Thursday 20 September 2018

Are Technological Solutions Possible for the Human Problem of Education? Reflections on Stiglitz's thoughts on AI

In the final dialogue between physicist David Bohm and spiritual guru, Jiddhu Krishnamurti, Krishnamurti focuses on how "human problems" can be solved, why it is that they persist, and whether humanity could ever live without any problems at all. He says:
“I am asking in this dialogue whether it is possible to have no human problems at all - only technological problems, which can be solved. But human problems seem insoluble. Is it because of our education, our deep-rooted traditions, that we accept things as they are?”
After some considerable soul-searching Bohm responds
“I wonder if we should even call these things problems, you see. A problem would be something that is reasonably solvable. If you put the problem of how to achieve a certain result, then that presupposes that you can reasonably find a way to do it technologically. But psychologically, the problem cannot be looked at in that way; to propose a result you have to achieve, and then
find a way to do it.”
Bohm’s insight highlights the fundamental dichotomy of educational technology. Technology in education is approached - by institutions, teachers, and learners - as a solution to a human problem. Yet the human problem of education is not one for which the result one wants to achieve can be specified in a simple way such that technology can be proposed as a solution. Most commonly, attempts to solve human problems in this way simply creates a deeper problem, and it is this to which Krishnamurti is drawing attention. Krishnamurti’s suspicion that education might be a cause of human problems - that education attempts to solve human problems through technological intervention - would suggest that some blame for the state of the world must sit at education’s feet.

Education is a human problem to which institutions attempt to find solutions. There are many dimensions to the human problem of education: the problem of making distinctions, the problem of conversation, the problem of institutional organisation, the problem of science and knowledge, the problem of openness, the problem of collective decision and judgement, the problem of economics, and the problem of research into education itself. The human problem of education is part of all these problems. The extent to which education seems to be an exacerbating factor in the production of these problems may partly be due to the fact that we do not possess a metalanguage for human problems: a way of talking about the connectedness of human problems.

And yet I wonder if we saw human problems from a different perspective, we might be able to look upon our situation in an organisational way which might help us to find a better way of living with the technologies which, so often, contribute to our problems. What if we had a meta-language of human problems?

This week Joseph Stiglitz argued that Artificial Intelligence was the world's greatest threat (see, and a force which would lead the world to fascism. In response, what is needed, he argues, is a massive-scale amplification of education, to empower human critical faculties in being able to address the challenge of automated judgements and corporate surveillance.

There's some essence of truth in Stiglitz's message: the threat to society lies in the imbalance between machines and humans - but the temptation is to blame the machines themselves (Stiglitz seems to do this). In the end, it is not machines that replace jobs with automation; it is human institutions - businesses, corporations, institutions and their leaders - which do this. They do it, I believe, because they react to increased environmental uncertainty, which itself is created by technology.  The answer to address the imbalance between humans and machines is not to empower the institutions! The machines - and particularly AI - is powerful because it is organised in a different way to humans. It is a heterarchy (a word coined by the founder of machine learning, Warren McCulloch), whereas human institutions are hierarchies. The root of the human problem is institutions misunderstanding the nature of the threat from their environment and mis-adapting so that they exacerbate the problem. This  appears to be Stiglitz's solution unfortunately.

The core issue is that there are ways of organising human institutions which are not hierarchical. This would be to organise so as to manage the uncertainties created by technology, rather than seek to defend existing institutional structures against them (and in the process make it worse).

What is needed is a meta-language of human problems.  There are ways in which humans can look at their problems and address new ways of organising themselves, sometimes using technologies. In all crises in human history we see precisely this kind of movement - eventually... after humans have been sufficiently stupid in attempting simple "technological solutions" to problems that things get so bad that no other options appear to be available. If I am worried about the state of the world now, it is that I don't think really reached "Max Stupidity" yet.

Tuesday 4 September 2018

What is it about mind which imputes the agency of a creator? What is it about nature which gives rise to a mind that does this?

According to constructivism, mind wouldn't work without some kind of stochastic process - there has to be some randomness (Bateson says this). That means that consciousness and life itself emerges from accident and what we understand as self-organising processes. One of the problems with this view is that it gives a very poor account of time. Obviously, accidents happen in time, and self-organisation happens in time, but time is taken as a given: it is not accounted for in the system.

Physics sees time, space, mass and energy as a kind of unity. Laws of conservation operate as if viewed from one angle, what we see is mass, viewed from another, its energy; from one angle its space, from another its time. But physics also understands that not all things are conserved. Mass is conserved, time isn't. Charge is conserved but space isn't. We understand these things in terms of those things which remain the same and those things which don't; between identity and non-identity.

Bohm regarded time as being "enfolded" in the laws of nature - what he saw as the "implicate order". What nature then presents to us is not a "process" operating over time, but a multi-dimensional structure which reveals time. What is meant by "structure" is an ordering of symmetry and asymmetry, and this order manifests itself throughout both nature and mind. It is, as Bohm susggested, holographic: within any part of consciousness or experience, there are symmetries that relate to the whole.

I'm currently writing about music. Music's diachronic symmetries and its synchronic symmetries are related. All that separates them is that the time dimension is magnified in the former, and not in the latter. When we talk about learning "processes" it may be the same - particularly so for learning conversations: what occurs over time is related to the structure at any single point. These dimensions: time, space, matter, energy, rotate into one another.

This is important whenever we feel compelled to construct stories about "origins". The structure of the story which unfolds in time is related to a kind of ordinal structure of categories which are used in the story. Religious stories and scientific stories about origins are the same in this regard. Science, however, looks for deeper reinforcement of the structure of its stories from empirical observation. In terms of evolutionary narratives this is difficult because nobody really sees evolution in action: all that is seen are the homologies between natural phenomena and the measurement of their historical emergence. But the scientific search for resonant patterns needn't stop with evolution and the fossil record. It can look everywhere - into art, education, cells, the universe and subatomic particles.

Science advances by closing-in on the coherence of pattern between mind and nature. Eventually I think we will understand that our very desire to pursue science and get deeper coherence is in itself part of the pattern.

Mind is driven to impute the agency of a creator because it is driven towards coherence with the way nature works. Nature works holographically, enfolding all the elements of human experience in a structure which is incorporated into physiology of consciousness, and the operation of mind itself.

Constructivism's overlooking of time leads to error and the assumption of accident. I doubt there are accidents...

Sunday 2 September 2018

Beyond Left and Right: What would a safe and fair society look like with its Macbeths and Shylocks?

These are not normal times. It's hard to compose anything coherent to say. Every day I find myself feeling astonished by Trump - the cutting of funding to the Palestinians is just the latest horror. But it's on top of so many other horrors, we have become numb.

Brexit and the EU is really too confusing. How is a rational position even possible? No Brexit? Well, so you like being run by international bankers and corporations, do you? Isn't it all their fault in the first place? Brexit? Well, you'd like Boris Johnson for Prime Minister would you, and the country to turn into a tax haven? To hell with the lot of them.

Have the Whitehall mandarins made the best of things in coming up with a proposal? Would anyone else be able to handle the situation much better? I doubt it... just a bit hair-splitting. The thing is impossible. And nobody talks about what anyone wants at the end of whatever it is they are campaigning for. UKIP argued "Get out of the EU!"... ok, but what then? The government argued "Stay in the EU!"... ok, but what for? ("because leaving would be too disruptive" isn't a good answer)

I'd like a fairer society. I'd like people to feel safe for their whole lives, and have the confidence that their children weren't going to sink into the gutter because of the machinations of global finance. I'd like to feel confident that weather extremes weren't going to cause floods in the UK and war in the other parts of the world. I'd like everyone to feel open and welcoming to everyone else, and not to perceive others as a threat. I'd like people to be able to talk to each other about important things, and not contain anxieties in their own heads, where they are driven to mental illness and sometimes suicide.

So many of our problems stem from the fact that nobody feels safe any more. The guarantees of safety which were set up after the second world war have now been completely dismantled. Lose your job? You're pretty much on your own. The rich buy more houses than they need because they want their children to feel safe. Bosses increase their salaries and pensions to the hilt because they fear loss of security in old age. Yet, in the end, as Keynes said, "we're all dead".

The question "Is a world of global safety possible?" has been troubling me. I've been thinking about a more nuanced version: "Is a world where Shakespeare isn't true possible?" That question I am really struggling with.

Shakespeare didn't talk in terms of left and right. He understood the machinery of the human soul to such an extent that the play of human passion could be presented in a way which seems eternal. How does he do it? I suspect because he understood something about the universe: that patterns are written all the way through nature. That nature, as David Bohm would put it, is holographic.

Our political positions are abstract codifications of the human passions. What motivates us, what we are driven towards - love, truth, money, sex, glory, beauty, etc - becomes "political" at some level. But in becoming political, a lot gets left out. This is, I think, one of the reasons why there are so many financial and sex scandals in politics: the codification isn't real. The Left talk of "solidarity" - all the time knowing that "solidarity" is an abstraction, and that what is left out is what internal party politics is about (this is what is happening with Corbyn at the moment). The right talk of "profit" or "freedom of choice" - all the time knowing that nobody is really free to choose anything: again these are abstractions, rather like the "Brexit" which has provided the backdrop for the most extraordinarily febrile in-fighting in the Tories.

So what would a future safe society look like with the Macbeths and Shylocks who will inevitably inhabit it? That's the question.