This Carbon Atom is Mine, and This is Yours

Interesting explanation of anattā (Not Self) from Mori Masahiro’s The Buddha in the Robot:

When we are born into this world, we do seem to have been given a portion of our mothers’ flesh. Yet when sperm fertilizes ovum and a baby is conceived, the most important element is not ordinary flesh, but the hereditary information contained in DNA, an acid found in chromosomes. The molecular structure of DNA determines our sex, our looks, and to a large extent our personalities.

Once these features are decided, as they are at the time of conception, it remains for our mothers to furnish us with flesh and bones. This they do by eating vegetables from the greengrocer’s, beef and pork from the neighborhood butcher, bread from the baker. Any of these foods, supplied by a production and distribution system that may involve millions of people in many countries, could contain carbon from our Alaskan polar bear. How can you and I say then that this carbon is mine and that carbon is yours? At the atomic level, all carbon is the same; no two carbon atoms differ in the slightest, either in form or in character.

When you look at the problem this way, it begins to seem only natural that we have trouble distinguishing between what is us and what is not. Our chemical and physical composition is such that no one is entitled to say, “This body is mine, all mine.” When you have mastered this point, you are ready to start thinking about “nothing has an ego.”

The Buddha in the Robot, pp. 29-30.

AI & Emergent Selfhood: A taste from the intro to my M.A. thesis

The source of disputes and conflicts according to this sutra is possessiveness which arises from attachment (again – upādāna). The emergence of a self is, in the Buddha’s view, the ultimate source of “the whole mess of suffering.”

Surprisingly or not, the emergence of a self is also a moment which legend, myth, and science fiction have always portrayed as terrifying and potentially cataclysmic in the context of a man-made object.

To risk heightening an already established fear surrounding the topic,  it’s worth noting that the Pali canon is fairly clear on what is required for the self to come into being, and it doesn’t take much :

“Now, bhikkhus, this is the way leading to the origination of identity. One regards [various phenomena] thus: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my self.”

We will dive deeper into what this might mean, and how it relates to AI later in the work. But for now, we may be comforted by the fact that the Buddha saw this view of the self not merely as damaging, but also as fundamentally incorrect. This is evidenced in the Cūḷasaccaka Sutta, where the Buddha describes anatta (Not-Self) as one of the Three Marks of Existence:

“Bhikkhus, material form is not self, feeling is not self, perception is not self, formations are not self, consciousness is not self. All formations are impermanent; all things are not self.”

Indeed, the very idea of Buddhist enlightenment is intrinsically tied to the overcoming of this notion of self, and resting in a state of “suchness”. Writes Paul Andrew Powell:

“For most Buddhists, enlightenment can be defined as seeing through the illusion of the self and “experiencing unadulterated suchness. In the word of Master Wolfgang Kopp, “the seer, the seen, and the process of seeing are one. The thinker, the thought, and the process of thinking fall together into one and multiplicity melts away. There is neither inside, nor outside in this state. There is only ‘suchness,’ tathata. So, enlightenment is suchness, or, things as they are, revealed as all that there is.”

This concern about a possible emerging selfhood with autonomous will, which both Buddhism and AI Safety thinkers warn against, presents us with two broad options regarding artificial selfhood:

  1. We could hope that a self, or a pattern of goals and behaviors that looks like biological selfishness will not emerge. We could point to the many differences between man and machine, be it in emotion, cognition, subjective experience, or material construction – and decide that we can wait for machines to exhibit concerning behaviors before we become preoccupied with these concerns.
  2. We could become very interested in human selfhood and the causes and conditions that bring it about, and identify wise precautions that will prevent it, or something very much like it, from emerging in our machines and becoming malignant. We may also, as some suggested, embed in our machines from the start some of the insights and constructs that allow a mind to transcend the limiting view of self — in essence constructing artificial enlightenment.

As evident from the research and writing emerging from both the Buddhist and the AI Safety communities, the tendency seems to be decidedly towards Option #2. In this work, I shall seek to further the discussion by focusing on selfhood in both Buddhism and AI safety from a constructive, integrative point of view.

The Highest Form of Engagement

If one were in a simplistic mindset, one could look at the Facebook feed algorithm as the first case of AI gone rogue. This machine-learning algorithm was supposedly given the task of making sure we spend as much time on site as possible, and engage as much as possible. As a result it created the most addictive show on earth: the sight of our societies being torn apart by internal strife.

Facebook found the fault lines in each society and pounded on them. Unconscious of its actions but as intelligent as a vengeful God. We fed the fires with our fear and anger, but the incentive loop was in the background, optimizing, selecting, and highlighting the things that would most likely cause us to go crazy. We asked for engagement, and we got the highest form of engagement: war.

It is up to us now to wake up and realize how critical it is that the goals we set are aligned with our values. Facebook is a benign company that wants, I truly believe, nothing more than to make the world better. But it is playing with fire.

I think today they are beginning to realize that.

Reaching a Middle Ground on Net Neutrality

A lot of back and forth discussions are going on these days about Net Neutrality, a concept that some people (mostly internet geeks and internet companies) are holding as absolutely sacred, while others (mostly large ISPs and free market libertarians) claim holds back the industry from progressing.

Both camps have a grain of truth. Here are the facts as I understand them:

First, it looks like ISPs in the US are sitting on a tremendous broadband capacity that they are not releasing to their subscribers, nor investing in expanding, because they are waiting for this net neutrality regulation to be reversed. This is why the US is so behind in internet speeds and prices.


If Net Neutrality is Reversed

1. Waiting for the Shakedown – If net neutrality is reversed – ISPs will likely start releasing these faster speeds, but charge online services like Facebook, Netflix, YouTube, etc to be in the fast lane. They will attempt to shake down providers like Netflix, barring them from the higher speeds unless they pay a significant amount. This will result in higher subscription charges for all services, which will be forked over to the ISPs. It is basically a way for the ISPs to get a cut of the value created by actual internet innovators.
2. Advantage: Goliath – This would also create a real advantage for the big players, making it much harder for new and innovative startups and media companies to compete, since they won’t be able to afford the fast lane, as the gap between the slow lane and the fast lane would grow larger and larger.
3. Dangerous Opening for Censorship / Manipulation of Public Opinion – This is also a huge opening for the government, who has many ways (both legitimate and shady) to influence and manipulate these ISPs, to start influencing what content is promoted or demoted. It would create an enormous concentration of wealth in power in relatively few hands, and an easy lever to pull to squash unwanted voices and actors.

If Net Neutrality is Upheld

But what would happen if it net neutrality is NOT reversed – and it becomes clear that net neutrality is a core principle for American voters? I believe that in this case also, ISPs will also ultimately start releasing these faster speeds to subscribers, but this time charge customers based on bandwidth and compete with other providers as “dumb pipes”. Competing on bandwidth, reliability, security, and coverage – and nothing else. This means that services will continue to compete on an even ground, but subscribers will continue to determine how fast of a connection they need – and paying for it.
To me, it’s absolutely clear that this is the right way for the Internet to evolve. However, I am not a Net Neutrality radical.

A Middle Ground Solution for Net Neutrality

I think ISPs should be permitted to create non-neutral networks, with a few caveats:
(A). No False Advertising
Non-neutral network should NOT be referred to as The Internet or World Wide Web – but have a separate product name. Perhaps “Managed Network”. Users of a Managed Network cannot be said to be “online”, they must be said to be connected to the Managed Network. 
(B). Opening to Competition
Any ISP who wishes to offer a Managed Network service, must officially and legally wave all monopoly rights, pole rights, exclusivity deals and laws. Managed Network services should only be allowed in areas where there are at least 3 competing ISPs of equivalent coverage and bandwidth, and where at least two of them offer an actual Internet service (i.e. neutral connection), and where entry is not blocked to new competitors either legally or by exclusivity deals.
(C). No Double-Dipping
Managed Networks who charge content providers cannot also charge the end-consumer. In other words Managed Networks have to be FREE to end-consumers. This is to avoid the false pretense that the subscriber is in fact the customer, as opposed to the product, and avoiding conflict of interests.
(D). Total Transparency
Managed Network Providers must publish a full list detailing how much they are charging each content provider per subscriber. Content providers shall always be allowed to be transparent as they are passing on Managed Network costs to their subscribers, and be able to charge Managed Network subscribers more. (In other words: Managed Network Providers shall be forbidden to use any kind of threat or extortion to block content providers from disclosing how much the Network is shaking them down, and must provide content providers with an easy way to check whether a subscriber is a Managed Network subscriber, for the purpose of charging them more fot their service.)
(E). Slow Lane Minimum Bandwidth
In no Managed Network plan can the Slow Lane offer less than 25% of the total bandwidth available to the subscriber. Managed Network providers shall not block or slow down any content below this threshhold.
I believe the above principles will make it possible for a positive outcome to emerge, allowing both neutral Internet connections and Managed Networks to thrive side by side, and enabling consumers with low means to receive managed network services.
What do you think?

Busy, too busy.

Sometimes I ask myself whether the fact that I’m running a consulting business, writing a thesis, building a product, and learning Sanskrit all at the same time is only my flimsy, doomed attempt to outrun death.

IEEE quoting Aristotle

If a few years ago someone would have told me that the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) would start an urgent discussion of the purpose of life and cite Aristotle, I may not have believed you. Now, thanks to rapid developments in AI, it has become a necessity:

We need to make sure that these technologies are aligned to humans in terms of our moral values and ethical principles. AI/AS have to behave in a way that is beneficial to people beyond reaching functional goals and addressing technical problems. This will allow for an elevated level of trust between humans and our technology that is needed for a fruitful pervasive use of AI/AS in our daily lives.

Eudaimonia, as elucidated by Aristotle, is a practice that defines human wellbeing as the highest virtue for a society. Translated roughly as “flourishing,” the benefits of eudaimonia begin by conscious contemplation, where ethical considerations help us define how we wish to live.

By aligning the creation of AI/AS with the values of its users and society we can prioritize the increase of human wellbeing as our metric for progress in the algorithmic age.

Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Wellbeing with Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems

The Kermlin Playbook

I found this fascinating new podcast about the Russian interference in the US Elections and their methods of undermining democracies around the world. It’s from the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a bi-partisan American think tank. The first episode was very promising!

In 2016, a rival foreign power, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, launched an attack on the United States of America.   What we now know is that American intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia planned and executed a campaign to undermine our democracy and to affect our Presidential election.

For President Trump, Russia is a complicated subject.  But this podcast isn’t about Donald Trump’s complications with Russia, nor is it about Republicans and Democrats.   One of the dangers in the hyper partisan American debate over Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election is that it is blurring the larger picture.  This three part podcast mini-series is about the larger picture.  Episode one will look at why Russia meddled in our election; episode two will examine case studies of past Russian behavior; and episode three will discuss what the US can do to counter Russia’s actions.

Hosted by CSIS’s H. Andrew Schwartz, co-host of “Bob Schieffer’s About the News”

Podcast Website Here –
Apple Podcasts Link Here –

Self-Organizing Stupidity?

I wonder if many years from now, when the history of the 21st century will be told, they’ll say it was the era in which technology first enabled human ignorance to self-organize on a global scale.

There have been, of course, many institutions that relied on stupidity and ignorance to flourish. Many religions, for instance, may have capitalized on human stupidity, ignorance, and prejudice to flourish. But the organizers themselves tended to be very smart, and religion always needed the support of smart people to stay in power – to keep the institution running. I think the internet has created an infrastructure that allows ignorant people to self-organize without any smart supervision.
Note how all around the world, fringe groups of highly uneducated and ignorant people – people who are largely immune to reason, have gained enormous power on the internet: White supremacists and Neo-nazis, racist Pro-Brexiters, the anti-immigration crowd, the extreme right in Israel who label anyone who wants peace with the Palestinians or dreams about the end of occupation a traitor, but also groups on the left like Occupy Wall Street and Antifa. There are a few interesting commonalities around these groups:
  1. They seem to be grassroots, often starting through a viral post, or an emotional reaction to an event. 
  2. They feature a very strong appeal to emotion, but have an almost total lack of educated or intellectual support.
  3. They tend to be purely destructive – there is often no attempt to create anything new, no clear agenda, no clear and considered plan.
  4. As soon as there is an attempt to form a cohesive agenda, by someone who is a bit more educated or intelligent – the fizzle out.

I’m not necessarily married to the term “stupidity” here – but I do think there is clearly a new phenomenon at play here, that of self-organizing *without* an actual organization, which necessitates thinking, planning, or capable educated people.

A poem I wrote on the bus

(Inspired by the Dao de Jing)

The worst of all is never to exist.
A close second is to exist but never to emerge.
Third is to emerge but never to cohere.
Fourth, to cohere but never to harmonize.
Fifth, to harmonize but never to plant the seed.
Sixth, to plant the seed but never to let go.
To exist,
And to emerge,
And to cohere,
And to harmonize,
And to plant the seed,
And to let go,
That is the highest.