Author: Viraj Kulkarni

We need a little madness

I have a question and I am struggling to answer it! It’s about structure and chaos. ‘Structure is good and chaos is bad’ is a belief I upheld for most of my life until I realized that the relationship between structure and chaos, the Yin and Yang of our minds, is much more complex. Since childhood I have obsessed over finding structure. I loved physics when I was in school. Modeling the movement of a ball in the form of a mathematical equation is like distilling the life-soul of the movement and bottling it up. Want to know where the ball would be three seconds from now? Just ask the genie in the bottle! I chose data science as a profession and my life became even more about finding structure. In my work, I develop software (a pattern in code) to find more patterns in data! My intellectual pursuit has been all about dissecting things, analyzing them, and figuring them out. If you had asked me to name one verb which I consider as the single most important activity in life, one that defines and gives purpose to our existence, I would have said ‘to understand’! Rationality and logic were the weapons with which I set out to conquer the uncertainty and meaninglessness of life. So enamored was I with this drive to understand that I named one of my first software projects ‘Apollo’ after the Greek god Apollo, son of Zeus, who is the god of truth and reason, of sun and light, of structure and order.

In the movie ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, Jim Gordon says, I paraphrase, “There’s a point out there when structures fail you, and the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re shackles…” A little while ago, in a moment of epiphany, I realized that I had reached that point and my weapons had indeed become my shackles. In my quest for understanding, I had abandoned the joy of spontaneity and impulsiveness. I had emphasized thinking over feeling and logic over intuition. By seeing everything through the lens of Apollo, I had colored my life dull grey. When realization dawned on me that I was missing a dimension in life, I turned towards the other son of Zeus, Dionysus, the god of feeling and emotion, of wine and music, of chaos and madness.

I made supplications to Dionysus to bring me some chaos, so there’d be more warmth and color in my life. For that, I decided I needed more art! However, as it turns out, it’s not easy to break the spell of Apollo. I started doing photography and enjoyed it for a while until I took a class of Visual Computing at Berkeley and I found myself doing more MATLAB and Photoshop than actually clicking photos with my camera. I learnt to play flute for six months but gave up when it failed to stimulate me anymore. I had much better luck at writing than at photography or music. I decided to write a fiction novel and I finished writing it (I am now working on getting it published). A friend who reviewed an early draft of the manuscript told me she found it interesting that it seemed as if every sentence in the novel was written with a clear purpose of adding a piece of information to the story and there were no superfluous sentences. That was my moment of epiphany when I realized that even my art was dominated by structure rather than spontaneity and I had failed to break the shackles!

Nietzsche writes that all creation is born out of tension between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Creativity is a child of reason and emotion and it needs both parents. It’s a fact that our society shows a marked preference for the Apollonian. If you are hiring, you want an employee who is organized, steady and reliable. Most employers will not tolerate a disorganized unreliable employee even if he could, at times, be brilliant. Patience, perseverance, planning are all Apollonian values and they help us throughout our lives but to truly experience the world in all its dimensions, we need a little madness! We need to let go of the structures, if only for a while, and embrace spontaneity. We need to break the shackles and let our imagination run wild into territories that reason would never permit. Sometimes our need to feel is greater than our need to understand. How do we indulge ourselves in a little madness without losing sight of reason? How can we get our reason and madness to play with each other? How can I embrace spontaneity when my personality is so strongly Apollonian in nature? That’s a question I am struggling to answer! (P.S. According to MBTI personality test, I am an INTP which means that my personality strongly predisposes me to value thinking over intuition, truth over feelings, and structure over chaos)

What should you do when your three brains don’t get along?

How often do we end up doing things we consciously want to avoid? Why do we do things we know are harmful? Did you eat that pastry? Snoozed the alarm clock when you knew you had to get up? Let anger get the better of you when you should have kept your cool? That’s what happens when your brains don’t agree with each other!

Brains? Yes, we have three of them! A rat has only two while a lizard has just one. We have evolved from primitive microorganisms with no brains to human beings with highly developed cognitive abilities of emotion, thought, and reasoning. However, this change was not instantaneous and did not happen by design. It took place over a gazillion trials and errors; through a massive cascade of permutations and combinations brought about by natural selection.

Our Three Brains

The oldest part of our brain is called the reptilian brain and works similar to the brains of other reptiles like turtles and crocodiles. This brain performs the housekeeping activities of the body and controls breathing, heartbeat and involuntary movements. This is the most essential of the brains. Even if the other two brains die, a person may continue to breathe and perform essential bodily functions as long as the reptilian brain remains intact.

What differentiates a reptile from a mammal? Besides the physiological differences, a major difference in terms of brain functioning is that reptiles do not have an emotional life. A snake slithers away after laying eggs and doesn’t care whether her offspring survives. Mammals, on the other hand, give birth to their young and, more importantly, care for and rear their offspring. Caring requires a developed sense of emotions. This is where our second brain comes into the picture. The limbic brain, as it is called, evolved in mammals to enable them to nurture their young, rear them, defend them, form colonies and close-knit groups where members interact with and depend on each other. The limbic brain is the emotional center of our brain.

The newest kid on the block, the neocortex, is the largest of our three brains. Cats and dogs have a small neocortex while chimpanzees and orangutans have a larger one. In humans, the neocortex has developed into a sophisticated piece of neurological circuitry capable of amazing functions such as language, reasoning, imagination and planning. We have the neocortex to thank for everything we do that other animals cannot!

Three Legged Dance

Ever wonder why music can move you in ways that other art forms can’t? You can get drunk on music but you can’t get drunk by seeing a painting or reading a poem. One more trait that separates mammals and reptiles is vocal communication. Mammal parents use sounds to communicate with, care for and bond with their offspring. This auditory communication is facilitated by the limbic brain. Sound and music, therefore, directly reach the limbic brain whereas words are processed by our neocortex which is why a beautifully worded passage cannot stir your emotions like a moving melody can.

Why do you feel scared when watching a horror movie? You are perfectly aware that you are safe and the ghost or the monster exists only on the screen! Yet, during that scary scene when the ghost is hiding behind the door, you feel your heart racing and your muscles tightening. You start breathing faster as adrenaline pours through your veins. Your neocortex knows it is just a movie but your reptilian brain cannot differentiate between imagination and reality (and that is why children should not watch television but let’s save that discussion for another day!). Our reptilian brain, when it senses danger, prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction to a perceived attack or a threat to survival which prepares the body for violent action.

Our survival depended on this fight-or-flight reaction when our ancestor, looking for food on the grassland, suddenly came face to face with a lion. What happens when this response gets triggered, not on a grassland, but in a meeting room when you are giving your first interview? The reptilian brain panics and anxiety floods you while your neocortex frantically tries to calm you down telling you there’s no reason to worry. We have left our hunter-gatherer days far behind. Our emotional mechanisms that served us so well then are now not only unnecessary but often detrimental to us. Because we are most conscious of our neocortex, we falsely believe that we have a rational control over our emotions. However, logic and arguments mean nothing to two out of our three brains!

Modern society prioritizes cold analytical reasoning over spontaneous emotions. It is right in doing so because the world we live in is very different from the world in which our limbic system developed. It is wrong, however, in deemphasizing the role emotions play in our lives. Emotions govern our thoughts to a far greater degree than we imagine. Our limbic brain and neocortex compete for control over our will all the time and, more often than less, the older limbic brain wins and our neocortex covers up by rationalizing and making excuses. We can overlook this battle between the brains when it comes to having an extra piece of candy or sleeping for an extra hour but being unable to manage emotions can have more serious and potentially life threatening effects. Many of our psychological problems including the usual suspects of stress, depression and anxiety are directly or indirectly caused by discord between our three brains. How can we reduce this discord and lead smoother lives if our two older brains flatly refuse to listen to us? Are we helpless in this matter?

Managing Emotions

Epicurus said, “The knowledge of sin is the beginning of salvation”. Realizing and acknowledging something is the first step towards improving it. And, no, we are not helpless! Controlling emotions is difficult because we do not understand them. Changing habits and behaviors, breaking addictions and overcoming fears are all challenging tasks but they are not impossible. Understanding the different roles our three brains play is the first step we must take!

We do not control what we feel but we do control how we act. However strong our emotions may be, our actions are still governed by the neocortex which is within our control. A negative emotion such as anger is sparked off in our mind by a trigger. However, even after the trigger disappears, we often continue to wallow in the anger. We ruminate and agonize over it. We replay the incident and repeat the cycle over and over again causing frustration and despair. The first spark of emotion takes place in our limbic brain and probably isn’t in our control but everything after that is. To avoid these spirals, monitor your emotions and watch them closely. As soon as you detect a strand of a negative emotion in your mind, put your consciousness into gear and avoid feeding the emotion. If you do not feed it, it will exhaust itself and disappear as quickly as it came. Remember, how you respond to an emotion is fully within your control!

Emotions cause physiological changes. These changes, in turn, add fuel to the underlying emotion causing feedback loops. For example, you may panic during an interview. The resulting emotion of fear causes your heart to beat faster. Just at that moment, however, if you force yourself to relax and take deep breaths – a physiological activity typically not associated with fear – you break the feedback loop and this may help the fear subside. Similarly, when struck by a bout of anger, forcing yourself to smile can do wonders at dissipating the anger!

From early childhood, we construct mental scripts to help us respond quickly to common situations instead of processing each situation every time it is encountered. Over time, these scripts become powerful mental habits that govern many aspects of our lives. Although difficult, it is possible to consciously modify these scripts to lead a more fulfilling and emotionally satisfying life – think of it as mental health meets lifestyle design! The first step in designing your emotional responses to external events, however, is understanding the nature of the three departments of our triune brain. A better understanding of your emotions will go a long way in helping you nurture and take care of them!

The most important project you will ever work on is yourself

You have been doing projects ever since you remember. Be it school or workplace, business or fun, you will have done and will do innumerable projects in your lifetime. Your career is a project. Education is a project. Your friends, family and social relationships are all projects. Projects depend on other projects for their success. Your career project, for example, will depend to a degree on your education project. Out of all these projects, do you know which is the single most important project that all other projects depend on for their success?

You create study timetables before examinations. You do biannual performance reviews. You make business plans. How often do you take out a moment to plan not your career or vacation, but the development of your self? At work, you allocate resources to different projects by ranking them according to importance. You may set aside time for family and hobbies. You will change jobs and careers. Your bosses, colleagues, customers, interests, passions, cars and clothes will keep changing. Money will keep coming in and going out of your bank account. People will keep coming in and going out of your life. Every thing around you will keep changing except for one thing. There is only one thing that will be with you throughout your life and that is your self! Your self is the most important thing you have. It is your only possession that truly belongs to you. It is the only thing that will be with you till your dying breath and beyond. Your self is the most important project you will ever work on. Nurture and develop it. Do not neglect it. There is nothing more important than that!

Renounce and rejoice

The Isha Upanishad is one of the shortest and sweetest of all Upanishads. Mahatma Gandhi had said that if all Upanishads and all other scriptures were suddenly reduced to ashes and only the first verse in the Isha Upanishad survived, the heart of Hindu philosophy would still live for ever! This first verse which he spoke about is:

ॐ ईशा वास्यमिदँ सर्वं यत्किञ्च जगत्यां जगत् ।
तेन त्यक्तेन भुञ्जीथा मा गृधः कस्यस्विद्धनम् ।।

This verse represents the essence of the Upanishads. It says that Isha, God, the fundamental vibrations that sustain the universe, gives form to everything in the world. All things, living or non-living, material or abstract, in the past, present or future, real or imagined, are only manifestations of these vibrations and belong to God. Do not covet these things since they will never belong to you. You have come in this world empty handed, and you will leave it empty handed. You cannot own these things. You can only, temporarily, use them. Do not crave for them. Do not deny yourself happiness by becoming a slave to your desires!

Instead, renounce them and break the chains that bind your happiness. Renounce your desires so you can truly enjoy your possessions as a master of your will and not as a slave of your whims! Renounce the trivial and inconsequential to embrace that which truly matters. Renunciation is not denying yourself the good things in life. It is denying your hankering for them which only prevents your happiness. Happiness cannot be acquired by collecting possessions. It is a state of being that exists inside of you. Let your inner happiness shine forth. Renounce and rejoice in life!

Can you afford to be angry with the whole universe?

Why do you get angry at people? Do you also get angry at objects? If you are walking on the road and accidentally trip over a brick, will you get angry at the brick? Why not? Because the brick has no mind of its own? Because the brick did not choose to do anything and simply happened to be in your path due to a chain of cause and effect? How are people any different? Yes, they do have a mind, but their mind is a slave of causality too! It is causality that brought the brick into your path and it is causality that made a person behave in a certain way. If you want to get angry, don’t get angry at the brick, don’t get angry at the person, get angry at causality herself! But do you know what it means to get angry at causality? It means to get angry at the whole universe! Anger corrodes your soul. Every time you get angry, you make deep cuts into your soul. Can you really afford to get angry at the universe?

The wise man grieves neither for the living nor for the dead

Mighty armies were arrayed, facing each other, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Valiant heroes whom even the Gods feared stood at attention awaiting the beginning of the epic war of Mahabharata. Commanders on both sides surveyed the formations and.. my thoughts were disturbed by a knock on the door.

It was one of the darkest times of my life. My mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and we were fighting anxiety, emotions and hospital visits. The air and my thoughts were saturated with desperation and hopelessness. I was faced with important decisions in my personal and professional life which I did not know how to make. The grim situation demanded from me sincere answers to profound questions and I felt utterly incapable of producing those answers.

I returned to my desk and picked up the Bhagavad Gita. Arjuna, the mightiest of the Pandavas, was dismayed seeing the assembled armies. The enemy ranks consisted of brave warriors but those warriors were his own brothers, uncles, and dear friends. Suddenly overwhelmed at the prospect of fighting to death the very people he loved, Arjuna lost his strength. His body trembled, mouth dried up and he laid down his bow. With tears in his eyes, he told Krishna that he could not do it!

गतासून् अगतासूंश्च नानुशोचन्ति पण्डिताः ॥

And then Krishna told him something that has helped me immeasurably through the most testing of times. One of the the very first things Krishna said to him was, “The wise man grieves neither for the living nor for the dead!”. I did not understand the import of the statement then, but it gave me hope and I steadfastly held on to it. As I delved into the Gita and the Upanishads, into the world of Vedanta and Buddhism, I began to understand and absorb this timeless wisdom and the world was never the same again!

Will you drown if you swim after eating ice-cream?

It is said that advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise. And yet, everyday we are flooded with advice that reaches us through newspapers,  television, magazines, Facebook feeds, blogs and even marketing pamphlets! We are not only bombarded by unsolicited advice, but we also actively seek it from the web and print media. Entrepreneurs breakfast on management blogs, new mothers are glued to the Internet for advice on how to raise a child and retired executives turn on their favorite finance news channel every morning. Whenever we read something in print (or see it on TV) we assume it must be true without giving it a second thought. Unfortunately and surprisingly, much of it is  utter bullshit – occasionally it is sheer lies but most often the author himself is a victim of misplaced reasoning. Most pieces of factual news use some sort of statistical evidence to support their claims. Although statistics is invaluable to us as a tool to convert raw data into information, be aware that it is also a minefield of logical fallacies that we fall prey to a bit too often. Everyone, authors and readers alike, must learn to protect themselves from getting fooled by statistics.

Journalists use statistics all the time to create drama and sensation even where none exists. What happens when a dishonest journalist desperately looking for a new story comes across the following fabricated piece of data regarding potato prices over the past one year?

Month Price
January 20
February 21
March 17
April 15
May 13
June 14
July 10
August 14
September 17
October 21
November 20

We can see from the table that there is nothing to be alarmed about. The prices today, in November, are the same they were almost an year ago in January. But don’t be surprised if you read a dramatic piece of news in tomorrow’s newspaper written on the following lines:

POTATO PRICES DOUBLE CAUSING FRUSTRATION AND RAGE

Poor rainfall and short sighted decisions by policy makers have caused potato prices to double in the previous 4 months from Rs 10 per kg in July to Rs 20 per kg in November. The spike in prices has caused an increase in food costs, ahead of crucial assembly polls and general elections in 2014. The increase in the inflation rate both at the retail and wholesale level should come as a fresh policy worry for the government and the central bank which are trying desperately to tame spiraling prices.

Manipulation of data pervades all fields including academics, medical sciences, finance and marketing. If you have a large enough dataset, it is almost always possible to cherry-pick data so that it leads you to the conclusion you want. Dr. Peter Wilmshurst is a vocal critic of dishonestly and fraud in the medical profession. In an exposing speech that you can read here, he talks about Amrinone, a drug intended for treatment for heart failure. His team conducted experiments on the efficacy of the drug and found it to have severe side effects. The pharmaceutical company that funded the research, Sterling-Winthrop, went to great lengths to prevent these results from going public. They resorted to data manipulation, coercion, legal threats and even bribery. So next time you read about a study claiming health benefits of green tea, check if it was funded by a tea manufacturer!

There is another tendency, hasty rationalization, which is endemic to journalism, especially scientific and financial journalism. Journalists are trained to report facts. They are not trained to draw inferences and offer explanations. Our world is an extremely complex system where most significant events worth reporting can occur due to multiple possible causes making it difficult to single out a cause. Yet, without considering alternate causes, journalists pick up the first plausible explanation they can find and offer it in such a brash and confident manner that we are left believing that’s exactly what happened. Nassim Taleb, in his eye-opening book ‘Black Swan’, gives the following example. After Saddam Hussein was captured, Bloomberg flashed news titled ‘US Treasuries Rise; Hussein Capture May Not Curb Terrorism’.  An hour later treasuries fell and Bloomberg flashed ‘US Treasuries Fall; Hussein Capture Boosts Allure of Risky Assets’. They attributed the exact same cause, Saddam’s capture, to two opposite events, treasuries rising and then falling! In reality, the rise and fall of treasuries might have had nothing to do with Saddam’s capture. So when you read news, keep in mind that there will be several alternative explanations which the writer might not have considered.

As I was writing this post, I came across the below article freshly published by TIME magazine. The piece titled Why Owning An Inexpensive Kindle Could Cost You Hundreds? demonstrates how naive and fallacious reasoning affects even reputed sources of information like TIME. The article says: “CIRP surveyed 300 U.S.-based Amazon customers over a period of three months this fall. Based on the results, the firm estimates that Kindle owners spend about $1,233 per year on the site, compared with $790 for Amazon members who do not own one. In other words, Amazon members with Kindles spend $443 more annually.” The article correctly states that Kindle owners spend more, but incorrectly goes on to claim that simply owning a Kindle will make its owner spend more! This leap of logic is absolutely blasphemous and the article should never have been published. Successful people wear Rolex doesn’t mean just wearing a Rolex will make you successful! Basketball players are taller than others doesn’t mean playing basketball will make you taller! Similarly, the fact that Kindle owners spend more than others does not imply that owning a Kindle will make you spend more!* Such flawed reasoning is commonly found in market research and analytics where data is abundant and people are paid to interpret it and draw conclusions.

The saying goes correlation does not imply causation. Somebody might tell you that they have reliable statistics that, in a particular city, an increase in ice-cream sales causes an increase in drowning deaths. But now we know that the correlation between ice-cream sales and drowning deaths does not imply the causation that ice-cream causes drowning. People eat more ice-cream on warm summer days than on cold winter days. People swim more on warm summer days than on cold winter days. Consequently, both the figures, ice-cream sales and drowning deaths, are higher in summer than in winter. In the real world, the link explaining the correlation is often much more complex than this so people mistakenly attribute the observation to causation. Now, spending habits of Kindle owners may not matter to you, but when such reasoning finds its way into that magazine offering advice on feeding your 6 month old child, you should avoid trusting its claims without due diligence.

Once you start looking for it, you see data manipulation and fallacious reasoning everywhere. But there is a deeper problem called publication bias that plagues academic research and is much more dangerous and difficult to overcome. The research community has a bias towards publishing positive findings and discarding negative ones. Imagine that you are a researcher investigating whether drinking coffee increases your likelihood of catching flu. You call in a group of subjects and divide them into two groups. You serve coffee to one of the groups and just plain water to the other. A week later you find that the incidence of flu was roughly similar in both the groups so you conclude that there is no evidence linking coffee consumption to flu. You are disheartened by the results and don’t submit them for publication. Or maybe you do submit them but they get rejected because your conclusion ‘Coffee does not cause flu’ is uninteresting, has no impact and it’s just so obvious. The failure of your experiment is never published and remains inaccessible to other researchers. Now consider the fact that, like you, there might be a hundred other researchers conducting the same experiment. It may happen that, in one of those experiments, the group that consumed coffee showed higher incidence of flu out of pure chance. When that lucky researcher submits his work for publication stating ‘Coffee increases chances of catching flu’, it gets published immediately because its a novel and sensational finding even though it is incorrect when you account for the past failures! If you happen to pickup the next issue of ‘Health Today’, you might get to read the article ‘New research links coffee consumption to an increased risk of flu’. The article will also quote an authoritative doctor offering a ridiculous explanation on how coffee decreases your immunity making you more susceptible to flu. Once the observations and the conclusions are established, it is easy to find an expert to conjure up a plausible causal link between the two.

Reboxetine was a drug manufactured by Pfizer and was prescribed for treatment of depression in Europe and UK in 2001. In 2010, after 9 years of usage, it was found to be ineffective for most patients (it was effective only for some special cases of depression). Publication bias during the trials had led to thousands of patients taking an ineffective drug. Universities and research institutes have started taking initiatives to encourage researchers to publish negative findings. Many organizations now make it mandatory to register a trial before commencing it and require the results to be reported irrespective of success. Lets hope that these initiatives prove helpful.

We are fortunate to have easy access to information. It’s difficult to imagine the time when the only source of information we had were the handful of people around us. The printing press and the Internet has changed that and we must take advantage of it. It’s not possible for us to verify everything we read. It would also be inadvisable to distrust all information. But we can choose when to be skeptical. We can afford to be relaxed and trusting when dealing with things that aren’t critical. But when it comes to things that matter such as our health, we must be careful!

Notes:

* A better test to verify whether owning a Kindle causes you to spend more would have been to analyze the spending habits of Kindle owners before and after they bought their Kindle. If they spent less before and started spending more after buying the Kindle, then you could say with higher confidence that the Kindle is responsible for the increase.

Don’t trade your individuality for an extra slice of zebra

We like to believe that we have individual opinions that are not easily influenced by others, but we know we get influenced not only too often but also too much! Why are we so willing to calibrate our beliefs to match those of others around us? Everybody wants to be liked and it has its benefits: a nice rapport with the boss will help you get that raise sooner, and being popular amongst your friends will ensure you a get an invite to all parties. But we often see approval seeking behavior in social settings where such behavior has no obvious benefits. Why do we see people go to such ridiculous lengths and do things they hate doing just to ‘fit in’ with the crowd?

The reasons might lie in the hostile environment that our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in. Like our primate cousins, we humans also evolved living in groups. Life in those times was fraught with uncertainties and dangers. Imagine you are a hungry stone-ager and have just stumbled upon a bunch of colorful berries. How would you determine if they are edible or poisonous? Probably by asking the elders who might have seen their fellows eat those berries before – either to relish their taste or die from their poison. In those dangerous times, your fellow tribesmen were the only source of information you had. For every decision you made, you had to turn to them for information. Over millions of years of evolution, seeking the opinions of others became a survival tactic that got deeply ingrained in our genes.

But along with opinions, why do we also borrow our behavior from others and strive to ‘fit in’ by being similar to everyone in the herd? We often see people exhibit public compliance in spite of private disapproval. You know that your friend dislikes a particular movie actor. And yet, you see him admiring the actor in the presence of his friends because they are his devout fans! Not all rioters truly endorse unrestrained vandalism, rape and murder. And yet, we see them drown all their morals and reservations when the mob strikes. Why do we feel a pressure on us to conform and align our behavior to everybody else’s. It seems that this too has something to do with evolution. Similarity with members of the herd conferred considerable survival advantages to those who conformed. We simply like people who are similar to us! Why? Because if you like, become friends with, offer food to, take care of, come to the help of, and mate with people who are similar to you, you are eventually ensuring survival of genes similar to yours. And being similar to others increased the chances of all of the above things happening to you. The more number of fellow tribesmen you became similar to, the more were your chances that someone will offer you a fresh slice of the zebra they just hunted!

Life on the grasslands offered limited possibilities. The only career options you had were hunting, building houses, and raiding enemy tribes if you were a man, or fishing, cooking and giving birth to babies if you were a woman. Nothing new really happened for millions of years. The skill set one needed to develop in order to survive was very small. But things have changed, haven’t they? In today’s world laden with information, do you still need to turn to your buddies to make decisions such as what to eat, when to laugh, whom to ridicule and what movie actors to like? Approval seeking and canvassing your fellow tribesmen might have fetched you that extra slice of zebra then, but differentiation from your colleagues and not similarity with them is going to fetch you what you want today! The values of innovation and creativity that are deemed necessary for success today can only be achieved by being different. We need to consciously change our primeval behavior. We must learn to stave off our inner response that urges us to quickly and unthinkingly adopt whatever the majority adopts. We must realize that in today’s world our differences are our strengths – we can only contribute to others what they do not already have. If you are nothing but a reflection of your peers, you can contribute to them nothing but smug satisfaction!

Along with developing ourselves as individuals distinct from the collective, we must learn to respect others as individuals too. We must respect someone who maintains beliefs and opinions that are different from the herd. It is all too common to for us to suppress not only our own individual voices, but also the individual voices of others. Have you ever been angry on somebody just because the other person insisted on holding to an opinion different from yours? Herds are extremely efficient at drowning individual opinions. We must stop that from happening because the world’s most brilliant inventions, discoveries and works of art have always been produced by individuals – never by herds. Remember and try to break free from what Oscar Wilde says: “The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, and the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us!”

Will humans turn into robots or robots into humans?

Recently, I attended a talk by Steve Cousins on Open Source Robotics at Berkeley. Steve is the founder and CEO of Willow Garage, a robotics research lab known for its Robot Operating System (ROS) and PR-2 robots. Willow Garage focuses on realizing something we all dream of – a personal robot! As the 1980s saw computers becoming personal, 2010s will see robots leaving research labs and entering domestic households. We have seen the first domestic robot entering the mainstream market, with the Roomba having sold more than 6 million units. Roomba is a vacuum cleaning robot manufactured by iRobot.

We already have robots that vacuum your house, do laundry and fold your clothes such as Peter Abeel’s LaundryBot at Berkeley, and even cook pancakes! And we now have robotic cars that can drive through the streets of San Francisco on their own! As robots continue to evolve, they will become capable of substituting humans in an increasing number of tasks. This begets the question, what will we do when robots become smart enough to do all our work? Singularity enthusiasts will point out that robots will then become sentient beings aware of their own existence. Will we then fight robots? Will there be an Abraham Lincoln of the 21st century who will abolish robot slavery? Robot citizens and AI governments?

There is, however, a different possibility. Robots may not evolve into sentient organisms with a life of their own. Instead, we might see a future where machines become embedded within the human body to augment our senses and overcome our physical limitations. Pacemakers have been around for quite a while. More than 150 million people in the world wear contact lenses. Silicon implants are pretty and common. Prosthetic limbs are becoming available. They are still slow and heavy, but it is only a matter of time before they become as good as human limbs. The question is, what happens when artificial limbs become better than human limbs? Would you mind going for an organ transplant if it makes you stronger and faster, boosts your vision and makes you immune to all biological illnesses? We may never have a war with machines, because we will ourselves turn into machines! Will human beings simply evolve into a higher form of a robotic life?

Only time can tell whether robots evolve into sentient organisms or we evolve into robots. What future do you want to see?

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