To Progress We Must Work More On Our Ourselves

Humankind has made astounding progress. Most people used to live in relatively small tribal clans and struggled to survive for 3-4 decades. Now we live twice as long at a level that was not available even to the kings of the past. People can choose their work, where they live, and can travel anywhere. Science & technology, democracy, and free markets have generated the highest-ever living standard. The paperwork and manual labor that used to be required to do things like accounting or assembling cars is being increasingly replaced by machines that do these things much more efficiently and prodigiously. People have moved on to more creative work like programming the machines. But now with AI, the aims of technology have gone beyond just emulating our performance of rote tasks into realms like reasoning & intuiting in qualitative, uncertain, and ambiguous ways to formulate actionable decisions and strategies; including in such subjective and heretofore expressly-human realms like ethics and morality.

Many have warned that this step may result in machines that exhibit maleficent behavior rather than the hoped-for virtuous and beneficent behavior of a mensch (a person of ideal rectitude). The experts in machine learning acknowledge this possibility. Yet, in the race to be among the first to demo such systems, it appears that none of them wants to explore this step at a more moderated and cautious pace. Technology has so-far provided increasingly effective means that have always been utilizable for both good and bad purposes. But now in addition to providing the means, technology will also begin to choose the use-purposes. Any such decision-and-value-determining technology has only human precedent as its template to learn from. And throughout history, human decision-makers have been highly imperfect. Handing over specific, thoroughly worked-out accounting or manufacturing tasks to machines for them to simply do faster and more precisely is straightforward implementation. But aiming for them to self-cultivate a universal ‘wisdom’ faculty that ordinary people do not possess and therefore cannot pass over to them, borders more on a leap of faith.

We are about to hand-over to ruthlessly-efficient machines the sorts of discriminatory and judgmental responsibilities that we have not even come close to mastering ourselves yet. That seems reckless and foolish to me. Shouldn’t we first make efforts to produce the best template of our behavior that we can, so we can then provide it to the machines for them to learn from? A start would be to do what we can to refine and ‘extract’ the most wise and virtuous qualities in ourselves; the ones that enable us to reliably make decisions in support of the greatest good. Since we already have these qualities in our fundamental nature, a more precise way to phrase this goal is: What can we do to remove our non-serving negative qualities?

By gradually dissolving such limiting thought and emotional patterns, meditation practiced regularly over time frees-up the inherently good ones: It uncovers and releases the inherent mensch buried latent within a person. Fully-informed mensches in an organization will naturally work cooperatively in an adaptive, self-organizing manner to deal efficiently with new challenges without needing any reorganization or re-tasking directives from above. Military combat units behave this way by-necessity. When a squad comes under fire, everyone takes positions and fighting roles that best cover each other and repel the enemy from penetrating their perimeter. Each soldier assumes the responsibility to defend the lives of his comrades, because they are not a fight-capable squad otherwise. How can people come to work together day-to-day in a similarly selfless, creative, and flexibly-responsive manner in service of their collective good without such intense pressure to do so?: By working to remove the tendencies in their characters that prevent them from doing that naturally.

Apart from training AI, purifying our natures towards those of mensches obviously is worthwhile itself. The overwhelming focus on external improvement had led to a variety of ‘life hacks’ and strategies that are the subjects of thousands of books. But the longer-term and more fundamental work of improving one’s own nature automatically improves many of the issues that these books address – and more. As machines takeover more of our rote work, creativity and innovation will become increasingly important human skills. Meditation is one of the best ways to gain clearer access to our creativity, intuition, and insight. It is also good for health & wellness, emotional intelligence/maturity, and cooperative relations. The trick is making time to practice it.

Tolerance, forbearance, and respect are too scarce now, and regular meditation helps build those qualities. Unfortunately, most people caught up in their enmity, biases, greed etc., would rather hang onto them than eliminate them. However, if they were to meditate for long enough to begin to experience the bliss, peace, and sense of well-being it affords, they might continue with it for these reasons. But that can take years – perhaps it could be taught early on as part of primary education like physical activity is, or as an element of daily hygiene like brushing our teeth.

One thing seems clear: That to really advance, we have to stop the same destructive events and patterns that people have repeatedly gone-through in areas like economics, wars & oppression, and in failing to cooperate and collaborate. ANY Technology including machine learning can only help with those things to a limited extent. And because they accelerate, intensify, and change the types of activities that humans have been doing, AI machines have the potential to inflict harm. Eventually, we will have to work on improving the fundamental problem: ourselves. Practices like mediation are a known and time-tested means for that. If this notion interests you, I recount a bit more of my personal experience with this here.

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