Sunday, August 23, 2015

Can virtual reality lead us to a virtuous reality ?

Prisoners in a cave seeing shadows on the wall 

Since time immemorial, virtual reality had been a narrative tool for debating philosophical concepts. The brain in a vat, colorfully visualized in the Matrix movies, had been a point of debate before the advent of computers, and even before the advent of writing. The fundamental virtual reality is man's conception of the world in his own mind, which exists even before there is any technology to reproduce it in any form. These debates have produced a rich lore of cultural and philosophical ideas. But today, even as we stand extremely close to implementing virtual reality through technology, we are cut off from these debates about deeper questions, such as how to lead a virtuous life. The Greek philosopher Plato relates a dialogue between the teacher Socrates and his disciple Phaedrus on the virtues of writing. In this, Socrates criticizes the technology of writing for creating false expectations and for corrupting the memory of humans. I think we today need such a critical dialogue on virtual reality, which may be the next great medium for human communication. Before I present arguments for and against virtual reality, I will give a short introduction to the philosophical context.

Plato's cave and Vishnu's dream:  

Plato used the allegory of prisoners trapped in a cave, in order to discuss various political systems in his opus 'Republic'.  These prisoners see shadows of objects projected onto a wall, as lit by a fire which they never see. To them, these shadows represent the entire gamut of reality, and they cannot conceive of a three dimensional object illuminated by natural light. One of the prisoners escapes the cave and sees the world outside, as well as the bright sun illuminating everything. In the beginning, his eyes are unable to take in this light, but gradually he understands the world for what it is. He returns to the cave to explain his findings to the others, but he is unable to find the words to tell them. Further, as he comes back, he finds his eyesight has become incapable of distinguishing the faint shadows on the wall. The prisoners deduce that going out of the cave is terrible, as that would destroy the eyesight. Thus, the prisoners are held in the cave by the captors without the use of force. Some of them need to be restrained by chains, as the person who escaped the cave unnoticed, but the others are there by their own choice. In Plato's narrative, the captors are the people in power - the guardians of the republic. His work discusses different forms of government and their relative virtues. This allegory of the cave is brilliantly rephrased in Emir Kusturica's film 'Underground'. In computer graphics, one of the first immersive virtual environments to have been developed, by Thomas DeFanti and colleagues, was called CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment, following the fashion of recursive acronyms that computer scientists like) in reference to Plato.

Two important questions unanswered in the allegory of Plato's cave are how would a prisoner realize that he is imprisoned, and how could he escape. The allegory hits the limit of its narrative potential before answering them. In Indian mythology, I am aware of a few allegories that discuss these questions. Unlike Greek mythology, Indian mythology visualizes the world as an onion, with many layers of virtualness - internal personal world, external social world, outer cosmic world and so on - each of which held in place by the actions of gods. The gods can be thought of as subconscious mental processes, who are not always visible to the conscious mind, but visible when inspected with care. These gods can be understood in a hierarchy, with higher gods referring to more subtle processes that drive the simpler ones. When confronted with the illusion of virtualness that is preventing the conscious mind from seeing the true nature of reality, it can either react angrily demanding the destruction of this illusion, or react in mirth smiling at the illusion and going along with the play of it. These two choices refer to the nature of two principal god-heads in Hindu religion: Shiva and Vishnu respectively. There can be many other choices spanning the spectrum between the two. The formal theory of aesthetics and artistic expression in India, known as 'Rasa', specifies 9 different principal emotions, with different gods commanding the different emotions. For understanding virtual reality, it is illuminating to discuss the mythology of Vishnu. Here, the world is understood as the dream of Vishnu. Over the passage of time, the world becomes more complex as well as more repressive and unjust. It is then that Vishnu enters the world in his own dream as a conscious actor known as an 'avatar', helping the right win over the wrong. Thus, an 'avatar' is an automatic process in the virtual world, that appears whenever the world becomes too unjust. From the perspective of a person living in the virtual world, escaping the illusion means realizing that he is one and the same as the dreamer of this illusion, and doing actions in this world that are just and righteous, similar to what an avatar would do. Currently, the word 'virtual avatar' has taken quite a different meaning - to refer to a simple participant obeying the rules of the game in the virtual world.

Digital, cyber and virtual: 

What is a virtual world ? Do newspapers and television media count as virtual worlds ? Can we consider early internet bulletin boards and social forums as virtual worlds ? What about social media - websites such as Facebook or Twitter ?  What about head-mounted displays such as Oculus Rift or Microsoft Hololens ? I think they are all virtual worlds in some sense, with each technological evolution getting us closer to the ultimate virtual reality. In the 1970s and 80s, the popular adjective was 'digital', which referred to Shannon's information theory that helps us represent any natural signal or phenomenon as digital information. Later on, in the late 80s and early 90s, especially during the rise of the internet, the popular adjective was 'cyber', which originated from Wiener's theory of cybernetics (coming from the Greek root word meaning 'to navigate'), that presented a way to understand human beings as part of a larger technological (or social) system. Personally, I like the words 'cyberspace' and 'cybermedia', as they actively invoke human participation in the technological system. Both these words are slowly going out of fashion. The word 'virtual reality' was invented by Jaron Lanier, another great hero of mine. By this, he meant a world that is 'virtually indistinguishable', for all intents and purposes, from the real world. So the intents and purposes are very important in understanding how close we got to virtual reality. If our intents and purposes in life are just to be passive consumers,  then we are already very close to virtual reality. But I hope that we have deeper desires and dreams. Nowadays, Lanier likes to use the phrase 'being an avatar', to refer to the virtual reality suits that he developed in his pioneering company VPL.  By this phrase, Lanier refers to fully using the body (hands, fingers etc.) and holding active human agency while navigating the virtual world. The popular media today uses virtual reality (often condensed as VR) to mean head-mounted displays like Oculus Rift, which currently do not even feature any controls for the hands. This is a dramatic reduction in scope for the phrase 'virtually indistinguishable from the real world'. It is far easier to build a virtual world where the user watches passively or has very limited set of controls. But these limitations of user-interface are a form of slavery and repression. Unfortunately, most people do not realize them to be so, until they are completely engulfed in the virtual world and cannot escape. In this blog, I will try to elaborate on these issues. I will use the word virtual reality (VR) how Lanier has meant it. Digital media, cyberspace, social media and immersive media can all be considered as partial fulfillments of VR.

What is a virtuous life ?
Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin, impatience. Because of impatience we are driven out of paradise. Because of impatience we cannot return. - Franz Kafka 
Every religion has a list of cardinal sins and virtues and devises a scheme to optimize the personal time and resources of its followers, towards achieving these virtues. Kafka has tried to condense all the sins into a single sin of impatience. Going by his opinion, cultivating a lot of patience may be a good virtue, something I am not sure the internet encourages. I find it absolutely stunning that none of the world religions have issued any dictates (yet) on how their followers should spend their time on the internet. For example, religions that value internal reflection and meditation, such as Buddhism, do not prohibit their followers from using Twitter, which inundates the user's attention with a hodge-podge of unrelated tweets and messages. Checking Facebook or Twitter is probably the opposite of meditation, but even the Dalai Lama uses Twitter. I wonder how Buddha (or Mohammed, or Jesus) himself would have evaluated different web sites and services today. I suspect not many would be to his liking.  Personally, I am not religious and do not have an elaborate philosophy on what one should do in life. I will keep it simple. In life, we can try to maximize money, knowledge, power, or reputation. Depending on what we try to maximize, leading a virtuous life may mean different things. But what is the point of doing any of that if we are doing it alone by ourselves ? What will be the value we are getting from all the other people and beings in nature ? So I think leading a virtuous life means cultivating deep friendships. It is on this premise that I will discuss whether virtual reality can lead us to a virtuous life i.e, whether it can lead us to deep and fulfilling friendships. 

Arguments against Virtual Reality:

1) VR will imprison humans into isolated sensory bubbles. 
Most people today are already hooked to their mobile phones. It is not uncommon to see a family spending time together, but each of them typing furiously into their smartphones. This will only get worse in the future with immersive displays. But people may not even be seeing the same world anymore. This is apparent on the websites which collect massive amounts of user data and offer tailor-made services that better fit to the user profiles. By using services like Google, Facebook or Amazon, users might be getting a very biased view of the world. In the future, we can expect these virtual services to encroach into  real world spaces using augmented reality. An empty billboard or a QR-code might be replaced by user-specific visual information. Noise-cancelling headphones might be equipped with computer chips that filter out specific audio patterns and add other context-specific information. In this scenario, can we still say that we share a common world ?

2) VR will destroy our privacy. 

We are already living in an age of huge data trawling, where government spying agencies and corporate services are collecting every single byte of data that comes out of everybody, similar to how large fishing ships trawl the ocean-floor sweeping the entire marine life into extinction.  The most important effect of this massive data collection is that the spying agencies are able to model not only our conscious actions, but also our sub-conscious, to a degree that we are not even aware of. This dramatically reduces the amount of freedom that we can have as free citizens in a republic. Firstly, the vast majority of people voluntarily silence themselves, avoiding behavior patterns that may be construed by the others as problematic. Secondly, even the few who are noisy and adventurous will not be aware of how deeply their choices of action are restricted. With VR, every single sensory input that comes into the window of the user's perception can be spied upon. With sensors attached to the user's body, many subtle readings about temperature and electro-chemical activity in the body can be spied upon, without the user even being conscious of it. Unlike the philosopher kings favored by Plato and Socrates, the powers that spy on us and make decisions about us will be computer programs that have extreme prejudice and zero wisdom. This is a recipe for death and stagnation of our society and culture. 

3) VR will destroy intimacy with the physicality of the real world. 

The problem with VR is that it doesn't have to be very good (virtually indistinguishable from the real world) in order to monopolize 100% of our attention. At present, VR technology cannot handle touch, taste and smell, even though our body has fine-scale touch, taste and smell receptors. Touch may be the most fundamental of all our senses. It is known that babies who lack a loving touch in their early infancy will suffer from serious developmental problems. Our brains are highly adaptable organs and are constantly rewiring themselves to  cater to the various sensory processing needs. If we spend more time in VR, the sensory information that is still incapable of being reproduced by technology will lose out in our brains. It is known that children who spend a lot of time indoors, reading books in a dim light, will develop myopia. Similarly, people spending time looking at computer screens or head-mounted displays will have their visual receptors compromised. One of the problems with current VR displays is that they don't offer accommodation cues, this creates a type of nausea in people. But with repeated use, the users' brains will adapt and rewire themselves. Similar losses can happen with other senses such as proprioception and balance. Our bodies' multiple senses and motor activation are coupled. Hearing affects smell, touch affects vision and so on. These important cross-sensory couplings will be damaged by the use of VR. It is possible that existing digital technologies may have already massively rewired our brains. 

4) VR will destroy a continuous sense of time. 
When sensory information can be modulated and controlled in VR, it can also be presented in an achronistic manner i.e, different events that happen together in time can be presented at different times to the user. This is already the case when we read news or twitter-feeds. Due to information overload, the computer will make decisions for us on where to prioritize our attention. Depending on the type of digital services we use (whether we pay for them or advertisers pay for them), these decisions may not even be in our best interests. Our brains have evolved to modulate their attention to process different events in time. The notion of internal mental time is fundamental to our cognitive skills. When this is destroyed or usurped by a computer, we become incapacitated in responding to our social and emotional priorities. For example, a friend or a family member might need our attention at a specific point in time, but we may not be available to them immediately. Essentially with VR, in addition to isolated data bubbles, we may also be living in isolated temporal bubbles.

5) VR will inhibit sacrifice and charity. 
It is known to psychologists that people value a virtual sacrifice in a very similar way to a real sacrifice involving their time or money. For example, after users like the Facebook page of a cause, they are seen to be donating less actual money to the very same cause. This will be a problem if the users have to allocate a limited budget of time and resources to a set of real world people and causes. They will be unable to make these decisions in a conscious manner, without a clear accounting of how their virtual time and money is transferred to their real time and money. Thus, they might be fooled into thinking that they sacrificed something to the virtual persona of a friend, while their real friend is left cold and dry. This is currently the case for people subscribing to music services like Spotify or Apple Music. It is not clear how much the artists profit from the involvement of the users. With further virtualization, these channels of communication will become more opaque.

6) VR will become a hate-amplifying machine. 
We are currently living in the golden age of internet shaming.  Gossip is a fundamental means of human communication. In fact, our very language may have evolved as a means of social gossip. We gossip primarily about other people, especially if we perceive the others to be cheating or doing something bad. This is a human tendency that has evolved to maintain social cohesion, when we were living in small groups. But now on the internet, this has become a source of massive social witch-hunts, where a negative message is amplified by a vast social horde in a matter of seconds. People feeling self-righteous and vindicated rush in to destroy the supposed culprit for whatever perceived offense (which is often incorrectly perceived, because of the lack of context). Women and young girls, as well as sexual minorities, are typically the target of this hate-amplifying machine of social media. I dread what new types of shaming await us in VR. People have greater propensity to behave nastily in certain social conditions, which may be unwittingly recreated in the virtual world. Anonymity breeds asocial behavior. Impatience leads to frustration and anger. Stripping things out of their context and presenting them in isolated chunks lead to quick judgmental behavior. In fact, peaceful and empathic behavior is the result of slow processes in the brain, that need a long time to consolidate memories and ideas in the prefrontal cortex. Instinctive behavior is typically the result of the so-called reptilian brains, which are responsible for fight-or-flight decisions. It is easier to design a virtual world that engages the instinctive behavior patterns of people, but which ultimately leads to a hate-amplifying machine.  
6) VR will destroy cultural diversity.  
In nature, there is a give and take relationship between different species in an ecosystem. Different species find ecological niches to cater to specific needs and adapt to the others in their surroundings. Due to biodiversity, even if the competition in nature is intense, every plant and animal has the possibility for specialization. This creates a virtuous feedback loop, with greater biodiversity bringing even more opportunities. However, we human beings don't like biodiversity. We have been singularly responsible for the most dramatic biodiversity loss in recent ecological times. We are by far the most adaptable species on the planet, and we eat into many ecological niches that have been historically filled by other animals. Understanding this is important, because the current technological evolution through the internet is nothing but an extension of our own biological evolution. With internet and virtual reality, there is limited possibility for building cultural ecological niches. When everything becomes convertible to digital information openly tradable on the internet, network effects dictate that only few actors will remain. This will be the death for a vast number of human cultural offshoots.

7) VR will create social pressures for confirmative bias. 
When we humans are conscious that we are being watched, especially by people in power, our behavior changes dramatically. We not only avoid talking about unusual opinions, but also actively look to the crowd to spot patterns of majority behavior and confirm to them. This is particularly true in moments of uncertainty and crisis. With VR, the social pressures for confirmation will be far greater, as we will be watched not only for our speech but also for our body language and subconscious thoughts.

8) VR will create a mistaken notion of beauty and happiness in the world. 
With VR, we all have the possibility to maintain a clean persona, something that removes all of our warts and unique idiosyncrasies. Most people will use this opportunity to showcase an idealistic version of themselves. We can already see this today on Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. With virtual reality, we may have virtual humans that are impossibly good-looking and cleverer than any real person. Natural processes of aging, getting fat, or making socially inappropriate mistakes will be profiled and corrected in the virtual persona. Good friends are like mirrors to our true selves, and when we can successfully hide our true selves, we can never make any true friends.
9) VR will create a pseudo-flat world where anybody can speak, but nobody will listen. 
One of the greatest hopes about the internet was that it would flatten all the hierarchies of power and enable anybody with an idea to come forward and share it with the others. In reality, this flatness on the network has resulted in a rapid monopolization of user attention. Established news outlets, commercial agencies and celebrities keep getting attention, but it is still extremely hard for novices to find an audience. The social rewards  on the network tend to follow a power law distribution, with a very long tail. With VR, when all the senses are controlled by technological gadgetry on an individual user specific manner, it will be even harder to have an ambient social space, where it is possible to bump into new artists and cultivate new tastes. In due time, people will stop publishing and expressing themselves creatively or emotionally. This will be particularly true for elderly people who will suffer from an even greater sense of isolation.

10) VR will pit the living against the dead. 

Through VR, it is possible to reanimate dead actors and celebrities. Unlike living people, who need to support themselves physically for food and shelter, the dead have no such obligations. Consequently, the media created by dead actors and artists, which are managed by their estates, will be able to out-sell the living artists and actors. Thus, the living artists, even those who are extremely talented and who would normally fall under the 1% who succeed in a long-tail distribution, may not find any audience at all. This is extremely discouraging and most people will not even bother expressing anything. Instead, a combination of dead artists and computer programs will control the attention of people. Nothing is more horrific than living people having a relationship with dead people in VR. This is a scary thought that I had in 2003 and this spurred me to write the very first post in this blog.

Arguments for Virtual Reality:

1) VR will become an empathy machine, helping us understand the perspectives of the others. 

VR can be used to record the entire world as seen from a person's eyes, and thus, it offers the possibility to crawl into her skin and step into her shoes. This will give us an opportunity to see the world from the perspective of a child, a woman, a transgender person, a refugee etc. This will help us build a greater awareness of the terrors of famine, war and poverty. Recently, a movie shot with a panoramic camera rig inside a  Syrian refugee camp has been made for the Oculus Rift. How do we ensure that such media will keep getting made and keep catching the attention of people ? I don't think it is straightforward that using VR will make us more empathic, but it definitely has a potential.

2) VR has infinite space for everyone. This reduces tensions for space and ownership. 
Most disputes we have in the real world are due to limited space and property. In VR, every human being can be provided with an infinite estate of space and property. This abundance will reduce the potential for conflict. But we should not be fooled into thinking that everything will be abundant. Human attention will remain scarce, so this will become a sacred resource that will be hoarded. Even if the users are not completely pulled into the virtual world, virtualization of real resources such as houses and cars can increase space. This is the principle behind the so-called sharing economy. But the current economic models of virtualization of resources, as visible in websites such as Uber and Airbnb, do not actually encourage sharing. Instead, they are a form of monopolization of resources and labour. Unless it is the users themselves who are sharing virtual resources (or virtualizations of real resources) in a peer-to-peer manner, without anybody being the middle-man and hoarding data,  the benefits of increased space will not be felt. This is because, from the narrow perspective of the middle-man, scarcity is more profitable than abundance. 
3) VR can accommodate minority languages and cultures, alternative narratives of history. 

Human history is a series of genocides and mass extinctions. Many cultures have disappeared over the tide of time. This process of cultural extinction is ongoing, many human languages today are at the risk of extinction. This is particularly true of poor countries and traditional societies in tribal organizations. If you are a member of a minority language or group, what obligation do you have to preserve this language ? Would you not be reducing your potential opportunities by not learning the majority language and picking up the majority-approved skills for taking up a job ? These are questions that many human beings are facing today. But with VR, it is possible for us to create virtual worlds with alternative narratives of history, where everybody speaks a different language or participates in a different culture. It will be possible for individuals to check in into these virtual worlds to pick up their lost crafts and languages.

4) VR can build a new powerful language to reason about the world, our past history and motivations.   
When we can record our past in intimate detail, we can reason about it in a scientific manner. When we face a tough choice or decision, for example, on a large investment of money, it will be possible to systematically evaluate all the possible alternatives and tally them with our motivations. This is a tool that is currently available only to large corporations with huge data repositories. With VR, it will be possible for individual human beings to reason about their world experiences in a data-driven manner.  Each human being will potentially develop his own personal language of visualization.

5) VR helps connect friends and family with people at a distance or with a physical handicap. 
Communication technologies have already made it possible for us to talk to distant friends and relatives. With VR, it will be possible to share personal spaces and directly be in their presence. People with a physical handicap will also find it beneficial to communicate through VR than in the real world. It will be possible to walk or move their limbs in a manner that suits to their own personal expression than how they are limited by the handicap. People with extreme handicaps such as motor-neuron diseases, can also benefit from computerized input to interact naturally in VR.

6) VR can help overcome prejudice, we can take up avatars that neutralize our bias on gender, race etc.
We all suffer from a set of prejudices and biases owing to our cultural upbringing. For example, people listen to men more attentively than to women. People also have stronger bias against a woman speaking in a strong and forthcoming manner. Most often, these biases are subconscious, even if we do not admit them consciously. With VR, it will be possible to train us to overcome these biases. It will be possible to assign a common gender or race  for all the participants in a virtual discussion room. Important decisions on politics, economics or ethics can be taken by separating the physical charisma of the speaker from the actual comport of his speech.

7) VR can help us imagine counterfactuals, understand opportunity costs of actions, and  plan large development projects.
Little children spend a lot of time making up fantasy worlds. This is now accepted in child psychology as an important process of growing up, as they construct elaborate models of alternative possibilities known as counterfactuals. Even after we grow up as adults, we require a strong imaginative capacity to reason about counterfactuals in order to build elaborate plans. VR will provide a powerful tool to reason about counterfactuals. For example, if we are planning a large development project, we can visualize it in VR before we commence the construction. We can undertake democratic debate where different participants design alternative possibilities of this project and finer details are discussed. It will be possible to run complex simulations of the project, understand the opportunity costs with respect to the alternatives and continuously improve the design.

8) VR can help overcome deficiencies of sensory perception by modulating and amplifying input.
We are extremely limited in our sensory perception by a narrow band of visual spectrum and auditory bandwidth. We are even more limited in our sense of smell. Further, our vision is  limited by opaque objects and occlusions. Most importantly, we do not see many aspects of the real world, because contextual knowledge plays a key role in how we focus our attention. With VR, we will be able to modulate sensory input, recognize important objects and activities and direct user attention to them by amplifying certain aspects of the input. For example, a doctor will be able to visualize the inner physiology of a patient. An electric technician will be able to visualize the corona around a high tension electric cable. A student of paleontology will be able to visualize an extinct species of animals while studying their bones and fossils. Further, it will be possible to combine multiple sensory inputs and translate them from one modality to another. Completely new signals that are aggregated from large data sets, such as the results of a complex physics experiment or activity on the stock market, can be directly fed into one of the sensory modalities in VR.

9) VR can help us appreciate the natural world and preserve it better. 

With VR, we will be able to visualize the natural world and be in presence of magnificent animals and ecosystems. This active sense of presence is important for many people to help appreciate the wonders of the natural world and thus politically organize to better preserve them. At present, VR is limited in outdoor capture of wild ecosystems, but this is changing very rapidly. It will be possible in the future to appreciate the wonders of coral reefs or deep ocean beds, without actually setting foot on them. This will also help preserve these sensitive ecosystems from tourism.

10) VR can integrate multiple human inputs into one grand social brain. 

One of the grand dreams of the internet was that it would help us integrate multiple human expertises into a grand social brain. Unfortunately, instead of bringing out the best in each of us, it has often reduced us to the least common denominator. However, this race to the bottom is not a given. It is possible that VR will help us overcome our prejudices and limitations, and accept the worthiness of the viewpoints of the others. It may even bring in a more effective democracy. It is still early days, so we can keep hoping for the best.

Drugs, obesity and cyberspace:

There is a strong interrelated history between drugs-based counterculture and internet technologies. Many of the pioneers in computing technologies were libertarians who had strong sympathies for the use of drugs. In fact, many of them were inspired by the mind expanding visions offered by psychadelic drugs. Some of these drugs offered the possibility to closely inspect mental processes, and thus push computing technologies towards an expansion of ordinary mental capacities. When people repeatedly use their computers or internet services, they do not understand that they are actively changing their brains. But this is what they are doing.  Jaron Lanier has thought of virtual reality as a "possibility for exploring alternative states of consciousness", such as what traditional shamans do while they enter the bodies of eagles or jaguars in their dreams. Lanier felt that western culture has become too rationalistic and lost a key opportunity for imagining alternative states of being, which is what virtual reality may have to offer. 

Unfortunately, when computing pioneers start developing their technologies, they will have unrealistically high expectations of the common users. Even in the height of the drugs craze in the 1970s, many people did not take psychadelics like LSD. They may offer opportunities for mental introspection and expansion, but most people are scared by the powerful hallucinations. Instead, most people want to take simple and addictive drugs that make them feel good. Psychedelics like LSD are not addictive, where as tobacco, alcohol (or heroin or cocaine) are highly addictive. Most people forget that sugar is also a drug and that excessive sugar consumption is highly addictive. The market ultimately trains the people to get hooked onto these simple drugs like sugar and alcohol, because the resultant behavioral patterns of users are predictable. In essence, people become converted into pigs in a feeding lot,  mindlessly consuming whatever the market dumps in front of them. A global epidemic of obesity is now raging due to this massive mismanagement of these economic imperatives. 

My engagement with internet services today: 

With digital technologies and virtual reality, we are facing a similar situation as in the food market. Large monopolies on the internet, such as Google or Facebook, like us to be pigs consuming information, getting hooked on the dopamine rush of sugar-like elements, such as social acknowledgement or instant gratification. So we are potentially sleepwalking into a nightmare of virtual reality, instead of a possible paradise. What can we do ? Personally, I am training myself not to get hooked on social networks like Facebook. I will never offer social acknowledgement (likes or positive comments) when my friends are sharing personal moments on Facebook, as I do not want to be complicit in them getting hooked to such services. I do not offer a public comment to anybody on Facebook unless it is something I believe to be an unusual or rather controversial opinion. On Twitter, I have a different strategy, which is to avoid participating in witch-hunts. I try there to never say a negative word or message on any person. I find managing Google services to be the hardest. I still haven't figured out a strategy for this, apart from trying to hide some of my data in places where Google cannot reach yet.  The same is true for any other big company almost working like a monopoly: Amazon (e-commerce), Apple (smartphones) etc. It is better to encourage smaller alternative companies, even though their business model is exactly the same.  I try to encourage local producers and companies, closer to the geographic area where I am staying, because this also makes political engagement possible. But these are all short-term strategies. In the long term, we need to find a more sustainable model for humanistic digital services, on a global level. 

Love and slavery:

There is a great passage in the novel 'Beloved' by Toni Morrison. The male character Paul D, who used to be a slave, ruminates over the nature of love.
So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Glass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn't do. A woman, a child, a brother - a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. ....
For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back or shoved it into a croaker sack, well, may be you'd have a little love left for the next one. 

These are heart-breaking passages, and the novelist really captures the essence of slavery in this abject giving up on love. But in the very same novel, the female character Sethe says. 
Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all. 
I think digital slavery through virtual reality is not as terrible as physical slavery. But if we build a tyrannical virtual world, its effects on the human imagination will be equally dismal. Essentially, what we are shaping today are the loves and dreams of future generations. 

Language and slavery: 

When I look at the positives and negative aspects of virtual reality, one common issue stands out - the agency of human users to navigate virtual worlds and create virtual worlds by themselves. At present, virtual worlds (and computing services in general) are opaque to most users. We humans are used to the communication medium of language, which gives us ample opportunities to express ourselves. Even novice speakers can express basic emotions through language, while expert speakers can formulate long and precise arguments. Most people are not aware of it, but language also binds us in chains, preventing the easy germination of certain thoughts and ideas. This is why speaking multiple languages becomes a key cognitive skill that helps us understand the limits of linguistic expression.

With virtual reality, we need a mode of interaction that is similar to language. We are currently far from this, but developing such a language was the original goal of personal computing pioneer Alan Kay. He was instrumental in developing the object oriented language paradigm through Smalltalk, which he hoped would be accessible to young children in schools. Building a framework of computational thinking by virtual reality will be a new medium of human communication.  When today's children grow up speaking in such a medium, they will have greater thoughts and dreams than we can even imagine. If we build it right, it will become a powerful tool for human expression. If not, it will be an instrument of human slavery. Children who grow up being used to virtual slavery will accept real world tyranny.  This is something we should protect them from. The key developer of Smalltalk, Dan Ingalls, has a precious quote about the nature of computing languages.

An operating system is the collection of things that don't fit into a language. There shouldn't be one. 
In fact, with virtual reality, we are currently building tyrannical operating systems, but extremely poor languages for user expression.  This needs to be reversed, until we gradually eliminate the operating system itself.

I would like to leave the readers with the art work of Alex Grey, known as "Net of being". Here, the artist is expressing the subconscious mental state of our society, the dreamer Vishnu, in whom all our internal mental states are connected in an interwoven manner. We need to realize this common consciousness,  which is the only way to fix our society's problems. Art and virtual reality are a means towards that end.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Octopus and the bicycle

In the "Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy", there is a spaceship known as the "Heart of Gold", which is run by a hypothetical physical law known as the "infinite improbability drive". It keeps appearing randomly at the most improbable place in the universe, to pick up some negative entropy in order to drive through the vast reaches of space. This spaceship is probably the best analogy for describing the early days of the internet. It has been just a few years ago, but many people have forgotten the exhilarating thrill of those early days.  Within a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks, you could go to strange places into the far reaches of the human imagination, meet with strangers and learn dramatically new things. Most websites in those days had awful designs, but there was a human being behind each one of them, putting personal time and effort into presenting new and original ideas to the world.

In the years that followed, the internet has increasingly become alienated from this human experience. In the beginning, people used many alternative protocols to navigate the internet. But very quickly, the internet has reduced to mean only one thing - the "HTTP" protocol used to navigate the world wide web (WWW). Within a few years, this reduced even further to just a handful of websites - Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.,  that most people spend their online time on. Each person lives now in a manicured data bubble that is managed by large companies and governments. This shrinking of the scope of what the internet means has happened simultaneously with the increasing realization of the loss of privacy and human agency in using the internet. Instead of enabling us to meet new people and ideas, the internet has become a prison where we can only hope to meet computer programs that either want to sell things to us or to spy on us.  The human has been banished from the internet, and wherever present, he is reduced to a byte-sized computerized doppelgänger of himself. Human communication degenerated into trivial status updates and tweets, as the audience for a long and deep conversation has disappeared on the internet.

I belong to the last generation of people who experienced computers before they experienced the internet. In this sense, I belong to a minority of people who have a living memory from before the technology was locked in. Just like human beings, large computer systems also have a childhood. Preserving those early memories of childhood is essential to remind ourselves of the dreams and alternate possibilities that existed. Much too often as we age, we get stuck in a rigid habit and lose track of our deeper desires. Douglas Adams, the writer who dreamed of the spaceship with infinite improbability drive, also made a documentary called "Hyperland" about the upcoming future of the internet. When seen today, this documentary shows some fascinating glimpses into those lost possibilities.

We lack the right metaphors and symbols to express what we have lost over these years. I would like to present two metaphors in this blog - the octopus and the bicycle, that express two sides of any large computer system, including the internet. I hope these metaphors will give a deeper and more personal understanding, such that we may build a better future for the internet.

The legend of the bicycle

"What a computer is to me, it is the most remarkable tool we have come up with. It is the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds." - Steve Jobs

It may seem shocking to us now, but computers were never supposed to be personal tools of human beings. Ever since their very conception by Alan Turing (even earlier by Charles Babbage), they were supposed to be centralized systems to organize mathematical thought. Nobody understood why you needed to have a "personal computer", as opposed to simply sharing computational resources for whatever you needed to do. In fact, this is exactly what our society is evolving into now, through the paradigm of cloud computing. When we trust large organizations and their computers to take care of our personal information and needs, whether they be Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook or Google, we are acquiescing to the paradigm that we humans do not need personal computers. This was exactly what the pioneers of computer science believed. So what happened in the 1970s and 80s requires some explanation. This personal computing revolution, as visible to the public through Apple and Microsoft computers and software, was a strange anomaly that needs to be explained. This is where we need the metaphor of the bicycle.

In the Swiss town of Basel in April 19, 1943, a chemist named Albert Hoffman had experimented on himself with a small dose of a synthesized chemical that had profound effects on his mental state. He experienced intense hallucinations and requested to be escorted back home. Since there were no motor vehicles available, he rode his own bicycle, taking a trip that was simultaneously physical and metaphysical. That chemical was LSD. In the later years, it profoundly impacted research into psychology, apart from influencing pop culture at large. Hoffman's bicycle trip is commemorated to this day as "bicycle day" by psychedelic enthusiasts.

But before LSD was discovered by the counter-culture, it was being used in scientific laboratory experiments on volunteers. One of the first set of experiments were done in the San Francisco bay area, on a set of physicists and computer engineers. The altered mental states offered by psychedelics were considered an indication of the vast potential for the augmentation of mind, as being investigated by computer engineers. This specific mind augmentation project was the brain child of Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), who had a singular vision of humans working in tandem with computers.  His contemporaries were thinking of computers merely as tools for automating the thinking process, thereby solving mathematical problems in symbolic logic. The common metaphor used was the mechanical clock. But Engelbart had a different vision, he saw the computer as a vehicle that could be used to transport the human mind and to connect with other humans. His vision was so extraordinary that he had a tough time explaining this to his peers and very few people got it. The psychedelic experience had been crucial for many of those people to grasp this vision. The intense personal nature of this experience also proved that any computer-based augmentation needed to be also personal. One of the engineers who grasped this first was Alan Kay. He used the metaphor of the bicycle to refer to a personal computer,  a personal vehicle for the augmentation of mind.

By the early 1970s, an environmental movement has also germinated in the bay area. An influential event was the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog, showing the picture of the earth as taken from space. Riding a bicycle was also a matter of showing environmental commitment. Alan Kay never drove a car and became part of this bicycling community in Palo Alto. He persisted in his vision that computers need to be direct personal extensions of human intellect, as easy to learn as it is for a kid to ride a bicycle, thereby becoming a new medium of expression as Marshall McLuhan formulated. It was extremely hard to communicate this vision in an era of massive mainframe computers. What both Engelbart and Kay had on their side was a remarkable revolution of miniaturization of electronic integrated circuits, known as Moore's Law. Gordon Moore of Intel popularized the notion that electronic chips were shrinking rapidly and at an exponential rate, meaning that computation would be far cheaper in the future. Engelbart realized this trend far earlier and shaped his entire research agenda keeping faith in this future. The quintessential turning point came when he presented the technologies being developed by himself and colleagues in December 9, 1968. Recognized later as the "mother  of all demos", this presentation showed all the main applications of personal computers and the internet - text editing, video conference, graphical user interfaces, windows etc. But this system also had a lot more possibilities which were later lost in the future due to technology lock-in. Alan Kay was in the audience during this demo and this profoundly impacted him.

Kay later joined the Xerox Parc research center and founded the Learning Research Group, where he hired some of the best engineers from Engelbart's team. He had a unique vision in personalized computing through a very high level language, resembling human communication of ideas. He wanted this programming to be so simple that little kids can do this without much training. This vision gave birth to object oriented programming and personalized windows on a computer screen. Due to strict business practices and lack of imagination, Xerox had been unable to profit from this work.

However, the cascade of social revolutions in 1970s that were unleashed by psychedelic drugs, anti-war movement and environmental concern (all merging into the hippy youth movement) has also produced a popular computing enthusiast movement. This was centralized around the Homebrew Computer Club, which explicitly distanced itself from large power structures like universities and big companies. This club was founded by an idealist named Fred Moore, who wanted a people's computer that could be used by individuals to organize themselves and to plan against powerful adversaries. Many hobbyists have learnt their basic tricks from this club and they all wanted to build personal computers, that they personally and exclusively controlled. Many companies have sprung from this vortex of popular enthusiasm, but the most successful of them was Apple. Ultimately, Apple would grow up to be the heir of the innovations from Xerox Parc and SRI, hiring most of those engineers, including Kay. This was where Steve Jobs got his bicycle metaphor from. This story of the high dreams from the 1960s and 70s, that so influenced our society later, is brilliantly recounted in John Markoff's book "What the dormouse said".

In retrospect, a bicycle is a very unusual analogy for a computer. Unlike cars and trains, it is used mostly by one person exclusively. It is also friendly to the environment, leaving no toxic residues. It is a tool that encourages social mobility. Historically, many men and women gained social and financial independence in the early 1900s, when bicycles were introduced. Many people, especially women, had to fight and overcome social barriers for using bicycles. By using bicycle as a metaphor, a computer was symbolizing all these positives as a human tool for individual empowerment. This vision was a gift from the social and political consciousness of the 1960s and 70s.  But this was a very unusual perspective of looking at computers. It would not be valid for very long, especially after the rise of the internet.

The legend of the octopus

“The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money” - Matt Taibbi 

An octopus is probably the closest thing to an alien being that a human can imagine. Many seafaring cultures have imagined a giant squid or octopus as a vicious monster lurking beneath the seas and attacking sailors. In Norse legend, Kraken is a gigantic sea monster that overturns ships. The French science fiction pioneer Jules Verne used an army of giant squids as a plot device in his novel "Twenty thousand leagues under the sea". where they attack the submarine of Nemo.  H. G. Wells imagined an invasion of earth by octopus-like Martian beings.  This subsequently inspired the popular arcade game "Space Invaders". In an episode of the cartoon "Futurama", a giant space squid called Yivo docks it horny tentacles onto every inhabitant on earth, in a thinly veiled criticism of organized religion. Perhaps most memorably, H.P. Lovecraft referred to an octopus-faced alien monster in his story "Call of the Cthulhu". This giant monster lies dreaming underneath the ocean, reaching into the subconscious of the humans who fall prey to its evil thoughts in the dark recesses of their minds. While waiting for the return of Cthulhu, these humans do its bidding by spreading a cult-like religion with murderous practices. 

What is it that gives us major creeps about the octopus ? Is it its suction cups and sensory organs all over its  body ? Is it its  uncanny craggy camouflage ? Is it its slimy soft body that wiggles through nooks and crannies ? Or is it its tentacles ? I think it is the tentacles. 

Political cartoons have long used the octopus and its tentacles to refer to a huge organization with unwieldy power on many areas - railroad companies, oil corporations, British empire, Soviet Union, and more recently, the secret service and financial conglomerates like the Goldman Sachs. The NSA has preemptively cast itself as an octopus wrapping its tentacles over the globe, in a promotional logo for a spy satellite. This is  a classic tactic for preventing an opponent from shaming oneself, by declaring the shameful act as downright obvious and natural. This is a tactic for desensitizing our vocabulary, but can it unsettle a visceral metaphor rooted deep in our fears ? May be not. The giant octopus and its tentacles will remain a symbol for power that greedily wishes to penetrate every activity, that threatens  the very earth and all humanity.  The story of today is that large computer systems are resurrecting this octopus of our fears. I think the analogy with the cult of the Cthulhu is not too far off. 

In earlier days, the computation required to resurrect this octopus was performed on accounting notebooks and ledgers. Vast monopolies like railroads or empires were built on the basis of precisely modeling the needs of a society and staving off all competition to cater to these needs. One of the earliest examples of using electronic computers to do the same business is Walmart, which successfully outcompeted all retailers out of the US consumer market by precisely modeling the needs of the consumers. But the person to completely realize the power of algorithms in modeling and thus commanding the market is a Hungarian programmer known as Thomas Peterffy.  He founded the field of algorithmic trading on the New York stock market. When it was once temporarily outlawed for computers to bid on the stock market, he created a robotic contraption of a mechanical hand that looked at numbers on the display screen and punched in the right keystrokes to make the bids. He is now a multi-billionaire. 

The vast majority of economic transactions today are conducted through such  algorithmic trading. Behind the interface of economic transactions, there are vast models of computation that predict how people are making economic decisions.  If we consider the computational models to be a giant octopus, its tentacles are probing into every single human being. Just as in a living octopus, these tentacles are hungry for sensory input, spreading their suction cups on every sphere of economic activity. Spying organizations like the NSA similarly nurture another and even larger computational octopus, building a global infrastructure to feed its hunger for data. In the civilian sphere, computer companies like Google and Facebook create their own computational octopuses, which dock their trillion hungry tentacles on every human being and suck up every bit of data that floats by in their vicinity.  The rules of the game for economic success of software companies have changed dramatically. The bigger the computational octopus, the greater the economic reward. It has become immaterial and irrelevant to care for the human experience and added value brought in by software, beyond merely using these as baits to hook up human users to the tentacles.  

The futurist and writer Jaron Lanier calls these computers as "Siren Servers", which he warns will destroy, over the course of time, the very market they model to the minutest detail. Lanier doesn't believe that this will be in the interest of the Siren Servers or the organizations they serve. I think he is wrong in making this conclusion. His error is that he believes that there can be multiple Siren Servers, each modeling activity in its own domain. But I believe there is only one single octopus -  one single Cthulhu that whispers into the greedy subconscious of multiple organizations. In the end, they all want to resurrect this octopus and usher its rule on the planet. Each one of them believes that they are the sole master of this octopus, but they are utterly and hopelessly wrong. 

Lanier acknowledges that there is a race between the octopuses (my term, he calls them Siren Servers) to out-meta each other. Each of these octopuses wants to have the most over-reaching definition of action on this planet and suck up as much data as possible to model everything. Essentially, the octopus that can subsume a smaller octopus will eat it and confiscate its tentacles. This is literally how mergers between software companies happen nowadays. The entire software architecture is discarded and the list of users is confiscated. In other words, the tentacles are immortal and they keep coalescing together. The cult of Cthulhu is now the predominant religion in Silicon valley, where venture capitalists incite young entrepreneurs to hoard users and hook them up with tentacles, with no end game in sight except to sell all this data and users to a gogoolpus like Google or Facebook. 

Can you out-compute the octopus ? 

If we had a time-machine and went back to the Silicon valley of the 1970s, engulfed in all the political tumult and socio-environmental consciousness, it would indeed look like a very strange place. The computer engineers of that day would be outraged to learn where we have ended up. Instead of computers helping individual users to outwit the larger power structures, they have unleashed a consummate spying nightmare. Most of those engineers had participated in the Vietnam war protests, and they would have been shocked to learn that our society has accepted this state of affairs as normal, with almost zero political activism. But after the initial shock of anger and despair, they would also realize how hopeless our situation today is as compared to them. 

In our day, it is futile to even hope to out-compute the octopus. In every quantifiable aspect, the octopus will win. The question for an idealistic start up today would be "What can you do that Google cannot do more efficiently ?". The answer is nothing, or close to nothing. Resistance is futile, join the Borg. 

But there is a catch. The octopus needs to have access to data. If you are able to withhold this data and run the computation yourself, your bicycle will outrun the octopus. It is very tempting to believe that you can build an octopus and ride it yourself. But most certainly, it will be the octopus that rides you and not the other way round. This brings us to a catch. Is there any way to slay the octopus at all, if we cannot grow a powerful adversary to counter it ? 

Ride your bicycle to meet your friends

The greatest gift of human life is the ability to make friendships. It is essential that we do not lose this human essence as we migrate to the cyberspace. It is inevitable that more and more of our daily lives will be conducted online. More sensors will be capturing data about ourselves, from our own homes and within our own bodies, often without our knowledge. It is tempting to believe that this sensory data captured from us is the sum-total of our human existence. It is even more tempting to believe that this is the sum-total of other people. But this is wrong. 

It is an illusion to believe we shall have a complete model of our personalities. Acknowledging this honestly will naturally cultivate humility in us. That is the first step towards meeting other human beings on their own terms, and thus building true friendships. 

We should not force people to do this offline. It had been true in the past that we could log off  from the internet and meet friends in the physical world. But this will be increasingly difficult to do in the future. Most people are unaware that they are perpetually logged onto their social networks, personal messengers and email clients. Thus, it is essential that we develop a culture where we meet people in the cyberspace and cultivate deep friendships in this process. 

How do we do this ? I think we should go back to the dreams of the pioneers and bring back the metaphor of the bicycle. We should be unafraid of riding our rickety bicycles into the cyberspace and meeting friends. We meet other people on their own terms and on their own bicycles. We need to build a culture of sharing bicycles and helping each other with them, without imposing a common design and a common aggregation of data. Otherwise, the bicycle will be just a tentacle of the Octopus. It is possible  that large software companies like Google, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft will also realize this before it is too late.  At their very core, the engineers who work for these large corporations are also human beings, and they cannot deny their fundamental humanity. Most of these engineers, knowingly or otherwise, are inspired by the metaphor of the bicycle, to build a better human experience for everyone. If we build a culture of individual expression of human experience, where the software serves as an individualized tool, we may defeat the octopus using an army of bicycles. 

PS: This post is dedicated to the memory of Doug Engelbart. The image is an art work of Alan Maia. You can buy a T-shirt of this art here

Friday, July 17, 2015

What is DMT doing in our brains ? It may be helping us keep time.

DMT stands for N,N-Dimethyltryptamine. As far as organic chemicals go,  it is a fairly simple compound. It can be synthesized very easily and indeed is produced within many plants and animals. It is also a highly potent psychedelic.

It is one of the key ingredients in the hallucinogenic brews of South America e.g, Ayahuasca of Brazil. We have limited scientific evidence of its effects on the human brain. All this research has been banned because politicians got terribly scared of psychadelic drugs. Thank you, Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, you have succeeded in making politicians shit in their pants. There's no world peace anywhere around the corner, thank you very much. "Turn on, Tune in, Drop out". Crap. Due to the heroic efforts of hippies and their political antagonists, we have banned relatively harmless drugs like LSD and DMT, while allowing dangerously psychoactive and addictive drugs like alcohol. Funny times this.

If you want to read some entertaining popular accounts of what happens when DMT is ingested, go to this article on the Vice Magazine. Generally, people report seeing little men or elves, or self-bouncing basketballs.

Anyway, thankfully some research has picked up now on the effect of psychadelic drugs on the brain. It seems that LSD has therapeutic effects in getting people rid of their drug addictions or alcohol abuse. Here is a popular science article by the Scientific American explaining this. It is ridiculous that by banning LSD, we  have arrested the development of a potential cure and condemned decades of men and women to drug addictions.

LSD got into our public consciousness earlier, but it is a rather unusual compound. But, DMT is a far simpler compound and omnipresent in many biological organisms. It is internally synthesized within our own brains. What is a highly potent psychadelic drug doing in our own brains, during day-to-day activities ?

At present, we have nothing but wild theories. Isn't it a shame?  One of the recent scientific experiments on the effects of DMT is done by one Rick Strassman, who investigated its relation to "near-death experiments". The narratives of people who went through near death experiments are similar to people who took DMT. Ergo,  DMT proves that post-death conscious experience exists, says Rick Strassman. He opines that DMT prepares our brain to bridge from conscious experience in this life to a post-death conscious experience. This is one such new age claptrap that is eagerly picked up by the bead-spinning, organic food buying populace.

I came across an interesting interview on Little Atoms from the British scientist David Luke. He gives a brief overview of DMT and scientific studies related to it. DMT is found in rather large quantities in our cerebral spinal fluid. It is thought to be produced in the lungs, in the eyes, or in the pineal glands. Nobody knows where !?  It is pretty silly that we are still speculating about such issues in our age of fMRI machines.

I think that the psychadelic experiences of DMT are quite entertaining, but they are very much a distraction. There has to be a mundane simple reason why DMT is used in the brain. What is it ?

My bet is that DMT is connected to the internal brain processes for keeping time. There are several internal biological clocks in our body that keep different types of circadian rhythms. Keeping time is essential to doing anything in this world, because we need to estimate velocity of objects as they move. Whether we try to bite into our food or try to escape predators, it is crucial that we keep time accurately and monitor the speed in which things are moving. The interesting thing is that we have not one clock, but multiple clocks that are related to the temporal resolution of events. Some of these clocks are accessible to conscious processes, whereas some are subconscious.

It is known that brain has at least two biological clocks. There is a scientific american article that explains this. One is in the Striatum and the other is in the hippocampus. The former keeps track of short durations of time, whereas the latter is responsible for longer durations. Hippocampus is also fundamental to the formation of long-term memory in the brain, as well as to our spatial orientation. It is known that as we animals evolved, we have expanded on our spatial memory capabilities to store more abstract concepts. As humans, we have highly evolved cognitive processes. Our cortical regions help us to prepare and monitor complex plans of how to do things and achieve goals in the world. In order to the execution of any of these plans, keeping time accurately is essential. The brain does this by monitoring internal physiological processes, like heart beating, blood running into the valves, respiration in the lungs etc. By keeping count of these processes and cross-checking between them, the brain knows how much time has passed.

My hypothesis is that DMT is a neurotransmitter that helps in effective monitoring of these physiological processes. These internal processes can be made into more complex models, for example, as programs running within the brain. These processes can keep track of small sensory-motor loops such as walking, talking etc. It is possible that DMT enables better signaling between these processes and thus helps bring out a global estimate of time in the brain.

Now what happens if a normal person is injected with a high dose of DMT ? This will doubtless cause a  heightened awareness of these internal processes. To the conscious brain, this might be manifested as little men, elves, or (not so surprisingly) as self-bouncing basket balls.

To prove or disprove this hypothesis is a fascinating scientific experiment. I hope these questions will be resolved soon as they will help us better understand neurodegenerative diseases and help improve human cognitive abilities. I hope politicians will not destroy this research this time !

PS: By the way, while we are on the new age circuit,  we may talk about the variety of associations for the pineal gland in Hindu mythography. It is associated with the Ajna chakra in Yoga. It is also associated with Shiva, who is responsible for keeping time in the universe. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Growing old in the age of machine learning

One of these two people will never get old 

"I customarily killed old women. I used to kill my aunts [classificatory aunts] when they were still moving [alive]. ... I would step on them, then they all died, there by the big river. ... I didn't use to wait until they were completely dead to bury them. When they were still moving, I would break them [their backs or necks]. .. I wouldn't care for old women; all by myself, I would stick them [with his bow]"

I found this chilling testimony in the book "The World until Yesterday" by Jared Diamond, in the chapter "The treatment of old people: cherish, abandon or kill ?".This a testimony from an Aché Indian man, given to anthropologists Kim Hill and A. Magdalena Hurtado.

The Aché are a nomadic people subsisting on wild forest resources. Amongst several such nomadic tribes, encouraged suicide or even ritualized murder of old people has been noted by anthropologists. This might horrify us.  But as I was reading this book, I was left wondering if our modern society is any better. This is because specific cultural traits that characterize nomadic societies are increasingly getting common in our current modern society and these changes are being amplified by technology. These include unsteady systems of production, seasonal downturns from economic surplus to starvation, fierce competition for territory, and limited use of experience that comes with old age.  The underlying catch-phrase to denote these changes is "technological disruption". But its practical effect is that our economies are resembling more those of nomadic societies than those of steady systems of production, such as based on agriculture.  So with increased automation and robotization of society, will we humans be trampled as useless old people by robots ? Or will it be some fellow humans, equipped with new technologies, that trample on the rest of humans as futile competition ?

There is currently a scare in popular media about artificial intelligence (AI) and how that threatens our future as humans. I will present more discussion on this below. These scare stories about AI are nothing new and enter our popular culture in periodic waves. However, this time, there is something quite dramatic happening in many applied areas of information sciences as computing power and storage capacities of machines have crossed a threshold. As a computer scientist, I enjoy the success of this research and have the palpable sense of big changes coming. But as a regular person on the street, I believe this important discussion is distorted into extreme caricatures.

Philosophers and pundits see intelligent machines as something akin to God, with immense power to do good or bad. A more sensible view would be to consider them as artificial life forms, subject to Darwinian laws of natural selection and adaptation. Whether we can share a common environment of  successful coexistence with these intelligent machines is a question that is best answered by experts in ecological biology, not philosophy. Just as there are many kinds of living organisms, there are many kinds of intelligent machines. Some are designed explicitly to alleviate the physical and mental handicaps of people. For example, new sensors and camera systems are being developed that can help the blind and partially sighted people to perceive the world. New bionic devices can help the physically handicapped people to move autonomously.  But other  intelligent machines and software systems (connected to the "cloud" data servers on the internet) have different objectives, not necessarily aligned to human betterment. Their intelligence is also very context-specific, suited to various ecological niches in our market economy. In light of all these aspects, we need to adopt a biological / ecological mindset when thinking about machine intelligence.

More specifically, experts in human anthropology have studied a wide range of human societies on how they cope with respect to different environmental conditions and competition. I find it unfortunate that we don't tap into their expertise to the problem of how human societies will adapt to increased automation. It is obvious that this process affects different people in different ways. It can be argued that old people will be affected in a very different manner to young people. In this aspect, it is interesting to observe how the treatment of old people varies across different societies.

In one extreme, we have nomadic tribal societies like the Aché. Other examples of nomadic tribes murdering old people include the Kaulong people of New Britain, the Chukchi people of Arctic Russia,  and the inhabitants of the Banks Islands in the South Pacific. In many other nomadic tribes, old people are abandoned when the tribe shifts camp. These examples include the Lapps of northern Scandinavia, the San of the Kalahari desert, the Omaha and Kutenai Indians of North America, as well as the Aché Indians mentioned earlier. A more benign way of killing old people, practiced by far more human societies, is ignoring them i.e, letting them to starve, to wander off or to die under neglect. This is reported among the Inuit of the Arctic, the Hopi of the North American deserts, the Witoto of tropical South America, and the Aboriginal Australians.

Indeed, old people are of little value in nomadic tribes subsisting on seasonal produce. These societies also have little resources to spare to take care of them.  The situation only changes when the tribes become sedentary, produce agricultural surplus, and have place for new occupations where the old people become an asset with their long life experiences, instead of being a liability due to their reduced mobility and foraging skills.

In well-established societies where the old people's lives are no longer at risk, an opposite tendency evolves, where property rights become concentrated in old people. For example, in the Confucian Chinese, southern Italians, and Mexican households, all the economic authority is vested in the "patriarch", who is the family's oldest living male. In ancient Greece, old people were effective rulers of the society in a gerontocracy. Not only the choicest land property, but also the fertile young women become the property of these old men. As women become mortgaged into relationships with men of much older age, they no longer have the opportunities to develop their intellectual faculties and engage as equals in a society. Instead, they get shunted into a purdah and become mere objects of family honor. Young men and boys become the junior partners in a relationship with older men, which often also turns into sexual subjugation. These social phenomena have been observed in a multitude of societies - Greece in the classical period, the middle east in the middle ages etc.

Thus, we see that there are two extremes with respect to how old people are treated by human societies. This is still a crude one-dimensional approximation. Importantly, the treatment of old men and old women differ in considerable ways.  But it is still illuminating to pose the question as to which direction our modern society is evolving.

When we think of old age, we typically think of physical deterioration - the wrinkles on the face, the weakening muscles, or the graying hair. But more than this, we share a deeper dread about old age,  that we will become irrelevant to the society.  It is this feeling of isolation that makes old age unbearable and kills people. Susan Pinker, in her book "Village effect", studied village societies in Sardinia where old men and women have long and fulfilling lives with complete social engagement in their neighborhoods.  She argues that this social engagement is missing in North American societies, as people have become more mobile and do not have friends and family in the same city they live in.  I think the social malaise is deeper, as our modern societies are increasingly resembling nomadic societies, instead of settled village societies.  It is in this sense that we need to approach how automation affects the process of us humans growing old: Will it accelerate us towards it or will it completely liberate us from it and achieve immortality ?

At the outset, the second premise may sound even nonsensical to a novice reader. But there is a belief amongst technological optimists - Ray Kurzweil being the most famous exponent, about the singularity, which is a point in the near future when machines become more intelligent than humans. Singularity optimists believe that humans will merge with machines - nanobots cleansing our bodily organs, brains wired up to the internet, cell and gene rejuvenation by software updates etc. They hope that this will translate into vastly improved health and opportunities, a hope expressed most vividly by Peter Diamandis in his book "Abundance". This hope of technological hybridization extends even to immortality as the architecture of the brain is uploaded to the cloud.

I look at this tribe of technological optimists as the followers of any other religion, framing their beliefs as a matter of faith. In reality, there is not much evidence to show for a technological rapture moment. But the elite of the software industry take this seriously.  Google is closely involved with the Singularity university of Kurzweil.  Just as there are singularity optimists, there are singularity pessimists. Bill Joy, co-creator of  the Java programming language, wrote an influential essay in 2000 titled "Why the future doesn't need us?".  Philosophers such as Nick Bostrom worry about "existential risk", where super-human intelligence might annihilate 100% of humanity. This is taken seriously by the likes of Elon Musk.  Nick Bostrom gives an analogy about chimpanzees, who are genetically very close to humans, but who depend completely on the grace of humans for their survival. So he argues, the survival of us humans will be at the grace of super-human machines. However, in order to do great harm, machines need not be "intelligent",  "conscious", or even "malevolent".  A rogue AI with all the intelligence of a flu virus can do great harm. This may cause collapse of economies or even the death of vast numbers of humans. But this does not qualify as "existential risk", as at least a small percentage of humans and human institutions will still be alive and  functional. To compare, even climate change, one of the most severe threats facing us humans, is also not an existential risk.  In contrast, a super-human AI is considered capable of destroying 100% of humanity.  A comparable risk is an asteroid impact that destroys our inhabitable earth. Why are the elite of the software industry, like Elon Musk, fixated on such existential risks ?

If I want to be uncharitable, I can say that it is because it is a risk that concerns them personally. Even if 99% of the humanity gets destroyed, the elite of the industry will most likely survive. But existential risks like a hypothetical super-human AI are a different story. But I don't think it is a conscious bias. It may simply be due to the lack of a compelling alternative narrative on the risks of machine intelligence.

In fact, even short term trends about automation in the current age don't look distinctly beneficial to humans. One of the most vocal authors on the debilitating effects of automation on our economies is Martin Ford, whose new book "The rise of the robots" argues how intelligent machines may be shrinking our economies and raising unemployment to obscene levels.

While discussing about optimists such as Kurzweil and Diamandis, Martin Ford says,

 "In general, technology optimists tend to underestimate the impact inequality. They don't think enough about what this means for 90% of the people. Of course, these are extra-ordinary people. Ray Kurzweil probably does not hang out with average typical people. He is living in an elitist tower."

Ford argues for a guaranteed minimum income for all humans.  This may be an improvement, but a minimal income may not necessarily mean an opportunity to rise up.  A cautionary tale is what befell aboriginal peoples when they were put into reservations by colonialist powers. With their traditional ways of life destroyed and without any hope for future, most of these aboriginal people succumbed to alcoholism and other addictions. It is quite possible that such a predicament may befall a vast majority of the human race.  Here is another testimony from Jared Diamond himself, from his earlier book "Guns, Germs and Steel"

"As a teenager, I spent the summer of 1956 in Montana, working for an elderly farmer named Fred Hirschy. Born in Switzerland, Fred had come to southwestern Montana as a teenager in the 1890s and proceeded to develop one of the first farms in the area. At the time of his arrival, much of the original Native American population of hunter-gatherers was still living there. Among the farmhands, there was a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe named Levi, who behaved very differently from the coarse miners - being polite, gentle, responsible, sober, and well-spoken. He was the first Indian with whom I spent much time, and I came to admire him. It was a shocking disappointment to me when, one Sunday morning, Levi too staggered in drunk and cursing after a Saturday-night binge. Among his curses, one stood out in my memory.  

-"Damn you, Fred Hirschy, and damn the ship that bought you from Switzerland!"      
It poignantly brought home to me the Indians' perspective on what I, like other white schoolchildren, had been taught to view as the heroic conquest of the American west. Fred Hirschy's family was proud of him, as a pioneer farmer who had succeeded under difficult conditions. But Levi's tribe of hunters and famous warriors had been robbed of its lands by the immigrant white farmers." 

When people living in traditional societies make contact with modernity and avail themselves of modern appliances, healthcare and state-supported institutions, their material well-being undoubtedly gets better. However, this improved material well-being does not always translate into more fulfilling lives, greater social engagement, and most importantly, into greater hope and opportunities. As the modern society races past like a super-fast train, traditional people often feel left behind. They don't find the necessary means or skills to contribute to a changing society. Consequently, a lot of them suffer from addiction (this is also an under-current in the above passage by Diamond). Drugs and alcohol take a huge toll on these unfortunate people.

With the increasing success of machine learning algorithms, the whole of humanity is under a similarly grave threat of becoming obsolete and losing hope for a meaningful engagement in society. The scale of this threat is inconceivable for even highly intelligent and educated people. So we argue about what kind of education we can give for young graduates in the universities to "compete against" the machines. The short and simple answer is none. Nada. Zilch. There is nothing that a machine cannot do when  trained on sufficient amount of data. The first jobs to get automated will be those where data is readily available or those where the salaries are at a premium: "expert systems" were first developed in the 1980s for automating medical guidance. Essentially, old people (experts with experience, but unable to learn new skills) will be automated first. Highly skilled engineers in many developed countries are already facing severe risks of losing their jobs as the pace of technological change is getting faster than the speed at which they can learn new skills. Thus, the allegory of the Aché Indian man murdering his aunts, related in the beginning, is applicable figuratively, though thankfully not literally, to the current situation in technological employment. It has to be noted that to be replaced by a machine, the task does not need to be completely automated, but only partially automated and thus shipped off to a human with far fewer skills, and thus willing to work for much cheaper.  An analogous situation has developed in the creative sectors, where the vast majority of artists, journalists and musicians are being pushed out of professional employment and surviving on the margins of the organized economy. Intermittent work opportunities force the majority to adopt a "technomadic" lifestyle with few or zero social benefits. This is particularly true of work in the visual effects (VFX) industry.

Thus, it is the "cool jobs" that are being lost first to automation by software. There is not as much financial incentive to automate "crappy jobs". It is said that robots will automate jobs with the 3 D's - Dirty, Dangerous or Drudging (Repetitive). This is no longer the priority for technology on the market. The software guru and investor Marc Andreessen famously said "Software is eating the world". A more accurate saying would be "Software is eating old people" (By that, I mean people with skills and experience acquired over a lifetime, and with limited budget of time and resources to change). But as the cost of machine learning gets lower and lower, and data is collected from every single human individual (sometimes surreptitiously by spying), even simpler tasks will get automated.  In effect, every human being will have a virtual copy of himself on the cloud, eager to perform all the tasks he is capable of, but better and vastly cheaper.  As machine learning continues to get cheaper and better, the effective age of replacement by a machine will sink lower, ultimately replacing even young people. How do we create hope for humanity in such a society ?  I think this is a more urgent question than worrying about the risks of a super-human AI.

Another interesting author to consider is Jaron Lanier, who specifically analyzes creative industries and the devastating effect that the internet had on musicians, artists etc. He argues for intellectual property protection and micro-payments built into the very structure of content consumption on the internet, as first devised by hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson. Property rights are an important means of protecting the interests of old people, and they arose first in agricultural societies. The desire for stronger property rights, especially on intellectual property, is greater in older economies and in countries with greater numbers of old people. But taken to the extreme, property rights stifle innovation and make the young subservient to the old.  An even greater risk is that property rights don't necessarily encourage production, but merely function as a rent of passage through constrained distribution channels. This will stifle the economy. We need to create a hopeful society for both young and old humans, but with a clear understanding that nobody can ever be younger than a machine.

I don't have a solution myself. I don't know if any of those proposed solutions will work, but I agree with Ford and Lanier that we do have a grave problem ahead of us, as the age of machines need not necessarily be a good age for us humans. I am not talking about a future mythological moment where machines overtake human intelligence. I am talking about our regular computers, information processing on the internet, and machine learning applications already possible today. As a computer scientist, I believe this is an existential question that we need to face, especially those of us working in data science and machine learning applications. A gifted engineer known as Thomas Midgley had once single-handedly managed to almost destroy earth's ecosystem, by creating and spreading CFCs that ate the Ozone layer. I fear that we machine learning researchers can be unwitting successors to Midgley, if we don't pay attention.


BBC Interview of Jared Diamond at the Royal Institution (go to 22:40 for comments on treatment of elderly people)

TED talk by Peter Diamandis, about his optimistic vision for the future:

Introduction to "The World until yesterday" by VSauce, which also talks about Thomas Midgley:

Nick Bostrom talking about existential risk. Please note how the interests of future humans (progeny of the 1% of human survivors) are compared against those of the majority who perish. Existential risk for humanity is a serious issue, but thinking about this has to be tempered with a notion of democracy:

Susan Pinker on her book "The village effect", explaining how engagement in the society is essential for old people to have long fulfilling lives: 

Martin ford on his books "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future" and  "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future"

Jaron Lanier on his book "Who owns the future ?".

Dedication: This post is dedicated to the memory of John and Alicia Nash, who died recently in a tragic accident.