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WEEKLY COMMENTARY

Will “technological fusion” include or exclude humans?

I would like to ask a simple and direct question: Will we, humans, either now or in the near future, be included or excluded from the law of technological fusion?

I must confess I don’t know if such a law exists. Perhaps it does, but it is known by another name. Whatever the case, it should be obvious technologies keep merging with each other to the point that one device can now do the same things that previously were done by many separated devices.

But the “fusion” doesn’t stop there. There is yet another level, the level of the interconnectivity of all those devices.

For example, I still remember the time, just a few short decades ago, when you needed a radio to listen to the radio. TV shows were watched on TV. And movies were watched at the movie theaters. If you needed to find a street, you had to check a big, printed map. And the photography camera was different from a camcorder.

Now, however, a smart phone or a tablet can do all those things and many more. Yesterday, you needed different devices, but today you can carry just one device and do all those things. But, as I said, that’s only the first half of what I call the law of technological fusion.

The second half of that law is intelligent devices talking to each other. A car, for example, can inform the mechanic about a problem. Or a refrigerator can scan what is inside a prepare a shopping list for what is missing. There are, of course, many more examples, including intelligent speakers connected with intelligent lights inside intelligent homes.

In other words, we live in a world where one device can do what in the past was done by many separate devices. And now all those devices are interconnected. So, I ask again, are we, humans, part of these seemingly unstoppable process of technological fusion, or are we going to be excluded from that process?

According to Dr. Toby Walsh, professor of Artificial Intelligence at the University of New South Wales (Australia), we will know the answer in four decades, around 2060, when artificial intelligence will be at least as intelligent as human intelligence.

But according to well-known futurist Ray Kurzweil, now working at Google, we will know the answer in only a decade or so, when “the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate.”

Regardless of when we could have a definitive answer about our relationship with technology, perhaps asking if we are going to be included or excluded of that process is the wrong question to ask.

If we merge with technology, we will no longer be humans, at least not in the same way we are today. If we don’t merge, perhaps we will be replaced or displaced. In either option, the future of humanity will be decided soon, in a generation or two.

The future is no longer a prolongation of the past, yet we live as if it were.  

“Above all, you are human”, said the message. But, really?

“Remember that, above all, you are human”, said the last line of the message somebody sent me a few days ago. Yet, how and why should I remember my own humanness? And if I need to remember my humanness, it means obviously that I have already forgotten it.

The advice included in the message was good and well-intentioned, but I kept thinking that perhaps we don’t know what it means to be human and perhaps we never knew it. Or, if we knew it, we have already forgotten what that means and, even worst, we forgot that we had forgotten, so our knowledge is now buried in two layers of oblivions.

So, what it means to be human? Spending many years in schools to finally find a job so we can spend the rest of our lives paying debts until we die? Or perhaps accepting that those in decision-making positions will never decide anything in our favor, but only to favor themselves?  

Perhaps being human means to be always at war and to spend untold numbers of resources, including time and money, to destroy other lives. So, what’s the point of remembering what it means to be human if we destroy ourselves and we are helping to destroy the only planet we ever knew as home?

If I were truly human, why then am I known by the so-called ethnic labels that are imposed on me because the color of my skin, place of birth, native language, or other real or imaginary factors about my identity? And then, based on my fictitious identity, my income is lower and my expenses higher than those of those who decide about my own “humanity”.

In addition, what’s the point of trying to be human when the new influencers and celebrities in social media are not human, but virtual reality created by artificial intelligence, such as Hatsune Miku, Lil Miquela and the model Shudu?

I would like to know how much longer we need to wait until we realize that artificial intelligence is real, and we own intelligence seems to be more and more unreal, illusionary, and mere self-deception?

It is true that humans are capable of the greatest selfless acts and of great achievements, as well as unparalleled acts of creativity? We have seen many examples throughout history and even today. But humans are also able of acts of cruelty and intolerance towards other humans. So, who wants to be human?

Somebody may say, “Stop asking nonsensical questions and just enjoy your life.” But, can we really enjoy life if we stop asking questions and we close our eyes to reality? Should we assume that closed minds and hearts are the new and only way of being human?

At a time when we can’t even laugh at ourselves because that’s no longer accepted, questioning our own humanness, even if the question has been forgotten and ignored, it is more needed than ever if we truly want to move beyond the prehistory of humanity.

If we lose our ability for amazement, we lose our ability to think

I was recently invited to do a presentation about a topic of my interest, the emerging future. After the initial formalities, I focused on Artificial Intelligence and on intelligent robots. The participants reacted with the deepest indifference and silence I have seen in a long time.

I shared with them the examples of Sophia, the first robot to become citizen of a country (Saudi Arabia) and Pepper, a robot priest in Japan. Yawning and more silence.

I mentioned that the future is no longer a continuation of the past and that we live in the society of pre-programmed obsolescence. For that reason, everything we have and everything we know is already “old: the moment we acquired that knowledge or object. Nothing. Not even a blink from the audience.

I wanted to change the situation and to have some dialogue. So, I mentioned a few examples, including the space hotel planned to be built by Orion Span in the next couple of years, and the new “flying train”, a project of Akka Technologies, a French company. Basically, it is a new kind of plane, where the cabin for passengers is a train that joins the rest of plane (wings, control cabin) once the train arrives at the airport.

Nothing. Not even a question.

I know very well that everyday life imposes on us many urgencies to the point we can’t pay attention to the emerging reality. And I also know, based on my personal experience of many years, that my presentations are seldom, if ever, funny or entertaining. But I can’t remember a situation of a group of adults showing this level of apathy to the presenter they invited.

So, I changed strategies again and I began to share a few personal stories, including the psychological and cultural impact my first trip to the United States had on me decades ago. Or my memory about the first time using a fax machine, not understanding that technology.

I believe that if a hippopotamus dressed as a ballerina were teaching a cooking class to that group, the result would be the same: apathy. Something was clearly wrong. Something was happening, and I didn’t know what.

I decided it was time to have a direct conversation with the participants. I asked from names, where they were from, and reasons to attend the presentation. Remember: they invited me. A few gave their names. A few more just smiled. Most, however, decided to look at the ceiling.

Then, unexpectedly, somebody answered a call in his cell. After a brief conversation on the phone, which I wasn’t paying too much attention, the person who got the call stood up and told the group: “They just finished repairing the A/C at our building. We can go now”. So, they all left almost immediately.

Obviously, I was upset. I was there to entertain, not to do a presentation. I was amazed by my own naiveté, so much so that I decided to reflect about what I just had experienced.

The world has changed. What are we being transformed into?

There are almost no doubts the world has changed, and we are living in a world different from the one we used to live, and we considered as “normal” and “familiar”. We entered a new epoch and, therefore, we have more questions than certainties. One of those questions is: What are we being transformed into?

The question about the transformation (metamorphosis) of humankind into something different of what we are now is as old as humanity itself. Two millennia ago, Ovid wrote about that and a century ago Kafka wrote about the same topic. Yet, one of the most interesting analysis of human transformation, its causes and its consequences, is the one written by Lucius Apuleius.

Apuleius live 1800 years ago. He called his book Transformations. In his book, Apuleius (who studied philosophy, law, and religion) tells the story of a man (perhaps himself) who, due to his lack of morality, is transformed into a donkey, but without losing his awareness of being human.

The man in the story wanted to become an eagle to be near his lover, but a mistake in the spell turned him into a donkey. And he was treated as such: loaded beyond his strength, abused, persecuted. Even worst, he knew he was a human being. Yet, he was unable to let others know who he really was.

Eventually, he sent a silent prayer to the gods asking for help and a goddess decided to help the man. Thanks to the goddess, the man turned into a human again, but he was not the same as he was before. He was a transformed human and he had trouble readjusting to his new life and dealing with “normal” humans.

So, the book is about a man who turns into a donkey (because of a human mistake) and then the donkey turns back into a human (because of divine intervention). However, he is always fully aware of being human.

That was 1800 years ago, a time when people knew they could lose their humanity at any given moment (due to other humans) and they could regain their humanity with the help of the gods.

We live at a different time. If we lose our humanity, we also lose our consciousness of being human. We will not remember we were once human. And it seems unlikely we will call the divinity to transform us into transformed humans.

So, what are we turning into? Perhaps we are turning into donkeys, into brutes with no human consciousness used as tools for the benefit of the worst kinds of humans. We are not talking about a physical transformation, but about a psychological, mental, and spiritual transformation. We have become good for nothing monstrosities, to paraphrase Kafka.

Perhaps that’s irreversible. Perhaps the social field of negativity finally won and from now on will act without rivals or alternatives. Or perhaps there is still some forgotten divinity waiting to hear a silent prayer and willing to helping us to stop being too human.

Some lessons I wish I could have learned earlier in life

I recently learned a few lessons I wish I could have learned earlier in my life. However, I am grateful these lessons came to me now, so I decided to share them with you hoping you won’t have to wait to later in life, as it was in my case, to learn and implement these lessons.

First, I recently learned that the opposite of an open mind is not a closed mind, but an empty mind.

After reading that statement, I thought that is true that many times we wrongly assume that whatever we think is the only think to be thought and, therefore, that there is nothing beyond that able to challenge our thoughts or beliefs. We then “empty” our minds of any idea or experience contradicting our own ideas or different from our own doctrines.

In other words, an empty mind wants and desires to remain empty. This is not an act of unlearning something to learn something new, but a decision (probably conscious) to not learn anything because we assume that either we already know everything or that there is nothing to be learned.

A preacher from ancient times warned us about the danger of leaving an “empty house”, because you never know who or what to enter and live there.

I also learned that it is useless to have good eyes if the brain is blind. This expression is obviously connected with the one that says that the worst kind of blindness is a person who doesn’t want to see.

Basically, a blind brain is something affecting all of us, and not necessarily for moral deficiencies or lack of intellectual abilities. Not to excuse ourselves from our own responsibilities, but we need to recognize we all have blind spots in our brains.

Remember the famous experiment where a group of students were asked to count the number of passes during a basketball game and the students were so focused on that task that they didn’t see a man in a gorilla suit on the court? We see what we can see and what we want to see.

As Annais Nin said, we don’t see things as they are, but as we are.

I also learned another lesson. We all heard about giving a fish to a man, so he can have food for a day or teaching him to fish. so he can food every day. That’s a well-known expression. What is not well-known is that the emphasis of the expression is on teaching, not on fishing.

If I teach somebody how to fish, because I taught him how to do it, now I can also teach others. And that person, having learned how others teach how to fish, will also be able to teach others. Experts describe that situations as transgenerational plasticity.

Yet, not teaching is possible if we keep and empty mind and a closed heard. But we can’t remain blind and closed at this critical and transformational time in the history of humankind.

Getting into the cave is easier than getting out

We are all watching the drama in Thailand where an international team of experts works to recue 12 boys and a coach from deep inside a cave. We wish, of course, for all of them to be rescued alive, healthy, and promptly, so they can return to their families and nobody else will get hurt or worst during the rescue efforts.

But I don’ want to focus on that drama, but only in one particular aspect: entering and exiting the cave. During the ceaseless news coverage of the rescue, one of the major TV networks interviewed an expert who said that when he trains his team for cave or underwater rescues, he tells his team it is easier to get into the cave than to get out.

In fact, according to that expert, this training focuses on how to exit the cave alive, not in how to get in.

That idea got me thinking because it illustrates an obvious truth: there are countless places, activities, and habits in our lives where it is easy to get in and difficult to get. For example, if we want to be overweight, we don’t need to do too many things. But if we want to lose all that extra weight, then we are faced with a real challenge.

And what about debts? It is quite easy to have a credit card. We all receive all kinds of unsolicited applications by mail or by email. It is easy to use those cards and accumulate debts. And it is difficult to pay those debts.

A short reflection and some imagination could add many more examples about situations in our lives easy to get in, difficult to get out, including relationships and jobs.

But there is another important element in the story of the boys trapped inside the cave in Thailand. According to the expert who spoke on TV, to find your way out of the cave you need an expert. Getting out of the cave with the help of an expert led me to think on another cave, an allegorical cavern, where people are trapped until somebody “rescues” them.

But this allegorical cave presented by Plato in his Republic is different from the one in Thailand, because in Thailand the boys know they are trapped and they want to be rescued. In Plato’s cave, people are unaware they are in a cave and, therefore, they are not expecting anybody to come and free them.

Plato doesn’t provide details about how people got into the cave, but it doesn’t matter. We know it’s easy to get into the cave. The problem is to get out. And many people spend such a long time trapped inside their own caves that they forget the are trapped and they refused to be rescued.

We want all 12 boys and their coach to be rescued. And we also want for all those trapped inside caves of their own creation to one day be free and experience the fullness of life.

 

The self-deception of living inside our own echo chamber

It has been said you can’t force people to see what they don’t want to see or to hear wat they don’t want to hear. In other words, a closed will also means closed minds and closed hearts. This truth is so old that two millennia ago a wandering preacher urged those with ears to hear.

Closer to a time, Henry David Thoreau said that, “It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.”

Yet, there is nothing we can hear or see, even if we have good ears and eyes, if we refuse to see it or hear it. But, what are we frequently refuse to see and hear? In most cases, we don’t want to see or hear anything contradicting what we think or what we expect, or anything different from our own version of the world.

As Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr said, we have become addicted to our own ideas and that addiction is the most powerful addiction of our time, thus being very difficult to recognize and face.

Let me share an example. I was recently at a park and, just by chance, I happened to see a little girl, probably no more than 5 years old, climbing a tree. Her father, distracted by a conversation, only saw her when she was already a couple of feet or so on the tree. He told her to climb down and she immediately did it. (By the way, she was never in any danger.)

Once on the ground, the girl turned around, “slapped” the tree and said, “Bad tree, bad tree”. It seems to me she thought the tree was some kind of “accomplice”, allowing her father to discover she was doing something she was not supposed to do. And, because of that, the tree deserved to be slapped and chastised.   

Obviously, little girls can do that because they still assume that inanimate (inanimate?) objects have their own intentions and therefore they blame those objects instead of assuming their responsibility for their own actions and for the results of those actions.

However, we see similar behaviors and attitudes in many adults, decades remove from being little boys or girls, who insist on looking for scapegoats or for the “true responsible party” of whatever is happening to them, never assuming their own responsibilities and refusing to listen to any other point of view, except theirs.

Somebody wrote that when you are a child, you act and think as a child. Then, when are an adult, you stop thinking and acting as a child. Or you should do it, I add. According to Father Rohr, we live in a society where fewer and fewer people arrive to that “second half” of their lives.

How are we then going to escape from our echo chamber, our neurotic, narcissistic, technological version of Plato’s allegorical cavern? Obviously, it is not up to me to provide any answer. I can only say we should seriously challenge our thoughts and beliefs.

 

Who cares if the goddess Cura went for a walk near a river and created humankind?

These are the days when we discuss messages printed in the back of jackets to decide how much we care or don’t care about certain issues. However, the debate about caring or not caring is as old as humankind, specially if we are talking about other people, as it is shown in the old example of a brother asking why he should care about his own brother.

Yet, caring, in the sense of being concerned or preoccupied about something, or focusing our attention and resources on something, seems to be a key element in what it means to be human. That’s the lesson we learn from a fable (#220) shared by Hyginus, a Roman writer who live 2000 years ago.

According to the fable, one day the Roman goddess Cura (in English we call her “Care”) went for a walk near a river and, after taking a piece of clay, she decided to create humankind using that clay.

Cura then asked Jupiter to infuse his spirit in the new creature and Jupiter did it. There was then a dispute about what would be the proper name for Cura’s creation. Cura wanted her name to be used. Jupiter and Earth voted for their names because they each contributed with elements for the creation.

The gods decided to talk with Saturn, the oldest of the gods, who decided that, when a person dies, his/her spirit shall return to Jupiter, whom gave it in the first place to the new creature, and the body will return to Earth, for the same reason. And the creature, Saturn said, should be called “human” (homo, in Latin) because it was formed from the soil (humus, in Latin). But, what did Cura get?

In Latin, “cura” means caring, paying attention, feeling concern or anxiety, and even love. “Care” is its proper and usual translation. (“Sorge” is the translation in German.)

Saturn (Chronos, the god of time) decided that, because humans were formed by Cura (Care), then the new being (that is, us) should live every day possessed by Cura. In other words, according to this fable, we have been created in such a way that every day is for us a day of caring (pay attention, feeling anxious or concerned, or being preoccupied.)

Some people say fables are fables and we shouldn’t care about fables in our techno-scientific, globalized, postmodern, narcissistic 21st century world.

Yet, Hyginus’ fable is a testimony that two millennia ago people reflected about the multidimensionality of human life, the temporality of our existence, and the fact that we as long as we are alive, will always experience a level of Care (uneasiness, preoccupation, attention, love.)

Another Roman poet Ovid, contemporary of Hyginus, wrote Metamorphosis in part to explain that humans can become like gods if adopted by a deity. Almost 2000 years later, Frank Kafka wrote his Metamorphosis, this time to explain we are turning into impure monstrosities. But we already know that even without any need of proclaiming it on our backs.

The more you expand your past, the more you also expand your future

In the final chapter of his 1932 book about 18th century philosophers, American historian Carl Becker argues (and I agree with him) that the more you expand your consciousness of your own past (both personal and historical), the more you also expand your own future.

Specifically, according to Becker, “The more of the past we drag into the present, the more a hypothetical future crowds into it also”. Goethe said something similar when he suggested that if you don’t know 3000 years of history, you will be wandering in the darkness of the present.

Becker again: “If our memories of past events are short and barren, our anticipations of future events will be short and barren”. He also explains that the richness and extension of the future depends on the past having those two same characteristics.

Let’s accept what Becker proposes, that is, that the duration and depth of our past determines or at least anticipates with a high degree of probability the duration and depth of our future. What that thought means for us, citizens of the 21st century living trapped inside an ephemeral present, so ephemeral that it becomes immediately obsolete?

Perhaps it means that our future is also ephemeral and automatically obsolete. After years of researching the topic, I believe that’s exactly the case.

If everything we are aware of is the “now” and if that “now” is decontextualized and ahistorical (that is, we don’t know why what is happening today is happening today), then we are not aware either of the emerging future, which is no longer a continuation from the past.

In other words, as Becker argues, the past is not something that already happened, but the consciousness in the present of a past event. From that perspective, all past and all history are present. For that reason, the future is not something that it hasn’t happened yet, but it is something already present in the present, even if we are unaware of its presence.

But if we are not even aware of ourselves, if we live in a perpetual state of self-alienation and oblivion, if we fight against our own metamorphosis thinking, as the caterpillar does, it is a disease, then we will never be able to connect with the source of our being. For that reason, we won’t be able to connect with our best future version to bring that version of ourselves to the present.

That situation doesn’t mean we are living or miserable lives, or that we are bad people (or good people, for that matter.) It means we have adopted a self-limiting pattern of events.

As Becker said, “Memory of the past and anticipation of future events work together, without disputing over priority or leadership”. From that perspective, the awareness of the present is a pattern of thought where there is an interconnection between memories and anticipations.

In other words, if we don’t remember our gran parents (our ancestors), we won’t be able to think about our grandchildren (our descendants.)

“We are still slaves”, the woman said during the community meeting

I was recently invited to a gathering of community leaders representing different organizations and groups wanting to have a project in common. During the second hour of the meeting and with no warning, one of the participants stood up and said, “We are still slaves!”, surprising all the participants and even herself.

The woman, a well-known local African-American leader, said that when she was a child, her grandparents cultivated fruits and vegetables in their backyard. Their home was then in the outskirts of the city. Then, when she was a teen, the city grew, and backyard gardening was not allowed, so a community garden was created.

A few weeks ago, that community garden was closed for good. The owner of the place and the local municipality were not able to agree about water for the plants.

Reflecting about the lost garden, the woman said that her people (and not only her people, I add) act assuming they are free when, in fact, they can’t even produce their own food or decide what they want to eat. And when you lose your traditional food, she explained, you also lose the traditions that were part of every meal you shared with yours.

Once the memory of your community is gone, your own memory is gone. It’s not that you don’t know what you are eating. It’s that you don’t even know who you are. You feel free. You have opportunities, but, for all purposes, you are a slave.

The veteran leader spoke then about the slavery of African and African Americans in the United States, but then she immediately moved back to the present, saying that “our slavery” (her words) is worst than the previous one, because in the past slaves knew they were slaves, but we live assuming we are free.

That thought reminded me of an article I read last February about South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han (who lives in Germany.) Han said that “No we exploit ourselves and we call that self-development.”

Specifically, Han said that the society presented by Orwell in 1984 was “a society aware of being dominated”, while in our society, according to Han, “we don’t have any awareness of being dominated.”

Han said that we live at a time of “self-explotation” and of “horror of the other”. For that reason, we live “in the desert, the hell of the same”. So, we are slaves and we don’t know it.

Why? Because we can’t even try to be different because being different means being the same as everybody else who wants to be different. Even worst, “being different” now means “marketable differences”. You are different only if you can “sell” your differences.

How do we move beyond that situation where reality is being abolished? Han proposes a simple solution: cultivate your own garden so you can reconnect with the reality of “colors, aromas, and feelings”, that is, with the other and the different.

Intuitively, the African American leader already knew it. And that’s true, undeniable wisdom.

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