The illusion of control

The fear of AI is rooted in an unquestioned assumption: that we are in control of ourselves. One look at the President of the U.S. and we should rid ourselves of this illusion. Wait, you might say, but that guy’s not representative of the human population!
Arguably Trump is on another level of dysfunction than many presidents, but I believe his attention span is about in line with the average voter. But let’s not digress. My point is that there is a lot in the brain that works beneath the surface, beyond our sight and as a consequence, poorly understood by us. But around and around we go with claims to consciousness when regardless of how large our attention span, we can’t explain how the brain germinates creative and original ideas, because most of it is done in a cloud.
The danger of AI is not unique to AI – it is a function of technology. In the hands of a bad user, it is most likely a catastrophe. In the hands of an incompetent user, it is very likely a catastrophe. In the hands of the best of users, it still holds the potential of a catastrophe.
So here’s my conjecture: The only thing that insulates life against its reach into the subatomic is its reach into the cosmic. Until we figure out that reality is nonlocal and then all bets are off.

The American Opinion

Throughout my life, next to Indians, I’ve interacted with Americans more than any other culture. So you could say that I’m a product of both cultures. So one of the clear distinctions I’ve seen about the way Americans talk compared to Indians is that Americans give a lot of importance to the habit of forming an opinion.
I haven’t kept count of how many times I’ve been told by people here that having an opinion matters. But I wonder if as a culture we have swung to the other end by emphasize the act of holding an opinion over the process of forming an opinion.
As a culture we Americans value one metric of our reality above all else: velocity. The numerator being space and denominator being time. The quicker you arrive at an opinion, the more control you can exert over your environment.
But this is a short term goal. Because pretty soon, everyone is shouting their own unsubstantiated opinion over each other, without acknowledging the elephant in the room: that we don’t know anything.

A life rooted

Yesterday I lost my grandfather. He passed away from a heart attack, without much pain, but quite unexpectedly. And so when I turned up for my citizenship ceremony today, my thoughts turned to the arc of his life and mine.

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When people ask me – where are you from – increasingly, I find myself pausing to think about it. But it was not always so. Once upon a time, I would without hesitation point to a village in the southern state of Kerala on a map of India. Being born in China and growing up in half a dozen different countries, the only place I found myself returning to every other summer was my grandfather’s house in this part of the world.

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My grandfather moved to what became our home village when he bought a traditional (nallakettu) house here from a Brahmin family along with four acres of land. And it was in this tropical paradise, a few miles from the Arabian Sea, where he raised his family. As the Municipal Health Officer in the town, he was intimately involved in the local community, a cause he carried to the very end. Well after he retired, he conducted himself as an agent of change in the community. In addition to regularly visiting his friends and acquaintances, he raised money for local projects, including building a community hall at our temple.
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My grandfather had a strong sense of history. When he had guests over at his house, he loved to talk about the age of the house. Made from solid wood with giant doors that swung open and shut with a mysterious ease, the house hardly seemed more than a hundred years old. But its true age as per my grandfather was pegged at more than four hundred years old. When I first heard him say this, the number was so outside my grasp that I used to wonder whether he was bragging. But over time it sunk in that we were living in a house made completely of solid hardwood, that would outlast any modern home, and could have been around well before the US was colonized.
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There are so many stories I could tell about him – how he proposed to my grandmother, how he sang nursery rhymes in marching band tones, how he doted on my mother, how he had the village children over at his house every Sunday to watch the weekly movie on his color tv, how he showered us with more money than his monthly pension every Vishu, how he tried (unsuccessfully) to get me to become more interested in his flourishing farm – but these vignettes into his personality will scarcely convey the ambitious, hard-working, loving, strict, complicated individual that was my appuppan. What I carry away is a man who was not afraid to take risks, a generosity that puts many to shame, a grower and builder of things but also a very stubborn man with a temper (the last of which I inherited).

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Once upon a time, I wanted to sit down with him to get his stories down. Unfortunately, I have waited too long to ask him. But my greatest regret will be that he will not have the chance to meet my children in person – I honestly don’t know a person rooting more for our happiness in that department than him.

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And so when I think about my feelings becoming an American citizen, I feel an incredible sense of relief, but a sense of loss as well. Where am I from? I was born in China to an Indian couple. I went to elementary school in Frankfurt. In between, I spent a few years in India only moving on once again to spend my middle years in Bangkok. I graduated from high school in Romania. And then was lucky enough to come here to attend college, get a job, meet my wife, have our children and end up at the latest stage of my journey here in the Bay Area. Through all those moves, I could always rely on coming back to Kerala and recharging my batteries at our ancestral home.

For many people, becoming a US citizen is the culmination of a life’s journey. But I have to be honest – as I was swearing the Pledge of Allegiance and leaving behind all formal ties to India – a part of me was rebelling at the thought that I needed to say goodbye to a sense of home I have always felt. I am not a refugee, I have never been persecuted; I am one of the universal citizens, the international school crowd, the privileged few that got to travel the world, live on a Indian diplomatic passport and yet had a place to come home. Why should I become an American citizen?

I was seventeen when I arrived in this country. This coming October, I will have spent seventeen years or exactly half my life here. But all this time, I have never felt a sense of conflict – never once been asked where am I from as if I don’t belong here. These doubts I have felt these past couple of days – they have been from within. So why did I choose to go through with this process? Because as much as I have a place to call home, I have put seventeen years of toil into building a second home. Sometimes, one home is not enough. Sometimes, you meet a girl that changes the reasons you want to move back to India. Sometimes, you end up with a job that makes you happy. Sometimes, you realize how fragile your situation is when your brother calls you with the news that he could be deported on a bureaucratic error. Lastly, becoming a US citizen is the next step, but I doubt it’s the last step for me. I hope as time increases, these things become meaningless because as far as I can tell, I have found happiness in more than one place.

Appuppa, I will miss you greatly but thank you for being you because you gave us our roots so that I would never feel uprooted wherever I go.

Love,
Kannan

United behind an idea

A friend whose opinion I value raised a point about Modi’s election about how it worried her and what it implied for India when its people elected someone like Modi.

My two cents: One way of looking at it is that the pantheon of choices we have is a reflection of our society more so than the ultimate choice India makes. We have Rahul – who pays lip service to freedom of expression and economic development alike, Arvind – whose notions of leadership are immature and policies are positioned in opposition to those in power, not self-standing on their own and finally Modi – whose economic credentials are probably stronger than his social freedom and development credentials which are questionable. Why these tradeoffs? Seems unfortunate, but it is a reflection of the progress India has to make.

Yet there is a silver lining in this cloud and that is this: for a country of 1 billion (or at least the majority in the best way possible in a representational democracy) to agree on one leader in a democratic manner is saying a lot for how far we have risen above caste and communal lines. Did Modi get the vast majority of Muslim votes? Perhaps not. But India is not just divided along Hindus vs Muslims lines. India has also been pitted as a battlefront between Kshatriyas and Brahmins and every combination of caste and sub-caste possible by every party. This is probably the only country where you can be a practicing member of a non-Hindu religion and still face discrimination as a member of a caste within that religion. It’s easy for us (and by us, I mean the English-speaking Indian middle class that have reaped the benefits of the economic liberalization) to access an identity as an Indian above everything, but for most people in India, that is still a pipe dream. So these election results have surprised me in a pleasant way; I am hopeful now about India’s future, because if the youth of India can unite behind a leader, that means they are ready to unite behind an idea. And that day too is not far away.

Unfinished

I checked Ajay Varma’s blog on a whim today – a few days after I restarted this blog here – and found this intimate and honest post. I’m going to respond to a particular part of his post:

“It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.”

I appreciate his honesty here. I can’t say I disagree with much of his post. I can’t say life has made me more of an expert on it than him. And I quite possibly fit the definition of an atheist that he’s laid out.

None of it gives me any comfort. I understand deeply Ajay’s “envy”. And yet, I cling to it. A belief. A hope. I have nothing much else to go on.

To be gifted with the power of reasoning is as inadequate description of a human capability as it goes. We are to appreciate this imagination that deals both happiness and sadness.

It is said when Buddha was confronted with human mortality, he abandoned his worldly duties in search of enlightenment. And the answer he discovered lay in the removal of attachment, the source of desire and the suffering that came from it.

So does enlightenment lie on the path of the removal of attachment? The removal of manufactured meaning (quite possibly redundant unless there is such a thing as natural meaning)?

But where are we left without manufactured meaning? That which is and just that, which seems so inadequate.

Without the answer to this question, I am left with this:

It is ironic that Yann Martel’s ambiguity is unsettling for many on the religious right, because it gives them an out. A hint of a battlefield where there is no level playing field. But maybe I should not be so surprised. The religious right was never about a search for truth or value. It has always been about power, as with so many other human organizations. I digress.

Certainly, it is easier to create meaning than to search for the truth. But there is another way to achieve immortality and overcome mortality. And that too is an act of letting go.

When I pass, I hope that those lucky enough to outlive me or come after me resemble me in some meaningful way. When I share 99% of my DNA with everyone else, it seems ridiculous to desire some unique trait or memory of mine lives on through someone else. So I must be content that I have already left a thumbprint that will outlive me and any meaning I manufacture.