American Opinions on a Tough Topic

In my opinion, this is a subject that our politicians and religious organizations, in general, have made very difficult to address rationally. The citizenship seem to have a more nuanced set of opinions on this subject than you are led to believe, opinions that seem to change little over time. In my mind, the topic also seems to dominate the national discussion excessively, to the detriment of other issues that can more critically impact the well being of the nation.  But it does seem to be a good topic to push agendas and foster divisiveness.  The politicians of today are mostly a bunch of hypocrites.

First of all, the results of a survey.

I was led to the survey by this article.

The last section of the article seems to suggest that attempts to legislate in this regard may make little or no difference in a practical sense in the final count.

A Half-baked Theory About Everything And Nothing

I actually wrote this a long long time ago, before the days of blogs, but I did not share it with anybody for reasons that should become obvious to you.  I send it out today without trying too much to revisit the thinking that produced this.  Why not?!

******************************************
And I reserve the right to change my theory when I get smarter…..

I have not studied philosophy, and for that reason it is probably not a good thing to write about things philosophical. But I also do not see why somebody cannot develop a philosophy that is based on their experience.  It need not even be original, and perhaps someone will feel the urge to point that out to me.  So here it is – the half-baked theory about everything and nothing, the theory about life and death, the theory about order and chaos, about purpose and randomness, about sorrow and joy, love and hate (and I am actually getting carried away at this point!).  My theory may prove to be untrue, in fact there may be no way to prove it, but it can at least help me to make sense of the world in my mind, and hopefully give me some comfort in my thoughts.  Once you think you understand how things work, you may be able to stop your worrying.  Perhaps one will be able to even handle adversity better when it hits, at least that is the hope.

So everything is really all about nothing.  Everything just is. Past and future really do not mean anything, especially if you look far enough in either direction.  Your sphere of influence is very temporary.  These things that we call emotions, as opposed to things like hunger and pain, are only real in our minds.  Knowledge and so-called progress is something that we need to keep us going as a species, but in the grand picture these terms do not mean anything.  I am not trying to paint a bleak picture of the world.  I am not saying that we should not pursue knowledge and progress.  I am not saying that we should try to avoid emotions.  What I am saying is that we should realize that these things only make sense in the somewhat “artificial” circumstances of what exists right now.  In fact, we would not survive the moment or the day if we did not have these “things”, and we need to understand that and make use of these “things” appropriately.  I also know that I have mentioned thus far represents just a fraction of what defines humanity, but I also believe that the theory can cover anything can you can throw at it.

So why do we have all of this baggage that human beings carry around with them?  Essentially it is because our capability to think and join the dots has evolved to the point that we would have a hard time surviving without the baggage.  We have basically evolved from the point where we lived like the rest of the animals, to the point where we can think and put two and two together.  We have learnt how to use the capabilities of our brain in an efficient manner.  We have learnt to extrapolate from our observations.  I am not sure that we have really become smarter, but we have also learnt to somehow find ways to remember what we have learnt in the past and pass that knowledge down.  We are using what we already know to extend our understanding of the things around us.  As we extend this knowledge we also learn to make more and more use of the resources around us to further the new goals that we set out for ourselves.  Why do we as human beings feel a need to set such goals?  Is it primarily because that is the way the human beings are being taught to think from the day they are born?  A child does not know any of these concepts at birth.  We use the terms knowledge and progress.  It started with fire, the wheel, and the simple tools of prehistoric man.  We are carrying the same concept into our brave new worlds.  I wonder what would happen to a child who was brought up differently.

The ecosystem that we have created on this earth is clearly unstable.  The only reason we have created such ecosystem is so that we can support our expanding humankind, extend our lives and support our concept of progress.  But by doing what we do, we further extend our reach.  It is a system of positive feedback, and we know that such a system is destined to blow up at some time.  So the forces that work against this, both natural and man-made, are in a sense equalizing forces – but we are getting better and better at handling these countering forces also.  If we stop for a second to think about it, all of this makes no sense.  But we really do not need to stop and think about it right now, because we believe that such problems are for the future generations, and that they will find a way to address them.  Perhaps this is true, but the processes we use for addressing the daily problems today can also amplify the problems of the future.  In the worst case, humankind has taken over the entire Universe and there is no further place to go – that is unless we believe that the Universe is unending.  But most likely, it will never get that far, because, the more we assert ourselves as a species, the more we will face newer and newer problems that are more and more difficult to tackle, and at some point, the process of positive feedback may not even be able to sustain itself. We could even get hit by that one-in-a-million type of phenomena that can destroy everything around us in a single instant.  And who can forget that while we are making progress, we are also creating more and more efficient ways to destroy ourselves.  Any way you look at it, our days are limited in more ways than one.   Under the circumstances, it makes very little sense to speculate on the things beyond us, and to try to read more into the things around us than what we can actually rationally grasp and understand easily.  To us it all seems to happen for a reason that can be explained logically.  That makes us us comfortable.

So why do we have this need for progress, something it seems that other species do not seem to have on this earth?  It does not necessarily seem to be a good thing.  Is it because we are special when compared to other living things?  Why is there a belief that when we die something special happens, whereas this may not necessarily be true for other species?  Well, perhaps it does, but that should not matter in the current reality.  Human beings will surely disappear in their current form in the future.  So what does it matter in the big picture?  We think too much of ourselves.  I think all of this thinking is a result of us being able to connect the dots, and then expanding our ability beyond where it needs to go.

So, what are we to do as individuals?  Should we throw away everything around us and change our life?  That does not make sense.  The only reality that we have is what we experience right now.  It does not make sense to throw everything away and to go off and live off the land (even if there is actually an argument to be made that one may really be happier in life doing just that).  But we can at least think of the results of our actions right now.  Are we going to continue to support this system of positive feedback?

One of the elements in this ability of ours to expand our domains happens to be our ability to work with each other towards new purposes that we define.  Without this, we would be goners.  Can we use this capability to our advantage?

Do we really need to try to help other people?  Is there a universal concept of morality?  Why should I not just look out for myself?  Placed in the context of the now and here, the answers to these questions are not likely to be encouraging, because we might feel that it really does not matter.  But it does matter when you think about your place in the universe of all human beings.  The structures that we have created so that we can expand our domain only survive because there are at least a few people who think that the answers for the above questions are important.  The fact of the matter is that we would not have our societies if we did not have such people.  So what do we say about the others who do not necessarily do what we call “good”.  There is no absolute basis to condemn them.  Everything just is!  I think that this is the reason we try to find other ways to motivate people.  The only real reason to motivate people seems to be so that we can continue our “progress”.
************************

And I do not think I have become any smarter since I first wrote this…..

Dovey Johnson Roundtree

“As a lawyer, she helped win a landmark ban on racial segregation in interstate bus travel, and her representation of poor black defendants — including her successful defense of a man accused of the notorious murder of a Georgetown socialite in 1964 — blazed new trails for black lawyers.”

Celebrating a black woman who thrived in a Washington ruled by white men – Washington Post.

I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt: The Conversation

The democratization of “science” and “information” by the Internet has enabled many strange things today, including acceptance of lines of thinking that one would have expected reasonable people to scoff at in the past, and events that some people would consider quite surprising during our times, such as the results of the US presidential elections in 2016.

Despite early claims, from as far back as HG Well’s “world brain” essays in 1936, that a worldwide shared resource of knowledge such as the internet would create peace, harmony and a common interpretation of reality, it appears that quite the opposite has happened. With the increased voice afforded by social media, knowledge has been increasingly decentralised, and competing narratives have emerged.

via I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt

The Brave New World of Artificial Intelligence

Experience has taught me to be skeptical about new technology.  Many years ago I anticipated that the tools of the Internet could create a virtual world of grief similar to what we see in the real world today.  I feel that my fears have been justified.

Some of these new technologies are presented to us in a somewhat idealistic manner when they first arrive on the scene.  We were told that the Internet was going to open the world to the masses by providing universal connectivity and tools for communication, and thus even up the playing field for the everybody.  Technologies like this were going to transform the world for the better.  We just needed to let the technology loose to see all its life-changing benefits.   We are so full of ourselves that we do not even pause sufficiently to think about possible problems we may create.  This is silly.  We seem to be ignoring natural human behavior.  Human tendency is to eventually find a way to destroy every good thing.

And now there is this thing called Artificial Intelligence.

The subject of Artificial Intelligence has been a topic of research for many years.  The name seems to imply that machines can be made to think like human beings (is that even a good thing?), and eventually they should be able to behave like humans.  I have been a skeptic, although I will admit to not having spent enough time to really understand what it all means.  I think the name itself is a turnoff for me, making it sound like it is more than it really is.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is becoming more mainstream these days, and the definition has undergone a little bit more of a refinement in my mind.  Specifically, AI is not to be considered in too broad a sense today, but in a more focused manner.  These days one primarily thinks about AI for particular functions.  For example, AI might help to design an autonomous vehicle where the vehicle reacts as if a human were in control, but that does not mean that the same machine can climb a tree or make a good cup of coffee, or plan a vacation.  Implementations of “AI” are compartmentalized, be it  for speech recognition, image classification, autonomous vehicles,  question-answering systems, etc..

And what is basically happening is that we now have enough processing power in computing systems, and the ability to collect, store, and process (in some statistical manner), large amounts of historical data related to particular functions and features, to allow us to design systems in which decisions can be made by computers in a similar way to the human decision making process that created the data that was collected in the first place, and to do so with a fair degree of confidence.   I hear terms related to the general topic of AI – machine learning, neural networks, deep learning, data mining, pattern recognition, etc.., subjects that I know very little about, but in my mind they all seem to be about finding ways to process data to come to up with algorithms to make decisions.  (I understand that neural networks in particular are about algorithms that try to mimic the neural networks in the brain.)

So things are moving along in this field, and I think it is because of the advancement of basic technologies related to data collection and processing.  New algorithms and approaches are being invented to use all this capability.  AI is becoming more fashionable as a  technology concept.  It is so enticing a concept, and the technology is moving ahead at such a fast pace, that not many people seem to be dwelling on the possible dangers. But this may also be changing, and people like Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk, and other experts, have spoken up on this topic in recent times.  (You can see the letter that is referred to in the previous link here.)  I myself am not sure that we can create a machine that is greater than the input that went into its design in the sense of decision making, a superintelligence if you will.  But we could sure mess up when multiple decision making processes are involved and they are not brought together properly, or if the learning processes themselves are not done properly.  The results could be unexpected.  Here are some simpler examples of unexpected results with AI in real life.

https://www.infoworld.com/article/3184205/technology-business/danger-danger-10-alarming-examples-of-ai-gone-wild.html#slide1

My concern with AI would be something similar to what has happened in the world of universal networking and the Internet.  It is about the innate human tendency to try to exploit systems for their own benefit at the expense of others.  Who would have imagined the kind of hacking that exists today on the Internet, with bad players easily being able to access, slow down, steal from, and control, systems that they do not own, for their own nefarious purposes.  We were very naive in the initial design of the Internet.  Security was not tackled as one of the fundamental requirements in the design of protocols for the Internet.   The system is deliberately quite open.  Security is only added on at the higher protocol levels when it is thought to be needed.

When it comes to AI, the one subject I have not read much about yet is the likelihood of AI design being motivated by the wrong reasons, for fundamentally bad purposes.  An extreme example would be the development of technology based on AI that could be the foundation of robot battlefields.  We seem to be part of the way there conceptually with the extensive use of remote drone technologies these days.

Since AI depends on a process where algorithms are developed based on data collection, what if some organization, or some person, decides to skew this learning process deliberately to reflect a thinking process that is geared towards destructive outcomes.  And what if this kind of technology infiltrates the mainstream in a way that is difficult to contain (just like it happens with hacking on the Internet these days).   Will human beings be then fated to try to build systems to try to contain this infestation when it would have been easier and wiser to not even let it start in the first place.   Is it possible that there are bad players who are already in the process of taking advantage of the new forces we are about to unleash with the easier availability of tools to enable AI.

I have a bad feeling about what is going to happen with the new level of technology that is being created.  And I have the sense that we will try to muddle through the new problems that we create, problems that are of our own doing. We will band-aid specific issues as they arise, when it would have been wiser to consider all the possible ramifications of what we are doing up front.

In the world of medicine and health, we always seem to be on the verge of having an epidemic of some kind that existing systems are incapable of handling, but we have been fortunate to survive through such episodes even in more recent times as a human race  for various reasons.  Sometimes, like in the case of the recent Ebola epidemic, it takes desperate measures and some luck.  Will we always be so fortunate?

I wonder if it is possible to have similar scenarios for damage and destruction to humanity and its systems with technologies like AI.

Having written all this, I am hoping that somebody who reads this will tell me that my fears are unfounded, that my ignorance of AI extends even beyond what I have noted here, and that the foundations of the technology will not allow what I have speculated about to happen.  I would love to be pleasantly surprised.  Please, please, please….

What about St. Louis, MO?

There are probably many other cities like St. Louis that exist in middle America today, big cities that came into existence along the major waterways of country, along rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and the Ohio, cities that supported the industry, trade, and growth, of a nation that in those days was experiencing a grand optimism about its industrial future.

But times have changed in many ways, and the nature of many of these cities has also changed with these times.  The very nature of the commerce that sustains these places has necessarily changed, and brought with it changes in the lives of the humans who occupy these spaces.

Many of these cities are still easily recognizable by their distinct downtown areas, with their humongous skyscrapers that now support, or attempt to support in some way or another, the new kinds of businesses that have inevitably replaced the old ones.

But the people who live in these cities have for the most part left.  The office-goers scurry in from their comfortable suburbs in the mornings to earn their keep, and then depart just as quickly as they appeared, after work in the evening, leaving the cavernous spaces beneath the huge skyscrapers for the most part abandoned.  There are very few people in the streets.

Move just a little bit away physically from the downtown areas and you may see another unfortunate impact of these changes.  There are the poor and even abandoned neighborhoods – where the weeds may have taken over in some places, where the only people present, if any, are those living on the fringes.  These are places that one could justifiably feel uncomfortable wandering into, but their stories, and the stories of the people who once lived there, are no less compelling than those of the more fortunate.  These are the people and places that time has left behind.

Cities try to revive themselves, and thus does the city of St. Louis.  I think these processes can succeed only if the entirety of the spaces that they occupy become more livable places, not necessarily when they become places where there is simply a lot of commerce going on, and not necessarily when they become the places that people tend to visit (but only the “safe” sections!) to get a temporary thrill of some kind or another every once in a while, only to abandon the place when night falls.