Monday, May 22, 2017

Futuristic Happiness

In February, shortly after my visit at the opening of the Museum of the Future in Dubai, my friend John C Havens invited me onto his Wellbeing Committee that is part of the IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems.  That's a mouthful, and I admit that when he first invited me, I didn't quite make it through the sentence, but he got me at Wellbeing.

In Dubai, I had eaten 3-D printer food - and taken a short vid for my brother, who talks incessantly about how the world will change with 3-D printers. He predicts they will eradicate the garment industry, which accounts for a large proportion of the economies in many countries in the Southern Hemisphere, and radically change how we interact with our natural environment in no small part because of the impact on food systems.   Until my trip to Dubai, and joining the IEEE Wellbeing Committee for AI/AS, I politely listened, nodded my head, and then changed the subject.

A chat with a robot lawyer from the United Kingdom, was at once interesting and frustrating, not unsimilar to chats with human lawyers. I pretended first that I was homeless, and it told me that there was nothing for me as I was not a citizen of the UK. Then I pretended I had a traffic ticket, but ended up in a dead end, and went on to discover the next exhibit.

An air taxi was parked outside the museum, and I had circled a few times around it waiting to see if the driver would come to give demo rides, but no go. My disappointment was outweighed by my relief, as I would have thrown caution to wind, or to the skies rather, but knew it was probably a better idea not to be one of the first to take such as ride.

The President of the United Arab Emirates had just announced plans to colonize Mars and the Museum of the Future included a display showing how they envisioned using robots and 3-D printers to rebuild areas torn by natural or manmade disaster or build in hostile environments.

My eyes opened by the visit to the Museum of the Future, and one IEEE committee meeting later, it became clear to me the extent of my ignorance about artificial intelligence. I have learned a few things in the last few months.

What is Artificial Intelligence and What Will It Do To Our Happiness? 

Artificial intelligence comes in several guises. There is the plain brown wrapper kind that we interact with everyday. Plain brown wrapper AI is just the ability of a computer to run algorithms.  We already live with this variety of AI,  and are coming to depend on it. Have you asked Siri what the fox says? Its is worth a good laugh when hanging out with munchins. She'll give a variety of answers if you keep asking.   

The real question is not what is artificial intelligence, but how deeply is it ingrained in our lives already and does it have an overall positive or deleterious effect on our happiness and wellbeing

Map or App?

And when was the last time you held a map in your hands? While there was something satisfying about having a map in your hand, even if it was impossible to fold it back into the tight rectangle it came it, most of us would admit that it is a relief to have an app not only tells us where our destination is, it tells us the fastest way to get there.

The question of whether the map app makes you happier, increases your life satisfaction or has an additive or deleterious effect on your ability to realize your full potential is another story. Yesterday a facebook friend raised this issue with a question: 

Modern manners:
You're driving somewhere, and you don't know the route to your destination, but a passenger does.
Do you use your phone, with voice prompts, to guide you? Or do you let the passenger direct you?

The conversation that ensued quickly got to the point. The discussion went from focusing on the goal of getting to a destination to whether the app getting in the way of human relationships. From all the happiness research over the years, there is one key and core finding that is crystal clear: relationships are the key to happiness. As  John Helliwell, editor of the World Happiness Report,  said at the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this year "if you want to be happy, make others happy." 

One of the reasons for the IEEE Wellbeing Committee is to identify and address these very issues. It starts with framing conversations, and hopefully leads to procedures, processes and rules that guide the creation and use of AI so that it leads to greater happiness, or at least does not sacrifice our happiness, wellbeing, quality of life and ecological sustainability in the pursuit of economic gain, productivity and efficiency.  

But we are a long way yet from having such a framework for AI designers, programmers and marketers. This means it is up to us to have these conversations, like the one my facebook friend started on facebook. It also means that it is up to us to become aware of how using the apps and other AI functions we use make us feel and the impact they are having on what really matters to us in our lives.  This is a tall order, and assumes that we have made a conscientious decision about what does matter.  Most of us, when put to the test, will answer with the same factors that happiness science tells us really does matter: family, friends, pets, love, nature, a sense of purpose and meaning, and other aspects of life that have little to do with short term profits and economic growth. 

The Future of Jobs, Happiness and Artificial General Intelligence

Martin Ford, in his book Rise of the Robots, predicts a future robots that have the ability to work, think and learn faster and better than humans will take all the jobs away from people.  (Ford's remedy is to reframe markets as commodities, and provide a basic guaranteed income high enough to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship). This forecast feels so alarming because it is already coming true.

Little Orange Robots (under yellow bins) at Amazon Packaging Center

Employment, like relationship, carries a heavy load when it comes to our sense of worthiness, satisfaction with life and even our physical health.  As Alan Krueger points out in his keynote talk 
at the Subjective Well-being Over the Life Course conference, loss of employment, particularly for working age men, has far reaching negative effects domino effects on a person's happiness: increased use of mental and physical illness, disability, opioid drug use, low sense of meaning in life, lower life satisfaction, high death rates, as well as social un-rest and election results that lead to policy decisions that emphasize the use of gross domestic product and profit as primary measures of human well-being.  

The impact of AI on our happiness could be even worse. Yuval Noah Harrari, in his book Homo Deus, forecasts a day when humans, other than a small handful (say, 1% of the 1%) who control AI, will no longer be viewed as needed. According to him, AI will replace our functionality and usefulness by government and business, we will lose our sense of individuality when brain science and information technology crack the code of  human functioning and break it down into series of algorithms.  This, coupled with the development of Artificial General Intelligence, will make humans redundant. 

A New Religion

Artificial General Intelligence departs from plain old brown wrapper AI because it outstrips human's intellectual abilities.  It can learn, and it can reinvent itself, much like we do throughout our lives. What it misses is consciousness. It is not aware that it is aware.  

This raises the very important question that Harrari asks at the end of his book, paraphrased here. (He actually asks three questions, but I distill them to one).  Who are you? 

Dataists believe that everything can be reduced to information. They see themselves as bits of information, and work towards a world in which all information is freely available to itself.  It is as if they imagine a return to a divine state of oneness in which we are all part and inseparable from a universe of freely flowing information bits.  For a dataist, the feelings are a neurochemical reaction, which is a series of algorithms, and thus can be understood as a flow of data. Thoughts, ideas, impressions, dreams: all are information that can be described as data. 

This philosophy, or religion, assumes that we are our feelings, thoughts, beliefs, likes and dislikes, or sensations.  Buddhist philosophy rejects all of these as defining who one is.  It counters with the concept of consciousness.  Awareness of a feeling, thought, belief, like or dislike or sensation is not the feeling, thought, belief, like or dislike nor the sensation.  It is consciousness. 

A future in which robots not only replace humans but reduce us to meat is, obviously, not a happy one. However, a future in which AI is designed and employed to ensure each of us reaches our full potential as human beings is a happy one.  If dataists are wrong, and who we are is not something that can be reduced to algorithms,  and if Buddha is correct, and we are consciousness, then what does it mean to be conscious, to be aware, to be awake?  Buddhists have seven attributes to describe a fully conscious person: they are joyful and calm, curious and focused, energetic and equanimous, and present (mindful).  

While it is an impossible task to ask any one person, or even a group of powerful people, to ensure that the development of AI is guided by the goal of helping humans reach their greatest potential as conscious beings, we can begin that process now, today, by simply being as conscious as we can, as mindful as one can, in each moment.  This may not make any difference, but then, it may make all the difference. 

But what if AI is developed so that it becomes conscious?

Artificial Super Intelligence and Human Consciousness

Artificial Super Intelligence, or ASI, is simply artificial intelligence that has consciousness. Most will say this is a pipe dream, but if it is possible, it will happen. If it does, some fear humans will no longer be able to differentiate themselves from AI.

This fear is based on the idea that only humans have consciousness, and all other life forms on this planet are sort of dumb. I suggest that we turn this question around, and look at how often consciousness shows up in all life forms on our planet, and that in seeing it, contemplating it and then asking ourselves how we really want to interact with other beings: as meat and fungible, or with honor, compassion and wisdom. 

Nanoscience, Human Health and Human Happiness

Another technological development that some say is a pipe dream is nanoscience. Think of nanoscience as being god at the molecular level. With nanoscience, you can send intelligence to cure your body or mind at an atomic level.  The promise of nanoscience is immortality. 

Whether nanoscience will ever become a reality, it reveals one concept that is already a reality: advances in AI will and are entering our bodies and mind though an effort to cure human illness. 

A few weeks ago my step-son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Quickly, AI came into our lives. A device in his body constantly monitors glucose levels, and sends the information to our smartphones. None of us miss waking him up at 3 in the morning to poke a needle in his finger and draw the blood to ensure his levels are in the safe range. Maybe someday there will be replacement pancreases, and if nanotechnology could cure his pancreas without hurting him in another way, we would be in line to get the dose.

What's Human Happiness?

This is how AI will be in our future. Instead of replacing us, we will become it. First for health benefits, then for happiness benefits.  This gives rise to the third main point in this post: how do we define human happiness? 

If happiness is confined to a feeling, then we miss the interconnected nature of life. Feelings are important, and they are not separable from a wide range of aspects and circumstances of our life. These aspect include our psychology, as well as our life circumstance, our planetary environment and human rights around the world. Other areas of a our life circumstances that are linked to feelings of happiness include our financial situation or standard of living; trust and participation in the democratic process; access to nature and the health of their natural environment; sense of belonging to community, inclusion or discrimination and trust in the people and institutions around and affecting them; social support (relationships with family and friends); physical and mental health; educational level, quality and access to lifelong learning, sense of culture and heritage and access to cultural assets; employment status and job satisfaction; time balance; and other areas such as access to technology,  transportation, local food production, etc. 

Happiness is complicated, just as we are complicated. Embrace the complication of life.

Three Lessons for the Future of Happiness

1) Be aware of the impact your use of AI has on you right now. Ask yourself after you use an app that uses algorithms, whether amazon, netflix, google, or an app on your phone:  how did it make you feel? Was it of benefit to your sense of who you are?  Do you feel more or less worthwhile, more or less of a sense of purpose and connection to others? Talk about these concepts with your friends and family. 

2) Ask yourself, who are you, really? Are you defining yourself as your thoughts, feelings, sensations, ideas, definitions or roles of you from your family or culture?  If so, dig a little deeper. Separate the ideas of who you think you should be from who you really are.  Seek to arrange the circumstances of your life that you live to your full potential. 

3) Challenge accepted definitions of happiness as confined to feeling or not connected to the many aspects of life. Embrace that humans are complicated, and you are complicated, and settle with serenity into this complication.  Explore it, and celebrate it.