Monday, April 24, 2017

Screw Transcendental Meditation; Here's a Better Idea!

“Well, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
Yeah, today has been a sad ol’ lonesome day
I’m just sittin’ here thinking
With my mind a million miles away”
Bob Dylan. Lonesome day blues. Love and Theft.
“The conflicts, the craziness and the sound of pretenses
Falling all around...all around
Why are you so petrified of silence?
Here can you handle this?
[Silence]
Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines?
Or when you think you're gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?”
Alanis Morissette. All I Really Want. Jagged Little Pill.

"Don't look for happiness. Happiness is like an orgasm. If you think about it too much, it goes away."
Tim Minchin.


I have a confession to make. I just don't get transcendental meditation. I don't understand how you're supposed to put everything out of your mind and stop thinking altogether. I’ve tried and tried but my brain just refuses to shut down for even a minute to allow that to ever happen. I’m sure it’s as blissful as they claim but the reality is that such a nirvana is not accessible to the rank and file given our hectic daily lives and personal as well as professional entanglements. So, I’ve come to a convenient conclusion: Screw Transcendental Meditation! It's great if you are smart enough and strong enough mentally to pull off that trick but, for most of us, it just ain't gonna happen. My version of the exercise is much simpler, more natural, and, I find, more therapeutic. I call it “Consequential Meditation”.


The first step is to just put on your headphones and listen to some music. I don't mean listening to music while you read the news on your iPhone or flip through your social media feed. I don’t mean listening to music while driving. That’s just multitasking and we all know about the evils of multitasking. I mean actually putting down whatever you're doing and just listening to your favorite music for a while. For me, the location almost doesn't matter. I can be sitting at a bar with the big screen TVs blasting sports and news. I can be sitting uncomfortably in the middle seat at 30,000 feet. I can be at the local coffee shop with a cup of joe in front of me. I can be on the train going to work in the morning. The headphones are the game changer for me. The ability to tune out the outside world makes it possible to let my thoughts run free. Good luck trying transcendental meditation in any of those environments.


Here's the second and even more critical distinction between my approach and transcendental meditation. I don't try to clear my mind. Instead, this is where I do my “debrief” of the day's events: Why did he say that in the meeting? What did she mean by that sentence in her email? What if we ask John to help with Project A instead of the lower priority Project B? What if we do an image based backup instead of a file based one? What if we change the code to avoid grabbing a multiprocessor lock? I don’t mean to imply that I sit there and methodically work through technical or personal problems. Instead, thoughts naturally pop into my head based on recent events and I just follow them to their logical conclusions.


To be clear, most of my ideas are bad ones. I spend a few minutes on a given topic before realizing that my solution will never work, that he couldn't have possibly meant that with his remark in the meeting, etc. The point is that allowing this process to take place helps clear my mind of its clutter. It gives me a chance to test various hypotheses and discard them - be they about projects at work or business plans or personal relationships. In other words, my version of transcendental meditation boils down to slowing down long enough to give my brain a few minutes every day to work through its issues.


That’s awesome, Ben! What you’ve just described is called “thinking”… Don’t we do that all the time? As a matter of fact, no. We don’t. Most of us, myself included, are so harried and so hurried in our daily lives that we never give ourselves a chance to do so. Non-stop auditory and visual stimuli pretty much assault our senses on a non-stop basis. Any wonder our poor brains are so tired trying to make sense of it all? If only we would give ourselves the opportunity to sit down for a few minutes a day and think! Transcendental meditation be damned. I'd settle for just plain old meditation any day of the week.


How many of you get, say, one or two hours a day with no screen in front of you, not surrounded by a dozen people in a meeting room or a hundred people in an open seating arrangement at work? When is the last time you sat down for an hour and did nothing? Didn't reach for the smartphone, didn't check Facebook or Twitter, didn't check your email, didn't check your watch to see how much time had elapsed, didn't fidget and squirm? Rewind the clock fifty or sixty years and compare for yourself. If the difference is not obvious to you, then I propose you rewind the clock a hundred years - to a time when televisions, radios, and computers didn’t exist. Yes, they worked hard but they also spent long stretches of time alone or with family - and with no distractions. Time to think, time to reflect, time to introspect, and yes - even time to generate ideas... as opposed to constantly consuming them.

All the time that we used to spend daydreaming and thinking, I claim, has been replaced by time on the computer. The only problem with this new world is that we have turned on the hose and are drinking directly from it. We are constantly bombarding our brains with information, never giving it time to parse all that data or, heavens, maybe even come up with a few ideas of its own. Within a couple of generations, we have gone from a species that had lots of free time on its hands to daydream and think for hours on end to a species that is not only busy every waking moment but is busy doing multiple things, context switching between them every minute of the day, and gets bored the minute we take away the stimuli.


This is not mere nostalgia for a slower pace of life. I love the new world in which we have instant access to information. I just happen to think we’ve gone too far and become digitally addicted. If you don’t think we have a major problem on our hands, just wait until Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality become commonplace. Not only have we lost all semblance of control over our own thought processes, we are also busy teaching the same bad habits to our children, many of whom, I'm sad to report, are fluent on their iPhones and iPads long before they even begin to speak!


“Next time your kid's watching television, just come up behind them when they don't know you're there, and just turn it off without any warning. Just go--pfft. Watch what happens. They go-- [Screams] Do you think that's a good sign? You think it's a sign that it's healthy for them? That when it's taken away they go-- [Mutters] because you've created such a high bar of stimulus that nothing competes. A beautiful day is shit to a child now. A gorgeous, panoramic day with hawks catching fucking mice and flying away and bears with fucking fish in their teeth. And the kid's like, [screaming] ‘I want to watch the television! This is nothing!’"
Louis C.K. Hilarious.

What our children don’t know, what we seem to have forgotten, is that this bombardment of information every second of every day robs us of the ability to think. Every minute spent staring at a screen is a minute spent not thinking, or at best, being told what to think.

Update: This just in from our intrepid reporter, Dinesh Nambisan, on Twitter... According to a study published in Science, "Guys prefer electric shocks to boredom." That's it. We're doomed. We're biologically wired to want more stimuli. We'll never learn to sit down and think again. We're doomed. Oh well, so much for that theory. I guess it's back to square one. See what I mean about following my thoughts to their "logical" conclusion?

Friday, April 21, 2017

Losing My Religion: A Tale of Grumpy Old Men

“Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and I believe truer, to consider him created from animals.”
         Charles Darwin. 1809-1882.


“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
         Carl Sagan. 1934-1996.


"A faith which cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets."
         Arthur C. Clarke. 1917-2008.


“A Catholic… which I was until I reached the age of reason.”
         George Carlin. 1937-2008.


I spent a couple of days recently with two cousins of mine in Southern California. These two are brothers, both slightly older than me, and both successful professionals in their chosen careers. One manages a large engineering organization that designs jet engines, the other is responsible for public water services in Orange County.


Most people are blessed with four or five cousins. I happen to have over a hundred! I kid you not nor am I exaggerating. My parents are members of broods, respectively, of eleven and nine siblings. The combined twenty uncles and aunts have, you guessed it, been “busy”, offering up over a hundred cousins for yours truly.


Over the years, I've fallen out of touch with most of my cousins. Everything from a revolution to emigration to career to family to lifestyle to plain old exhaustion have, over the past four decades or so, in one way or another, conspired to reduce cousins to Facebook friends at best or faded memories in black and white photos at worst. Through the years, though, I've managed to stay in close contact with half a dozen or so of my cousins, these two among them. Both went to the same high school I did, although they were a few years ahead of me. We spent quite a bit of time together as teenagers and still reminisce about “the good old days”. I still enjoy spending time with them, even if it happens, on average, only once every few years.


Inevitably, as men of fifty-something years are known to be, we are all infernal “Grumpy Old Men” - hard and crusty on the outside but soft and mushy on the inside. I call them, affectionately, “Eminem”, as both their names start with the letter “M”.


So, there I was, with the two of them going for long hikes, playing tennis, cooking dinners (I “observed” and "critiqued"), and drinking wine. More than once, the topic of god and religion came up. I am, you might say, a devout atheist and have, to the consternation of friends and family, even blogged on the topic multiple times. It doesn't matter whether they agree with me or not. Mostly, they all ask me to stop “preaching”. I won't bore you with the details. I don't think I can improve upon The Oatmeal on brevity and clarity but feel free to read some of my arguments here. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others have done a much more comprehensive and scholarly presentation of the very same arguments.


Hiking and drinking seem to bring out the theological - or at least the philosophical - in all of us. The end result was several hours of strenuous hiking interrupted by declarations of incredulity as one or the other of us made a salient point. It may have been just wishful thinking but I walked away believing that we saw eye to eye on most topics. If anything, Eminem's nuanced approach to the topic helped me better recognize my own shortcomings. No one wants to listen to a bore who preaches atheism any more than they want to listen to a man of God proclaim his faith. It doesn't matter whether I'm right or wrong because, as Stephen J. Gould once famously said, religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria. People “believe” because it brings them comfort, it helps them bond with others of the same faith. Logic has very little, if anything, to do with it.


As we sat around in the evenings complaining about sore muscles, injured knees and ankles, and various other ailments, one of “The Brothers Eminem” said something that resonated with me. People like the stories that they learn as part of their religious upbringing. They take comfort in them. You can't take away all those stories and replace them with cold hard science and logic. I thought about this later and realized he was right. As Atheists, we will never win unless we weave a story around the science that we teach our children.


It hardly matters, for example, if the story of Noah’s Ark is a re-telling of the prehistoric Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh. It packs a moral lesson that is sugar coated for delivery to children, regardless of the book we ascribe it to. It doesn’t really matter that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is lifted, almost verbatim, from Zoroastrianism. As Voltaire said, if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to create him. And stories are the only way we have known for thousands of years to pass the associated ethical lessons to our children. I can talk (or write) until I’m blue in the face but I won’t change people’s minds. Either they already agree with me or they’ve made up their minds about what they want to believe and their decision was not based on logic or science.


No wonder that recent religions like Mormonism and Scientology have their own stories, including improbable and obviously fabricated tales of space aliens! You can't discard the story of Adam and Eve unless you replace it with a similar story, perhaps one about a pair of chimps named Chip and Charla. Unless and until we come up with alternative stories, we are stuck with the ones we tell our children today.

Time to write some children’s books, I guess...

Friday, March 24, 2017

Science as Religion: Is It Time Yet?

“It from bit. Otherwise put, every 'it'—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself—derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely—even if in some contexts indirectly—from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. 'It from bit' symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes–no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.
           John Archibald Wheeler. Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links.
"Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination."
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“That's me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion”
REM. Losing My Religion. Out of Time.

“Judge a man by his questions, not his answers.”
Voltaire. 1694-1778.

A friend of the family, a senior Silicon Valley executive, was in our back yard recently for a party. Long after dinner, when only a few guests were left, the discussion turned to theology. I’d recently published a couple of blogs on the topic (On Dogma: Belief without Proof and Nation of Reason: Coming out of the Religious Closet Together) and he wanted to tell me why I was wrong. For the record, I’m an avowed atheist and he is fairly religious. You can imagine the back and forth arguments so I won't bore you with the details.

As can be expected, we spent a good hour or so talking past each other. He argued that belief in a higher power is the only thing that sustains us spiritually and that the promise of an afterlife and a judgment day are the main reasons why we have become civilized over the past two millennia. I pointed out fallacies in his logic using historical data points and questioned the magical nature of his belief in the supernatural.

What surprised me was the fact that he eventually threw up his hands, giving up in exasperation, and exclaiming loudly: “What do you mean ‘Why do I believe?’ I just do. There is no why.” He didn't seem to think that was an odd statement to make. He had managed to distill all my problems with God and religion into a few words: “I don't care what you say, I just believe and there is nothing you can do or say that will change my mind.” Logic had nothing to do with it. I wondered if he could think of one other situation in which he could have used that line of reasoning or whether he would have accepted that response from one of his employees.

A few minutes later, one of the other guests spoke up in an attempt to bridge the gap between us: “I don’t believe in God or organized religion but I do believe in a spiritual world. I believe there is a force in the universe above and beyond all the things we see, a force for good that compels us to care for one another and for the animals around us.” As poetic and romantic as this vision seems, I had to argue against it. I pointed out that if such a force does indeed exist, it would be just as likely that an equivalent and opposing malevolent force also exists in the universe - otherwise, how do you explain Hitler and Ebola? And, again, we’re back to belief in magic and the supernatural. How can we reconcile the scientific world around us with our ability to completely ignore scientific and logical arguments when it comes to God and religion? Why do we have two sets of rules for how we live?

Why, you may ask, am I trying to use science and logic to answer metaphysical and moral questions? Richard Dawkins, one of my heroes, was recently asked this same question. His response was so simple an disarming that I can’t improve upon it: “[Science] works! Planes fly. Cars drive. Computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. If you base the design of rockets on science, they reach the moon. It works.”

Science is just a tool in our tool belt that we use to interrogate the universe around us. It’s nothing more and nothing less than that. After all, what's the alternative for accomplishing that task if we don’t rely on science? Poetry? Philosophy? Dogma? Fiction? What other tool do we have at our disposal as human beings that has delivered one billionth the results that science has returned?

We listened to shamans for millennia and ended up with polytheism, the spirit world, the creation myth, and a belief in the supernatural. Then we listened to prophets for a few centuries and we ended up with God, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and Moses. Not a whole lot changed in the intervening years. We just replaced many gods with one god but the moral lessons were pretty much the same. For the next two thousand years, we listened to prophets, to men of God, men who had seen a vision and wanted to save us from ourselves. And what did our investment, our two thousand year investment, get us? Guilt, shame, belief in the supernatural, suspension of disbelief, and blind obedience to dogma. It was only a few hundred years ago that we started using a new tool - science - to understand the world around us. And the answers we found were often diametrically opposed to the ones we’d been given by prior messengers.

I'd argue that men of science are our prophets today. How else do you explain Sir Isaac Newton discovering such amazing truths about the universe around us? Be it the law of gravity or that of optics, he just “saw” the answer and then spent years explaining it to us. He even invented a whole new language - calculus - in the process: a language now spoken by more humans than any other! A language that he used to deliver his other-worldly message to us.

Darwin did the same with the theory of evolution. Einstein did the same with relativity. I'm sure you can name a few others as well: the ones who revolutionized our understanding of the universe around us. Their insights were revolutionary, not incremental, in nature. Much more so than the ones who came before them - and relied only on scripture and hearsay as their tools. Their theories were so dramatically opposed to orthodoxy that everyone immediately rejected them. Each of these latter day prophets were followed by armies of disciples (we call them scientists) who built on the initial vision, added to it, and applied it to our daily lives. Collectively, they have shaped and changed our lives in ways much more fundamental than all the prophets who came before them.

We rarely, if ever, think about science as a religion. But the parallels are startling. The biggest advantage that science has on its side is its willingness to abandon prior dogma based on new evidence - something earlier religions have been reluctant to do.

Our infantile belief in the supernatural persists despite all evidence to the contrary. It is only if we view science as a religion, as a stepping stone in the evolution of man’s quest to understand the universe around him, that we start reconciling science and religion, that we start seeing science as a reasonable attempt to answer the same questions as religion - but from the bottom up and with rigorous proofs at every step in the journey. It's only when you look at the history of monotheistic religions as an extension of the earlier polytheistic and shamanic religions of our ancestors that you are able to extend that same line forwards to its logical conclusion: science. We didn’t know any better back then. Now we do. Now we have science.

Science is the only religion that admits it doesn't know the final truth. It's also simultaneously the only one that won't give up until it figures out the answer: through experimentation, through analysis, through logic. We don’t have all the answers but we won’t give up until we find them. It’s the best tool we have at our disposal. By comparison, everything else is fiction that we created when we got tired of thinking.

Science, if you'll forgive the over-generalization, has been busy answering “what, who, how, and when” questions for the past five hundred years. We are, just now, beginning to ask the only remaining question of any significance: “Why?” And, with every answer to those “why” questions, we find nothing that points to a man behind the curtain.

I'm sure I'll hear back from those who will point out that we learn our morality - our humanity - from religion, from a belief in God and an afterlife, from belonging to a community. These are all excellent reasons to bind together. But why does that union have to rest on a fiction? On a story that we know is not true? Why can't we all just admit that our earlier attempts at explaining the world around us were good ones and got us so far. But that now is the time to abandon those beliefs for millennia ahead of us.

Richard Dawkins did say one more word at the end of his statement about science which I neglected to include but shall now divulge: “[Science] works! Planes fly. Cars drive. Computers compute. If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. If you base the design of rockets on science, they reach the moon. It worksBitches!”

It was said half in jest. But he also meant it. It works… bitches! Deal with it. Can you do better? If yes, please show me your magical powers. If not, please step aside and let us lead. I can fly you to the moon, I can swim under water, I can fly in the sky like birds, I can predict disasters accurately, I can cure diseases, I can talk to my cousin on the other side of the planet. And I'm just getting started. My miracles are endless and occur daily. My name is science. What are your magic tricks? What are your miracles?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Educating Our Children for Tomorrow instead of Yesterday

“For every human problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.”
H.L. Mencken. 1880-1956.


“You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and your family.”
Excerpt of letter from Robert Darwin to his son, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin.


“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Mark Twain. 1835-1910.


I can't help but think that many of the problems that afflict us today are caused by poor educational systems around the world. Today's schools most often educate through memorization: rote learning of formulas, algorithms, theorems, facts, and dates in every field from mathematics to science and history. It seems, as educators and as parents, we expect the children to follow the same model that we did two or three decades ago. It's odd, in retrospect, that the educational model that was first created by the British empire during the industrial revolution is still the norm in the vast majority of schools around the globe. At best, it's been “streamlined” through the introduction of multiple choice tests and standardized national tests.


Little do we realize that this same model that made a lot of sense when we needed armies of factory workers (later armies of engineers) no longer makes sense in tomorrow’s world. Hell, it doesn't even make sense in today's world. What we need now are not specialists in any given field (we have plenty of those) but rather generalists and polymaths who are comfortable jumping between multiple disciplines and connecting the dots. The only way to educate our children for such a future is to teach them how to think independently and be inquisitive about the world around them.


It's the lucky few who go through an educational system that asks them to actually think for themselves instead of cramming their heads with formulas that they will likely never use throughout the rest of their lives. Even luckier are those scarce few who find amazing teachers that bring subjects to life - instead of clubbing them to death with the hammer of standardized tests. The vast majority of children go through what basically amounts to hours and hours of memorization often without understanding (let alone internalizing) the subject at hand.


The emphasis on memorization means the student narrowly follows the rules to get to the desired result, like a laboratory rat solving a maze in return for a piece of cheese, but fails to truly understand the principles at play behind the formulas and, in turn, fails to apply them in slightly different settings where they may apply just as well. The goal of their study is to get to the end result (A, B, C, Or D: None of the above). The question of why and how come A or B or C often does not enter their consciousness.


Educators such as Maria Montessori (1870-1952) evangelized a vastly different approach to education in the past century, emphasizing self-guided exploration over rote memorization of facts. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Julia Child are just a few of the famous and successful graduates of the Montessori system. Unfortunately, most children today don't enjoy such an education.

I was horrified when I saw this video of some girls in an Indian village “computing” for their teacher:



Watch as they mimic the action of an abacus with their fingers in order to solve the math problems. How many months did they spend perfecting this skill - and, why exactly, is the teacher happy about that? Shouldn't their brains be put to a more useful activity in this day and age? As I watched their teacher proudly show off their skill and egg them on with harder problems, I couldn't help but wonder if they also make the “carriage return” motion from old manual typewriters when they type on the computer!

The British empire was made successful in part by the educational system it created and propagated around the world - not just to their colonies but also to most of the rest of the globe. The so-called “ragged schools” were created to prepare destitute children in inner cities for work in factories during the industrial revolution. The American empire has, by comparison, failed miserably when it comes to education by continuing to prepare students for yesterday's world instead of tomorrow's. We need a revolution in our educational system if we ever want to succeed in the long run. It will take decades, it will be hard work, to undo what we have created. But nothing less than the future of our children depends on it.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades!

“There are no inherent barriers to our being able to reverse engineer the operating principles of human intelligence and replicate these capabilities in the more powerful computational substrates that will become available in the decades ahead. The human brain is a complex hierarchy of complex systems, but it does not represent a level of complexity beyond what we are already capable of handling.”
     Ray Kurzweil. The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
“The big feature of human-level intelligence is not what it does when it works but what it does when it’s stuck.”
     Marvin Minsky. 1927-2016.
“But they are useless. They can only give you answers.”
   Pablo Picasso, on computers.


“Future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”
      Timbuk 3.


A colleague recently sent me a link to an article and video of a panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence with Elon Musk. It's a long video but worth your while if you’re interested in AI and the future of technology and, by extension, the future of humanity. If you are only interested in Musk’s thoughts, reading the article is sufficient since it includes most of his comments. If, however, you want to hear some of the other panelists such as the brilliant Ray Kurzweil and Sam Harris, you’ll have to watch the video.
I have seen a lot of Elon Musk quotes on the web but had never actually listened to him beyond a few sound bites. He points out that we are already cyborgs, by some simplistic definition of the word.
“By far you have more power, more capability, than the President of the United States had 30 years ago. If you have an Internet link you have an article of wisdom, you can communicate to millions of people, you can communicate to the rest of Earth instantly. I mean, these are magical powers that didn’t exist, not that long ago. So everyone is already superhuman, and a cyborg,” says Musk [at 33:56].
To the extent that our laptops and smartphones connect us to the internet and give us instant access to a world of information, they make us a new type of being. Given recent advances in nanotechnology, computing, genetics, and neural networks - to mention just a few of the disciplines involved - it’s easy to see an ever accelerating rush towards a science fiction future in which we are plugged into The Matrix using a “high bandwidth interconnect to the cortex” (according to Musk), nanobots fighting disease in our bloodstream, our mental functions assisted and augmented with artificial intelligence. Science fiction stuff, to be sure, but more science and less fiction as we continue to make advances in every academic field imaginable.
Musk goes so far as to describe a future in which we bypass keyboards, mice, and even natural languages and instead develop technologies that allow us to directly plug computers into our spinal cord. As Arthur C. Clarke famously quipped, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Well said. Imagine explaining the Internet, Google Glass, and iPhone to a time traveler from the nineteenth century and you will see that Musk’s proposed future is not too far-fetched. The technology we already have at our disposal today - not just computers and the internet, but the advances in genetic engineering alone - should convince you that such a future is not only possible but also quite probable.


Bob Newhart has a hilarious comedy routine about a hypothetical phone conversation between a British aristocrat and Sir Walter Raleigh, laughing his head off in disbelief as the explorer tells him about his crazy discoveries, such as cigars and corn, in the Americas. I'd love to see him do a similar conversation between a 19th century citizen and a 21st century scientist: “Yeah, right. You can grow human ears on laboratory rats. Right. Contact lenses that measure your blood sugar level. Right. Pull the other one.”
I highly recommend reading “The Gene: An Intimate History”, by Siddhartha Mukherjee if you have the time. We have already deciphered much of our DNA. We can clone living beings, including humans. Remember Dolly the Sheep? We can edit our own DNA, re-writing much of our destiny, if we wish. Genetic scientists are doing a good job policing themselves as they grapple with the ethical implications of these recent advances. So far, we’ve mostly utilized these techniques to fight genetic diseases but rogue scientists (and rogue regimes) don't necessarily abide by those self-imposed bans.
I reminded my colleague that I'd actually blogged about this topic - clumsily, to be sure - last year. The whole topic of “The Singularity”, as popularized by Ray Kurzweil and others, is fascinating. Kurzweil published The Singularity is Near in 2005, describing a time in the very near future when we will not only augment our intelligence with that of machines but become one with them. I think more and more people see today that the first baby steps towards that vision have already materialized across several scientific disciplines in just the past few years. Despite what Hollywood says, I’m not worried about such an eventuality turning into a nightmare scenario like The Terminator movies with machines becoming our overlords. Rather, I think we will continue to stay one step ahead of computers and be in control at all times.

What Picasso said is so true. Computers only have the answers. They don't (yet) know how to ask questions. Humans are the only species capable of generating and maintaining thousands of "what if" scenarios simultaneously. Chimps have been shown to understand the concept of "lying" and "deceit". They'll readily lie about where they hid the banana. But humans are the only species capable of asking: "What if there are green men on Mars? What if a billion years ago huge animals roamed the earth? What if I genetically modify my own DNA? What if ..." I have yet to see a computer spontaneously ask a question and then set about to solve it. Until that day, we're still in control.
I stopped talking about the topic because I was afraid people might think I'd lost my marbles. It's good to see people like Elon Musk publicly discussing it. For those of you who are rolling your eyes in disbelief, stop worrying about the end stage of a world like The Matrix. Instead, just think about the incremental next few steps and you will see a path to such a “cyborg” future. Virtual and Augmented Reality. Natural Language Processing. Facial and gesture recognition. DNA cloning and editing. Bionic prosthetics that can be manipulated purely through brain waves. The list keeps going on and on. These technologies are taken for granted today and on the verge of broad adoption, the same technologies that would have been considered science fiction by most people even fifty years ago.
The question, in my opinion, is not whether we are going to enhance ourselves and our physical and mental capabilities through science. The question is which ones first and how quickly do we get there.


The future is bright, I'm sure of it. It may be hard to believe that in today's political climate but I believe it. That was the last message I sent to my colleague. Always be an optimist in the long run. Be a pessimist in the short term. Be a skeptic. Question everything. That is what science has taught us. But be an optimist long term. That’s what history has shown us. Trust in the uncanny ability of human beings to continue to pull hat tricks at the most improbable moments. Take a look back at the amazing scientific advances of the past couple of centuries and remember that they happened amid massive world wars, widespread famine, pandemics like the Spanish Influenza that killed tens of millions in a single shot, dictators and despots who plundered their own countries and killed their own citizens, natural disasters like the recent Tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people each, staggering poverty, etc.

We shall overcome. This, too, shall pass. Be an optimist. The alternative is not much fun any way.