Saturday, March 31, 2012

Two Morality Frontiers - for computers and humans

What is it that makes for morality? Below are two interesting articles sent to me. After reading, please reflect on how this is connected to your day-to-day functioning, if at all:

Artificial Intelligence Pioneer: We Can Build Robots With Morals

By Jason Koebler

Like it or not, we're moving computers closer to autonomy
Judea Pearl, a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence, won the Association for Computing Machinery's A.M. Turing award earlier this month, considered the highest honor in the computing world.

Pearl developed two branches of calculus that opened the door for modern artificial intelligence, such as the kind found in voice recognition software and self-driving cars....
The calculus Pearl invented propels probabilistic reasoning, which allows computers to establish the best courses of action given uncertainty, such as a bank's perceived risk in loaning money when given an applicant's credit score.
"Before Pearl, most AI systems reasoned with Boolean logic—they understood true or false, but had a hard time with 'maybe,' " Alfred Spector, vice president of research and special initiatives at Google, said of his work.
The other calculus he invented allows computers to determine cause-and-effect relationships.
At 75, Pearl, who is the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, is currently working on a branch of calculus that he says will allow computers to consider the moral implications of their decisions.
Artificial intelligence has improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years—what's the greatest hurdle for scientists working on making machines more human like?
There are many hurdles. There's the complexity of being able to generalize, an array of technical problems. But we have an embodiment of intelligence inside these tissues inside our skull. It's proof that intelligence is possible, computer scientists just have to emulate the brain out of silicon. The principles should be the same because we have proof intelligent behavior is possible.
I'm not futuristic, and I won't guess how many years it'll take, but this goal is a driving force that's inspiring for young people. Other disciplines can be pessimistic, but we don't have that in the field of artificial intelligence. Step by step we overcome one problem after the other. We have this vision that miraculous things are feasible and can be emulated in a system that is more understandable than our brain.
What do you think is the most impressive use of artificial intelligence that most people are familiar with?
I think the voice recognition systems that we constantly use, as much as we hate them, are miraculous. They're not flawless, but what we have shows it's feasible and could one day be flawless. There's the chess-playing machine we take for granted. A computer can beat any human chess player. Every success of AI becomes mundane and is removed from AI research. It becomes routine in your job, like a calculator that performs arithmetic, winning in chess—it's no longer intelligence.
So what's next? What are people working on that'll be world changing?
I think there will be computers that acquire free will, that can understand and create jokes. There will be a day when we're able to do it. There will be computers that can send jokes to the New York Times that will be publishable.
I try to avoid watching futuristic movies about super robots, about the limitations of computers that show when the machines will try to take over. They don't interest me.
Do you think those movies scare people off? Are they detrimental to the field?
I think they tickle the creativity and interest of young people in AI research. It's good for public interest, they serve a purpose. For me, I don't have time. I have so many equations to work on.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a calculus for counterfactuals—sentences that are conditioned on something that didn't happen. If Oswald didn't kill Kennedy, then who did? Sentences like that are the building blocks of scientific and moral behavior. We have a calculus that if you present knowledge about the world, the computer can answer questions of the sort. Had John McCain won the presidency, what would have happened?
Sort of like an alternative reality?
It's kind of like an alternative reality—you have to give the computer the knowledge. The ability to process that knowledge moves the computer closer to autonomy. It allows them to communicate by themselves, to take a responsibility for one's actions, a kind of moral sense of behavior. These are issues that are interesting—we could build a society of robots that are able to communicate with the notion of morals.

North Korea’s dehumanizing treatment of its citizens is hiding in plain sight

“Shin was born a slave and raised behind a high-voltage barbed-wire fence.”
So writes Blaine Harden, a former East Asia correspondent for The Post, in a soon-to-be-published account of Shin’s life, “Escape from Camp 14.”
Harden describes a closed world of unimaginable bleakness. We often speak of someone so unfortunate as to grow up “not knowing love.” Shin grew up literally not understanding concepts such as love, trust or kindness. His life consisted of beatings, hunger and labor. His only ethos was to obey guards, snitch on fellow inmates and steal food when he could. At age 14, he watched his mother and older brother executed, a display that elicited in him no pity or regret. He was raised to work until he died, probably around age 40. He knew no contemporaries who had experienced life outside Camp 14.
At 23, Shin escaped and managed, over the course of four years, to make his way through a hungry North Korea — a larger, more chaotic version of Camp 14 — into China and, eventually, the United States. He is, as far as is known, the only person born in the North Korean gulag to escape to freedom.
Improbably, his tale becomes even more gripping after his unprecedented journey, after he realizes that he has been raised as something less than human. He gradually, haltingly — and, so far, with mixed success — sets out to remake himself as a moral, feeling human being.
When he watched his teacher beat a six-year-old classmate to death for stealing five grains of corn, Shin says he “didn’t think much about it.”
“I did not know about sympathy or sadness,” he says. “Now that I am out, I am learning to be emotional. I have learned to cry. I feel like I am becoming human.”
But seven years after his escape, Harden writes, Shin does not believe he has reached that goal. “I escaped physically,” he says. “I haven’t escaped psychologically.”

Friday, March 9, 2012

Is "more" war "less" war?

As a follow-up on one of the issues raised in the previous blog, case 4 of Bodhisattvas in an Election Year, and the difficulties that they may pose, the following article was sent to me, which I share below. The article encourages us to reflect on the many facets of this sort of issue, the positions we might hold, and to see what is entailed for those with decision-making authority and power. 

Jonathan Tepperman in The New York Times on intervention in Syria

"Rather than call for full-scale intervention, most who want to aid the Syrian rebels in their fight against Bashar al-Assad have suggested half-measures like arming the rebels or setting up safe havens over the border. 'Partial measures may seem attractive, but they risk turning a small local conflict into a far messier regional war. Strange as it sounds, doing something small may be worse than doing nothing — meaning the West should go in big or stay home,' writes Tepperman. He describes problems with arming the rebels, including their diverse makeup that could lead to a multi-sided civil war. The safe havens could be overrun by enemies or become bases that further fuel a civil war. Instead, Tepperman makes the case that real intervention would make short work of Assad's army and wouldn't alter our relations with Iran."

The article ends with the following:

"The Obama administration does not want to hear any of this. It just got out of Iraq and is trying to get out of Afghanistan and stay out of Iran; it has little stomach for yet another war in yet another Muslim country. But let’s not pretend that half-measures are preferable. Choosing policies just because they are cheap, gratifying and politically palatable is rarely a good idea, especially when they could well make matters worse. Those of us unwilling to tolerate more slaughter in Syria must confront the true nature of the military choices facing us.
We must now accept the hard facts and make an honest decision about what standing up for our interests and values will entail. If that means a major armed intervention, we should do it, but with no illusions."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bodhisattvas in an election year - Case Four

A "news fast."

Do you find your self getting angry, upset and even righteous about something a political candidate or pundit says? Or about a number of things one of the various political candidates and pundits say or do?

Some people have spoken to me about their very strong reaction and ongoing mind chatter about political candidates and political statements. These reactions occur not only the first time they hear or read these things, but are ongoing; they keep on coming to mind-body throughout the day. The anger, talk back and so forth keeps arising, being held to and generating upset at many occasions. And this effects functioning throughout the day, bleeds into various activities, effects relations with others and responses to them. Does this happen to you? Even for candidates and elections that you are not voting for any time soon, or about whom you already have made up your mind?

If so, what is skillful and appropriate so that you do not stay caught up in this, so that the stress and dissatisfaction are not perpetuated, does not result in harmful actions?

Are you able to skillfully respond, release the attachment and reactive habit? If so, please do so.

This discussion is also relevant for our reactions to wars and natural events in other places, including things such as: the current murders and tortures in Syria by the government forces for which there is little or nothing that you can do right now - other than what you might have done in terms of practice, in terms of your offering merit or contacting political entities. It also is relevant for natural events such the recent tornadoes and resulting death and injuries in the US Midwest. You can make donations and help directly but may not be able to do much more skillfully and appropriately. This is especially pertinent given the forecast of strong winds and tornado conditions for the near future.

Yes, we should always ask: Is there something that we can do, want to do, to respond to the situation? Is it skillful and appropriate, does it support this ongoing practice life? If so, please do so.

If there is nothing to do, then what? When we find that our ongoing practice efforts do not allow us to release the anger, upset and ongoing mind chatter, I have suggested to some people to have a "news fast."

This "news fast" is something I have done at times and have found that when others do it for a limited time it has positive benefits.

A news fast is: for a set period, days, weeks, a month, to stop listening to or reading media reports - or at least to limit and curtail it very significantly. This "fast" is very much like what we do during sesshin in the Zen tradition, or do during an intensive/retreat. It means not consulting the ever available internet and other virtual modalities to see the latest statements, comments, tweets, blogs and so forth. To retreat for a time from the constant input that you are caught up in, reacting to.

The "news fast" is a practice support, just as many "forms" can be a practice support, helpful when needed in the midst of this body-mind condition as it is right now.

The "news fast" makes possible the settling of the reactive body-mind habits, letting be the grasping/rejecting attachment and agitation, so that we can be where we are, see what is so and do what is called for right now; so that we can speak to whom we are speaking, do what we are doing.

If this "news fast" is appropriate for you, please try it. If you try it, see, be attentive to, what occurs.

(c) 2012 Elihu Genmyo Smith

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why Doctors Die Differently

Life-and-death is of supreme importance - this is our practice and our opportunity. Several years ago we had an extensive seminar class on this, and we all can benefit and serve others in ongoing clarification.

Here is an interesting article in case you missed it. Especially interesting are the pro and con comments from MDs, more than 600 when I posted this:

Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. It was diagnosed as pancreatic cancer by one of the best surgeons in the country, who had developed a procedure that could triple a patient's five-year-survival odds—from 5% to 15%—albeit with a poor quality of life.

Charlie, 68 years old, was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with his family. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation or surgical treatment. Medicare didn't spend much on him.

What's unusual about doctors is not how much treatment they get compared with most Americans, but how little.

It's not something that we like to talk about, but doctors die, too. What's unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared with most Americans, but how little. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care that they could want. But they tend to go serenely and gently.

Doctors don't want to die any more than anyone else does. But they usually have talked about the limits of modern medicine with their families. They want to make sure that, when the time comes, no heroic measures are taken. During their last moments, they know, for instance, that they don't want someone breaking their ribs by performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (which is what happens when CPR is done right)..............