Personal Opinion, Technology

On Mass Behavior…

Argument from morality (known as virtue-signaling in common lingo) doesn’t seem to convince the masses most of the time when it comes to changing their behaviors on issues pertinent to the world, even if the argument is reasonable. There are sound arguments from social-justice activists, environmentalists and vegans that question our moral compasses when it comes to egalitarianism, being mindful of the environment we live in and for increasing the circle of empathy to all the animals around us – but they just don’t seem to be working for most people for some reason – why is that?

If you study the nature of change in human societies, be it any social justice movement or a strive for a better environment, only a few people change their attitudes or behaviors based solely on the revision of their moral values at one time. While I’m not discrediting the achievements of countless men and women who fought for moral change across the millennia, I also want to bring to the attention of people the fact that new technologies and apt economic motivations have always aided us in the process, and have made transformations quicker. Significant changes in human societies in terms of our behavior have always needed economic incentives, newer technologies, substitute behaviors or behavior channels first before the moral stimuli start to kick in.

To state a few examples – first wave of automation making slavery obsolete and financially cumbersome, invention of home appliances saving time for the then housewives to enter the workforce, discovery of the contraceptive pills and birth-control techniques giving women reproductive rights to spear-head the most significant of feminist movements, invention of live-television allowing the words of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela to be heard across households, and high-speed internet and social-media bringing people close enough to empathize with other people having different sexual-orientations and granting them equal rights. On top of all these, the incentives for bringing more people equally into mainstream economics were beneficial for all – which ended up changing the behavior of the previously resistant masses and made the world a better place to live in. To talk about the most pertinent issue of the late 20th century, the Ozone depletion – economic incentives in the form of substitutes for Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were established; CFCs were then banned, markets for non-CFC compounds were subsidized – and today the Ozone is recovering successfully. What we can see from these few select examples (and there are a lot more) is that for us to change our behavior as a species, we need to change the nature of our economy first so that it gets easier for people to change their attitudes.

Human beings are adaptive creatures over the long term but can also be resilient to short-term changes. This short-term resilience can be overcome if you provide them with alternatives that aren’t hard to transition into – such as cheaper electric vehicles with better range than gasoline ones, affordable bio-degradable plastic, lab synthesized meat as good as or even better than actual ones, vertical farming and aquaponics more practical and yielding than conventional farming. These could all prove to become paradigm-shifting alternatives that may help us tackle the most pressing issues of our time. And the common ground these technologies share is that they make it easier for us to change our behaviors for the better. We don’t buy things because they’re moral, we do that because we think they benefit us – we are selfish creatures indeed, and that is a reality we need to exploit for our own welfare.

Being aware of behavioral economics and creating markets strong enough to compel even the most rigid politicians to change their policies is equally important. If activists want to be effective, they need to start embracing this process more than just looking for a “symbolic gesture” intended to question people’s moral values. Because if we go for the “shaming” tactic, factions of people are sure to become defensive and even more resilient to change than before. For instance, most of us in favor of taking immediate action against climate change believe that people who are resistant to this idea, and who think of climate change as a hoax, hold lesser moral values, are uneducated and dogmatic. Then we argue assuming that we stand on a moral high-ground, which we may, but we forget that the other person might also be arguing against you with a similar mindset. Playing the devil’s advocate, I could say that the oil companies are resilient to accepting the climate initiative because they fear that they are losing their investments and their markets and hence lobby hard; a proper way to incorporate them into the climate plan would be to provide a fair deal to these companies and an opportunity to modify and diversify their products – such as investing in Hydrogen fuel and subsidizing carbon-trapping technologies they install (a model that is being adopted in Canada and Norway). If our strategy is to antagonize head-on and vilify companies and people, we cannot convince other humans to change their behavior as they will become defensive and protective; we will reach a state of political deadlock – the likes of which we are witnessing across world politics today – dividing people and not getting anywhere in solving even the most existential issues.

The key to tackling this conundrum, in my opinion, lies in the proper understanding of the behavioral sciences – both at the level of individuals as well as the masses. This would teach us to adopt non-zero-sum strategies when dealing with humans as opposed to the ineffective zero-sum game. Playing the blame-game will also not amount to much in this regard. If certain people do not want to change their lifestyles drastically, we should aim for strategies that are minimally invasive – such as biodegradable polythene bags, or electric trucks that are not very different from the previous products. This is very hard to achieve, no doubt, but I believe it is still a better approach than to waste valuable civilization-years preaching people about virtue. People do not change because they want to be good and to do good, they change when they understand the benefit of choosing the better option.

I believe that there’s no harm in introducing behavioral sciences as early as middle school. My argument is that since we are always interacting with other humans as individuals and are exploring our social and political identities from an early age, it would help us as a species if we taught our children to understand the core mechanisms which drive our species in everyday life. The reason I am writing this article is to highlight the multi-lateral nature of reality and how the study of behavior is key to addressing problems in a realistic and non-romanticized manner. We are so much distracted by all the short-term “activisms” that become viral on social media, we often forget to focus on the most effective strategies for solving our problems. We easily sway towards profound statements and emotional rhetoric which are amplified by the media, and we forget to study what the actual problems and their solutions are.

Positive change isn’t brought about solely by demonstrations and movements for a noble cause, it is also a result of chance and is determined by uncontrolled convergence of random events into favorable outcomes. The best way to ensure that change occurs across a large number of people quickly could be by putting more emphasis on the study, awareness, and application of behavioral economics. Because moral arguments may be enough to influence the most educated or aware elites of an area (try telling a poor Nepali villager during a festival that killing animals is morally reprehensible and see how he responds), but the elites sadly do not form the bulk of the population at any time in history, even if objectively their moral values may be more utilitarian.

It may sound authoritarian at first glance, but the reality is that we can attain a more fluid path towards progress if we can focus on modifying the behaviors of the average people – economics is always obsessed with the middle-class for a reason. And the best way to do so is by planning for better, localized economic incentives that can yield technologies and strategies which people find beneficial and voluntarily opt for – changing their behaviors and hence their moral values in due time.

Neuroscience, Philosophy, Science, Technology

On Intelligence Paradox…

If you think about it for a while it may make sense. To explain our existence from an origin-perspective, the teleological argument (that we have a predetermined purpose for existence) soon turns out into a negative – an unfalsifiable idea. The idea of an intelligent creator or creators, whether be it a certain god or a computer programmer simulating us all, is subject to the same old circular reasoning as implied by the teleological argument. So even if personalities like Elon Musk have made it famous, for the “fascination” of many people, I am quite apatheistic in that regard. It’s an interesting thought experiment – but that’s it, until we have anything solid on this subject matter (we may never, to be fair to the negative). Abstract thinking is desirable, but perhaps we shouldn’t take anything that is abstract much too seriously than practically warranted.

Talking about purpose, this one idea I really like is that of the purpose of intelligence in general. And this is not a predetermined purpose as in the teleological sense, but rather a purpose that is in the making (or perhaps is already nascently existent). We know that complex or abstract systems can originate from simple physical or non-physical combinations (eg. John Conway’s ‘The Game of Life‘, language, ant or termite colonies, People in dancing flash mobs etc). Complex behavior can ensue from just a few simple arrangement of neurons (such as the enteric nervous system moving our guts independently and under influence from the autonomic nervous system, or take any arthropods or worms for that matter). So an organisation of neurons even more complex than that of nerves in our guts or in a cockroach, without doubt, is capable of generating virtually infinite permutations of complex behaviors (like when talking, generating written language, doing science and so on).

As contemporary philosophers and cognitive scientists have deduced for a while now, that it is us who assign a sense of purpose to anything objective or abstract, and not an external force; it can be speculated that the goal of any highly intelligent system such as ours could be directed towards the creation of at least some “purpose”. And such a system could be capable of improving upon itself as time progresses. A self-learning intelligent system becoming more complex with every input of information, to the point of being capable enough to assign abstract purposes to objects or subjects of concern.

As of now, the only intelligent system we know of, that can generate some set of purpose, is within ourselves. We have no other similar system to compare ourselves to yet – be it extraterrestrial or synthetic. So the idea of purpose being the end-product of an intelligent system – can be said to be at present, just hypothetical. We do not know whether the idea of being able to think in an abstract manner or to be able to recognize or assign purposes are just byproducts or offshoots of evolution on this planet, or whether such an algorithm, are but means to every intelligent end – to collect understandings (information) about the universe. It remains to be seen whether or not any synthetic intelligent systems which we design or intelligent systems which have evolved far away from us will have similar (if not the same) end – algorithm establishing purpose. Whether they are capable of thinking only in terms of objective raw data or whether they can, like us, be able to form abstract concepts like a sense of purpose – only time (or maybe serendipity) might tell.

It will be very likely that synthetic intelligent systems that we create in our proximity may mimic our thought modalities and try to serve similar (if not the same) purpose as our own; but we may not be able to proclaim the same for those from another planet. Will they have a communication modality such as language? Will they need language? What may be their world-views? Do they have a similar understanding of science and mathematics as we do? What are the ways they resemble or differ from us? Can they help us conclude that intelligent systems are a universal phenomena of animation, requiring only time, for them to be able to exist? Much remains to be discovered and answered – this much we know for certain. I’d like to call this concept, if I’m allowed, the Intelligence Paradox, in a sense that our idea of universal intelligence (or intelligent purpose) may be limited, mainly by our grounded and thus restricted perception of our own.

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Image: from an iteration of John Conway’s code – Game of Life 

 

Egalitarianism, Philosophy, Technology

On Freeing up Time

(A 21st century add-on to Bertrand Russell’s famous essay ‘On Idleness’)

I read Bertrand Russell’s famous philosophical paper “On Idleness” and was taken aback by the man’s prescience and insight. None of which would have come without his impressive clarity of thought. He made a compelling and everlasting case for working less and living life more. The core thesis of the paper being: we need to work less, in order to amplify the subjective “meaning” as well as the objective “quality” of all our lives – without actually being complacent. He argues that work has been historically declared as a virtue mostly by the ruling few, because they seemed to have enjoyed their idleness, gifted to them by their privilege or birthright. Those who didn’t work were vilified and those who worked were hailed as important units of society – just so that the status quo could be maintained to continue the means of production.

Back in the day (and even now to some extent) only few people enjoyed the fruits of the work done by the many – money and hence plenty of time for hobbies. Time to create as well as enjoy music, literature, art; or to document history, to form philosophies, to be able to learn about science and enjoy the luxury of cutting edge technology first hand and so on. See for yourselves – Mozart, Beethoven, Descartes, Montaigne – all enjoyed some sort of privilege that allowed them to be talented and creative maestros in their respective fields (them having lived before or during the first wave of industrialization). After the first wave of industrialization had took hold – we could see plenty of scholars and artists who rose from being sons of the working men to becoming significant intellectuals and underdog artists or virtuosos. Fast forward to today – majority of the world’s top billionaires did not inherit their wealth, but rather created them by capitalising on their newfangled ideas. Although Russell’s initial paragraphs have a Marxist overtone, he doesn’t at all make the case for overthrowing the ruling class and taking charge of the means of production – his take is more empirical than Marx’s purely ideological one.

He argues (in early 20th century) that since the industrial revolution had allowed many to move from farms and live in the cities and work in factories, they may not have had more time to enjoy than the owners of the factories, but nonetheless they still had more time to enjoy life than the farmers and peasants of old or from the countryside. Factory-workers could enjoy some days off their work without having to worry about starving their children relative to the farmers of those days – who had to constantly ponder about the success of their unstable crops for survival. People could buy ready-made products directly from shops and didn’t have to waste time to make them on their own. They could divert the time spent knitting to more productive works like reading books or pursuing hobbies or going to a picnic. Russell argues in this way, how new technology will enable even the common people to better enjoy their lives by giving everyone some free time than their forebears. And this, he argues, was a continuous process which would better itself so long as progress wasn’t to be halted by destructive wars or calamities. He makes a utilitarian case for progress and the benefits technology can provide the human race as a whole.

Today we can realize, with the advent of the information age and possibly the new industrial revolution – the age of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning – that Russel couldn’t have been more correct! The talk of the globe today is about such self-thinking machines taking away jobs and people being unemployed and thus possibly miserable. This mindset, I believe, comes from the same old practice of establishing work (by which I mean mundane drudgery) as a virtue in itself. Much work people do today is those that they do not like. The very reason we make employees compete for “employee of the month” is to try and boost their mindless productivity (banal things like who processed the most accounts and which salesman sold the most number of toilet cleaners and so on). Much of the stress and dissatisfaction with life today comes from the fact that many are not satisfied by their work. They have to work for others, they have to work in times unsuitable for their wishes, they have to disregard the wellbeing of their spouse or children, they have to sacrifice their desire to learn new skills, and if they need to take a time of for their health – the inevitable fear of losing their jobs. Blue, white or red – all ‘collar’ work are done to serve a pre-supposed greater “purpose”. Mindless and uncreative work have become such an integral part of our lives for millennia since the agricultural revolution, that we even have plenty of well known adage such as “Be the first in the field and last to the couch” or “Diligence is the mother of good luck” or “A cat with gloves, catches no mice” and so on.

When the prospects of machines taking over jobs comes up everytime, widespread existential anxieties ensue. People think about their future, or the future of their kids – because that is a basic human common ground that should be guaranteed to everyone in modern civilization. And agreeing with Russell, I do think people should be compensated – just to be idle. I’m vouching for the Universal Basic Income or some kind of social guarantee of survival as ends, whatever the means. Because as efficient and self-learning machines take up much of our mindless jobs – we will probably have more time to enjoy our lives. There might be a concern about complacency, but that can be dispelled by tracing facts from history. More common people today enjoy the luxury of travel, good food, art, music, entertainment, multiple hobbies than ever before. What was something only aristocrats would’ve dreamt of before, is accessible to the common “peasants” of today. And the more prosperous a nation – more idle time their citizens can enjoy. A simple scanning of the facts is enough to support this claim. And the trend is only growing. Rich countries divert their sweatshops to poorer ones because of cheap labor. Citizens in prosperous countries enjoy clothes sewn by Bangladeshi workers and gadgets assembled by an ex-farmer in Shenzhen, China. People in places like Japan, France, Britain and the United States can enjoy more time in their lives because some people are trying to make ends meet in poorer countries.

This is where Russell’s argument in favor of technology is so important and ageless. This wave of industrial revolution that we are facing today, is for the very people living in places like China, India, and Bangladesh – so that they, just like the people that they work for – can enjoy the globalized world in their own time. But of course, if everyone is idle when machines take over everything, who is to pay for the people? That is indeed a black-and-white way to look at things. As much as new technologies will take away traditional jobs, they will be creating more than we can imagine. Much of those jobs will be less mindless and require more of our cognition than physical labor. And in terms of cognition – those requiring more divergent intellect from our part than convergent. In short: we will be paid for being more creative than for being repetitive. We will be paid for our ideas, for our art, for music. We are already seeing some effects – independent “Youtubers”, social media “influencers”, spotify “artists” and so on. These are the initial cohort of people who have already entered the “new market” of self-employment. They are generating revenues in such a way that even indices such as GDP or GNP cannot properly account for. People are establishing startups backed by new and innovative ideas – which require more people for their creativity than for their drudgery – the latter being done entirely by machines. Boring jobs like sweeping toilets, cleaning the subway tracks, building houses or cleaning the dog-poop – all will be taken over by machines – and it is ever more likely now to envision such a future than in Russell’s time. It’s only a matter of time.

And just as Russell argued for safety-nets back in his time, contemporary people have argued for likewise – in the form of Universal Basic Income. We have to acknowledge that not everyone will be divergent enough to be able to feed themselves through creative works, so we need a safety-net. What if prosperous governments (or organizations or conglomerates, whatever be the means) provided free basic annual income to everyone, unconditionally – so that they can get all the basic necessities for basic living? It is shown through many research done by economists and mathematicians, that if people do not have to think about survival every now and then – they tend to be more productive if not creative. Just compare Sweden and Somalia to get a perspective. Some people may become complacent or spend it on drugs or useless things, but most would still choose to work – to add meaning to their lives. And their only purpose for working would be to meet their surplus needs and not basic ones which are already guaranteed. They will thus be able to enjoy more of their time in that regard, spend more time with their children, contribute more to the family or community, can be freer to fight for causes they believe in and be more politically aware and active. Best of all – the more idle people become, basic needs guaranteed, the more they will choose to educate themselves or opt for skills-trainings – enough to improve the quality of their lives and perhaps even thought.

Experiments on UBI are being conducted across various regions in Scandinavia or Canada (and perhaps even India in the near future), and the results are being awaited as I write this essay. So it may be some time before this can be agreed upon by the global community. But this much is sure, if not the UBI, then maybe some other idea for a safety-net, because that will surely come into demand, no matter the size of the opposition. Because history has shown us that weaker ideas have always failed before utilitarian ones, when economics of progress is in the driving seat. If such ideas become successful then perhaps we might as well need to modify proverbs such as “Give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” to “Give a man a fish every year, and he may teach himself to fish, or if not – may give you a beautiful painting for your living room.”  

Many people around the world today get angry at Indian or Chinese tourists because of their seemingly bad manners (some may even consider Europeans ill-mannered in some parts of the world – they wipe their bottoms with just paper!), but I wish to not moralize on proper methods of tourism myself. I’m rather delighted with the fact that there are Indian and Chinese people spending their free time and surplus money – touring the world! Because remember, that just about a decade ago, even using the terms “Chinese Tourists” or “Indian Tourists” would have been considered a joke!

And owing Russell a big thanks for his clear vision of human necessities and of the future, I’d like to end with an important saying I heard a random anonymous engineer give out in a random documentary about progress – “Technology is the answer, so what’s the question?”. To that I may as well want to add “Technology and cooperation is the answer, so what’s the question?”

Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Technology

A vision for my city

I’m not an engineer by profession, but I find cities of any kind very fascinating. And exploring videos and maps of cities and playing city-building simulation games used to be my favorite past-time (before I was caught up in some career work).

I’m a fan, especially of cities with less horizontal sprawl and more vertical elevations – such cities take up less space, cut transportation time significantly, and save energy and water distribution costs drastically. And of-course: I particularly have a crush on well-designed cities that have an organized mass-transit system, my personal favorites: the city of Kobe in Japan (Trains everywhere!!!!) and the city of Medellin in Columbia (Cable cars!!!!).

Cities are multi-dimensional, that is – despite them being established mostly in a top-down manner (like planned cities of Barcelona or Manchester or Seoul or Singapore), they can also be improved via a bottom-up approach (Rio de Janerio, Brasil or Medellin).

By bottom-up approach I mean – to improve, with minimum demolition, cities that are already overcrowded and seemingly unmanageable; and to give them their own unique identity along with improving its citizens’ overall well-being. The city of Rio and Medellin have done it in a uniquely Latin-American way. They improved upon their slums (Favelas) that were already there, without destroying them (now some of them are crime-free and pose as tourist attractions), they regulated housing in other areas and made it affordable so newer immigrants need not further expand the slums, and they established a mass transit system unique to the topography that could carry their citizens efficiently, for low cost, connecting the thriving city-center to the developing Favelas on the hills: via spacious cable cars!!!

When I look at my own city of Kathmandu valley, I see no alternative to the bottom-up approach. We simply cannot afford the top-down approach anymore – there are too many heritage sites and monuments and people live everywhere in a haphazard manner. Everything is jam-packed and we surely don’t want more dust. We simply cannot afford to press the ‘reset’ button for this city. Innovation is a key figure for bottom-up approaches and we all know it can bring us around traditional problems just as in Latin America – without the need for destroying anything of significant value.

It’s a shame that in my city they had to destroy historical landmarks such as “Sohrakhutte” just for the simple task of expanding the road by a few meters. There is also another talk of building satellite-cities outside ring-roads by destroying historical Newari villages and towns. These are examples of a top-down approach – where an authority figure (government or a company) have complete authority and control in development projects, with little regard for the citizens themselves. Top-down approaches are more suited for building newer cities such as Navi-Mumbai, or Singapore or Songdo-city outside Seoul; all of them being built from scratch out of land reclamation or on top of wastelands. In older cities with historical significance or over-crowding, only the bottom-up approach makes sense. And let’s be honest, regardless of the federalization the the country, Kathmandu valley will still have significant influx of people for many years into the future.

So one example of a bottom-up approach to improve upon the aesthetics of Kathmandu city could be by completely doing away with cables or wires (many cities around the world have shifted to wireless or CDMA and we can get rid of wires in due time as well). Just getting rid of obsolete data transfer systems would free up much needed spaces, exception only being for electric cables. Another method would be to employ smart transit systems requiring minimum infrastructure – such as relatively cheap-to-build (compared to underground metro) yet large enough cable-cars to connect commuters from dense areas like Sitapaila or Budhanilkantha to somewhere near Line-chaur or Ratna-Park. To aid rush-hour traffic, we can instead turn towards local shareable vehicle technologies (Tootle is one example) which would allot an idle vehicle not just for one person – but for any going in the same direction for a small price, as long as there’s space inside. We don’t always have to widen the roads, as we can learn from old cities in Europe – we can restrict vehicles to promote alternate methods of transport within set areas.

Even if we just improve upon the sidewalks and crossings, many people would opt to walk short-distances instead of using vehicles (which we currently do with micro-buses, even to travel a distance of only a kilometer). We can replace the clutter of small-size buses or micro-buses with bigger scheduled buses in a way Sajha yatayat are doing. Big buses free up traffic by fitting in more people per square meter on the road. Instead of allotting massive budget and energy for constructing underground metro systems (which would also require a lot of demolition) we could opt for skylines such as heavy-capacity monorail systems which occupy less space and can cut across dense areas of the city with minimal invasion (Like those being modeled or tested in Mumbai, Bangalore and Guanzhou). And these are to be connected with each other – such that a person living in Koteshwor could ride a monorail upto Lagankhel and then switch to either a bus to go into the city or a rope-way to get to Lamatar. We need loops of transit systems. And all these can be approached only by means of a considerate bottom-up approach, not really top-down. A bottom-up approach also saves us more money and time for construction compared to top-down ones. The philosophy should be to turn Kathmandu, not into New York or Osaka (because we are never going to achieve that in a reasonable way), but into a livable, more efficient Kathmandu.

Of course these are just my amateurish assumptions and it will be harder to implement these changes in practise and people do exist in our country who know more about this than I do. But we just ought encourage ourselves to think outside the box once in a while. We could also benefit from sending our technical people to train in Latin america or china where innovative concepts for both new and old cities are being explored on a regular basis. We need to learn from the people who got it right, so that like them, we can also pull our city out of the dust and into the 21st century.

And last but not the least, I think we need to participate ourselves, as citizens, for the betterment of this promising city.

Personal Opinion, Rationalism, Technology

Aid our faulty memories!

Another common problem in the Nepali medical work-space: we rely too much on our memories.
 
Our memories are faulty. We live in the age of information surplus and not in the time of William Osler or Edward Jenner. And it is completely natural to forget the massive amount of information we collect, and people shouldn’t be shamed or tested purely on failure of recall.
 
Human memory wasn’t designed to handle so much information all at once. Our brains can only store memories if they are linked to something personal, relatable or frightening. This is where mnemonics come handy when memorizing facts or concepts. But that isn’t always possible for everything in practice. Compared to most developed nations, we rely too much on memory to the point of regressive test standards and burnout.
What is important is to actually understand what charts, criteria, protocol, scores are useful for. It serves no practical purpose to memorize those charts and tables which can today be promptly accessible on procedure room walls, tablet devices or smart phones. For instance, what’s the point of memorizing scoring tables for diagnosing Lupus, if we can easily look it up on a cell phone at bed side? Sure, having a better memory will boost one’s career and will maybe be helpful in busy situations. But such individuals are outliers, and not every medical professional are blessed with super-human memory. We need to think in terms of the average medical professional. Faulty memory is also a major contributor towards medical errors which can cost actual patient lives! Even the brilliant prodigies who become great doctors or successful nurses can forget – as they too are humans!
 
We never think in terms of ‘lives saved’, or ‘mishaps prevented’ or ‘errors avoided’ in Nepal. We seldom think as a group. We only think in terms of individual success. Maybe this has to do with our poorly regulated standards and indifferent medical professional bodies. And why not? Most research work done out here is to fulfill a certain criteria for individual promotion or raise and rarely to solve actual problems. Even if research has been done with genuine intention, their findings are just shoved aside as “just another study” by those in power. Some institutions like PAHS in Patan are trying to change this dependency on human memory, but PAHS is just one institute in one part of one district! We could learn from them, but we perhaps emphasize our professional ego too much to progress. 
 
Computers obviously have a better, faster, and more accurate memory storage and recollection system. They are here to aid us, to potentiate our faulty memories, so we can instead dedicate more energy in conceptualizing and problem-solving in real time. Using smart devices at bed-side isn’t a sign of our incompetence, it’s a sign of progress if it helps us to prevent errors due to our primitive organic memories. Given that we could standardize their use at bed-side (like institute-dependent apps or webpages), I can confidently say that they will surely prove to be a great boon (and a massive relief for nurses, residents and medical students) for the field as a whole. 
But who’s going to take me seriously, I’m just a random blogger.
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Futurism, Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Technology

Can machines think? 

A unique thing that a future AI will most likely do is to ‘decide’ for itself, and to ‘learn’ from the consequences of it’s decision. The process has already begun. So what different will it be from humans, if an AI can ‘decide’ and ‘learn’ from available inputs and memory? Should we still call their cognitive algorithm ‘Artificial’ intelligence, or simply “Intelligence” like we call our own?

But first, let’s have a look at how we think as individuals. Suppose we have a notion in our brain as a result of a perception of some stimuli that leads to it, such as visual ques or auditory ques of someone’s speech.  Subsequently, when the turn comes for us to either act or form an opinion or a stance about it, we try to rationalize it, justify it or either scrutinize it based on our memory and knowledge (or beliefs) before coming to a calculated or an emotional conclusion.

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If you haven’t watched this movie, leave everything and watch it now!

Even lower mammals think. They rationalize their actions only through a much simpler algorithm: Heuristics. Putting it simply, heuristics can be said to be prompt justifications based on emotions such as fear, hunger, attachment, lust and so on or based on readily available impromptu memory. Humans probably just have an added dimension to this algorithm, with the ability to separate emotions from pure cognition most of the time. It’s evident that such a quality is not inherent, but rather learned. Nonetheless, it seems that only humans have the capacity to learn to such an extent so as to be able to travel to outer space or to be able to harvest the energy of an atom.

Pure cognition helps provide an additional, learned dimension to the algorithm such that we have been able to cooperate with other members of our species, learn written languages (spoken language is innate but written is always learned, no wonder the focus on literacy rates around the globe), do advanced mathematics, learn to cook food with style, do art, train to understand science, build aircraft and so on. We are just like other mammals who can be said to think, but with a much more complex algorithm. Say, when compared to Rhesus monkeys who also do think, live in social groups and have opposable thumbs like ours, but do not have the capacity to learn as significantly as we do.

In that sense, dogs think as well. And most of us must be familiar with their behavior. Throw a ball for them to fetch, they’ll retrieve it back. Hide the ball again, they will search for it and sniff around your body because they have the memory that you last had it. If you show your empty hands to their eager eyes, they’ll then start to sniff around the lawn closest to where the ball had landed previously. This is basic mammalian algorithm. Food is here – eat food. Food isn’t here – search for food. Food was here, now no food – search where food was last seen. Then repeat this cycle, until new food is found. Forget about the old food.

We do this too. But we have a higher level of problem solving ability, because our algorithm is much more complex as I’ve mentioned above. In the dog’s algorithm above, it tends to forget about the food of interest if a new food is found. But we humans on the other hand, tend to keep thinking about the object we have lost in the distant past, the food we were denied and keep looking for innovative ways to either search for the same food, or to be wary in the future so as to not commit the mistake of losing the food or object in the same way or to eventually learn to assure plenty of food by learning how to farm! You may have noticed here, that unlike our canine friends, we plan for the future and think ahead. We see the bigger picture, when a dolphin or a chimpanzee simply cannot. Their solipsism is limited to survival or hereditary kinship, while our solipsism can go beyond survival to wonder about the diseases that kill us or even so far ahead to wonder about the stars and planets that have no connection with our immediate survival; all when simultaneously co-operating with other individuals of our species who aren’t even siblings in any way.

her-movie-review
Another great movie that portrays a successful outcome of a textual-auditory Turing test. A must watch.

But a crucial similarity between monkey and human cognition, is the process of decision making and learning through experience (detailed memory), regardless of the vast differences in cognitive capacities. What a machine could not do till now, even a cognitively less developed dog could do. But that is, interestingly, changing.

Most machines and software in use today, can think and make decisions. But their decisions are seemingly redundant. They don’t learn much. However, a new approach to programming and computer science these days is calling in a new era of ‘machine learning’. There are already ‘bots’ circulating throughout the internet which alter their codes to suit their website or server’s agenda. And they learn from previous failures to be able to improve in the future. Some computer viruses may be doing that as well. Notable projects include Google’s Deep mind, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana; are all being developed after every launch so that they increasingly cater to the customers by learning about their relevant behavior patterns and making accurate decisions based on it. They are only getting better by the year.

I remember Noam Chomsky, who is foremost a Cognitive scientist, replying to a journalist who asked him “Can machines think?” by saying something like “I think to ask ‘can machines (computers) think’ is like asking ‘can submarines swim?’. Computers were designed to think.”

According to him, since computers were designed to think, and to calculate one has to think, they’ve always been thinking. It’s just that they couldn’t decide on their own or couldn’t learn on their own without some kind of human input. We witnessed the attainment of this decision aspect in machines which spearheaded us to a digital age from an analog one. The next step is that we may witness machines daft with the learning aspects as well. These two faculties, which we’ve only been accustomed to witnessing in humans and lower animals, we will possibly see it unfold in inorganic machines who can actually think just like us and often become indistinguishable from (or even superior to) humans. And this thought may be creepy for some of us because after this, our inventions will have taken over the very definition of our species, Sapiens, itself (Sapiens = Wise/Thinking). If so, we may no longer have the sweet comfort of becoming the only intelligent entity on the planet.

Take this idea for a moment. By just looking at a person talking to you, can you tell for sure whether they are either thinking like you are or simply are just involved in the conversation? Can you differentiate their affect (emotions) from their cognition (thoughts) right there and then? Can you tell whether their thoughts are spontaneous or pre-programmed? I guess not. And we certainly couldn’t do so, if for example, humanoids passed the turning test. Now who is a machine and who is not? Are we only calling ourselves machines just because we are organic? Why are our cognitive algorithms called ‘thinking’ but not that of machines because of this organic bias? Are we not organic ‘survival machines’ as well?

Questions may also arise as to whether or not to call them ‘artificial’ anymore because of their ability to decide and learn on their own. For a robot that passes all levels of the Turing test (text, auditory, audio-visual), how can we tell by simple interaction that they are thinking or not thinking? Can you tell then, for certain, whether a pedestrian you collided with while commuting, was a humanoid or a human? Other issues may come about after that, such as rights and cognitive egalitarianism (equal rights for all intelligent entities and such) but it’s beyond the scope of this essay.

So the whole point behind this write up was to highlight the idea, that before asking questions like “can machines think?” it may give us a better insight if we also entertain the question of “can we think?”. It’s an interesting matter to ponder about. Because seriously, can we really think or are we under the illusion of thinking? Or are we merely processing information and memory to form a conclusion or a specific reaction that gives us this illusion that we are actually thinking?