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.
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While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
Do they really need the human touch?
- In Pinduoduo's Smart Agriculture Competition, four technology teams competed with traditional farmers over four months to grow strawberries.
- Data analysis, intelligent sensors and greenhouse automation helped the scientists win.
- Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as AI are forecast to deliver huge productivity gains – but need the right governance, according to the Global Technology Governance Report 2021.
Pinduoduo<h3>Growing potential</h3><p>Numerous studies show the potential for Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies like AI to boost economic growth and productivity.</p><p>By 2035, labour productivity in developed countries could rise by 40% due to the influence of AI, according to<a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/12/ai-productivity-automation-artificial-intelligence-countries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> analysis from Accenture and Frontier Economics</a>.</p><p>Sweden, the US and Japan are expected to see the highest productivity increases.</p>