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Weekly Commentary - October 14, 2019

We are witnessing the end of education and we still don’t know how to react

If we really open our minds, hearts and will and just see reality instead of only seeing and perpetuating our ideology, if we let the future emerge instead of insisting on living inside an echo chamber, then we would see that we are witnessing the end of education. And, whether we accept it or not, we don't know how to react.

A recent article by Rodrigo Assael published on the Educación Futura site highlights something that should be obvious: education is no longer preparing us for the future. In fact (we say), maybe it never did it. Perhaps education was and is only the necessary level of domestication to perpetuate the present.

According to Assael, the Fourth Revolution (artificial intelligence, biotechnology, 3D printing, 5G network, Internet of Things, and quantum computing) has made the current educational system (which still prepares workers and employees for repetitive, mechanical work, specialized or a lifetime) obsolete and outdated. 

In other words, current education prepares good workers for the First Industrial revolution two centuries ago. But we are now in the Fourth Revolution (or in the fourth stage of the same revolution, if you prefer.) 

And in this new revolution, education (understood as the transfer of information in a formal context controlled by teachers or professors) is coming to an end. It remains to be determined how long the agony will be or if the end will be anticipated or sudden. Perhaps, in the post-truth and deep fakes era, no one will cry for the death of education.

Paraphrasing Nietzsche, education is dead, and we have killed her. Or almost, because there are still certain elements of post-education hope because of the actions of those who know, understand, feel, and live that the future is not continuity of the past.

Consider, for example, the case of BR, a young woman from Argentina who at 13 completed her secondary studies online at a school in the United States and then enrolled in a nationally accredited university to study mathematics.

None of that was to the liking of the local school district that refused to accept BR studies and wanted to force her to return to traditional school and to begin therapy sessions for having studied alone. But it all ended in a good way when a local court ruled against the measures of the school district.

The judges forced the local district to accept BR's studies and argued that the girl, although she sought a “heterodox educational solution” to her desire to study, had to do so because that was the only way in which “she could exercise her right to educate herself ”, something that “the inefficiency of the educational system” didn’t offer her.

There are already hundreds of thousands of and perhaps millions of young people like BR who, tired of their dying education, create their own solutions without waiting for adults to act. To those adults who still confuse education with straitjackets, young people respond as Greta recently did: How do you dare!

How absurd is to assume that the absurdity is abnormal!

Recently, I decided to make the monthly payment of my credit card by phone (I was not near a computer at that time), and, to complete that task, I had to digitally enter numerous personal information, including part of my credit card number, and my date of birth, telephone and zip code. But that was not enough to make the payment. 

After entering all the requested information, the system automatically transferred me to a human operator (I assume he was human) who asked me to repeat all the previous information and then asked me to spell my full name and verify my email and my phone number. I did so and his next question was to explain the reason for the call.

I explained that I was calling to make a payment on my credit card. I remembered that I had to make the payment and, because I didn’t have access to a computer, I decided to call. The representative then asked me to confirm the last four digits of the bank account that I was going to use for the payment. I confirmed the digits and then he said:

"I'm sorry, but we can't complete the transaction because we can't verify your identity." And that was the end of the conversation with that person, but not the end of my internal dialogue about what just happened.

I would have liked to ask him how it was possible that after answering all the questions they asked me and after they themselves verified that the answers were valid, they still could not determine that I am really me. What more they wanted from me, a sample of my DNA?

Perhaps the level of skepticism about my identity was so high for the customer service representative of this company that he could not have been convinced of my identity unless an angelic being with a thunderous voice appeared with the good news that I am me.

And if the angelic being was not available, perhaps an alien descending from his spaceship could do that job.

Another question also came to my mind: how many people call the credit card company and say they want to pay my card? And how many people (including me) are told that this transaction cannot be completed, even after having answered all security and identification questions truthfully?

If there is someone who impersonates me to pay my debts, I would like to know it so as not to interfere with that person's noble task, but I doubt anyone will do it. In fact, I am sure that the only person who, by phone or online, pays my debts is me. Otherwise, I would not have those debts.

But there is still another problem, in my opinion even more absurd and worrying. Before interrupting the conversation, the customer service representative told me that the transaction could not be carried out "to protect your security", that is, my security. But "my security" is useless if it’s used against me.

How much good information and opportunities did we throw away due to our ignorance?

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of parents about the (relative) importance of college education and, at the end of the meeting, a mother approached me indicating that she had a question.

The mother contextualized her question by saying that her daughter was already close to finishing high school, with intentions to continue studying. "Is that why she always gets so many letters from universities?" asked the mother. "Yes," I replied.

“Because I didn't know it, every time one of those letters arrives, I throw it away. Since I don't understand what those letters say, I thought my daughter didn't need them,” the mother explained.

I felt the urge to kneel on the ground, extend my arms, move my head back and, under a black storm cloud and heavy downpour, shout "Nooooo!" for several minutes.

I did nothing. Instead, I said, “Some of those letters may be worth several thousand dollars to your daughter. From now on, every time you reach a letter, give it to him. She will know what to do.”

But the truth is that, throughout our lives, each of us receives valuable information or unmissable opportunities that we "throw in the trash" because of our own ignorance, be a real ignorance or, worse, self-imposed and consciously repeated ignorance so that the truth does not threaten or change our little world.

In fact, I am absolutely sure that I myself have thrown it away, certainly even without knowing it or without becoming aware of it, information and opportunities that, if properly activated, could have been of great benefit to me and, even more important, for those around me.

(Incidentally, I learned a long time ago that the best opportunities I receive are not for me or just for me, but to be shared with others.)

In a sense, it is better not knowing that, due to our ignorance, good information was lost or a good opportunity no longer exists, because becoming aware of the consequences of our ignorance would mean becoming aware of our ignorance and, therefore, ignorance no longer would serve us as an excuse.

But sooner or later, by those turns of life, we reach a point where we understand that we have wasted information and opportunities, in some cases unrepeatable and of high quality, simply because we prefer to cling to our ignorance (which we call “common sense”,  “tradition”, and “education”, among other many names) than to open our mind and heart to a new reality.

We may need to adopt the habit of assuming that every message that comes our way is a message for us or for someone close to us. To think what that message may be is, therefore, to resist ignorance. As Socrates said, wisdom is knowing our ignorance. 

Two millennia ago, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) taught in his speech in Athens that what God really forgives is our ignorance. Therefore, with that forgiveness already received, do not discard the next message that comes to you.

There are elements in human nature that make the gods powerless 

There are, without doubt, some elements of humanity against which, it seems, the gods (whoever they really are, if they exist) have no power. In other words, certain human characteristics make the gods powerless. Let's see three examples.

In 1801, Friedrich Schiller presented his play The Maid of Orleans, an adaptation of the well-known story of Joan of Arc. In the sixth scene of Act IV, Talbot, one of the characters, exclaims: "Against stupidity the very gods / Themselves contend in vain."

More than 200 years after that wise affirmation, the current process of infantilization of adults in the "Western" countries and the constant process of loss of our cognitive abilities (the so-called "Flynn Effect) widely confirm the growing human stupidity, promulgated inside echo chamber of social networks.

But Schiller goes beyond just pointing out the undeniable reality of human stupidity and affirms that not even the gods themselves can change that condition. And he is right.

We live, as it is obvious, in a world where all disagreement means disliking the other, where every dialogue turns into a debate, where listening is an exercise of closing our ears to everything that invites us to think, and where the extended helping hand becomes the a bitten hand.

As Schiller said, deities, in spite of all their divine powers, can do nothing against human stupidity. But there is another human element that takes away divine powers: boredom. 

In 1888, the last year in full use of his mental faculties, Nietzsche wrote The Antichrist and, in section 48, with full awareness of paraphrasing Schiller, he states that "against (human) boredom the gods themselves fight in vain".

Nietzsche is not talking about that feeling of annoyance for having nothing to do while one does not want to do anything or is interested in anything. It could be said that Nietzsche did not focus on “doing nothing”, but on “being nothing” (or on feeling nothing), so that nothing of what one does, has, or achieves serves as motivation. In fact, Adam was bored in paradise.

Paradoxically, Nietzsche suggests that the divinity cannot do anything against human boredom because humans are a kind of entertainment for the divinity. And there is still a third element that prevents all divine actions: the closed mind.

In 1972, Isaac Asimov published his novel The Gods Themselves, in which he explicitly cites Schiller's phrase quoted above. In this case, the book is about how to save the earth in the 21st century from a planetary and galactic catastrophe, created by human technology.

This is not the place to summarize Asimov’s novel. We will only say that, in the novel, not everybody listens to scientists trying to prevent destruction and death.  

Suffice it to say that the social field of negativity that now prevails on our planet brings us quite close to the "Great Crisis" anticipated by Asimov. And not even the gods will save us from closed minds, hearts and hands. Salvation, then, is in us and our intentions.

The future is now in the hands of adults with closed and childish minds

I recently heard a pastor preaching to the several hundred members of his congregation and telling them that, according to recent scientific studies, “almost one hundred percent” of human beings will die one day. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to ask him what that “almost” means.

After all, if this good man has access to a scientific study that shows that human mortality is less than one hundred percent, it would be good for him to share that study with us to see if the “almost” means  0,01 percent, or 1 percent, or whatever that (fictitious) number may be. 

And then, by chance, I heard a conversation of someone talking about a bear that was shot, skinned, dismembered, and its head cut off. And the other person then asked: But sis the bear die? It was not my conversation, so it was not for me to say anything, although I kept thinking how and why someone could even ask that question.

The reason why someone needs explanations to determine if a bear shot, skinned, dismembered and beheaded died is the same reason why someone claims that human mortality is "almost" one hundred percent: infantilism. But this statement needs to be explained.

In his classic and controversial 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom already said that education in the United States had “impoverished the soul of students”. And then, in 2000, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Christian Smith, and other researchers began talking about emerging adulthood, that is, the long time it takes now for young people to mature.

But according to recent studies, it is no longer a closed mind (as Bloom anticipated) or that adolescence now lasts for almost 20 years (as Arnett explained), but that adults remain and act as children.

In 2014, the Lumen Research Center in Social and Humanistic Sciences (in Romania) published an article by Dr. Jacopo Bernardini, entitled The Infantilization of the Postmodern Adult (that is, to be clear, ourselves). According to Bernardini, the contemporary adult lives in a state of perpetual “conscious immaturity” that allows him/her to “escape his responsibilities.”

As Bernardini says, the “kidult” “dresses without formality, has sex without reproducing, works without discipline, plays without spontaneity, buys without a purpose, and lives without responsibility, wisdom or humility.” 

That is possible, says Bernardini, because we live in a society in which “childish attitudes and the model of adolescent life are promoted in the media and tolerated by institutions.” In other words, being young “has nothing to do with age, but is a lifestyle attitude”, meaning “youth is no longer a transitory stage.”

In brief, infantilization is “a collective regression” of postmodern society that gives priority to “speed and possibilities” and to the “effective model of youth”, with the consequent “psychological rejection of adult condition”.

Thus, our future is now in the hands of closed, childish, and narcissistic minds. I would like to write much more on this subject, but it is time for me to watch my favorite cartoons.

How many more years will we live and for what?

I recently told a friend that insurance companies currently (in fact, for some time now) issue coverage up to 120 years of age, anticipating that in a short time that will be the duration of our active and healthy life. Obviously, my comment was rejected with total skepticism, both for "scientific" and "theological" reasons.

Be that as it may, and leaving aside the fact that in the visionary animated series Futurama Professor Farnsworth remains active at 160, a recent clinical study published in California indicates that a “cocktail” of three common medications can reverse biological age of a person in up to 2.5 years.

In other words, and so that there are no doubts, with these medications the person rejuvenates 2.5 years. And that is achieved with the knowledge and technology now available, which suggests that, once both knowledge and technology progress, the number of years of rejuvenation will grow.

Due to the fact that the current technoscientific development is exponential, one can think that in the near future the number of years that a person can rejuvenate will be a considerable amount, perhaps even tens of years. In fact, according to the aforementioned report, that is exactly what already happens in animal experiments.

But, as the ancients already said, a healthy body needs a healthy mind. And, in that sense, recent studies in the human brain have already confirmed both the phenomenon of neurogenesis (the brain creates new neurons, contrary to what was taught before) and the phenomenon of neuroplasticity (the brain creates new connections between neurons).

Also, Elon Musk and others want to establish a direct connection between the human brain and artificial intelligence, a development that, when added to that new understanding of our brain, means that the "new" brain would continue to operate at full capacity for years and years.

In fact, according to a recent article in the specialized journal Nature Biotechnology, two Harvard scientists, Shaun Patel and Charles M. Lieber, have already developed a system that allows, through a network of neuronal implants (and direct connections between the brain and computer) treat diseases (Parkinson's, Alzheimer's) and addictions, and it is even possible to "prevent the brain from degrading with age."

When that improved human brain (a project that is already underway) is "merged" (as Patel suggested) with artificial intelligence, the brain will not only be able to perceive its own thoughts, but to "manifest" them, then developing the ability to cure itself. 

Given these advances, and taking into account that until a little over a century ago the life expectancy was less than 50 years, it is then clearly possible to think that in a short time living an active and healthy life until 120 years or even beyond that it is no longer a simple fantasy, and it is not something contrary to science or, in fact, to theology.

What will we live for? After all, the mere extension of life creates a longer future, but not necessarily a new meaning for life. 

Why do they want to read our thoughts, but to control them?

A recent report (August 29) published by the University of California at San Diego reveals that biologists from that university have managed to develop laboratory mini brains that, after a few months of growth, already have their own functional neural networks. And that is just the beginning of the creation of complete human brains.

The full report, in the most recent issue of the specialized journal Cell Stem Cell, explains that the mini brains in question, fully gestated outside any association with a human body, develop brain waves similar to those of babies in gestation.

The goal, according to the researchers in charge of the experiment, is that these brain organoids eventually develop “sophisticated” neural networks, that is, mature and interconnected. By understanding how this development occurs, scientists could "model" new human brains, for example, by eliminating diseases and accelerating the brain’s evolution,

In that context, the true goal of these studies is to connect the human brain with artificial intelligence, something that both Neuralink (Elon Musk) and Facebook recently announced separately, indicating they are already doing it, in the early stages.

This is not science fiction. Neuralink confirmed a few days ago (August 31) that it is developing a "brain implant" to connect the brain directly to a computer. And Facebook said it plans to create a device that can "read" people's minds so that people can send information "just by thinking."

Given the almost imminent possibility of human brains redesigned in a laboratory (therefore, without diseases and more evolved) will be connected with a global artificial intelligence, everything we are now and have is obsolete and primitive. And all science fiction seems to be an unimaginative children's story.

In short, those who want to increase their brain capacity and have the means to do so (such as the super billionaires of the technological world) can receive implants of “organic” brains (perhaps as many as they want) and at the same time connect them with the artificial intelligence of their own creation, the same artificial intelligence that controls more and more of our life every day.

Although this situation of adding new brains to those we already have and then connecting them with artificial intelligence doesn’t yet exist -that is, we are told that it does not exist today-, official reports indicate that this is the direction of progress of current research, with highly promising results.

Transhumanism is, it seems, just around the corner, perhaps in 2029, as Ray Kurzweil anticipated several times. Or, to say it differently, the almost indefinite extension of biological existence and digital immortality could be real in ten years. If that happens, why does Silicon Valley want to read our thoughts?

The answer is obvious: to control them, as it is the case today, to the point that we are distressed if we do not receive all the “Likes” we expected. But why do they want to control our thoughts? Perhaps to avoid getting bored. But that is another issue to be explored later. 

We think we can extinguish our inner light, but it’s still shinning

My car, although not new, works well and, except for normal maintenance, doesn’t present any major problems. However, the headlights, as I discovered recently, no longer illuminated as before, so an "expert" suggested changing them, with an estimated cost of hundreds of dollars.

Before deciding to pay that amount, a quick consultation with real experts led me to buy a package to restore those lights and, for only $ 15 and after less than an hour's work, the lights shone again.

In fact, the problem was not the lights. There was no need to change them. It was only necessary to remove what obscured them in such a way and with such slowness that the difference in light between one day and the next one was so small that one can hardly notice it and then, erroneously, one assumed that lights continued to illuminate as before.

Even worse, once the problem became impossible to deny, when it became clear that the lights no longer illuminated as before, the solution proposed by the “expert” was so expensive (both in time and money) that it seemed impossible to achieve. The truth, however, was that the restoration of the headlights was simple, fast, and inexpensive process.

The situation made me think that throughout our life our inner light stops illuminating our path, and not because that inner light goes out, but because we hide it with our beliefs, creeds, dogmas, ideologies, trends, fashions, and self-deception. We could add many more elements to that list, including our growing dependency on social media and a growing inability to think. 

Little by little, almost imperceptibly, we add a new thin layer of darkness in front of our inner light that today, therefore, illuminates a little less than yesterday. But we don't realize it. We don’t pay attention to it. We don’t consider it as a small problem now, much less a large long-term problem.

And one day, for whatever reason, our inner light stops shining. It was not extinguished, but it is only hidden behind all the dust of the everydayness, of the temporal, which we have allowed to accumulate on it. And, even worse, to that dust of inauthenticity, of superficiality, we add a layer of oblivion.

Then, the light that used to illuminate our path no longer illuminate us, not because it cannot shine, but because we prevented it. And when, in desperation to find some light for our lives again, we seek to reverse the situation, we turn to "experts" who easily convince us that the only alternative is an expensive and long process. But it's not like that.

Contrary to what happens with the lights of the cars, when it comes to our interior light there are no “experts”, because, first of all, it is the light shining within us and, secondly, that light is not lost. It is only a matter of removing everything that, knowingly or not, we have deposited on the light, preventing its full radiance from being seen.

What are we really creating by recreating ourselves and the planet?

In his interesting book The Fourth Age, Byron Reese proposes that every time humanity accesses a new technology, humanity changes and, because of that, the planet also changes. For that reason, we can ask: What are we really transforming when our technology is transforming us and the planet?

Reese argues that 100,000 years ago, human beings learned to use fire and, thanks to fire, language developed. Then, about 10,000 years ago, the birth of agriculture led to the birth of cities. And more recently, perhaps only five or six millennia ago, the invention of writing resulted in the creation of nations.

Now, however, fire, language and agriculture look primitive when compared to intelligent and conscious robots, that is, the "fourth age" mentioned by Reese in his book. What we still don’t know is what will arise as a result of these new technologies.

For us (moving away from Reese’s book), it’s clear that the language we use is no longer entirely appropriate to describe our new reality, so we have to use expressions such as "expanded reality" or "virtual reality."

And, as is undoubtedly evident in today's world, the notions of "city", "nation" and "state" have been greatly challenged in terms of its viability for the future precisely because of the emergence of new technologies. So much so that for many people the only alternative seems to be to return to a past of supposed greatness.

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia recently announced separately the development of space battleships, while several private companies announced the imminent launch of space tourism trips.

And plans to terraform Mars in the coming decades continue to advance. What a paradox! We want to transform Mars to be like Earth while at the same time we are destroying Earth.

Simultaneously, intelligent robots develop their own language and their own ethics and, slowly but inexorably, take charge of all things. "Things" as in "Internet of Things", from autonomous cars to smart homes, and from judicial decisions (robot judges) to spiritual decisions (robot priests).

In that context, although we know approximately where we have been, we still don’t know where we are going to be, that is, are we entering a promising future in which many of the expectations and desires of the long history of humanity are they will see compliments? Or is this the last stage of human existence before being displaced and replaced by our own creation?

Then, the initial question must be rephrased, because it may no longer be enough to ask just what we are transforming thanks to our new technologies, but we must ask ourselves what technologies are becoming thanks to what those technologies themselves are discovering.

It took humanity about 100,000 years to reach artificial intelligence. We had to “invent” fire, then language, the agriculture, then writing, and then the wheel and so many other things before having 21st century technology. But AI doesn’t need that. So, how long will it take artificial intelligence to complete its own evolution?

The curious case of identifying with an ideology and not knowing it

I recently participated in a community event that required some formality, so I was surprised to find a young man who, without wearing a jacket and a tie that all other men wore, arrived dressed in a shirt (jersey) of Barcelona, the well-known soccer club from Spain.

At the end of the meeting, I approached the young man to congratulate him on the excellent choice of his shirt (and would have also congratulated him if the shirt had been Boca Juniors, but not many other clubs.) I took the opportunity to ask him if he liked Barcelona (something that seemed obvious) and soccer in general.

His answer was a single word: "What?"

The young man explained that he had bought that shirt because he liked the colors, ignoring any connection of those colors with Barcelona or with soccer. And the question if he knew Leonel Messi was answered with “Who?”, making it clear that, for him, “his” shirt was just a combination of nice colors and nothing more.

The situation reminded me of images that are repeated with some frequency in social media and in fundraising campaigns, showing children in poverty wearing American football team shirts of which, almost certainly, those children know absolutely nothing.

The experience of having met someone who wears a Barcelona shirt without knowing anything about Barcelona made me think of something different, that is, the possibility of "wearing" a certain belief, dogma or ideology and "wearing it" without knowing anything at all about that ideology.

It is said that the most difficult ideology to understand is precisely the one we accept, believe, and follow, because it is presented as something "normal" and even "obvious" and, for that reason, as something we don’t need to think, analyze or challenge. 

And then we walk through life “showing the colors” of that ideology, not really knowing what it is. And if someone congratulates us or criticizes us for “wearing” that ideology and asks us why we have adopted it, we will probably answer, as the young man mentioned above replied, “Because I just like it”.

In fact, there are numerous cases like when we talk about politics, religion, economics, or other topics. Somebody will wear his or her “ideological shirt” everywhere, whether it is prudent or not to do it, be courteous or not, in many cases ignoring the meaning of the colors he/she is showing.

Worse, that ignorance, added to the attachment to the colors, prevents any meaningful dialogue. The answers, if any, are limited to monosyllables usually framed in a smile dyed in disdain. From that point one, with minds and hearts closed, any attempt to provide a context for our question (for example, talking about Barcelona) will be useless. 

Let's be honest: we all wear an “ideological shirt” that we don't see or don't know. Therefore, we read sacred books as if they were economic manuals and even happily contribute to our own dehumanization. So, if someone asks you for your shirt, open your eyes.

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