Think About It

Happiness: The End

A while ago, in Happiness and Compassion, I had written about what Fahadh Fasil described as the biggest lesson he learnt from failure – he said it made him decide that he would only do things that made him happy. The more I read, the more I think, and the more I live, the more I start relating to what Fahadh is doing, and what Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Everything else – fame, power, money, compassion, detachment etc – is probably just the means we create.

The thing though is, even if happiness were indeed the purpose, I can see at least a couple of challenges. In this excellent read “10 truths you will learn before you find happiness“, the first point is “It is impossible for anyone else to define YOU”. This echoed my first challenge – a difficulty in defining what happiness is to me. At the next level, I felt that the paths to happiness are confusing and have many things going against them. For instance, fame – “..other people’s heads are a wretched place to be the home of a man’s true happiness.” (Schopenhauer) Or compassion/pity (not kindness, which I regard as a more active expression, though the following might apply to it as well) – “There is a certain indelicacy and intrusiveness in pity; ‘visiting the sick’ is an orgasm of superiority in the contemplation of our neighbour’s helplessness” (Nietzsche) As you can see, it isn’t difficult to bring each down.

More

Natural Law

After a couple of years of Samsung, I bought a Moto X (2nd gen) phone, the Droid Turbo and Nexus 6 also being considerations. In the first few days of use, the automation that Moto’s Assist, Actions and Voice allows has impressed upon me the potential of such technologies and the dependency we could have on them.  As Karen Landis states in the Pew Internet Project’s Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age, “Implants and wearables will replace tools we carry or purchase…It will also redefine what a ‘thought’ is, as we won’t ‘think’ unassisted.

It reminded me of an article I’d read in Vanity Fair titled ‘The Human Factor“, and a particular observation in it – To put it briefly, automation has made it more and more unlikely that ordinary airline pilots will ever have to face a raw crisis in flight—but also more and more unlikely that they will be able to cope with such a crisis if one arises. This thought is elaborated in ‘Automation Makes Us Dumb‘, drawing the difference between two design philosophies – “technology – centred automation” and “human- centred automation”. The former is dominant now and if one were to extrapolate this , a scary thought emerges.

I think the best articulation of that scary thought is by George Dyson in Darwin Among the Machines – “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.” I had seen this in Bill Joy’s amazing 2000 Wired article “Why the Future doesn’t need us“, which itself discusses the idea that Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species. More

The circle of nothingness

During a recent trip to Cochin, Dad pointed to a newly constructed building and asked me if I remembered what had been there before it, since he couldn’t. Neither could I, though I might have walked/cycled/ridden/driven past it many, many times. I get quite disappointed on such occasions, because when a memory is removed, it’s almost as though a slice of my life, thin though it may be, has been taken away forever. Strange though it may seem, I feel a sense of guilt, towards myself for not retaining a complete picture of my own life, and towards the object itself. A few days later, we passed a plot on 12th Main, Indiranagar, where a commercial building is being constructed. This place will ‘always’ remain in my memory as my uncle’s house, though they moved away quite a few years ago.

All of this reminded me of Schopenhauer’s “The world is my idea“, and a post I had written more than four years ago, the last paragraph in particular. From nothingness comes an idea, it then takes a tangible shape in a mind, and then probably manifests itself in words, deeds, objects and so on. Beyond its physical life, it exists in the minds of the people with whom it has been shared, maybe in forms massively different from its original, until the minds themselves are no more, and no connection exists between the current form and the original. “Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.” ~ Marcus Aurelius  More

A republic of convenience

Masala Republic is a Malayalam movie I watched recently. First, my sympathies with those who attempted the heroic task of watching it in a theatre, but to be fair, it did give me some food for thought. No, not about my choice of movies, but things slightly more important in the scheme of things. It talked, for instance, of issues that needed a voice – the changing socio-political and economic dynamics of Kerala caused by a huge influx of people, mostly low wage workers from Bengal and the North East.

The movie begins with the disruption brought about in the life of these folks by a ban imposed on Gutka, which apparently is part of their staple diet! This reminded me of the (real) scenario I witnessed when the liquor ban was announced in Kerala. Almost overnight, I saw an ecosystem disbanded – small shops around bars, auto-rickshaws that ferried drunk guys home, to name a few components.

Notwithstanding the political play that brought about this ban, I was forced to ask – isn’t alcohol consumption an individual’s choice? One might cite domestic violence, decrease in productivity, drunken driving etc, but unlike say, smoking, it does not automatically cause damage to the larger society. Isn’t a blanket ban a bit like banning automobiles because of road accidents? If the justification is that individual choice must bow before collective progress, then can we really condemn Sanjay Gandhi for the infamous sterilisation programme? After all, population control would, at least arguably, have meant progress. What we are debating therefore, (I think) is the means. And means is exactly what an alcohol ban is. Does society really have the moral right to take such a decision? Who decides society’s collective moral compass and what can resist such selective applications of morality?

Clipboard01

(via)

Who decides where the line is?

P.S. Would be glad if you could point out whether I am missing some relevant piece of information or logic here.

Happiness and compassion

Though I’d explored the idea of inculcating a sense of compassion in others in this post a fortnight back, I still think our own compassion needs to serve as a solid base. Not being judgmental is one way, but it’s not easy to practice. So I took a step back and wondered if compassion was a result and not a behaviour. The first behavioural direction I could think of was happiness. In myself, I have seen a correlation if not a causation. I am more compassionate when I’m happier. So I decided to explore this a bit. More

The people we are….with

After I shared the “We, the storytellers” post on Twitter, Surekha sparked off this interesting discussion on how we could persuade others to be less judgmental and more compassionate. I really didn’t have a fix-it-all answer and felt that it was more important that we simply practice this ourselves. That, however, did not stop me from thinking about it.

The next day, my reading list had this post, which touched upon things that get people to change their behaviour. I remembered this William James quote used in the post from something I had seen a while back at Brain Pickings.

Clipboard01

More

The Art of Live In

I borrowed the title from a post I wrote nine years ago on live in relationships. We have come quite a way since then, but I am also seeing an evolution in this narrative. I call it the same narrative because fundamentally it challenges the institution of marriage as we know it. The way I see it, marriage was an evolutionary necessity – as a relatively structured process of procreation, and thereby organising society. The words below are from a work of fiction based on the life of the Buddha, it would seem that neither is it far from truth nor have things changed much.

Sid

So why is this institution primed for ‘disruption’ now?

Technology is one factor. The family unit made sense when younger members of the species had to be protected. As AI advances, maybe a family unit will not be necessary for safety or security. Technology also might play a hand in the physiological aspects, more on that in a bit. As I mentioned in an earlier post (Emotion As A Service) marriage is as much a transactional relationship as an emotional one. To paraphrase Scott Adams,  (fromthe internet has allowed us to have a barter economy of relationships….a virtual spouse comprised of a dozen separate relationships

The second factor – advances in medicine and increasing lifespans. Imagine living up to 150. The ‘life partner’ that you chose when you were a carefree 20 year old may not be the one you’d want to have fireside conversations with in your middle age – 95. Interests, outlook, worldview, personality etc change with time. Maybe you’d be living in different cities at different stages. 

Another factor I’d consider is depleting resources – these may be natural, (on a larger scale) and economic (on an individual scale) (any thing else you can think of?) These might force the species to rethink the institution, even though it seems hardwired into the brain by now. 

I can already see several paths diverging from this point. Robots as companions for the aged is a fast developing area, it could be used for young ones in future. In a physiological context,  though we might not be there yet, s3x with robots is a distinct possibility by 2025. There’s bound to be a learning curve, but hey! 

i130925bb

(via)

In a relationship context, The Atlantic had a long article on polyamory, including perspectives on how society sees them, and the challenges involved. I was actually more surprised when Bangalore Times carried an article on the subject on its front page recently. The point here is that it is getting mainstream attention, arguably the first step in societal acceptance of units that are radically different from the traditional family. Even children with DNA from three parents might soon overcome legal hurdles and become an accepted practice.  

With all these paths, and many more, the institution of marriage might become one of the many options available. Some communities might hold on to it – as a tradition. But as time progresses, both individuals and society will undergo not just transformations on the outside, but in mindset as well.  After all, isn’t evolution just a logical response to a creature’s living environment? If it is, once the evolutionary necessity has passed, even this tradition might just fade away.  

(The views expressed above are just the author’s attempts at intellectuality, and do not represent his actuality. He hopes he doesn’t have to sleep outside!) 

until next time, along came poly! 

We, the storytellers

The day after Robin Williams died, I had posted this on Facebook

This was a man whom (I thought) no one could have any ill feeling towards. He made so many people forget their worries, for at least a while, through his roles. When you saw him, you couldn’t but smile. How could such a man have any troubles? But somewhere inside him, a story was being told, one that would end his life. In a tangential way, I had related it to “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind” from the ‘One off a kind rating‘ post in which I had written of self perception, and compassion vs kindness.

Once upon a time, I used to be very judgmental of people who chose suicide, but I realised over time that people are different. Some have the strength to deal with things, others don’t. But I still wonder about one facet of this decision. Barring the ones who end their life simply because they feel they have nothing/no one left worth living for, do people take this decision because they can’t live with something they have done/not done, or they are afraid of how people would judge them for this? In both cases, the common factor is the perception people have about themselves, and how it would change.

That makes me think – how much of this self perception is built based on cues from others? I think this is very relevant in the era of social platforms, because these cues could come from a variety of people. Arguably, Facebook is already affecting our thinking and behaviour, in a warped version of the Hawthorne Effect. (a phenomenon whereby workers improve or modify an aspect of their behavior in response to the fact of change in their environment, rather than in response to the nature of the change itself. ) That’s probably why we largely see only happy stories on Facebook – because people know they’re being watched, and judged. How soon before this becomes the guiding principle in lives, their only cue for creating self perception? It can be argued that this was happening even before social platforms, but I think there is a difference in scale. If entire generations are spending more time on social platforms, their behaviour offline would probably soon start reflecting that. To stretch it, their sense of identity would be built online before being taken offline.

When you connect this to the fact that the internet is also home to the kind of taunting and trolling that can radically alter one’s perception of the self, and one’s feeling of self worth, I see a problem. In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, the collective trolling power of the internet forced his daughter off several social platforms, at least for a while. Paul Carr wrote about a generation – born before the 90s – that should count itself lucky to remember a time before such acts became the norm. I think the power each one of us has to influence the stories others tell themselves is massively magnified now, if only we could use that to be less judgmental and more compassionate. Maybe that will also affect the stories we tell ourselves.

Clipboard1

 

It’s about time

Time

There’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now – is time a man made construct or not? Days, seasons, years and cosmic events would happen even if we never tracked them, but our lives are defined by the time frame we live in – from a personal as well as socio-economic and technological standpoint. I recently got a perspective I thought I should share. I also found this overlapping with the devices we have used to track time. Hence these thoughts.

Form: For a while, the mobile phone was the watch, but wearables (my attempt at a primer) is the new entrant. I already see a little crossroad in wearables – the smartwatch/accessories like Glass, and the activity tracker, both connected to the mobile device. The former, in addition to being a chronograph, is aiming to be a personal assistant of sorts by aping many functions that a mobile phone does – GPS, messages and notifications, and contextually relevant information. (I liked this post on Google Now and Android Wear) The activity tracker, on the other hand, focuses more on fitness and health. What connects them is the battle for the wrist. Between Android and Apple, I’m hoping they combine both the above streams quickly. I’m also hoping that both will get better at moving from data to actionable insights.

Function: To bring the focus back to time, the form factor increasingly makes me think of time as an app. In this era, our control on time is negligible –  I can decide how I spend my day, (application of time) but I cannot really control my life span –  therefore we are bound to think of increasing its efficiency. I’d expect the device  to notify me on the best way to use my time – roughly speaking the bottom two levels (and a portion of the third) of my favourite framework – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But as we gain on immortality, we might have so much data on ourselves and the collective consciousness (related post) that it will offer more value in the top two levels – relevance and value to others (esteem) and self actualisation. The simple guiding thought is that isn’t time one of the only things that stops us from self actualisation, the other being economics?

Future: From a function perspective, I think the ambiguity on time (as a construct or not) exists because we can control it only partially. As we control it more and more our need to control it becomes lesser (increasing lifespans is one reason) it will automatically become a construct/’application’. (Very roughly, think of fire – before we learned to ‘create’ it, it might have been an enigma, but the moment we did, it was more an application.) Then, the decisions we make will probably be influenced less by time. Time will have to find a new way to be contextually relevant. Therefore, from a form factor perspective, I expect to see devices which provide us contextual applications of time wherever they are located eg. say bearables (implants, micro-devices attached to skin etc) that tell you it’s time for a heart checkup through an interface that’s probably an app on a portable device. It’s only a matter of time.

Even further on, the philosophical question to ask is that if one had an infinite supply of time, would one still measure it?

until next time, watch this space

Artificial Morality

It wasn’t my intention, but the title did make me think of the morality we impose on ourselves, and that perhaps has some amount of implication on the subject of this post too. The post is about this – we seemed to have moved from debating artificial intelligence to the arguably more complex area of morality in robots!  When I first read about robots and ethical choices, (did they mean moral?) my reaction was this


It’s probably a good time to discuss this, since a robot has recently become a Board member in a VC firm as well. Ah, well, in the Foundation series, R. Daneel Olivaw pretty much influenced the mental state of others and controlled the universe. That seems to be one direction where we are headed. The Verge article mentions funding for an in-depth survey to analyze what people think about when they make a moral choice. The researchers will then attempt to simulate that reasoning in a robot. They plan to start with studying moral development in infants.

Thanks to this article, I learned that there were different kinds of morality – operational morality, functional morality, and full moral agency. This is all fascinating stuff and my mind was racing in multiple directions. For one, did morality develop because living in groups was more advantageous from a survival perspective and to live in groups, there had to be some rules that governed this coexistence? Did this ethics then evolve into an acceptable moral framework? These may or may not be in line with our individual instincts. Does that explain why each of us have a different moral code? If that is so, can we ever develop a uniform code for robots? To be noted that ethics are a tad more objective than morals, so they might be relatively more easier to ‘code’.

I also began to think if the augmented human would serve as the bridge between humans and AI and as he develops, will find ways to transfer moral intelligence to AI. Or maybe it would just be logic. Alternately if, as per this awesome post on what increasing AI in our midst would mean, if we do start focusing on human endeavours beyond functional (and driven by money alone) maybe our moral quotient will also evolve and become a homogeneous concept.

In Michener’s Hawaii, one man of science and spirituality discusses dinosaurs with a man of spirituality. I shared this on Instagram, wondering if humanity will be talked about in this manner.

Hawaii

The changes could be the ones we’re causing nature to make and ‘huge’ could be our gluttonous consumption of resources. In the context of robotics and morality, I immediately thought of Asimov’s Zeroth Law “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” What would happen when one set of humans begin to do something that might harm humanity? What would a robot do?

The answers, are evolving. It’s a good time to be human, and to be able to experience wonder.

until next time, moral science

P.S. On a  related note – Bicentennial Man – RIP Robin Williams :'(