Friday, July 01, 2016

The three sided hope


I joined a photography hobbyist group recently, where once a month, we are invited to take photographs based on a theme. The theme for this month is "Hoffnung". In western philosophy, Hoffnung (hope) and Angst (fear) are the two colors through which the world is painted. A young child, a blossoming flower, or a candle in the dark may signify hope. Their opposites signify suffering and fear. Although this dualistic model is the most common way we think of the world today, it is not natural to India. In India, we think in terms of not two, but three qualities or Gunas. There are three sides to hope, which are exactly the same three sides to suffering. A depiction of hope from an Indian perspective should show all the three qualities. I wanted to take a photograph that captures this Indian perspective about hope.

I decided to try my luck  on a Sunday walk in the park. It had drizzled earlier, but the sun had come out by then. Along the stream, there were a few broad leaves that held gleaming beads of water. I stooped onto my knees and took a few pictures, but I was not very pleased with them. I needed to wade through a thick mud to get to a better angle. I did not have the grit and patience to get to that. 

"Es gibt keine Hoffnung hier", I muttered, echoing the words of Buddha. There is no hope to be found in this bubble of existence. As shadows are sustained by light, so is light sustained by shadows. Hoffnung and Angst are two sides of the same phenomenon. They are sustained by the relative mirroring of one impression by another. Das ist pessimistisch, but such pessimism may be healthy as one wades through this mud of life. Suffering can be eliminated by transgressing these relative realities and realizing the void. But this eliminates hope as well.

But what about the gleaming beads of water that I photographed ? They could be a totem to a dissect the causes of suffering. Upon meditating on them, I observed there are three causes for the suffering and confusion in my own mind.

The first is the overawing power of greed in this world. We are rapidly destroying this planet - our only home. Millions of plant, animal, insect and bacterial species are going extinct as we are usurping their habitats for the cause of industrialization. Ancient dwellers of this planet, living for eons before the first human was ever born, are being decimated. They do not have a voice on the stock market. They do not have a political representation. Such is the fate for human culture too, with thousands of languages in the danger of going extinct. Ancient songs and rituals are disappearing, with people forced into a common uniform of modernity, that speaks in only one language. The defining element of greed is expansion. The free flow of capital will not tolerate any barriers. Like a parasite eating a host species from the inside, this greed is corrupting the values of human society and even the very nature of the human self.

The second cause is the impermanence of beauty. The poet John Keats said that a thing a beauty is a joy forever. But is it ? Every object in this world has to grow old and die. Such is the fate of people, plants and animals. Such is also the fate of art, languages, or ideas. Even if one can defend oneself against the onslaught of greed, how can one do so against the very element of death ? This planet will die, the sun will die, galaxies will drift apart in space, and the whole universe will die in a slow heat death. Mirroring this physical decay is the decay of information structure, as entropy rises. This rising chaos of matter and information will eat every object in this universe, including human beings and their relationships. Paraphrasing the words of the computer scientist Norbert Wiener, it is hard to be optimistic when faced with the grim fate of the universe.

The third cause for suffering is the indifference in this world. When one is confronted with the futility of choice between equally impermanent things, nihilism is the only acceptable viewpoint. What can a finite being do to make a difference to an infinite amount of suffering ? It is a rational response for man to be indifferent to the pain of other men, animals, and anything else in the universe. With rising indifference in society, truth will become a casualty. When we admit that everything is going to die, nothing needs a history. Nothing needs a safeguard of protection. As a computer scientist, I see the mighty force of indifference in how we build the internet and its applications. Provenance is stripped from works of beauty as they are converted into bits, and endlessly mashed up. Technology is turning fakery into an art-form, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the fake from the real thing. Given enough technology, even human relationships can be faked. This indifference will turn a blind eye to greed. As the more vicious and militaristic of people annihilate the others, the world will shut its eyes in indifference.
According to Hindu philosophy, the three causes of suffering correspond to the three Gunas: Rājas, Satva and Tāmas. They encompass the entire vista of suffering in the world. They cannot be reduced any further.  When one imagines a utopia, one is necessarily ignoring one of the three causes of suffering. It may appear that one cause of suffering is reduced, but this automatically increases the effect of another cause. Minimizing suffering requires one to find and maintain a delicate balance between the three Gunas. This is far more difficult than binary narratives such as choosing the light over the dark.

Having indulged the reader on the nature of suffering, I have now the tough task of convincing of hope. But as I said, the three causes of suffering have their counterparts in three causes for hope. To convey this, I need to evoke the Rasa of Shringāra in the mind of the reader. Taking inspiration from the Sanskrit poet Kāḷidās, I will try to describe hope through the beads of water in my photograph. Upamā kāḷidāsasya, as the saying goes in Sanskrit. The simile belongs to Kāḷidās, as he rendered it in the most fetching manner. In Sanskrit poetry, Alankāra refers to ornamentation, which engages the attention of the reader. From Upamā (simile / comparison) are derived Utprēksha (transposition by imagination) and Rūpaka (metaphor / equation of one to another). I will render them in my own limited manner. 

The pearls of water stand tip-toed on the leaves, dispassionate to the world around them, just as Brahma sits in meditation on the lotus rising high above the cosmic ocean. They tell us that in this world of sorrow, imagination and non-attachment will take one to a higher plane of happiness. Each drop is a world of its own, but it reflects the light from every other drop, leading us to imagine if that light is the omnipresent Vishnu who spans between the worlds. This light reveals to us that the greed and narrow-mindedness of people living in their own bubbles will eventually be overcome by the expanding presence of love. The world seems blessed with these rain drops, as water washes the leaves of their sins and renews them, moving them from death to rebirth in every single moment, as Shiva the immortal one is realized as every single object in this universe.

The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the three Gunas of Satva, Rājas and Tāmas. Every object in the universe has an intrinsic composition of these qualities, and based on how they are balanced, it evolves over time. Reflected inwards, these three Gunas converge in the trinity that lead to the inner self. Reflected outwards, they diverge and become Dōshas (faults). Thus, the Gunas are like three gates that lead to hope when opened simultaneously. But when any of the Gunas is taken to excess i.e, when any of gates are opened in isolation, they lead to suffering.

Brahma creates a new virtual world over the cosmos as it exists now. Over time, this virtual world expands in a greedy manner and tries to eat everything. In our minds, and in our societies, we keep creating such virtual worlds. The economic world dictated by money is one such world. Our conceptions of religion, honour, ethnic identity are all such virtual worlds. When this virtual world is not balanced with the two other Gunas, it metamorphoses into greed, which is the first cause of suffering. This greed needs to be overcome by the expanding presence of love, symbolized by Vishnu, and by the indifference to the historical ego, symbolized by Shiva.

The expanding presence of Vishnu to reach into every single object in the universe, also means it has to bear their decay and death, which is the second cause of suffering. Loving attachment to anything in this universe will inevitably cause pain. So this Rājas quality has to be balanced with the creative capacity of Brahma and the ever-renewing quality of Shiva.

Shiva's complete indifference to the historical ego of self (the story that one tells of one's past) will make one oblivious to the pain of others, which is the third cause of suffering. It also makes one not care for one's cultural roots. It leads to the annihilation of passion for beauty. Social and ecological relationships will thus be destroyed. So this Tāmas quality of Shiva has to be balanced with the loving presence of Vishnu and the creative capacity of Brahma.

Thus, the three sides of hope are also the three sides of suffering. Like three sides of a triangle, these three Gunas describe the universe in its entirety and enclose the self. Hope is achieved by the realization of the thinking mind that it is none of the three Gunas, but the deeper self that is centrally located, which transcends them altogether. In Bhagavad Gīta, this is mentioned as
Swadharmē nidhanam shrēyaḥ, paradharmō bhayāvahaḥ
Following the nature of one's own self (swadharma) causes happiness. Following the nature of the others (paradharma), as given by the identification of the three Gunas, causes fear.

This Ātman (self) or its nature (swadharma) are ineffable terms. They can neither be described by words nor depicted as pictures. Thus, all my attempts to capture a photograph depicting Hope are hopeless. However, hope is present in the silence between the sounds, in the unmediated sight, and in the unspoken word. Chinese philosophers call this same phenomenon as the Dao. When one chants a mantra in full attention, or when one sings in full honesty, or when one dances in complete abandon -  when one is completely absorbed in any activity that one forgets one's own ego, in that very moment, Hope is realized as the inner self.

Using water is apt in describing this otherwise ineffable moment, as the Mantra in Taittirīya Āraṇyakā says,
Yopām āyatanam vēdā, āyatanavān bhavati.
The one who knows the root of water, will get established in his roots (his inner self).

This verse is known as Mantra Pushpam. It says that the stars are the root of water, and water is the root of the stars. Everything in the cosmos is maintained by water. In the Sāmkhya philosophical system, water is one of the Pancha Bhūtās - the five elements related to the sensory apparatus of the mind. Water refers to that part of the universe which can be accessed by the senses of hearing, sight, touch and taste, but not by the sense of smell. Unique among the five senses, the sense of smell is completely dependent on memory, and thus on the historical ego. Thus, in this philosophical sense, to sense water, one has to let go of one's memory and ego. This would lead one to the ineffable moment which contains Hope. The presence of water in this universe is a totem that hope is available, however desperate the situation may appear.
Yopām pushpam vēdā, pushpavān prajāvān pashuvān bhavati
The one who knows the flower of water, will become the holder of flowers, society and animal wealth. Through this ancient verse of the Brāhmaṇs, I wish the reader a life filled with Hope.



Notes:  

1) Readers who are conversant in western philosophy will notice that my translation of the German word "Angst" as "fear" is crude. This is for reminding the reader that my translation of Sanskrit terms to English is equally crude. To properly know a tradition, there is no alternative to learning the original language in which the ideas re expressed.

2) Here is an interesting exposition of the Mantra Pushpam through Bharatanatyam.

 


4) The mantras are supposed to be chanted by a person in full attention. There is a specified intonation in how one should chant the mantra, which are marked on the written text. These mantras have been passed down by oral transmission for thousands of years.
 


5) The Mantra Pushpam is typically chanted at the end of Hindu ceremonies, when a flower is ritually offered to the deity. Notice how the ritual ends with an Ātma Pradikshana - a circumambulation around themselves, signifying that the deities are present within their own bodies. 


6) Earlier, I wrote a gentle introduction about the Sāmkhya philosophical system in this blog. I followed this up with an introduction to the Devās in Sāmkhya and the Pancha Bhūtās. I also described the Indian logic of Catuṣkōṭi

7) Identifying a cause for hope is one of the hardest challenges for atheism. Modern atheism is built through a criticism of organized religion in the west, especially Christianity. I can broadly summarize three responses to this problem. If readers are aware of more responses, please point them to me. 

7.a) I found the first response articulated in the excellent book by Bill Bryson "A short history of nearly everything". He says that the odds of the universe constituting itself (all the physical constants in their right proportion) are so low that there is good cause for hope. Furthermore, the odds of a person being born as an individual, with all the genetic forefathers surviving and finding their mates, turns the odds for hope much further. The drawback of this response is "shit happens", also known as the "Problem of Evil" in Abrahamic mythology (tackled, for example, in the Book of Job in the bible). Just because the past has been good, nothing can be taken for granted for the future. Otherwise, we will succumb to the classic error of the gambler. 

7.b) This is the Transhumanist response: medical science will prolong our lives forever and make us immortal. We will merge with the machines and upload our consciousness to a computer. The drawback with this response is that it only addresses the cause-2 of the suffering: death. There is no guarantee that the 1st and 3rd causes of suffering will vanish. In fact, they might be accentuated. People can become immortals and lead crappy lives for an infinite amount of time. Transhumanism is  inspired by the Omega point of Teilhard de Chardin, which I think is derived from an incorrect reading of the Vēdānta philosophy of Aurobindo. The subtle nature of the 3 Gunās as both the cause and cure of suffering is lost.

7.c) This is the response I used to give whenever my friends were feeling down: we have insufficient knowledge about the future, so we cannot assume that it will be bad. Assuming that it is bad means we are making an error of prejudice with insufficient data. I think this is a philosophically sound response to the problem of suffering, but psychologically not effective. 

I think the three-sided response for hope rooted in the Sāmkhya system gives a strong naturalist alternative, but it argues that there is an aspect of the self (Purusha) that cannot be reduced to the constructions of the mind. Other Hindu philosophical systems like the Vēdānta are derived from Sāmkhya, but they posit a reality that is greater than the universe.

8) Deconstruction has become a philosophical pastime in the past century, often being used as a weapon to destroy existing systems of politics or works of art. When applied internally, this is a cause for good, as symbolized by the perennial renewal of Shiva. But when applied externally to other objects, in isolation from the other two Gunās, it becomes a cause for suffering. I think many plans for utopia, going back to the earliest iconoclastic religions, have failed because of this misunderstanding.

9) Water plays an important role in Buddhism, as a meditative tool and similar to how it is used for the Abhishēka of Shiva. Buddhism derives from the Shramāna systems of India, from which Shaivism is also derived. So it emphasizes the deconstruction path of investigation into self. The Shaiva traditions follow a similar line. In contrast, the other religious systems like Vaishnavism or Yōga emphasize the other Gunās of Satva and Rajas. But maintaining a balance between the Gunās and ultimately transcending them is a central aspect of all Indic religions.

10) Here is a website explaining the three Gunas. I found the Celtic looking symbol at the top of this blog from this page. I wonder if ancient European pagan religions had a similar three-fold understanding of reality. If anybody is aware of this, please let me know. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Saga of the space turtles: Intergalactic transmission of life using today's technology

Spaceship  from Star Trek: How close is science fiction to reality ?

The fury of an idiotic race: 
Out, out, brief candle!
Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
This quote is from Shakespeare's Macbeth. It signifies that human life is like a soap bubble: a minor shimmer of existence before it bursts and disappears into death. And such is the fate for the entire human race.  

We humans are living on this planet for an extremely tiny glimpse of time. We may vanish altogether in an instant. All of our cousin species in the Homo genus went extinct. Some of them have indeed lived for much longer than us. For example, Homo Habilis lived for 1-2 million years on this planet.  In contrast, the history of Homo Sapiens is less than 0.2 million years old. Even within our species timeline, the vast majority of our history is unbeknownst to us. We spread out of Africa around 60 thousand years ago. What follows is a ridiculously small amount of time. In comparison, the light from the center of our own galaxy - the Milky Way - will take 26 thousand years to reach us. The Milky Way is around 100 thousand light years across. The nearest galaxy Andromeda is 2.5 million light years away.

It is only about 60 thousand years ago that we started making stone tools and producing cave art. The history is human culture is far shorter. The earliest written alphabet is just 5 thousand years ago. The great religions that are still alive in our society arose even later.  Thus, all the bickering and fighting we do between nations and religions is for a nanoscopic length of evolutionary time. In physics, at scales as minute as this, quantum effects predominate. Random particles and their antiparticles will arise and die in the very next instant. The history of the human race - all our hopes and dreams, passions and petty fights - they all compress into such a meaningless trivium. We arise and disappear before another intelligent life in this universe, if it even exists,  bothers to take a look at the earth.

The physicist Carlo Rovelli says

We are not a species that is known for sticking around. We are not like the turtles, which have lived unchanged for millions of years. We are very much like the other Homo species.
Think like a turtle: A Space Turtle

Our lives on this planet may be short. But before we disappear, we will be tearing down an entire fabric of life. Since our very origins, we humans have been systematically destroying ecosystems and scorching this planet. When we first spread to Australia, about 40 thousand years ago, the continent was green and teeming with life. Soon after humans arrived, grand and gorgeous species of mega-fauna, that lived for millions of years on the continent, went extinct: either hunted down by us, or eliminated by the disruption of the ecological balance by us. The anthropologist Jared Diamond explains that this destruction of ecosystems had terrible consequences for the future development of humans in Australia. With noting to sustain large human societies, the populations began to perish and those who survived had to revert to a primitive lifestyle with minimal technology. Some human populations in Tasmania have even forgotten how to light a fire. Diamond argues that the advantages of civilization are only temporary, and that mismanagement of ecological resources will spell death to civilizational progress. There may be a short explosive burst of death such as wrought by a nuclear war, or a slow painful drawl of death due to famine and pollution. But the end result is the same.

Whatever be our fate, we modern humans bear an intense fury of destruction that would shock even our ancestors. We are turning oceans into acid and the atmosphere into a grand sewage dump for carbon dioxide. As the planet warms due to our actions, we await famines, extreme weather and scarcity of fresh water. We do not know how much of technology, ecological resources and civlization we will be leaving in tact for our future generations. There may not be any large species of animals left on this planet, except those that we imprison in concentration camps called as industrial farms. All big species of animals and plants may go extinct in the wild.

If the rate of species extinction is awful on land, it is even more terrible in the oceans. We humans have been relatively late to make our presence there, but we are making up for the lost time. Many whales, sharks and fish are now facing extinction. Majestic animals like the leatherback turtle, which crosses the entire length of the Pacific ocean in a year, subsisting on nothing but jellyfish, may vanish from earth.  These gentle creatures have survived for millions of years in the same lifestyle. One of my favorite authors - Caspar Henderson, in his "Book of barely imagined beings", recounts a magical moment touching the back of a leatherback turtle as she was laying eggs.
Touching the leatherback holds all the magic of childhood. The animal is vividly alive in a realm that is largely beyond our reach and our imaginations. Later I recall a phrase attributed to Zhuangzi: 'all the creatures in this world have dimensions that cannot be calculated'.
Often, the destruction of life by humans cannot be seen but can be heard by the ears. The musicologist and naturalist Bernie Krause talks about the spectrum of biosymphonies, where different species find and occupy their own niches of frequency, much as individual musical instruments find niches in the timbre of an orchestra. When an ecosystem is damaged, its sound signature changes drastically. We humans are thus systematically destroying the music of this planet. Beautiful sonorific places teeming with life, such as the Amazon basin or the Congo delta, are being turned into silent graveyards by us, disturbed only by our anthrophonic sounds of the motors of vehicles and machine saws.

But is there any hope to save this spectacle of life on earth ? Is there any hope for us - the idiotic race of this planet ? In the grand vista of this universe, there may be no other place as vivid with memories and beauty as our own planet. Can we preserve these memories and relive them in a different time, and in a different planet ?

This is not easy. There is no other planet in our solar system or in adjacent star systems which is even remotely like earth. So this magical spectacle of life cannot be recreated nearby, but how about traveling into deep space ?

Saga of space turtles:


Pale blue dot: where is land ?
 The Pacific ocean on earth is a microcosm for deep space

The first thing we should note about deep space is that it is vast. There is nowhere for us to alight and take a short break. Barring a grand revolution in physics, possibly resolving the mysteries of quantum entanglement and the statistics of dark particles in vacuum, intergalactic travel will need millions of years. There will be no pit stops for us to refuel our tanks. A comparable analogy is humans trying to cross the Pacific ocean. Let us first consider the problem of exploring deep space. Because we do not even know where to go.

In 2014, NASA's Kepler mission found an 'earth-like' planet in the habitable zone. This planet, known as Kepler-186f is 500 light years away from us. This planet may very well be a red flag, but reaching even here will take us at least millions of years. In reality, what we need is a program of constant space exploration to hunt for the right planet. This exploration needs to run for hundreds of thousands of years, spanning across millions of watch-towers in space. We cannot wait for the perfection of science and technology to start this program of space exploration. In fact, we do not have any guarantee that our earth will remain intact for much time longer (probably due to our own foolishness). So we need to start working now: we need to build a space program that can be updated as technology advances in the future. Referring to the Viking sagas and the leatherback turtles, I will call this space program as the saga of the space turtles.

What do I mean by a space turtle ? It is a small self-contained space ship that can be built in a modular fashion. It would have protective outer covering for dealing with cosmic radiation and dust projectiles in space. Inside, it will have long-lasting electronics and robotics gear. It will be equipped with radio and laser transmission equipment, as well as spectrometers and other instruments to do  astronomy.  The optical equipment inside the space turtle should be made such that they have no single point of failure. This can be achieved through recent advances in computational photography, with millions of sensor cells and thin optical components. Similar to the eyes in humans and animals, these computational eyes will be robust to wear and tear, and will rely on computational intelligence for doing most of the interpretation. Thus, each space turtle will be a hardy robotic animal, that can be mass-produced and sent to explore deep space.

First, we need to build a factory outside the earth's atmosphere for fabricating these space turtles and launching them outwards. Capitalizing on recent advances in 3D printing and electronics, we can build such a factory in a relatively small space, possibly by revamping the international space station. It is necessary to do so because sending a new space-turtle should be a relatively simple procedure, which should not require huge budgets simply to launch it beyond the earth's atmosphere. Sure, it is still necessary to overcome the earth's gravitational pull, but it is possible to do this using  the alignment of the moon and other planets and minimal fuel otherwise. Thus, it will become cost-effective to make far more launches than is currently possible.  This is important because, when we are exploring a brand new territory, the ability to perform many experiments increases greatly our likelihood of success. But equally important is our ability to learn from mistakes and update our knowledge. With respect to the space-turtles, it means we need to be able to update their operative procedures from across space: what is their navigational orbit, where are their lenses focused, what type of image analysis software do they have on board to analyze the astronomical observations etc. We should be able to do this as simply as performing a software upgrade across space.


Performing a software update in space:

The Opportunity rover on Mars: A great achievement for software

In any space mission today, the on board software is sealed and finalized several years before the launch. I once visited the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and met with the engineers (my heroes) who sent the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to Mars. These rovers were remarkable achievements of precision in landing and navigation, but the software they had on board was at least a decade old. I was completely dumbstruck when I was told this. In extremely fast-moving fields like computer vision and robotics, this means this software was from a completely different generation of algorithms. This makes it all the more remarkable how it worked perfectly and we were able to achieve such results in navigation and landing.

Space exploration is extremely costly and there is very little room for failure, so a battery of tests are done before the launch to check that the software works under every possible criterion. In fact, rigorous theorem proving and software verification are done to their highest standards in the software meant for space missions. However, these practices are exactly the opposite of how we build large software systems today on the internet. Here, we perform software update at the speed of light and even connect the computers and electronic devices perennially to the internet. We access not only data but also programs through cloud computing. An army of software developers and freelancers collaborate on adding new features and see their results instantaneously. This speed and flexibility in development enables us to take risks and test millions of possible options. It is currently not possible to do this for space missions. But why not ?

A space turtle launched from outside the earth's atmosphere will be a lower risk mission than sending it from the earth's surface using rockets. Secondly, the "intelligence" required in a space turtle will be limited to astronomical navigation and observation, at least initially. This will be much easier to accomplish than greater challenges such as soft landing, or path planning on an exoplanet. So in principle, these software updates can be sent by radio transmission or by optical laser transmission, if there is a direct line of sight to the space turtle. The data that can be transmitted will be then limited in bit-rate, but we are thinking in terms of millions of years to explore deep space. So this is not a problem. When we can perform software update in space, it will be possible to transmit large objects such as the latest neural networks to recognize specific patterns on astronomical images, or those to  optimally navigate and orient the instruments aboard the space ship.

Building an intergalactic network: 

Path of the Voyager mission: The first man-made object to escape from the solar system

When the internet was built in the 1970s, the engineers used to call it the intergalactic network. This was a vision and inspiration for them to build it in a completely foolproof manner, able to withstand large shutdowns of relay servers or even a nuclear attack. Those engineered systems from the 1970s have been a huge success. The internet is an extremely reliable system - probably, the best that the human ingenuity has produced so far. 

So, when do we build a real inter-galactic network ?  Using space-turtles as relay stations, they can be made to communicate with each other and evolve a protocol for transmitting information across space. In order to do this, they have to be dispersed widely to  various locations throughout the solar system, and later, to outside into the deep space. A space-turtle will not be tethered to a fixed geographic location, such as an internet relay point on earth. If the network architecture is fixed, the bandwidth usage can be modeled and algorithms can discover strategies to route information in the fastest and most optimal manner across the network. However, the space-turtles will be moving in deep-space, subject to the relative gravitational pull of different planets and stars. By the time a packet is received by a space-turtle, it may be at a completely different location in space than when the packet was transmitted. This requires the development of a new generation of network routing algorithms.

We also need a new generation of error-checking and parity algorithms to ensure the correctness of the transmitted message. This is even more important for software updates in deep space, where the correctness needs to be checked also in the temporal context i.e, is this the most accurate software for the current physical location that the space-turtle is located in ?

But the beautiful thing is that all of this algorithmic innovation can happen in parallel on earth, independent of how and when the space-turtles are deployed. We can build such algorithms and test them in simulation, or through practical applications such as robots exploring the deep oceans.

Ultimately, a modular and organic network of space-turtles will  decide where to flock together and exchange key pieces of information with each other. This can happen in locations where the space-turtles can recharge their batteries, for example, using energy of the stars. Later on, as the space-turtles explore inter-galactic spaces, they need to communicate with each other to meet at a specific location in thousands of years of time.

I think it is informative to look at the flocking behavior of turtles in the ocean to understand how space-turtles should meet with each other. Turtles get together in large numbers on some safe islands to spawn the young. These young turtles suffer an extremely high mortality rate, but some of them survive and continue the journey. Ultimately, these explorers will have to work in tandem and  identify a planet that is the most suitable for recreating earth-like life. This will be a journey that takes millions or even hundreds of millions of years. But that is okay, we have ample time until the heat death of this universe.

Encoding DNA for millions of years: 

DNA can now be sequenced and synthesized

So far, we have not talked about how to transmit life. There is no life-form on earth that can survive such long journeys in a single life span. Some of the hardiest species - the extremophile Tadrigrades - may survive for decades in a low energy hibernated state, but not any longer. The living tissue of organisms will also need to be protected from high energy bombardment by cosmic radiation. In this scenario, it is foolish to even ask if life can be transmitted in vivo to another galaxy.

However, there is a different possibility, involving the recent technologies of genetic engineering and synthetic biology. It is now possible to write down synthetic DNA into a cell and store it for hundreds of thousands of years. With improved storage, this DNA can last for even millions of years. In fact, this is one of the most promising methods for archiving media information. At an annual company conference last year, when I was working at Technicolor Research, I had the singular privilege of looking at a movie stored as DNA in a colorless solution in a tiny test tube. Using the latest gene sequencing technology, in collaboration with Harvard University,  researchers converted the pixel values in video to a code defined by the nucleotide pairs in DNA. Information is information, and can be encoded into any language and decoded back. In this context, the language is made by the two base pairs of DNA: guanine-cytosine and adenine-thymine. We can create a code to represent the video film and transcribe it into synthetic DNA and thus archiving it.  This is by far the best archival format that is currently available for movies. If we can archive a movie, we can also archive the entire genome of Homo Sapiens. Indeed, we can archive the genomes of millions of species that are necessary for our own survival.

At the other end, there is a decoder, which is a gene sequencing machine (these are already becoming extremely cheap). So far, it is good enough for decoding the video of a film and to project it onto a screen.  But if we want to create life, then things are more complicated. At the current state of technology, we need a frozen egg cell into which the DNA can be impregnated. Our current technology cannot freeze egg cells for more than a few decades.  But this might change in the future.  Another possibility is to synthesize egg cells from stem cells. This is also a technology undergoing rapid development. With the right type of storage and synthetic biology, the decoded DNA can be impregnated into a living cell and then reconstructed into an organism. If and when such technology develops on earth, it can also be deployed on a distant galaxy, a million years deep into the future.

When we have this technology, we can deploy it within the space-turtle. Then each space-turtle contains valuable cargo: gene sequencing machines, DNA storage of genomes, frozen stem cells that can transform into egg cells, as well as computers and navigational instruments. Another tantalizing possibility is that the space-turtles mimic the process of reproduction itself in space. Like how a mother turtle gives birth to a baby turtle, a space turtle should be able to 3D print a baby spaceship in its exact make. During the period of gestation / pregnancy, the mother space-ship can expand in size, making room for printing out the parts of the baby ship. The raw material for 3D printing can be provided beforehand, making it sufficient for producing several generations of space turtles. Another possibility is to collect raw material by grabbing cosmic dust. Over hundreds of thousands of years, sufficient cosmic dust can be accumulated to produce a child space-ship.

Thus, these space-turtles will build a civilization of patient and peaceful life-forms, entirely robotic in origin, but harboring the hopes and DNA of biological life on earth. They will roam distant galaxies in deep space for millions of years. Together, they will build a detailed map of the universe with its myriad galaxies and mysteries. They may even do some scientific investigation on their own, and continue where we humans left off. But ultimately, they will find a suitable habitat for life - the kind based on DNA and wet biology  - so that we can together ponder even greater mysteries.


Reconstructing a biome:  

Species interconnections in a biome

If we take millions of years until we find a suitable planet, we may also take millions of years to make it inhabitable for ourselves. In fact, we can run a fast-paced simulation of biological evolution on this planet. We can accelerate specific evolutionary turning points, by turbo-charging the DNA of the species. As life proliferates by harnessing energy of the stars, it will also make significant changes to the atmosphere of the planet. For example, cyanobacteria can create Oxygen on the planet's atmosphere. Huge forests and coral reefs can be created. These will support large biomes of interconnected species. Predators and prey may flourish for millions of years on this planet and undergo some biological evolution themselves. The space-turtles may keep visiting the planet at periodic intervals, to check the progress on how the planet is yielding to life.

As and when the conditions become appropriate, the space-turtles will introduce key species onto the planet: those which we consider as the fondest memories from our planet earth.  Ultimately, they will introduce humans as well. This may take several millions of years.

I think the current state of scientific knowledge is more or less sufficient for the problem of space exploration, but definitely not enough for reconstructing a biome by modeling the ecological interconnections of species. But hopefully, our knowledge will get better in the coming centuries, and the space-turtles can update themselves over the intergalactic network.

In addition to ecological knowledge, we will also upgrade our psychological knowledge on how and when  environment affects the growth of a person. If we are able to identify the different life-changing moments in a person's life and capture them in the digital format, they can be encoded along with a person's DNA. These phenomena in the environment can then be reproduced exactly in that order, which will create a replica of the same person that was living on earth, several millions of years ago. Thus, we will achieve a version of immortality, as well as a possibility to learn from the mistakes in a past life. We can avoid the terrible mistakes we did as a  civilization, but also those that we did as individual human beings.

If this is not a plan for achieving paradise, I don't know what is.

Relay stations of rocketry: 

In this blog post, I talked about a quasi-spiritual dream. I read in the book "Adventures in Human Being" by Gavin Francis, that humans who keep smiling a lot will have a physical imprint of their smiles on their faces as they grow older. The facial muscles responsible for the smile, when exercised a lot, leave their imprint not only on the physical appearance of the person, but also on the brain. The nerves connected to these muscles produce happiness hormones and make the person think bright and happy thoughts.


So if we keep trying to smile, we may indeed become happy. I think the space-turtles are such a dream that induces a smile. It is far-fetched, but it is not impossible. As we try to build them, we may indeed change our society. By forcing ourselves to think long-term over millions of years, we will see the pettiness of today's politics. We will feel the outrage caused by man's destruction of the nature's treasures. We will be ashamed of the  sacrifice of millions of human lives for nothing. We may even put an end to the endless wars of greed. In this regard, space-turtles are a story I want to believe in. It may not be true, but it is a story that will lead us to a better world.

I have left one thing left unsaid: the whole saga of the space-turtles starts by building a factory outside the earth's atmosphere. This narrative gimmick let me short-circuit the entire process of sending a space-craft up in space. At the moment, only large nations (and billionaires like Elon Musk) can send a space-craft to outside the earth's atmosphere. What is the likelihood that anybody will support my plan ? Zero.

So I need a reasonable plan for this first step: for overcoming gravity and reaching beyond the earth's atmosphere. The computer scientist Alan Kay (one of my heroes) has once said that  "moonshot" goals are terrible for the progress of science.  For example, the Apollo missions have sent humans to the moon, but all space exploration collapsed after that. It became simply too expensive to pursue the leads obtained by the technology. Instead of moonshots, what we ought to have developed was a scalable and organic model of space exploration. I think the space-turtles yield such a model, that grows naturally and ultimately scales to an intergalactic network. But can we build such a model also for rocketry and to reaching beyond the earth's atmosphere ?

If we break the task of overcoming earth's gravity into small chunks, then individual humans and companies can solve them. After all, many companies are capable of making airplanes and many individual humans are capable of making robotic drones. These flying machines can reach great heights, but they cannot refuel in the air and make pit-stops until they  reach beyond the earth's atmosphere. But why not ?

One option is to build a space elevator - a long cable tethered to the ground through which energy can be transmitted. But this again requires huge investment from nations, which may not be forthcoming. Another option is to build flying pit-stops, where other planes can charge and refuel.

If we tether some equipment to a large Helium balloon, it can already rise beyond the earth's atmosphere. But there, it deflates and falls down to the ground. May be, it is possible to coalesce material together in the higher reaches of atmosphere. Like pieces in a jig-saw puzzle, teams of drones can dock into each other and build a greater space-ship. Such navigation and docking is not impossible. With today's technology, we can already perform highly accurate navigation on roads and stormy weather. Similarly, such intelligent navigation technology may enable multiple drones to find and dock together, after which they spend a small amount of fuel and reach into a low-earth orbit.

Another possibility is to transmit energy by laser beam. Each of the drones can stock up some energy, and beam it via Laser to a mother-ship, which can use all of this energy to overcome the earth's gravitational pull and reach a low-earth orbit. There may be failures, some of the drones may fire the laser beam inaccurately. But the nice thing is this system is scalable. It will be possible to repeat the experiment and learn from the previous failures.

Ultimately, if and when life escapes from this planet, it will do so using methods that are scalable and organic.  Like the space-turtles, we need to think in terms of millions of years. Achieving a relay system for rocketry is probably not that hard. We may even solve it in just a few hundred years.

Keep smiling, space-turtles !


Sunday, February 07, 2016

A comparison of Confucian-Daoist dichotomy with the Vaishnavaite-Shaivaite dichotomy : A paraview of Edward Slingerland's "Trying not to try"

The analogy of a chariot for the human mind: (Left) The charioteer in Plato's Phaedrus controlling the good and bad horses (Right) The chariot of Arjuna in Mahabharata, driven by Krishna


Chariot of the mind: 

Plato compares the human mind to a chariot. In his dialogue Phaedrus, Plato speaks of a person's intellect as a charioteer driving a chariot pulled by two horses. One of the horses is of a noble breed - representing the positive aspects of a passionate nature. The other horse represents irrational passions of the body that pull the chariot in the wrong direction. It is the job of the charioteer (the intellect) to perpetually control the chariot and guide it towards enlightenment. This distinction between the cold reasoning intellect (the charioteer) and the hot passions of the body (the horses) may be rooted in the biological nature of the human mind. There are separate neural circuits in the brain - basal ganglia and the limbic brain for fast responsive action (like the horses), and the cortical regions with the anterior cingulate cortex for providing reason and feedback (like the charioteer).

A very similar analogy of the mind as a chariot is present in the Katha Upanishad,  an ancient Indian philosophical text, but with some subtle and interesting differences. They illuminate the distinction between a Platonic worldview  and the Samkhya worldview. The Platonic and Samkhya systems greatly influenced the further philosophical development in the west and India respectively, so it is interesting to look at these differences. The Samkhya system divides the physical nature (Prakriti) into 5 layers of reality:

  1. Annamaya - the inanimate layer e.g, rocks
  2. Pranamaya - the layer of breath e.g, plants 
  3. Manomaya - the layer of mind or sensory-motor control e.g, animals
  4. Vijnanamaya - the layer of intellect or linguistic understanding e.g, human conversation
  5. Chinmaya - the layer of ego or historical self e.g, the memory of humans 
The suffix maya that is used for each of these layers denotes the fact that these layers are measurable and objective. One interesting consequence of the Samkhya system, that is of relevance to artificial intelligence (AI), is that if something is measurable and objective, it can be replicated in a computer.  However, it is not exactly equivalent to the modern reductionist view of the mind. Samkhya accommodates an aspect of mind called Purusha, that can be loosely translated as the experiencer or the unchanging self. This is considered to be beyond and separate from the 5 layers of nature (Prakriti). Unlike Prakriti, Purusha is considered immeasurable and unchangeable.  Many translators have used the word soul to refer to this, but as we have seen, many aspects of the Platonic soul are already described in the 5 layers above. So, the Purusha can be understood as a dramatically reduced  aspect of the soul, beyond all the realms of action, movement or change.

Katha Upanishad follows the lead from the Samkhya system and describes the chariot as follows: the unchanging self (Atman or Purusha) is the lord of the chariot. The intellect (Buddhi) - composed of linguistic understanding - is the charioteer holding the reins. The reins are the mind (Manah) - referring to the sensorimotor control in the brain. The horses are the senses (Indriya).  The paths ahead are the objects of the senses. It is the job of the intellect to drive the horses into the right path, such that the chariot is led to enlightenment.

A very interesting modification of this analogy of the chariot occurs in the parable of the Mahabharata war. In the epic of Mahabharata, the character of the hero Arjuna is a metaphor referring to the philosophical concept of the conscious mind. His chariot is driven by Krishna, who is not any ordinary charioteer. In fact, there are many characters in Mahabharata that are paragons of intellect - Vidura, Bhisma, Drona etc. Probably the best personification of intellect and wisdom in Mahabharata is Yudishtara - the elder brother of Arjuna. But the chariot of Arjuna is driven by none of them, but by Krishna - whose character is a metaphor to represent the cosmic order of the universe.
What does it mean to have one's intellect replaced by the cosmic order ?

 I think we can appreciate this analogy much better by looking northwards from India, and learning about the philosophical history of China.

I recently read a fantastic book by Prof. Edward Slingerland titled "Trying not to try", that narrates the various philosophical debates in ancient China. I will give a paraview of this book in my blog, connecting it with my perspectives as a computer scientist and as a person versed in Indian mythology.  I am also bringing some perspectives from Prof. Slingerland's excellent MOOC course "Ancient China meets modern science", which I am taking right now.

The central concept of Chinese philosophy is a mental state known as Wuwei (pronounced ooh-way) that can be loosely translated as "effortless ease". A related, but not completely identical idea is the mental state termed as "flow" by Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. A sportsperson or a musician is said to be in this state of flow when their conscious brain is switched off and their expert movements are achieved by completely unconscious control. In ancient China, the notion of wuwei went beyond physical expertise and denoted a type of mental and spiritual dexterity. Great philosophers like Confucius, Mencius and Zhuang Zi developed theories on how to achieve this wuwei state.  Unlike western (and to some extent, Indian) philosophy, wuwei brings the notion of salvation to the very present, and connects it to the success of both material and spiritual pursuits.

Why bother with comparative religion ?

I once listened to an interesting podcast on the role of synesthesia in different religious traditions. As often happens in the discussions of comparative religion, this discussion was limited to the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In the study of religion, discussions about how a religious observer experiences his spiritual life are grouped under the term phenomenology. Since the religious experience is inherently subjective, one can argue that it is beyond the ambit of science. This is probably true for theoretical topics such as theology and religious ontology, but phenomenology offers an interesting glimpse for science into the religious mind. Despite the obvious differences in religious ideology between the Abrahamic religions and Buddhism / Hinduism, the phenomenology of what is reported by the mystical people in these various religions are quite comparable. But mystics are a rare breed in any religious tradition. Most people are concerned with improving their lives in the here and the now. In this regard, of all the great religious traditions, I think the Chinese religions are the best in bringing mystical phenomenology and secular lives into a common analytical framework - through the notion of wuwei. Since China was not colonized to the same extent as other cultures such as India,  the study of Chinese religion is also relatively unimpeded by prejudice. 

Thus, in our modern age and era, it is illuminating to study what Chinese philosophers had to say to achieve a harmonious state of mind. In the fields of psychology, computer science and cognitive science, the shadows of Plato and Freud loom large in the subconscious of the researchers. Alternate  viewpoints from China or India may be considered as means to balancing this hidden bias. The analogy of a person's mind to the chariot is especially useful in developing computer software and cybernetic systems, as ultimately they are supposed to serve a human user (the lord of the chariot).


Hot and cold cognition in the human brain: 

The human mind is an engine that runs on at least two gears - hot and cold. This is probably the case for any complex system that has to operate in the real world, with strong constraints on the amount of time available to take any decision. Hot cognition is easier to understand. It is characterized by rapid instinctual reaction to a stimulus from the environment: to escape from danger, to seize an opportunity, to navigate through obstacles etc. Delay in response to such environmental stimulus will be a matter of life and death. Such instinctual response to the environment can be seen throughout the animal world. In humans as in other animals, this behavior is coordinated by the sub-cortical brain areas in the limbic system dealing with emotions and spatial memory. But despite this outward similarity, the human limbic brain is significantly advanced. In particular, it exploits the extra storage and computations in the cortical areas, which can be considered as offshoots of the limbic brain. In any case, hot cognition in both humans or animals is characterized by rapid response to stimulus.

In contrast, cold cognition may be a uniquely human trait. This is performed by slow and rational thinking, where all the alternative hypotheses are explored by the brain in order to take the optimal decision. Cold cognition is the reason why we have science and culture. But rational thinking is computationally expensive and needs a large window of time. Typically, it involves examining and overcoming our structural biases about the world, and this might generate emotional turmoil. At the least, cold cognition requires us to plan deeper into the future, than what can be immediately seen and felt by the senses.

In any real world situation, the human mind is constantly confronted by a choice - whether to rely on hot cognition or cold cognition, to take decision. Most often, this question is not felt consciously, and  is resolved using the cheaper computational apparatus of hot cognition. But in other times, the conflict appears centerpiece in our conscious mind and plays out as a battle.

Should I eat this ice-cream, or should I stick to my diet ?
Should I steal this money, or should I return it ?
Should I prepare for my exams, or should I watch a movie ?
Should I donate money to this charitable cause, or should I keep it for myself ?  

We speak of this conflict as between the heart and the mind, or between the body and the mind, or between emotions and the reason, or between the horses and the charioteer. Resolving these conflicts in favor of cold cognition is not easy, and requires computational resources. Psychologists term this as cognitive overload or ego depletion. Each person has a limited reservoir of mental capacity for voting in favor of cold cognition, and if this reservoir is depleted, will make cognitive mistakes. The structure of the brain responsible for this cognitive control is the ACC (anterior cingulate cortex). The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud had a dismal view of human condition that is torn between this eternal battle between the hot and cold cognitions, which he termed as the id and the super-ego. He wrote that culture and civilization condemns humans to be eternally in this state of Unbehagen (queasy, like a bad stomach upset). Freud moaned that if only the reins of civilization were torn apart, human passions would run loose like free horses and engage as they please in rape and murder. This pessimistic (and frankly, ridiculous) view of human cognition has led to several crappy psychiatric treatments, as well as some dodgy speculation in cognitive and political sciences.

This is where ancient Chinese philosophy may serve as an effective antidote. Like Freud, the sage Confucius realized that there is a battle in the human mind between cold and hot cognition. However, he thought that this battle can be resolved happily. Similar to how a rock is carved into a statue or how a block of wood is carved into a musical instrument, Confucius considered that it is possible to carve the hot cognition into complete alignment with the aims of civilization. With sufficient training, he considered that a person will become naturally and effortlessly good: perfectly dextrous, perfectly compassionate and perfectly courageous. This is a glorious and optimistic vision of human nature, even though it realizes its inherent limitations. I think the Confucian worldview has more support from objective evidence than the Freudian worldview. People don't become rapists and murderers overnight if the lights of civilization get turned off. In fact, during natural catastrophes and disasters, people overwhelmingly help each other and get together as a society. Confucius would reason that this happens because of continuous training of the human hot cognition by living in a civilized society. He valued the importance of daily rituals that show propriety and kindness. He valued a holistic education - that not only teaches students to be effective craftsmen or soldiers, but also instills in them a love for civilization and culture. Thus, arts, sports and music were considered an important part of Confucian education. When the society and culture are organized such that the daily lives of its inhabitants are bathed in a language of rituals, Confucius argued that human virtues such as compassion and courage will be downloaded into the hot cognition, as effortless to perform by a person as an expert musician playing an instrument. This effortless ease is known in Chinese as wuwei.


Wuwei and the paradox of flow:

But is it really possible to achieve a state of wuwei by rigorous training ? Before we look at the broader philosophical definition on goodness and wisdom, we can analyze how the state of wuwei is achieved by sportsmen and athletes.  Every athlete wants to be in the zone and does his best to maintain this zone. But as any athlete can tell, this is not easy. In particular, thinking consciously about how one is playing is disastrous for performance. For example, in tennis, consciously observing the bodily movements of limbs is a recipé for missing the ball. So, a good coach of tennis will desist from commenting on the specific bodily movements of the player, but will give suggestions on how to improve the focus on the game.

In a similar manner, thinking consciously about wuwei will prevent the person from achieving it. In this manner, it is similar to other human unknowns such as how to fall asleep or how to impress a romantic partner. Any conscious artifice or trick will ruin the goal, especially if the person at the other end becomes aware of the trick. When we evaluate the virtue of a compassionate act or that of an artistic performance, we will be displeased if we know that this act is framed or set up as a plot. In Nicomachean ethics, Aristotle says that unlike a craft, a virtue is to be evaluated not just by the final object that is produced,  but by the intrinsic process that produced it. Thus, to be virtuous, a person has to be inherently good and not just fake it. In this regard, wuwei is particularly interesting because the performer and the evaluator are one and the same person. One cannot fool one's own consciousness.

Due to the central nature of wuwei, all Chinese thinkers have grappled with the problem of how to get into this state without consciously trying to get there. The answer of Confucius was to mould the subconscious of the mind, through daily rituals and habit, as well as through signs and symbols that lurk in the environment. But the problem is that these rituals and signs will force the person to be self-conscious, to be aware that he is trying to get into wuwei. This is similar to how a person can ruin a date by reminding the partner ostentatiously, and through every sign and action, that it is a date. This a paradox that cannot be resolved.  Other Chinese thinkers, known as Daoists, took the directly opposing position from Confucius, saying that one should not try at all and just go with the "flow". They systematically went about deconstructing the cultural artifice that Confucius upheld.


Confucian-Daoist dichotomy:

Three laughers at the tiger ravine: Hui Yuan, Tao Yuanming and Lu Xiujing realize that spiritual purity cannot be measured by artificial boundaries

To a novice, Daoist philosophy sounds like environmentalism or nature religion. The book of "Dao di Ching" extolls the virtue of the "uncarved block". It uses a mythological character - the old master (Lao Zi) to contrast the message of the well known master Confucius. The Daoists argued that, by propping up artifice and cultural rigidity, Confucians are doing everything possible to prevent people from getting into the natural state of wuwei. At the core of the debate between the Confucians and Daoists is the very nature of the human childhood: is this something that is inherently good or bad ? Is it something that needs to be preserved or is it something that needs to be sublimated by culture ? Confucians would argue that the wild nature of man, as present in his childhood, is something sub-human. They wanted to refine this nature through the tools of culture. Daoists would argue that this core human nature is the very best that there is. Their mission was to rediscover this original purity by taking apart the artificial notions of cultural rigidity.

Who is correct here ?

This is a debate that is not resolved to this day. During the European renaissance, this debate played out between Hume and Rousseau. The ideals of romanticism not only gave us great works of philosophy, but also great works of art and music. Poets like Yeats and Wordsworth would not have existed without this shift to romanticism in art. In the United States, this debate was spearheaded by figures no less than Thoreau and Emerson.  These debates reverberated throughout the world: Gandhi was deeply inspired by the romanticists and his philosophy was essentially a call to return the world to its original state of harmony with nature. But the romanticists did not win the debate conclusively.

Today, one of the sharpest voices trying to undermine romanticists is that of the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. His tome "Better angels of our nature" is essentially a war cry against romanticism. This book argues through myriad figures and numbers that there is nothing to be salvaged in the wild state of nature and that all human good is a product of an organized civilizational state.  Confucius would approve of Pinker, although their philosophical outlooks are not exactly identical. Notably, Confucius would scoff at the reductionist Freudian mindset that does not find value in hot cognition (or in ancient ritual, for that matter). But what they both share is a disapproval of human childhood. Pinker spends considerable amount of time in his book, arguing how human children are riddled with jealousy and mean behavior. He is following in the foot steps of Jean Piaget, who argued that children do not have a theory of mind in their early years and cannot understand the notions of compassion. However, Piaget may not have the last word. The more recent scientific work on child psychology, described by Alison Gopnik in her brilliant book "The philosophical baby", argues that children have innate compassionate behavior, and that in some ways, their consciousness is superior to that of the adults. Daoists would approve of this research.

Essentially, all philosophical debate can be understood as a dialectic between structuralists and deconstructionists. The structuralists want to build an artifice of civilization and the deconstructionists want to dismantle this and return the society to a state of childhood. In western philosophy, the earliest such dialectic was between Aristotle upholding the structuralist position and Diogenes deconstructing it.

But can we find the complete answer by blanket judgements to one side or the other ? After all, achieving harmony with nature or achieving a state of wuwei are inherently paradoxical quests. The interesting thing about ancient China was that the philosophical innovations rubbed off from one side of the debate to the other, producing an enriching dialectic of thoughts. An important philosopher that refined the Confucian strategy was Mencius, who argued that people have natural sprouts in their soul that can be cultivated into full-scaled virtues. He used the analogy of a farmer cultivating rice sprouts - planting them at the right spot with adequate water and sunlight, but then waiting patiently for them to grow fully. In this way, he accommodated the Daoist argument that human nature is inherently good, but still argued for the centrality of Confucian ritual and learning. Another important philosopher on the Daoist side of the debate is Zhuang Zi, who deconstructed the very romanticist attitude of the early Daoists. He argued that trying to consciously go towards a primitive mode of living is as foolish as consciously following the Confucian ritual: neither would bestow wuwei on the person. Echoes of this debate later reverberated between the zen Buddhists in Japan.

The reason why ancient China achieved such a fruitful philosophical exchange was that neither side of the debate was oblivious to the essential paradox at the heart of wuwei. They saw the value of engaging the other side in the debate. Many Chinese philosophers had close friends who believed in other philosophical paths, but with whom they conversed regularly. This debate continued to flourish   when Buddhism was embraced in China. One of the best examples of this philosophical fluidity between various schools is the story of the three laughers at the tiger ravine.

I am not sure if we have such relaxed attitudes today, even in our scientific communities, about respecting alternate viewpoints and holding philosophical exchange. The western religions have historically suppressed alternate viewpoints. Modern scientific method has weekend these prejudices, but did not abolish them completely. As I argued earlier in my blog, we are often quite reckless in how we think using negation. This thinking is particularly problematic when dealing with topics of an inherently paradoxical nature. In the following, I will present how a philosophical debate quite similar in nature to Confucian-Daoist dichotomy was conducted within Indian culture, which used different strategies to dealing with the paradox.

The duality of Vishnu and Shiva:

Indian culture and religion ultimately stem from the philosophy of Samkhya, which  posits a duality between nature (Prakriti) and the experiencing self (Purusha). It argues how any duality that we observe in whichever situation of life ultimately stems from that root duality.  As I explained in the begining, nature (Prakriti) can be observed in 5 layers, with the higher layers dealing with subtle concepts like intelligence, memory and ego. All of this is considered to be within the realm of objective measurement. In fact, the word Samkhya refers to enumeration. Everything in nature (Prakriti) can be numbered and measured. The residual beyond measurement is called Purusha, and it is described as unchanging, eternal and unmovable.  In contrast, nature (Prakriti) is ever dynamic and metamorphizing between different forms. The mechanics through which different objects in nature transmute from one form to another is given by the 3 Gunas (qualities): Satvik (self reflection or renunciation) Rajas (aggression or growing) and Tamas (inertia or destruction). I described them in greater detail in an earlier blog.

On the topic of human culture and civilization, the gunas of Rajas and Tamas are relevant, which are symbolized at their subtlest level by the deities Vishnu and Shiva respectively. In the Samkhya system, the deities are entirely naturalistic (belonging to Prakriti), and can be loosely understood as programs running on a cosmic computer. Of these two deities, Vishnu preserves culture and Shiva destroys it. Thus, they split very neatly into the Confucian and Daoist camps. Indeed,  Vaishavaites who worship Vishnu extoll the values of culture, where as Shaivaites who worship Shiva deconstruct the value of culture. From a historical and anthropological point of view,  Vaishnavaites had been the most resistant groups in India to changing cultural norms and practices. Many powerful Indian kingdoms followed in the Vaishnavaite mould and aimed to establish order in accordance with civilizational norms. In contrast, Shaivaites were often ascetics and revolutionaries, residing in the wilderness and in the margins of the society. The most extreme Shaivaites are known as Tantrics or Aghoris, who reside in burial mounds and eat rotten flesh. They do this in order to deconstruct their mental constructs  of society and nature. They are India's counterparts to Zhuang Zi's howling sages of the mountains.

There are many myths and stories in Indian culture that elaborate on this dichotomy. But the interesting thing is that the mythologies of Vishnu and Shiva are deeply interwoven with each other. So neither the Vaishnavaite nor the Shaivaite tradition stands on its own, and needs to evoke mythological imagery from the other camps to tell the stories. For example, Vishnu carries a conch shell that symbolizes the wild nature of wind (an attribute of Shiva). Shiva has a son who is the leader of the solar deities (which include Vishnu). So when mythography encodes a cryptic tale of how to achieve a mystical state of mind, it invokes the attributes of both Vishnu and Shiva. This corresponds to the paradoxical nature of these mental states, which cannot be achieved by trying consciously. Sometimes, one has to follow rules and norms. Sometimes, one has to deconstruct them.

This philosophical dialectic on the values of ritual and norms stems from an even earlier period in India. The first division was between the Brahmanas (who praised the Vedic ritual) and the Shramanas (who deconstructed the ritual). The religions of Buddhism and Jainism sprung from the Shramana tradition. Shaivaite and Tantric asceticism also stem from the Shramana tradition. But the interesting thing with  each of these religions is that, once they start to gain a significant number of followers, they had to seriously engage with the opposing philosophical positions. For example, Buddhism split into various camps based on how the ritual was valued. Even as the religions split and multiplied, the mythographical imagery developed by these schools was frequently borrowed by the other camps. As Confucius would argue, this mythographical imagery is like an environmental backdrop that helps the subconscious to be drawn into a state of wuwei. Unlike dry logic that suffers from limitations of expressibility in dealing with paradoxical concepts, mythography provides a cultural language to reason between them.

We can consider the analogy of the chariot to the human mind in a similar manner. Here, the symbol of Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu - the preserver of cosmic order) is used to express the state of effortless ease that is achieved by a person while doing an action. During the Mahabharata war, Krishna instructs Arjuna on how to achieve this effortless ease while performing difficult tasks - these instructions were written down into an independent sacred text known as the "Bhagavad Gita". Krishna asks Arjuna to not consciously desire the fruit of any labor, but to follow a path of desire-less action. If his actions are in accordance with the cosmic order (termed as Rta in India, or as Dao in China), he would succeed.

This message from the Gita is referred to in the book of Edward Slingerland, but unfortunately it is mentioned as a Daoist message. I think it is more in line with Confucius, as is most of the Vaishnavaite mythology. One important point of comparison between Vaishnavaite and Confucian ritual is the nature of timing for the ritual.  Similar to the Vaishnavaites, Confucians had specific rituals for the various seasons as well as for astronomical events (alignment of stars and planets). But unlike the Vaishnavaites, they did not have rituals corresponding to the time of day. In ancient India, the sunrise and sunset were central to the anchoring of the ritual, where the people were instructed to salute the Sun. The outer sun is considered a manifestation of the inner sun, and the supreme head of all these solar deities is Vishnu. Thus, it is natural for Vishnu to retain the role of the preserver for  ritual and culture.

In contrast, Shiva descends from the wild deities of wind (Rudra), who destroy culture and civilization. Shiva is termed as the destroyer of the three cities: the physical world,  the mental world and the sensory world. An important form of Shiva is Pashupathi - the lord of animals, which shows the sacred symbolism of the primitive aspect of nature. Like the Lao Zi, Shiva was also termed as the ancient one. In all these aspects, the mythography of Shiva aligns well with the Daoists.  The abode of Shiva is considered to be the Manasa Sarovar lake, which resides in western Tibet. This leaves open the tantalizing possibility that both the Daoists and Shaivaites have a common cultural point of origin. In any case, exploring this common philosophical bent may help deconstruct the worldview that we now take for granted, but which mostly excludes Indian and Chinese philosophy.




Manasa Sarovar lake: The abode of Shiva


Monday, January 25, 2016

Homebrew AI Club



Last Saturday, I had a great chat on Skype with Samim and Roelof - two very cool guys who are planning a sort of machine learning revolution. I met them on Twitter, where I came across their   "Ethical Machines" podcast. This is a remarkable podcast that I highly recommend to anybody who is interested in AI, computers or the future of society.  Unlike the regular commentary on mass media, whose portrayal of AI is often a one-dimensional caricature of the question "How far are we from the Skynet in Terminator ?", this podcast gives a nuanced understanding of everything about AI. This is because Samim and Roelof are both active programmers and researchers, who follow and shape the most recent trends in AI. But this is not just a technical podcast. It is also about the ethics and politics of AI, as well as about art and culture.

I will give a small profile of Samim and Roelof. They created Gitxiv, which is a nice mashup of Arxiv and Github - two places on the internet where scientific researchers post preprints of scientific articles and the source-code of the projects. Gitxiv is a place of combining these two and more. As compared to various scientific communities, the machine learning community is remarkably open and sharing, with even big companies making the source-code of their projects available for the general public. Gitxiv is a place to bring all these energies together. They are soon planning to extend this venue to share data sets - an important element for reproducing scientific results today.  I feel Samim is an artist at heart, he is interested in AI because it opens a new frontier in creative exploration. He is also a sharp thinker and entrepreneur. He is based in Berlin, which is probably the most interesting place in the world for a person with this combination of qualities. Roelof is a Ph.D student in Sweden, working in the area of natural language processing. But he is also a political activist with a  strong understanding of social activism. In my past, I have briefly participated in activism about free software, though this is nothing to write home about. But I understand how incredibly enriching it is to do the basic ground work in social activism and to engage with people. So Roelof has some great perspectives out of his experiences.

Together, Samim and Roelof are a great team and they both share a passion in democratizing AI technology to the masses. I ran into them through making some snarky comments on Twitter, with my typical pessimism about the future of AI. Especially over the past one year, I grew very critical. I wrote many critical articles in this blog about the progress of AI and about the increasing despondency of our society's future with it. This is rather depressing, as I consider myself to be an AI researcher at my heart. There is a classic trope in PhD-Comics about the "bitter post-doc" - I probably fit this bill very well. When I speak with younger researchers and students, I have to consciously work on what I say so as to not depress them completely.  But my pessimism about AI has less to do with technology, and more to do with the single-minded "Skynet" narrative that our society is building for it.

Speaking with Samim and Roelof literally lifted my spirits up, at least for a brief while. Samim is a very optimistic guy who sees the silver lining under any cloud. Right in the beginning of our chat, he pointed out that we need more narratives on how we tell the AI story. He pointed out that  there are already several positive ones - the ecological perspective, the global consciousness perspective, the young entrepreneurship perspective. Even with my bitter pessimism, I couldn't deny that ! Our chat then became about how we can build on these narratives. We remembered the glorious days of the personal computer revolution in the 1960s and 70s - in some way, we are all fans of the great pioneers like Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay and so on.  At the same time, we are conscious of the great consolidation going on in the market, where huge data clusters are condensing under the rule of monopolies. I talked about the consolidation going on in the visual effects and creative industry, damping some of Samim's hopes that this might be a way out. But Samim is too optimistic to ponder on my negatives. Roelof added a very interesting point - about how consolidation is going on in the sphere of academia and universities. He pointed out the creation of the University of Amsterdam - merging two historically separate universities (religious and secular) into one, and then the creation of commercial research centers within the premises of the university, where students have to sign an NDA before stepping in. This is shocking news to me (well not really, what did I expect !?), but we bemoaned how the Netherlands - which historically had a liberal tradition, that saved European culture from death during the aftermath of the printing press revolution - is no longer as much a  defender of the free culture as it used to be.

We then talked about how, or if it is even possible, to replicate the personal computer revolution in the sphere of AI and machine learning. What we need desperately today is a "Homebrew Computer Club" - the rag tag band of losers, programmers and nerds, which in the 1970s took on the grand big monopolies of Xerox and IBM. I mentioned that this has to be a popular movement, not limited to the elite set of programmers and researchers, but inclusive of all sections of the society: the young kids at school, old people, and especially, artists and the creators of culture. We need to get those guys and girls who define the "quintessence of cool". AI and machine learning is something everybody should claim ownership on. But how ?

A few weeks ago, I visited the Paris Machine Learning Meetup - hosted by the brilliant blogger Igor Carron and his co-conspirator Frank Bardol. I talked about virtual faces and Leonardo da Vinci - as  random a mix up of ideas as you can imagine. I have been thinking of going to this meetup for a long time, mostly because I liked its logo, which I show below.

 This logo talks about giving power to the data, but it is really using a revolutionary image of "giving power to the people".  This reminded me of the stories from the early days of computing, where Ted Nelson published his legendary book "Computer Lib / Dream Machines", which also uses the same iconography.


This crazy book used to be the bible for the Homebrew Computer Club. I haven't seen this book, but finding and owning a copy of this is one of my life's missions. This book kickstarted the idea of democratizing computer technology to the masses, much before anybody has seen or heard of a personal computer. What we need today is a seller of such dreams about machine learning for the masses. This includes machine learning for your grandma, your dog, and your street artist. We cannot afford to bind machine learning in the prison of researchers, elite programmers and mathematicians. The only hope to save our society from descending into a totalitarian state is by democratizing AI. But how to do that ?

The meetups sprouting in all major cities of the world show a path forward. They widen the audience from researchers, engineers and managers of fat-wallated companies, to something broader. But there is a long way to go before we get your grandma, your dog and your street artist to get interested in machine learning. Alan Kay thought of computer programming as a medium, something as simple to use as a book. But we have not got there yet. Even bonafide computer programmers don't think of programming as a medium, they think of it as a skill to show off. In reality, programming should be as trivial to do as speaking a language: obviously requiring some training, but something that one can do without conscious effort. We have a long way to go till we get there.

Even though I grew up as a quintessential nerd and studied computer science in various universities, I never understood what computers were all about, until I came across this lecture by Michel Serres in 2007. The French research institution INRIA, where I was working as a doctoral student, was celebrating its 40 years and invited the philsopher Michel Serres to be the keynote speaker of the function. His talk was about a point that is so simple that it blew my mind away: computers are not tools for solving problems, but tools for solving people, who in turn will solve the problems. In other words, all the fantastic applications of computers and the internet are just a side-show to something much bigger: like tiny ripples of water on a tsunami. Very few people understand the real impacts of the computing revolution, because they need to imagine this from a perspective of a "changed brain" or a "new self", not from the present self. But there is a catch - before the computing revolution can catch on and make its true impact, it has to engage with the vast majority of the society. It should not be limited to just the elite few programmers and researchers.

It is not Michel Serres who first articulated this vision, but Marshall McLuhan. This greatly inspired early pioneers  like Engelbart  and Kay. An even early expanse of this vision is from Vannevar Bush, who wrote the essay "As we may think" at the end of the second world war.  In physical terms, a computational way of thinking would rewire the human brain, expanding the higher cognitive functions, as well as those dealing with compassion and empathy. In other words, we will become a better species through the practice of computational thinking. I think the early dreams of the computing pioneers have largely failed. We stand  today in a desolate moonscape of parched desert, where the vast majority of human population live in a prison of apps and trivial status updates - what Alan Kay once reminisced as Henry Thoreau talking about the implications of the transatlantic telephone cable, "that it will help the vast majority of Americans to know about the latest fashion statement of a European princeling". This pessimism about human nature aside, I think there is a fundamental reason why the early dreams of computing pioneers have failed - the lack of useful applications to engage the user to the full potential of computing. I think this is now beginning to change with machine learning.

In the early days of personal computing, Alan Kay and colleagues have made little children draw on the computer screens and play music, and used this as a basis for establishing the principles of computer programming. As a child drew a picture on the equivalent of a "MS Paint" like program, they romanticized that the child was "programming". By the way, "MS Paint" (And Apple Paint, or any of the other clone demos) is a trivialized corruption of the original ideas behind this demo at Xerox Parc, which indeed had educational value to teach many computing aspects. But despite the best efforts of the pioneers, they did not succeed in inculcating a knowledge (and love) of programming in the masses. Today, we might be in a much better position, because we can rely on large data sets, sensors and machine learning source-code to realize far more engaging applications.

So the time for a "Homebrew AI club" is ripe. A new culture of computing can start today, where every human can be an active participant. This can take full advantage of the connecting power of the internet. But what is stopping it ? I don't know. But it may be time to put off our conspiratorial hats and believe in the full potential of the human species. It is time to get rid of the fears of the NSA, the big brother state, the lousy social networks and see the bigger picture.

I don't know how and when this massive social change will happen. But after talking with Samim and Roelof, and generally brewing some thoughts in my puny head, I have a list of points to ponder on.

Ten commandments about AI (actually, just ten talking points) : 

1) The word "homebrew" is brilliant. It is reminiscent of home-brew alcohol, which has a direct benefit on the human user, and which immediately alters the mental states, which is exactly what we need to aim for.

2) We need artists. Anything big like a social revolution will not happen due to a bunch of nerds talking about mathematical equations. We need big mojo people like Che Guvera or Steve Jobs (though less arrogance and ass-holish behavior would be nice). Heck, we need women. It is high time there are more women in computing. Most of all, we need to engage with people who have a creative spark.

3) All of us nerds need to start at home and explain technology to our families, girlfriends and boyfriends. The first thing to start explaining is probably data security and privacy. There are a monumental number of losers on the web who share their private data without even knowing about it. We should first subtract our friends and families from this group.

4) But privacy awareness and computing knowledge are not one and the same thing. There will never be a magic switch that will bring us to a privacy-respecting world. Living in the digital world will always be a battle against adversarial powers, which in the future, will only become more powerful and obscure though the use of data and machine learning. It is highly important that everybody knows how to keep track of their own data and use it for the better. But how do we train n00bs in this ?

5) An important obligation is with helping elderly people. Most elderly people are already clueless with technology - fiddling with the inner lives of TV remotes and email preferences is not for them. But everybody has a right to lead a dignified life online. Before we snark and snigger on the troubles of elderly people with technology, let's imagine how much more awful our own lives will be when we grow older. Technology will screw us million times over then (that is, if we are still alive then, and did not all disappear in the smoke of a nuclear explosion).

6) The first step about doing machine learning is collecting data. What better place to start than collecting data about oneself: one's own friend's circle, one's shopping habits, one's tax bills, one's entertainment preferences etc.. We need open-source software that helps people to collect data and organize it in a nice manner.

7) The second step is to train people to use machine learning: simple regression functions, then more complicated methods like deep-learning.. It is likely that not everybody will understand the maths behind it. But this is not as important as being able to use these methods in a regular and confident
manner -similar to how one uses home appliances everyday. I still remember the awful day when I, as a fresh graduate student in USA, put a tin-foiled sandwich in the microwave and saw it explode in fireworks. To make it all worse, this happened in front of a bunch of school kids, that I was supposed to teach about robotics ! In my entire life until then, as an engineering student in India, I have never used a microwave oven. If you grilled me about what would happen if you put metal in a microwave, I would have pondered over my physics knowledge and answered correctly that it would explode. But when I was just hungry and wanted to eat my sandwich, physics was the last thing on my head. So I completely failed as a functional user of home appliances in the USA, due to my complete lack of training. With respect to using machine learning, I think we need to train people to be first functional users of technology. Obviously, a few will cross over into learning the maths behind it. But  even if they don't do that, it is still quite okay.

8) The third step is to expand this training to a full programming language. I think most people get it wrong with teaching programming languages. Most humans don't care about the Turing-completeness of a language or a programming paradigm. They just want to get shit done. But knowing about the basics of computability and information theory will be a must for anybody in the future. So we need to train them how to think computationally - what are the types of algorithms, how do we store data structures, how do we evaluate computational cost etc. We need ways to explain this in a simple manner to everybody. We can do this. After all, driving a car is not trivial. Putting a sandwich in a microwave is also not trivial (as I found out). But with a little bit of training, people do both these tasks quite well.

9) We need a way to swallow our nerd pride. It is not easy. We all have to work on it. When you are superior to your peers in some skill that is essential for anybody's survival, you can very often feel smug about your superiority. I don't know if it is humanly possible to not think otherwise. But being a smug monkey is not the point. Evolving from monkeys to humans is our goal.

10) We need to enlist doctors and the medical profession for our help. Of all the various disciplines, I think clinicians have the most respectful view of human potential. Every day, they see broken people in their clinics, but they try to fix them and raise their potential. In a way, great teachers are also like clinicians. They treat each student separately and help them realize their individual potentials. The medical profession is also very relevant because everybody is concerned about their own bodies and their medical choices. Often these choices are complex and require a fair amount of statistical and computational thinking. So we can develop computing paradigms that teach machine learning for people by using their own personal data for medical choices.

I would like to finish off this blog by talking about narratives, and about the stories we need to tell about AI. I will use two existing pop culture narratives - the movies "Star Wars" and "Lord of the Rings". I am a great fan of both these movies.

The "Return of the Jedi" from the Star Wars movies gives a very nice narrative about how a "primitive" tribe of Ewoks overcame the much greater power of imperial storm troopers. Sure, there were a few Jedi warriors who were helping them, but the Ewoks were the fundamental game changer in the battle, which is one of the most lovely aspects of the movie. In our battle over AI, we need to get the Ewoks - people who value friendship and nature more than technological gadgets.

The "Lord of the Rings" books offer another similar narrative (actually George Lucas was quite inspired by these books).  The final battle with the dark lord Sauron is won through an alliance of elves, men, dwarves, as well as hobbits and ents. I particularly like how central the hobbits and the ents are to these battles, as these are tribes that are not technologically superior, but value friendships and nature immensely. Another nice reference is to the wizards (loosely analogous to the AI researchers), who are split between the forces of the light and the dark.

Well, these are just two narratives, not quite complete, but much better than the stupid Skynet narrative about AI. The danger of the Skynet narrative is that it is fatalistic - as if humanity is like a deer caught in the headlights, unable to do anything about AI.

Robots are going to get your job.
Robots are going to make out with your boyfriend.
Robots are going to eat your babies.
Robots are going to wipe you clean.
No, Robots are going to make your breakfast.
No, Robots are going to make you immortal. 
This binary narratives about AI need to stop ! Humans are the agents of their own lives !

We also don't need help from a Jesus-like savior like in the Matrix movies (yes, hello, the title of my blog). But we need stories that help us believe in everyone.