Friday, June 10, 2011

The Rise of Robots; Friend or Foe?

Computer components implanted in your body to make you feel, think, and physically respond more efficiently. Nanotechnologies awash in your blood as they circulate throughout your system repairing damage on the cellular level to keep you healthy. Artificial nano-cells replacing some of your red blood cells to enhance your immune system's defensive mechanisms. According to one man, a leader in technology, all this and more is on the horizon...and likely within your lifetime.

As a technology buff, I watched with awe the documentary "Transcendent Man". It is the story of Ray Kurzweil, a bright MIT graduate with a talent for invention and technology. He's a man before his time in many ways, and some claim he's a sort of prophet, preaching the doctrine of technology. However you view him, one thing is certain; he will make you think.

Technology is an amazing thing. It absolutely fascinates me and anyone who knows me will tell you, I absolutely LOVE gadgets. I'm all about keyboards and screens and cool applications that let me access huge amounts of information for which I'll likely never have any real use. Since I was a kid, computers have entranced me, and I grin like a schoolgirl in love when I read about the next new shiny bits of silicon. I won't purport to understand how they work. Honestly, don't know...don't care. I just love what they can do. 

But I've struggled before with the boundaries of technology. I've asked myself, how far is too far? Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. This documentary found me of two minds, and struggling with this question, as I contemplated its message. 

My eyes grew wide with excited fascination as I listened to projections of how our bodies might be made stronger and able to outlast the current limitations of life. My geeky side was titillated even more so as we were invited to envision a world in which we live, work, and play alongside humanoid AI robots so life-like that it would be difficult to distinguish human from machine. But what is too far? And more to the point, what are the consequences of crossing that threshold and ringing a bell that realistically cannot be silenced? 

I'm all for change. I'm all for growth. And well, I could be wrong about the likely negative consequences of pushing nature to the brink. But when we begin to be so arrogant that we start calling our technological advances a form of biological  "evolution," I think we tempt the very power of the nature that placed in each of us the drive to create. 

I don't know the answers and can't even articulate all the questions, but I sense they are there. As I watched the experts discuss the possibilities and their criticisms, I was glued to the screen and noticeably uncomfortable simultaneously. There is a sense of momentum that seems to be building with regard to technology. Are we destined to gallop inexorably down a silicon path to the state Kurzweil calls "singularity?" I'm not sure. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Personal Story about being Wrong

There's more to what I was trying to say yesterday. As I read it over today, I realized that I wasn't very elegant in what I was trying to get across. Perhaps I should forgo elegance and just tell you a story. Actually, it's a very personal story. After the story, we'll revisit the whole bit I was trying to convey yesterday about  being wrong.

Nearly four years ago, I became suddenly very ill. Just out of nowhere it hit me. It seemed like maybe it was just the ghost of vertigo come to haunt me again, as it does every now and then. And then it seemed like I had just picked up a bad virus. A trip to the emergency room landed me IV fluids and the pronouncement of a viral infection. No big deal. But then, I wasn't getting better. In fact, I was getting markedly worse by the day. In the end, they plunked me in the hospital for five days while they poked about trying to figure out what ailed me. Eventually, they named the devil and it seemed I would recover, but it would take a great deal of time. I was told  to expect about a year of trouble as my body gradually got stronger and recovered. I was not a happy camper.

So, I went home to recover. First staying with some friends who cared for me and then returning home on my own. I was in a horrible state. Getting up to get a drink of water would literally take me an hour from the time I decided to do so as I had to muster all of my strength just to walk to the kitchen and back. Friends who came to visit would sometimes find me just gazing off into space and my brain was incredibly foggy.

Sitting at home, day after day took its toll. I became angry. Very, very angry. Now understand, people who know me say that generally, I'm pretty tolerant. I'm slow to anger and prior to being ill, had not actually been angry for a very long time. But I felt it boiling up inside of me. I was angry and becoming depressed. Something had to be done.

It seemed therapy was in order. After finding a therapist very close to my home, I began weekly visits with her. Together, we talked about my illness and about the undeniable anger beginning to rage inside of me. Honestly, I didn't know what I was angry about, just that I was. Looking back, I've come to realize that the anger was about my helplessness. It was about being ill, being in the hospital, and feeling like a non-entity. Being ill and in the hospital seems to take on a life of its own. A momentum builds as medical professionals try to sort out the puzzle and very often, patients don't feel in control. Well, I didn't feel in control, anyway.

The therapist I was seeing said something very simple, but very profound, about feelings and thoughts: A feeling is borne of a thought, and you can change your thoughts. Who knew? I mean, d'oh! Really? As I began to play with that idea and work to consciously mold my thoughts, I found she was largely right! Slowly, she began to introduce me to other concepts like positive thinking and the power of intention and using affirmations for strength and growth.

I was skeptical. It all sounded a lot like a bunch of new age quackery to me. And on top of it, I was/am a Christian! I had, and to this day still have, a strong belief in God. I was supposed to keep far away from all that seemed new age. But with all that time on my hands, home recovering, I had time to think. And I did.

Slowly, I began to dissect my beliefs and those of this new way of thinking. I refused to dismiss something just because I'd been taught to do so. The therapist talked about quantum physics, and Masaru Emoto's experiment with water. She introduced me to Louise Hay and affirmations.  The more I read and learned, the more it dawned on me. Learning about the laws of the universe and the way we are designed and work doesn't necessarily exclude God. In fact, if there is a belief in God, it's yet another reason to be grateful to Him for designing such a magnificent universe.

Here's the thing though. I've said it before and will repeat it here. I'm not in any way pushing upon you my belief in God. I have a belief in and a relationship with God. Whether that is your belief system is of no consequence to me in this context. But I'm making a point here. The point is that I could have simply chosen to dismiss some of the best information of my life because someone taught me once in Sunday School to stay away from "new age."

Who decides what "new age" is anyway? Heck if I know. I actually loathe labels.  What I do know is this: I was willing to be wrong. I was not so incredibly and ignorantly tied to something that I had to cling to it in spite of what my brain was telling me. That's my point.

With the willingness to be wrong, though, comes the responsibility to be discerning and wise. In the end, I determined that I simply could not subscribe to some of the beliefs the therapist offered. But that's okay. In fact, that's the way life works. It's like a smorgasbord of information, beliefs, and experiences. We get to pick and choose what we wish from the table, largely by how it sits with us.

See where I'm going with this? Just because we've not been exposed to something before, or we don't understand how it works doesn't mean it's not valid. Be willing to be wrong. Be strong enough to say, "I once thought this was right, but turns out, I was wrong. Now, I believe *this* is right." To be willing to let go of the ego and willing to let go of old beliefs that no longer work is to be willing to grow. To cling to old beliefs in spite of new information is to stagnate. What's your choice?

Turns out, I'm okay. I recovered and got back to something that resembles my prior normal self. And actually? As miserable as it was, I'm grateful for that whole experience. I was humbled and learned so much that I don't think was accessible to me before my illness. Funny how things work out.

So there you have it. Not particularly elegant or well-written, but hopefully it passes along to you something of value; the recognition that being wrong is often an amazing gift.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Quantum Physics and Being Wrong

"Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes, I just sits."
- Satchel Paige

A friend of mine says this to me often when I comment on his momentary silence in a conversation. Well, the same is true of me. I need time to just sit in silence sometimes, to think...or not. Lately, the topic I keep returning to when I indulge myself in unrestrained thought is that of quantum physics. To be honest, it hurts my head and yet, I keep going back for more. It draws me in with its mind-stretching explanations of the unexplainable. It lures me with tales about unending possibilities and objects being in two places at once. It beckons to me with its promise of a minute, yet vast world so different from the one I know, that I cannot sustain thought of it for more than a moment when I catch a glimpse of its truth. 

I won't pretend to you that I understand quantum physics. In fact, the only science that is a part of my life in any academic sort of way is that of psychology and the science of the human mind. But quantum physics fascinates me and, I think, is an interesting complement to psychology. For how people behave and interpret their world is in part based upon the laws that they understand govern the world they are interpreting. If it turns out that the laws of physics are more comprehensive than we currently understand (and I'm sure they are, by the way...though I could be wrong), once our understanding expands to take in the new knowledge, human perception and behavior will most certainly change. 

We are an arrogant lot. We think we know; we think we understand. I'm pretty sure we don't understand much of anything. I suspect we get about one half of one percent of what there is to know...if that. My opinion is not that we're stupid, but that the body of knowledge to be known is so vast, that it's simply outside of our grasp. But this is not a statement of hopelessness. Quite the opposite in fact! What beauty and hope lie in a universe that offers more than we can ever aspire to realize. 

The practical side to this is, we can't think we know. Our minds must constantly be open to and aware of new potentialities. When we think we know, we're sunk. Don't be the arrogant guy. Don't be the one who digs his heels in the mud during a debate and refuses to entertain the possibility of being wrong. In wrongness lies creation, potential, and growth. Our egos tether us to an opinion and belief. Let go of the ego and soar on a jet stream of possibility. 

Being wrong is a dynamic and open state. Believing you are right all the time is a closed and suffocating state. St. Augustine stated, "Fallor ergo sum," (I err, therefore I am) and defined himself partly in his ability to be wrong. It's great, isn't it? To recognize that you don't know all there is to know and have the hope and belief of possibility? 

Right, back to quantum physics. The thing is, I don't know or understand, but I'm excited about a world where all things are possible. I want to be open to learning in an appropriate and critical manner. I hope you'll share with me in that endeavor, and climb out of the restraint of ego. Enjoy the video below. I hope it tickles your brain as much as it did mine. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Social Media Incarnate

Imagine for a moment...FaceBook, Twitter, chat rooms, and forums, all come alive before your eyes. Imagine for a moment, trading out the flat one-dimensional plane of cyber-interaction for a three-dimensional environment, rich with a tapestry of textures, body language, cultures, and disparate voices. Imagine for a moment, interacting with people from all over the planet; dancing, chatting, taking a class, and catching up on your professional continuing education requirements for the year.

It's not all in your imagination! Virtual worlds, like Second Life, offer opportunities to engage in all the activities I described, and even more. Considering all there is on offer in Second Life can boggle the mind. Continuously, I'm amazed at the ways virtual worlds are used in efforts that enhance the quality of life for many people.

A few quick examples that come to mind are the EMT programs that use SL to train their employees in protocol for emergencies, the educational institutions that have SL replicas of their real life buildings (along with collections that may be accessed), and architects who have offices in SL for the purpose of building models that may be experienced by clients prior to real life builds. This list doesn't even begin to scratch the surface.

For those interested in artistic expression, SL has you covered. Live music concerts, a theater company, and expansive galleries showcasing RL (real life) and SL art are at the ready. You can even build your own home or other content by using the building tools provided by the program. Content builders in SL often sell their work and develop businesses. A few have even used their SL business to springboard RL businesses and now work in SL alone. That's certainly not the norm, but it does happen.

Before I begin sounding like a commercial (oops, have I already?), let me put the brakes on a bit. Second Life offers amazing opportunities, true enough. However, there are cautions. The environment functions like a self-contained world in many ways and all the cautions one would implement in RL should be implemented in SL, to a large degree. Being safe is paramount and one should take pains to protect personal information. There is good and evil in SL, just like in RL.

Another concern is that of isolation. It's interesting to me that, while we live in an age of amazing communication tools, we seem to be becoming more and more isolated. Our focus is often on our latest text message instead of the people sharing the room space with us. Because SL is a captivating, immersive environment, there are those who find it easy to trade the uncertainties of RL for the relative safety of SL. Slowly and insidiously, SL begins to function as some sort of anemic replacement for RL and the individual runs the risk of becoming insular and without the necessary RL person-to-person interactions important to sustain positive mental health. This phenomenon is to be guarded against.

My experience in SL has been amazing. I've met a diverse group of intelligent, creative, and thoughtful people who have shared their lives with me as I've shared mine with them. We've become close in RL, in many instances, as well as in SL, and I've had the good fortune to meet many of them in RL (all appropriate precautions taken). Perhaps someday, I'll share some of my adventures. :-)

But the point is, SL offers a mechanism through which we can traverse the globe from the comfort of our own homes and interact with a variety of individuals representing myriad facets of the human experience. What an amazing opportunity! Recently, I spent an evening in an SL club and enjoyed spirited conversation with people from England, The Netherlands, Germany, the US, and France...all at once! We were all talking, listening to the same music at the same time, commenting on world events, dancing, and sharing some laughs. It's a regular experience in SL.

My goal is not to talk you into getting an account, though you may choose to do that. My goal is to share a little of my experience and perhaps cause you to consider the possibilities. I believe that we only open the door for change and growth when we stretch and open ourselves to new experiences. Perhaps SL will be your next adventure!

A friend's island home in Second Life

Taking on new shape in Second Life

One of my favorite homes in Second Life