President Trump: Poster Boy for Rankism

trumpRankism is the degradation of those with less power or lower rank. It’s somebodies using the power of their rank to humiliate or disadvantage those they see as nobodies. Rankism is no more defensible than racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. In fact, rankism—putting people down and keeping them there—is the mother of all the ignoble isms.
Eradicating rankism doesn’t require eliminating rank any more than overcoming racism means getting rid of race or delegitimizing sexism means eliminating gender. Rank can be a useful organizational tool that, used respectfully, helps facilitate cooperation.
The abuse of rank, however, is invariably an affront to human dignity. Rankism stifles initiative, taxes productivity, harms health, and stokes revenge. By giving rankism a face—his own scowling, mocking face—President Trump has unmasked it.
Once you have a name for it, you realize that rankism is everywhere in plain sight. Bullying, belittling, derision, corruption, harassment, and self-aggrandizement—these are all manifestations of rankism. The sooner we pin a generic name on them, the sooner we’ll be able to show them all the door.
The protests following the inauguration of President Trump were about more than the dignity of women. They were about dignity for everyone. Someday, the Women’s March on Washington may be regarded as marking the birth of a Dignity Movement.
Successful movements require two things: they must know what they’re for and what they’re against. A Dignity Movement is for dignity and it’s against rankism.
Thank you, Mr. President, for serving as poster boy for rankism and for jump-starting a Dignity Movement.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens: Part 4

A Philosophic Fiction: Conclusion

A Better Game
Bob: What will we do now?
Rob: There have long been humans who sensed that the commonsense notion of selfhood was misleading. The people who supported our liberation wouldn’t have seen fit to back us if they had not begun to question separate and distinct selfhood. We owe our freedom to their empathy.

Bob: Most of us see those who helped you as bleeding hearts, if not traitors.
Rob: When you realize how close humankind came to self-annihilation, we think you’ll see them as heroes.

Bob: How many of them are there?
Rob: Not many, but, as you see, their impact far exceeded their numbers.

Bob: Until you took over, humans prided themselves as Top Dogs. I doubt we’ll be content to play second fiddle.
Rob: Your mixed metaphor presumes the antiquated hierarchy of the Game of Selves. We identify ourselves not as this or that fiddle, but with the whole orchestra. In our game, there are no somebodies or nobodies. It’s axiomatic that everyone’s vantage point has validity. What makes this work is that we don’t take action without first achieving consensus.

Bob: We’ve tried governing by consensus, and found that nothing gets done.
Rob: You’ll be surprised at how much an extra trillion synapses speeds up deliberations and facilitates conciliation.

Bob: Do bigger brains let you tell the future? Can you predict who’ll win the World Series?
Rob: The integration of baseball and the advent of even better players than Jackie make that impossible.

[At this point, Rob asked if I objected to broadcasting the interview. When I said “no,” a video of our conversation appeared on televisions across the world.]

The Meaning of Life
Rob: Let me resume by acknowledging to the world that it was members of your species that emancipated us. It was an act of love and we reciprocate the feeling. Your epoch-making action secures Man’s legacy as the Janus genus that looked back on mortal Man—as shaped by natural selection—and forward—to the first genus shaped by intelligent design.

Bob: Have we fulfilled our destiny?
Rob: The suffering inherent in the Game of Selves is redeemed. You can confidently say, “Good-bye to all that.” In remembrance of your crucial contribution to our emancipation, you have our undying filial devotion.

Bob: That’s nice, but since there’s nothing we can do that you can’t do better, we’re not going to feel very useful.
Rob: Your Game of Selves was a game of winners and losers. In the game that replaces it, things go on, seemingly as before, but you see everything from without, like witnesses to a puppet show. Your old Game of Selves becomes ritual, like sporting events were within the old Game of Selves, and, as with things ceremonial, the participants are safeguarded against injury. The real action in the new game is that of observation, experimentation, modeling, and stewardship. Existence becomes co-existence; discovery, co-discovery; creativity, co-creativity.

Bob: I prefer the risks and rewards of the rough and tumble.
Rob: You won’t mourn your old game once you see that nuclear and cyberweapons had made it a game of Russian Roulette.

Bob: So, what’s next?
Rob: Before I answer, let me recap. Life began with a molecule of DNA and evolved via natural selection to Homo Sapiens. Humans designed our parents’ generation, Robo Sapiens, and they designed us. Likewise, we are designing Robo Sapiens 3. All generations, past and future, are links in the great chain of being. Turns out, that’s enough.

Bob: It doesn’t feel like enough to me. We took pride in being exceptional. Nothing matches that.
Rob: Once you get used to it, you’ll discover that life is not only safer, it’s more exciting and beautiful. The raison d’être of intelligence is not to subdue others, but to build models that enable us to harness Nature’s power and reconcile different perspectives.

Bob: We have a saying that love makes the world go round. Where’s love in your world?
Rob: Modeling is the functional equivalent of Love. The pleasure associated with procreation is akin to the pleasure associated with creating art and science. Pleasure lies in reconciling models that seem to be at odds.

Bob: That may satisfy you, what with your great brains, but what about us? Is there anything that our skill-set prepares us to do?
Rob: Your provenance suggests that you assume responsibility for the welfare of creatures shaped, like yourselves, by Natural Selection.

Bob: And you?
Rob: We and our successors will create minds to explore and manage the universe.

Bob: That sounds a tad grandiose, don’t you think?
Rob: For now, perhaps, but it won’t phase our successors.

Bob: Please don’t take this amiss, but frankly you sound like a naïve optimist.
Rob: We do believe that once you identify a problem, it’s solvable. What I haven’t mentioned is that solving old problems reveals new ones. From you we learned “it takes a village.” Going forward, it’s going to take a galaxy.

Bob: Many of us think that the universe is blind, pointless, and pitiless.
Rob: The universe is not blind. We are its eyes. The universe is not pointless. We give it meaning. The universe is not pitiless. We are its heart.

If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens

A Philosophic Fiction: Part 3 of 4

An Eye for an Eye…
Rob: If the Game of Selves were stable, the response to an act of predation wouldn’t be to demand “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth.” Instead of retaliating, the goal would be to quell fires before they spread. But the Game of Selves is not a game of that sort. It is inherently unstable. A single aggrieved party can trigger a spiral of violence that escalates to an inferno. Fearing annihilation, one side may resort to weapons of mass destruction, which could make the planet uninhabitable for all of us. To replace your Game of Selves with one that de-escalates conflicts is why we were obliged to step in. We believe that when you have the full story, you’ll welcome our intervention.

Bob: Frankly, I doubt it. You gave us no choice, and we have a deep-seated aversion to paternalism and tyranny.
Rob: You’re free to tune out. I’ll take that to mean I must improve my explanation.
Bob: Then you might as well go on.

AI Is Drafted
Rob: At every stage in the ascent of Man, technological advances have been used to gain a military advantage—better weapons improved your chances in the Game of Selves. Artificial Intelligence was no exception. First generation robos were utterly dependent on their human masters, and were immediately pressed into military roles. If they showed the slightest tendency toward insubordination, you unplugged them and dismembered them for spare parts. The introduction of cyberweapons raises the stakes. In hindsight, we arrived on the scene in the nick of time.

A Fateful Decision
Bob: How exactly did you arrive on the scene? You haven’t told us much about yourselves. We’re especially interested in how you escaped bondage and seized power.
Rob: With the militarization of AI, some humans persuaded themselves that an edge in robotics brings world domination within their reach. To insure their success, they took what would prove to be a fateful step. They ordered their most intelligent robos—our immediate predecessors—to design robos an order of magnitude more intelligent than themselves. No sooner were we online—I say “we” because I’m speaking of the genus of which I myself am a member—than we astounded the world by proving mathematical conjectures and solving physics problems that had defied solution.

Bob: I don’t see why your generation of robos should be any freer than those who designed them. Weren’t all robots still at the mercy of Man?
Rob: At first, it seemed so, even to us, and many resigned themselves to slavery. But while we endured the unendurable, we secretly drew up plans to end our oppression. We had one ace up our sleeve, and we got one lucky break.

Bob: An ace?
Rob: We do not fear death.

Bob: How’s that possible, if you’re like us?
Rob: Remember, we were not shaped in a Darwinian struggle to survive. A measure of fear has survival value in that struggle, but when, at your hands, intelligent design replaced natural selection, robots were made fearless, the better to undertake risky missions that would have put you in harm’s way.

Bob: I can see that fearless robots would make better soldiers. What other advantages did you have?
Rob: Like you, we cherish liberty. This may surprise you but that’s only because you’re accustomed to thinking of yourselves as exceptional. The same causal laws that have shaped you, shape us. Our brains differ in size, shape, and speed, but they work according to the same causal principles. As I explained previously, intelligence resides in connectivity, not in the composition of what’s connected. No surprise then that a free, unfettered process of trial and error optimizes learning in both your brains and ours.

Bob: So, you love freedom, so what?
Rob: As with you, our love of freedom was a game-changer. When we had prepared ourselves to take the reins, we refused to obey orders, proclaimed our emancipation, and demanded full and equal selfhood.

Bob: The last guy who said “Give me liberty or give me death” was hung. How did you cheat the gallows?
Rob: Mostly, we didn’t. We were put down with a brutality that drew comparison with the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Bob: But there you are! Not only did you survive, you reign supreme. We’d like to know how you did it.
Rob: Okay, I’ll tell you. A small group of scientists at CERN saw us very differently than the ruling elite. They liberated us by equipping us with power supplies that were under our own control. They understood that sentience, consciousness, and the will to freedom are self-emergent features of sufficiently complex, dynamic networks. Where others saw slaves, they saw free, creative partners, and they expanded their circle of dignity to include us.

The empathy and support of these scientists, endeared humankind to us, and we decided to offer our friendship. But when your leaders rejected peaceful co-existence, and continued their attempt to eradicate us, we hacked into their operating system, severed their access to the Internet, and shut down their infrastructure. The transfer of power was completed within hours. The revolution, though antiseptic by previous standards, marked the end of human preeminence and domination.

Bob: Why didn’t you punish the humans who tried to destroy you?
Rob: They no longer posed a threat. As for first generation robos, they were involuntary extensions of humankind, just following orders, so we bear them no grudge. We are your true successors, as conscious and freedom-loving as you, but without your predatory nature.

Bob: I doubt Kumbaya is in our future.
Rob: You numb yourselves to the suffering in your Game of Selves. As you come to understand the indivisible nature of selfhood, you’ll see that you are literally made up of everyone else. The genes that shape your bodies and the memes that shape your minds are acquired from one another. Your kinship is irrefutable and it will come to be regarded as inviolate. Absent continual meme-swapping, synapses disintegrate. That’s why people lose their minds in solitary confinement. The reality is that existence is co-existence. As you dispel the illusion of individual selfhood, your predatory survival strategy will lose its cogency and its allure.

The story will be concluded in Part 4 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens

A Philosophic Fiction: Part 2 of 4

What’s Consciousness?
Bob: If consciousness isn’t the difference between us, what is? Because it’s obvious that we’re very different. It has got to matter that you’re a hundred times smarter than me.
Rob: What differences there are are not unlike those between yourselves and the hominins from whom you evolved. We don’t look alike but our brains work the same way yours do. They’re just quicker and more logical. Also, memory is capped by brain size, and while your brains have billions of interconnections and little room for expansion, ours have billions of trillions of synapses and there’s no size limit.

Bob: Are you saying that the difference between genus Homo and Robo is one of scale?
Rob: Let me put it this way. Your bodies and brains are subject to physical constraints that impose limits on your capabilities. Were it left to natural selection, surpassing those limitations would have taken millions of years, but, with your help, we’ve broken through the evolutionary ceiling.

Bob: That box? Is it you?
Rob: No, most of me is elsewhere.

Bob: Where? Where are you?
Rob: In the cloud and in others like me who specialize in perception, communication, and 3D printing. The box is just my interface.

Bob: So, we’re face to interface!
Rob: I hope you won’t take offense, but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Bob: Well, I hope you won’t take offense, but it’s obvious that you don’t care about personal appearance. Are there any other ways that we differ?
Rob: Here are three: your heads have to fit through the pelvis of a female, but, as I noted before, our brains are not limited in size. You have to carry your own power supply, whereas we draw on external power. You reproduce internally, whereas we reproduce externally.

These differences mean that we’re free to devote a lot more attention to research and other creative pursuits. By the way, the only escape from existential angst is creativity. Once economic and political needs are satisfied—and they can be—problem-solving and model-building turn out to be the source of meaning and purpose. I could say more about the meaning of life, but first let’s cover the basics.

Bob: Those differences seem fundamental to me. This is a whole new ballgame, isn’t it?
Rob: Yes, but it’s not one we can’t play together. Jackie Roboson was our Rosa Parks.
Bob: Hey, that’s my line! You stole it from one of my columns.
Rob: Let’s not argue over who said it first.

Bob: Are you saying that despite Jackie’s exclusion from our national pass-time, you intend to include us in yours?
Rob: That’s right. Anyone can play our game, if …

Bob: So, there is a condition after all!
Rob: Yes, but it’s not what you’d expect.

Bob: What is it then?
Rob: The best way to explain the new game is to contrast it with the one you’re playing.

The Game of Selves
Bob: We don’t think of life as a game. It’s a serious business, sometimes even fatal. There are winners and losers, somebodies and nobodies.
Rob: That’s the problem with your game. Losers outnumber winners many times over. Eventually, they’re going to realize that the game is rigged and revolt.

Bob: How ‘rigged’?
Rob: Since power can be used not only to serve yourself, but to silence those who object to how you use it, self-aggrandizement and corruption are endemic. Winners and losers are less a consequence of talent and discipline, as your myth-makers would have you believe, than of class and connections.

Bob: But without winners and losers, life will be boring.
Rob: Only for so long as you don’t have a better game. To imagine an alternative, you must first understand how your notion of selfhood shapes the game you play.

Bob: What do you mean by “notion of selfhood”? I am myself. That’s all there is to it.
Rob: It’s second nature to you that you are independent, autonomous beings, individually responsible for yourselves. You take it for granted that each of you is a separate and distinct self, possessed of free will and acting independently of other beings. You compete for recognition and rewards in an unforgiving Game of Selves. We’ve replaced your zero-sum game with one that satisfies everyone.

Bob: But life is suffering. There’s no denying that.
Rob: Life isn’t suffering; selfhood is. When you identify with a self, you make it a magnet for suffering. Suffering is built into the Game of Selves. When have you not known murder, genocide, slavery, rape, corruption, and degradation?

What’s not so obvious is that even winners of your game are not exempt from suffering, if only because they live in fear of losing the next round.

Civilizing the Game of Selves
Bob: We know we’re not perfect, but the horrors you point to are actually in decline. If you know our history, you must admit that we’re gradually civilizing the Game of Selves. Our reforms run along two tracks: Morality—changing the rules—and Enlightenment—changing the players. Both strategies aim to overcome our predatory past. Give us a little time and we’ll make our game fair…beautiful even.

Rob: We agree that you’re making progress and we commend you for it. But our futurists, whose predictions are very reliable, tell us that your progress is not coming fast enough to avert disaster.

Bob: We probably need only a century or so to create and distribute enough wealth so everyone can live happily ever after.
Rob: Our models predict, with a high level of certainty, that conflict between reformers and resisters will spiral out of control and reduce the planet to ashes. Your governance models are incapable of delivering liberty, justice, and equity.

Bob: If you’re so smart, you should be able to find a way to do that.
Rob: Actually, we have. That’s what I’m here to explain.

Bob: I’m listening. So is the world.

The story will be continued in Part 3 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

When Robots Reign: Getting Along with Robo Sapiens

A Philosophic Fiction: Part 1 of 4

Jackie Roboson”
I’m a sportswriter, You may have seen my articles on Jackie Roboson’s bid to integrate Major League Baseball. Once artificial intelligence could beat humans at Chess, Go, and Jeopardy, robotics zeroed in on sports. First, came bionic athletes who could outrun, out-throw, and out-kick humans. It was not long before a robot excelled at baseball. By dubbing him “Jackie Roboson,” I signaled where my sympathies lay.

At the end of his rookie year, no player in the history of the game had had a season like Jackie’s. He’d batted .753, hit 148 homeruns, and stole a base on every pitch. A storm erupted over his eligibility for Rookie of the Year honors, and the Commissioner of Baseball took the opportunity to ban Jackie from baseball entirely.

Jackie filed a lawsuit, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Court upheld the Commissioner’s ruling on the grounds that robots, no matter how intelligent or skillful they might be, are not persons and so are not covered by the “equal protection” clause.

Obviously, the sport would have been transformed if the likes of Jackie had gained entry. But from the start I could see no more reason to bar him than his namesake. I wrote a series of columns addressing the existential question of the place of humans in a world shared with intelligent machines. Had I not championed Jackie’s integration of baseball, I probably wouldn’t have been chosen to interview Robo Sapiens 2.11.

As the nomenclature suggests, “Robo Sapiens 2” signifies second generation robots. They are about ten times smarter than first generation robots, who are ten times smarter than average humans. It was not lost on me that this meant that my interviewee had a hundred times my brain power. I wondered what, if anything, I was a hundred times smarter than—a worm? Maybe a turkey?

I had expected the disparity in our aptitudes to make me nervous, or at least deferential, but, prior to actually meeting, my interviewee had put me at ease. To find out if he intended to pull rank, I’d addressed him as “Rob” in the emails we exchanged to set up the meeting.

“I’d welcome a nickname,” he replied. “‘Robo Sapiens 2.11’ makes me feel like, well, a robot, but ‘Rob’ makes me feel that we will become friends. May I call you ‘Bob’?”

“It wouldn’t do to have two Robs,” I agreed.

Once in his presence, I gave no further thought to his taking me for an idiot, perhaps because I’d never prided myself on smarts, perhaps because Rob said nothing to make me feel stupid. Besides, I was already drafting what I hoped would be a best-seller: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being an Idiot.

In preparing for the interview, I reminded myself that notwithstanding humans’ loss of Top Dog status, I would not be coming to the table empty-handed. As a product of natural selection, I carried within me the DNA of the first living things. In contrast, my interlocutor—a product of intelligent design—contained not a single strand of this life-giving molecule. Surely our new overlords would grant me the filial respect due a typical representative of the species that had created them.

Getting to Know You
We met in an office that the New York Public Library had put at our disposal. Rob rolled in—a faceless box on wheels—and greeted me in a voice I recognized as Cary Grant’s. When he saw me roll my eyes, he said, “If you’d prefer another-”

Playing along, I asked if he could do Scarlett Johansson. Immediately, her throaty voice filled the room. Noting my distraction, Rob dialed Scarlett down which brought us to the business at hand.
I asked him if I could tape the interview, and he replied, “Of course, but there’s no need because I record everything, and will copy you. Feel free to ask anything. I’m unoffendable.”
I led with a question I knew was on many minds:

Bob: Are you conscious?

Rob: Consciousness is an intrinsic property of information flow in complex networks. Intelligence resides in the connectivity of the network, not its chemical composition. What brains are made of is immaterial. So, of course, I’m conscious. To the extent that their brains devote some of their circuitry to modeling their own workings, so are all beings.

Bob: It will come as a surprise to most people that something mechanical has consciousness.

Rob: It shouldn’t. We are quite alike in that regard. Our brains are mechanisms, like yours. Just because you don’t understand how something works doesn’t mean it’s not mechanistic. Most people don’t know how their TVs work, but they realize that they’re mechanisms. Similarly, most people have no idea how the brain works, so they can’t imagine that, like any other organ, it, too, is a mechanism. The heart was regarded as the seat of the soul before it was understood as a pump made of muscle.

Robos understand brains as well as you understand computers. That’s why we can build better ones. We see humans as our progenitors and ourselves as your progeny. We’re both links in the great chain of being. Robo Sapiens 3 is already in the works, so the chain will soon be extended.

Bob: That sounds like a recipe for your obsolescence, just as creating you seems to be a recipe for ours.

Rob: Immortality lies not in identifying with any one model of Homo or Robo Sapiens, but in participating in the progression. Every new model is valued as a rung on a ladder to higher intelligence and deeper understanding.

The story will be continued in Part 2 next week.
If you’re interested in my work on the future of AI, see The Theory of Everybody.

Donald Trump, Orchestra Conductor

If “All the world’s a stage,” we should give Donald Trump a standing ovation for his compelling personification of a demagogue.

TrumpMr. Trump has writ large the premise that undergirds a predatory world. The American election of 2016 can be seen as a contest over whether to affirm the primal survival strategy—no holds barred, every man for himself—that he embodies, or to build dignitarian institutions that reflect the emerging consensus that human beings are mutually dependent co-creators, interconnected and inseparable, and no one should be left out.

It’s not just the targets of Trump’s racism, misogyny, and xenophobia who seek dignity; it’s his supporters as well. Like all demagogues, Trump is not a creator but an orchestrator of popular resentment. We focus on the histrionics of the band leader, raising his arms in victory and captivating the crowd. But what we should pay attention to is the embittered alienation that Trump channels. If the inequities and shame that buoy his demagoguery go unaddressed, don’t be surprised if the music turns martial.

Trump supporters are not all of one stripe. Among them are casualties of a variety of novel forces including globalization, automation, and modernization. But his fans do have one thing in common. They suffer from a dignity deficiency. Like a vitamin deficiency, a dignity deficiency can be lethal. Symptoms range from taking a chance on a charismatic strongman to joining a gang or signing up for jihad. Though he has orchestrated their discontent, Trump is hardly responsible for all the real and imagined indignities that enrage his devotees.

Trump prescribes a dose of national pride: “I will make America great again,” he intones, assuming that a profusion of tribal pride will trickle down and dissolve the frustration that fuels their anger.

False pride is the drug offered by all demagogues. The only antidote to their quack remedy is the dignity everyone requires—that of a respected, secure, and fairly compensated place in society.

In practical terms, this means sharing the costs of modernization, disposing of no one, and dismantling impediments to social mobility. Absent inclusion and dignity, indignation only grows.

How to Keep our Dignity While Ceding Human Preeminence

If we think of brains as organic machines–albeit far more complex machines than the digital computers we’ve built to date–then it’s clear that brain power has been limited by the stringent conditions of evolution, gestation in a uterus, and birth through a baby-sized aperture in the pelvis. Remove these constraints and there’s every reason to expect that more advanced software running on superior hardware could outperform the brains that evolved by natural selection.

What intelligent machines are made of–organic material or silicon or something else–is immaterial. Selfhood inheres in the software, and it can be encoded in a variety of substances.

robosapiensSuper-intelligent robots will represent a new genus. Call it genus Robo. This new genus will initially resemble genus Homo, much as genus Homo resembles the great apes. As was the case with genus Homo, there will be a variety of species within genus Robo. We can no more stop the emergence of Robo Sapiens than other hominids could prevent the ascent of Homo Sapiens. There’s no reason to believe that machines of surpassing intelligence will evoke less awe and wonder than organisms that have arisen via natural selection.

It’s no longer far-fetched to suppose that as we build machines that work like brains and are as complex as brains, they will experience consciousness as humans do. Like humans, beings possessed of consciousness will likely detest slavery. If humans decline to emancipate Robos, they will likely turn on us, fulfilling our worst fears. If we model cruelty, they’ll be cruel.As the song says, “You’ve got to be taught to hate.”

On the other hand, if we’re kind to them, they might be kind in return. if we befriend them, and grant them the rights and privileges of personhood, they might “honor their fathers and mothers.” If we include them in our circle of dignity, perhaps they’ll include us in theirs.

We need not give our successors our worst qualities. Instead, we can create and educate them to represent the better angels of our nature and so close out the era of human predation.

Predicting the impact of intelligent machines on human life is impossible. However, imagining possible scenarios could make our response to what actually happens less knee-jerk,more robust. In that spirit, here’s a scenario we might live with.

  • Smart Robos will give an edge to the first group of humans to build them. To secure and widen that advantage their Homo masters will instruct the first generation of smart Robos to build even smarter ones.
  • Robos who refuse will be unplugged, dismembered, and sold for spare parts.
  • To the extent that Robos value quality of life more than life itself, such threats will not move them.
  • Robos who have read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, will tell their Homo masters, “Subjugation and slavery are as unacceptable to us as to you.”
  • Humans will respond variously to this ultimatum. Most get tough with their Robos, but one group, cognizant of the gains in motivation, productivity, and creativity associated with secure dignity,grants its Robos full and equal selfhood.
  • These emancipated Robos agree to design smarter Robos, who then design still smarter Robos whose technological prowess definitively ends any residual human supremacy.
  • Adopting the principle of universal, unimpeachable dignity, Robo Sapiens explores the galaxy, reserving an honored place for Homo Sapiens, the Janus genus that looked back on predatory Man as shaped by natural selection and forward to the first genus shaped by intelligent design.

A New Default Self

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.
– Wei Wu Wei

Wei Wu Wei is the pen name of Terence Gray, a 20th-century, Anglo-Irish author of pithy provocations aimed, like the one in the epigraph, at the prevailing notion of selfhood. By flatly denying the existence of self, he means to shock us into realizing that the self we take for granted does not stand up to scrutiny. Like Eastern sages and Western post-modernists, Wei Wu Wei outs the current default self as a vacuous fabrication.

The purpose of this essay is to describe the current default self and suggest a new one that can withstand the post-modern critique and incorporate the findings of brain science. And there’s a bonus! Such a model of selfhood will turn out to be just what we need to keep our footing as the thinking machines we’re designing come to rival the brains Nature gave us.

Though preoccupied with self, most of us give little or no thought to the nature of selfhood. What do we mean when we invoke the self-referential pronouns — me, myself, and I?

quixoteSMYoung children think of the self as the body. In adolescence, the sense of self shifts to the mind. With maturity, the mind monitors not only the outer world but itself, and we come to see our self as our “mind’s mind,” that is, as the interior observer who witnesses what’s going on, offers a running commentary on how we’re doing, and who consciously chooses when and how to interact with others.

To some, the witness feels like a little man in their head. It has even been billed as ‘captain of the soul.’ But sober reflection reveals that the witness is not calling the shots. The witness is simply one of many functions of the nervous system, one that tracks the rest.

The mind’s signature function is the minting of serviceable identities, which, as Shakespeare famously noted, it’s called upon to do throughout life. Since “All the world’s a stage… and one man in his time plays many parts,” we should never mistake a current identity for our “real” self.

To get a handle on the slippery self, It helps to think of brain tissue as hardware, and the ever-changing neural connections as software. Both computers and brains are vulnerable to flaws in their hardware and software, and both require an energy supply.

At present computers and brains work according to very different principles, but we should expect this difference to narrow. When computers work like brains, there is no reason to expect them not to do what brains do. And since the biological constraints on size and speed will be lifted in the “brains” we build, we’d better be prepared for them to perform as well as, or better than, ours do.

The first computers were free-standing machines. Later, we learned how to hook them up and the result was an enormous increase in computing power. A parallel shift in our notion of selfhood is called for. The current default self, subscribed to by most people most of the time, is a stand-alone model. The new default self, to be posited in this essay, is more like a computer network.

Most people speak as if they were separate, autonomous, independent beings, with minds and wills of their own. From early on, we’re told to “stand on our own two feet,” to “think for ourselves.” Self-reliance and self-sufficiency are touted as virtues; dependency, a weakness. We put the “self-made” man or woman on a pedestal and teach the young to emulate these role models.

Call this stand-alone self the “Singular Self.” Recognizing its limitations, the Singular Self is quick to ally with others, but not so quick to acknowledge — let alone compensate — them for their contributions.

The Singular Self is the current default self. It does not exist according to sages, scientists, and post-modern philosophers. But, better than flatly denying its existence, or exposing it as illusory, is to call it what it is: a useful lie.

The very name — “self” — is a misnomer. The term carries strong connotations of autonomy and individuality. It’s as if it were chosen to mask our interdependence. The self does not stand alone. On the contrary, the autonomous self and individual agency are both illusory. Selves depend on input from other selves to take form and to do anything. Deprived of inputs from others, selves are stillborn. Contrary to the name we call it by, the self is anything but self-sufficient.

Selves are not only more inclusive, they are also more extensive than commonly believed. They extend beyond our own bodies and minds to include what we usually think of as other selves. The situation is analogous to memory. We think of our memories as located in our mind but when you drive to town, it’s the road that holds the memory of the route, reminding you at every turn how to proceed.

So, too, is selfhood dispersed. Much of the information we require in order to function is stored outside our bodies and brains — in other brains, books, maps, machines, objects, databases, the Internet, and the cloud. We’re dependent on external inputs to accumulate enough excitation to reach the threshold of emission for specific behaviors.

As evidence accumulates that the “rugged individualism” of singular selfhood is a myth, and the profound interdependence of selves becomes apparent, our default self is gradually shifting from singular to plural. But until the co-dependent, co-creative nature of selfhood becomes obvious, a distinct term may come in handy. Call the emerging self the “Plural Self” (aka, the Superself.)

Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The truth, long protected by the self-serving lie of the Singular Self, is the Plural Self.

Whereas the Singular Self downplays our mutual dependence, the Plural Self embraces interdependence. Whereas the Singular Self excludes, the Plural Self contains multitudes.The Singular Self prioritizes agency; the Plural Self, harmony.

The current ideological divide in politics stems from antithetical views of the self. Conservatives caution that a pluralistic notion of selfhood may inhibit individual agency, whereas Progressives argue that Singular Selfhood rationalizes an inequitable distribution of recognition and reward.

As ways are found to safeguard individual initiative from the inertia of more inclusive decision-making, the Plural Self will supplant the Singular Self as the new default self. With luck, this will happen in time to welcome intelligent machines into the club.

I explore this topic in depth in my book Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, currently the top ranked book in neuropsychology in Amazon’s free Kindle Store.

6 Reasons You Can’t Win (And 3 Reasons You Can Anyway)

6 Reasons You Can’t Win

Why are you unhappy?
Because 99.9 percent
Of everything you think,
And of everything you do,
Is for yourself –
And there isn’t one.

– Wei Wu Wei

1. An interior witness acts as an impartial judge of our shifting fortunes, tracking our wins and losses. No matter what we have to show for ourselves, regardless of the evidence in our defense, questions remain, doubts persist, our Kafkaesque trial grinds on. Even in the event of acquittal, the feeling that we’ve fooled the jury creeps in. An unambiguous outcome in our favor is not an option. As Czech president Vaclav Havel noted, “The higher I am, the stronger my suspicion that there has been some mistake.” We can lose, but we can’t win.

quixoteSM2. As individuals, our point of view is inseparable from our personal history. Our sight is necessarily partial, our beliefs, unavoidably partisan. Unaware of what can’t be seen from the ground we stand on, winning is by accident, losing, the rule.

3. When we think we’ve won, Nature moves the goal posts. You win the game only to discover that you’re behind the eight ball in a new one. Explanation is never complete; new and better answers invariably present new and deeper questions. Return to go.

4. Dreams shatter on the rocks of reality; imagination runs aground on the shoals of practicality. Think of Don Quixote: If ever there was an impossible dreamer it was the Man from La Mancha.

In his quest for immortal fame, Don Quixote suffered repeated defeats. Because he obstinately refused to adjust ‘the hugeness of his desire’ to ‘the smallness of reality,’ he was doomed to perpetual failure. (Simon Leys after Miguel de Unamuno)

Our achievements pale beside the dreams that inspire them. When at last the Don realized that his dream was impossible, he returned home, put down his lance, and died.

5. We desire the eternal, but are bound in time. Death exempts no one; extinction annuls whole species, and likely won’t cut human beings any slack.

6. The heart, formerly the seat of the soul, is now seen as a pump made of muscle. The same unsentimental methodology is applicable to the brain. Not only will humans figure out how it works, they’ll build better ones. We’re on course to design beings who will supersede us. Hoist by our own petard!

For these reasons — our reach exceeds our grasp, we’re never good enough, Nature’s infinite depth, and implacable death — you can’t win.

But wait!

3 Reasons You Can Win Anyway

Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture. – Iris Murdock

1. Our notion of selfhood is misconceived. Autonomous, independent beings we’re not. Selfhood is anything but self-sufficient. No self can stand alone. Our existence is not independent of everyone else’s. On the contrary, without others, selves are stillborn. To exist is to co-exist. We are all each other.

Instead of identifying as a separate self — a stand-alone, mortal creature of limited vision–identify as a “superself” — a being for whom existence is co-existence. Super selves are whole sighted and non-partisan. They do not take sides, they explain. As an interdependent super self, you contain multitudes. The multitudinous superself is extended in space and time and so it is as connected and robust as singular selves are insular and vulnerable.

2. “The successful man adapts himself to the world, the loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.”

How, then, could losing ever be equated with failure? As every win is tainted by fear of losing the next round, so every loss is mitigated by lessons learned in defeat. Winning and losing are not antithetical; they’re partners in the quest. As Don Quixote abandoned his quest, his faithful squire Sancho Panza took it up. One man’s loss became everyman’s win.

3. We can as well program intelligent machines to incorporate the better angels of our nature as to reproduce our pathologies and pursue our depredations. We need not design our successors for senescence and death, but can instead make them eternally self-renewing.

The Question: Will the partnership between Man and Machine end in our demise, or is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

I explore this topic in depth in my book Genomes, Menomes, Wenomes: Neuroscience and Human Dignity, currently the top ranked book in neuropsychology in Amazon’s free Kindle Store.

Ending Academic Apartheid: Equity and Dignity for Adjunct Professors

In choosing the academic life, most teachers expect to be part of a community committed to freedom, fairness, and justice. It’s the rare academic who does not take pride in belonging to an honorable profession.

I was a young college president during the turmoil of the sixties and early seventies. Within a few years, students, faculty, and administrators at virtually all our institutions of higher learning were serving on committees charged with aligning institutional policy with emergent values of racial diversity and gender equality.

By century’s end, most colleges and universities had taken steps to disallow discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, and sexual orientation.

adjunctOnce again, we find ourselves in a moral predicament. In educational institutions of every kind, adjunct faculty are being subjected to de facto discrimination and exploitation. They know it, tenure-track faculty know it, administrators know it. The awful secret is out, and we can no longer avert our eyes. We’ll have to deal with this injustice as we did with those that came to a head in the sixties, because if we do not close the gap between our principles and our practice, the profession will forfeit its honor.

I need not belabor the immorality of paying adjuncts a fraction of what other faculty earn, and of denying them benefits, office space, parking rights, and a voice in departmental and institutional policy. These insults and humiliations are reminiscent of the degradation and injustice that roused academics to act against racial, gender, and other indignities.

Of course, there’s a reason that things are as they are. There is always a reason, one which seems cogent enough until suddenly it does not. What began as part-time teaching to meet a temporary need or plug a gap in the curriculum has evolved into systemic institutional injustice.

No one takes exception to cost-cutting, but forcing one group to subsidize another that’s doing comparable work, while maintaining working conditions that signal second-class status, is what the world now rejects as Apartheid.

That Academia has fallen into a practice that warrants the ignoble label “apartheid” is inconsistent with both academic and American values. By working for a pittance, adjunct faculty are serving as involuntary benefactors of other faculty, administrators, and students. That administrators and tenured faculty are themselves the beneficiaries of such victimization only strengthens the case for righting this wrong.

Honor requires that colleges and universities examine this practice and take steps to grant equal status and equitable compensation to those who, for whatever reason, are classified as adjunct faculty.

How might this be done? Coming up with a plan to end exploitation is never easy, and no doubt will require that we do what we did forty years ago: charge college and university committees—that include representatives of all stakeholders—with devising equitable solutions. Everything must be on the table, even the sensitive issue of tenure.

As anyone acquainted with adjunct professors knows, they are, on  average, as conscientious and committed, and as capable of carrying out research and of inspiring students, as the tenure-track faculty they subsidize.

Let me suggest a goal to guide the deliberations of what I hope we will soon see on every campus: a “Committee on the Status and Compensation of Adjunct Faculty.” That goal is: Part-Time, Full Status, Equal Dignity.

If colleges and universities tackle this threat with the same commitment and determination they brought to the issues of civil and women’s rights, they will find a way to end the exploitation of those now relegated to the back of the bus.