Friday, May 17, 2019

Erosion of individual autonomy- I

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is an inquiry into humanity’s apocalyptic, tech-driven future. “Modernity is a deal,” Harari writes. “The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” That power, he suggests, may in the near term give us godlike attributes. Modern biology offers a mechanistic view of humans and  exposes even our most sacred emotions of love and hate as simple heuristic learning algorithms, evolved over millions of years to help us make quick decisions.

This has made techno-utopians think that man-made algorithms can decipher these organic algorithms. This has resulted in authority slowly shifting from humans to algorithms. Governments in that situation would be much less powerful than Google. We have already built vast data-processing networks that can know our feelings better than we know them ourselves. Google can process our behaviour to know what we want before we ourselves know it. Big Data analysis already allows accurate predictions of individual human behavior based on their tweets and Facebook posts.

We are at the edge of letting cars without drivers take us to the airport and automated chat bots answer our inquiries online. A lot of our current jobs are slowly being replaced by automated processes that are faster and cheaper. Algorithms are now getting better than humans at data entry and analysis and  even music creation. The next decade of development might make millions of people completely irrelevant to economic and societal progress. This includes not only office workers, but artists, doctors, lawyers and scientists, as algorithms are already entering their fields. Many of us will most likely have to reinvent ourselves in the upcoming years, if not even now.

What problems will such technological changes bring about? What will an uneducated 40-year old taxi driver upgrade to that can be useful in the economy of the future? Harari thinks that  if current trends continue, then the benefits of this phase of modernity will be vastly unequally distributed. The new longevity and super-human qualities are likely to be the preserve of the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe. Meanwhile, the redundancy of labour, supplanted by efficient machines, will create an enormous “useless class”, without economic or military purpose. Harari envisages that “Dataism”, a universal faith in the power of algorithms, will become sacrosanct.

He thinks that only those abilities of humans will be encouraged that the political and economic system finds useful. An example is the attention helmet that I had written about earlier. It shuts outs empathy and doubts and enables a person to make quick decisions in morally difficult situations. But overuse of the helmet risks creating lots of what he calls ‘over-sized ants’ who are very good in the dimension that is rewarded by the political system and market forces but are deficient in other dimensions. You are often told that you are free to make your own choices about what you want to do. But what if technological progress makes it possible to reshape and engineer those choices in directions which someone else determines?

Evegeny Morozov gives an example of such a ‘directed  choice’ in To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. The 'suggestion' is due to the various kinds of data that are floating around the Web and interpreted in myriad ways by different algorithms. Suppose you are thinking of becoming a vegetarian and visit a few websites on the topic. An algorithm belonging to a tech giant correctly guesses your intention and concludes that there is an 83% chance of your becoming a vegetarian within a month.

Whoever operates the algorithm sells this information to the association of meat producers. Suddenly you start receiving free samples of meat and while visiting various websites you keep getting ads explaining the benefits of eating meat. Finally you decide to remain a meat-eater. You are of course oblivious of the connection between your initial aspiration, the samples, the ads. Are you making your choice consciously or are you being directed towards the preference of somebody else? In Homo Deus, Harari writes:
In the heyday of European imperialism, conquistadors and merchants bought entire islands and countries in exchange for coloured beads. In the twenty-first century our personal data is probably the most valuable resource most humans still have to offer, and we are giving it to the tech giants in exchange for email services and funny cat videos. 
This echoes one of Gandhi's main criticisms of modernity - it reduces individual autonomy. According to Ronald Terchek in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, ‘Autonomy stands at the center of Gandhi’s political philosophy. It is his greatest good and precedes in importance his other political and social goals.’ His focus on individual autonomy was what made him question the use of machinery, attack social ills like untouchability, be suspicious of the state and other institutions, the uses of violence to settle disputes, repudiate capitalism, communism and imperialism. He says in Young India on June 12, 1924, ‘I am not interested in freeing India merely from the English yoke. I am bent upon freeing India from any yoke whatsoever.‘

In Bapu Kuti, Rajini Bakshi makes a distinction between the historical Gandhi and the civilizational Gandhi. The historical Gandhi may be criticized and condemned as an ordinary figure. But the civilizational Gandhi, the Gandhi of the  ideas and concepts and uncomfortable questions scattered throughout his works about what a good society should be like, is a far more imposing and enduring figure. I am more interested in the Civilizational Gandhi, especially his critique of modernity which many find queer. Getting lost in extreme statements distracts from the substance of his critique. He considered modern civilization to be without a moral centre with its emphasis on progress without limits, rights without responsibilities, and technology without cost.

He held that modern man was the victim of a vast humbug perpetrated by legislatures, educational institutions, hospitals, and armies. The ‘life-corroding competion’ encouraged by modernity resulted in bondage rather than freedom. He insists that economics and science should be judged not only by their own internal standards but also by standards external to them i.e. ethical standards.  He recognized the oppression in theories of efficiency and progress, conventionality and commonsense. He held that freedom came from internal sources rather than by submitting to the will of others.  He keeps reminding us of what we are missing in modern life. He said in Harijan, 1-2-1942 (in Democracy: Real and Deceptive):
If the individual ceases to count, what is left of society? Individual freedom alone can make a man voluntarily surrender himself completely to the service of society. If it is wrested from him, he becomes an automaton and society is ruined. No society can possibly be built on a denial of individual freedom.  In reality even those who do not believe in the liberty of the individual believe in their own. Modern editions of Ghenghiz Khan retain their own [autonomy]. 

Friday, May 3, 2019

The transcranial helmet

“The day-by-day experience of a managed existence leads us all to take a world of fictitious substances for granted. . . . The verbal amoebas by which we designate the management-bred phantoms thus connote self-important enlightenment, social concern and rationality without however denoting anything which we could ourselves taste, smell or experience. In this semantic desert full of muddled echoes we need a Linus blanket, some prestigious fetish that we can drag around to feel like decent defenders of sacred values.” — Ivan Illich

The id is the primitive component of personality that responds directly and immediately to the instincts. The id operates on the pleasure principle which is the idea that every wishful impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences. The superego's function is to control the id's impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. It also has the function of persuading the ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones and to strive for perfection. The ego or ‘the self’ is a result  of the tussle between the id and the superego. Modernity appears to have suppressed the superego, for authority and society say that now it is good to do what has always been bad. Gandhi wrote in Harijan, 31-1-'35:
Man must choose either of the two courses, the upward or the downward; but as he has the brute in him, he will more easily choose the downward course than the upward, especially when the downward course is presented to him in a beautiful garb. Man easily capitulates when sin is presented in the garb of virtue.
Philosophers and scientists debate about whether humans have free will. There are scientific studies that indicate that free will is an illusion. If this is true, then it should be possible to manipulate desires and feelings by genetic engineering or direct brain stimulation. Experiments indicate that even complex human feelings like love, fear, anger and depression can be manipulated by stimulating the right spots in the brain. Not surprisingly, the military has started using this idea to make soldiers kill more people. In On Killing, Grossman writes that military history can be written as a history of methods to overcome a human being's inbuilt resistance to killing another human.

There are helmet-like devices fitted with electrodes that attach to the outside of the scalp. It produces weak electro-magnetic fields and directs them towards specific brain areas which stimulates the desired brain activities. The American military is trying out such devices for improving the performance of soldiers on the battlefield. The results are not conclusive but they could be used for enhancing the abilities of snipers, drone operators etc.

In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari writes about a journalist for New Scientist, Sally Adee, who was allowed to visit a training facility for snipers and test the effects of the helmet herself. In a battlefield simulator without the helmet, she felt fear as 20 masked virtual men, armed with rifles and strapped with suicide bombs, charged straight towards her. For each assailant she shot, three new ones appeared and her panic and incompetence were continually jamming her rifle.

Then she wore the helmet and she picked off the terrorists one by one coolly and methodically. At the end of her 20 min. session, she felt a bit disappointed - she was enjoying killing the terrorists and wanted to kill more. Her 20 minute session seemed to be over in an instant. She says:
. . . the thing that made the earth drop from under my feet was that for the first time in my life, everything in my head finally shut up. . . My brain without self-doubt was a revelation. There was suddenly this incredible silence in my head. . . I hope you can sympathise with me when I tell you that the thing I wanted most acutely for the weeks following my experience was to go back and strap on those electrodes.
The helmet helps the mind to drown out the argument between the Id and the Superego thus enabling the Ego (Self) to make decision about matters (eg. killing a human being) which do not come easily to a person. In some battlefield situations, such a helmet may be useful. The political and economic system would expect and reward such abilities. But its overuse may reduce the person’s ability to show empathy and tolerate doubts and inner conflicts. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari writes:
When we mix a practical ability to engineer minds with our ignorance of the mental spectrum and with the narrow interests of governments, armies and corporations, we get a recipe for trouble. We may successfully upgrade our bodies and our brains while losing our minds in the process. Indeed, techno-humanism may end up downgrading humans. The system may prefer downgraded humans not because they possess any superhuman knacks, but because they would lack some really disturbing human qualities that hinder the system and slow it down.
 As any farmer knows, it's usually the brightest goat in the flock that stirs up the most trouble which is why the  Agricultural Revolution involved downgrading animals' mental abilities. The second cognitive revolution, dreamed up by techno-humanists, might do the same to us, producing human cogs who process data far more effectively than ever before, but who can hardly pay attention, dream or doubt. For millions of years we were enhanced chimpanzees. In the future, we may become over-sized ants.