Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Technology, Buddhism and Creativity


"Internet of things?" I say to myself.  I've done that.

Yeah, I have.

No need to go into details, but yes there are real flesh and blood Buddhists developing real technology now. I generally don't talk about it on this blog because I prefer to make sure there's a pretty high wall between what I do here and what is attributed to those to whom it should be professionally, including myself, colleagues, employer, etc. However, it is possible for me to talk as an individual generally about technological developments and it is a matter of public record that I've been involved in the development of technologies enabling the wireless internet.  So as long as I don't get too specific, I'm OK here from an ethical point of view.  And while I don't do applications for M2M (that is, "machine to machine"  which is how "Internet of Things" is more commonly and compactly referenced), as a real technologist I have a few perspectives on that article.

First, let's take this part:

Perhaps when the abstract idea of a “web of life” becomes physical—when our plants, houses, boats and bodies are interconnected through technology—interconnectedness will feel more real to us. Perhaps we will better understand the impact of our behaviors when visualized aggregated data shows us the consequences on air quality of taking the bike instead of the car to work. But will this knowledge of our connection to all other things make us better people? Or will we just fuel our addiction to stimulation, becoming experience junkies who use increasingly advanced devices to post updates, tweets and check-ins and win badges, rewards and social status? What happens when our plants start tweeting that they’re thirsty and our cars check themselves in at a parking lot by the beach? What was supposed to be enlightening becomes performance art.

The Internet of Things will produce data sets like we’ve never seen before, but that doesn't necessarily mean we will have more meaningful products. So the question becomes, how can we design connected objects with meaning and mechanics to make people engage in better behavior? 

Reality check:  

  • M2M devices and applications are going to be made in those nasty places where cell phones already are made. It will be the case because people with economic and political power can cause it to be so for their own benefit.  
  • Applications in automotive, agriculture, health and energy are already being developed with specific objectives in mind.  Those objectives happen to be making more stuff and services to serve people to make other people money.  It's up to the end users, who may aggregate for good ends, to produce good ends from these interconnections.
  • You won't make people engage in better behavior through devices themselves just as you won't make people better chefs by designing better steel for knives.  People with better knives can become just as well better killers.  Technologies are a set of tools. Don't forget that.

Matt Rolandson says, “The first step is to put meaning on the agenda in the product development process, as emotional and philosophical intention, by encouraging designers with ideas about how to manage intention and awareness. A lot of what is developed today uses the triggers of fear or social stress..."

Reality check:

I could go on about how products are designed today, the "Agile Development" fad/trend, etc. Instead, I'll go a bit meta on this and simply point out that this has been done for years in industry, though many (rightfully) disagree as to what "meaning" means here, and what is "right" and "ethical."  But for anyone who doubts what my point here, I'd suggest they read The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker.  And those of us who are in Buddhism and technology are endeavoring to practice it as we make our project plans, reports, software modules, and systems.  We are endeavoring to benefit all beings when we determine what sorts of technology and development we pursue. 

[Vincent] Horn sees a future when the use of bio- and neuro-feedback gets more advanced and thereby can tell us when our minds start to wander, when our attention goes away. A big part of Buddhist thinking is being reminded to be present, and a number of technologies are being developed toward that end. Vince sees a huge potential to automate certain activities in order to free up energy to explore new vistas of the mind.

Reality Check
I see that and other things.  I just can't tell you about it at all other than to ACK what Vincent wrote above.  Suffice it to say, he ain't seen nothin' yet.

As the Internet of Things is being developed, there is a question of whether the movement toward an interconnected society will be hindered by monetization

Finding sustainable models of development will be done, because the market will demand it. 

One other point I'd like to make though, which is not considered at all by those in that article. It has to do with creativity and technological development.

Engineers design stuff and create groundbreaking research for a couple of reasons: First and foremost, it's fun to create, or to lead others to create.  It's enjoyable. It's like mountain climbing or going on an adventure to develop something that no one ever did before; you are pretty much seeing what has never been seen before in the history of humanity. Folks like me (including me)  had to prove theorems that were previously unknown to make the stuff work today that works today.  We're driven to do it, just as an artist is driven to create art.  Even if we don't make oodles of money in Silicon Valley (though we're not uncomfortable.)

It's why I'm skeptical when I see futurist stuff (I'm looking at you Ray Kurzeil).  Many technologists (including the author) have been around the block on these things.  When I see someone using a smartphone, I have to think to realize that my inventions made that scene possible.  The reason is, because me, like hordes of other technologists, are driven by the question best that morphed into the of a Cartoon Network ripoff of Mythbusters; that is, "Dude, what would happen if...?" To say we should design a product that "reinforc[es] a positive identi[t]y for" end users would kill the creativity.  Or as Rilke is reported to put it, if my creative demons are exorcised, then so will be my creative angels.  We make tools; we make amoral tools.  Maybe app designers can find good ways to use them, but you can't design a knife that won't cut you if used wrongly.

 Moreover, that scene of the smartphone user wasn't made by a single technologist or even one single group of technologists.  There was, simply for starters, all beings involved in supply chains, including those workers in those nasty  places I mentioned earlier. Futurists tend to be blissfully unaware that the cost of these things in human life and experience needs to be acknowledged and addressed.  Since they're not involved directly in doing  and don't see the doing, it's going to be significantly more difficult for them to be aware of it.  Here's a hint, though: what was the photo at that adorns the top of this blog portraying?

Finally, in regard to futurism and Kurzweil, I'll quote a section of the Wikipedia article on him; these bits are consonant with my view of the subject:

Kurzweil's ideas have generated much criticism within the scientific community and in the media. There are philosophical arguments over whether a machine can "think" (see Philosophy of artificial intelligence). Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation, has called the notion of a technological singularity "intelligent design for the IQ 140 people...This proposition that we're heading to this point at which everything is going to be just unimaginably different—it's fundamentally, in my view, driven by a religious impulse. And all of the frantic arm-waving can't obscure that fact for me."[50]
VR pioneer Jaron Lanier has been one of the strongest critics of Kurzweil’s ideas, describing them as “cybernetic totalism”, and has outlined his views on the culture surrounding Kurzweil’s predictions in an essay for entitled One Half of a Manifesto.[51]
Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, has said of Kurzweil's and Hans Moravec's books: "It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can't possibly figure out what's good or bad. It's an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it's very hard to disentangle the two, because these are smart people; they're not stupid."[52]

Of course Hofstadter's point could be generalized significantly: Much of what everyone does (including myself)  is a mixture of very good food and dog excrement blended together. That's why folks invented process improvement - or as the Japanese put it,  改善処理 (kaizen shori). Or, as Patti Smith put it, "The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest preoccupation of man..."

We have to question how we're questioning as to figure out what to improve.

  That about says it all.


Noiln said...

what is scientific notation
Scientific Notation include in the mathematics course. In the world of science some time we deal with numbers which are very small and those which are very large. In some branches of science large numbers while in others very small numbers are used.

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