Artificial Intelligence

What is it that the world lacks? Is it a superior form of artificial intelligence? Is this the straw that we are now clutching at to save us from the consequences of our own inhumanity, our pride, our greed, desires and aversions?

Currently there is debate  about whether or not we should fear the consequences of the recent acceleration in the development of a superior form of artificial intelligence. Bill Gates and Simon Hawkins are signatories to a letter suggesting caution in its implementation. However the genie is already out of the bottle, vast amounts of money are flowing into its development. In a program about this on Radio 4 a contributor stated that, although at the time many people were fearful of its consequences, the Industrial Revolution was beneficial for mankind. The implication was that this advance into the application of artificial intelligence was similar in nature and that  anxiety is misplaced.

Nobody queried this statement, perhaps its truth seemed self-evident, but I think there is another way to read this. The methods of increasing productivity in the Industrial Revolution brought disruption to original local or family connections of individuals who became the workforce. The factories, furnaces and mills worked throughout the night and therefore so did the workers. The natural diurnal rhythms of life were disrupted and tasks no longer changed with the seasons as they would have done in the the agrarian economy. The work was often highly dangerous, poorly paid and repetitive; noise levels were high and work took place within confined spaces. Originally toilet breaks were non-existent – a pot was passed around. Pollution was at a high level and people’ homes destroyed to make way for ‘expansion’.

Some people made a lot of money from the life-energy of many who lived day-by-day under atrocious conditions. It tok a long time and a great deal of struggle to improve the conditions of the workforce in this country yet oppression, hazardous conditions, and low pay are still with us. In other countries which supplied us then, and now, with raw or manufactured goods, conditions are appalling.

My understanding, having looked at the some of sadnesses in the world, is that the pride, jealousies, greed, hatred, anger and aversion which are destroying our world do not come about as a result of a lack of intelligence whether human or artificial. It’s not that we need more advanced intelligence to solve our problems but that we are lacking in wisdom and compassion.

Our intelligence has supplied us with a vast database of knowledge about the nature of many ‘things’ and how to exploit them for our own benefit. This has not made for a happy world and levels of anxiety are increasing. We have not learned how to live either with ourselves or others in a harmonious fashion.

Our endless desire for pleasure is a way of keeping busy, it papers over the chasm of the  un-met needs of the heart and is fundamentally unsatisfactory.

In our culture many people have much more than they need but many are very miserable. Getting more ‘stuff’ does not bring happiness. We have prescribed  antidepressants  to mask mental dis-ease to the point that birds now have measurable levels of Prozac in their bodies. Although their existence may become more bearable people are still not happy and at ease.

This dis-ease cannot be medicated away.  Attending to the symptoms rather than the cause will not bring about a satisfactory resolution to the existential angst of existence in a world where the intellect and productivity is privileged over wisdom and the compassion which arises from that wisdom. Compassion arises as a response to the suffering of others. For this to be evoked there needs to be a feeling of connection and  an empathic attunement. This response is not  one of ‘rationality’ but  of humanity, of warmth, sensitivity, connectivity, and kindness.

This requires the ability to go beyond the thinking, computational, aspect of mind. It requires us to listen with our hearts to what underlies the semantic content of a conversation. It requires dropping judgement and seeing situations clearly, without the screen of our conditioning. It requires a willingness to feel how others are – not to stop when we have read the label which tells us ‘what’ they are.  In order to be  appropriately responsive  to the  situation of others we have to be able to soften and receive how they are even if this is painful. Often our way of coping with our own losses,  sadnesses and disappointments is to unconsciously repress them and to ‘toughen-up’ which means we are then guarded against or desensitised to the suffering of others.

Einstein said that “the intuitive mind is the gift of spirit, and the rational mind is its servant. We have created a society which honours the servant but has forgotten the gift”. I’m with Einstein on this; he also said that he regarded the pursuit of ease and happiness as ends in themselves as a suitable ambition for a

A car controlled by artificial intelligence might override my intuitive action to drive my car into a bollard rather than kill a passerby. While this might be logical from  the point  of view of maintaining my existence what if  my intuition is correct and the passerby brings more benefit into the world than I can? My freedom to be is curtailed in favour of an algorithm .

Left-field responses, blue sky thinking, happenstance, serendipity or accidental discoveries are not driven by logic but all can be beneficial.Rational decisions can turn out badly in the long run and those which initially seem irrational or ill-thought out can work out well. Because the world itself is neither rational nor fair, working effectively with circumstances  requires a broadness of perspective, a lightness of touch and the ability to make a precise and unique response into each unique situation. Artificial intelligence does not sit well with this world which, rather like our bodies, is a complex organism. Changes in one part brings about changes in other parts at different times;  activities are interconnected rather than discrete.

The rational mind would suggest that very few people will read this and I could be better employed. The same kind of rationality might suggest that arts and music, culture, humour, the unconventional, religious devotion and carnivals are all a waste of time. The old, the differently-abled, non-conformist and other seemingly less productive members of society can be seen as of little value and edited out.  This has happened before in other part of the world where a dogma has been taken as a truth and people are de-humanised with  ghastly consequences.

In the long run artificial intelligence may decide that controlling or deleting the variables – human beings – is the rational but deadly answer to the human condition!

In the meantime, any one for a bit of open-hearted dharma, for meditation, for being? Or is there already  so much to do that there is no time left to be?