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How the Brain Could Succeed Where Gods, Monotheism, and Ideologies All Failed
Religious skepticism birthed the modern world, but its ideologies have largely failed to deliver. Could neuroscience cure the ails of human society?
Dr. Joscha Bach (MIT Media Lab and the Harvard Program for Evolutionary Dynamics) is an AI researcher who works and writes about cognitive architectures, mental representation, emotion, social modeling, and multi-agent systems. He is founder of the MicroPsi project, in which virtual agents are constructed and used in a computer model to discover and describe the interactions of emotion, motivation, and cognition of situated agents. Bach’s mission to build a model of the mind is the bedrock research in the creation of Strong AI, i.e. cognition on par with that of a human being. He is especially interested in the philosophy of AI and in the augmentation of the human mind.
JOSCHA BACH: I think that religion probably got us from the first million individuals—and we had been at a million individuals for a very long time in history—to the first one hundred million.
And then this monotheistic religion, we got to something like three hundred million.
And at the turn of the times at 1 BC we were about three hundred million individuals.
And at the beginning of enlightenment, that is somewhere around seven hundred AD approximately, we were still four hundred million individuals.
And at this point we evolved in our culture the ability to doubt. We started doubting the religion. And feudalism broke down as a result, and we started building a modern much more productive society.
This society got us two billions of individuals.
And then came the next revolution and the twentieth century. These were systemic societies. Societies that were grown in the lab from people that created ideologies. Fascism, socialism, communism, market liberalism—These were all things that people thought of and invented and lapsed [??] and then implanted them in societies.
Incidentally they all failed, and now in something like a post-systemic age and we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t work. And when we want to describe our society we sometimes use words like “resilience” or “anti-fragility” and so on, which are good words for muddling through. Because we don’t really know how to organize these societies in these days anymore.
It’s a very big problem; we need to deal with this and many countries try to find different answers to their problem.
So in a way this ability to program ideologies and then project them onto people has been a very big breakthrough for our species, and important it is for mass media.
Mass media made the twentieth century possible, because mass media synchronized the dreams of large numbers of people, the ideas about the world that they lived in.
And now due to social media, mass media has lost much of their appeal. You know that U.S. in some sense had two realities, the CNN and the Fox News reality. They were two narratives that were pretty much incompatible.
Two stories that were being told to the people and that affected their minds. And now due to social media people have stopped believing these media narratives to a very large extent. People believe random stuff basically. That’s why we are so obsessed with the idea of fake news, which is incidentally not the propaganda that we are afraid of falling victim to. It’s a propaganda that we don’t want others to infect. Right? Random bits of information, viral bits of information that come from the internet and that get people to disbelieve the same dream that we are dreaming.
It’s actually very dangerous because it’s going to splinter society into parts that we don’t know how to glue together again.
I think that our brain is doing an amazing thing that we don’t know how to do out there in the real world. Our brain is a self-organizing system that processes information in a near-optimal way. Sometimes you have defects where the brain starts lying to itself, but mostly it doesn’t happen. Our nervous system is pretty accurate in the sense that it doesn’t lie to itself very much.
And the way we build our organization in the world of our governments and so on, which are in some sense the nervous systems of our societies, they lie to themselves. They are corrupted by local interests and so on. And we haven’t really found a way to build information processing networks out in the world that manage to be for the most part always truthful and relevant. And if we understand how our brain is pulling this off to self-organize in such a way that many, many small units can link up in a way that organizes itself to do the best for that particular organism, this is something that we need to pull up in our societies too.
So I do think that insights from understanding how our minds work and how our nervous systems work are going to be very helpful in understanding how to build better societies and better organizations.
Religious skepticism birthed the modern world, but its ideologies have largely failed to deliver. Could neuroscience cure the ails of human society? In this fascinatingly brief tour of world history, Joscha Bach suggests that us moderns still toil in the mud of feudalist peasants. We talk highly of resilient rights and institutions, but resiliency against what? Ourselves, it seems. If we turn our gaze to the structure of the human brain, however, we discover a system that is remarkably effective. So what if human institutions were modeled on natural, organic systems? The results might be something entirely new, argues Bach.
Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.
- The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
- Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
COVID-19 and the brain<p>A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/doi/10.1093/brain/awaa240/5868408" target="_blank">study</a> in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.</p><p>Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.</p>
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images<p>A separate study published in the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198407/" target="_blank">Journal of Clinical Neuroscience</a> notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.</p><p>A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/ucl-iid070620.php" target="_blank">press release</a>. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."</p><p>If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit <a href="https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study" target="_blank">cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study</a>.</p>
Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.
- Outplacement is an underperforming $5 billion dollar industry. A new non-profit coalition by SkillUp intends to disrupt it.
- More and more Americans will be laid off in years to come due to automation. Those people need to reorient their career paths and reskill in a way that protects their long-term livelihood.
- SkillUp brings together technology and service providers, education and training providers, hiring employers, worker outreach, and philanthropies to help people land in-demand jobs in high-growth industries.
Source: McKinsey Global Institute analysis [PDF]<p>Work in understanding the skills at the heart of the new digital economy is leading to novel assessments that allow individuals to prove mastery to faithfully represent their abilities—but also to give weight and stackability to the emerging ecosystem of micro-credentials that make education more seamless across time and education providers. And we are seeing the beginnings of a renewal in the liberal arts, focused on building human skills in affordable ways that are accessible to many more individuals and far more effective.</p><p>Amidst these dark times, there is much opportunity to refresh the nation's education and training solutions to support the success of individuals and society writ large.</p>