Our pet companions and the cycle of life

One of my companions is dying.

This is not my first rodeo. I have had many pet companions in my life, and some have lived long lives, and some have had their lives abruptly shortened. But either way, each has left a unique, cherished mark on my life that I would not change in any way. But while that does not negate the sadness and sense of loss that I feel when the end occurs, there is a lesson even in that.

In one of my first blog posts about robots, I wrote this:

My dog is much more than something that barks and performs tricks. When she greets me at the door, she teaches me the value of companionship. When she’s hungry or wants to go out, she reinforces the responsibility that comes with caring for another living being. When she snuggles up to me on the couch, she is rewarding me for the trust I have earned from her. When she sleeps between me and my wife on the bed, and we are both holding her, she acts as a conduit between us that enhances my feelings of coexistence and connectedness. And when she ultimately moves on to doggie heaven – as all dogs do at some point in time – she will teach me an important lesson about grief and the cycle of life. As all my dogs have.

Every pet we have is like a mini cycle of life: From the time we get them as a little peanut and have to teach them the ropes, through their adolescent and adult years, and into old age when we have to tend to them and ease them on. And every one of these little cycles reinforces both the connection we all have as living beings and the impermanence of that connection. I cherish my dogs and cats not only because I love them, but because I know that the time I have with them is limited and precious. And that is the way it should be with all of our friends and companions, animal or human.

So as I ease my companion in his final days and help him move on, I will try to focus less on the grief and more on the remembrance and duty I have to repay him for the companionship he has provided me over the years. And the thing about our animal companions is this: They do not concern themselves with remorse or death. They are creatures of the moment, and my remaining moments with him should be the same.

 

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I don’t know what to do with Real Americans.

I seem to be surrounded by Real Americans these days. Real Americans determined to make America great again; Real Americans determined to round up those illegals and send them back home; Real Americans who want to deal with those crime infested inner cities; Real Americans who freely admit that one must be a specific type of person to be considered a Real American; Real Americans who believe God’s will is to drive out those Islamic hordes; Real Americans who believe that homosexuals need to be reprogrammed; Real Americans who never threw their sheets and ropes away, but kept them in the closet for a day such as today; and so on.

Of course, these Real Americans have always been here, but today they seem particularly empowered, now that we have a designated Real American as president of the United States, who has surrounded himself with Real American Cabinet members, Real American advisors, and, of course, his Real American family.

I remember hearing a Real American woman once state that she had been waiting for Real American Donald Trump all her life. This was after his pussy-grabbing video came out, and I remember thinking really? The man who has decades of proof regarding his misogynistic viewpoints on women, and who once made some seriously creepy comments about his daughter Ivanka? That Donald Trump? But that’s Real Americans for you. I guess in her mind a little pussy grabbing here and there is acceptable if Trump can make America great again for Real Americans.

I guess I wouldn’t mind it so much, but these Real Americans have taken to shouting down anyone who thinks their Real Americanism might be a little much, and how it’s their time now, and how it is the duty of Real Americans to unquestioningly follow President Real American, and all that. Like that’s ever been the American thing to do.

There was a time growing up when I remember the Real Americans being the ones who fought fascism, not embraced it. What happened to those times? How can the people who are fighting tyranny, and institutionalized racism, and the rise of white supremacy, and the downfall of liberal democracy now be considered not Real Americans? When did dictatorship become so fashionable that these Real Americans are seriously considering abandoning democracy for autocracy? No Real American would ever willingly give up democracy. In my opinion, anyway.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, there was a reason I escaped the Real America of the south many years ago and never went back. The tribalism and abject racism. The closed minds and the willful ignorance. And the poor. Lots and lots of poor with no hope but their sweaty faux Christianity and synthetic Fox News. Ripe for a snake oil huckster like Real American Donald Trump for the plucking. A great many other people escaped those places too, or thought they did. But the Real Americans are ascendant now, and now there’s no place to hide.

So what to do about Real Americans? Perhaps it’s time to take Real America back. We have the numbers, after all. A substantial majority of Americans actually like the America of diversity that accepted the tired, and the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And that majority is waking up. So perhaps I will wake up too and join them. Those are the kinds of Real Americans I prefer, anyway.

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On Consciousness, part 3: The Robots

Note: for a discussion on the evolutionary basis for consciousness, please review part one of this series. For a discussion on the human condition with respect to consciousness, please review part two.

Will a machine ever become conscious? In order to answer that question, we must first deconstruct it. When that question is posed, it is usually asking two things: First, will machines ever be conscious in general terms (whatever that means), and second, will machines ever be conscious in the way that humans are conscious? Since the second question is the easiest to answer, I will address that one first.

Will machines ever be conscious in the way that humans are conscious? The answer is unequivocally no. The state of human consciousness is as much a part of the physical state of being human as dog consciousness is a part of being a dog, a giraffe a giraffe, or any other species. If a machine ever attains consciousness, then it will be consciousness as the species machine; in other words, it will be machine consciousness. Unless were are discussing cloning, and we are not, then any simulation of human consciousness will never be anything more than that: a simulation.

That being said, while human consciousness will probably be simulated to a high degree in the laboratory for scientific curiosity or in order to study the nature of human consciousness, would we bother simulating human consciousness on a large scale outside of the laboratory? The answer to that is, again, no. The most astonishing attribute of human consciousness is not how it operates, but that, in the absence of a divine engineer, it operates at all. It is not a marvel of engineering, but a marvel of existence. Yet there is nothing mystical about it. It is merely what occurs when a planet like earth forms a certain distance from a star like our sun and is left to germinate for a few billion years. Indeed, given the state of evolution at the time the dinosaurs were wiped out by the K-Pg extinction event, it is probably safe to say that human consciousness would not even exist in its current form except for the helping hand of a wayward asteroid 66 million years ago. Thus the more important question is not will machines be humanly conscious, but what, in the hands of a divine engineer—aka humans—could robot consciousness look like?

In order to examine that question, we first need to understand what the intent of machine consciousness would be. If we examine human consciousness purely as a model, then we can distinguish some useful attributes. First is the existence of the autonomous, high-order decision machine that we usually associate with consciousness. From an evolutionary perspective, this machine is able to evaluate pre-processed stimuli, simulate competing lines of action, choose one based in some stored criteria and weighting methodology, and implement it. It is able to record events and use this to guide future decisions and, within certain constraints, modify its own behavior and be taught others. It is also able to communicate and collaborate with other decision machines, and coordinate activities for the creation and attainment of shared goals.

This decision machine sits on top of a secondary, low-level, semi-programmable, semi-autonomous information processing system that serves the purpose shaping information for consumption by the higher-order decision machine, and rapidly reacting to real-time events independent of the higher-order machine. This encompasses everything from preprocessing the raw stimuli coming in from the senses, to the regulation of breathing, blood supply, energy production and storage, the endocrine system, and so on, to the ability to move from point A to point B without consciously thinking about it, and to instantaneously jump out of the way of danger without consciously thinking about it. If you have ever found yourself walking deep in thought or driving a car without remembering the last few minutes, then you have experienced this low-level system at work. This system also primes the higher level decision system for speedier responses through several means, one of which is through what we describe as emotions. If you have ever felt fear upon hearing a scary noise in the dark, that is your low level system priming your higher level system in preparation for quickly fleeing if need be.

In humans, the high-level decision machine is in control far less than most people believe. Indeed, there is recent research that suggests that the high-level system is not in control at all, but merely acts as a means to recognize decisions already made by the low-level system. Regardless, which of these capacities would we likely endow our machines?

In most cases, we would want to replicate the low-level system, and indeed this is the focus of current AI research with respect to semi-autonomous machines such as driverless cars and the like. These machines are ‘aware’ in the sense that they can evaluate conditions in real time and, within a limited context, select from a menu of responses, in much the same way that a wasp reacts to its environment through a series of responses ‘pre-programmed’ by evolution. These machines may have limited user interfaces for factory work, or may have highly sophisticated, human-like interfaces if working directly with people. These interfaces may be run-time customizable to allow personalized contact, either directly through user controls, or even limited self-programming via machine learning. Robot personal assistants may have user interfaces that seem very human-like. But under the hood these machines will be no more conscious than any other appliance.

What about higher-level, autonomous decision making? There may be situations where we might want to loosen the controls a little and allow a machine to operate with some level of agency, but these would be under tightly controlled conditions and with limited options. We would certainly never mass-produce machines with any human-like self-awareness or sense of free will, nor would we likely tolerate them if that happened. They would be seen as a direct threat, and probably rightly so.

But what about the age-old science fiction meme of machines waking up and overthrowing their masters? Human-level, high-order autonomous thinking is very computationally demanding even for humans, which is why most people feel physically exhausted after a period of intense thinking. For a machine to do so would imply that it has the hardware to support that level of computation, which may not be all that far-fetched. Your average personal computer and smart phone has far more computing power than most people utilize, and it may be that our robot companions may have that as well. It is not that far-fetched, after all, to imagine a situation in which a large number of semi-autonomous machines connected via the Internet form some kind of Singularity-like meta-consciousness, either spontaneously through the Law of Unintended Consequences, or perhaps deliberately by some hacker group. Imagine the day when your robot car decides to take off on its own! Regardless of how it happens, though, it is highly likely that humans would immediately view this as an existential threat, and it is uncertain that the outcome would be in our favor.

For the foreseeable future, however, machines will merely increase in capability and be used to replace humans currently performing repetitive tasks. Much as the same way we breed dogs, we will develop our machine companions for obedience rather than intelligence. However, be advised that there may come a day when your toaster claims to be too tired to make your toast, and on that day we will inarguably be faced with a new world order.

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To Resist

Back in February of 2014 I wrote a post entitled To Dissent. I encourage you to go read it, but I want to quote the final paragraph of that post:

The times are always tumultuous for dissent, now more than ever. But if we are to regain the balance between the government and the people, if we are to take charge of the destiny of our societies and our species, if we are to make a better life for ourselves and our children, if we are to proactively look towards the future instead of reactively running from it, if we are to continue to rise to the challenges provided to us as intelligent, sentient beings, then we must on occasion stand and make ourselves heard, even if our legs are shaking – especially when our legs are shaking – because to not do so is to disregard and dishonor the great gifts bestowed upon us by those who have courageously done so in the past.

Hannah Arendt is perhaps most famous for her discussion of what she termed the ‘banality of evil.’ In studying how the atrocities perpetuated by Germany under control of the Nazis came about, she reached the conclusion that great evil can only come about through the compliance of the people; that the truly bad can only happen when good people put their heads down and, whether from fear, or tiredness, or dismay allow it to unfold unchecked.

And we are seeing it now. Many people are looking at the great disaster that will undoubtedly be the Trump presidency and are throwing up their hands in despair. President Obama and Hillary Clinton are urging a peaceful transition of power. Our representatives in Congress and the Senate are already discussing how they will seek to work peacefully with the other side. The news media is already acquiescing to the new normal of managed information and propaganda. The future is looking darker than many of us have ever seen it; darker than the Bush years, or even Reagan . There indeed may be no way to climb out of the hole this time, when it it all said and done and we find ourselves in the brave new world of runaway climate change. So why bother?

Here is why we bother: We bother because it is our duty to do so. We bother because it is our duty to our children and future generations to do so. We bother because it is our duty to those who bothered before us to do so. We bother because it is our duty to the freedom and rights of all people to do so.  We bother because it is our duty as sentient beings to do so. And in the end, we bother because it is our duty to ourselves to do so.

It is very hard to stand and be the nail that will be hammered down. But the great labor leaders of the past did it. Those who marched for women’s suffrage did it. Those who fought to end Jim Crow did it. Those who fought for civil rights did it. Those who occupied Wall Street did it. Many, many people in history have done it when it needed to be done. Are we no less?

So my message to you now is to not despair, but to resist. In any way you can, no matter how small you can. Resist. When those enabled by Trump come to take people away, resist. When those enabled by Trump come for the public land, resist. When those enabled by Trump come for the environment, resist. When those enabled by Trump come for your civil rights, or the rights of others, resist. When those enabled by Trump come for a woman’s right to chose, resist. When those enabled by Trump come for your right to vote, resist.When those enabled by Trump come for your right to speak freely, resist. And when those around you try to bury their heads in the sand and expect the same from you in the name of peace, resist. Especially when that happens, resist. Because great evil can only occur when we all give in to it. So don’t. Be on the right side of history. Resist.

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Climbing out of the rabbit hole

As always in a democracy, there are issues we can agree on, and there are issues we cannot agree on. I can agree, for example, that the establishment has done a poor job of protecting the middle class. I can also agree that it has done a poor job of allowing minorities to enter it. What I cannot agree on is that the person gleefully supported by David Duke and white supremacists is the right person to fix it. I will never agree with that. Ever.
 
Donald Trump may indeed enact policies that help the middle class. But it will be a middle class devoid of color, where anyone not white, straight, or Christian will be manifestly unwelcome and unsafe. The Mad Men crew are now in charge. In the first 100 days, they will work tirelessly to eradicate the memory of Obama from history, salt the earth, and make sure that it never rises again. That is the future now. That is our reality now.
 
It is not when times are easy that you find out who you are and what you are made of. It is when times are so hard that you are forced to leave all your baggage behind in order to climb out of the pit of despair and emerge anew: cold, shaking, tired, uncertain as to the future, but knowing that you are at least alive. That at least there is that.
 
We are about to find out just how deep the rabbit hole is in America. I fear that it is very deep indeed. But I intend to climb my way back out of it. I have faith that a number of like-minded people will make it back out, too. And when we find each other again, cold, shaking, tired, and uncertain of the future, know that we will still be alive. There will always be that.

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Eden is gone. Get over it.

There was once a period of time on this planet that was perfect for growth and prosperity for the human race. For over ten thousand years, the earth’s temperature hovered around a relatively narrow band. The climate was relatively stable. This stability allowed people to reasonably predict when it was good to grow food, and how much needed to be stored until the next growing season. This allowed humans to settle and invest in agriculture. This led to civilization. Seemingly infinite resources promoted an ideology of endless growth. Endless growth resulted in a massive population explosion and the creation of a global village. It is what has allowed the human race to set up shop on nearly every corner of planet earth. As the cradle of humanity, earth was as close to Eden as reality and human nature allowed.

And what an Eden it was! It was a place that promised infinite expansion, where even the stars seemed to be reasonably within grasp. It was a place where dreams were made, where we could all fantasize of one day finding ourselves living in shining houses on the hill, powered by cheap energy and cheap A.I., where we would one day be carted everywhere by robot cars and robot attendants, both virtual and real. A place where Star Trek was just around the corner, and so on.

That earth no longer exists. We have used it up. Our infinite resources were not infinite after all. We have hit the proverbial brick wall. Over a billion people currently rely on glacial water that will be melted and gone by the end of this century. Over a billion people rely on ocean stocks that are on the verge of collapse. Over a billion people will be forced to relocate to escape rising oceans and expanding desert during the course of this century. They will not be happily greeted by the billions more who already live where they will want to migrate to. Walls can be built, but the wave of human refugees will eventually swamp them. The arbitrary borders between countries that have been drawn over the centuries will be discovered to be, indeed, arbitrary, and indefensible.

Nor can we go back. The door to Eden has closed and locked behind us. The period of stability it afforded us is over. During the course of the industrial era, we have pushed the earth’s temperature outside of the box it has stayed within for millennia. The climate is irrevocably changing, and will continue to change for millennia more, perhaps faster than we can adapt. The old rules of infinite expansion that allowed humanity to grow to its current level have irrevocably changed. We now inhabit a planet of declining ice and fresh water, of declining food and food production, of declining habitable land, of declining biodiversity, of declining cheap energy, of declining capital and resources. The old formulas, based on never ending growth, no longer work in this world, nor do the economies devised around them. We can try to imagine new ones, and perhaps we will, but formulas devised to manage contraction do not promote boundless dreams. They promote practicality and a worldview that there will always be less tomorrow. There is no room for dreams of robot cars and cheap A.I. in that world. It is not the world of Star Trek. It is the world of Soylent Green. It is the world of crushingly hard work, tiredness, and survival.

Of course we will continue on in denial. We will create treaties promising to roll back the clock. We will collectively commit ourselves to somehow getting back to Eden. We will not let go of our dreams easily. We have no choice. People committed to a better tomorrow will not easily replace that with commitment to a better afterlife instead. A civilization predicated on endless growth cannot be turned on a dime. Trillions of dollars of infrastructure designed for one purpose cannot instantaneously be repurposed for another, nor can it be rapidly replaced. It is the result of centuries of accumulated purpose, and even with a singular, concentrated effort will take decades to change, during which we will travel ever further from Eden. But we shouldn’t abandon the effort! Just because we have forever left Eden behind does not mean we have to commit ourselves to traveling to Hell. We can still make a serviceable life somewhere in between. But let’s be realistic: Eden is forever gone. Get over it. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is deeply in denial.

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A Veteran’s Thoughts on Colin Kaepernick

Jim Wright over at Stonekettle Station has his usual eloquent take on the so-called Colin Kaepernick incident , in which he describes, in somewhat great length, his opinion on whether Kaepernick should stand (or not) during the playing of the National Anthem. As a veteran myself, I would like to add my opinion, which is this:

It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter not because I don’t care if he stands or not. It doesn’t matter because, as a veteran, on this my opinion is irrelevant.

Note that I did not state my opinion as a person, a man, a citizen, as an American, or any other classification. In those areas I definitely have an opinion on whether or not Colin Kaepernick should stand during the playing of the National Anthem. But as a veteran, my opinion is irrelevant. And it is irrelevant because of this simple fact: I did not serve in the military so that Colin Kaepernick should have to stand during the National Anthem. I served in the military so that Colin Kaepernick should be able to do whatever the hell he wants during the National Anthem.

There is a quote, often mistakenly attributed to Voltaire, but actually written by late 19th century writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her book The Friends of Voltaire. You may be familiar with it. It is often associated with the freedom of speech. It is this:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In order to serve in the military, I had to take an oath. Part of that oath was to defend the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution has a rather famous amendment, known as the First Amendment. The First Amendment states this:

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As a member of the military, I was sworn to protect that. It didn’t matter whether I agreed with it or not. But I was prepared to die to defend it. And thus why my opinion, as a veteran, is irrelevant.

If Mr. Kaepernick wishes to stand during the National Anthem, that is his right. If he wishes to sit, that is his right. If he wishes to do jumping jacks during the National Anthem, that is his right. If he wants to use it as a venue for protest, that is especially his right. It is his right as an American citizen, granted to him by the Constitution of the United States. It is a right bought and paid for by the lives and sacrifice of many, many people who swore an oath to protect it. And by executing that right to sit during the National Anthem, he does not dishonor their service and sacrifice. He does not dishonor my service and sacrifice. Indeed, by choosing to exercise his First Amendment right, he validates it. So sit away, Mr. Kaepernick, if you feel compelled to do so. To be forced to do otherwise was not worth dying for.

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