June 05, 2017

A Crisis of Purpose

Dear Senator Biden,

In your focus on the dignity of work, I believe you have identified the great political problem facing Americans today. However, I fear that the problem is deeper and more fundamental than you have articulated.

In the U.S., Democrats and Republicans both suffer from the same lack of political leadership. Trump, in all his boorishness, is transparent in his need to be loved by the people even as he plunders the country. But Democratic leaders suffer from the same disease, even if it is less obvious. When you echo the trope that you "work for the people," it reflects a focus on gratitude towards the leaders themselves, the wrong goal completely.

A tip for any leader: it's not about you.

The biggest challenge facing modern Americans is our loss of purpose. Our entire national economic policy is geared towards creating the most efficient means of production, making the machine that lets one person do the work of 50, freeing the 49 to do something else. But this logic takes human efficacy for granted: that is the fallacy faced by the other 49 as they search for their role in life. As a researcher in artificial intelligence, I know what the most efficient systems look like because I build them every day. Unsurprisingly, the most efficient systems do not involve humans.

What does it mean to be human?

It has taken some years for this problem to hit the soft side of our economy. The creative class is safe from automation as long as computers have difficulty generating high-level insights and good writing. And workers who pluck berries are safe from automation as long as machines lack the dexterity of human fingers. But if you think these types of jobs are permanently safe from automation, I encourage you to watch a presentation on the automation of berry-picking. The problem is simpler than it may seem, and the innovations make it clear that the berry-picking profession is soon to vanish. My message from the world of AI research is that high-level insight is also likely to be much simpler than it may seem. The crisis of human purpose which has roiled the manufacturing sector over the last 50 years will become a universal crisis within our children's lifetime.

The need for a renewed human purpose is the reason that improving health insurance fails to animate voters as much as it seems like it should. If the state is willing to care for me and my family even if I become incapacitated, then what is my purpose? Why am I even needed? The same can be said for food stamps, job retraining, universal preschool, parental leave, and a host of other Democratic priorities. These policies make sense if we think the main problem facing society is the efficient production and fair distribution of scarce resources. But in an age of automation, these policies do not demand any crucial sacrifice, and they do not restore the biggest thing which is being taken from humanity in the 21st century: a genuine reason for being.

Therefore, I admonish our politicians to answer this question: Why are people needed? The leader who will steer us out of this century's political mess will be the one who can address the people, articulate a vision for the future, and say, "we need you."

Your enthusiastic supporter,

David Bau

Posted by David at 06:15 AM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2017

Volo Ergo Sum

Descartes had it wrong. Cogito ergo sum - I think therefore I am - was his proposal that skepticism, cognition, and reason are the essence of human existence. While this view was sensible in 1600 as European intellectuals were emerging from an age of superstition, the proposal is ridiculous on its face in the highly engineered 21st century world. Who today would seriously characterize humanity as being defined by our powers of reason? Today we stand at the precipice of human-level AI. And yet when we create machines with broad and deep powers of reason outstripping human cognition, the result is utterly inhuman. To think is not to be.

Volo ergo sum. The alternative is an old idea, a slogan coined by Maine de Biran at the dawn of the first industrial revolution in 1800 when he saw the contradiction in Descartes' proposal. I wish, therefore I am. The essence of humanity is volition, agency, will. Our role is to be the source of causation. Although neuroscientists will no doubt explain the ways in which free will is likely an illusion, in our modern search for purpose, Maine de Biran's proposal is the proper way to live. To be human is to be the decider, the chooser, the originator of reasons for things. Why should the world be done in such a way? Because we are human, and because we will it to be so.

What does it mean to be human?

Exercising volition with competence is not a trivial thing. Most of us do not know what we really want, or even how to figure it out. We assume, superstitiously, that free will is automatic, that it is what happens when we are left to our animal instincts. But volition is far harder than just doing whatever we feel like. Developing our will means predicting our future selves, identifying not only our hunger today, but our desires tomorrow, our goals for next year, our aspirations for life. It means understanding the interaction of our own aims with the desires of others, our effects on each other, our hopes for society, and our vision for humanity. It means refining our ideals and honing our preferences, recognizing what we see as cute, what is profound, and what is beautiful. And it means knowing how to identify the slim intersection between that which is most desirable and that which is most possible.

Free will is not easy to exercise well: it is a developed skill. But it is a skill that that we leave pitifully untrained in modern society. Our undeveloped sense of purpose comes from the fact that for all our modernity, we still live according to Cartesian values articulated in 1600. We spend 12 or 20 years of schooling to follow the path of Descartes, accumulating knowledge and developing our powers of inquiry and reason. But there is no curriculum that trains our powers of agency.

I believe this omission is the reason modern society is descending into crisis.

Posted by David at 11:04 AM | Comments (1)