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.

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.

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 –
https://www.csis.org/podcasts/kremlin-playbook
Apple Podcasts Link Here –
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-kremlin-playbook/id1287533700

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.

***

Intrepid Radio Interview (18 minutes)

This short and sweet interview on the Intrepid Radio podcast dives into the idea behind the Book of Hard Truths.

Join me for a conversation that will very likely change how you look at your life. Today, joined by author Eran Dror, author of The Book of Hard Truths.

These “hard truths” are widely known and explored in religion & spirituality books, self-help books, psychology books, philosophy books, TED talks, etc. As Dror explains, he simply collected them, wrote them out as clearly as he could, and packaged them together in a new and compelling way. “I tried to create an emotional experience with the illustrations and the text, which will linger, “Dror writes. “My hope was that the book will provide a spark, which will get you thinking on your own about the truths you’ve been avoiding in your life.”

Listen Below:

Knowledge for Men Interview (52 minutes)

My longest interview yet, this interview on the Knowledge for Men Podcast is an exploration of The Book of Hard Truths.

Israeli born journalist, author and designer, Eran Dror has worked at various startups in NYC for nearly 10 years. Eran is the author of “The Book of Hard Truths” a book that brings into the light several hard, uncomfortable and unavoidable facts about life that we must all learn to accept.
Eran has recently taken an interest in Buddhist psychology and the ways we can apply it to our own lives to live with more presence.

Listen Below:

Enterprise Radio Interview (9m)

My short interview with Enterprise Radio is out. Check it out below.

Listen to host Eric Dye & guest Eran Dror discuss the following:
– What are the hard truths?
– Why do hard truths matter and for whom are they most applicable?
– What is the common reaction people have to the hard truths?
– What specific truths are hard for entrepreneurs to recognize?
– What can anyone going into a new business or launching a product do to help them accept some of the hard truths that will help them get on the path to success?

Here’s the interview on Soundcloud: