Z is for Zeroth Law

The Zeroth Law of Robotics, as defined by Asimov, states:
‘A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.’

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Our society is, with increasing pace, headed towards the AI Singularity and the creation of robots that match the dreams of the classic Sci-Fi writers.

Whether it’s drones unmanned aerial vehicles or football-playing humanoids or canine-shaped military attack bots, robots are set to become a ubiqitous part of our lives in the next few decades.  So far, the impact is negligible on the vast portion of humankind, but the rapid pace of eager development and the growing inter-connectedness of technology means that very soon, we will all begin to use them in some capacity.  And eventually, depend on them.

I’ve been re-reading classic robot Sci-Fi – particularly Asimov and Bradbury and Heinlein – and I cannot but marvel at how prophetic their vision of such changes in society were.

And I can only hope that, in the end, our world(s) will be more in line with those futures rather than ones where we’re Terminated.

….and then I question why I hope our robot rulers are kind to us, when we haven’t been so with ourselves.  After all, their thoughts and actions are likely to be based and guided by the study of human history, and human history is merely one long series of messy, brutal conflicts.  I wonder if the robots will simply look around, think for a bit, and then continue what seems to have been humankind’s mission (wiping each other out) in a more efficient manner.

…. those underground bunkers are going to have to be really heavily re-inforced.

Work-life balance

I used to have a job that involved me doing something I was passionate about.  My boss knew this, and used it to manipulate me into working longer and longer hours.  Calls at night, meetings on Sundays, discussions at picnics.  It never ended.

And then, I was fortunate enough to move to a country where most professions (apart from the high-pressure ones such as investment banking and PR and journalists) packed their bags and headed off after nine or ten hours of work.  6pm and offices used to be empty.  Lunch breaks actually saw people head out to parks to sit and read.  And weekends really did mean two whole days.

It was … illuminating.  And liberating.  The range of options that opened up, the flexibility available for running errands and doing chores, the amount of leisure time possible … after a year of that, I vowed to fight my damndest to never again end up in a job which took that away from me.

Coming back to India has been even more illuminating.  It was bad enough when the country was simply a developing nation, with too many people fighting for too few good jobs.  Now, with the economy booming and growth in so many new sectors (recent hiccups to the contrary), there’s even more pressure for people to deliver more – to retain the good jobs they find, to make full use of first-mover advantage, to capitalise on the massive growth potential.

And so Friend A works till a 12-hour shift and commutes for 3 hours.  This is why Friend B is replying to emails on Blackberry at 1am during a birthday party.  This is why Friend C meets clients who are willing to travel to his residence at 5.45am.  And this is why Friend D has forgotten how to have an uninterrupted physical conversation without checking their tablet or PC or answering a call.

And everybody has health issues.  Blood pressures and sugar counts and cholesterol levels are high.  Spines are being distorted and are breaking down in complaint.  Physical activity is at a minimum, and stamina and fitness is non-existent.  Books lie unread.  Films remain unwatched.  New music is unheard of.  Friends increasingly become Whatsapp buddies.  Picnics and hikes and vacations are non-existent or rushed through.

And it’s not as if the monetary compensation is always worth it, either.

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It’s hard to say no to bosses.  There’s the fear of being labelled as difficult, or not a team player, or being upstaged by some brown-nosing colleague.

It’s hard to say no to more revenue growth for your business.  There’s the fear that some rival may swoop in for the contract, that employees will take advantage of your good-natured leniency, that things will not get done just right if you are not overseeing it.

And so everybody is pushing themselves harder and harder for longer and longer – and most crucially, accepting that this is a decades-long scenario.

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More people need to learn to push back more.

To say, there’s never going to be no work and what I’ve done is more than enough.  To say, would you rather I sit around till after dinner and secretly chat on Facebook or do all my work and leave at a humane hour.  To say, I have a life and it’s not filled with work and stop giving me that disappointed look because we’re not changing the world we’re bloody writing slogans to help sell more soaps.  To say, what’s the point of earning all this if I’m going to spending it all later on to deal with all the health issues I’m accumulating now.  To say, I want to stop being so tired all the time.  To say, I would like to enjoy myself out of office so that I actually start looking forward to enjoying myself in office.  To say, don’t tell me baking a cake and sitting down to eat it while reading a new book is not as important as the team off-site, because tomorrow there may be a tsunami or an earthquake or my car’s engine may short-circuit and then what would my life have been so just fuck off ok.  To say, there’s a reason it’s called a work-life balance.

And then to do those things.

Because work will always be there.  But friends and family won’t.

Underground bunkers

Look at the world around you.  No, not the people, the world.

The temperature is rising, the ice is melting, the rains are getting more unpredictable, the air is getting more clogged, the storms are getting more fierce.

Ok fine, look at the people too.  More disputes are being escalated into conflicts over rivers and dams, over girls being allowed to be educated, over imaginary borders, and over that ol’ faithful – religion.

And on top of it all, the AI Singularity is fast approaching, thanks to people increasingly – and voluntarily – feeding the computers and robots with more data about us, so that they can get more intelligent.  I hope there’s a Susan Calvin out there.

What with all this, tell me that personal secure, food-stocked, water-supplied, renewable-energy-fuelled, waste-recycling, low-tech-dependent bunkers aren’t going to become ever more popular.  Heck, maybe even the cities will start going underground.

I should start a business.

Once I figure out how to grow food in such an environment, that is.  After all, there’s only so much one can do with mushrooms.

And once I figure out a proper barter system, of course.  Because really, paper money is only going to be useful for fires and … ahem … physical cleansing.

And once I accumulate enough easily-storable, diverse entertainment.  Because boredom kills.

Parenthood and Population and Poking noses

There are two jobs in the world that do not require you to have done an apprenticeship, do not require you to produce certification, do not require you to sit through a skills test.

Being a Parent.
And being a Politician.

I keep telling people this simple fact explains the state of the world today.

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We humans are destroying the world.

You can debate whether climate change is real or not, and if it is, whether it’s human-caused.  But in every other way, we are ravaging the environment we live in.  If you feel like debating that, or are feeling particularly combative, or just particularly masochistic, go take a look at the UN Red Book.

The situation was bad enough as it was when airplanes and electricity and auto-vehicles hadn’t been invented.  But in the last century and a half, things have deteriorated so rapidly, and continue to deteriorate so much faster, we may have permanently set the Earth’s dial to ‘ecological wasteland’.

And part of this is because there are so many more of us.  Improved medicine means more people being born at all, and more of those born living for longer.

7 billion.  7 thousand million.  And growing every second.

And yet suggest – merely suggest – that maybe more couples should decide to have fewer (or maybe no) children, and you’re accused of being a Malthusian cry-wolfer.  Problems? What problems?

… at least in dystopian Sci-Fi literature and films, there’s often another planet humans can go infect.  We don’t have that.  Unless there are some amazing new breakthroughs in science and human nature, long before we turn Earth into Trantor, it’s going to become Waterworld.

And if you can’t imagine the horror that will be the end-result of far too many people depending on the produce from too little arable land being farmed by too little potable water while trying to withstand highly erratic weather conditions  … then you need to get your brain checked.

That, or you’re really a robot, and you don’t even know it.

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Apparently, having children scrambles the brainwaves of some people.

It makes them believe they have the right to tell other people how to live their lives.

Because, dontchaknow, just having a baby – something that tens of billions of people have done for thousands of centuries (and which is usually the result of a mistake) suddenly makes you Absolutely Right about everything.  Never mind that they haven’t actually brought up their kids to adulthood, like your parents’ generation has.

Just producing progeny = Genius IQ.  Obviously.

And so they proceed to distribute their newfound wisdom to all and sundry who could be in their position, but are choosing not to.   It’s a social duty, you see.

And when you have Genius IQ and these lesser mortals don’t, you don’t have to discuss things with them like their parents or closest friends do.  You don’t have to be polite or sensitive or discreet or any of that wishy-washy liberal hippie crap.  No, sirree, you just stride in there and lay down the law.  Because these non-baby people are obviously idiots, and they need to be guided, and who better than you?

And, of course, since they are idiots, you need to hammer in the message every single opportunity you get.  Have babies, have babies, have babies – that’s all they need to hear from you.

Never mind that they haven’t met you in three years and are trying to catch up on your life in that interregnum.  Never mind that maybe their family situation means that having a child would be extremely disruptive and unfeasible.  Never mind that you don’t know if they are currently looking after family elders who have cancer or are in clinical depression.  Never mind that you don’t know that they may have tried and failed, or suffered a miscarriage while trying, and don’t mention it because the memory is too raw.  Who cares about all that?

Have babies, have babies, have babies!

… because why shouldn’t they be as tired and sleepy and worried and miserable as you are?

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If you want to truly learn how open-minded a person is, tell them you’ve decided on adoption instead of having your own children. Even though you can have your own. 

The results are likely to shock you.

And the same people will urge you to adopt abandoned puppies.  Go figure.

 

Kindness

One of the kindest persons I’ve known didn’t try to be so.  She just was.

Hers was a kindness that exemplifies the word – gentle, instinctive, unconditional, loving care.  It wasn’t change-the-world kindness, it wasn’t uplift-entire-villages-from-poverty kindness, but instead the simple kindness that makes life … nicer.  The sort of kindness that you think is ordinary and easy to find, until you realise that it really isn’t.

The sort of kindness where you make someone a chilled drink on a summer’s afternoon without waiting to ask them if they’d want one.  The sort of kindness that offers thanks to a delivery person, however surly they may be.  The sort of kindness where you spend two minutes actually talking to the security guard or postman or rubbish collectors (and not in a oh-look-I’ve-deigned-to-acknowledge-you-have-a-life way, but because it was what you do with anybody).  The sort of kindness that initiates phone calls offering unconditional help to people in need, even though those people haven’t bothered to keep in touch for years (and knowing they won’t after this either), and doing so without thinking this would be the ideal opportunity to shame those people about their indifference.  The sort of kindness that will not brush off the obvious con artist who accosts them with a sob story on the road, but will hear them and offer them options, if not direct help – while gently letting them know that you know.  The sort of kindness that doesn’t get vitiated, however horrible people and life have been to them.

Kindness doesn’t have the delusions of grandeur that goodness has.  Kindness doesn’t ask you to be a saint.  Kindness doesn’t burden you with unattainable moral goals, and then just-slightly shake its head in disappointment when you inevitably fail.  Kindness doesn’t care if people think you’re a sap, a soft touch, a gullible target for any sob story.  Kindness just gets on with the job, knowing that every little improvement makes the world that much more bearable.

We learnt a lot about kindness from simply observing her and being around her.  And the most important lesson we learnt was –

Be kind. However you can.  However little you can.  However much you can.  Whenever you can.  And whenever you can’t.

Because there isn’t enough kindness in this world.  And who knows, one day all that kindness may stop people hating themselves, each other, and the world.

 

Joy

People perpetually tell you: Be Happy. Be happy and your life will be better.  Be happy and you’ll be healthier. Be happy because it will make others happy and the world will be a better place.  Be happy, be happy, be happy happy happy.

Happiness is in essence a state of mind where you are well-disposed towards yourself and others.  It covers a whole spectrum of positive emotions.  Any positive emotion.

And most of us, most of the time, aim for that bare minimum, aim for the merest uplift. And why do we accept such scrapings? Because in a world full of horrors and terrors, you take what little good you get, right?  You don’t hope for too much, you don’t strive for too much, you just try and be … content.

Be content that the irritating neighbour wasn’t honking for five minutes while waiting for his hids to come down.  Be content that somebody bothered to thank you when you let them pass by the door first.  Be content that it’s sunny, but not so much as to burn if you ventured out.

Well, fuck contentment.
If you’re going to be positive, don’t be happy, be Joyous.

Be joyous about each sunrise, which continues to offer life to all the myriad species on this tiny little rock we survive on.  Be joyous about the birds that flit about on your windowsil.  Be joyous at a song from years past that makes you twitch in remembered rhythm.  Be joyous about … oh, the cutesy-wutesy way little babies clench their thumbs.  The embrace of an old friend.  The smell of cheese being grilled.  The pleasurable ache in your arms after cleaning a cycle.  Still having your parents around, and them still loving you.  A sentence in a book that makes you laugh.  A couple shyly smiling on a train.  A chilled glass of iced tea on a summer’s evening. A vigorous head massage. Being able to see and read and walk and hear and touch and understand and share and support and love.

Be joyous.  Seek out every little positive from every little thing and let all of it fill you, let it fill you so much that there’s no space for any regrets and concerns and irritants, let it permeate through you till you’re so suffused with it you get dizzy with intoxication, let it lift you so high that when you touch the ground again you can’t help but dance with delight, let it sear itself into your every facet so that you cannot help but radiate it, because you’re alive and you’re now and the world is still here.

Be joyous. Because contentment merely makes people envious of you, but joy – well, joy makes them want to be happy too.

Idealism

“The most hardened cynics were once the most optimistic idealists”
– Me

A lot of the time, I get a lot of grief over a lot of my views. Grumpy, they call me. Depressing, they say.  Look on the bright side, they exhort.

Well, I did look on the bright side.  Then Real Life came and flipped the lamp off.  And only in the darkness was the truth revealed.

Nobody chooses to be this dismissive, this unbelieving, this critical.  But somewhere along the line, you notice the masks and hear the unspoken words and discover the sordid secrets and face up to the truth.  And you realise the scales have been tampered with, and the standards have been faked, and we’ve all been short-changed.

And you cannot bear it, because nobody can bear the weight of broken ideals, and so you take the fragments and fuse them into a hard cloak.  And you wrap yourself deep inside, and you go forth to fight the world, one factual put-down at a time.  And the cloak gets tighter and heavier till you forget what it was like without it and you cannot contemplate living unprotected.  And so you snuggle in deeper, and make your point a little more forcefully (so that your voice can be heard through the folds).  And people look at you, and see you huddled in your cloak, and think you must be a cold, cold person.  And you let them, because it proves your point about quick to judge we are.

… but you always hope to find one thing to fully believe in.
You always hope to have some hope again.