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WEEKLY COMMENTARY

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.

What would happen when robot teachers replace all human teachers?

Robot teachers are not new, but what is new is the growing number of robot teachers replacing human teachers in many countries. Even more interesting, children relate better to robot teachers than to human teachers.

Whatever that may be, experts say in the next 10 to 15 years robot teachers will be as common in the classrooms as human teachers are in today’s classrooms. So, the question is, what would happen to those children who will be taught only by robots during their formative years?

However, before we try to answer that important question we need to think why robots are replacing human teachers. There are several reasons. First, potential teachers find better paying jobs and less stressful jobs than spending time inside a school. In fact, fewer and fewer college students become teachers.

There is, of course, the issue of school violence, from the horrible massacres that, unfortunately, we are so used to see, to the bullying inside the schools, and to discrimination of parents, students, and teachers of minority groups. Many potential teachers are thus discouraged from teaching.

Of course, technology is part of almost every classroom and, if fact, of every aspect of life. So, teachers are being replaced by technology. I read somewhere (I don’t remember where) that many young college-age students in China don’t attend college because, thanks to technology, they already know more than their college professors.

There is yet another element: low cost. Will, a digital human teaching at schools in Auckland, New Zealand, is free. Kindergarten students can talk with Will from any device, at any time, and they don’t have to wait for the teacher to be free before asking a question. No human teacher can do that.  

And Keeko, a 2-feet tall teaching at 600 pre-K schools in China, costs around US$1500, just a fraction of the annual salary of most teachers in the United States. (Teachers, as we know, are not properly compensated). And, being a robot, Keeko doesn’t need vacations or days off, and it doesn’t get sick.

So, from a technological point of view and from the economic point of view, it makes sense for robots to replace human teachers in the classrooms. But, what will be the real price for such a transition?

I would like to know what Jean Piaget or Paulo Freire would say. Will robots help the cognitive development of the children and will those children go through the four stages of development listed by Piaget? Will we be able to move beyond a “banking” and oppressive pedagogy, as Freire wanted?

We can barely solve any of the current educational problems. Are we trying to delegate on the robot teachers the task of solving our educational challenges? We’ll see.

And one more question, what would happen to us, adults, who were never educated by robots? Perhaps it will be better not to think about it. At the same time, it would be good to prepare ourselves for that future before that future arrives.

Should I teach Spanish or should I be a dishwasher at a restaurant?

Somebody recently sent me an ad from a local municipality in the area where I live looking for a Spanish instructor for adults. I do like to teach Spanish to adults, so I decided to take a closer to the ad.

Basically, they were looking for somebody with experience in adult education and specifically in education of senior citizens. The instructor was required to teach all levels of Spanish (from basic to advanced) and all modalities (writing, listening, and speaking).  

In addition, the instructor was responsible for developing the curriculum and for the material. And there was a requirement to coordinate activities at the center and outside the center for the participants to practice Spanish. Of course, it was expected for the instructor to be available for consultations with the students outside the class time.

Despite the long list of requirements and responsibilities (in my opinion, too long), I keep reading because, after all, it is always good to explore opportunities to bring together people from different cultures and languages, hoping the result would be a respectful, creative dialogue.

I read the section about academic degrees and previous experience and I was happy to see I had all those requirements. I could almost see myself helping a group of older adults to learn Spanish, perhaps to talk with their own grandchildren.

Then, it was time to read the paragraph about compensation. I discovered my delusion of assuming the compensation will be based on the experience and education required. That was not the case. They offer $12 per hour and up to only 15 hours per week.

I thought that was the end of the issue, but because I was at the end of the ad, I instinctively read the next ad. In this case, they were looking for a dishwasher to work at a restaurant in the same city. No language requirements. No previous experience needed. Full time job with benefits. And an initial salary of between $14 to $18 per hour.

A question then came to my mind, and it was not about the difference in compensation (both offers are inadequate), but about the attitude causing a local government to offer better compensation to a person with no experience or studies than to a person with the experience and studies needed to get a job that local government is offering.

What kind of message that attitude sends about our present and our future? The message that you better don’t prepare yourself for the future because that won’t help you?

Again, a few dollars more or a few dollars less make no difference in the context of a society where neither education, nor experience, talent, or honesty guarantee a good income. (I said “good,” not “great”.) Yet, it is alarming that dedication and experience are “officially” less valuable than ignorance and inexperience.

Perhaps they want us to be ignorant and inexperienced, forcing us to fight for a few dollars here and there while the real money flows to other hands.

Are we already beyond the point of no return of human stupidity?

Sometimes people ask me if I believe in intelligent life on other planets. I always answer by saying that my doubts are not about intelligent life on a distant planet, but about the possibility of intelligent life on this planet. After all, there are plenty of indications everywhere that, collectively, we, humans, are not that intelligent.

After tens of thousands of years of evolution and after several millennia of “civilization”, and now with all the technology we have at our disposal, we have not yet solved any of the major problems affecting humanity. Quite the opposite, some of those problems are getting worse. Meanwhile, we are still electing the same politicians (or their clones), watching the same soap operas or sports events, and counting the “Likes” we get to give some meaning to our lives.

For reasons that will become obvious momentarily (because the laws I am about to mention apply perfectly to me), I didn’t know that four decades ago (1976), an Italian professor living the United States, Carlo Cipolla, developed what he called “The five basic laws of human stupidity”. We share here those laws not to irritate anybody, but to become aware of the magnitude of the problem.

The “laws” say that “Inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation”, that “The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person”, that “A stupid person causes losses to another person while himself/herself deriving no gain”, that  “Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals”, and that (paraphrasing), human stupidity is the most dangerous challenge for humanity. (Don’t get mad at me. That’s what Dr. Cipolla said.)

It is easy to find many proofs of those laws. Read the reviews of products or services, for example. Recently, somebody gave a one star to an Italian restaurant because that person went by mistake to a different restaurant and then, when that person arrived at the “right” restaurant, he/she didn’t have time to eat there, so he/she ordered take out. But then, that person was too tired to eat and threw the food into the garbage. Hence, one star.  

And somebody gave one star to a certain brand of interior painting because when he/she opened the can, the can fell from his/her hands, causing “a disaster” and “ruining the experience” because of the time spent in cleaning the spill. Therefore, others should not buy that brand.

In which planet going to the wrong restaurant should be blamed in the “right” restaurant? Or a company should be blamed if somebody is careless handling a can of paint? No doubts, in our planet.

As Milan Kundera well said both in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and in The Art of the Novel, we live in “the planet of the inexperience” where we spend time “fabricating vague fantasies” and never achieving true maturity or wisdom.  

Or, as Isaac Asimov said (paraphrasing Friedrich Schiller), “Against human stupidity, the gods themselves struggle in vain.”

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.

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