. If your prejudices are reasonably accurate representations of the behaviours and characteristics of groups as a whole, then you can make good models of the world around you, and you can make sounds predictions. And over time, as they get better, you might even become wise.

42: the answer to life, the universe, and everything

Douglas Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy’ for which introduction to I am grateful to my friend Padraig McKeag.

He listed 42 as the answer to The Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. A good choice I think.

Optional waffle: (I almost met Adams once since we were booked for the same book launch debate, but sadly he had to withdraw on the day so it never happened, and I never got a chance to be one of the many who asked him. On the other hand, the few personal idols I have actually met have confirmed that you should never meet your idols, and mentioning no names, it can be an extremely disappointing experience, so maybe it’s best that I can keep Douglas Adams as one of my favorite authors of all time.)

Speculation on Adams’ use of 42 is well documented. 42 is 101010 in binary, and in base 13, 6 x 9 = 42, 42 is the wildcard symbol * in ASCII etc. Adams denied these, saying 42 had just been a random choice. Check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phrases_from_The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy for more speculations and commentary. Having picked 42, the 6 x 9 joke is exactly what I suspect I would have written to justify it. It is the probably the most common multiplication error for the mathematically differently gifted. I don’t believe the base 13 or asterisk explanations. They are amusing but don’t hold water as The True Answer. I can happily accept he just picked it at random, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong.

101010 has a nice symmetry, a single number with two digits in three groups and 1-2-3 symmetry is itself a fact of life, the universe and everything. It is universally present. It is the basis of fractals, a sort of recursive symmetry which govern many aspects of the development of life, even a key foundation of consciousness.

101010

Suppose 1 and 0 represent the most fundamental things we observe about nature – wave-particle duality, on or off, life or death, existence or non-existence. Above that, we start to see all sorts of 3-way symmetry:

Nature

 

So if you have a lazy day and no boss breathing down your neck, it’s entirely possible to see at least some aspects of The Question of Life the Universe and Everything that might lead to an answer of 42.

Suspended animation and mind transfer as suicide alternatives

I last wrote about suicide in https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/the-future-of-euthanasia-and-suicide/ but this time, I want to take a different line of thought. Instead of looking at suicide per se, what about alternatives?

There are many motives for suicide but the most common is wanting to escape from a situation such as suffering intolerable pain or misery, which can arise from a huge range of causes. The victim looks at the potential futures available to them and in their analysis, the merits of remaining alive are less attractive than being dead.

The ‘being dead’ bit is not necessarily about a full ceasing of existence, but more about abdicating consciousness, with its implied sensory inputs, pain, anxiety, inner turmoil, or responsibility.

Last summer, a development in neuroscience offered the future potential to switch the brain off:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/07/05/switching-people-off/

The researchers were aware that it may become an alternative to anesthetic, or even a means of avoiding boredom or fear. There are many situations where we want to temporarily suspend consciousness. Alcohol and drug abuse often arises from people using chemical means of doing so.

It seems to me that suicide offers a permanent version of the same, to be switched off forever, but with a key difference. In the anesthetic situation, normal life will resume with its associated problems. In suicide, it won’t. The problems are gone.

Suppose that people could get switched off for a very long time whilst being biologically maintained and housed somehow. Suppose it is long enough that any personal relationship issues will have vanished, that any debts, crimes or other legal issues are nullified, and that any pain or other health problems can be fixed, including fixing mental health issues and erasing of intolerable memories if necessary. In many cases, that would be a suitable alternative to suicide. It offers the advantages of escaping the problems, but with the advantage that a better life might follow some time far in the future.

These have widely varying timescales for potential delivery, and there are numerous big issues, but I don’t see fundamental technology barriers here. Suspending the mind for as long as necessary might offer a reasonable alternative to suicide, at least in principle. There is no need to look at all the numerous surrounding issues though. Consider taking that general principle and adapting it a bit. Mid-century onwards, we’ll have direct brain links sufficiently developed to allow porting of the mind to a new body, and android one for example. Having a new identity and a new body and a properly working and sanitized ‘brain’ would satisfy many of these same goals and avoid many of the legal, environmental, financial and ethical issues surrounding indefinite suspension. The person could simply cease their unpleasant existence and start afresh with a better one. I think it would be fine to kill the old body after the successful transfer. Any legal associations with the previous existence could be nullified. It is just a damaged container that would have been destroyed anyway. Have it destroyed, along with all its problems, and move on.

Mid-century is a lot earlier than would be needed for any social issues to go away otherwise. If a suicide is considered because of relationship or family problems, those problems might otherwise linger for generations. Creating a true new identity essentially solves them, albeit at a high cost of losing any relationships that matter. Long prison sentences are substituted by the biological death, debts similarly. A new person appears, inheriting a mind, but one refreshed, potentially with the bad bits filtered out.

Such a future seems to be feasible technically, and I think it is also ethically feasible. Suicide is one sided. Those remaining have to suffer the loss and pick up the pieces anyway, and they would be no worse off in this scenario, and if they feel aggrieved that the person has somehow escaped the consequences of their actions, then they would have escaped anyway. But a life is saved and someone gets a second chance.

 

 

The future of X-People

There is an abundance of choice for X in my ‘future of’ series, but most options are sealed off. I can’t do naughty stuff because I don’t want my blog to get blocked so that’s one huge category gone. X-rays are boring, even though x-ray glasses using augmented reality… nope, that’s back to the naughty category again. I won’t stoop to cover X-Factor so that only leaves X-Men, as in the films, which I admit to enjoying however silly they are.

My first observation is how strange X-Men sounds. Half of them are female. So I will use X-People. I hate political correctness, but I hate illogical nomenclature even more.

My second one is that some readers may not be familiar with the X-Men so I guess I’d better introduce the idea. Basically they are a large set of mutants or transhumans with very varied superhuman or supernatural capabilities, most of which defy physics, chemistry or biology or all of them. Essentially low-grade superheroes whose main purpose is to show off special effects. OK, fun-time!

There are several obvious options for achieving X-People capabilities:

Genetic modification, including using synthetic biology or other biotech. This would allow people to be stronger, faster, fitter, prettier, more intelligent or able to eat unlimited chocolate without getting fat. The last one will be the most popular upgrade. However, now that we have started converging biotech with IT, it won’t be very long before it will be possible to add telepathy to the list. Thought recognition and nerve stimulation are two sides of the same technology. Starting with thought control of appliances or interfaces, the world’s networked knowledge would soon be available to you just by thinking about something. You could easily send messages using thought control and someone else could hear them synthesized into an earpiece, but later it could be direct thought stimulation. Eventually, you’d have totally shared consciousness. None of that defies biology or physics, and it will happen mid-century. Storing your own thoughts and effectively extending your mind into the cloud would allow people to make their minds part of the network resources. Telepathy will be an everyday ability for many people but only with others who are suitably equipped. It won’t become easy to read other people’s minds without them having suitable technology equipped too. It will be interesting to see whether only a few people go that route or most people. Either way, 2050 X-People can easily have telepathy, control objects around them just by thinking, share minds with others and maybe even control other people, hopefully consensually.

Nanotechnology, using nanobots etc to achieve possibly major alterations to your form, or to affect others or objects. Nanotechnology is another word for magic as far as many sci-fi writers go. Being able to rearrange things on an individual atom basis is certainly fuel for fun stories, but it doesn’t allow you to do things like changing objects into gold or people into stone statues. There are plenty of shape-shifters in sci-fi but in reality, chemical bonds absorb or release energy when they are changed and that limits how much change can be made in a few seconds without superheating an object. You’d also need a LOT of nanobots to change a whole person in a few seconds. Major changes in a body would need interim states to work too, since dying during the process probably isn’t desirable. If you aren’t worried about time constraints and can afford to make changes at a more gentle speed, and all you’re doing is changing your face, skin colour, changing age or gender or adding a couple of cosmetic wings, then it might be feasible one day. Maybe you could even change your skin to a plastic coating one day, since plastics can use atomic ingredients from skin, or you could add a cream to provide what’s missing. Also, passing some nanobots to someone else via a touch might become feasible, so maybe you could cause them to change involuntarily just by touching them, again subject to scope and time limits. So nanotech can go some way to achieving some X-People capabilities related to shape changing.

Moving objects using telekinesis is rather less likely. Thought controlling a machine to move a rock is easy, moving an unmodified rock or a dumb piece of metal just by concentrating on it is beyond any technology yet on the horizon. I can’t think of any mechanism by which it could be done. Nor can I think of ways of causing things to just burst into flames without using some sort of laser or heat ray. I can’t see either how megawatt lasers can be comfortably implanted in ordinary eyes. These deficiencies might be just my lack of imagination but I suspect they are actually not feasible. Quite a few of the X-Men have these sorts of powers but they might have to stay in sci-fi.

Virtual reality, where you possess the power in a virtual world, which may be shared with others. Well, many computer games give players supernatural powers, or take on various forms, and it’s obvious that many will do so in VR too. If you can imagine it, then someone can get the graphics chips to make it happen in front of your eyes. There are no hard physics or biology barriers in VR. You can do what you like. Shared gaming or socializing environments can be very attractive and it is not uncommon for people to spend almost every waking hour in them. Role playing lets people do things or be things they can’t in the real world. They may want to be a superhero, or they might just want to feel younger or look different or try being another gender. When they look in a mirror in the VR world, they would see the person they want to be, and that could make it very compelling compared to harsh reality. I suspect that some people will spend most of their free time in VR, living a parallel fantasy life that is as important to them as their ‘real’ one. In their fantasy world, they can be anyone and have any powers they like. When they share the world with other people or AI characters, then rules start to appear because different people have different tastes and desires. That means that there will be various shared virtual worlds with different cultures, freedoms and restrictions.

Augmented reality, where you possess the power in a virtual world but in ways that it interacts with the physical world is a variation on VR, where it blends more with reality. You might have a magic wand that changes people into frogs. The wand could be just a stick, but the victim could be a real person, and the change would happen only in the augmented reality. The scope of the change could be one-sided – they might not even know that you now see them as a frog, or it could again be part of a large shared culture where other people in the community now see and treat them as a frog. The scope of such cultures is very large and arbitrary cultural rules could apply. They could include a lot of everyday life – shopping, banking, socializing, entertainment, sports… That means effects could be wide-ranging with varying degrees of reality overlap or permanence. Depending on how much of their lives people live within those cultures, virtual effects could have quite real consequences. I do think that augmented reality will eventually have much more profound long-term effects on our lives than the web.

Controlled dreaming, where you can do pretty much anything you want and be in full control of the direction your dream takes. This is effectively computer-enhanced lucid dreaming with literally all the things you could ever dream of. But other people can dream of extra things that you may never have dreamt of and it allows you to explore those areas too.  In shared or connected dreams, your dreams could interact with those of others or multiple people could share the same dream. There is a huge overlap here with virtual reality, but in dreams, things don’t get the same level of filtration and reality is heavily distorted, so I suspect that controlled dreams will offer even more potential than VR. You can dream about being in VR, but you can’t make a dream in VR.

X-People will be very abundant in the future. We might all be X-People most of the time, routinely doing things that are pure sci-fi today. Some will be real, some will be virtual, some will be in dreams, but mostly, thanks to high quality immersion and the social power of shared culture, we probably won’t really care which is which.

 

 

The future of questions

The late Douglas Adams had many great ideas. One of the best was the computer Deep Thought, built to answer The question of ‘life, the universe and everything’ that took 6 million years to come up with the answer 42. It then had to design a far bigger machine to determine what the question actually was.

Finding the right question is often much harder than answering it. Much of observational comedy is based on asking the simplest questions that we just happen never to have thought of asking before.

A good industrial illustration is in network design. A long time ago I used to design computer communication protocols, actually a pretty easy job for junior engineers. While doing one design, I discovered a flaw in a switch manufacturer’s design that would allow data networks to be pushed into a gross overload situation and crashed repeatedly by a single phone call. I simply asked a question that hadn’t been asked before. My question was “can computer networks be made to resonate dangerously?” That’s the sort of question bridge designers have asked every time they’ve built a bridge since roman times, with the notable exception of the designers of London’s Millennium Bridge, who had to redesign their’s. All I did was apply a common question from one engineering discipline to another. I did that because I was trained as a systems engineer, not as a specialist. It only took a few seconds to answer in my head and a few hours to prove it via simulation, so it was a pretty simple question to answer (yes they can), but it had taken many years before anyone bothered to ask it.

More importantly, that question couldn’t have been asked much before the 20th century, because the basic knowledge or concept of a computer network wasn’t there yet. It isn’t easy to think of a question that doesn’t derive from existent culture (which includes the full extent of fiction of course). As new ideas are generated by asking and answering questions, so the culture gradually extends, and new questions become possible. But we don’t ask them all, only a few. Even with the culture and knowledge we already have at any point, it is possible to ask far more questions, and some of them will lead to very interesting answers and a few of those could change the world.

Last night I had a dream where I was after-dinner speaking to some wealthy entrepreneurs (that sort of thing is my day job). One of them challenged me that ideas were hard to come by and as proof of his point asked me why the wheel had never been reinvented (actually it is often reinvented, just like the bicycle – all decent engineers have reinvented the bicycle to some degree at some point, and if you haven’t yet, you probably will. You aren’t allowed to die until you have). Anyway, I invented the plasma caterpillar track there and then as my answer to show that ideas are ten a penny and that being an entrepreneur is about having the energy and determination to back them, not the idea itself. That’s why I stick with ideas, much less work. Dreams often violate causality, at least mine do, and one department of my brain obviously contrived that situation to air an idea from the R&D department, but in the dream it was still the question that caused the invention. Plasma caterpillar tracks are a dream-class invention. Once daylight appears, you can see that they need work, but in this case, I also can see real potential, so I might do that work, or you can beat me to it. If you do and you get rich, buy me a beer. Sorry, I’m rambling.

How do you ask the right question? How do you even know what area to ask the right question in? How do you discover what questions are possible to ask? Question space may be infinite, but we only have a map of a small area with only a few paths and features on it. Some tools are already known to work well and thousands of training staff use them every day in creativity courses.

One solution is to try to peel back and ask what it is you are really trying to solve. Maybe the question isn’t ‘what logo should we use?’ but ‘what image do we want to present?’, or is it ‘how can we appeal to those customers?’ or ‘how do we improve our sales?’ or ‘how do we get more profit?’ or ‘how can we best serve shareholders?’. Each layer generates different kinds of answers.

Another mechanism I use personally is to matrix solutions and industries, applying questions or solutions from one industry to another, or notionally combining random industries. A typical example: Take TV displays and ask why can’t makeup also change 50 times a second? If the answer isn’t obvious, look at how nature does displays, can some of those techniques be dragged into makeup? Yes, they can, and you could make smart makeup using similar micro-structures to those that butterflies and beetles use and use the self-organisation developing in materials science to arrange the particles automatically.

Dragging solutions and questions from one area to another often generates lots of ideas. Just list every industry sector you can think of (and nature), and all the techs or techniques or procedures they use and cross reference every box against every other. By the time you’ve filled in every box, it will be long overdue to start again because they’ll all have moved on.

But however effective they are, these mechanistic techniques only fill in some of the question space and some can be addressed at least partly by AI. There is still a vast area unexplored, even with existing knowledge. Following paths is fine, but you need to explore off-road too. Group-think and cultural immersion stand in the way of true creativity. You can’t avoid your mind being directed in particular directions that have been ingrained since birth, and some genetic.

That leads some people to the conclusion that you need young fresh minds rather than older ones, but it isn’t just age that determines creativity, it is susceptibility to authority too, essentially thinking how you’re told to think. Authority isn’t just parents and teachers, or government, but colleagues and friends, mainly your peer group. People often don’t see peers as authority but needing their approval is as much a force as any. I am frequently amused spotting young people on the tube that clearly think they are true individuals with no respect for authority. They stick out a mile because they wear the uniform that all the young people who are individuals and don’t respect authority wear. It’s almost compulsory. They are so locked in by the authority and cultural language of those they want to impress by being different that they all end up being the same. Many ‘creatives’ suffer the same problem, you can often spot them from a distance too, and it’s a fairly safe bet that their actual creativity is very bounded. The fact is that some people are mentally old before they leave school and some die of old age yet still young in mind and heart.

How do you solve that? Well, apart from being young, one aspect of being guided down channels via susceptibility to authority is understanding the rules. If you are too new in a field to know how it works, who everyone is, how the tools work or even most of the basic fundamental knowledge of the field, then you are in an excellent position to ask the right questions. Some of my best ideas have been when I have just started in a new area. I do work in every sector now so my mind is spread very thinly, and it’s always easy to generate new ideas when you aren’t prejudiced by in-depth knowledge. If I don’t know that something can’t work, that you tried it ages ago and it didn’t, so you put it away and forgot about it, then I might think of it, and the technology might well have moved on since then and it might work now, or in 10 years time when I know the tech will catch up. I forget stuff very quickly too and although that can be a real nuisance it also minimizes prejudices so can aid this ‘creativity via naivety’.

So you could make sure that staff get involved in other people’s projects regularly, often with those in different parts of the company. Make sure they go on occasional workshops with others to ensure cross-fertilization. Make sure you have coffee areas and coffee times that make people mix and chat. The coffee break isn’t time wasted. It won’t generate new products or ideas every day but it will sometimes.

Cultivating a questioning culture is good too. Just asking obvious questions as often as you can is good. Why is that there? How does it work? What if we changed it? What if the factory burned down tomorrow, how would we rebuild it? Why the hell am I filling in this form?

Yet another one is to give people ‘permission’ to think outside the box. Many people have to follow procedures in their jobs for very good reasons, so they don’t always naturally challenge the status quo, and many even pursue careers that tend to be structured and ordered. There is nothing wrong with that, each to their own, but sometimes people in any area might need to generate some new ideas. A technique I use is to present some really far future and especially seemingly wacky ones to them before making them do their workshop activity. Having listened to some moron talking probable crap and getting away with it gives them permission to generate some wacky ideas too, and some invariably turn out to be good ones.

These techniques can improve everyday creativity but they still can’t generate enough truly out of the box questions to fill in the map.

I think what we need is the random question generator. There are a few random question generators out there now. Some ask mathematical questions to give kids practice before exams. Some just ask random pre-written questions from a database. They aren’t the sort we need though. We won’t be catapulted into a new era of enlightenment by being asked the answer to 73+68 or ones that were already on a list. Maybe I should have explored more pages on google, but most seemed to bark up the wrong tree. The better approach might be to copy random management jargon generators. Tech jargon ones exist too. Some are excellent fun. They are the sort we need. They combine various words from long categorized lists in grammatically plausible sequences to come out with plausible sounding terms. I am pretty sure that’s how they write MBA courses.

We can extend that approach to use a full vocabulary. If a question generator asks random questions using standard grammatical rules and a basic dictionary attack, (a first stage filtration process) most of the questions filtering through would still not make sense (e.g, why are all moons square?). But now we have AI engines that can parse sentences and filter out nonsensical ones or ones that simply contradict known facts and the web is getting a lot better at being machine-comprehensible. Careful though, some of those facts might not be any more.

After this AI filtration stage, we’d have a lot of questions that do make sense. A next stage filtration could discover which ones have already been asked and which of those have also been answered, and which of those answers have been accepted as valid. These stages will reveal some questions still awaiting proper responses, or where responses are dubious or debatable. Some will be about trivia, but some will be in areas that might seem to be commercially or socially valuable.

Some of the potentially valuable ones would be suited to machines to answer too. So they could start using spare cycles on machines to increase knowledge that way. Companies already do this internally with their big data programs for their own purposes, but it could work just as well as a global background task for humanity as a whole, with the whole of the net as one of its data sources. Machines could process data and identify potential new markets or products or identify social needs, and even suggest how they could be addressed and which companies might be able to do them. This could increase employment and GDP and solve some social issues that people weren’t even aware of.

Many would not be suited to AI and humans could search them for inspiration. Maybe we could employ people in developing countries as part of aid programs. That provides income and utilizes the lack of prejudice that comes with unfamiliarity with our own culture. Another approach is to make the growing question database online and people would make apps that deliver randomly selected questions to you to inspire you when you’re bored. There would be enough questions to make sure you are usually the first to have ever seen it. When you do, you could rate it as meaningless, don’t care, interesting, or wow that’s a really good question, maybe some other boxes. Obviously you could also produce answers and link to them too. Lower markings would decrease their reappearance probability, whereas really interesting ones would be seen by lots of people and some would be motivated to great answers.

Would it work? How could this be improved? What techniques might lead us to the right questions? Well, I just asked those ones and this blog is my first attempt at an answer. Feel free to add yours.

 

 

The future of nothing

Some light philosophical exploration for the weekend.

In everyday life, we all learn that an empty glass still is full of air. If you do it in space, when you remove the air, current physics says that even the vacuum is still supposedly full of virtual particles popping in and out of existence and some scientists are trying to harness vacuum energy to power spaceflight. So the meaning of nothing has changed quite a bit.

My own sci-fi Space Anchor invention uses this principle too, using stacks of Casimir combs that vibrate in such a way that virtual particles can pop into existence and are separated before they can annihilate. This locks the anchor onto the local space time fabric at a quantum level and the anchor then moves with the local space time or can lock on and pivot around a point in space. Dynamic changes in spacetime curvature caused by the movements of stars and planets are used to propel the spacecraft (called the C14). Well, it might work. Nature abhors a vacuum but it won’t let you steal it. You won’t ever see a ‘404 space not found’ error. There might be nothing of any substance in that particular bit of space, but when you prevent those virtual particles that pop up from annihilating and try to move them away, you can’t. The space anchor behaves as a space anchor.

Even in the space between Casimir plates, where virtual particles can’t form, there isn’t nothing. It still has coordinates. These might only be a human construct, but the emptiest space in nature still is full of mathematics, coordinates, equations, references, still potentially full of virtual worlds, in the new sense of virtual, the cyber sense.

To prevent that, the space would need to be virtual itself. It can’t be part of the physical universe, because then it would have a location and an address and coordinates. It needs to be a virtual one to have any chance.

So what about a place in virtual worlds? Can you make an empty box there? A cyberspace world has whatever physics the designers give it. Portal links places together in ways that aren’t possible with normal physics, but they are still navigable. You can work out a route from A to B. In the 1970s computer adventure game, Classic Adventure, you’d find yourself at some point lost in a Maze of Twisty Little Passages. Eventually you’d figure out that and the Twisty Little Maze of Passages and the Maze of Little Twisty Passages were all different locations, 16 in all, and you’d draw a map and escape. To be truly nothingness, it mustn’t be on a map or have any sort of coordinates, not even ‘close your eyes, spin round three times and click your heels’ coordinates.

So, our empty place full of nothing is virtual, in a virtual world, but you can’t get there using any kind of map, it mustn’t have any kind of reference or coordinates by which you might find it. It can be done. A game could randomly spawn random places on a strictly non-repeatable basis with one-time random algorithms, and nobody could ever find one except by accident because it isn’t connected in any way at all to anywhere else and there is nothing there, nothing at all. No light or darkness even, no visual descriptors, no smells, no texture, no temperature, no properties, no coordinates, no space-time. Nothing, absolutely nothing. That could be done.

So we could make nothing, in cyberspace. But you can’t describe it or imagine it and you could only find it by the most unlikely of accidents.

Like most philosophical problems, trying to solve it just causes more questions. If nothing exists but it can’t ever be found except by a rare accident, does it become the hottest property in existence, and does it cease to be nothing when you find it?

The future of I

Me, myself, I, identity, ego, self, lots of words for more or less the same thing. The way we think of ourselves evolves just like everything else. Perhaps we are still cavemen with better clothes and toys. You may be a man, a dad, a manager, a lover, a friend, an artist and a golfer and those are all just descendants of caveman, dad, tribal leader, lover, friend, cave drawer and stone thrower. When you play Halo as Master Chief, that is not very different from acting or putting a tiger skin on for a religious ritual. There have always been many aspects of identity and people have always occupied many roles simultaneously. Technology changes but it still pushes the same buttons that we evolved hundred thousands of years ago.

Will we develop new buttons to push? Will we create any genuinely new facets of ‘I’? I wrote a fair bit about aspects of self when I addressed the related topic of gender, since self perception includes perceptions of how others perceive us and attempts to project chosen identity to survive passing through such filters:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/the-future-of-gender-2/

Self is certainly complex. Using ‘I’ simplifies the problem. When you say ‘I’, you are communicating with someone, (possibly yourself). The ‘I’ refers to a tailored context-dependent blend made up of a subset of what you genuinely consider to be you and what you want to project, which may be largely fictional. So in a chat room where people often have never physically met, very often, one fictional entity is talking to another fictional entity, with each side only very loosely coupled to reality. I think that is different from caveman days.

Since chat rooms started, virtual identities have come a long way. As well as acting out manufactured characters such as the heroes in computer games, people fabricate their own characters for a broad range of kinds of ‘shared spaces’, design personalities and act them out. They may run that personality instance in parallel with many others, possibly dozens at once. Putting on an act is certainly not new, and friends easily detect acts in normal interactions when they have known a real person a long time, but online interactions can mean that the fictional version is presented it as the only manifestation of self that the group sees. With no other means to know that person by face to face contact, that group has to take them at face value and interact with them as such, though they know that may not represent reality.

These designed personalities may be designed to give away as little as possible of the real person wielding them, and may exist for a range of reasons, but in such a case the person inevitably presents a shallow image. Probing below the surface must inevitably lead to leakage of the real self. New personality content must be continually created and remembered if the fictional entity is to maintain a disconnect from the real person. Holding the in-depth memory necessary to recall full personality aspects and history for numerous personalities and executing them is beyond most people. That means that most characters in shared spaces take on at least some characteristics of their owners.

But back to the point. These fabrications should be considered as part of that person. They are an ‘I’ just as much as any other ‘I’. Only their context is different. Those parts may only be presented to subsets of the role population, but by running them, the person’s brain can’t avoid internalizing the experience of doing so. They may be partly separated but they are fully open to the consciousness of that person. I think that as augmented and virtual reality take off over the next few years, we will see their importance grow enormously. As virtual worlds start to feel more real, so their anchoring and effects in the person’s mind must get stronger.

More than a decade ago, AI software agents started inhabiting chat rooms too, and in some cases these ‘bots’ become a sufficient nuisance that they get banned. The front that they present is shallow but can give an illusion of reality. In some degree, they are an extension of the person or people that wrote their code. In fact, some are deliberately designed to represent a person when they are not present. The experiences that they have can’t be properly internalized by their creators, so they are a very limited extension to self. But how long will that be true? Eventually, with direct brain links and transhuman brain extensions into cyberspace, the combined experiences of I-bots may be fully available to consciousness just the same as first hand experiences.

Then it will get interesting. Some of those bots might be part of multiple people. People’s consciousnesses will start to overlap. People might collect them, or subscribe to them. Much as you might subscribe to my blog, maybe one day, part of one person’s mind, manifested as a bot or directly ‘published’, will become part of your mind. Some people will become absorbed into the experience and adopt so many that their own original personality becomes diluted to the point of disappearance. They will become just an interference pattern of numerous minds. Some will be so infectious that they will spread widely. For many, it will be impossible to die, and for many others, their minds will be spread globally. The hive minds of Dr Who, then later the Borg on Star Trek are conceptual prototypes but as with any sci-fi, they are limited by the imagination of the time they were conceived. By the time they become feasible, we will have moved on and the playground will be far richer than we can imagine yet.

So, ‘I’ has a future just as everything else. We may have just started to add extra facets a couple of decades ago, but the future will see our concept of self evolve far more quickly.

Postscript

I got asked by a reader whether I worry about this stuff. Here is my reply:

It isn’t the technology that worries me so much that humanity doesn’t really have any fixed anchor to keep human nature in place. Genetics fixed our biological nature and our values and morality were largely anchored by the main religions. We in the West have thrown our religion in the bin and are already seeing a 30 year cycle in moral judgments which puts our value sets on something of a random walk, with no destination, the current direction governed solely by media and interpretation and political reaction to of the happenings of the day. Political correctness enforces subscription to that value set even more strictly than any bishop ever forced religious compliance. Anyone that thinks religion has gone away just because people don’t believe in God any more is blind.

Then as genetics technology truly kicks in, we will be able to modify some aspects of our nature. Who knows whether some future busybody will decree that a particular trait must be filtered out because it doesn’t fit his or her particular value set? Throwing AI into the mix as a new intelligence alongside will introduce another degree of freedom. So already several forces acting on us in pretty randomized directions that can combine to drag us quickly anywhere. Then the stuff above that allows us to share and swap personality? Sure I worry about it. We are like young kids being handed a big chemistry set for Christmas without the instructions, not knowing that adding the blue stuff to the yellow stuff and setting it alight will go bang.

I am certainly no technotopian. I see the enormous potential that the tech can bring and it could be wonderful and I can’t help but be excited by it. But to get that you need to make the right decisions, and when I look at the sorts of leaders we elect and the sorts of decisions that are made, I can’t find the confidence that we will make the right ones.

On the good side, engineers and scientists are usually smart and can see most of the issues and prevent most of the big errors by using comon industry standards, so there is a parallel self-regulatory system in place that politicians rarely have any interest in. On the other side, those smart guys unfortunately will usually follow the same value sets as the rest of the population. So we’re quite likely to avoid major accidents and blowing ourselves up or being taken over by AIs. But we’re unlikely to avoid the random walk values problem and that will be our downfall.

So it could be worse, but it could be a whole lot better too.