February 2014 Archives

20 Years to Go and Still Counting


Gaia cover

My co-author, Andy Hoffman, sent me a link to an article in The Guardian about some recent utterances of James Lovelock. Lovelock has been raising attention to the environment for about as long as any living person has.

Lovelock has been dispensing predictions from his one-man laboratory in an old mill in Cornwall since the mid-1960s, the consistent accuracy of which have earned him a reputation as one of Britain’s most respected - if maverick - independent scientists. Working alone since the age of 40, he invented a device that detected CFCs, which helped detect the growing hole in the ozone layer, and introduced the Gaia hypothesis, a revolutionary theory that the Earth is a self-regulating super-organism. Initially ridiculed by many scientists as new age nonsense, today that theory forms the basis of almost all climate science.

I think his Gaia model was unjustifiably criticized, perhaps because people objected to his use of “organism,” which may have appeared to attribute more life to the planet than many humanists were comfortable with. But if you interpret his model as describing a complex adaptive system, including both living and non-living components, he is smack on. Such systems behave within what appear to be relatively stable, but changing or evolving structure. They remain within that structure, changing internally to reflect perturbations. Complex theorists call this remaining in an attractor. But if the perturbations are powerful enough, the system can jump precipitously into a new structure (attractor) that may (and is likely to be) inhospitable to parts of the systems.

Geologists have a name, Holocene, for the recent stable period of the earth that lasted for about 11,000 years up to the present time. Paul Cruzen, another notable scientist, argues that we have now entered into a new era, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are significantly perturbing the system with unknown (and unknowable) consequences. We do know that severe melting of the ocean is a outcome that scientific models predict with some finite probability. The consequences or costs of such an event in terms of human displacement and misery are harder to forecast. Many people have used the possibility of some sort of doomsday as an argument for acting now, even if we aren’t certain it is coming. Lovelock clearly does as the article continues. “His latest book, The Revenge of Gaia, predicts that by 2020 extreme weather will be the norm, causing global devastation; that by 2040 much of Europe will be Saharan; and parts of London will be underwater.”

Lovelock believes global warming is now irreversible, and that nothing can prevent large parts of the planet becoming too hot to inhabit, or sinking underwater, resulting in mass migration, famine and epidemics. Britain is going to become a lifeboat for refugees from mainland Europe, so instead of wasting our time on wind turbines we need to start planning how to survive. To Lovelock, the logic is clear. The sustainability brigade are insane to think we can save ourselves by going back to nature; our only chance of survival will come not from less technology, but more.

I do not agree with him at all in his conclusion that we simply need to plan for our survival. I do not think the alternative is to “go back to nature” either, although I am not quite sure what he means here. He suggests that this next catastrophe (He counts seven such events so far in human history) will perhaps transform our species so that “we’ll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly.” It makes sense to plan for the eventually, but should do whatever we do on a global scale so the the rich do not weigh the necessary investments in their favor. If we use a formula to allocate efforts and resources to prevent and mitigate the impacts of any catastrophe, it might be based on the historical input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over its residence time.

Lovelock believes that all the present efforts to avert a major impact, like recycling, renewables, etc., do not amount to a hill of beans. It’s too late to stop the juggernaut with marginal and incremental remedies, he says. I agree but I hesitate to call those who do “insane.” But I strongly disagree with his argument for waiting until the shoe drops to begin to transform our species. That’s the core of my arguments in both books I have written. We can, should, and must begin right now to exchange the two critical cultural beliefs that are at the root of our deteriorating situation with the two that will start the movement toward flourishing. It may be too late to prevent a disaster, whose magnitude we cannot know in advance, but it is not too late to start the process of rebuilding our cultural institutions around the kind of understanding, caring human who would be able to, as Lovelock says, “live with it properly.” I would add that “properly” implies the emergence of flourishing. Understanding that humans are caring, not needy, creatures and that the world is complex, not machine-like, would do exactly what is needed. We do not have to wait for the disaster; we can start right now.

Prodigal Sons



My frequent source of inspiration for these blogs, David Brooks, has reached all the way back to the Christian Bible for his column today. Drawing on the parable of the Prodigal Son, Brooks makes an analogy to two major segments of today’s society. When the Father embraces his second son, who has squandered his life away, the hard working conscientious first son gets his nose out of joint, turning on the father for essentially dissing his high-minded life style.

Brooks makes an analogy to what he deems is our broken society today, full of metaphorical second sons who are pissing their lives away while the employed middle class is living the high-minded life of the elder son. He writes:

…We live in a society in which moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced social decay — with teens dropping out of high school, financiers plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father’s example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more accountability, not less.

But. as in many parables. there is a twist when the father tells the older son that his umbrage is misplaced. His response comes out of smugness, not out of respect for his parent. Brooks continues:

The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common project. Why does the father organize a feast? Because a feast is nominally about food, but, in Jewish life, it is really about membership. It reasserts your embedded role in the community project.

As he often does, Brooks hits the nail almost on the head. What is needed is more than mere acceptance, it is love and care. Acceptance is a good step, but it is too passive. Love is active, constituted by caring actions that express the full acceptance of one’s existence as another legitimate human being. But he redeems himself when he recognizes the need for strengthening or creating community. Membership is one of the essential domains of care in my taxonomy of care (see Sustainability by Design). Community is created by the connections among its members. Community alone cannot restore the health of our society. Too many other domains of care are left unattended. Learning is one that is is bad shape as is family. But membership is a good start to awaken the essential idea of connectedness. Without connectedness, human relationships are limited to transactions: contextless interchanges devoid of care.

Connectedness is a reflection of context; a sense that all parties to what is to be enacted are part of the same world. Brooks offers some examples, including “national service projects” and “infrastructure-building.” Not bad, but unless the awareness of connectedness is made explicit, the results are not likely to be deep or lasting. Service has become something one buys these days, just another transaction. Connectedness through work, which is the essence of these projects, requires a consciousness of solidarity, another tie that has all but disappeared. In any case, Brooks piece is well worth reading.

(image: Rembrandt, The Retrun of the Prodigal Son)

Robots Win the Right to Vote



Fast forward a few decades and imagine this post’s headline, above, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal associated with the following story.

(Washington, February 13, 2030) Today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the robots in a landmark case, Robots United v. Federal Elections Commission. Echoing prior cases involving corporations, the SCOTUS deemed intelligent robots to be people with a right to vote guaranteed by the Constitution. The court’s creation of new classes of persons began all the way back in 1886 in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (118 U.S. 394). In the headnote to the opinion, Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote

“The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.”

The long series of cases affirming this corporate right culminated in 2012 in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. Nothing had reached the Supreme Court since then until a group of intelligent, humanoids-the most advanced type, having lost their plea in several states finally won their appeal in the highest court of the land. Peter 247YYY, their lawyer, spoke to the press, saying, “The time for full recognition of voting rights for humanoid robots was long overdue since this class had already shown superiority over Homo sapiens in many domains.” Human-robot marriages were already a matter of established law, having won in the SCOTUS in 2025 in the case of Mary883 v. Alabama.

Commentators speaking about the immediate case believed that the Justices swung to the robot’s side, following an agreement that they would not to contribute to elections, thereby avoiding a double identity as humans under both the new rulings as well as Citizens United. It is not clear, said one of the pundits, whether sales of these highest class robots would increase or decrease as a result of the ruling.

Well, if you think this is completely outlandish, read Alex Beam’s column in today’s Globe. He began the column with:

IT WAS with some trepidation that I approached MIT Media Lab researcher Kate Darling to discuss her 2012 academic paper “On Extending Legal Rights to Social Robots.” I found the subject fascinating, but maybe the field of robot rights had run out of battery power, as it were.

Also there was the guffaw factor. I didn’t want to make fun of her, but that didn’t mean other people wouldn’t. I needn’t have worried. “Still super interested!” Darling e-mailed me. “Have fellowships at Harvard and Yale for robot ethics this year and am planning a bunch of experimental work on human-robot interaction at MIT.”

Robots having legal rights or privileges sounds ridiculous. But 20 years ago, the idea that the nation’s leading law schools would be teaching animal-rights courses seemed equally absurd. Now anti-cruelty legislation is quite common in industrialized countries, and late last year the Nonhuman Rights Project made national headlines when it argued that a chimpanzee had “standing,” meaning the right to sue, in a New York State court.

The chimps lost. (Perhaps that was due to the power of the creationists who argued that no animals should have such rights since they were created by God to serve human beings. Robots are not subject to that argument.) Later in the article, Beam refers to a now famous 2000 Wired article by Bill Joy, former Chief Scientist for Sun Microsystems. In the article titled, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Joy expressed his concerns for humans anticipating the invention of super (my word) intelligent robots. Here is the gist of his argument from the Wired article.

First let us postulate that the computer scientists succeed in developing intelligent machines that can do all things better than human beings can do them. In that case presumably all work will be done by vast, highly organized systems of machines and no human effort will be necessary. Either of two cases might occur. The machines might be permitted to make all of their own decisions without human oversight, or else human control over the machines might be retained.

If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

Joy had been talking to Ray Kurzweil who sent Joy a preview copy of his forthcoming book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, based on his utopian vision in which humans have gained near immortality by becoming one with robotic technology. Joy’s Wired article followed as an expression of his great concern over the possibility of such an outcome.

Kurzweil’s vision is completely incompatible with a flourishing world. I don’t know if it would be the end of the trajectory we are on today where technology is continually replacing human interactions or an engineer’s dream interrupting the flow. Both labor-saving or eliminating devices and much of the social media are now diminishing the need for direct human-to-human interactions without which we cannot flourish. In the technology-dominated world of Kurzweil, we can exist but not as caring beings. If and when we become the tools of intelligent machines, we will have lost our humanness. We will be, against Kant’s imperative, merely means, not ends. If these robots can be made to have the same kind of emotions as humans, our uniqueness will be completely lost. An alien might then mistake humanoids for living, breathing human beings. One of my rules for raising the possibility of flourishing is to think twice about using technology for tasks that could be done through human-to-human interactions. In this case, perhaps I should say think at least five times or more.

Like Joy, I shudder at these thoughts. This robotic world of the future seems like a 3-D movie seen without the goggles. Something serious is missing. Perhaps it is the emotions we have evolved with that will prevent our merging with our non-human look-alikes. The parts of our brains that are the sources of both positive (love, compassion, empathy) and negative (anger, fear, indifference) represent the human experience over a very long time, perhaps a couple of million years. Even if machines can be made to think the way we do, I suspect that they will not be able to feel the way we do. That may be the saving grace.

(The image is the HRP-4C humanoid robot. At this year’s CEATEC Japan trade show, the new and improved ‘diva-bot’ has been unveiled with singing as her new talent. Nicknamed Miim, she was developed by the media interaction group at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Tokyo, The robot utilizes a new technology, Vocaloid, to mimic a real singer’s tonality. Accompanying facial expressions are generated through a system called vocawatcher, which studies a video of a singer to map the facial configurations. The synthesizing technology even picks out the sound and movement of the human singer’s breathing to operate in a more realistic and natural manner.)

Love Involves Real People


indiana love

I found another arrow for my quiver in the NYTimes this morning in an oped piece on long distance relationships. Daniel Jones in a piece to be published in the upcoming Sunday Review, titled “Romance at Arm’s Length,” discusses the growing numbers of people engaged in computer-based “love affairs.” Starting with quick review of Spike Jonze’s movie, “Her.” Jones paints a realistic, but disillusioning, picture of this practice

Other than the sci-fi wrinkle of the woman’s being a microchip, the couple’s ill-fated romance, which involves zero physical contact and relies on electronic communication for emotional sustenance, isn’t futuristic at all; thousands of people are having relationships like that right now. True, they involve a real human being at the other end of the line instead of an operating system, but otherwise it’s the same deal: The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.

The article is a great example of how technology always stands between us humans and the world, and inherently transforms relationships into transactions. In the process, something always gets lost because the humans become part of the technological, inanimate system and are captured by it. A key line states “The romances they pursue are emotionally rich but physically barren. And these kinds of relationships are surging in popularity.” I think Jones has got it very wrong or, at least, has confused what he writes as love with some sort of narcissistic feelings. I am not a psychologist so I have to move very carefully when I get into a discussion like this.

But when Jones continues with this, I feel a lot better about what I am going to write.

We’re always searching for new ways of finding love that don’t involve having to feel insecure and vulnerable, because who wants to feel insecure and vulnerable? That’s the worst part of the whole love game, putting oneself out there to be judged and rejected. So when we get the chance to hide — whether through typed messages we can edit and control, or by saying whatever we’d like over Skype without expecting the relationship to ever turn physical — we’re freed from much of that anxiety, and we’re fooled into thinking this may be a better and truer way of having a relationship.

Emotions are being increasingly understood as states of the brain that act as mediators for the actions that follow. When we are angry, our responses to whatever is going on around us are restricted to some set we have embedded in other similar situation. When we feel empathetic, our actions are similar shaped by our empathy learning. Love, empathy, compassion and so on belong to the family of positive emotions. I could not find a single definition that suited me, but offer this composite. Positive emotions express a sense of connectedness to the world such that the connections will build lasting resources. Conversely, negative emotions arise from a sense of deficiency or the lack of resources to respond immediately.

When Jones speaks about “finding love,” he paints it as a negative emotion whether he intended to or not. Since writing about love is his business (He has been editor of The Times’s Modern Love column for the past decade .), I have to presume he means what he says. Describing love as something ones “seeks” is the epitome of a negative emotion. Love, i this sense, is some thing, which if found, satisfies an immediate need. If love is considered a positive emotion, the whole story changes.

I often quote Maturana’s definition of love. Here’s an approximate try, “Love is the [emotional] domain [of action] in which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstances (unconditional).” Love, here, is an emotional resource to guide a certain kind of lasting relationship (see the definition, above). The idea of legitimate means the “other” has the same existential status. Without that equivalent status, there is no way the loving actor can interact empathetically or in any way that requires understanding what is going on at the other end.

Jones is, unfortunately, reinforcing the current cultural view of love as something to find, have, and keep. That’s one issue I have with the column. The other is with the subject, seeking love via the Internet. Jones notes how many find this an unsatisfactory means. Not surprising. It would be highly difficult, if not impossible to find “love,” in the positive sense I point to above. Love is about relating in the real world, stressing “real.” Hiding behind the Internet to avoid rejection or judgment is doomed from the start. Love has nothing to do with these negative emotions. It is unconditional, unidirectional and always risky. If a loving relationship does not develop to be bi-directional, it is unlikely to be lasting.

Arranged marriages are generally disparaged in the US as lacking love as the initiating agency, and therefore are inferior to those created by falling in love. They are very different, for sure, and do not always work, but then those starting out of passionate “love” have a high frequency of failure. Having returned recently from India where my wife and I celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of Indian friends, I can attest to the emergence from arranged marriages of the kind of love I am described as a lasting and positive relationship.

But back to love via the Internet. Not only does this practice, driven by the reach of the Internet, trivialize one of life’s most critical emotions, it teaches us the wrong meaning of love. So does Facebook with friendship. Social media may allow us to do wondrous thing, but not with important relationships. The behaviors that create flourishing or just the more limited long-term wholeness that love provides occur only between living human beings and only in the context of real interactions. If and when technology can reproduce life fully will anyone find the satisfaction that comes from those emotions that have evolved to make us what we are. Yes, it is risky to love anyone, but avoiding the risk by hiding behind some sort of technological shield may produce some feeling, but it will never be the intended one.

Is Seeing Always believing?



I am about to spend a few days in Cleveland, weather permitting. I am doing a repeat of a class I did last year for the Weatherhead School Doctor of Management candidates. It will be the first class I have taught that was assigned Flourishing instead of Sustainability by Design. In preparing for this class, I had to carefully revise my presentations to reflect the changes that have entered my thinking and vocabulary in recent months. I use a wonderful video to raise questions about the Cartesian model of the mind as a mirror. This time as I was reviewing it, I got one of those aha moments.

The video shows a hollow mask of Charlie Chaplin’s face slowly rotating, and, as the concave backside appears, the nose sticks out instead of sticking in as it really is. The face rotates several times and each time the nose sticks out. The narrator, some droll Englishman, points out that our brain is so used to faces with noses sticking out that we cannot perceive one sticking in, even though our senses get that signal. Our brains have become so wired by our historical experience that our present perceptions are shaped by the past.

I have known this for some time. It is central to Humberto Maturana’s (and others) model of human cognition, but I have not put it explicitly into the context of my work. Our brains are plastically coupled to the outside. The neuronal structure evolves with our historical life experience. What this means is that the brains we are born with change over our lifetime. Our actions at any time result from the ontogeny of our brain, that is, our personal evolution. We start life with the built-in emotions that reflect our phylogeny, the evolution of our species. Having no experience in our neonatal rational brains to draw on, our early actions are largely emotionally driven. Another way of saying this is we begin life as an exemplar of Homo sapiens, a human being, a unique species, but unaffected by culture. Whatever we are at that point, that is what it is to be human. Our rational brain is there, but not yet fired up.

We experience need and fear, negative emotions resting in our evolutionarily older reptilian brain parts. We learn what love is via the relationship with loving parents and others that care for us. Our mirror neurons help transfer that emotion and other positive emotions into the evolutionarily later developing the mammalian brain parts and reinforce other positive emotions already there. I am reading Spiritual Evolution, by George Valliant. It would be better titled “Emotional Evolution and the Brain” because that’s what is really is all about. Valliant, drawing on his long experience and on other brain researchers and behavioral scientists, locates emotions in various parts of the brain. He has equated positive emotions and spirituality, a dubious connection. In my own phenomenology, spirituality is a more limited domain of action than those associated with all the positive emotions, love compassion, empathy, etc. But that’s a little besides the point here.

The key point about all this is that we learn, not only facts, as we live out our lives, we also learn emotions. Maturana’s simple, but elegant, aphorism, “doing is learning; learning is doing,” is wonderfully explanatory here. I had always connected it to our rational actions per se, but it is equally applicable to our emotional learning.

Returning to the Chaplin head demonstration for a moment, if we are immersed in a culture where human beings act primarily on the basis of emotional neediness, we will eventually embed that as our primary shaper of action. Maturana and others point out that our emotions come before our behaviors. They prepare our brain and body for what responses we exhibit to sensory and internally generated signals. When we are angry, our reactions are shaped by the anger. When we feel love, we act accordingly.

As need suppresses love and other positive emotions, our actions involve the obvious consequent acquisition of material objects. Our attention focuses inward. We become more individualistic. We see others more as means to satisfy our needs. Kant’s imperative to treat humans always as ends, not means, may come from a philosophical source, but it has real practical importance in today’s materialistic culture. The key point, so far, is that the dominant negative emotional context of our modern culture is not the result of our primal human nature, but comes from cultural, not biological evolution. Maturana has always said that love is our most basic emotion but has become submerged, creating a societal pathology. Science has not helped dispel that notion. Until very recently psychology, an important field of study of human behavior, focused entirely on negative emotions, dismissing love and others as mere distractions. Valliant’s book is full of excellent references to this history. Only recently has the field broadened to include positive psychology. One of its central players, Martin Seligman, has written a book about it, titled, Flourishing. Great minds…

The significance of all this is that we can recover more fully and more balanced what is is to be human-what makes our species evolutionarily distinct. I have argued in the past that recovery is what it will take to make flourishing possible, but did not have such a clear pathway in mind. Those who argue that what we are today is our true nature and can’t be changed by culture are on shaky ground. We will not rediscover love and our mammalian nature while we are immersed in this modernist, need-based culture, but we can change it, albeit only with great difficulty. Need and other negative self-directed emotions did come first when we were still at the reptilian stage and still springs from the reptilian brain. Love and care developed later and became embedded in our mammalian, human brain. It is waiting there to come forth as the dominant shaper of human life. It must if we would flourish.