Thought for the Day – 3rd April 2017

3rd April 2017

The Coincidence of Living at this Time

(Press the red ‘play’ button to hear the audio – 3:20 minutes)

Transcript of the Audio

On April 3rd 1973 Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first handheld mobile phone call to Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs and on 3rd April 2010 Apple release the first iPad. In 2017, as I spend my idle moments researching the latest in science and technology, I can’t help falling over developments that have the most enormous implications for the future of humanity and our morality.

Here are just a few:

  • Artificial Intelligence: We have now developed machine learning algorithms to the point where artificial intelligent machines can identify individuals, drive cars, translate speech to text, translate and synthesise speech from text, answer complex quiz questions, play Go and Chess better than any human, transfer knowledge from one domain to another, and anticipate what we want better than we can ourselves. Robots are routinely used in manufacture and work on robot ‘companions’ is advancing.

  • Genomics: We have now sequenced the human genome, are proceeding to map from the DNA sequences to human characteristics, and can precisely manipulate the genome in plants, animals and humans in order to produce ‘designer life’.

  • The Internet: Much of the planet is connected such that any of its 7.5 billion inhabitants can now, in principle, access almost any information or any person from almost anywhere. The world is already becoming littered with cameras, other sensors, and devices (from toasters to power plants) that can activate (often autonomously) from either local or remote instruction.

  • Physics: There are about 500 nuclear power plants and 9 nuclear weapon states. The existence of the Higgs-Boson (the so called ‘God’ particle) was established in 2012, and attempts continue to unify quantum physics and gravity. We are building quantum computers, grappling with ideas like entanglement and the relationship between the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, free will and consciousness. Some physicists speculate that we are living in a simulated reality like in The Matrix.

  • Neuroscience: We are now mapping the functions of the brain in great detail, understanding it’s structures and how these change as we learn. We are beginning to understand conscious subjective experience in terms of the activations of neural circuits and have embarked on several projects to model the entire brain. We are using this knowledge to feedback into the design of neural network technology, which brings us back to machine learning and artificial intelligence.

All this has happened in my lifetime (which seems an uncanny coincidence in itself) and is growing at an exponential rate. Soon we will be applying machine learning to individual genomes, implanting devices into our bodies and brains, uploading our minds to the cloud, and generally merging humanity with artificial intelligence as we progress towards omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence.

All this, and at the same time I still have to sit for ages in traffic, argue with my telecoms supplier, and my son is being taught things in school geared to the needs of a Victorian employer poised for the industrial revolution. Who said ‘the future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed?’.

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Rod Rivers' interests include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.