Archive for the ‘Newsletter’ Category

Alien Minds: Newsletter #24

January 12, 2015

This week, I am going to talk about something I have puzzled about ever since I was a child but never really taken seriously: the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. SETI, like AI, is one of those elusive, almost dream like goals whose goalposts keep changing. What would count as a truly alien intelligence? When can we say we have discovered (or more likely, stumbled upon) an alien civilization?

I remember Carl Sagan talking about the Golden Record in the Voyager spacecraft, which was his view of the top ten hits of human existence. It has the usual suspects, starting with Mozart and going on to other peaks of civilization as conceived by white male nerds in 1977. OK, that was probably a little unfair, but in retrospect, Sagan’s idea of intelligence and civilization looks rather parochial to me. We are still saddled with a view of aliens as green eyed monsters who play the world of warcraft at a cosmic scale.

The search for intelligence remains the most anthropomorphic of quests; which means that asking whether robots will ever be intelligent is a little bit like asking whether planes fly or not. There’s no principled answer to that question: most of us intuitively think that planes fly, but that’s about it as far as science goes.

Certainly, planes don’t fly in the way birds and insects do and their capacity to fly isn’t based on a genetic endowment of the kind birds and insects have. On the other hand, both mechanical and biological flight are grounded in the principles of fluid dynamics. We can’t build aircraft without understanding how air flows around wings, though it goes without saying that a bird doesn’t understand the principles of aerodynamics in anything like the way an aerospace engineer does. These are different regimes of knowledge. 

In other words, flight is a believable abstraction; we are able to separate out the ability to be in the air for extended periods of time from its biological or mechanical implementation. It doesn’t depend on having feathers or landing gear. Flying doesn’t mean flying like a bird anymore. 

SETI is quite different. We are still focused on finding traces of advanced civilizations, i.e., beings who are like us, but better. I think that’s a major problem in AI as well. Take the Turing test for example: the goal is to create a machine whose answers to questions can’t be distinguished from a human’s answers to the same questions. How much more anthropomorphic can you get? 

SETI and AI pose a metaphysical quandary: on the one hand, we want to understand alien or robotic intelligence on it’s own terms (where the term “alien” encompasses terrestrial intelligence that’s very different from ours – gut bacteria, redwood trees etc) but the only tools and intuitions we have are our own minds and our cultural presuppositions about intelligence. 

Strangely, I think we should explore SETI for the same reason we sit down on a cushion and meditate, i.e., to explore ourselves but also to set aside and ultimately reject self-indulgent and parochial impressions of ourselves. It’s really a religious quest as much as a scientific one. Seen this way, it doesn’t surprise me that the techno-religious cults that have sprung up in the last fifty years (such as the “singularity”) and their manifestation in art (“The Matrix”) are all to do with AI and SETI. As religions go, these alien dreams are shallow spiritual systems, but they have unerringly identified a new direction for contemplation. 

The exploration of Mind and minds – our minds, the minds of other species, the minds of aliens, the minds of robots – and ultimately, the search for the origins of order and organization, is exactly the kind of exploration that brings science together with religion. It’s a search that would be as familiar to the Zen masters of China as the astronomer in her observatory. It is for that reason, not the preserve of scientists alone. Or in some crazy inversion of priorities, to be located in an imagined past of Vedic astronautics.

The adventure of the mind is a new adventure, pointing toward the future, not the past. It’s like Siva’s marriage procession, with room for gods and humans, beasts and demons. Inner space and outer space are deeply intertwined after all. 

In Doubt we Trust. Newsletter #23.

January 4, 2015

Fundamentalism is one of those modern predicaments that often come clothed in ancient garb. Religious fundamentalists like to tout their faithfulness to a pure version of their tradition. In practice, fundamentalism is more about exclusion rather than purity; co-religionists are often targeted for their impure faith – perhaps they sing and dance or celebrate a festival that they shouldn’t. As for those who are outside the cicle, they are fair game. There’s no room for doubt or accommodation; certainty is the hallmark of the fundamentalist. When seen this way, there’s no shortage of scientific fundamentalists either. People like Richard Dawkins are as vehement in their atheism as any Taliban preacher. 

It’s easy to see that certainty is incompatible with humility; without humility, there’s no going forward. Let me be clear, I am not talking about humility as an emotion – some of the most fundamentalist people I know are humble in their external attitude and fanatics in their faith. Humility is an orientation that recognizes one’s humanity and the incompleteness of one’s knowledge. That’s the attitude of the seeker, who is full of doubt, even if she comes to that doubt with great faith. If certainty is the standard of the fundamentalist, doubt is the engine of the seeker. 

I like doubt because certainty is boring. Humility is not just a negative attribute, i.e., the lack of arrogance or omniscience; it is also a positive energy that propels one forward to ask new questions. Let’s put it another way: there are two ways of being: the answer way and the question way. The answer way wants certainty, though it will settle for closure when it can’t get certainty. Consider science, both as it is taught and how it advances: it does so by stacking one answer on top of another. Papers get published because they settled a doubt or verified a hypothesis. There’s no journal of questions. Engineers are more modest. There are no final answers, but products have to ship and customers have to be served and until then there’s a temporary freeze on development. That’s what I mean by the termclosure, you close off all options until further notice. 

The question way has much less prestige. There are no patents for questions. There are no named professorships at Harvard for questions. In fact, it is often dangerous, as children learn quickly after asking awkward questions at home or school. On the other hand, a good question is like an arrow pointed at the uncovered belly of the dragon (I just saw the last episode of the Hobbit); it can bring the whole edifice down and usher a revolution in thought. To the questioner, an answer is just a question’s way of asking another question. A hypothesis might well be verified, but verification is important only to the extent to which it is the key to another door. 

The answer way makes a concession to the fundamentalist. It says, “I am ready to believe, but only when I see it.” Like the fundamentalist, the answerer wants certainty; he is just willing to test his faith a little more. Trust but verify. The question way makes no such concession. There’s always grass to be gathered and a fire to be lit. 

Mindfulness: The Monk in the Machine. Newsletter #21.

December 21, 2014

This week’s newsletter continues last week’s discussion of tradition. 

Some years ago, when I was a graduate student, I mentioned to a maverick cognitive scientist that I was beginning to look at Indian philosophy as a way of breaking through some of the conceptual puzzles in cognitive science. I had Bimal Matilal’s book on perception in my hand, which I handed over to him. He handed it back to me after a minute and said: “but this is too analytic; isn’t Indian philosophy more about sitting by the river side and watch the river go by?”

Eastern men in robes have had a long run of making history in the west. It probably started with Vivekananda, Suzuki and Dharmapala in the late nineteenth century, succeeded by Gandhi and Tagore and a few decades later, the various gurus from Chogyam Trungpa to Osho. The combination of eastern mysticism and western science has proven itself a surefire bestseller.

Unfortunately,mysticism always lives in counter-culture, not in the mainstream. In fact, bringing meditation to the mainstream has required an explicit disavowal of anything mystical, or for that matter, anything to do with the Indian sources that it came from. Consider the immense success of mindfulness. Just take a look at the graph below, a google n-gram of the use of the term “mindfulness” between 1950 and 2008. Do you see a trend? 

If graphs aren’t your thing, you might be better persuaded by the recent popularity of mindfulness on network tv or the increasing number of celebrities and rich people attributing their success and sanity to mindfulness. Here’s a quick check of its effectiveness. Take any daily life activity – let’s call it X – and prepend ‘mindful’ in front of it, making it mindful X. In other words:

  1. Mindful eating
  2. Mindful work
  3. Mindful learning
  4. Mindful %$*

Doesn’t it sound so much better when it’s mindful? If you eat all the time you’re a pig but if you eat mindfully, you are a babe. Like yoga before it, mindfulness has traversed the hype cycle from niche to buzzword to suburban staple.  I don’t have a problem with that; may you be happy in your endeavors. If the meditation cushion is a stairmaster for the mind, more power to cushions. I start having problems when mindfulness becomes a theory of change. For example:

Before: Workers don’t have rights so they fight to unionize. 

After: Workers don’t have rights so they enroll in mindfulness classes. 

The first is an effective way of changing the world. The second, not so much. You might be thinking, what about that Buddha, didn’t he change the world through meditation? Well, the Buddha did change the world for the better. He did meditate. But did he change the world through meditation? What is meditation anyway? 

We think of meditation as one thing. Like science. But there are thousands of meditative practices, just as there are thousands of scientific techniques. Some of these practices are broadly of the kind we would term mindfulness. Others are quite different – prayer, analytic reading of texts, tantric visualizations and so on.

We wouldn’t take a scientist seriously if all she knew was matrix multiplication. Why is meditation any different? It’s a little bit like teaching people multiplication tables and assuming that they will be able to model the motion of planets. It doesn’t work that way. 

So my real problem with mindfulness is that it is immensely reductive and in being so, it lends itself easily to appropriation by powers that are anything but mindful. We don’t need any more drugs that blind us to the disasters unfolding everywhere. Especially not those that give the illusion of making the world a better place. Let’s meditate by all means, but let’s also inquire into the human condition, think critically and engage with others. In other words, do all the things that the Buddha did when he wasn’t meditating. 

As for those of us who are interested in the value of Indian texts and sources, the success of mindfulness is a cautionary tale: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Think of science as google, a universal index of what’s valuable. Just as google can make your website very popular and then destroy your business model when its algorithms change or it makes its own version of your product, an over-reliance on science to validate your tradition can lead to trouble. 

The Use and Abuse of Tradition: Newsletter #20

December 13, 2014

I am not much of a traditionalist. As far as I am concerned, the future is more important than the past. At the same time, human beings are shaped by history and geography; our past both constrains us and sets us free. As a result, I find myself caught between traditionalists and modernizers.

A few days ago, I posted a note on Sanskrit learning on Facebook and it attracted much more attention than I expected it to receive; clearly, Sanskrit has immense emotional resonance both to its votaries and to its detractors. Let’s set aside the political impulses behind Sanskritization in India (or Biblical learning in the US or Hebrew in Israel) and look at what thoughtful proponents might say on each side.

To the traditionalist, Sanskrit is the source of much wisdom, wisdom that’s been systematically denigrated and marginalized. The traditionalist would deploy scholarly resources toward the translation of Sanskrit texts and toward building a new community of scholars engaging with Sanskrit texts in the original as well as in translation. In other words, what European scholars did with Greek texts many centuries ago and continue to this day. In this view, Adi Shankara deserves as much attention as Aristotle. I agree with this view.

To the modernizer, Sanskrit is an elite language, forbidden to most inhabitants of the subcontinent by virtue of caste and gender. It is the language of a deeply unequal system. To the extent it has interesting ideas, the ideas are so far removed from modern concerns that there isn’t much in the way of practical wisdom to be gained from studying these texts. I agree with this view as well.

It does seem like a contradiction doesn’t it? Let me explain why it isn’t.

Creativity and tradition

To the extent that tradition is to be preserved rather than built upon, it’s dead. In other words, when someone says that all of us should learn the Vedas – setting aside the fact that such a practice would explicitly contravene the tradition itself – I hear someone clutching at straws.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume all modern scientific knowledge is contained in the Vedas. So what? How does that help us do science better? In fact, consider that Newton’s Principia contains a very large portion of modern scientific knowledge; yet no one is asking all school children to read the Principia. Instead, we teach them classical mechanics and the calculus. A living tradition has ways of translating texts into theories.

In fact, the core of the fundamentalists condition is a tragedy. They are tacitly aware that their tradition (independent of the religion or ethnicity involved) has lost its bearings, that it can no longer offer a credible response to the human condition and yet, as creatures of history, they know we can’t get out of the well into which we have fallen without using the tradition itself as a ladder.

Where there’s tragedy, there’s also hope. A deep tradition has the resources to spur creative responses even as it abandons some of the cherished assumptions of the past. That’s what scientists do when they set aside theories of matter; that’s what Carnatic and Hindustani musicians have done to keep their musical traditions alive. In other words, let’s treat our traditions as artists do, as creative resources. We build our castles on top of foundations dug by others. Even radical change needs a launching pad. A Picasso needs a Rembrandt; a Gandhi needs a Ramakrishna.

So my counsel to the Sanskrit traditionalists is this: inhabit the premises of this ancient house and see which beams need to be strengthened, which walls need to be torn down and which rooms need to be repainted. Be merciless in that vision. My counsel to the modernizers is this: do not think yourself outside this history. 

The Right Abstraction: Newsletter #19

December 6, 2014


I have been fascinated with abstraction for as long as I can remember. The disciplines I am drawn to instinctively – mathematics, physics, philosophy, programming, literature, design, cognition, religion; to name a few – are all disciplines that truck in abstractions. 

Good abstractions make life easier for all of us and greatly enhance human culture. Writing is a good example: we abstract away particulars such as handwriting and font size or physical location and label them under one heading: “this is so and so’s article.” There’s a sense in which all copies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are the same or close enough to being so. 

As you can see, abstraction is tied to identity – if I were to think of one thing that defines the process of abstraction, it’s the ability to categorize two different things as the same. Some abstractions are natural, such as personal identity: after all, without abstraction, how would you experience yourself as the same person over a twenty year period while your hair is falling out and your teeth are decaying? Other abstractions are human created, such as desktop UIs that help you copy and paste files. 

Desktop user interfaces tell us that abstraction isn’t opposed to concreteness; in fact, some of the best abstractions make entities tangible to us, just as the mouse and the keyboard makes files on a computer available to us. Tangible abstractions are all around us; words on a screen being the best example. Tangibility is one of two principles I consider paramount while designing good abstractions; the other is representation. The principles can be summarized in two short slogans:

  1. No abstraction without representation. 
  2. Make things tangible. 

When we represent something in language, art or law, we make it explicit; we give it rights and responsibilities; in a nutshell, we take it seriously. That’s why representative democracy for all it’s faults is better than the people’s republics. Sovereignty – another abstraction – has no meaning if it isn’t translated into institutions such as parliaments that represent that abstraction. Abstraction without representation is toothless. For example, I cringe whenever someone talks about balancing the needs of development and the environment. Economic growth is very well represented. Corporations are in the business of turning abstract theories of growth into real profits. The environment isn’t represented at all. While there are laws, implementation is poor and no one who speaks for nature.  Until we create institutions that represent the non-human world, we can’t talk about balancing environmental needs with economic needs. 

Representations are even better when they come with a tangible interface, an API in the computer programming sense of that term. The lexicon is an interesting abstraction, but dictionaries make the lexicon tangible. You might be surprised to know that standardized spellings are very recent; as late as the eighteenth century, people would spell a word in different ways in one article or book. The lexicon represents words. Dictionaries make the lexicon tangible. Abstractions such as computer mice and keyboards make computing tangible. Voting makes democracy tangible.

Tangibility works as a great UI for abstraction when the interface behaves the way you expect it to do so, even as it invites you into a space that’s different from anything you have experienced before. For example, Leibniz’s dy/dx notation makes calculus tangible, because it helps you manipulate infinitesimals the way you manipulate regular numbers even as it takes us far away from the world of bare multiplication and division. 

These two principles aren’t a historical curiosity; as software leaves the world of the screen and enters the world of gestural interfaces and physical objects, we will need an entirely new framework for understanding abstractions, including new representations and new interfaces. The dominant abstractions of the last two thousand years are all 2D abstractions, i.e., abstractions made tangible on paper and screen. As software and hardware intermingle – itself a new abstraction – we are faced with the task of building 3D abstractions. The world will assimilate software as software eats the world.