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WEEKLY COMMENTARY

It is not just reading: it is meeting other minds

Several years ago, a good friend of mine, also an avid reading like myself, asked me, “How many books are you reading?” “Books”, in plural, because he shared and still shares that passion for reading several books at the same time.

Times are different now and books are no longer as popular as they used to be. Yet, they are an excellent tool to meet other minds. Reading is not just “skating over the page” (as Ortega y Gasset once warned). At its core, it is meeting other minds. 

Obviously, if you want to meet other minds, first you need to meet your own mind. And that’s one of the fascinating (and frequently forgotten) aspects of reading: it is an internal dialogue, a reflection about oneself, a moment of meditation oscillating between the conscious and the unconscious mind when, for just a moment, we become aware of ourselves. 

My passion for reading began before college, where I was reading several books per week and later, at the end of the studies, a book per day or so. 

In fact, my passion for reading began when I was a little boy and every weekend my father took me to a secondhand bookstore and bought me took books. I selected one and he selected the other one. I had to read both of them before getting two more used books the following week. (I still had many of those books.)

Later, when I was a teenager, I discovered the benefits of public libraries and I went every week to the library, borrowed two books for seven days, read them, returned them, and borrowed two new books for the next seven days. Before returning the books, I wrote a summary of each book. (I still have many of those handwritten notes.)

But, what’s the point of talking about my reading habits, as if they were of any importance? In fact, it is irrelevant to know how many books I read. What is relevant is to know that today’s readers are tomorrow’s leaders, as it has been said many times. The reason, according to numerous studies, is that reading causes the brain to prepare the person for the reality presented in the books. 

For example, just a few days ago, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder published a scientific report confirming what many people (Einstein included) already knew: imagination changes reality. In fact, according to those researchers, the brain doesn’t separate imagination from reality and needs to learn how to do it. 

So, how do we learn to distinguish imagination from reality, without canceling either of them and learning from both of them? It seems one of the answers is reading, because digital media doesn’t generate the internal dialogue books create. Again, when we read, we prepare ourselves for a new reality. 

I am not proposing going back to the past I am proposing meeting ourselves again for the first time in the context of a new future we can seldom imagine. 

How come “Captain America” always knows when I will be at a certain street?

Because of my work, several times a week I travel from east to west through the city where I live, always following the same direction and the same street, but seldom at the same time. Yet, regardless of the time of my trip, “Captain America” is always there. I have no idea how he knows my schedule. 

I call him “Captain America” because he is a young man who, while walking to his job, carries a backpack similar to Captain America’s shield. Nothing odd about that. What is odd is that I see that man walking west on the same block at 8 am or 11 am, or at any other time I happen to drive by that block. 

How this “Captain America” knows at what time he needs to leave his home to be at the place and time where I will see it? Who shares my schedule with him? 

There is, of course, an easy explanation: there is more than one “Captain America’ walking the streets of my city, all of them leaving the same place a few minutes after one another to follow the same street to go a certain place, like buses or trains leaving their stations. However, because I only see on “Captain America” at a time, I think there is only one, even if there are many.

Some people will say that it is just a trivial coincidence. However, I must say I see “Captain America” on different days and at different times, always at the same place and always walking west. And that happens so frequently that it looks like more than just a “coincidence”. How many coincidences should happen to stop being just a coincidence? 

Some people may say it is just an illusion. It could well be. But were “Captain America” a mere illusion, he wouldn’t surely stop at the traffic light waiting for the light to turn green before crossing the street. 

There are many other explanations. I like to think that perhaps this “Captain America” is really an otherworldly android, brought here by intelligent aliens to study human behavior. I assume the android keeps a record of how many humans notice his presence while driving in heavy traffic. 

But perhaps the most attractive alternative is to realize that I am the one creating my own “Captain America” reality. Let me share this story. 

Many years ago, when my children were still young, we were watching a soccer match and every time I left the room to do something else my team scored. The situation happened a few times, so my children were sure that it was me, not the players, the real reasons for the goals. 

Obviously, I am not that naïve as to think that my actions cause a soccer team to score several goals or that a worker with a Captain American backpack changes his schedule, so I can see it during my commute. However, there should a mysterious force at play beyond just “illusion” and “coincidence”.  

Orwell’s dystopian world is now painfully obsolete

I recently found in the latest issue of a well-known academic journal an interesting argument: the best way to end the discrimination and exploitation of certain groups is to expand discrimination and exploitation to every group, without exclusions or distinctions.

Given the fact that the article was published by a serious and highly respected journal, and that the author of the article holds a high position in a national organization, there are no doubts the article is not meant to be a joke. Perhaps that’s why it is son interesting and even dangerous.

Let me put it this way: the author of the argument acknowledges that discrimination and abuse have happened throughout history and are happening even today. Yet, the solution to end with both discrimination and abuse is thought to be to extend discrimination and abuse to include those groups that are not yet impacted but those two social ills.

Perhaps I am too naïve or too poorly informed. And I certainly lack the academic sophistication needed to understand the argument presented above. I thought the best way to end discrimination was to end it, not to expand it. But perhaps, when faced with the reality of a Utopian goal, the best strategy is to adopt the attitude of “If you can beat them, join them.”

In other words, the argument seems to suggest that if we expand an unacceptable social behavior to impact not just one group but the whole community (perhaps even the global community), then that behavior becomes “normal” and “acceptable” because every could potentially be impacted by that behavior.

But, is that a valid argument? For example, could we end slavery by turning not just a group, but everybody into slaves? Or, perhaps closer to the intention of the argument mentioned above, should we eliminate slavery making it possible for any person, regardless of who he/she is, could become a slave?

And, if so, why should we stop there? Perhaps we can create a society where not only everybody is a slave, but were people unknowingly slave themselves, and, assuming they are still free, they exploit themselves and call that “personal development”.

The bad news is that it is already happening. During a speech in Barcelona last February, philosopher Byung-Chul Han argued that we live in a society where each person exploits himself/herself, is afraid of the “other” (whoever that “other” may be), and lives in the “hell” of trying to be different so they can be like everybody else.

According to Han, “Today a person exploits themselves believing they are fulfilling themselves”. We are so narcissistic that we can’t even accept ourselves.

Perhaps, then, the absurd argument of ending discrimination expanding discrimination may not be that absurd at all, not because it is valid, but because we have internalized discrimination and abuse to the point that we discriminate and abuse ourselves to a level never anticipated by Orwell in his 1984.

What a strange world is a world where even grotesque Utopias are obsolete!

Today’s imagination is tomorrow’s reality

It is becoming increasingly clearer to me that the future will not be, but already is. And if we do not see it, it is not because it has not arrived yet, but because we have not taken our imagination to the necessary level of development to see the future and, in that way, allow the future to emerge in the present.

Perhaps Einstein was right in saying that imagination was more powerful than knowledge, because knowledge is limited, but imagination is not. In fact, it is said that Einstein would have characterized the imagination as "the preview of life’s future attractions".

In other words, today's imagination, expressed for example in art and science fiction among other fields, is a preview of a future that is already here and that always was here, but that we do not see because of the low level of our imagination.

How do we know that we have a low level of imagination? Because we solve everything by means of a conflict. Whether it is a football match, a march of immigrants, a protest by retirees, or an unexpected lane change on the highway, we resolve everything with violence, with confrontations, and even with brutality.

A different kind world is so far from our imagination that when we imagine it we think it is something already lost and unrecoverable (like Paradise), something beyond our reach and this planet (like Heaven), or even a simple delirium (like the numerous Utopias presented throughout history.)

And then, with our lack of imagination, we feed the social field of negativity that sees everything as a disjunctive (us vs. them), everything is solved by means of the destruction of the other (or at least they try to destroy the other), and every problem is blamed on a newly found scapegoat, without nobody ever taking responsibility.

The monster within us, the reptilian brain, the shadow (as Jung said) then emerges from within us and shows its unpleasant face in all kinds of unpleasant actions. But perhaps the most unpleasant action of all is to keep us locked in the circle of the present without allowing us any access to the future.

It is true that many of those who in the past had the audacity to imagine a different future paid a high price for publicly expressing their imagination. But it is also true that those imaginative minds created a new future, even if they did not see it. Or, rather, they saw it before other people did, but not together with the other people who needed years or centuries to see it.

Maybe it's time to let our imagination fly again, not as an easy escapism from current reality or to deny our undeniable problems, but as a way to activate or reactivate the social field of positivity that, although almost empty of energy, it is reactivated with every good intention, every drop of hope, every sigh of faith.

Maybe we should reimagine our imagination before the unimaginable happens.

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.

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