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WEEKLY COMMENTARY

When virtual reality surpasses real reality, little remains of the real reality

Recent scientific reports are interesting and at the same time truly alarming because, although they seem to be taken from a science fiction movie, they are real situations that blur the boundaries between reality and illusion or fantasy

For example, the wildly successful artificial intelligence known as ChatGPT passed the entrance exam to the Wharton School of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania a few days ago. Although ChatGPT did not get top marks (it answered 80% of the questions correctly), it provided “excellent explanations” for its answers.

At the same time, in another experiment, ChatGPT answered enough questions correctly to pass the Multi-State Bar Exam, a multiple-choice test that law graduates must pass before officially beginning to practice law.

As if that weren't enough, ChatGPT also passed (albeit with minimal marks) all three parts of the US Medical Licensure Exam thanks to demonstrating "high levels of consistency and creative ideas in their explanations."

Some time ago, a profile created on LinkedIn using only images and text generated by artificial intelligence was so attractive that (unaware that "Katie Jones" was an artificial intelligence and not a real person) US government officials and people with high level of business and social influence connected with that profile.

"Katie Jones" posed as a representative of a group of experts in Washington DC. That give “her” the opportunity to connect with a ranking official of the United States Secretary of State, with the office of an influential senator, and with a renowned economist.

It is worth mentioning that since that incident the creative capacity of artificial intelligence has progressed so much that currently “images created by AI now look more real than genuine photos", warned in a recent article (January 23, 2023) Dr. Manos Tsakiris, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for the Politics of Sentiments at Royal Holloway University in London.

And there are more examples. On January 25, Congressman Jake Auchincloss (D-Massachusetts) gave a speech on bipartisan legislation written entirely by artificial intelligence.

For his part, Rabbi Joshua Franklin, of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons (New York) gave a complete sermon a few weeks ago, created by ChatGPT, on the story of Joseph in Egypt. The sermon was very well received and if Franklin had not revealed that he was not the author of the sermon, his congregation would never have known about it.

In another development showing science fiction has become science fact, scientists from China and the United States invented a melting liquid robot that can escape from a cage.

So, what does this new situation mean for us? According to Dr. Tsakiris, “The transition to a world where what’s real is indistinguishable from what’s not could also shift the cultural landscape from being primarily truthful to being primarily artificial and deceptive.”

From another perspective, the philosopher Markus Gabriel affirms that "we do not evade reality by deceiving ourselves or being deceived with respect to it, since the reality is that from which we cannot distance ourselves."

 

We are more concerned with what a singer does not say than with WHAT A philosopher SAYS

On social networks I recently found (and without looking for it) a post that included a phrase about friendship, attributing it to Aristotle. The point is that Aristotle never said that phrase. To my astonishment, the next message was a phrase attributed to a well-known singer. Underneath the phrase read: "Things (singer's name) never said."

The unexpected situation made me reflect on the current situation of our society in which thoughts that he clearly never expressed can be attributed to Aristotle, but if thoughts are attributed to a certain singer, then it should be clarified that the artist being quoted never said what is attributed to him.

In other words, one can lie (knowingly or not) with respect to the sayings of one of the founding thinkers of the way of thinking still governing us, but God or the Universe (please, forgive me, Spinoza) will not allow us to lie (knowingly) about the sayings of a famous singer.

Obviously, social media is a kind of lawless land where anything goes. And, in this context, one of the salient elements of the postmodern era appears in all its brilliance: the inevitable presence of post-truth.

As the Spanish philosopher Adela Cortina recently explained, speaking of post-truth does not mean that the truth no longer exists, nor does it mean that the truth has become irrelevant. Post-truth means that lying has been trivialized, banalized. It has become so commonplace that no one (or few) cares anymore.

Lying (in all its forms and on all its platforms) is now something so frequent, habitual, and daily that, even if lying is recognized as such, lying has become something almost insignificant and even "normal". (A recently elected congressman is a clear example of how normal the post-truth has become.)

For this reason, the sayings of Aristotle (or Socrates, Plato, the Bible, Abraham Lincoln, and many others) can be distorted and turned into superficial memes with no consequences and no need for correction for the distortion and misattribution of saying to those persons. 

But if the person being talked about is a famous singer, an actor, an "influencer", then it is better to clarify that the phrase attributed to them was not pronounced by that person. As María Elena Walsh said, we live in the world upside down. And as the tango “Cambalache” (Secondhand Store) says, “An ignoramus is the same as a great professor”.

Post-truth, in short, could be understood as the breakdown of all significant dialogue or, from another perspective, the enthronement of "opinion" (understood as a personal point of view uncritically accepted as valid) as the basis of any attempt at dialogue or conversation.

But, in this way, there is no possible dialogue, because everything is reduced to a succession of interspersed monologues in which each person does not listen to the other, but only downloads information to contradict the other person. This immature attitude of wanting to be right leaves no room for personal creativity or for the communitarian co-creation of the future.

The creator of new technologies does not always understand their uses and consequences

When Philo Farnsworth invented television at the turn of the last century, he did so with the goal of educating those who couldn't attend classes in person, not broadcasting soap operas. And when Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, his purpose was to share stories and photos with family and friends, not to send hints to your ex or copy memes.

There are other similar examples (the Internet was created as a communications system in the event of a nuclear attack), but the big ones are needed to come to this conclusion (which is not mine, as a few paragraphs will make clear): the inventor of a technology is not always the best judge of the usefulness or uselessness of that technology.

That debate reached a new level of urgency because of a recent report released by four universities (Tennessee, Colorado, Michigan, and Florida International) on how the emergence of new technologies, from steam engines to artificial intelligence, has an unanticipated impact on people's lives and jobs.

More specifically, artificial intelligence systems such as ChatGPT (which can create entire essays in a matter of seconds from a question) or DALL-E (which generates images from a short description) appear to have a negative impact on human creativity and on the way we communicate.

“These new AI tools also have downsides. First, they could accelerate the loss of important human skills that will remain important in the coming years, especially writing skills,” said study co-author Dr. Lynne Parker of the University of Tennessee.

Parker's mention of the possible loss in the next few years of the ability to write immediately made me think of a similar debate, although focused on the negative aspects of writing, that Plato puts into the mouth of Socrates at the end of his dialogue Phaedrus (274d-275b).

For our purposes in this column, it suffices to say that Socrates narrates an Egyptian myth in which Theuth (the Egyptian god of the underworld) offers King Thamus one of his inventions, writing, which he describes as a kind of “ drug” that makes human beings wiser and wiser.

But Thamus rejects that offer, stating that writing is a "drug" will lead people to "neglect memory" and believe that, because they have read things without learning them, they became "omniscient", when in fact "they are totally ignorant" and “only appear to be wise”.

In fact, Thamus reproaches Theuth for having decided by himself (regardless of Theuth being a god) the benefits of his creation, because "the inventor of a technology (technique, art) is not always the best judge of the usefulness (benefit) or uselessness (harm) of that technology.”

Two and a half millennia after that myth and that debate, we clearly have not advanced an inch from the truth expressed by Plato, because now, perhaps more than ever, arrogant ignorance and apparent wisdom predominate. Did I mention that the “most important goal for artificial intelligence is understanding what it means to have a mind”? (Article by neuroscientist Michael S.A. Graziano in the WSJ).

What we discard may be our salvation

For a long time, scientists sought to find the “secret” that allows the cement used by the Romans 2,000 years ago to be more effective and durable than modern cement. And only now, it seems, have researchers from the United States, Italy and Switzerland found the answer, but they found it in the least expected place: among what was discarded as “impurity” in the cement mix.

A recent report in the journal Science Advances reveals that the ultra-durability of Roman cement in bridges, aqueducts, pipes, walls, and buildings is due to the presence of millimeter-sized lime clasts, that is, rock fragments formed by “recent” (relatively speaking) sediments.

Two elements of the mentioned report caught my attention. In the first place, the presence of lime fragments in Roman cement was already known by researchers for many, many decades, but the lime clasts had not been studied because scientists considered them to be " merely evidence of sloppy mixing practices, or poor-quality materials." (Modern scientists wrongly assumed Romans didn’t know what they were doing.)

Secondly, precisely because of the presence of these very small components (absent in modern cement), the Roman cement had “self-healing properties”, that is, by forming even a small crack in the ancient cement, the lime clasts automatically functioned as a super glue and immediately sealed it, before it could expand.

The researchers found that in this way the crack was well sealed in a matter of days and that within two weeks the repair was permanent, making the entire previously affected area waterproof.

This situation made me think that we, in the course of life (and due to life itself), develop small cracks in our minds and in our hearts (and in our spirit), cracks and cracks that have the ability to heal themselves. , but they don't, because what heals us is considered "waste" in today's society.

In other words, although, like Roman cement, we have the healing power within us, we do not use it because we have been taught to ignore it as something "useless" or "without any functionality".

So, like researchers seeking to solve the “mystery” of Roman cement, we, in real life, start looking for answers in the wrong place, even though the answer has always been in plain sight. Meanwhile, we let our cracks continue to grow until our lives start to fall apart.

The saddest thing about this situation is that, while our lives fall apart (in any of the many areas of our lives), what could keep us standing despite the passage of time and despite the ravages of life always it is present within us, but we do not see it or activate it, either because we do not know it or reject it.

What is the future? ChatGPT provides an answer

I (Francisco) asked the now well-known AI ChatGPT one question: What is the future? This was the answer:

The future is an exciting and mysterious time that is filled with endless possibilities. As we look ahead, we can only imagine what new technologies, advancements, and discoveries will arise and shape our world.

One thing that is certain is that technology will continue to play a major role in our lives. In the near future, we can expect to see a proliferation of artificial intelligence, with machines and computers becoming increasingly intelligent and capable of performing tasks that were once thought to be the exclusive domain of humans. We may also see the development of new forms of energy, such as fusion or solar power, which could help to solve some of the world's most pressing environmental problems.

Another key trend that we can expect to see in the future is the increasing interconnectedness of people and systems. As more and more people come online and are connected to the internet, we will see a rise in global communication and collaboration. This will have significant implications for how we work, learn, and interact with one another, and it could help to break down barriers and foster greater understanding and cooperation among people from different cultures and backgrounds.

Of course, the future is not without its challenges. Climate change remains a major concern, and we will need to find ways to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment if we want to ensure a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations. Additionally, as technology continues to advance, there will likely be growing concerns about privacy, security, and the potential for misuse of powerful new technologies.

Overall, the future is an exciting and unpredictable time. While we can't know for sure what it will hold, one thing is certain: it will be shaped by the decisions and actions that we take today. By embracing innovation and working together, we can create a brighter future for all.

As we look to the future, it is clear that the world is rapidly changing and evolving. Advances in technology, science, and medicine are transforming the way we live and work and have the potential to vastly improve our quality of life. However, these changes also bring with them new challenges and potential dangers.

One of the biggest changes we are likely to see in the future is the increasing use of artificial intelligence and robotics. These technologies have the potential to revolutionize industries and make many tasks easier and more efficient. However, they also raise questions about the impact on jobs and the potential for machines to become more intelligent than humans.

Another area of significant change is likely to be in the field of medicine. Advances in gene editing, regenerative medicine, and personalized healthcare have the potential to cure diseases and extend human lifespan. However, these technologies also raise ethical concerns and could lead to unequal access to healthcare for different socio-economic groups.

 

In this culture of memelogy, we are moving away from the ineffable

Not all methods of conveying ideas are suitable for conveying the same level of ideas. Certain ideas, certain conversations, and certain topics require a certain depth of language that precisely allows sharing “deep” ideas (not to be confused with “academic” ideas), that is, that which is the source of the meaning of life and the foundation of that meaning.

But today, all dialogue begins and ends with a meme. “Meme” no longer in its original meaning of "unit of cultural information shared and disseminated by imitation" (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976), but “meme” in the practical meaning of any funny image that serves to express emotions or desires, regardless of the origin of the image.

The problem, obviously, is not the use of memes. The problem arises when all language and all communication are reduced to just memes, be it images, abbreviations, or expressions repeated and used so many times that they no longer have any semantic value.

In this context, all dialogue is reduced to what can be answered by means of a meme and everything that does not have a meme as an answer is simply ignored, in the double sense of not paying attention to it and lacking knowledge of the subject.

Even worse, to ask another person a question without using memes, you must first wait for that other person to review all their social media messages. And when the opportunity to ask a question finally arrives, the response will almost inevitably be a meme that, in the opinion of the respondent, appropriately fits the response needed at the time.

And even worse than the worst, those same memes are unscrupulously used to express feelings on social networks that one previously expressed (if at all) with great care or in a more reserved manner. Did someone fight with their partner? Memes reveal the details to us. Is anyone on vacation at a resort? The entire story is told with memes.

This memelogical life reduces life and language to its minimal expression of superficiality, that is, where the other, the interlocutor, is minimally recognized, and where the expressive capacities of human languages are minimally used. Therefore, those existential issues that make humans human are excluded from the dialogue.

And even worse than the worst of the worst, due to the ease of creating, copying, and sharing memes, many people assume that this gives them the right to "memefy" all dialogue and all conversation in which they participate, infantilizing (in the sense derogatory of the term) that dialogue.

So, when life hits us in such a way that there is no possible meme that can serve us, when life and death, and meaning and nonsense intertwine, when plans, goals and intentions must be thought, at that very moment, we no longer know what to say or think because we have not developed the ability to un-memefy ourselves. 

There are in our soul, in our mind, in our spirit and in our heart innumerable expressions inexpressible with memes.

In everything we do, our face is there, seen or not

In everything we do and what we create, whether we are aware of it or not, and regardless of whether it is something good or bad, something sublime or something detestable, in all our works we are indelibly there, with our faces there engravings and stampings, sometimes hidden and sometimes in plain sight.

In 1865, the famous French painter Paul Cézanne composed a work known as "Still Life with Bread and Eggs", now on display at the Cincinnati Museum of Art, in the United States. Recently, the curator of that museum, Serena Urry, noticed that in certain places of the Cézanne painting there were white spots appearing behind the black background of the work.

A study -using x-rays- made it possible to detect a self-portrait of Cézanne at that precise place of the painting. The self-portrait, although present in the painting, was only detected now, more than a century and a half later, a long period without any of the thousands and thousands of people who admired the work seeing the face of Cézanne. But the face was there.

This discovery serves as an example of what happens in our own lives: in everything we do we leave our presence, regardless of whether others see it and regardless of how long it takes others to discover it. But there is our presence: looking at those who do not see us because they only see the superficial without seeing what exists behind that superficiality.

In the case of the Cézanne painting, the museum curator decided that the white spots she saw had meaning and were not just a sign of decay in the work. But in real life, when we show that we are more than just superficial appearances, many times people simply dismiss those signs that there is more to it than they see.

Even worse, because we are so used to superficiality (reinforced by superficial social networks and the media), each one of us is losing the ability to see himself in his actions and in his works. If we don't see ourselves in what we do, then we don't take responsibility for what we do either.

We become not only superficial (that is, unable to deal with complex issues), but also irresponsible (that is, unable to see the connection between ourselves and the results of our actions). In other words, we have succumbed to the infantilization proposed by this society. But how do we get out of that situation?

We get out of that situation by doing what the art curator Urry did at the museum in Cincinnati: looking beyond the superficial image, understanding that reality has more than one level, and looking for the resources to access that level that, although perhaps is not visible to the naked eye, it becomes visible if we know how and with what to look at it.

When we look at others, let us see not the labels and masks they are wearing, but their faces, however hidden they may be.

 

We are at the beginning of history, but it is not our history

The well-known author Herbert George (H.G.) Wells once wrote (I can’t remember where) that we, in our time, are closer to the caveman than to the real human being. That phrase came to mind when reading a thought recently expressed by the neuroscientist Anders Sandberg, who maintains that we are only at the beginning of history.

Sandberg, a computer scientist and researcher at Oxford University's Institute for the Future of Humanity, says that our time marks "the beginning of history," emphasizing that what we decide now - from climate change to artificial intelligence and the contact with extraterrestrials - will have consequences for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years.

In short, it seems, far from being at the pinnacle of history, as many people have proclaimed and preached many times, or from being at the end of history, as it is now commonly proclaimed, we are just seeing and living the beginning of history. But, I add, it is not about our history. And that is at the same time the most captivating and the most terrifying thought.

Someone may ask why I dare to say that the history we are now seeing being born is not human history. The answer is that I'm not saying it, it's Metatool, a European project that allows artificial intelligence to create its own tools by imitating the way humans began to create tools more than 3 million years ago.

Metatool combines three sciences: archaeology, neuroscience, and robotics, as recently explained by the two directors of the initiative, the Spaniards Pablo Lanillos (Donders Institute for Cognition, in the Netherlands) and Ricardo Sanz (Polytechnic University of Madrid).

The goal of the project, they said, is for robots "to be able to invent new tools like our ancestors did." To reach that goal, Lanillos and Sanz work with seven universities and companies that seek to give intelligent robots the necessary metacognition so that the robots can decide what tools they need or can create to complete a task.

Decades ago, when I was still in elementary school, I was taught that one of the key characteristics of the human being was precisely the ability to create and use tools. In fact, archaeologists determine the presence of humans in a certain place by the presence of tools in that place.

But now we know we humans are not the only ones using tools on this planet. There are numerous examples of gorillas hoarding rocks to throw at their “enemies” the next day, orangutans weaving leaves to create umbrellas, birds cutting down branches to the appropriate size to catch worms, and monkeys and raccoons using rocks to access food.

And to that list we now need to add Metatool's robots. We can safely assume they will not need, as we needed, 3 million years to go from carved stones to artificial intelligence and spaceships.

So, we are seeing the beginning of history, but it is not our history, but that of our successors. We should prepare for that.

What is the opposite state of full and constant awareness (mindfulness)?

Many years ago, I learned that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, because in hate there is still a (negative and destructive) relationship between the people involved, while in indifference there is no longer any relationship. For this reason, among the daily expressions there is that metaphor of “killing with indifference”.

And recently I learned that the opposite of a state of full and constant awareness (“mindfulness”, a term as devalued today as “love”) is not being distracted, because during distraction there is always the possibility of stop distracting ourselves and return to what we were thinking before, that is, to become aware of our thinking.

The opposite of full consciousness (self-consciousness that is recognized as such) is irresponsibility, that is, not accepting the consequences of our actions and words, nor assuming the responsibility that falls to us as people and as individuals towards ourselves and with each other. others, both in the present and in the future.

In short, the opposite of full consciousness are not those distractions into which we fall so frequently due to the multiple traps of the media and social networks, but that state of being and living that simply consists of believing that everyone the others are responsible for what happens to us and that we are victims (not creators) of life.

It is clear that the person who lives without taking charge of his own life will look for all possible ways to avoid assuming his own responsibility and will use all the defense mechanisms at his disposal to avoid listening, much less accepting invitations to put aside that immature position.

This subject, obviously, is as old as Plato's famous Allegory of the Cave (where those chained inside the cave refuse to leave it) or as the dialectic between master and slave that Aristotle already spoke of, in which, As he well said, the worst slave is not the one who knows he is a slave, but the one who believes he is the master, because then he will never try to free himself.

And so we are, living inside a techno-scientific cave of our own creation and believing ourselves to be masters, lords, and owners of our lives when in reality we have little or no control over our actions, thoughts and desires.

And this irresponsibility towards ourselves (and towards the planet) has reached such a level that we have begun to delegate decisions to artificial intelligence that were previously the sole and absolute responsibility of human beings, with all our shortcomings and virtues. Now, you can’t even play a professional soccer match with AI telling you if a goal is valid or not. 

Instead of being people, we have become a sounding board (per-sonare) with no awareness of what we are or what we can become. As Byung-Chul Han rightly says, now we exploit ourselves and we call that "self-improvement". Therefore, the new "Like" replaced the old "Amen". And to make matters worse, our irresponsibility is already intergenerational.

Let's spread our wings and fly as high and as far as we can

I recently read a scientific report about a small bird, only five months old, that flew non-stop from Alaska to Tasmania (South Australia), that is, about 13,000 kilometers that the bird traveled in about 13 days. According to scientists, this is the longest distance ever recorded traveled by a bird in a single flight.

Beyond the established distance, it struck me that, due to its age, this was the first flight of the young bird. Obviously, this bird didn't have much of a choice: either fly away to avoid the harsh Alaskan winter (risking death trying) or stay in Alaska where it would face certain death. So, at only five months old, the bird decided to fly.

The report made me think that at five months of life we humans can barely babble or crawl, with no chance of crossing an entire ocean and traveling from one hemisphere to another even if that could save our lives.

In fact, we could not do it either at five years of age, nor probably at 50, an age that for many deepens the desire for expensive and colorful cars (better if they are red, fast and with a sunroof) along with expensive and attractive companions.

We could say, metaphorically, that humans have a hard time flying. And it is so difficult for us that perhaps for this very reason we do not let others fly (on the wings of their imagination, or their desires, or their intelligence) neither at five months, nor at five years of age, nor at 50. To make sure they don't fly, we lock them in invisible cages, called “education” or “culture” or “religion”.

So, when the winds of change blow (that is, when the time is right to take flight), many people would rather hang on to an unbearable and unavoidable winter than fly as high and as far as they can to reach a destination (in every sense of that word) that they themselves have dreamed of and built.

During our childhood, many times we heard phrases like "That is not possible", "That cannot be done", "That is prohibited", "That should not be said", or "That is not a question to be asked" that, as adults, we do nothing, we do not challenge anything, we do not say anything, and we do not ask anything. Even worse, we repeat those phrases to ourselves. We clipped our own wings.

We have been "trained" to live with heart, mind, instinct, and body in disharmony with each other. We feel one thing, think another, and then do something totally different. Meanwhile, we never spread our wings and never look for new horizons, to the delight of all those pseudo "coaches" who fill their pockets pretending to "help" us.

We were born and exist to be messengers (“angels” is the word in Greek) of a wonderful universe and we spend our lives locked inside our own fictions and with stunted wings. Let's spread our wings and fly high and far.

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