Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Emotional Stamina and Resilience

Following my discussion with Qing Ping in this post, he recommended me this book by Yuval Noah Harari, the book prompts readers to think about current issues, challenges and where humanity might be headed. He also gives his opinions and insights on technological displacement, emotional reserves, religion, nationalism, secularism, liberty, equality, immigration, terrorism, and more. 

(Snopek, Adobe Stock)

I was already using some of his quotes in Semester 1 so I was very excited to start reading this. When I realised I was number #31 on the NLB waiting list, I decided to buy the book, which has since become one of my favourite books. 

People estranged from their bodies, senses and physical environments are more likely to feel alienated and disoriented. 

Two chapters from his book that got me thinking:

1. Change in the only Constant:
How can we prepare ourselves and children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties? Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things, and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products - you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again. The question of 'Who am I?' will be more urgent and complicated than ever before. 

This could mean that in 2050, when I'm 25, I graduate with a Bachelor in Robot Engineering, in 5 years time when automation/AI have progressed, I have to upskill to keep up, and the change will get faster and faster, which I am probably able to keep with the pace till maybe I'm 40 years old. By that time, I might have 2 kids, I have to juggle between family, work and constant up-skilling. I'll be emotionally and physically drained. By 50, the technology has advanced till a stage where my skills are irrelevant, but I am sick of change, I have invested so much in my skills, career, identity and I don't want to start all over again. However there is no way out, to survive and stay relevant, I will need the ability to constantly learn and to continually re-inevent myself.

To survive and flourish in such a world, you will need to have a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. 

This is quite a dystopian scenario, with humans trying their best to catch up with rapidly changing technology so we don't become irrelevant and vulnerable. It could also be an utopian scenario where we only have 3 work days in a week, we outsource most work to AI so we can spend more time with family and what is more important to us. In fact, now technology is already streamlining many formerly time consuming processes to achieve productivity and efficiency so we can have more important things such as sleep and family time, but Singapore is still a sleep-deprived nation and human interaction are getting lesser as we immerse ourselves in social media platforms and digital media. I'm not so sure if one day even if we manage to have 3 work days in a week, we are sensible enough to spend the additional time on meaningful things, or will we be spending time on activities that possibly downgrade our wellbeing - spending too much time on games/shows/social climbing, etc. Moreover, when we outsource capabilities to technology, we may be gaining benefits but we are also losing something in the process: eg, GPS and mobile phones help to offload tasks and allow us to outsource memory and allow the devices to do more and more remembering for them, sacrificing deep processing and imagination. I documented some research about this in this post: Is digital dementia real?

“Take Google Maps or Waze. On the one hand, they amplify human ability — you are able to reach your destination faster and more easily. But at the same time, you are shifting the authority to the algorithm and losing your ability to find your own way.” - Yuval Noah Harari (McCullen, 2018)

With artificial intelligence advancing at an exponential rate and the inevitable deterioration of humans’ cognitive abilities, one day the capability gap may be too wide for us to stay in charge. If technology does all the work, how are we going to catch up with our degenerated skills (cognitive/kinaesthetic) we haven’t been training or using all this time?  How can we catch up with the constant up-skilling and continual re-invention when we are also downgrading ourselves at the same time? How can we strike a balance?

2. Hacking Humans
Yuval shares a scenario where algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. Say Coca Cola, the company actually figured out you're gay (for example) and was selling you Coke with shirtless men, when you didn't even know you were gay?

Coca-Cola versus Pepsi: Coca-Cola knows this about me and shows me a commercial with a shirtless man; Pepsi doesn't know this about me because they are not using these sophisticated algorithms. They go with the normal commercials with the girl in the bikini. And naturally enough, I buy Coca-Cola, and I don't even know why. Next morning when I go to the supermarket I buy Coca-Cola, and I think this is my free choice. I chose Coke. But no, I was hacked. 

Once these algorithms know you better than you know yourself, they could control and manipulate you. If they indeed understand what's happening within you better than you understand it, authority will shift to them. 

If you want to retain some control of your personal existence and of future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, and get to know yourself before they do. We had better understand our minds before the algorithms make our minds up for us. 

We are already living in an era of hacking humans where FB and Google tries to understand our behaviours and show what we like and hide the things we don't like, which is good in a way but it can also be misused as a means of monetizing/politics/etc.

After reading the book and synthesising the data from my findings (probe kit, survey, questionnaire with ActiveSG), a few questions came to my mind:
1. Understanding ourselves - How can we know more about ourselves? We are often influenced by our system 1, even more so now. Read an older post on my annotation for Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow - System of thinking
2. How can we build our emotional stamina/capacity? Is it resilience?  In order to keep up in a future age of continual self re-invention and up-skilling at a rapid pace.
3. When our emotional reserves run out, how can we rejuvenate? How can we recuperate in our down time? What can restore our energies and emotional stamina when we are so burn out? Humanity will be in need of self-care and wellness routines more than ever.
4. Our well-being will be affected in the inevitable AI powered future - Social, Mental, Physical, Digital. How can the society stay sane, healthy, spirited and humane? Could it be the meaning of life that can keep us happy and grounded?
5. Yuval shared about Universal basic support which is meant to take care of basic human needs. Even if there is some universal support scheme provides poor people in 2050 with much better healthcare and education than today, there will still be unhappiness because of global inequality and lack of social mobility. He feels that if the universal basic support is to make people satisfied with their lot and preventing social discontent, it might fail. He thinks that it should be supplemented by some meaningful pursuits ranging from sports to religion. One of the most successful experiment so far in how to live a contented life in a post-work world has been conducted in Israel. About 50% of Ultra Orthodox Jewish men never work and spent their lives studying holy scriptures and performing religious rituals. They don't starve as their wives often work and the governments provide generous subsidies and free services. But even though they are poor and unemployed, in survey after survey these men report higher levels of life satisfaction than any other section of Israeli society.

As robots and AI push humans out of the job market, the ultra-Orthodox Jews may come to be seen as the model of the future than as a fossil from the past. Not that everyone will become Orthodox Jews and go to the yeshivas to study the Talmud. But in the lives of all people, the quest for meaning and for community might eclipse the quest for a job. If we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits, losing our jobs to the algorithms might actually turn out to be a blessing. Losing control over our lives, however, is a much scarier scenario. 

They will be the keywords and themes I'll be exploring in semester 2.

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