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WEEKLY COMMENTARY

Bitter narcissism distorts the present and stops the future

The well-known myth of Narcissus –told, among others, by Ovid in his Metamorphosis– says that Narcissus, seeing his own image reflected on the still waters of a pond, decided to die thirsty to avoid distorting the image, his image, on the water. As it happens will all myths, Narcissus reveals psychological truths relevant even today.

In fact, it is safe to say that many of us, like Narcissus, are unable to see reality and we only see our own image projected unto reality. Then, we are so attached to that image that we reject anything that could distorted. At that moment, we begin to play our own mental games to keep intact our self-image.

In the renowned masterwork of Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843), when the main character, Scrooge, is about to meet the second of the three ghosts visiting him, he assumes, in spite of seeing darkness all around him, that it is still noon, not midnight, and that there is something wrong with the sun.

That’s what we do: we create our own stories to validate our own reality. Even more, we believe and accept those stories, even if they are fantastically absurd, as the best explanation to whatever is happening.

In the case of Scrooge, he decided the sun was no longer shining. But we can forgive him, because he is just a character in a book. Yet, the so-called Scrooge disorder, also known as bitter narcissism, probably affects a higher percentage of the population today than whatever that percentage was during the 19th century.

For example, a few days ago, several hours after normal business hours, a woman called me and, almost in desperation, asked me to talk with his teenage son “as soon as possible” because the son was “causing problems”.

A short conversation with the mother revealed that the “problems” his son had were his desire of going to college in another state and to study a career his mother thought was not prestigious or lucrative enough for his son.

For her, his son was wrong. In reality, in making his own decisions, the son was agitating the waters of the pond, thus dissipating the image of the “controlling mother” the mother wanted desperately to keep, instead of accepting she was entering a new time of her life.

And then there is the case of somebody who, after learning of new research about how expectations about pain activate different parts of the brain, he simply said, “My grandmother already knew that.” No, she didn’t.

That’s an answer I frequently receive from those who use they “grandmother” (or the “church”, or whatever else they decide to use) as a shield to protect themselves from reality.

But we pay the price for clinching to our narcissistic self-image: we stop our future. As Scrooge said, “Ghost of the Future! I fear you more than any specter I have seen”. He was right: you can’t be a bitter narcissistic and at the same time build a future.  

Robots will match our intelligence. How difficult that will be?

At a recent conference in Sydney, Australia, Dr. Toby Walsh, an expert in artificial intelligence (AI), said that in a matter of years robots will “match humans” both in creativity and in intelligence. In fact, he said, it is possible that robots matching human intelligence will be a reality before the current young generation reaches retirement age.

Given the fact that Dr. Walsh is recognized as one of the leading experts on AI, whatever he says should be taken seriously. However, at the same time, his statement generates a number of questions. For example, what kind of human intelligence is used to compare the intelligence robots will achieve?

Are we talking about a level of intelligence and creativity comparable to those of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, or any other great creative and intelligent person throughout human history?

Because one thing is for robot to reach that level of intelligence and creativity and another, very different thing is for robots to be as intelligent as the average citizen, who spends most of his/her time posting online whatever seems to be funny or interesting, or it resonates with his/her beliefs or ideology.

In other words, what’s the baseline being used to say robots are or will be as intelligent as we are? After all, a quick look at our world shows that it won’t take a that much effort for any intelligence, robotic or alien, natural or artificial, of match and even surpass human intelligence.

I don’t want to offend anybody. Yet, let’s look around. Can we seriously say we are “intelligent” when we are exploiting and destroying the planet and we are exploiting and destroying ourselves?

Are we really intelligent if we go to war even for the most superficial and ridiculous reasons and we can solve, mainly because we don’t want to solve, many of the social maladies affecting our world, including hunger and poverty, affecting every day millions and millions of people? The existence of those problems seems to be incompatible with intelligent beings.

Let’s assume the new robots will be as intelligent as the average person (you and I) is. Why, then, we will need those robots? Or, from a different perspective, what we, people with normal intelligence, are going to do when robots with normal intelligence replace us?

And if we assume that the next generation of robots will be more intelligent than the average person, perhaps at the level of a human genius or more, how soon will it take for those robots to realize that we are as intelligent as they are?

According to Dr. Walsh, that will never happen, and we shouldn’t be concerned with robots taking over and eliminating humanity. The reason is simple: since we are creating those robots, they will be as incompetent as we are.

“We haven’t thought carefully about how (the robots) are going to interact with our complex world”, Walsh said. There you have it: we are not even intelligent enough to create truly intelligent robots. 

Interstellar asteroid or space probe from extraterrestrial civilization?

Francisco Miraval

When I was a child, I read as much as I could about the possibility of intelligent life on another planets. Now, as an adult, I would like to find intelligent life on this planet, but we will talk about that at a later time. However, I would like to share a few thoughts about the debate focused on the space object known as Oumuamua: interstellar asteroid or something else?

Oumuamua entered the solar system on October 2017 and it is thought to be the first object from another star system to enter our system. The problem is that more than a year later the experts still don’t know what Oumuamua really is. In fact, a new study suggest it could be a solar sail sent by an interstellar civilization.

Before we laugh at that suggestion and dismiss it as pure fantasy, let’s keep in mind that, in this case, the experts are not those pseudo-experts talking at midnight on TV about extraterrestrial beings, and generation little o no confidence on what they are saying.

And I didn’t get the information from any obscure, or not so obscure web site dedicated to entertaining, but not informing, and more focused on conspiracy theories and sponsors than on any truth.

In fact, contrary to all that, the suggestion that Oumuamua could be an artificial object created by an extraterrestrial civilization came from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), based on the elongated shape of the object and the fact that the object changed trajectory and speed since it was first observed.

According to the experts at the CfA, Oumuamua “a gigantic alien solar sail”. “Sail” as in the one used by ships, but, in this case, using photons. In fact, the object could be “debris from an advanced technological equipment” that previously traveled through interstellar space.

If experts from the Harvard Smithsonian CfA say so, who are we to argue with them?

This not the first time that scientists working for universities suggest they found indications of an extraterrestrial civilization. On August 2017, Tabatha Boyajian (then at LSU), suggested that the significant variations of the light of star KIC 8462852 could be caused by some kind of artificial megastructure around the star. The most plausible explanation, of course, is cosmic dust.

But, what if Oumuamua is not just a simple asteroid. After all, it seems it has all the elements needed for interstellar travel. So, what is it? Scientist at CfA and at other institutions suggest it could be a space probe or a space shipwreck. Or, as they say, “an artificial relic which floated into our Solar System from interstellar space”.

If that’s the case and they can probe it, that will create “a new cosmic perspective about the meaning of human activities”, according to the experts at CfA.

Meanwhile, here we are more concerned about the new chapter of a soap opera or the latest game of our time than on an increasingly amazing and transformative reality.

How can we talk with our children in the age of Sophia and space children?

A man I never met in person recently called and asked me for advice about how to improve his communication with his own two teenagers, explaining the communication problems began two years ago when the family moved to the United States.

Obviously, communicating with teenagers is a challenge almost anywhere in the world. Also, those challenges reach a new level when, in addition to the well-know generational gap, you add other factors, such as parents and children speaking different languages and having significant differences regarding technology, education, culture, and even religion.

In that context, in many cases, the only connection between parents and their own children is the biological connection, and not much more beyond that. The speed of social, cultural, and technological change has expanded the generational gap to the proportions of a generational abyss.

Of course, I didn’t mention anything like that to the person who called me. Also, it is unwise to mention certain topics over the phone. Hopefully, we will soon meet and talk face to face. In the meantime, I carefully listened to what he had to say.

Basically, he was not really asking for my advice (good thing, because I have none to offer), but he wanted to know, even if he didn’t say it explicitly, if there was a way to stop time and to go back to the past to a time when was able to control his relationship with his children.

I am sorry, my friend. That’s not possible. And if you think you are having now a hard time communicating with your children, wait just a few more years, just a few years, and you will see how difficult that communication will be.

We live at a time of fast, deep, disruptive, and irreversible changes. For that reason, different generations literally live in different worlds. And, furthermore, we are creating even more of those “different worlds”.

For example, Sophia, the first AI robot to become citizen of a country (Saudi Arabia), recently became the first AI robot to receive an official visit to enter a country, when she visited Azerbaijan to participate in a UN conference about public services and bureaucracy.

Sophia, created by Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong, spoke with public officials and reporters, thanking them for seeing AI as “a positive force for humanity, and not as a threat”. 

Sophia is gaining recognition as a person and, at the same time, the idea of having children in space (literally) is also gaining recognition. According to SpaceLife Origin, a company in the Netherlands, the first generation of “space humans” will soon (2024) be born in space, using embryonic incubators inside space stations orbiting earth.

So, how are you planning to communicate with your children when they will be interacting every day with AI robots like Sophia, but many times more intelligent than her, and with humans born in space, but not on this planet?

Do you really want to connect with your children? First, connect yourself with their future.

How will you communicate with an artificial intelligence 100 times smarter than you?

This is a real, serious question: How are you planning to communicate with an artificial intelligence 100 times smarter than you? And that difference will last only up to the moment the artificial intelligence 100 times smarter than you develops or builds a new artificial intelligence hundreds of times more intelligent than the previous one.

I must say I am not talking here about science fiction or, much less, about a conspiracy theory. Too bad I have to clarify that. Also, I am not talking about a distant future or about research happening inside a dark, unknown laboratory. In fact, this is something happening right here, in Colorado, where I live.

During a recent presentation at the Da Vinci Institute (near Denver), Steve Kommrusch, a PhD candidate at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and local coordinator of the Institute for Research of Intelligent Machines, said the IQ of the new artificial intelligence will be several times the average IQ of today’s human beings.

So, how big will that difference be? The new artificial intelligence, said Kommrusch, could achieve an IQ of around 10,000, while the average IQ in the United States is around 100. In other words, the new artificial intelligence will be 100 times more intelligent than we are.

Of course, we are just talking about IQ level here and not about the ability to access and process information, which, by the way, it is also higher in artificial intelligence than in humans.

It is good to mention that the IQ of some of the modern geniuses, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, varies from 160 to 190. It seems just a handful of people reach an IQ of 200, with some reports of very few people above that number, but still below 300.

According Kommrusch, the new artificial intelligence will be as distant from as regarding intelligence as we, humans, are from the ants.

The issue of different levels of intelligence was explored the movie Forbidden Planet (1956), where the most intelligent human was just a “moron” (the word used in the movie) compared with the (fictitious) Krell, who, in turn, were unable to understand the super intelligent machine, of planetary size, they created.

So, how are we going to community with that kind of artificial intelligence? Perhaps a better question is: how will that super artificial intelligence communicate with us? Perhaps we will be seen as a pest, just as we see ants as a pest.

Half a century ago, this debate was a theoretical one, presented to the people in the context of science fiction. Today, it is debate happening in an academic context and presented to us by scientists and philosophers.

In the meantime, we ignore the issue, in the same way ants ignore everything about space travel. I am not suggesting we will crush like we crush ants. I am saying we don’t even know what is actually happening to us. And, we are honest to ourselves, we really don’t care to know.

The better the question, the better the answer

When I was still a college student, my mentor (Dr. Armando Vivante) consistently decided not to answer my questions, saying I didn’t know what I was asking because, had I known it, I would never asked what I asked. It took me many years to understand the wisdom of that approach.

That memory came back to my mind when I recently read (where?) that the size of answers we get in our lives is determined by the size of the questions we ask. If we ask irrelevant questions, we are going to receive irrelevant answers, if we get an answer at all.

Contrary to that, if we ask significant and comprehensive questions, then we will receive significant and comprehensive answers. Unfortunately, I think we live at a time when questions are no longer asked to receive answers, but precisely to prevent answers. However, that doesn’t mean we should not ask questions.

One of the best examples of asking questions for the purpose of advancing knowledge (and not just to confirm what we already know or to point out mistakes in what others say) is, of course, the questions Socrates used to ask, causing consternation, and rightly so, among those talking with Socrates.

Those were honest, multidimensional questions forcing those talking to each other to discover aspects not yet discovered in what we say or believe, as well as becoming aware of unanticipated consequences of the ideas and beliefs we blindly follow.

It is interesting to know that, after questioning so many people, Socrates concluded that wisdom consisted in acknowledging his own ignorance. Today, however, we openly confuse wisdom and ignorance and arrogant ignorance is proclaimed as wisdom.

For that reason, our questions are smaller and smaller regarding expectations and reach. Those are questions no looking for answers, much less unanticipated options. The questions are now unidimensional and therefore all the answers are only “Yes” or “No”, “correct” or “incorrect”, acceptable or unacceptable, with nothing in between.

So, what would happen if we were to stop “downloading information” and decide to be open to true dialogue, refusing to participate in alternating monologues where nobody has any intention of listening to the other person?

What would happen if we could once again ask questions of such a size that the answers could not be anticipated or calculated, but they need to be created in the context of the same dialogue that created the questions?

Perhaps we will then understand something my mentor told me many years ago and that only later understood: the question is more important that the answer, and if you know what you are asking, then you already have the answer. But we don’t even know what to ask.

At the same time, in our everyday lives, we keep asking small questions and getting small answers, those answers that pretend than just a few seconds (yes, few seconds) we will understand complex issue. But, our “everyday life” is just a fiction we create precisely to avoid asking big questions.

We forget the past, ignore the present, and distort the future

Last week, for different reason, I spoke with several persons in high positions in their organizations, including CEOs, college professors, community leaders, and religious leaders. During the conversations, it was clear the don’t know the past, they barely understand the present, and they distort the future. Even more worrisome, they are unaware of that.

I must say that, obviously, I do the same thing regarding the past, the present, and the future. Perhaps, only perhaps, I am a little, just a little, more aware of my own ignorance of what already happened, what is happening, and what is about to happen. And I know I filter all reality through that ignorance.

Also, perhaps I am just deceiving myself thinking I am “more aware” than others about our perception of time and reality.

Whatever the case, if the person in charge of community projects know nothing about the community, the person in charge of youth programs is neither young nor connected with young people, and the person in charge of ESL classes barely knows English, you must think you are living in a psychedelic version of the Orwellian world.

Don Quixote was right when he saw giants that nobody else saw. After all, who wants to see windmills when reality is meaningless? At the very least, those imaginary giants move us to a Quixote-like action, to discover new worlds previously closed to us. But, what’s the connection between Don Quixote and ignoring the past, the present, and the future?

There is no connection, or, alternatively, everything is connected. Spanish writer Enrique Santin once said that “You remember the past. You live the present. You think the future.” Unfortunately, we are not doing anything like that.

First, we ignore the past. And what we call “past” is only the present version of what some people think happened before. In most cases, the “past” is a nostalgic reconstruction of what happened used to justify the present. Even worst, we don’t know even that distorter version of the past. We forgot the past and we forgot that we forgot.

Regarding “living the present”, our lives seem to be very similar to the undesirable monster described and anticipated by Kafka in his Metamorphosis. We have reduced “life” to be just an obsolete cog in an increasingly complex machinery. “Life” became a mere accident. In fact, that’s what many people think and feel.

Regarding the future, many people don’t realize that what they perceive to be “the future” is already happening. Based on that unrecognized ignorance, they are sure that “the future” will never arrive, because something or somebody (God, the government, big corporations) will stop it from happening. Yet, that “future” they are so sure it will never happen (artificial intelligence, for example) is already here.

Having forgotten the past, we live in a meaningless present which we want to perpetuate to recreate a past more unreal than Don Quixote’s giants, thus leaving no room in our minds, hearts, and wills to think the future.

What can’t we see when we see what we see?

When I was a child, I wanted to learn how to play chess. I didn’t progress beyond the basic moves, but one day I was playing against another child and suddenly several people gathered around the table. I didn’t know why. They were smiling at me. A few minutes later, the mystery of the gathering was solved.

I lost that chess match, as I did so many other times. Then, one of the spectators came to me and said: “You almost won, but you didn’t see it.”

He explained that I was just one or two moves away from defeating my opponent, but I never saw those movements and, therefore, I never made them.

That story (a true story) came back to me after a recent meeting with a person who wanted my opinion about a certain issue. I was intrigued, not by the request, but by the fact that person assumed I had something of value to say about that issue.

Regardless, I listened to a long presentation of the problem and during the presentation the person said again and again “I see this” or “I see that.”

I didn’t share any opinion. I simply asked him, what do you stop seeing when you see what you see? What can’t you see in seeing what you see?

For example, the light from the sun is so bright that we can’t see the stars. The stars are still there. They don’t “disappear” only to “reappear” when the sun “disappears”. The same light which allows us to see many things causes other things not to be seen. We can only become aware of those other things when the intense light is dimmed or blocked (an eclipse, for example.)

Something similar happens when we focus all our mental “light” on something: we can clearly see whatever the focus of our “light” is, but, at the same time, we stop seeing many other things, a whole universe of things interconnected with whatever we do see.

Perhaps that’s why some of the best solutions and some of the most creative ideas arise precisely when we are not paying attention to the problem. And, on the other hand, focusing all our energy on one issue could be counterproductive.

From a similar perspective, Hegel said that what is known, precisely because it is known, it remains unknown. We all have things in our homes, things we see every day, yet we don’t know what they are. And, of course, we have people in our lives, people we know, but, in a sense, they still remain unknown to us.

So, how many times we were defeated just because we focused all our attention to what we saw (the chess pieces on the board) and not on what we didn’t see (where the chess pieces should have been to win)?

Because we focus only on what we see, we often live “in a future which never becomes present”, German poet and theologian August Niemeyer said two centuries ago.

Sadness, death emerge among the common thoughts of children and teens

A few days ago, I was exiting a local store when two elementary school students, clearly brother and sister, where walking right there and talking to each other. For a few seconds, I heard their conversation before they just walked away.

“I am sad”, said the boy, probably around 10.

“Is that sadness like when somebody does or sadness because something bad is about to happen?”, asked his sister, perhaps only a couple of years older than her brother.

After listening to that conversation, I had to stop for a few minutes and reflect about the question and the answer. Initially, it made no sense to me. Only later, after thinking for a while, I was able to continue with my activities.

I asked myself several times in what context a conversation between two young siblings walking home after school can justifiably focus on sadness, and, even more worrisome, on a recent death or an imminent tragedy.  

The face of the boy, who all the time looked down to the floor, and the tone of voice of the conversation revealed the boy and his sister were having a serious conversation. No laughs. Not even a smile. The conversation was not the prelude to a joke and I didn’t detect any kind of exaggeration in the question asked by the sister.

I must say than when the boy said “I am sad” I immediately thought he had problems at school, perhaps of low grade at a test, or a discipline issue. O perhaps one of his friends move away and he/she is no longer attending that school.

However, when the sister connected what he brother said to a question about death and tragedy, it was clear that the sadness of the boy was unrelated to any school issue, but a kind of existential sadness. He felt his own being was being threatened. Her sister knew and sensed what he was talking about.

What can cause a young boy and a young girl from an elementary school in Colorado, United States, to feel sad because their own being is in danger?

Sad to say, there is a long list of possible causes, from school shootings to the increasing impact of the opioid epidemic, to the uncertainty about employment opportunities, because, regardless how well the economy is doing, almost half of the people in the country can’t make ends meet or are very close to be in that situation.

That may have been the case, but I don’t think the boy was thinking about shootings, opioids, or economy, but about something deeper, more personal, and even more visceral, as his sister understood. Something closer to death than to life.

That was extremely worrisome, because in Colorado suicide, not car accidents, is the main cause of death among children and teenagers. And a growing number of children in this state now decide to take their own lives, even children as young as 6.

My goodness! What kind of horrible social monstrosity have we created?

Whom are you going to believe if you keep lying to yourself?

With his well-known humor, Mark Twain once asked, “Whom are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” That question, with all its hilarity, is not as innocent as it looks because, after all, we see with our brains, not with our eyes.

Anais Nin expressed a similar thought when she said, “We don’t thing as they are. We seem them as we are”. Study after study have shown that indeed we see things as we are, meaning that our daily lives, our circumstances, and our internal processes both limit and modify what we see and understand.

For example, we only see the past, but we live at a time when the future is no longer a continuation of the past. And we see everything through the lenses of our prejudices and ignorance. So, despite our good intentions, true reality escapes us and the reality we created for ourselves becomes, obviously, the only reality.

Twain was right in saying our own eyes deceive us. And Nin was right in saying we only see ourselves, but we think we see things. This is not just idealism or solipsism (but it could well be), but something practical: we put ourselves as the measure of all things, as Protagoras famously said.

Indeed, since ancient times we are urged to reflect about our own ideas and beliefs, to acknowledge the limits or our knowledge, to know that we know nothing (Socrates), to accept that most, if not all, of what we assume we know is just repetition of something we were told or we heard, but not something we have thought or analyzed by ourselves.

As a result, we are trapped in the paradoxical reality of living inside our own “world” and, at the same time, roaming without a destination, as a ship being pushed by the storm in the ocean, or as a blade of grass moving from one side to the other according to the direction of the wind. Living without a purpose is not really living.

Even worst, many studies said that we then pass all those problems and limitations to the next generation, not understanding that the next generation will face a different (transhuman?) future. They will face challenges we never faced, and we can’t even imagine. In other words, our “gift” for future generations is preventing them from being part of the future.

Recent studies done in Scotland say that parents mainly share three “elements” with their children: depression, uncertainty (about one’s future), and poverty (materially and financially speaking.) It is not surprising, then, that in many places in the “civilized” world suicide, not car accidents, is not the main cause of death among children and young adults (10 to 24 years old.)

Our Paleolithic brain and our Medieval institutions are almost useless in the context of God-like technology (Edward Osborn Wilson, American biologist). So, we need to stop believing in our lying eyes and we need to open our internal eyes to see what is really happening.

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