Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Artifical Intelligence: Being absorbed by a giant Amoeba

Ice forming in a mud puddle: Stylized
CC Jean Stimmell: 11/23/14
Here’s an addendum to my December 16th post, which warned of the dangers stemming from our increasing reliance on artificial intelligence. I concluded that post by saying that the choice is clear: “either we return to our biological and spiritual home – reconnecting to our bodies, our communities, our sense of place, and Mother Earth – or become soulless slaves to the machine.”

Here’s another take on this by Susan Blackmore who has been called “The Queen of Consciousness.” She compares what is happening to us to being absorbed by a giant digital amoeba.  In her own words,

“We’ve sort of let slip out control. I compare  what’s happening with the theory of endosymbiosis put forth by Lynn Margulis, in which the mitochondria, which power the cells, wee originally free-floating bacteria that were absorbed into the cells, and both benefited. I propose that that is what is going on with us. We are being absorbed into this thing as its power produces – becoming mitochondria for the great machine.”

“We are giving up our independence, and control over ourselves, our children, our relationships, and the planet, without realizing what we’re doing.” *
Ice forming in rivelet on Mt. Major
CC Jean Stimmell: 1/1/15

* Queen of Consciousness from Psychology Today, February 2015, pp. 29-31.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Faith: full engagement in this strange and shimmering world

CC Jean Stimmell
Walking along the southern end of Hampton Beach on Christmas day, I spied a young girl standing on a windswept sand dune, silhouetted against the dramatic sky. Just as I took this photograph, hair flying, she jumped off the back side of the dune.

The ethereal sky, pounding surf, howling wind and spite-like apparition of the girl combined to produce an other-worldly, spiritual moment, perfectly captured by the following quote from The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman:

"Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand... Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world." 

When we enter solitude, we lose loneliness…

Christmas Solitude
Hampton Beach: 12/25/14
CC Jean Stimmell
Why are Americans terrified of being alone, a question I left hanging in my 12/7post.  The answer is, I think, because most of us equate being alone with being cast into a lonely abyss, cut off not only from human contact but the consumer stimulation we are addicted to.

My hero, Maria Popova, provides an answer, both profound and elusive, like a Zen koan by quoting from Wendell Berry’s new book, What Are People For?  Contrary to what we think, by entering into solitude, we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Torture, we must question why as Goya did

Goya 1810 etching of torture entitled: Why?

Finally, I found time to  get to the Goya exhibit at the MFA before it closed. It was a humbling experience, exploding any lingering conceit I might have about human progress. I was hammered by Goya’s images of the dark side, his reaction to terrible acts of war.  In particular I was struck by the 1810 etching (shown above) of torture, the one Goya  entitled “Why.” 

Psychoanalyst, Robert Stolorow, says“Trauma destroys time.”⁠1  Goya’s image proves the truth of that statement, collapsing time for me back to my youth.

 The extended reverie of my childhood years, growing up as a teenager in an affluent and – what I believed was – just society where people were innocent until proven guilty, was exploded by my tour in Vietnam where I was witness in small part to what America did during the long years of our involvement: over one million civilians were butchered in My Lai massacres, burned alive in napalm, vaporized by B-52 carpet bombing, or flattened in free fire zones like popup figures shot in an arcade.

After Vietnam, my brothers and sisters in Veterans for Peace and other peace organizations vowed Never Again, toothless words in the face of new conflicts to which our country answered, as usual, with bullets and bombs.

Standing with Goya, shellshocked, I can only stammer Why?  As our latest “wars of choice” in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down or, more accurately, morphing into endless war, again we  have a chance to question why?

The question haunting me now is why our government has failed to bring to justice a single person for torturing terrorism suspects. Remember, this was no rogue operation but an official government program conceived and carried out after the attacks on 911 and approved by the highest leadership in Washington.  

U.S. Detainee at Abu Ghraib
The recently released 524-page Senate Intelligence Committee’s report erases any last doubts about the unspeakableness and criminal nature of what was done in our name:

In addition to new revelations of sadistic tactics like “rectal rehydration” and “rectal feeding”, sleep deprivation lasting almost a week and threats to the families of the detainees, the report summarizes what we already knew: scores of detainees were waterboarded, hung by their wrists, confined in coffins, sleep-deprived, threatened with death or brutally beaten.⁠2

As Goya asked then, we must ask now: Why? Nothing useful was gained. 

As The Guardian recently pointed out:  “The Senate report squarely rebuts CIA claims that the use of such methods generated intelligence that prevented further terrorist attacks and therefore saved lives…investigators had not found a single case where that was true. Detainees who underwent torture either disclosed nothing, or supplied fabricated information, or revealed information that had been already been discovered through traditional, non-violent interrogation techniques.⁠3

Shamefully, a large number of these men and boys we tortured were innocent. Even Vice President Dick Cheney recently admitted this fact, while expressing no remorse, to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press: “When Todd pointed out that 25 percent of the detainees turned out to be innocent’ and asked if he was ‘okay with that margin of error,’Cheney shot back that he has "no problem as long as we achieve our objective."⁠4

But what was Cheney’s objective? The Senate report has documented, once again, torture doesn’t work: it doesn’t extract reliable or useful information to fight terrorism; it doesn’t make us safer, but more at risk by generating more hatred for us around the world.

Again with Goya we incredulously ask why?

Pope Francis in his Christmas greeting pointed us in the right direction when he recited his catalog of spiritual diseases, one of which is “Existential Schizophrenia: the sickness of those who live a double life; it is the fruit of the hypocrisy typical of the mediocre and a symptom of progressive spiritual emptiness.”⁠5

To my ears, that it sounds like an apt description of Dick Cheney, Washington DC, and the spell that consumerism and militarism have cast over America’s soul.

1 Stolorow, Robert D. (2011-05-20). Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections: 23 (p. 17).  Kindle Edition.
2 http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/22/opinion/prosecute-torturers-and-their-bosses.html?action=click&contentCol
4 http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/politics/dick-cheney-admits-some-cia-terror-detainees-were-innocent/article/421207
5 http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Earthly Beings or Soulless Slaves

This photo and a version of this essay was published in the Concord Monitor 12/2014
Human beings, like this forgotten tennis ball
in a tree along the Merrimack, must find
their place in the natural world
CC Jean Stimmell:11/28/14
Artificial intelligence describes computer systems that perform tasks that used to require human intelligence and perception but are now accomplished by software and robots. This has lead to more unemployed Americans and significantly slowed our recovery from the Great Recession.

Alarmingly, experts predict that this trend will not only escalate but become deeply disturbing in other ways: “in the wake of recent technological advances in computer vision, speech recognition and robotics, scientists say they are increasingly concerned that artificial intelligence technologies may permanently displace human workers, roboticize warfare and make of Orwellian surveillance techniques easier to develop, among other disastrous effects.[i]

Even in today’s world, we find ourselves unable to protect our fellow workers because of political gridlock, which appears seamlessly related to the unprecedented power multinational corporations hold over not only our government but governments around the world.

As if that is not bad enough, a more terrifying scenario may soon await us: the prospect that this accelerating progress in technologies will cause a runaway effect wherein artificial intelligence will exceed human intellectual capacity and control. 

This is called the technological singularity hypothesis or what I would call the ultimate nightmare: Because the capabilities of such an intelligence may be impossible to comprehend, the technological singularity is an occurrence beyond which events are unpredictable or even unfathomable.”[ii]

To me, the choice seems obvious: either we return to our biological and spiritual home – reconnecting to our bodies, our communities, our sense of place, and Mother Earth – or become soulless slaves to the machine.