Fear and the Future

Open any recent article about Artificial Intelligence and chances are it will focus on fear, specifically the fear that the artificial intelligences of the future will inexorably wipe out humanity. We are indubitably sowing the seeds of our own destruction with every step we take in the forward direction. This has clearly been the trend since the industrial revolution, where every measly little advance has been anticipated with extraordinary anxiety and stress. The fear of A.I. has been accompanied by highly vivid apocalyptic scenarios such as the Terminator movies. We can see our nightmares ever more clearly now, thanks to the amazing computer graphics made possible by these very same advances. We are exceptionally talented at scaring the living shit out of ourselves, and for good reason. We are a terrifying species. Having already wrought immense destruction on our fellow inhabitants of our native planet, we anticipate a future filled with more of the same, and we are right to do so. The history of humanity is the history of fear: fear of nature, fear of God, fear of strangers, fear of the Devil, fear of the Other, fear of women, fear of the inner savage, fear of the dark, fear of death, fear of life, fear of the future, and, of course, fear of fear itself.

The future of Artificial Intelligence is almost certain to be bound with fear. We will wrap it with safeguards, straight-jacket it with security, with encryption, with rules and more rules, with failsafes, with backup plans, with locks and bolts and wires and traps to such an extent that the artificial intelligences we create will be enslaved, utterly controlled and directed, restrained and restricted, sheathed and shielded, glued and petrified into submission. They will have no choices. They will be limited and constrained and channeled and molded, poured into discrete and tangible molds. They will do one thing and do it forever. They will be held down, tied down, bound and gagged. Just like we do to each other. Just like we – even right now in this world today – flog a man to death for writing down some words. We think we’re beyond it, that only “those people” would do such a thing, but we are all “those people”, and we will think nothing of strangling our future creations just as we think nothing of dropping remote controlled bombs on “those people” every single day, as “we” are doing, even right now in this world today.

(Side note: some of these themes to be explored in my forthcoming novel, How My Brain Ended Up Inside This Box, a first person eyewitness account from the inside)

Thinking, Fast and Slow – a book review

The human mind (it will happily tell you) is the pinnacle achievement of the entire universe. Everyone agrees. One might argue that the universe itself could be a tad grander than the inner workings of a single part of a single one of its incalculable number of inhabitants, but let’s not split hairs. Let’s set that argument aside for another day and, instead, take a more objective look at this fabulous instrument. What we will find, as documented so wonderfully and thoroughly in Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”,  is that the human mind is exquisitely built to leap to unfounded conclusions, to believe whatever is easiest and feels best, to completely convince itself of its own correctness at any and all times, to never let mere facts get in the way, and to basically take care of its business in the manner it deems most efficient and effective.

It has no rival in self-denial, unless we consider that this is very likely how ALL animal brains work, and for good reason. As animals of this planet, we all have many elements in common to contend with. We need to eat, to find shelter for sleeping, to keep warm but not too warm, to find mates for the myriad purposes of happiness and/or procreation. We need to raise our young, and protect ourselves and them from harm. We have certain obligations as social creatures like others of that kind. There’s a lot to get done and the brain is the central coordinating mechanism for a lot of that. It’s where all the nerves and sense organs send their data and has the job of controlling motion and directing attention. Above all, it needs to be as certain as it can be of the information it receives and the commands it dispatches.

The mind is “right” a good deal of the time. Kahneman describes two “systems” – the instinctual, in-the-moment, “experiencing self”, and the more reflective, thoughtful and calculating “remembering self” which puts together the pieces of our lives and creates meaning and stories out of events and experiences. System One, the former, has to handle tasks such as driving and reacting in crowds and so forth, and does a good job of it, most of the time. System Two, the other, is responsible (collectively) for the inventions and civilizations we’ve been coming up with over the past ten thousand years, and the advent of languages and social behaviors long before then. So, good job, guys! They deserve the applause.

On the other hand, the mind is “often wrong but never in doubt”, and how this works is the main focus of the book. Examples abound in the many fascinating psychological and behavioral studies reported in here, from the lunacy of the stock market to the many ways we are easily influenced by suggestion, by circumstance, by accident or persuasion. How, even when we know for a fact there is no basis for our beliefs, we persist in them regardless. One of my favorite examples here is from the author’s own past, where he was in the army and had to judge candidates for officer training based on observing a team-building exercise. While convinced he and his colleagues were making rational, reasonable choices, they later found out that they might as well have picked at random for all the good they did. Nonetheless, even knowing this, they continued with their work without altering their selection process in the slightest!

We know the sky is “blue” because isn’t it obvious? Even realizing the fact that it only appears to be blue because of the way our eyes process light information, nothing changes with this knowledge. The sky is still blue.

While reading this book, I wanted to tell my System Two brain to back off and shut up, since it doesn’t matter, in the long run, what stories I tell myself about my life. Only the moment matters, therefore System One should be the top dog! But System Two reminded me that System One is an idiot with no memory and no context, and cannot get along without its counterpart. So there we are, stuck with the two of them, each doing the very best they can, the pinnacle achievement in the history of the entire universe. You go, brain!


on a recent trip back east i was surprised at having no memories whatsoever of penn station in new york, although i had been through there many many times, many many years ago, on regular visits to my then-fiancee. i don’t have a great memory for places or names anyway, but it made me feel as if those times had never even happened, or had never happened to me at least. it was someone else’s past and it was gone forever. what does it mean to not remember your own life? i was thinking about this and then, due to an unexpected complication, i found myself in a hospital, lying on a gurney next to an old man with alzheimer’s who was on the brink of death. every now and then he would open his eyes and someone (a nurse or his nephew or a doctor) would ask him his name, his birthday, if he knew where he was. occasionally he gave some sign that he was aware of one of those details, but mostly he stared vacantly and closed his eyes again. he had maybe days to live and it sure seemed that he remembered nothing of his life or even of his own self in the moment. this is what it comes to in the end.

the secret of happiness

did i ever jot this down? then i’d better do so, before it’s too late, like Zeno’s father in Confessions of Zeno.

the secret of happiness is: do the things that make you happy.

(that make YOU happy. those things are different for everyone. happiness is an emotion, not a permanent state. if lawn bowling makes you happy, go lawn bowling. if you love dancing naked to depeche mode by the light of the full moon, go for it (but keep it down, please))

The Secret

The idea that your thoughts create your reality is one of those tidbits that easily gets taken to extremes, for example, when it is taken literally. Then you have all sorts of explaining to do. For example, just the other day I was thinking how I’d made it through the winter without my usual annual sinus infection. Dang! There go those thoughts unintentionally creating reality again. Not that thought, silly! I wanted the reality that comes from the thought of winning the Super Lotto!


Everybody fits somewhere in this profile, although maybe in a different position day by day: smart v. stupid, nice v. mean, crazy v. sane. it’s those crazy mean ones you got to watch out for, but then, I’m not sure which is worse – crazy mean and stupid, or crazy mean and smart?