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Weekly Commentary - September 16, 2019

The future is now in the hands of adults with closed and childish minds

I recently heard a pastor preaching to the several hundred members of his congregation and telling them that, according to recent scientific studies, “almost one hundred percent” of human beings will die one day. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to ask him what that “almost” means.

After all, if this good man has access to a scientific study that shows that human mortality is less than one hundred percent, it would be good for him to share that study with us to see if the “almost” means  0,01 percent, or 1 percent, or whatever that (fictitious) number may be. 

And then, by chance, I heard a conversation of someone talking about a bear that was shot, skinned, dismembered, and its head cut off. And the other person then asked: But sis the bear die? It was not my conversation, so it was not for me to say anything, although I kept thinking how and why someone could even ask that question.

The reason why someone needs explanations to determine if a bear shot, skinned, dismembered and beheaded died is the same reason why someone claims that human mortality is "almost" one hundred percent: infantilism. But this statement needs to be explained.

In his classic and controversial 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom already said that education in the United States had “impoverished the soul of students”. And then, in 2000, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, Christian Smith, and other researchers began talking about emerging adulthood, that is, the long time it takes now for young people to mature.

But according to recent studies, it is no longer a closed mind (as Bloom anticipated) or that adolescence now lasts for almost 20 years (as Arnett explained), but that adults remain and act as children.

In 2014, the Lumen Research Center in Social and Humanistic Sciences (in Romania) published an article by Dr. Jacopo Bernardini, entitled The Infantilization of the Postmodern Adult (that is, to be clear, ourselves). According to Bernardini, the contemporary adult lives in a state of perpetual “conscious immaturity” that allows him/her to “escape his responsibilities.”

As Bernardini says, the “kidult” “dresses without formality, has sex without reproducing, works without discipline, plays without spontaneity, buys without a purpose, and lives without responsibility, wisdom or humility.” 

That is possible, says Bernardini, because we live in a society in which “childish attitudes and the model of adolescent life are promoted in the media and tolerated by institutions.” In other words, being young “has nothing to do with age, but is a lifestyle attitude”, meaning “youth is no longer a transitory stage.”

In brief, infantilization is “a collective regression” of postmodern society that gives priority to “speed and possibilities” and to the “effective model of youth”, with the consequent “psychological rejection of adult condition”.

Thus, our future is now in the hands of closed, childish, and narcissistic minds. I would like to write much more on this subject, but it is time for me to watch my favorite cartoons.

How many more years will we live and for what?

I recently told a friend that insurance companies currently (in fact, for some time now) issue coverage up to 120 years of age, anticipating that in a short time that will be the duration of our active and healthy life. Obviously, my comment was rejected with total skepticism, both for "scientific" and "theological" reasons.

Be that as it may, and leaving aside the fact that in the visionary animated series Futurama Professor Farnsworth remains active at 160, a recent clinical study published in California indicates that a “cocktail” of three common medications can reverse biological age of a person in up to 2.5 years.

In other words, and so that there are no doubts, with these medications the person rejuvenates 2.5 years. And that is achieved with the knowledge and technology now available, which suggests that, once both knowledge and technology progress, the number of years of rejuvenation will grow.

Due to the fact that the current technoscientific development is exponential, one can think that in the near future the number of years that a person can rejuvenate will be a considerable amount, perhaps even tens of years. In fact, according to the aforementioned report, that is exactly what already happens in animal experiments.

But, as the ancients already said, a healthy body needs a healthy mind. And, in that sense, recent studies in the human brain have already confirmed both the phenomenon of neurogenesis (the brain creates new neurons, contrary to what was taught before) and the phenomenon of neuroplasticity (the brain creates new connections between neurons).

Also, Elon Musk and others want to establish a direct connection between the human brain and artificial intelligence, a development that, when added to that new understanding of our brain, means that the "new" brain would continue to operate at full capacity for years and years.

In fact, according to a recent article in the specialized journal Nature Biotechnology, two Harvard scientists, Shaun Patel and Charles M. Lieber, have already developed a system that allows, through a network of neuronal implants (and direct connections between the brain and computer) treat diseases (Parkinson's, Alzheimer's) and addictions, and it is even possible to "prevent the brain from degrading with age."

When that improved human brain (a project that is already underway) is "merged" (as Patel suggested) with artificial intelligence, the brain will not only be able to perceive its own thoughts, but to "manifest" them, then developing the ability to cure itself. 

Given these advances, and taking into account that until a little over a century ago the life expectancy was less than 50 years, it is then clearly possible to think that in a short time living an active and healthy life until 120 years or even beyond that it is no longer a simple fantasy, and it is not something contrary to science or, in fact, to theology.

What will we live for? After all, the mere extension of life creates a longer future, but not necessarily a new meaning for life. 

Why do they want to read our thoughts, but to control them?

A recent report (August 29) published by the University of California at San Diego reveals that biologists from that university have managed to develop laboratory mini brains that, after a few months of growth, already have their own functional neural networks. And that is just the beginning of the creation of complete human brains.

The full report, in the most recent issue of the specialized journal Cell Stem Cell, explains that the mini brains in question, fully gestated outside any association with a human body, develop brain waves similar to those of babies in gestation.

The goal, according to the researchers in charge of the experiment, is that these brain organoids eventually develop “sophisticated” neural networks, that is, mature and interconnected. By understanding how this development occurs, scientists could "model" new human brains, for example, by eliminating diseases and accelerating the brain’s evolution,

In that context, the true goal of these studies is to connect the human brain with artificial intelligence, something that both Neuralink (Elon Musk) and Facebook recently announced separately, indicating they are already doing it, in the early stages.

This is not science fiction. Neuralink confirmed a few days ago (August 31) that it is developing a "brain implant" to connect the brain directly to a computer. And Facebook said it plans to create a device that can "read" people's minds so that people can send information "just by thinking."

Given the almost imminent possibility of human brains redesigned in a laboratory (therefore, without diseases and more evolved) will be connected with a global artificial intelligence, everything we are now and have is obsolete and primitive. And all science fiction seems to be an unimaginative children's story.

In short, those who want to increase their brain capacity and have the means to do so (such as the super billionaires of the technological world) can receive implants of “organic” brains (perhaps as many as they want) and at the same time connect them with the artificial intelligence of their own creation, the same artificial intelligence that controls more and more of our life every day.

Although this situation of adding new brains to those we already have and then connecting them with artificial intelligence doesn’t yet exist -that is, we are told that it does not exist today-, official reports indicate that this is the direction of progress of current research, with highly promising results.

Transhumanism is, it seems, just around the corner, perhaps in 2029, as Ray Kurzweil anticipated several times. Or, to say it differently, the almost indefinite extension of biological existence and digital immortality could be real in ten years. If that happens, why does Silicon Valley want to read our thoughts?

The answer is obvious: to control them, as it is the case today, to the point that we are distressed if we do not receive all the “Likes” we expected. But why do they want to control our thoughts? Perhaps to avoid getting bored. But that is another issue to be explored later. 

We think we can extinguish our inner light, but it’s still shinning

My car, although not new, works well and, except for normal maintenance, doesn’t present any major problems. However, the headlights, as I discovered recently, no longer illuminated as before, so an "expert" suggested changing them, with an estimated cost of hundreds of dollars.

Before deciding to pay that amount, a quick consultation with real experts led me to buy a package to restore those lights and, for only $ 15 and after less than an hour's work, the lights shone again.

In fact, the problem was not the lights. There was no need to change them. It was only necessary to remove what obscured them in such a way and with such slowness that the difference in light between one day and the next one was so small that one can hardly notice it and then, erroneously, one assumed that lights continued to illuminate as before.

Even worse, once the problem became impossible to deny, when it became clear that the lights no longer illuminated as before, the solution proposed by the “expert” was so expensive (both in time and money) that it seemed impossible to achieve. The truth, however, was that the restoration of the headlights was simple, fast, and inexpensive process.

The situation made me think that throughout our life our inner light stops illuminating our path, and not because that inner light goes out, but because we hide it with our beliefs, creeds, dogmas, ideologies, trends, fashions, and self-deception. We could add many more elements to that list, including our growing dependency on social media and a growing inability to think. 

Little by little, almost imperceptibly, we add a new thin layer of darkness in front of our inner light that today, therefore, illuminates a little less than yesterday. But we don't realize it. We don’t pay attention to it. We don’t consider it as a small problem now, much less a large long-term problem.

And one day, for whatever reason, our inner light stops shining. It was not extinguished, but it is only hidden behind all the dust of the everydayness, of the temporal, which we have allowed to accumulate on it. And, even worse, to that dust of inauthenticity, of superficiality, we add a layer of oblivion.

Then, the light that used to illuminate our path no longer illuminate us, not because it cannot shine, but because we prevented it. And when, in desperation to find some light for our lives again, we seek to reverse the situation, we turn to "experts" who easily convince us that the only alternative is an expensive and long process. But it's not like that.

Contrary to what happens with the lights of the cars, when it comes to our interior light there are no “experts”, because, first of all, it is the light shining within us and, secondly, that light is not lost. It is only a matter of removing everything that, knowingly or not, we have deposited on the light, preventing its full radiance from being seen.

What are we really creating by recreating ourselves and the planet?

In his interesting book The Fourth Age, Byron Reese proposes that every time humanity accesses a new technology, humanity changes and, because of that, the planet also changes. For that reason, we can ask: What are we really transforming when our technology is transforming us and the planet?

Reese argues that 100,000 years ago, human beings learned to use fire and, thanks to fire, language developed. Then, about 10,000 years ago, the birth of agriculture led to the birth of cities. And more recently, perhaps only five or six millennia ago, the invention of writing resulted in the creation of nations.

Now, however, fire, language and agriculture look primitive when compared to intelligent and conscious robots, that is, the "fourth age" mentioned by Reese in his book. What we still don’t know is what will arise as a result of these new technologies.

For us (moving away from Reese’s book), it’s clear that the language we use is no longer entirely appropriate to describe our new reality, so we have to use expressions such as "expanded reality" or "virtual reality."

And, as is undoubtedly evident in today's world, the notions of "city", "nation" and "state" have been greatly challenged in terms of its viability for the future precisely because of the emergence of new technologies. So much so that for many people the only alternative seems to be to return to a past of supposed greatness.

Meanwhile, the United States and Russia recently announced separately the development of space battleships, while several private companies announced the imminent launch of space tourism trips.

And plans to terraform Mars in the coming decades continue to advance. What a paradox! We want to transform Mars to be like Earth while at the same time we are destroying Earth.

Simultaneously, intelligent robots develop their own language and their own ethics and, slowly but inexorably, take charge of all things. "Things" as in "Internet of Things", from autonomous cars to smart homes, and from judicial decisions (robot judges) to spiritual decisions (robot priests).

In that context, although we know approximately where we have been, we still don’t know where we are going to be, that is, are we entering a promising future in which many of the expectations and desires of the long history of humanity are they will see compliments? Or is this the last stage of human existence before being displaced and replaced by our own creation?

Then, the initial question must be rephrased, because it may no longer be enough to ask just what we are transforming thanks to our new technologies, but we must ask ourselves what technologies are becoming thanks to what those technologies themselves are discovering.

It took humanity about 100,000 years to reach artificial intelligence. We had to “invent” fire, then language, the agriculture, then writing, and then the wheel and so many other things before having 21st century technology. But AI doesn’t need that. So, how long will it take artificial intelligence to complete its own evolution?

The curious case of identifying with an ideology and not knowing it

I recently participated in a community event that required some formality, so I was surprised to find a young man who, without wearing a jacket and a tie that all other men wore, arrived dressed in a shirt (jersey) of Barcelona, the well-known soccer club from Spain.

At the end of the meeting, I approached the young man to congratulate him on the excellent choice of his shirt (and would have also congratulated him if the shirt had been Boca Juniors, but not many other clubs.) I took the opportunity to ask him if he liked Barcelona (something that seemed obvious) and soccer in general.

His answer was a single word: "What?"

The young man explained that he had bought that shirt because he liked the colors, ignoring any connection of those colors with Barcelona or with soccer. And the question if he knew Leonel Messi was answered with “Who?”, making it clear that, for him, “his” shirt was just a combination of nice colors and nothing more.

The situation reminded me of images that are repeated with some frequency in social media and in fundraising campaigns, showing children in poverty wearing American football team shirts of which, almost certainly, those children know absolutely nothing.

The experience of having met someone who wears a Barcelona shirt without knowing anything about Barcelona made me think of something different, that is, the possibility of "wearing" a certain belief, dogma or ideology and "wearing it" without knowing anything at all about that ideology.

It is said that the most difficult ideology to understand is precisely the one we accept, believe, and follow, because it is presented as something "normal" and even "obvious" and, for that reason, as something we don’t need to think, analyze or challenge. 

And then we walk through life “showing the colors” of that ideology, not really knowing what it is. And if someone congratulates us or criticizes us for “wearing” that ideology and asks us why we have adopted it, we will probably answer, as the young man mentioned above replied, “Because I just like it”.

In fact, there are numerous cases like when we talk about politics, religion, economics, or other topics. Somebody will wear his or her “ideological shirt” everywhere, whether it is prudent or not to do it, be courteous or not, in many cases ignoring the meaning of the colors he/she is showing.

Worse, that ignorance, added to the attachment to the colors, prevents any meaningful dialogue. The answers, if any, are limited to monosyllables usually framed in a smile dyed in disdain. From that point one, with minds and hearts closed, any attempt to provide a context for our question (for example, talking about Barcelona) will be useless. 

Let's be honest: we all wear an “ideological shirt” that we don't see or don't know. Therefore, we read sacred books as if they were economic manuals and even happily contribute to our own dehumanization. So, if someone asks you for your shirt, open your eyes.

We don't even know our own planet completely yet

NASA recently announced the discovery of an exoplanet near the star CJ357 that, due to its characteristics, could be similar to the earth. The discovery of exoplanets similar to the earth is nothing new, but what is new is that almost simultaneously Facebook announced that we still don’t have accurate maps for large portions of our planet. 

Let's see if we can understand this issue: while we can know that the planet CJ357d (“d” means that it is the fourth planet in its planetary system), about 200 light years from Earth, is in the so-called “habitable zone” and that it could have water, we have not yet been able to make complete maps of Thailand and Indonesia.

TESS cameras (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) made it possible to determine that CJ357d could have an atmosphere dense enough for liquid water to exist on that planet.

But, at the same time, most of the routes in Thailand and Indonesia, according to information published by Facebook, are not yet listed on any map. In fact, the process of creating those maps began ten years ago and it has not completed because the work is done by volunteers and the maps are created manually.

In short, we can study a distant planet with a high degree of precision and, simultaneously, we lack accurate information about large areas of our planet. What a paradox! We see the distant, the remote, but we don’t see what is near to us.

The paradox is not new, although we have now taken it to a cosmic level, and we have involved artificial intelligence. Two millennia ago, a well-known itinerant teacher taught that it is easier to see the straw in another person’s eye than the beam in our own eye.

The same teacher said that we must first remove the beam from our eye before trying to remove the straw from the eye of the other person. With all due respect to that teacher, this teaching could be understood now as the need to know the inner universe before knowing the outer universe, although both actions are, in essence, inseparable.

We know, for example, that the star around which CJ357d revolves has a third of the mass of our Sun and is 40 percent colder than the Sun. But on earth, millions of miles of roads (streets, roads, bridges) worldwide are not yet listed on any map. We know, then, the distant planet, but we don’t our own planet.

Perhaps, without neglecting the exoplanets, we should change the direction of our eyes and look at our own planet and stop seeing it as an accumulation of inert material that we can extract, exploit and discard. Perhaps we should look even deeper within ourselves to discover what leads us to exploit and destroy our own planet. 

How will we escape an artificial intelligence that knows everything about us?

There is already an artificial intelligence (AI) that not only knows what emotions we are feeling, but can reproduce them through its own codes, according to a recent announcement by the University of Colorado at Boulder. And according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), there is already an AI that knows if we are kissing another person.

In addition, according to a recent article in El País, the arrival of the so-called “superapps” is imminent, that is, something similar to the well-known applications (apps) that we all have in our smartphones, but that, unlike the apps we know, superapps can offer up to 100,000 services, and there is already talk of superapps with up to 200,000 services.

The goal of superapps, says the article in El País, is that each of us can have "all our lives on the palm of our hands." But, leaving aside the fact that nobody asked me if I want to have my whole life in the palm of my hand, wouldn't it be more correct to say that we are leaving our lives in the hands of the superapps, that is, of AI?

As the University of Colorado in Boulder explains (briefly) in its statement, the AI that knows what we feel not only knows it, but knows it knows it. And that is interesting, because many times we ourselves don't know what we feel.

In other words, how can we hide from an AI that knows more about us than we know about ourselves? Take, for example, the other AI, that of MIT, which knows if we kiss someone. Suppose that MIT AI works together with the Boulder. Then, not only AI will know if we kiss someone, but AI will also know what we feel when kissing that person.

And suppose -although there is nothing absurd in this assumption- that all this information is easily accessible by means of a superapp, as easy as it is now easy to get old (at least in images) thanks to a well-known application. Then, thanks to that fusion of different technologies, everyone will be able to know if a kiss was sincere, if there was deception when kissing, if it was an expression of passion, or if there was rejection.

And that would be only one of the probably hundreds of thousands of "services" that AI or new superapps will offer us, including the "service" of putting all knowledge about our whole lives in one place. And that, at the very least, is dangerous in a society in which information is power and immaturity is queen.

Therefore, can we escape an AI that knows everything and sees everything, that controls our whole life and that even encourages us not to think because she, adopting a deceptive woman's name, already has everything resolved for us? We can hardly do it. But a gold cage, even if it is gold, is still a cage.

So, Alexa, what alternatives do we have? What do you mean “None”?

Every day there are fewer pieces left to complete the puzzle

One of the most common errors of our reasoning is to assume that the piece of knowledge we have equals all the available knowledge. That is, we generalize and universalize our limitations and, as a consequence, we don’t see them, nor do we see that other pieces, different from the ones we already had, continue to be added to the puzzle.

But the more pieces are added to the puzzle, the clearer the final image becomes, even if details and precisions are missing. And it is more difficult to cling to that one piece that we have and that, erroneously, we thought was the only one that existed.

Less metaphorically, the new present and the imminent future are incompatible with our beliefs and experiences of the past. If the future is no longer continuation from the past, the limited past we know is useless in the new future. 

What do I mean? When we connect the scattered pieces and put them next to each other the image is clear: the artificial and perhaps immortal human is about to arrive. Maybe it's the best thing that could happen to humanity. Or maybe it's the worst. Or maybe the best and the worst are inseparable.

What are the pieces of the puzzle that point in that direction? Among other elements, scientific reports that talk about discoveries and developments such as synthetic skin more sensitive than human skin, artificial muscles stronger and faster than human muscles, or light and movement sensors with greater perception capacity than their counterparts in humans.

But those reports and announcements never appear together. They never present the final image. However, each one contributes to see more and more clearly the appearance of a transhuman human, perhaps even trans-biological human, possibly a hybrid.

That’s why studies on connectivity between the human brain and artificial intelligence are also progressing, while artificial intelligence itself accelerates its own growth, encompassing ever wider sectors of planetary life and even creating its own laws and language.

By joining all the pieces of the puzzle so far available (surely there are other pieces not yet made known), that mental exercise of connecting the pieces together is facilitated by assuming that the connection is based on the techno-scientific formation of an artificial, transhuman humanity.

And it can be assumed that this new humanity will soon arrive, making the current humanity obsolete and outdated, the new humanity being as distant and different from us as we are from our remotest ancestors.

But then another puzzle arises, but with even fewer pieces than the creation of an artificial humanity. And it is the puzzle to explain why we, humans, are committed to creating transhuman beings. Are we responding to a cosmic call to progress on the universal scale or is it just another example of our perennial ineptitude?

The search for immortality and transcendence is as old as humanity itself and as current as the sun every morning. But it seems that the puzzle is close to completion.

The future arrived and we look in the opposite direction

Recently, a young man told me he was looking for a job and asked me to inform him if I knew of any opportunities in his area of interest. Shortly after, an opportunity arose and I immediately shared it with him, only to find out days later that he had not accepted it.

I asked him why he had rejected the opportunity and his answer was clear. "I do not want to work all day in a basement talking on the phone and listening to people's problems." The argument, although acceptable, had a big problem: it wasn’t base on reality.

The job I had was him was at a large, bright office in a commercial building with easy access and ample parking. It was not a basement. And the job was to make community education presentations, not listen to problems over the phone.

I asked the young man why he had come to such a conclusion with no based on reality and he told me that some years ago he had looked for work in a similar organization and that the initial interview was in a basement where there were people answering phone calls.

Perhaps that experience was so traumatic or memorable that the only option for this man was to cling to it and project it into the future and the present at every possible opportunity, assuming (erroneously) that what happened in the past would serve him to understand the future and decide his actions on that basis.

But when that future came and it was not what he expected, instead of changing his expectations and his way of understanding, instead of opening his mind and heart to other possibilities, this man locked himself inside his belief and, as a consequence, he was trapped in his past, unable to enter the future.

Let's be honest: we are all in that same situation. We cling to a past, even if it is imaginary and nostalgic, and, for that reason, we are unable to see the future and, as a consequence, we can’t create a mental map of the new future.

For example, in recent days, stories were published about the creation of "liquid metals" (in the best Terminator style), personal intelligent robots, photographs of quantum entanglement, and progress in the connection between human brains and intelligent machines (Neurolink, ofElon Musk.)

In addition, commercial trips to space are getting closer, there are already smart glasses that "know" what they have around them and store that information, and robot-musicians and robot-painters are being hired as replacements for humans, and they even win prizes previously reserved only for humans.

If we don’t understand what all that means, it is because we still live locked inside our own mental, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual basement, where, either through fear or narcissism, we only see and believe the fantasies that we created ourselves.

Meanwhile, the new future has arrived, and we, as the man in history did, rejected it because it doesn’t fit what we believed.

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