Auguries of Autumn

As is often the case with the approach of the autumn season, I can strongly sense that change is coming, and it’s not just in the dazzling panoply of autumn leaves. My spirit—my soul—the very essence of my existence—is rising. I feel its approach; I sense its immanent arrival; and I welcome it. I understand well now, from considering and investigating a variety of experiences over a number of decades, that there will likely be aspects of what is to come, which may not be easily explained in simple terms. Not all of it will be comforting, or logical, or immediately seem sensible, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that those who read my thoughts and feelings and descriptions of sensations and experiences—any who do—begin to look within themselves, to consider whether or not the events of their own lives might contain even the smallest intimations of a similar character, and to explore those connections, in spite of how inconsequential they may seem on the surface.

As I approach the proverbial edges of my life—along the increasingly precarious ledge of my existence—I look out across the landscape of years, and I can see an expansive collection of naturally occurring, but personally significant vistas stretching out toward the horizon, while also acknowledging an unflinching awareness of the miniscule components of this very moment now. I cannot say what will come of all this. I cannot predict how life will unfold, but I do know that my senses, my cognitive capacities, my perceptions of reality—the reality that I know every day—is infused with the spirit.

While I cannot necessarily dispel all the doubts of those who prefer materialistic or empirical proofs, subjectively, within my inner world, there is a certainty that does not cease. There is a progression of consciousness—a fulfillment of the promise represented in the experiences that have occurred throughout my life. The potentialities I have uncovered in the course of my investigations are starting to ring true, as they coalesce into possibilities, and as the implications for a greater understanding of the nature of our humanity become clearer.

In my heart and mind, and in my very soul, I sense the coming of change. As we look around at the world in which we currently exist, many of us might wish to characterize the events transpiring all around us as “the beginning of the end.” I see it differently. To me, it seems much more like the beginning of a transition—a gradual abandonment of the old ways, trending toward the embrace of new ways to come.

In doing so, we should not abandon our senses. We should not abandon our advances in science and technology; we should simply recognize that certain thresholds continue to present themselves, which are currently perplexing because we cannot seem to traverse them or to reach beyond them. Eventually, we may, at some point in the future, be able to unravel some of these mysteries through the application of empirical processes, and the continued pursuit of science is an essential and noble undertaking. But even with tens of thousands of years of existence as functionally cognitive and sentient human beings, one thing remains true. There are still significant barriers to our understanding, and in all of my explorations, I haven’t seen anything to dissuade me from subjectively affirming a positive and enriching growth in understanding that can only be attributable to forces and energies that could very well be, beyond empirical confirmation.

Throughout my life, I have had numerous interactions with the natural world, during which I would be, in certain clear ways, isolated and insulated from my “civilized” and predictable experience of modern life, which would then be supplanted by an experience of unbridled natural involvement that brought about an altered state of consciousness. Within the seemingly limitless boundaries of what Emerson described as “the plantations of God,” ambling through primeval forests, resting upon the precarious edges of mountain cliffs, experiencing the often astonishingly captivating symphonies of nature, at times, I am gripped by the influence of…

…an ocean of trees,

…raging rivers,

…and tranquil lakes.

During such episodes, one cannot help but sense the energetic vibrations coursing through the varieties of living organisms that surround the visitor upon reflection, suggesting both a visceral and an insubstantial connection to every living entity. Carl Jung once expressed the experience of nature and being a physical creature in a physical universe that somehow includes an experience of unity of all life and all existence:

In his later life, Jung wrote reflectively about how he arrived at many of his insights while exploring the human psyche, and concluded that:

“…no experimental methodology ever has or ever will succeed in capturing the essence of the human soul, or even so much as tracing out an approximately faithful picture of its complex manifestations.”

The role of subjective experience in defining human consciousness cannot be minimized, but while the mysterious link between the two may be vital to our awareness of its existence, it seems to me that such experience can more accurately be described as the foundation of or as a catalyst for connecting to the universe of consciousness.

I am starting to see more sympathetic responses to my reports of these investigations, striking chords of familiarity with those who encounter them—individuals from all across the world—many of whom have stopped to visit and share their own ideas. It is difficult to predict what the outcome of all these efforts might be, but the importance of following this path remains clear. I must continue to pursue my research, to write about and share my heartfelt and considered feelings regarding my own subjective experiences, and to attempt to interpret and reveal whatever layers of meaning might be inferred as a result.

Autumn of My Years

For many of the early days of the New Year this year, I knew that change was coming. Gradually, as the days passed relentlessly along, I could sense it ever more strongly. Whenever I withdrew within myself, I could feel it approaching.

These days, when I am alone within myself, communing with my spirit, my inner world, there is a palpable lightness of spirit that had been absent for so long, I had almost forgotten what it felt like. When the opportunity presents itself to look closely into the eyes of another fellow traveler in this life, it becomes possible again to rediscover the reflection of the light of my own spirit in the other, since we are all of one spirit ultimately. We sometimes fail to see this light when our path is so overly preoccupied with temporal matters, and it requires us to find a way to step back in order to re-establish the link.

I was listening recently to the words of someone I consider to be a spiritual mentor, who said, “We think we are seeking the path, when, in fact, we are already on the path; whatever we are experiencing or enduring at this moment is the path.”

The path is me.

I didn’t always realize this. Especially after experiencing very stressful periods of time, I often thought that I was looking for a place to begin my journey toward the next part of my life; trying to find it and stay with it, to walk it enthusiastically, to exist within it. In much of my searching, there were times when I didn’t truly realize how much the act of searching was the path, and now as I approach what is sometimes described as “the autumn of my years,” the metaphor seems appropriate.
Within the time frame of the autumn season in this part of the world, everything seems so brilliant, so colorful, so clearly and extraordinarily spiritual, and when we pay close attention and keep our hearts and minds and eyes open, we don’t just sense the beauty, the vibrant colors, and all the sensual pleasures of the incoming season, we also appreciate the relief from the steamy heat of summer, which takes more of a toll on me physically as each year passes.

The gradual transition from the greenness of summer always seemed to linger endlessly as autumn approached in the distant years of my youth, and now I find myself hoping once again that my life’s path into the upcoming season will endure even longer than it did during the days of those tender childhood memories. I do not wish for a brief autumn, or a late autumn, or even an artificially extended autumn. I want a nice, slow, and gradual embrace of the natural gifts it holds.

The education in life we can receive when we study the transition between seasons, inevitable lifts my spirits during this time, and I always want it last and last and last. The only way for me to make full use of it, I’m afraid, is to dive headlong into it, casting aside what scares me about what may follow, and as glorious and beautiful and colorful and sensual as this “autumn within” may be, it suggests by its very existence, the coming of winter, after which the cycle repeats once again.

At different points throughout all the seasons of my life, I have had to endure and survive a variety of different kinds of suffering, causing me to withdraw from the temporal, while also creating an opening to the spiritual. I know there will likely be more suffering to come; the fact that I have survived this long is nothing short of a miracle. I have come close to death a number of times in my travels, and I have felt at times as though I had clearly landed at the very lowest point of my humanity.

I have been deprived of basic needs. I have gone hungry at length. I have been lonely and alone many times. I have felt the sting of bitterness and the weight of relentless obligation. During those times, it often seemed as though nothing would go right, nothing will solve it or reverse it, and then just waiting—just waiting long enough—remaining open to what is possible, to forgiveness, and to letting go, made all the difference. If you can do enough of that, you can get through to another day, and that other day quite often ends up being beyond anything you could have imagined.

I have spent a great deal of time in this blog describing my search for my place, for my entryway to the path of the spirit. I feel strongly that I am headed in the right direction, but remain uncertain about just which direction that might be. I have worked on improving my intuitive senses, hoping to piece together a glimpse of what might lie ahead on my path, and connect whenever I can to others who are searching in their own way for the path ahead. As I embrace the possibilities that appear in life, I enthusiastically engage other like spirits in a way that I hope will bring some insight and clarity to my own search, but also, by extending myself, my spirit, to others, I am hopeful that it may lead to some mutually beneficial outcome.

In the film, “The Tree of Life,” Jessica Chastain’s character describes the way of grace as one that “…doesn’t try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. It accepts insults and injuries,” in opposition to the way of nature which “…only wants to please itself…to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world around it is shining and love is smiling through all things.”

She concludes her description by saying that these ways “…taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end,” and she vows to be true to the way of grace “…whatever comes.” I believe that the way of the spirit is the way of grace; it is the way I must go to carry forward, and to remain open to whatever comes.

I am not completely a creature of this world. I am in this world, but not entirely a product of this world. I arrived in this world some sixty-five years ago, having spent most of it searching, struggling, and trying to understand. I have written hundreds of thousands of words, attempting to articulate what it has been like on the journey of a lifetime. I have done all that I can to build a foundation of the spirit in my life, and I have had some marvelous periods of construction and made important progress in spite of a number of long gaps in understanding, and I strive continually not only to reach the spirit, to embrace the human spirit within me, but also to see it in others.

At times, I have been criticized for spending so much time on such an elusive understanding, and there have been those who haven’t viewed my efforts as being particularly useful, as well as some who have questioned my judgement. Some of my choices may have been more destructive than constructive at times, but when I have been down—all the way down—scraping the bottom—I’ve had to fight my way back; claw and stretch and reach—paddling furiously in the waters of uncertainty and mystery.

At the end of it all, I seemed to understand better; occasionally having a small, incremental moment of progress, and it helps me to continue. I did not ever suppose that I could, at critical moments, have the courage to make the choice to initiate change in my life, but somehow I have.

A Leap of Faith

What is the value of positing a theory of consciousness which is beyond our current capacity to demonstrate empirically?

Even supposing that the full explanation behind the extraordinarily vivid and deeply personal subjective experience we enjoy as living creatures, includes aspects or energies that cannot be verified objectively by any known scientific process, does not preclude the existence of such components, simply because we cannot currently determine their precise nature and origin.

There have been other speculative theories and unconventional ideas proposed in the past which were met with derision and thought to be completely wrong, which eventually gained traction and became widely accepted, such as the arrangement of planets in our solar system, the shape of the earth, and the origins of disease.

For a time, these ideas had no means available to be demonstrated empirically, and were thought to be ridiculous by the conventional wisdom of the times in which they appeared. If we have learned anything over the centuries of recorded human history, we have, at the very least, discovered that the limits of our understanding today are very likely to be replaced by an expanded view at some point in the future.

In my view, the only way to accomplish this is to entertain and explore ideas which may, at some point, require us to make a “leap of faith,” in order to begin the process of uncovering what is now hidden or simply misunderstood using the current paradigm.

Some of the current theories being explored in particle physics suggest that the nature of the physical world as we understand it in this epoch may be radically different than what has been proposed in the past, and while much of what is being suggested often pushes the limits of our understanding, there is a growing movement within the scientific community to pursue these ideas, in spite of resistance from other well-established schools of thought. If we are willing to speculate about the existence of a multiverse, of tiny vibrating strings at the heart of the subatomic world, and multiple dimensions beyond our human perceptive abilities, surely the idea that consciousness is a manifestation of a fundamental force pervading the universe could be explored and given a sustained effort to unravel that possibility.

Recently, as I have reviewed many of my own life experiences, many of which I have described here in this blog, I realized that my long and winding path has given me a degree of confidence to assert, now almost thirty years later, that human consciousness, the essential subjective experience of being alive–self-awareness–whatever term you wish to apply–has at its core, a deeply spiritual component. By expressing it in these terms, I do NOT infer a religious component, but rather, a “non-physical” component. While most of the world’s religions have referred to this “non-physical component” as “the soul” or “the divine”, giving it a “religious connotation,” I believe that it is spiritual in nature, meaning “non-physical,” but also with a deep and meaningful implication, alluding to an intelligence beyond human intelligence, (not alien or extraterrestrial) but simply existing outside of the physical universe.

We are only now, in this epoch of humanity, beginning to probe scientifically the nature of human consciousness, including an expansive study of our cognitive functions and brain physiology, developing a comprehensive neuroscience, and figuring out how it all works. There are huge gaps in our ability to explain how all of the neurological functions and synaptic activity, combined with a delicate electro-chemical balance within the brain and nervous system create the results we observe and experience in the richly diverse subjective experience of being alive. In spite of enormous strides in the science of the brain in the past few decades, none of the science so far has been able to explain our profoundly personal and finely textured understanding of what it means to exist as a sentient and keenly self-aware being.

It is my theory, based on almost thirty years of study in all the related fields, that what we sometimes refer to as the “human spirit,” or whatever term you prefer to use, is the manifestation of what may potentially be a non-physical source responsible for the creation of the physical universe, and by inference then, the existence of all life as we know it. It also seems entirely plausible to me that there may exist within us, capacities or aspects as yet unknown or undetermined by our science, which either tap into this “non-physical” source through human consciousness, or which may one day assist us in revealing and explaining the “what it’s like” experience of existing in the physical world.

With the possible exception of philosophers and poets, the inclusion of these concepts in a comprehensive understanding of consciousness continues to be problematical. The suggestion that non-physical energies or forces or components could have a vital role in explaining our subjective experience of the world, especially in consideration of the profoundly important developments in neuroscience, genetics, and cognitive studies, often seems less appealing since empirically establishing such connections is currently beyond our established cognitive capacities. Whether or not we may eventually discover empirical proofs, or perhaps expand those capacities in a way that could allow empirical confirmation of some sort, is still an open question. It is my contention, however, that the only way for such discoveries or capacities to be realized, is to vigorously engage the possibility.

Since beginning the process of documenting my journey of discovery and enrichment of my inner world, my personal and research journals have gradually become more concerned with the inclusion of many empirical sources, and serious consideration of my personal perspective from the standpoint of those who do not necessarily share my enthusiasm for inclusion of elements that are currently outside of empirical scrutiny. Several of these sources have had a profound effect on my evaluations and conclusions, and have served to temper my enthusiasm somewhat, but in a way that has enhanced my progress.

Everything I have studied and read and felt since my own profoundly disturbing and consciousness-altering mystical experience in 1973 at the age of twenty, which I have come to view as an encounter with what Jung describes as “unconscious contents,” has pointed in the direction of a blending of the empirical with the mystical. At the heart of the dilemma in bringing these two disparate ends together is not so much the inexplicable resistance to unconventional ideas that Jung referred to in his autobiography, as it is the essential quality of maintaining a degree of certainty from both sides that is only truly possible to experience subjectively.

The physiological processes in the brain which make it possible for us to confirm at least subjectively that we possess a keen and potent “awareness” and which allow us to interact in a meaningful way with other sentient beings are indeed fascinating, and modern humans have clearly evolved both culturally and cognitively in a way that the hominids of 160,000 years ago could not have even imagined. The overload of connections which currently plague many of us are undoubtedly in need of attention, and I find myself in complete agreement with those who suggest a regimen of contemplation, periodic disconnection from all the maddening chaos of modern life, in order to create an environment within which we can make a beginning toward recognizing that we truly have an obligation to direct the results of our conscious awareness in a considerate and thoughtful manner.

Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part or parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

There have been a significant number of individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection, and even though our individual temporal lives often eventually went in a completely different direction, continuing to pursue each opportunity to develop new unique relationships has remained a priority for me, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

Perception and Introspection

Ever find yourself staring out into a natural landscape, almost intoxicated by the immediate sensory experience, and suddenly find yourself ruminating thoroughly within your inner world? This happens to me a lot, and when I came upon views like this one along the cascade trail in the Jefferson National Forest in Pembroke, Virginia, I couldn’t seem to avoid drifting off introspectively all along the winding path leading to the Cascade Falls. Whenever these experiences occur, I often find myself trying to figure out just what it is about our human nature that provides me with such a richness and depth of compelling experience WITHIN…simply by being able to perceive the natural world.

Reading an article on the state of artificial intelligence this morning in the Wall Street Journal, I started thinking about the differences between the nature of that intelligence and the human variety, and decided to probe for myself the extent to which the artificial variety has become a part of my daily experience. Since there are a number of devices and services involved in most of our daily lives these days, which contain components and sources that rely on basic artificial intelligence principles in order to serve our needs and to function in real time, I wondered to what degree that presence was truly evident and useful.

The article in the CIO Journal blog by Tom Loftus talked about the difference between AI smart and human smart:

“To me, I think the fundamental issue is what I call deep understanding versus shallow understanding,” said Charles Elkan, managing director and global head of machine learning at Goldman Sachs. Shallow understanding is the ability to answer a limited range of questions that are similar to each other, he said. Deep understanding, he said, implies broad context and broad knowledge. “The entire spectrum of current algorithms that we know for AI are not going to scale to human intelligence, let alone super-intelligence.”

Since I am typing these words on my laptop computer, it is immediately apparent that my thoughts are being immediately recorded, constantly edited, and eventually refined to my satisfaction (usually) through a reasonably and artificially intelligent machine, which is connected wirelessly to a network device that is connected to a router permitting access to a world-wide web of other computers and routing devices, all seamlessly communicating and providing feedback and information from an array of global resources, all while sitting on my sofa having my morning coffee, which was prepared automatically by my electronic coffee maker, in a room which has a voice activated Alexa, Bluetooth speakers, and a “smart” television, all capable of being connected to my “smartphone,” through which I can control, in significant ways, all of the other devices.

It hardly requires more than a passing familiarity with our 21st century technology to be able to conclude that, in a big way, some aspect of artificial intelligence has made virtually all of this activity possible. With a few keystrokes on my laptop, or the tapping of a few icons on my smartphone, I can connect and engage each of these devices to perform an astonishing array of functions, including a particularly interesting version of conversation with a lovely female sounding, voice-activated device with an apparent capability to understand, to an impressive degree, words and inquiries initiated by me.

In the spirit of intellectual curiosity, I decided to attempt to press the Alexa to push the boundaries of the device’s “intelligence,” to see if I might be able to get it to “make a connection,” between ideas that I bring up in a logical sequence. My first question asked about the definition of artificial intelligence:

Alexa, what is artificial intelligence?

“Artificial intelligence is usually defined as the branch of computer science that deal with writing computer programs that can solve problems creatively.”

(I noticed right away that Alexa made a grammatical error in saying “deal” instead of “deals.”)

Alexa, what is deep learning?

“Deep learning is part of a broader family of machine learning methods based on learning data representations as opposed to task-specific algorithms.”

Alexa, what is an algorithm?

“Algorithm is usually defined as a precise rule or set of rules, specifying how to solve some problem.”

Alexa, give me an example of an algorithm.

“Constraint is a random algorithm.”

Alexa, what is a constraint algorithm?

“In computational chemistry, a constraint algorithm is a method for satisfying the Newtonian motion of a rigid body which consists of mass points.”

While this exchange was interesting in view of interacting with a device using only my voice, and considering that Alexa’s responses to my questions generally were appropriate, the moment I went beyond the simple formulation of asking, “what is,” Alexa quickly resorted to the default response of “I’m not sure,” and “I don’t know the answer to that.” The impressive range of information at Alexa’s disposal, and the ability to respond to specific questions are both useful if you are doing a search, or want to know how to spell a word, but if you want to converse or ask further questions about the material provided, you will be disappointed. I told Alexa that I wanted to have a conversation, and was surprised to hear the device suggest that I engage “a social bot.”

Once I engaged this option, I was momentarily encouraged by the more conversational tone of the words that issued from the speaker. For a moment, the words seemed almost spontaneous, until, instead of saying, “yes,” to a suggestion, I responded with “sure.” Alexa’s chatty response was, “Oh, this is embarrassing, I’m not sure how to respond to what you said…would you like to talk about something else?” It quickly became apparent that there were a limited number of responses that I could give, and that my responses had to conform to a particular pattern or the device would revert to the default suggestion that we talk about something else. The responses became a little longer and there would occasionally be a humorous interjection when the exchange reached its limit, but I tired fairly quickly of having to conform to a formula in order to continue the exchange.

As interesting as even these limited options are in the context of “talking” to a machine, it is painfully obvious that there is really “no one home;” no “ghost in the machine.” There is a clear distinction between my interest in a conversation, and the machines ability to participate in any meaningful way. It is still a practical and interesting way to interact with an information source, and the advantages these devices provide are often surprising.

In the kitchen, there is another device called the “Echo Show,” which utilizes the same algorithms and methods as Alexa, but has the added advantage of being able to provide video results when the opportunity presents itself. When installing the device initially, the default “wake up” word was also Alexa, which immediately caused both devices to respond simultaneously, so I had to change the “wake up” word to “Echo,” in order not to engage the Alexa device at the same time. The advantages of having the option to display a variety of video responses is a clear enhancement of the original concept, but the option to conduct face-to-face video messaging and calls with others who have an Echo device requires giving access to contacts and phone numbers, and currently that seems a bit beyond my comfort zone regarding digital privacy and sharing.

The stark differences between the artificial intelligence supporting the machine and the natural intelligence I was using to interact with it, points to one of the key elements in discussing the potentials inherent in the future of AI development. No matter how sophisticated the sensors and algorithms or models of deep learning become, perception and processing alone are insufficient to produce the ability for introspection or the “inner sense” we experience as living biological and sentient beings. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy expresses it this way:

“Perception is achieved through dedicated organs such as eyes and ears, whereas there is no (literal) organ of introspection. “The ‘organ’ of introspection is attention, the orientation of which puts a subject in an appropriate relation to a targeted state” (Goldman 2006: 244). Perception ordinarily involves sensory experiences, whereas “No one thinks that one is aware of beliefs and thoughts by having sensations or quasi-sense-experiences of them” (Shoemaker 1994: 255). – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

All conscious humans with a nominally functional cognitive apparatus (brain, central nervous system, with basic life supporting and sensory systems intact) combined with sufficient life experience, and at least a minimal ability with language, eventually will acquire a degree of “inner sense experience,” which permits and accounts for our ability for introspection, which differs from simple perception in significant ways.

Artificial Intelligence and Human Life

Fifty-two prominent researchers on intelligence, agreed to a broad definition of the term, “Intelligence:”

“Intelligence is a very general capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test‑taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. Intelligence, so defined, can be measured, and intelligence tests measure it well”

–Gottfredson, L. S. Mainstream science on intelligence: excerpt from an editorial with 52 signatories, history, and bibliography. Intelligence 24, 13–23 (1997).

Intelligence of the artificial variety, if it is ever to be considered on a par with the human variety, should then include each of these abilities, as well as the capabilities for comprehension, “catching on,” etc. A recent film about this very subject has captured some very important aspects of concern, supposing that there is some sort of breakthrough eventually that creates what might be described as a “conscious machine.”

“Ex Machina,” the 2015 Universal Studio film, directed by Alex Garland, starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac, tells the story of a reclusive billionaire genius who owns the largest search engine company in the world, who has built a research facility in a remote mountain setting for the purpose of building an artificially intelligent robot, with the expressed goal of passing the well-known “Turing Test,” for determining if the “machine” is self-aware. As the film opens, Caleb, an employee of the high-tech firm, has won a lottery drawing within the company to visit the CEO, Nathan, at his research station and, as a result, has the opportunity to test the A.I. to see if it is truly “self-aware.” If Nathan has succeeded, he claims that it would be “the most important event in the history of man.” Domhnall Gleeson’s character corrects him by describing it as “the most important event in the history of gods.”

We are immediately thrown into the astonishing world of the newly “born” A.I., Ava, and by virtue of the design of a special high-tech suit, Alicia Vikander’s character appears to be constructed of wires and metal bones, illuminated by a variety of internal lights, and covered strategically by patches of flesh-like “skin,” allowing for the display of facial movements, and to give “Ava,” a basic human appearance. The internal workings are visible enough to suggest how the robot functions, while still providing the basic contours of the human form. It is an accomplished display of special effects which are both astonishingly realistic and profoundly disturbing at the same time. The contrast is designed to be unsettling to the moviegoer—to draw us in and to shock us into believing that it could be accomplished.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is a powerfully compelling story, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a morality tale, which begs the question of how we would have to treat such entities should they actually qualify as being self-aware, as well as a serious warning about what might happen if we don’t get it right. The character of the robot’s creator, Nathan, clearly isn’t sufficiently cautious regarding the implications of bringing a self-aware robot “online,” and he seems callous and narcissistic as an eccentric billionaire genius.

Story elements aside, many of which were designed to create drama and provide tension, the underlying implications of the circumstances surrounding such an endeavor gave me pause to consider why any future human being capable of such a feat would even want to dabble in such an undertaking in the first place. Regardless of the level of extraordinary intelligence required, bringing such an entity into existence would also require just the right balance of human decency, compassion, and empathy, coupled with profound and penetrating neuroscientific acumen. While the technological and scientific principles supporting such an invention would be of great interest to artificial intelligence advocates generally, and those who would stand to benefit financially and otherwise would have an understandable motive to see it through, the actual created entity itself would present humanity with the most challenging and perplexing dilemma it could ever face—how to know if it would turn out to be a powerfully beneficial scientific breakthrough, or the eventual instrument of our own obsolescence!

At this point in human evolution, the possibility of constructing anything even close to the self-aware robot we meet in the film seems, on the face of it, to be a very unlikely development for a number of reasons. Throughout the film, we are presented with brief glimpses of the architecture and underlying technologies which provide the foundation for how such an entity might be constructed and assembled to achieve the desired result of the project, and none of those elements exist currently in any form even resembling in the slightest degree that which would be necessary for accomplishing this enormously complex task. Using even the most sophisticated and powerful computers known to humanity, we can barely reach a level of AI that even just approximates the sophistication of the most basic nervous system of the most minimally sentient creature.

Several projects being undertaken to “mimic” the human brain, using our most promising approaches for “deep learning,” and the giant “supercomputers” like IBM’s Watson, are simply nowhere near being able to reproduce anything resembling even a fraction of the innate capabilities that our own three pound squishy mental organ can manage, with its trillions of connections inside our exquisitely shaped and evolutionarily designed skulls. This inheritance of the long evolutionary path of modern primates provided Homo sapiens with a distinctly and uniquely capable cognitive system, which exists (so far as we know) only within human beings, and consists of the most complex arrangement of neural networks of any known species. It is presumptuous indeed to suppose that any artificial system might one day exist, which could recreate precisely, that which now exists within us, possessing the same character and quality of a living, breathing, sentient modern human.

Even the tiniest quantum “neurons,” represented by the atomic scale of the components proposed by the advent of quantum computers, require supporting technologies that would seriously prohibit squeezing them into a space as small as the human skull. The character of Ava, portrayed unflinchingly in the film by Alicia Vikander, has so many affectations of modern humans, and is intriguing beyond any expectation of her creator or her Turing tester, that we easily get caught up in suspending our knowledge that no such creature currently exists. The interplay between Caleb and Ava reaches a fever pitch eventually, and we are compelled to hang on to the edge of our seats as the drama unfolds.

It is well worth the investment of the resources available to produce sophisticated and intelligent machines, and I’m not suggesting that we abandon artificial intelligence research and development. Many of the films which attempt to portray what might take place in a world where such inventions exist, often only offer a superficial portrayal of the opposing characters, glossing over the significant differences between artificial machines and sentient living humans. In the film, “Ex Machina,” the contrast is absolutely startling, as both human and machine present a potent display of the limits of both the technology and our human understanding of what makes us truly self-aware.

What it usually boils down to is whether or not the film makers believe consciousness is a product of brain physiology—whether it “emerges” out of the firing of neurons and the electrochemical processes defined by neuroscience, or instead exists as a phenomenon of indeterminate origin which is made available to us by virtue of possessing “the right stuff,” –a sufficiently complex cognitive organ.

Any attempt to reduce the complexity and holistic phenomenal experience of consciousness to simply putting together enough neurons in the right arrangement and coordinating systems and functions in just the right manner, seriously underestimates not only the phenomenon itself, but fails to take into account the awesome and sometimes mysterious character of our humanity. Human nature and nurture won’t ever be truly obsolete, as long as we continue to appreciate the supreme value of human life, and acknowledge with gratitude, our awareness of our subjective experience of existing as complex sentient beings. We are imperfect creatures who often don’t understand or appreciate fully how miraculous it is to be a participant in the experience of life on Earth, and we cannot expect any artificial “life” to be anything other than a reflection of the moral character and scientific competence of its creator.

Grandfathers And Grandchildren

Recently, I performed the stage role of an elderly grandfather for a gathering of my extended family over the Christmas holiday, and enjoyed having the opportunity to express through a theatrical scene, the importance of giving serious consideration to our contributions to the well-being of our family, and to acknowledge both the challenges and the rewards that being a grandfather can bring to our lives.

Being a grandparent these days, while retaining many of the basic characteristics we normally associate with this important role, has become expanded and extended beyond what it was years ago. Even just fifty or sixty years ago, the traditional roles of grandparents were fairly straightforward generally, requiring a supportive stance toward the parents, and filled with many pleasurable moments, not only watching the grandchildren grow and learn, but also spending time sharing advice and telling the grandchildren stories about the days when Mom and Dad were growing up. It was much more rare for children to have to live with their grandparents, although extreme circumstances did occur, like the loss of one’s parents, divorce, through some disabling illness or in the case of serious parental neglect or inability to care for a child.

In some ways, our modern day social environment is much more volatile and strenuous than in previous generations, and those conditions and exceptions are much more common these days. That certainly would explain how the role of grandparenting needed to change to meet this new reality. Each generation has its own unique challenges and opportunities which shape the social landscape through the years, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to recreate the conditions of previous generations in order to reduce our 21st century expectations and demands on family life.

What does seem most urgent to me, though, is the recognition, that being a grandfather or grandmother, no matter how one arrives in that role, and no matter what circumstances occur that assign us this very important role, presents us with an enormously important opportunity to not only assist in shaping the lives of the next generation of our family, but also points toward a fundamental connection that each of us has to all life, whether it is a very specific human life that a grandparent shares with their grandchild, or the most far flung life anywhere on Earth.

In a recent article by Jim Sollisch in the New York Times, he recalls how much more concern and stress accompanied the birth of his own children, and he describes his experience of becoming a father as “…a lot like becoming a German shepherd if German shepherds were capable of constantly calculating the risks of SIDS and peanut allergies.” Becoming a father is a lot like becoming something you couldn’t even have imagined being BEFORE having a child, but his exaggeration for emphasis does sort of capture the strangeness of it at first. He goes on to detail the difficult days of early fatherhood with his son’s several bouts with typical illnesses, and his stories about the differences with his second child definitely rang true for me, including one fairly serious injury report that most young parents could match at some point looking back.

He concludes by describing his experience of being a grandfather now, as always being “…the second line of defense, a bench player.” While this is frequently the case, it is much more common these days to be on the front lines of caring for and worrying about our next generation’s progeny. In my case, the role of grandfather took on a whole new level of worrying and concern when circumstances required us to care for several of our grandchildren on a daily basis for the early years of their lives. As a father, I had a fairly rocky beginning in the early years, not in my unabashed love and concern for my two small children, but in my inability to sustain a relationship with their mother.

The arrival of my children in my life was fairly challenging due to the circumstances into which they were born, but when I finally saw them as they entered the world, there was an extraordinary surge of love and positive emotion within me that could have overcome any obstacle, and I took to my role as father to my children without reservation. All other concerns melted away as I held them in my arms for the first time, and I was irrevocably altered in ways I never could have foreseen. Even as the circumstances worsened outside of their existence, there was a deepening of emotion and unconditional love that was unstoppable. Just when I thought that this would be my only experience of fatherhood, destiny and my connection to the heart of life, readied an impossible dream to unfold that would change me in ways that I never could have imagined.

****next time–an impossible dream come true****

Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe

“Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!
Thou Soul that art the eternity of thought,
That givest to forms and images a breath
And everlasting motion, not in vain
By day or star-light thus from my first dawn
Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me
The passions that build up our human soul;
Not with the mean and vulgar works of man,
But with high objects, with enduring things—
With life and nature—purifying thus
The elements of feeling and of thought,
And sanctifying, by such discipline,
Both pain and fear, until we recognize
A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

—excerpt from, “The Prelude,” an autobiographical poem by William Wordsworth, begun in 1798, completed in 1805, and published in 1850 after his death.

Standing on the shoreline the other day, staring out across the churning waters of the Atlantic Ocean, early in the morning on the East Coast of the United States, I reflected at length on recent events in my life, as we all sometimes do, on the anniversary of my birth, only this time, I did so on the occasion of having accumulated sixty-five years, which, in my mind at least, was sufficient to justify such purposeful reflection.

The celebratory events of the day before, although thoroughly pleasing and fully occupying the waking hours of my day, were, by most standards, quite ordinary as these events generally go, but also, in every way, greatly appreciated and precisely what I needed to inspire me to attempt to convert that purposeful reflection into some form of heartfelt expression.

As the morning light begins to rise into fullness, the sun struggles to pierce the “chaos of clouds.” I start to wander along the edge of the tidal movement, creeping ever slowly away from the peak of high tide. I walk slowly, dividing my gaze between what lies at my feet and what transpires in the sky, waiting for the sun to break through. Several small sea creatures, once alive, lay motionless in the sand, their lives now abandoned at the water’s edge. I pause briefly to mourn, and to ponder the loss.

The rising and receding of the tide, a perfect metaphor for the cycle of life, demonstrates well how we are joined in perfect unison with the natural world. The dawn brings the beginning of a new day, just as every birth signals the beginning of a new life. The rhythm and currents of the ocean mirror the rhythmic nature of all life, and with only a small effort, we can draw parallels from our own lives that compare well with the circumstances we observe in a natural setting.

Even the movement of the air can evoke a strange feeling of sameness with our subjective experience of the moment. The wind is mostly brisk, while rising and falling in a kind of erratic rhythm, occasionally failing to push hard enough against me, forcing me to periodically adjust my gait. As my thoughts recede, I lift my sights to the sky:

All of my barriers have fallen.
My mind slips into reverie;
As I slowly traverse the nearly deserted beach,
Everything all around me is in motion;
The relentless lapping of the waves—
The steady rising and falling of the rhythmic wind.
The early morning sun struggles
To squeak past the chaos of clouds;
Its light diffused behind a patchwork of puffy grayness.

I stop to stare at what might become an opening
In this fabric in the sky; impatient, I close my eyes.
Inhaling deeply, I hold my breath—
Then release it slowly, almost reluctantly.
I yearn for even a small bit of stillness,
But I cannot quell the water, wind and sky;
The only possibility for stillness is within me.
As I pause and ponder, a sudden urgency
Overtakes my senses—you are unmistakably near.

In my mind’s eye, I come upon a clearing.
A soft, flowing, musical soundtrack plays in my head;
I drift slowly, steadily toward the center of it all,
When the memory of you appears, my inner world swells,
Just as it always did right before you opened to me.
As you turn, I see your face—you smile;
I am floating as I approach, extending my hand;
Instinctively reciprocal, you reach out for mine—
Contact.

If you would like to hear me recite these words you can follow this link:

Enjoy!