Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot" is a collection of short stories about robots whose existence is governed by the Three Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws
Asimov first introduced the three laws in his 1942 short story "Runaround" (story #2 in "I, Robot").
With artificial intelligence (AI) becoming prevalent in mainstream society, I've found Asimov's laws to be quite pertinent. In particular around the fears and doomsday scenarios emanating from AI. The fear is that humans will give birth to a new species that through recursive self-improvement will grow beyond our control as it becomes far more intelligent than we imagine.
Tim Urban, in his two part AI series gives an example of AI reaching a level of intelligence that is equivalent to the gap between a human and an ant:
A machine on the second-to-highest step on that staircase would be to us as we are to ants—it could try for years to teach us the simplest inkling of what it knows and the endeavor would be hopeless.
Imagine trying to explain your name to an ant. Or to an organism that has no concept of language or words. An organism so primitive compared to humans that we feel virtually no remorse when squishing one. Now imagine AI communicating with us in a form we have no concept of. What happens if it perceives us in the same way that we perceive ants?
Elon Musk is a proponent for developing AI in a responsible and safe way. He encapsulates his fear in a possible outcome from tasking AI with getting rid of spam email:
(The AI) concludes that the best way to get rid of spam is to get rid of humans.
To combat an AI overlord Musk co-founded OpenAI, a non-profit research company whose mission is to:
Discover and enact the path to safe artificial general intelligence.
So are Asimov's three laws science fiction? Or is humanity on a trajectory to a society where some iteration of these three laws exist? Will OpenAI produce some equivalent of the three laws? Who will be responsible for implementing and regulating them? How will we ensure that every AI that is created abides by them? The established laws will be meaningless if one country abides by them but another does not.
In Asimov's last story of "I, Robot", "The Evitable Conflict" robot psychologist Susan Calvin and World Co-ordinator (leader) Stephen Byerley share a discussion on the purpose of machines (AI) and the anti-machine movement.
"But you are telling me, Susan, that the ‘Society for Humanity’ is right; and that Mankind has lost its own say in its future."
"It never had any, really. It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand—at the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war. Now the Machines understand them; and no one can stop them, since the Machines will deal with them as they are dealing with the Society,—having, as they do, the greatest of weapons at their disposal, the absolute control of our economy."
“Perhaps how wonderful! Think, that for all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable!”
In this discussion the "Society for Humanity" (anti-machine movement) believes that machines are controlling the future of humanity. Yet Susan Calvin states that humanity was never in control. Prior to machines we were controlled by economic and sociological forces we didn't understand. This resulted in wars, economic depressions. But machines learned and understood these forces at a level humanity did not. The machines now controlled these forces. And because of the three laws, they controlled them in such a way where the outcomes would result in no harm to humans.
So it appears that Asimov provided us with a warning: regulate the machines before they regulate us.
A few weeks ago I attended a fireside chat with professional futurist Amy Webb. A futurist is someone who identifies and connects emerging tech trends in order to predict their impact on society.
Amy shared insights from her recent book "The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream". The book outlines her futurist methodology and how to systematically think through a trend and it's possible impact.
It's a methodology that has many practical applications such as:
- An entrepreneur evaluating a business idea
- An investor seeking new investment opportunities
- A job seeker considering what industry to work in
For me the application is idea discovery. My goal is to start a startup around a "problem" that I'm interested in solving. My challenge is identifying a real problem I'm interested in pursuing, and how to recognize trends versus what is trendy within that problem.
For example if I want to analyze the future of education in K-12 schools, would computer assisted learning (CAL) and mobile apps fall into the trends or trendy buckets? Will the majority of kids in the US school system have Google accounts and use Google classroom? Is the number of people pursuing teaching degrees trending up or down?
Once you hone in on a trend, Amy presents questions to consider:
- What technology is on the horizon?
- How will it impact our customers or constituents?
- How will our competitors harness the trend?
- Where does the trend create potential new partnerships or collaborators for us?
- How does this trend impact our industry and all of its parts?
- Who are the drivers of change in this trend?
- How will the wants, needs, and expectations of our customers change as a result of this trend?
Your goal is to project a set of possible, probable, and preferred scenarios around six time zones:
- Now (within next 12 months)
- Near-term (1 - 5 years)
- Mid-range (5 - 10 years)
- Long-range (10 - 20 years)
- Far-range (20 - 30 years)
- Distant ( > 30 years)
To make projections, Amy presents a six step methodology. These are covered in much greater detail in her book.
First, find the Fringe.
Cast a wide enough net to harness information from the fringe. This involves creating a map showing nodes and the relationships between them, and rounding up what you will later refer to as “the unusual suspects.”
Who has been working directly and indirectly in this space?
Who has been funding or otherwise encouraging experimentation in this space?
Who might be directly impacted by this development?
Who might be incentivized to work against this kind of change, either because they stand to gain something or because they might lose something?
Who might see this idea as a starting point for something bigger and better?
Second, use CIPHER to find patterns.
Uncover hidden patterns by categorizing data from the fringe. Patterns indicate a trend, so you’ll do an exhaustive search for Contradictions, Inflections, Practices, Hacks, Extremes, and Rarities.
Third, identify the trends.
Ask the Right Questions: Determine whether a pattern really is a trend. You will be tempted to stop looking once you’ve spotted a pattern, but you will soon learn that creating counterarguments is an essential part of the forecasting process, even though most forecasters never force themselves to poke holes into every single assumption and assertion they make.
Fourth, calculate the ETA.
Interpret the trend and ensure that the timing is right. This isn’t just about finding a typical S-curve and the point of inflection. As technology trends move along their trajectory, there are two forces in play—internal developments within tech companies, and external developments within the government, adjacent businesses, and the like—and both must be calculated.
Fifth, create scenarios and strategies.
Build scenarios to create probable, plausible, and possible futures and accompanying strategies. This step requires thinking about both the timeline of a technology’s development and your emotional reactions to all of the outcomes. You’ll give each scenario a score, and based on your analysis, you will create a corresponding strategy for taking action.
Sixth, pressure-test your actions.
But what if the action you choose to take on a trend is the wrong one? In this final step, you must make sure the strategy you take on a trend will deliver the desired outcome, and that requires asking difficult questions about both the present and the future.
After completing the six steps you'll have a picture of what the future of "X" may bring. From an entrepreneurial perspective you can choose to focus in on a particular segment and pursue an idea you are confident will be a relevant trend in the future.
In the January 1965 issue, Playboy magazine released an in-depth interview with Martin Luther King Jr. He was 36 at the time. He was assassinated 3 years later.
I came across the interview while browsing Amazon's Singles Classics, a collection that "showcases the best journalism, fiction and essays from the top authors and magazines of our time".
There are not many extended interviews with King, and I found the Playboy interview a fascinating read. Prior to reading my knowledge of King could be summed up as civil rights leader and the guy that gave the "I have a dream" speech. The interview delved into all facets of his life and provided many insights as to who King was beneath the public image.
I'd like to highlight some passages and encourage you to read the full interview.
Explaining to his daughter why he is doing what he is doing:
“Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?” I told her that I was involved in a struggle to make conditions better for the colored people, and thus for all people. I explained that because things are as they are, someone has to take a stand, that it is necessary for someone to go to jail, because many Southern officials seek to maintain the barriers that have historically been erected to exclude the colored people. I tried to make her understand that someone had to do this to make the world better—for all children.
On witnessing the power of nonviolence:
Another moment which I shall never forget: when I saw with my own eyes over 3000 young Negro boys and girls, totally unarmed, leave Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church to march to a prayer meeting—ready to pit nothing but the power of their bodies and souls against Bull Connor’s police dogs, clubs and fire hoses. When they refused Connor’s bellowed order to turn back, he whirled and shouted to his men to turn on the hoses. It was one of the most fantastic events of the Birmingham story that these Negroes, many of them on their knees, stared, unafraid and unmoving, at Connor’s men with the hose nozzles in their hands. Then, slowly the Negroes stood up and advanced, and Connor’s men fell back as though hypnotized, as the Negroes marched on past to hold their prayer meeting. I saw there, I felt there, for the first time, the pride and the power of nonviolence.
On nonviolence as a weapon:
Our white brothers must be made to understand that nonviolence is a weapon fabricated of love. It is a sword that heals. Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present.
A rhetorical question to white people who view African Americans as ungrateful for the Civil Rights Act:
Why do white people seem to find it so difficult to understand that the Negro is sick and tired of having reluctantly parceled out to him those rights and privileges which all others receive upon birth or entry in America?
On the goal of the Civil Rights movement:
What the Negro wants—and will not stop until he gets—is absolute and unqualified freedom and equality here in this land of his birth, and not in Africa or in some imaginary state. The Negro no longer will be tolerant of anything less than his due right and heritage. He is pursuing only that which he knows is honorably his. He knows that he is right.
On certain whites telling African Americans to be patient, change will come eventually:
I feel that the time is always right to do what is right.
On assassination plots:
After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically. I must face the fact, as all others in positions of leadership must do, that America today is an extremely sick nation, and that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel, though, that my cause is so right, so moral, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.
Segregation, as even the segregationists know in their hearts, is morally wrong and sinful. If it weren’t, the white South would not be haunted as it is by a deep sense of guilt for what it has done to the Negro—guilt for patronizing him, degrading him, brutalizing him, depersonalizing him, thingifying him; guilt for lying to itself. This is the source of the schizophrenia that the South will suffer until it goes through its crisis of conscience
On "the establishment":
The white leadership—which I hold as responsible as anyone for the riots, for not removing the conditions that cause them. The deep frustration, the seething desperation of the Negro today is a product of slum housing, chronic poverty, woefully inadequate education and substandard schools. The Negro is trapped in a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign, caught in a vicious socioeconomic vise.
Regarding not condoning outbreaks of looting and lawlessness:
The use of immoral means will not achieve the moral end of racial justice.
Will there be a violent revolution?
Many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations are boiling inside the Negro, and he must release them. It is not a threat but a fact of history that if an oppressed people’s pent-up emotions are not nonviolently released, they will be violently released. So let the Negro march. Let him make pilgrimages to city hall. Let him go on freedom rides. And above all, make an effort to understand why he must do this.
On Malcolm X:
I have often wished that he would talk less of violence, because violence is not going to solve our problem. And in his litany of articulating the despair of the Negro without offering any positive, creative alternative, I feel that Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice. Fiery, demagogic oratory in the black ghettos, urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.
Historical impact of violence as a tactic for social change:
I’d be the first to say that some historical victories have been won by violence; the U.S. Revolution is certainly one of the foremost. But the Negro revolution is seeking integration, not independence. Those fighting for independence have the purpose to drive out the oppressors. But here in America, we’ve got to live together. We’ve got to find a way to reconcile ourselves to living in community, one group with the other.
On the belief that he has amassed a vast fortune from the Civil Rights movement:
I have rejected our board’s insistent recommendation that I accept some salary beyond the one dollar a year which I receive, which entitles me to participate in our employees’ group insurance plan. I have rejected also our board’s offer of financial gifts as a measure and expression of appreciation. My only salary is from my church, $4000 a year, plus $2000 more a year for what is known as “pastoral care.” To earn a grand total of about $10,000 a year, I keep about $4000 to $5000 a year for myself from the honorariums that I receive from various speaking engagements. About 90 percent of my speaking is for S.C.L.C., and it brings into our treasury something around $200,000 a year, Additionally, I get a fairly sizable but fluctuating income in the form of royalties from my writings. But all of this, too, I give to my church, or to my alma mater, Morehouse College, here in Atlanta.
On free time:
Tuesdays when I’m not out of town, I don’t go to the office. I keep this for my quiet day of reading and silence and meditation, and an entire evening with Mrs. King and the children.
On a week of uninterrupted rest:
It’s difficult to imagine such a thing, but if I had the luxury of an entire week, I would spend it meditating and reading, refreshing myself spiritually and intellectually.
Aside from the Bible, which book would he take on a desert island?
Plato’s Republic. I feel that it brings together more of the insights of history than any other book.
On Alabama's Governor Wallace:
He represents the misuse, the corruption, the destruction of leadership. I am not sure that he believes all the poison that he preaches, but he is artful enough to convince others that he does. Instead of guiding people to new peaks of reasonableness, he intensifies misunderstanding, deepens suspicion and prejudice. He is perhaps the most dangerous racist in America today.
On what he would do if he left the Civil Rights movement:
One time I dreamed of pastoring for a few years, and then of going to a university to teach theology. But I gave that up when I became deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. Perhaps, in five years or so, if the demands on me have lightened, I will have the chance to make that dream come true.
Book 1: Resistnace
There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.
The enemy is a very good teacher. — the Dalai Lama
In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower. Any of these will elicit Resistance.
Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole.
Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul's evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.
The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.
Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance.
The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we're about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it's got.
The awakening artist must be ruthless, not only with herself but with others. Once you make your break, you can't turn around for your buddy who catches his trouser leg on the barbed wire.
Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second, we can turn the tables on Resistance.
The working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work. The working artist banishes from her world all sources of trouble. She harnesses the urge for trouble and transforms it in her work.
The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one's existence. An illness, a cross to bear. Some people go from condition to condition; they cure one, and another pops up to take its place. The condition becomes a work of art in itself, a shadow version of the real creative act the victim is avoiding by expending so much care cultivating his condition.
The artist and the fundamentalist arise from societies at differing stages of development. The artist is the advanced model. His culture possesses affluence, stability, enough excess of resource to permit the luxury of self-examination.
Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is.
The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.
The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
The professional tackles the project that will make him stretch. He takes on the assignment that will bear him into uncharted waters, compel him to explore unconscious parts of himself. Is he scared? Hell, yes. He's petrified. (Conversely, the professional turns down roles that he's done before. He's not afraid of them anymore. Why waste his time?) So if you're paralyzed with fear, it's a good sign. It shows you what you have to do.
Friends sometimes ask, "Don't you get lonely sitting by yourself all day?" At first it seemed odd to hear myself answer No. Then I realized that I was not alone; I was in the book; I was with the characters. I was with my Self.
Even in a book like this, which has no characters, I don't feel alone because I'm imagining the reader, whom I conjure as an aspiring artist much like my own younger, less grizzled self, to whom I hope to impart a little starch and inspiration and prime, a little, with some hard-knocks wisdom and a few tricks of the trade.
Book 2: Combatting Resistance
The amateur, on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. He is a musician, a painter, a playwright. Resistance loves this. Resistance knows that the amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.
Resistance outwits the amateur with the oldest trick in the book: It uses his own enthusiasm against him.
The professional cannot live like that. He is on a mission. He will not tolerate disorder. He eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind. He wants the carpet vacuumed and the threshold swept, so the Muse may enter and not soil her gown.
The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods. Like Somerset Maugham she doesn't wait for inspiration, she acts in anticipation of its apparition. The professional is acutely aware of the intangibles that go into inspiration. Out of respect for them, she lets them work. She grants them their sphere while she concentrates on hers.
The professional has learned better. He respects Resistance. He knows if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he'll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.
The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you're finished. The pro doesn't even pick up the phone. He stays at work.
The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.
Fear of rejection isn't just psychological; it's biological. It's in our cells.
He understood that, no matter what blow had befallen him from an outside agency, he himself still had his job to do, the shot he needed to hit right here, right now. And he knew that it remained within his power to produce that shot.
Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page.
The professional learns to recognize envy-driven criticism and to take it for what it is: the supreme compliment. The critic hates most that which he would have done himself if he had had the guts.
We make up our minds to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.
Book 3: Beyond Resistance
Next morning I went over to Paul's for coffee and told him I had finished. "Good for you," he said without looking up. "Start the next one today."
Eternity is in love with the creations of time. – William Blake
By Blake's model, as I understand it, it's as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential — without a body, so to speak. It wasn't music yet. You couldn't play it. You couldn't hear it.
He brought it forth. He made the Fifth Symphony a "creation of time," which "eternity" could be "in love with." So that eternity, whether we conceive of it as God, pure consciousness, infinite intelligence, omniscient spirit, or if we choose to think of it as beings, gods, spirits, avatars — when "it" or "they" hear somehow the sounds of earthly music, it brings them joy. In other words, Blake agrees with the Greeks. The gods do exist. They do penetrate our earthly sphere.
I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.
What does it tell us about the architecture of our psyches that, without our exerting effort or even thinking about it, some voice in our head pipes up to counsel us (and counsel us wisely) on how to do our work and live our lives? Whose voice is it? What software is grinding away, scanning gigabytes, while we, our mainstream selves, are otherwise occupied?
The principle of organization is built into nature. Chaos itself is self-organizing. Out of primordial disorder, stars find their orbits; rivers make their way to the sea. When we, like God, set out to create a universe — a book, an opera, a new business venture — the same principle kicks in. Our screenplay resolves itself into a three-act structure; our symphony takes shape into movements; our plumbing-supply venture discovers its optimum chain of command.
This is why artists are modest. They know they're not doing the work; they're just taking dictation.
The Self wishes to create, to evolve. The Ego likes things just the way they are.
Have you ever wondered why the slang terms for intoxication are so demolition-oriented? Stoned, smashed, hammered. It's because they're talking about the Ego. It's the Ego that gets blasted, waxed, plastered. We demolish the Ego to get to the Self.
In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down. The one place he can't look is that place he must: within.
When the hack sits down to work, he doesn't ask himself what's in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for.
I trusted what I wanted, not what I thought would work. I did what I myself thought was interesting, and left its reception to the gods.
How can we tell if our orientation is territorial or hierarchical? One way is to ask ourselves, If I were feeling really anxious, what would I do? If we would pick up the phone and call six friends, one after the other, with the aim of hearing their voices and reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we're operating hierarchically. We're seeking the good opinion of others.
If you're all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There's no one to impress. So, if you'd still pursue that activity, congratulations. You're doing it territorially.
The sustenance they get comes from the act itself, not from the impression it makes on others.
We must do our work for its own sake, not for fortune or attention or applause.
To acknowledge that reality, to efface all ego, to let the work come through us and give it back freely to its source, that, in my opinion, is as true to reality as it gets.
Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It's a gift to the world and every being in it. Don't cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you've got.