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Why are veins blue?

Am I a yellow canary?

A lawyer and artists reflections on the human condition in disruptive AI times.

· AI,creativity,control

Not long ago my teenage son came home surprised. He had been at a bar having a banal conversation with friends about “why veins are blue”. Later that evening, when he picked up his smartphone to check something else, and before typing or dictating any search, Google was already showing search results on… “why veins are blue”!. “Mum, my phone is listening to my conversations”. Yes, and our TV is watching us, and each and every online movement is being monitored, and our data is being collected and used.

This conversation made me worry about the future. What will it look like in his adulthood? The AI revolution is happening as we live our routine lives. I felt the urge to reflect about these issues. Invariably, the mind makes associations based on our prior experience. My mind is the mind of a dancer, turned lawyer, then artist and coach, so I ended up mulling some connections between legal and regulatory know-how, self-development and art.

Are we about to outsource the human condition?

When I worked as a lawyer I advised on large regulated activities outsourcing deals.

Regulatory requirements come in long lists, are sometimes difficult to interpret and bring huge challenges when regulators themselves can’t understand what they mean, let alone agree with each other in international deals. Sarcasm aside, in the area of outsourcing requirements, requirements tend to make sense.

The main drivers of outsourcing are – surprise! -economic or political. The key is in deciding what tasks to keep in-house and assessing your company’s level of dependency on external suppliers. Issues get more complex when the activities are outsourced to shared platforms, multiplying the possibilities for interdependencies and systemic risk.

The strongest debates revolve around two issues: what can/cannot be outsourced without undue risk and how can the firm still meet its requirements (i.e. continue to operate in compliance with its authorisation conditions so that it can perform its function). Translated: how the firm can keep its essence and avoid surrendering control to someone else.

I spare you the details -not sure anyone wants to indulge in financial regulation requirements in their precious free time – but bear with me, as things are about to get personal.

Now it gets philosophical 

It turned out that defining what exactly is your core function is not that easy. How far do you go? Assume the supplier is going to be able to perform some activities cheaper and -perhaps - more efficiently than yourself. How much do you outsource without losing your identity? What makes a core function, i.e. the very reason why you exist?

Imagine concentric circles: it is easy to identify the things that are in the periphery, those auxiliary, mostly repetitive tasks that are simple to measure and subcontract while you focus on your main tasks. Or things that are not fundamental to your operations (e.g. if it misses a day of marketing or training a firm can still operate). The assessment gets more delicate as you approach the core: which functions are purely operational? Which involve decisions? How do you manage exceptions? How do you outsource a key operational task without throwing the baby with the water and letting someone else decide your firm’s destiny? If there are various firms hooked onto the same platform, how do you contain risk contagion? What if the entire system is compromised? Who will ensure it is not hacked? How will the security of the system be controlled and protected? What are my options if service levels are not as expected or there is a major breach? How do I go back to where I was before the outsourcing?

Its not what you do, its who you are, Watson

Regulation defines core activities by default as something like a function is critical or important if a defect or failure in its performance would materially impair compliance with its authorisation conditions, its financial performance or the soundness or the continuity of its services and activities. In human words, if you can no longer do what you were created to do, we are talking about a critical or core function.

It’s easier to think about firms than it is about humans. After all, firms are human creations and we are the ones who invented their purpose and conditions for authorization. But defining what are humans core activities is a tougher question. We’ve been pondering this matter for thousands of years. Perhaps the very fact that we are able to ponder the question is a distinctive mark. Besides our intellectual abilities, humans have unique physical, biological, emotional and social traits. Possibly imagination, forethought and creativity are some of most characteristic, allowing us to produce the most magnificent, practical, helpful (and stupid or destructive) ideas and making us able to translate them into actions that transform our world. The way we express ourselves is also stunningly rich: no other animal has created a cultural world so affluent and varied, our ability to sing, dance, paint, write, act and tell stories is astonishing ever since the history of humans began.

It aint easy to recover whats gone

Outsourcing requirements are clever. Regulators put the finger on the right spot when they look at “reversibility”. This means that if things go wrong, the regulated firm must be able to “undo” the outsourcing and find alternatives to recover the functions it delegated by regaining control and either transferring the tasks to another suitable provider or rebuilding capabilities in-house. This assumes you have retained sufficient expert knowledge throughout the operation of the subcontracting so that you can redefine the requirements to your new provider or reconstitute your internal troops. No sound regulator would let you engage in material outsourcing without showing a plausible reversibility plan.

I do not intend to give an exhaustive list of developments that humans are already consciously or unknowingly outsourcing to algorithms. We are outsourcing parts of our memory (why retain it if I can have everything on my phone?), information finding, spatial location abilities (Google maps will take you anywhere), social connections (Social media), romantic lives (Tinder), etc. Even intimacy is starting to feel awkward to the younger generations. Our personalities are being identified with high accuracy and technology is getting better at reading our emotions.

Already AI has written songs, produced paintings, composed poems, won chess matches, intervened in filmmaking, print out sculptures and draw anything it sees. AI is also becoming creative through deep learning and although yet in its infancy, the combination of high tech with biotech is growing the potential to make every creation tailored to our own individual needs, emotions and desires. The exciting part is easy to see, the scary side is obviously in the enormous potential for loss of identity and manipulation.

Do we know what we are getting into?

“The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time... and you can't see it if you refuse to face the possibility.”
William S. Burroughs

Let’s go back to the outsourcing regulations: “when relying on a third party for the performance of operational functions which are critical, a firm must not undertake the outsourcing of important operational functions in such a was a to impair materially the quality of its internal control. A firm must have effective processes to identify, manage, monitor and report risks and internal control mechanisms.

I am not sure I will be able to escape manipulation or resist the temptation to delegate more and more of my “human functions” to technology, but I do not intend to render control without thinking, and I’d like to urge all those who are in a position to shape how are transforming our human condition to do the same.

If we took the outsourcing due diligence route we would have to:

  1. Assess whether what we are about to outsource is a core human function.  Go back to the essence of being human.  If it is a function that defines our identity as a species or as an individual, at least we should think long and deep before deciding what to give away and under what conditions;
  2. Do a due diligence on the identity and reputation of your provider:  to whom are we outsourcing?  How can we trust them? What track record do they have?  Even with the “protections” of data privacy regulations, do we know who we are allowing to tell us what to do, how, where, what music to listen to, what materials we would read and which movies we will watch?  Who is going to use our information? And who is controlling them?
  3. What kind of control will we have during the relationship?  Is there anything we can do to benchmark the quality of what we will get?
  4. If we give up performing certain functions by ourselves, will we be able to recover them if we are not happy with the outsourcing arrangements? 

The weird fact is that we are not in a position to make this kind of assessment. If algorithms infiltrate our lives and minds without our knowing, and if we are de facto giving up our functions gradually and incrementally but unconsciously, chances are that we will be effectively losing control.

Even if we know what we are doing, or we think we understand to whom and under what conditions we are creating technological dependencies, are we really sure we retain the abilities we outsource and we will be able to use them again when we want?

The question of reversibility is tricky. Neuroscientists talk about neuroplasticity and our ability to rewire the brain. We know we adapt, but nobody knows what it will take to recover our human essence if we stop doing the things that make us human. What if we have no inner world (not only online privacy, but we stop our inner dialogue because our minds have gotten used to programming everything we do in function of social media reactions)? what if we debilitate our decision-making capabilities because we rely on algorithms to tell us what’s best according to our personality traits, what if we no longer read or write? How fast can we recover these capabilities?

Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing?”- Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind.

Can we first think, please?

The ability to project ourselves into the future also gives us the capacity to project our own death. We are aware that we are alive, and that each of us is going to die. Although other species react to immediate threats and are also driven by a survival instinct, it is unlikely that animals reflect about their own death and transcendence.

At times where there is so much at stake, I would hope we could think about the threats and wonderful opportunities of the major power shifts technology and biotechnology that are happening right now. Hannah Arendt said that The sad truth of the matter is that most evil is done by people who never made up their minds to be or do either evil or good.”

Scientists and engineers creating algorithms and even those leading the tech revolution may not be aware of the potential consequences of their creations. But haven’t we seen enough ex-Facebook employees repentant and sorry about their participation in the creation of mass manipulation tools?

Even those acting with the best intentions, are they thinking ahead of the cyber risks and considering the “what ifs” should their functionalities fall into the wrong hands?

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed." - Mahatma Gandhi

These are not for outsourcing, baby.

As much as I sometimes hated dealing with the tedious regulatory requirements, I’ve come to think of them as a useful model for deciding how much freedom I would like to keep for myself.

Another way of looking at these requirements is making a list of the retained capabilities you are not willing to delegate. Here is mine:

I don’t want to outsource my love life, the pleasure of creating and the abilities to question and imagine. I don’t want to resign my free spirit and trade what defines me for the convenience of a ruling algorithm. My specific retained abilities include:

  • Shaping my own aims, making my own mistakes,
  • Loving and trusting whom I choose, including listening to my own hormones,
  • Dreaming my own dreams and nightmares, and deciphering my own shadows and symbols,
  • Thinking critically and asking as many questions as a four-year-old,
  • Aspiring to live by my values,
  • Feeling my own feelings without having to disclose them all to other humans or machines,
  • Dealing with my own troubles and illnesses, without having to disclose them to other humans or machines unless I decide to consult in confidence,
  • Dancing to the music I choose by myself,
  • Reading the books I selected by myself,
  • Cooking from scratch, including growing my own herbs and inventing whatever combinations of spices my mood indicates,
  • Creating any forms of imaginative play and pretend games I want,
  • Marvelling at the sublime in nature,
  • Expressing my emotions through my body, my words, my voice and my art.

This list is a nice exercise. I will keep feeding it and suggest you start yours. It may become important sooner than you think. I don’t know how much power I will have to actually retain control of my mind. I don’t actually control it today, I get hijacked by my feelings and anxious thoughts, but at least all sorrows and joys are my own. I want to have the capacity to observe what is going on inside me, even if I cannot escape being influenced by inside and outside stories. I know total control is an illusion and we have no answers to the mysteries of the universe. If there is anything like fate, let it be the old one, not an algorithm with the capacity to create dictatorships.

All I know is that this is not the time to feel powerless. There are many more like me feeling the same and wanting to keep their core human condition alive to shape a future in which we are still in control of our own souls.

I feel like apologizing for these long random associations about regulation, people and art. There may be many AI expertise flaws and there is so much I ignore about the future of human evolution.

But I don’t apologize for sharing my thoughts and feelings, because I know we artists are the canaries in the mine and my spirit is screaming for an urgent due diligence check-up before we decide what parts of our human experience we are ready to delegate or surrender. I will do my part and take my personal responsibility in my everyday choices.

As for the rest of the world, it may help to share a prayer:

May those involved in the algorithm race have the presence of conscience

to choose which genies to unleash.

May each of us think about our outsourcing boundaries.

May philosophers and free thinkers speak up.

May corporations and the scientists and technicians employed by them measure the long-term consequences of their innovations.

May the super powerful reflect on their karma.

May we all use our creativity for the Greater Good and the preservation of Nature.

May artists continue to show their feelings.

May our world be safe.

May our planet continue to exist.

May humans be wiser humans.

Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world. - Desmond Tutu

This article is inspired by Yuval Noah Hararis 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Penguin Random House UK, 2018.

Mirna Hidalgo is an expert in the Psychology of Creativity and Collaboration, she works as executive coach and is also an active visual artist. You can read about Mirnas work here and follow her art here.

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