Sunday, October 25, 2015

Can fasting prevent Alzheimer's disease ? And how to answer such questions

Women of Rennell Islands: Were they spared from Alzheimer's disease due to famine experienced in childhood ? 

Humans love to think of themselves as gods, as bright dazzling balls in the sky, radiating ideas and exchanging pointers on how their ideas can solve all the problems in the world. Nowhere is this conceit more apparent than people blathering on the internet. Mea culpa. But the other day, this conceit has been broken for me, when all of a sudden I woke up with a stiff back. Years of lounging on a work desk have taken their toll on my back muscles and they decided to apply for an early retirement package. Of course, I am not willing to grant them that. But their message has been heard, their point has been taken. As if to reinforce the point, which might be lost in subtlety and in the humdrum of life, the changing seasons also gave me a sore throat and a cold. I am reminded that I am a bag of sticks which is held together by fibers, wires and valves, any of which can be twisted out of shape. I used these sick days of staying at home for reading through a set of books that I purchased recently. As it happens, they have to say nary a bit about this physical condition of human existence.

Humans are pipe-shaped animals, with the biggest pipe - the intestinal pipe going from the mouth to the anus. 
This is how Giulia Enders colorfully puts it in her book "Gut: The inside story of our body's most underrated organ".  This book was a good starting point to learn how viscerally our brains are connected to our viscera. But I finished reading another book, that made an exhaustive deconstruction of the notion that we humans live in a Platonic sphere of abstraction and ideas. That is the book "Village Effect" by Susan Pinker, which forcefully reminds us how our brains are tied to our bodies. I think every computer engineer needs to read this book. I recommend this book especially to my friends in the Silicon Valley, plotting their next big social apps or cyber addictions on the unsuspecting masses. As I mentioned, people are not dazzling gods made of ideas, but inherently tied to their physical bodies., which are like bags of sticks. In fact, human bodies are even more rickety than that analogy suggests.

Firstly, our bodies have their genetic makeup of the DNA code, which we have not deciphered yet, but which predisposes us to certain physical and mental states. Beyond the DNA, our bodies have digital switches triggered by the environment, that turn on or off large sections of genetic code. This is known as epigenetics, a phenomenon that can even be transmitted from parents to children. Beyond this digital circuitry at the cellular level, our bodies have a layer of complicated organic chemistry, known as the endocrine system. Various chemicals secreted into our body at different glands make our hearts beat faster, activate our immune systems or shut them down, make us feel comfortable or cranky, and dramatically color our emotional states. Chemicals such as serotonin, epinephrin and oxytocin dictate how we behave as humans. This is why people get addicted to drugs, and why they can be saved by pharmaceuticals. At a layer higher than chemistry, our body is a network of neurons - not just in the brain but significantly also in the gut. The thoughts that we think, the experiences that we have, and the foods that we digest will all influence which chemicals get secreted into our bodies and which digital switches (epigenetics) get turned on so that our DNA can be expressed. Digital technologies pretend that we are simply a software of consciousness running on the hardware of our brains. But this is far from the truth. Designing a good user interface means taking care of all the layers of being human: including the chemical and genetic layers. Needless to say, addressing this level of complexity has not been attempted by anybody yet, and what we have today are awful user interfaces - both for digital systems and for social systems.

This brings me to another book I purchased "The human use of human beings" by Norbert Wiener.  This book is a classic from 1950s and Wiener is one of the founders of computer science, specifically the theory of cybernetic control that addresses the interface between the human and the machine. I have not got to reading this book yet, but Wiener was a visionary not only for computer theory, but also for the monumental blunders that will be done by digital technologies to humankind. According to Wiener, digital technologies are pretty similar to socio-economic and legal systems: both encode a protocol of communication with humans for making them do what is expected of them. The sad thing is that we were tremendously wrong on designing both socio-economic systems as well as digital technologies, simply because we misunderstood humans to be Platonic agents of ideal action, and not as rickety bags of DNA and chemicals.

Getting back to the "Village Effect" by Susan Pinker, the book is a revelation on many fronts: People with strong social circles, as in a small tightly-knit village, lead long and healthy lives. People without strong social bonds suffer not only from loneliness but also from an early death due to a severe lack of immunity to diseases. Face-to-face conversations and pats on the back boost the oxytocin in our bodies which revitalizes the immune system, something which does not happen with virtual messages. Mobile devices and screens have documented negative effects on the cognitive growth of babies and adolescents. Adolescents using digital media and online social networks are at a greater risk of bullying and social conditioning.  The  thing that stuck me is how unanimous the psychologists are. These are fairly new findings in psychology, but they are not controversial. Like the tobacco industry, the computer industry has been simply ignoring these findings. It considers these as "somebody else's problem", nothing to do about it. After reading the book, I was stuck by the mental image of an Indonesian baby that was recently on the news, who was addicted to cigarettes and sniffing out tobacco smoke like a chimney. This disaster in Indonesia is in no small measure due to the advertising of tobacco companies that saw a remarkable growth of sales in the rising populations of Asia (even as the dangers of tobacco got apparent in the USA). The future generations of humanity will probably judge us as badly, letting the young and vulnerable people get addicted to the charms of social networks and digital pornography.

However, there is a fundamental problem that prevents us from connecting cause and effect in complex fields like psychology.  As mentioned earlier, our bodies are like Rube-Goldberg machines, composed of complex systems of chemicals and DNA, each of which is triggered by non-linear switches. The effects of any cause will become apparent only much later, and can only be gauged in a probabilistic sense. Like my stiff back that resulted from my sedentary lifestyle of several years of  lounging on the chair, the effects of modern living on my mind will be apparent only much later. Typically, such effects will be reduced cognitive skills, reduced social empathy, and reduced immunity to diseases. These effects will probably show up clearly only in my old age, when I will be the most vulnerable.

It is said that scientists working in most fields suffer from a physics envy, eager to condense the topic of their study to a pithy set of equations. Unfortunately, this approach to doing science is not valid for complex subjects that have many variables and non-linearities. Nevertheless, scientists in fields as diverse as biology and sociology have the urge to reduce their subjects to crude one-dimensional models, sometimes with tragic consequences. A similar envy exists in medical fields, though I believe it is less known. I term this the Penicillin envy: every pharmacologist and medical practitioner wants to find a wonder drug that can cure the disease of their study. In fact, this is a very modern jealousy, stemming from the remarkable success of the antibiotic drug Penicillin. It just works, as long as the infection is bacterial and the bacteria are not resistant to this drug (which was typically the case when the drug was first tested). This wonder drug inspired the search for many similar drugs that can take effect on the body just as quickly. However,  this search has often been a fool's errand. Our bodies are not pristine laboratories for physics experiments. As I said, they are like Rube-Goldberg machines, complex and remarkable when they work, but threatened by collapse and failure at multiple levels. The complex multi-layered metabolism of our bodies has its own way of healing; drugs and medical procedures can only facilitate this natural healing procedure. Despite great advances in medical science, the workings of our body remain mostly a mystery, and this is especially true for psychological ailments.

In fact, digital technologies are not unique in  creating a set of rich world diseases. People living in traditional hunting-gathering societies have very little problems with diabetes, coronary heart disease, or indeed, back pain.  Our modern sugar-rich diets and sedentary lifestyles are exerting hidden pressures on our internal organs, our immune systems, and our brains. These problems are systemic - stemming from how our society is organized, and not from individual personal choices. For example, the fact that the majority of drinks in the super-market contain massive loads of sugar predisposes us to making that choice for a sugary drink. The fact that the majority of our friends are on Facebook predisposes us to post on Facebook.

Perhaps, the most tragic of the modern diseases is Alzheimer's disease, where the brain shrinks as it becomes clogged by protein. This is a disease closely connected to diabetes (sometimes called type-3 diabetes). With Alzheimer's, the brain suffers a gradual loss in long-term memory, as well as in its capacity to form new memories. Sometimes, people experience mental hallucinations and delusions. In the intermediary stages, they may gradually lose their vocabulary. As the disease advances, people may suffer complete loss of speech and become unable to even perform simple tasks independently. This is a slow and painful way to die. I came across two remarkable essays  on how Alzheimer's disease affects the patients and their caregivers. You may read them at your leisure.

Even after a hundred years of intense study, there is no cure in sight for Alzheimer's. People still dream of a miracle cure, similar to Penicillin. But it is more likely that this disease will be similar to cancer, presenting many fronts on the battle. One interesting piece of information I learnt from Susan Pinker's book is that starvation in mice seems to have a protective effect against Alzheimer's disease as the mice get old. Several scientists speculate that this could be true for humans as well. Pinker also wonders if the elderly people she studied in Sardinia, who live exceptionally long lives, had a protective benefit against Alzheimer's due to starvation they suffered during the second world war. Why should starvation protect against a late onset disease like Alzheimer's ?

This got me thinking about evolutionary reasons, where people who suffered starvation during childhood may have an additional impetus to live older lives, and to keep their memory from deteriorating. I got reminded of Jared Diamond's book "The world until yesterday", where he recounts a singular case from Rennell Islands. In a different online essay, he  relates the same experience.
In 1976, I visited Rennell Island, one of the Solomon Islands, lying in the southwestern Pacific’s cyclone belt. When I asked about wild fruits and seeds that birds ate, my Rennellese informants named dozens of plant species by Rennell language names, named for each plant species all the bird and bat species that eat its fruit, and said whether the fruit is edible for people. They ranked fruits in three categories: those that people never eat; those that people regularly eat; and those that people eat only in famine times, such as after--and here I kept hearing a Rennell term initially unfamiliar to me-- the hungi kengi.  

Those words proved to be the Rennell name for the most destructive cyclone to have hit the island in living memory--apparently around 1910, based on people’s references to datable events of the European colonial administration. The hungi kengi blew down most of Rennell’s forest, destroyed gardens, and drove people to the brink of starvation. Islanders survived by eating fruits of wild plant species that were normally not eaten. But doing so required detailed knowledge about which plants are poisonous, which are not poisonous, and whether and how the poison can be removed by some technique of food preparation.  

When I began pestering my middle-aged Rennellese informants with questions about fruit edibility, I was brought into a hut. There, once my eyes had become accustomed to the dim light, I saw the inevitable frail old woman. She was the last living person with direct experience of which plants were found safe and nutritious to eat after the hungi kengi, until people’s gardens began producing again. The old woman explained that she had been a child not quite of marriageable age at the time of the hungi kengi. Since my visit to Rennell was in 1976, and since the cyclone had struck 66 years before, the woman was probably in her early eighties. Her survival after the 1910 cyclone had depended on information remembered by aged survivors of the last big cyclone before the hungi kengi. Now her people’s ability to survive another cyclone would depend on her own memories, which were fortunately very detailed.  

It seems likely that starvation in childhood may activate an epigenetic pathway that prompts the body to live a longer life and to be mentally agile in old age, in order to guide younger kin to stave off hunger and danger when the need arises. This is justified from an evolutionary point of view, whether such a thing exists in the physiology of the human body is an open question. If it does, it is very likely that we can fool our bodies into activating this pathway, by fasting at the right period of our lives.

There are two problems for testing such a hypothesis. Firstly, providing a systematic review of the causes and outcomes will take a very long time : especially if human tests need to be performed, as opposed to using other mammals as proxies. Secondly, there is no money to be made by such a discovery. No pharmaceutical company will become rich by suggesting that people fast. This is the tragedy of our economy. Our society is structured in such a way that important medical advances are being stunted.

I posed this question on fasting and Alzheimer's disease only as an illustrative example. The medical field is replete with such questions. More specifically, serious questions in psychology cannot be answered easily by simple experiments. Due to the very nature of the human body and its multi-layered physiology, we need to conduct experiments on a very large scale and across large timelines. We simply do not have the scientific apparatus today to do those experiments.

Things get even more depressing when you consider economics. If medicine is concerned with the physiology of a single human body, economics ought to be concerned with the health of whole societies (and whole eco-systems). These are, by definition, even more complex systems. But the trend in economics is to argue for simple theories. Very often, these theories are not even tested. Economists suffer very much from tribal affiliations - with opposing camps refusing to engage in a common dialogue and in a common framework for scientific enquiry. In any case, posing open questions that require long-term inspection is not encouraged in this era of high-frequency trading. So what we have in economics today is a pseudo-science, disguised in a plethora of numbers.

In 1949, the Nobel prize in medicine is awarded for a surgical procedure known as "lobotomy", where the neural connections are cut between the pre-frontal cortex (dealing with rational thinking and cognitive complexity) and the central areas dealing with emotions. This was professed as a cure for mental ailments such as Schizophrenia, but later understood to be a tragic disaster. Before this understanding dawned, many patients were lobotomized and turned into vegetables. The Nobel committee realized this fiasco fairly soon, but I wonder how long it will take them to realize such blunders with the Nobel prize in economics, where entire societies have been lobotomized.

The one hope that I have for the future is that it will be possible to model large complex systems directly from the data, using advanced machine learning. These models will ultimately replace the simplistic models in medicine, psychology, human-machine interaction and economics - with more accurate predictive models. This will take time, but ultimately we will realize the follies of the current age.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A natural park for humans

Can humans live in ecological balance with robots ? Artwork by Robert Chew.

A brief history of ecological time: 

Prof. Stephen Hawking recently did a Reddit AMA, where he answered two distinct types of questions: about AI-pocalypse where an AI smarter than humans would spell the end for us, and about technological unemployment where humans lose jobs to robots and AI, that are not necessarily smarter than us in all aspects. I have previously written that the first type of questions based on AI-pocalyptic thinking are distracting. So I will ignore such issues and focus on what Prof. Hawking said on technological unemployment.

Have you thought about the possibility of technological unemployment (, where we develop automated processes that ultimately cause large unemployment by performing jobs faster and/or cheaper than people can perform them? Some compare this thought to the thoughts of the Luddites, whose revolt was caused in part by perceived technological unemployment over 100 years ago. In particular, do you foresee a world where people work less because so much work is automated? Do you think people will always either find work or manufacture more work to be done?

The outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
Prof. Hawking's candid response ruffled a lot of feathers.  Marc Andreessen, the master venture capitalist of Silicon Valley, who created the Netscape Navigator web browser, and thus arguably created the world wide web as we know it today, has tweeted as follows.

In fact, this is a mischaracterization. Prof. Hawking was clearly arguing against greed and inequality  in capitalism, and not against the automation of work. He is not alone in questioning the current economic paradigm of liberal capitalism, driven mostly by the free movement of global financial capital. Many economists, such as Thomas Piketty in Paris, have documented the rising economic inequality of the current era. Many other economists, despite supporting the free market paradigm, are also questioning the instability and chaos wrought onto the market by modern financial innovations such as derivative trading, high frequency algorithmic trading and global financial deregulation. I have previously argued that the automation of finance is directly connected to the aggregation of data into monopolistic systems, which I termed as Octopuses. The architecture of the world wide web, as developed by Tim Berners-Lee and popularized by Marc Andreessen,  is responsible at a fundamental level for the growing monopolization of the global economy. Thus, it is the specific architecture of computer systems that we chose to develop, and not computation and automation in general, that are responsible for technological unemployment.

In this blog, I will argue that inequality and monopolization, though awful in their own terms, are actually symptoms of a deeper malaise, which is the destruction of biodiversity and ecological balance. This is a story much older than the advent of computers, or indeed, the advent of money.  It is a story as old as hundred thousand years, starting from the spread of humans outside Africa. Ever since that defining moment lost in the depths of time, we humans have systematically destroyed biodiversity on this planet, turning millions of plant and animal species extinct. The scary news is that this rate of species extinction is actually accelerating. In this long dance of death, only one species has been left unaffected - us. But for how long ?

The history of human civilization can be viewed as a long march towards peace, prosperity and health, as forcefully argued by Prof. Steven Pinker and visualized in nice graphs by Max Roser of Oxford University. Human violence has fallen dramatically over the past few centuries. People today in most parts of the world enjoy long peaceful lives in good health. This picture will only get better as  abject poverty continues to drop and medical science continues to progress. However, there are other graphs that illustrate the Anthropocene, the current geological era marked by species extinction and destruction of ecological habitats.  So where is the destiny for humans, in the first set of graphs or in the second set ? Can humans be separated from ecological interdependency that characterizes every other species on this planet ?

We humans are super-predators that kill fully grown adult animals, whereas other predators kill mostly juveniles that are still not ready to breed. Thus, we have successfully wiped out entire species by predation. We are also a highly adaptable species that survives in extremely different geographic climes - from the poles to the tropics, where we encroach onto the ecological niches of other animals and drive them to starvation. Due to our enormous brains and highly cohesive social structure, we humans are efficient virtualizers, who can simulate the behavior of other animals and outcompete them for ecological niches. When one species goes extinct, it brings down a whole network of species that co-evolved with it. Certain animal species, like rats and crows, as well as domestic animals and pets, have co-evolved with us and out-compete many other species to extinction. This aspect of virtualization of behavior gives a good hint of how robots and AI will relate to us humans. As Alan Turing has proved in the universal aspect of computation, computers can be used to simulate any type of behavior in a pristine mathematical sense. In this regard, robots will be even better than us at virtualization of behavior. So will we maintain an ecological balance with them ? Or will we be out-competed across all of our ecological niches ? This is definitely a question for ecological biology and not just for philosophy.

Oikouménē: A cartography of human habitat

Human societies typically considered themselves to be part of nature, although the modern capitalist society is an aberration from the norm. Every cultural tradition that arose in hunting-gathering or agricultural societies has been conscious of ecological limits in nature and developed norms to respect them. However, these lessons were only learnt in retrospect, after observing massive destruction of ecological habitats. Only much later were they encoded in ethics, religion and economic behavior of humans. In all of our past human history, we were able to find new habitats where the learnt lessons could be implemented - by slashing and burning more forest, by spreading across the oceans, by creating technology that enabled us to survive in harsher climes. However, the rate of our technological progress has shrunk the planet. We do not have a second planet to apply the lessons that we learn today. There will be no going back to the drawing table. Earth, the pale blue dot in the vastness of the cosmos, that supported life and shaped our evolution as humans, remains our only home. So there is an urgency to get to grips with the awesomeness of our destructive power, even if all we care for is the selfish survival of our own species.

Ancient Greeks were probably the first to seriously study the geographical habitat of where humans can survive. They termed it Oikouménē (Oikos is home in Greek). Anaximander, Aristotle and ultimately Ptolemy derived detailed maps of the earth that can be inhabited by humans. This gave birth to the disciplines of not only geography and cartography (map making), but also economy and ecology (both derive from the root word of Oikos). In fact, it is impossible to study geography in isolation to the qualitative aspects of economics and ecology. We can also argue that ecology and economics cannot be studied separately from each other, and from the limits imposed by geography. So how is it that today's field of economics is so completely devoid of geographical and ecological consciousness ? How is it that it became an esoteric quasi-religious discipline that establishes truths of its own - on market stability, growth, production etc., independent of ecological limits ? Especially in the fields of macro-economics and finance, where the decisions affect the society on a global level, this selective ignorance of ecological limits will be disastrous. There is a tendency in free market ideologues - the  school of economics that is the most influential today,  to disparage ecological limits altogether as inconsequential,  and subscribe to a belief in the miracles of technology to produce more with less. Green revolution, that expanded agricultural yields, is often cited as proof. But agricultural yields increased only because of concerted scientific investment and technological development after noticing and accepting a severe threat; not by ignoring the ecological limits altogether and not by performing laissez-faire capitalism.

Ptolemy's map of the Oikoumené, reconstructed from the description in his book "Geography". 

Today, we have the serious threat of climate change due to the incessant burning of fossil fuels. Despite the clear evidence that we need a moratorium on fossil fuels (vast reserves of coal, oil and natural gas should be left forever buried under the ground),  we keep funding the exploration of new fossil fuels. Our entire economy is deeply enmeshed with the financial interests of oil and natural gas. The network of financial capital, enabled by a loose regulatory framework on a global level, obscures these interests through several layers of virtualization of capital.  In fact, it is impossible to fix any single ecological issue without fixing the rut in financial capital, and the algorithms and computers that enable them.  It is important to note that climate change is not the only ecological threat facing us as humans. There are several planetary boundaries that have been identified, with varying degrees of precision by environmental scientists. However, unlike ancient Greeks, we ignore them completely in our study of economics and Oikouménē.

Planetary boundaries for survival of humans, more information is available in the book "The God Species" by Mark Lynas.  

The economic situation today is so absurd that it should put to rest any ideas that humans are under conscious control, either politically or economically, on our planet. Great wars are being waged today between nuclear armed countries, to secure the mines and distribution pipelines of fossil fuels. Vast populations are being bombarded and displaced geographically. The developed economies of the west are completely clueless about where to invest financially, so as to fund health insurance and  secure the retirement benefits of aging citizens.  Periodic booms and busts of real estate and related non-productive sectors are happening with increasing frequency. On the other hand, vast sections of developing economies are suffering from high unemployment and poor education, especially of the youth. Everybody is terrorized by the whimsies of capital flight, that can happen at the drop of a hat. It is important to note that there is no conscious human agency, either benevolent or malevolent, at the crux of these economic disasters. On the other hand, these faults are systemic - similar to the fractures and creases in a dam that will inevitably result in flooding. But unlike physical fractures, fixing economic fractures is not easy. We are up against the tangle of systemic interests that are deeply enmeshed, and operated today by computer algorithms. Many of these algorithms are closed source, either because they are part of secretive operating procedures of companies and financial institutions, or because they belong to governments but are hidden underneath legal jargon and diplomatic channels. Increasingly, the algorithms that make up a government are being rendered invisible using secret courts (such as the FISA court of USA) or trans-continental business partnerships that are not accountable to any country's law.

There is an important United Nations conference on Climate Change in Paris next month, to achieve a legally binding resolution on all countries to limit the burning of fossil fuels. But hopes are low everywhere. At the global level, the architecture of economic and political systems is so rotten that any agreement that is achieved then will be immediately violated, in spirit if not in letter. So if we are not able to fix the problems at a global level, what can we do to ensure an Oikouménē for the future generations of humanity ?

A natural park for humans 

Yellowstone national park: the first national park in the world 

The answer to this question might be what American novelist Wallace Stegner called the best invention of USA.
"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."
In 1871, an American geologist named Ferdinand Heyden has achieved the status of a National Park for the Yellowstone region, after feverishly campaigning for several years. He argued that if the federal government fails to protect the territory, nothing will remain of this beautiful landscape.
"The vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have requited all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare."
The Yellowstone national park gave birth to a widespread movement all over the world, where large tracts of land were set aside by the governments, where sensitive natural ecological balance is maintained and spared from human interference.  It is crucial to note that the value assigned for these national parks is not human monetary benefit, but a spiritual value in letting nature be for nature's sake. It is a value that cannot be measured in human currency of whatever make.

From the very beginning, the involvement of humans in a national park has been up for debate and riddled with racist and classist overtones. Traditional people, such as hunter-gatherer tribes, have long been living in natural landscapes by maintaining ecological balance. With whatever tools and technologies under their employ, they have learnt to curtail their tendencies of greed and over-exploitation of nature, by learning the lessons the hard way over generations. Now as their lands and livelihoods became federal property, they were displaced and succumbed to living in despair under tribal reservations. In many cases, their languages and cultural lore became extinct, as it was devoid of the essence of living in their  natural environment. This specter of cultural extinction is a constant throughout human history and it is accelerating today, just like the parallel rate of biological species extinction.

If we widen the definition of cultural extinction to include the extinction of professions and regular daily routines of people, the story will get much worse. Over the course of civilization, humans have specialized into varied professions based on the specifics of local geography and the availability of economic resources. Often these professions existed for centuries and over generations, thereby crystallizing into a cultural lore on how to lead a happy life in the society. Even today, people who lead long and happy lives invariably live in socially cohesive village societies, whose support is as essential in old age as medicines invented by science. However, in the last couple of centuries, this idyll of village life is getting eroded as many professions disappeared and people were forced to migrate in search of transient opportunities. With automation and robotics, these professions have become even more transient, requiring a nomadic existence where the daily routine will never gets crystallized into a precise set of norms. This constant disruption of routine (and the threat of unemployment) will produce anxiety, to which our species has not been prepared by evolution, even with our large brains and adaptable societies.

So why is it that we refuse to cast humans as deserving of ecological protection, just as trees and animals in a natural park ? We can answer this question in two distinct ways. I believe one answer will lead us to racism and narrow-minded ness, whereas the other answer will lead us to compassion and happiness.

The first answer is centered on "us", trying to protect our specific professions and lifestyles. We can do this by framing laws and closing borders, even as we ignore the plight of other humans and other animals. This is the impetus of conservative politics, that I do not support, even as I understand the anxiety and tensions behind them.  Essentially, conservative politics is blind to a paradox: if we claim protection on the basis of ecological grounds, how can we ignore the plight of other animals and humans ? Are they not as essential as us for maintaining the ecological balance ?

The second answer is centered on "them", trying to protect the specific professions and lifestyles of other humans. This needs to be done beyond any monetary value for justification. When we create a national park, we do not try to measure the value of nature in a human currency, but associate a greater "spiritual" or "ecological" value for the mere existence of nature in balance. Similarly, when we try to protect the professions and lifestyles of other humans, we need to protect them for their own sake. Can we humans be grand enough to overcome selfish greed and protect other humans and animals ? Can we be vigilant enough to protect the ecological balance of other humans and animals, even if we get nothing in return ? Indeed, there is one direct benefit with this type of thinking: compassion leads to happiness.

We can start with cases that urgently need help: traditional people living in subsistence lifestyles throughout the world are under threat. Their lands are being encroached by mining corporations, loggers or livestock farmers. They suffer high rates of sexual and criminal violence. Can we sacrifice something to protect their traditional lifestyle even if we do not share their ethics or morals ?   Can we preserve their languages ? We can then widen this net of compassion for marginal groups of people that live within our own society: sexual minorities, drug addicts, undocumented immigrants. Can we sacrifice something to preserve this lifestyle of others, even if we do not agree with this lifestyle and do not believe in a common destiny with them ?

Raising an AI with good parenting

These questions are not mere philosophical nuisance. These are practical steps to preserve our own Oikouménē, as it comes under threat by robots and AI.  BBC has recently interviewed economists Erik Brynjolffson and Andrew McAffee, where they gave advice to readers on which jobs will be hard to be replaced by AI (and thus relatively stable). This line of thinking is too deterministic and focussed on the current moment. In fact, trying not to be replaced by a robot is a race that gives no pleasure to any human, as the robots will eventually catch up. If we are bound to run this race, we are definitely screwed.

Most people think of robots as alien beings. Even people who believe in the eventuality of strong AI -  i.e, an emergent artificial consciousness similar to human consciousness, still imagine this AI to be devoid of  any ecological connections to the environment.  Essentially, this is indicative of how desensitized they themselves are, as humans, from the environment. I found it illuminating to think about this aspect in popular movies and books. How many animals have we seen in the Matrix trilogy of movies ? It is as if the entire movie happens in an ecological vacuum consisting of humans and robots, without any other biological life. In general, how much of wildlife do we see in any movie or books about AI ? Isn't it absurd that any AI that comes out of this planet will be disconnected to the ecological niches on this planet ?  If we as humans create good ecological niches that require compassion, any AI that comes to occupy these niches will be compassionate to us. On the other hand, if we create ecological niches that blindly optimize for selfish greed, we cannot guarantee that the interests of AI will be aligned with those of us humans.

Dylan Evans, a British cognitive scientist,  said in a radio interview recently that two things seem to happen to people working on intelligent systems. They either become ecstatic believers of a rapture-like moment, where AI will solve all our problems, or they become paranoid about the terrible enslavement of humanity by a super-complex system.  Bill Joy, the creator of the Java programming language, was the first one I knew of who flipped. Dylan Evans himself flipped to apocalyptic thinking a few years ago. The problem with either ecstatic or apocalyptic mental states is that it is hard to think rationally and reasonably. I believe that having an ecological mindset will help computer scientists to cultivate more nuanced opinions about AI.

I will end this blog on a personal note. I recently attended a brilliant talk by Prof. Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), on how to raise a machine.  This happened at an event celebrating 25 years of Max Planck Institute for Informatics, where I am an alumnus. But I am also an alumnus of CMU, where I was a visiting student twelve years ago. When I was at CMU, Prof. Mitchell's course on machine learning was over-registered and the lecture halls were always filled to capacity. So I was not able to take his course, although I sneaked into some of his lectures. At that time, he just finished an introductory text book on machine learning. The field has advanced greatly in the last ten years, so it was a great opportunity for me to hear from Prof. Mitchell what he thought of the progress. He spoke of the paradigm of function approximation and optimization that achieved the greatest success in machine learning in recent years. But he admitted that this was also something of a disappointment. He recalled a conversation with his mother, where he was trying to explain what machine learning means, when she said

I know about learning. I raised you. 
This is a great analogy. Human children learn about a lot of things (a lot of functions to approximate), and they learn how to learn. Raising a machine needs to be done in a similar fashion. With this as inspiration, Prof. Mitchell created NELL (never ending language learner) - a machine that is never shut down and  that has been trying to build a conceptual model (ontology) of the world, by learning over several years from the web.  This is the closest I am aware of, to an AI that is capable of reaching human-level consciousness, even as it stands extremely far from this goal.  As we see, such a machine needs to be "raised", from examples and good parenting. If we humans create awful examples - by exterminating our ancestors, by destroying eco-systems, by eliminating rivals without compassion - we should not complain if our children (AI) will do the same to us.