Resisting Reduction: Designing our Complex Future with Machines

Here’s a brilliant and important essay by Joichi Ito on artifical intelligence and the singularity.

Nature’s ecosystem provides us with an elegant example of a complex adaptive system where myriad “currencies” interact and respond to feedback systems that enable both flourishing and regulation. This collaborative model—rather than a model of exponential financial growth or the Singularity, which promises the transcendence of our current human condition through advances in technology—should provide the paradigm for our approach to artificial intelligence. More than 60 years ago, MIT mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener warned us that “when human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood.” We should heed Wiener’s warning.


There are a lot of suggestive and popular metaphors of the usual techno-libertarian kind in that essay about complex systems, adaptation and adaptability, “currency”, etc. But after reading it a few times, I find it difficult to say what Ito is actually arguing for. Something rather vague about flourishing and well-being, I guess, and about the dangers of “control”.

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It’s buried, I agree.


They want to

effectively respond to the significant scientific challenges of our times

which involves

harnessing evolutionary dynamics for science

There’s a sidebar about AI being worrisome on account of being divorced from these dynamics, and then the conclusion:

I hope and believe that a new awakening will happen and that a new sensibility will cause a nonlinear change in our behavior through a cultural transformation.

It feels like naive idealism, to me.


Thanks for sharing Bhante,

I enjoyed the read, and will probably come back to it again. I think it hits on some important things which are difficult to articulate or even properly think about…

I’m sorry I reacted so negatively, but even the first paragraph of the article soured me, because it opens with a characteristic metaphor of the naive, laissez faire vision of nature and society as magically self-regulating, self-optimizing complex adaptive systems of joyous flourishing - a vision that constantly bubbles out of Silicon Valley and they other techno-utopian capitalist Shangri-las. It even likens the causal interactions in the natural world to “currencies”.

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  1. the unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection. “the idealism of youth” synonyms: utopianism, wishful thinking, romanticism, fantasizing, quixotism, daydreaming, impracticability." - Online Dictionary

Practical Necessity:

Practical necessity is an instance of hypothetical or suppositional necessity: “that without which some good will not be obtained or some evil averted.” - Online Dictionary

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

Sometimes we can sit still and just be in the way - even with a smile on our face - with the best of intentions (a well-wisher to all).

In order to make meaningful changes in our current suicidal course of development we will (need) to think deeply and (act) responsibly and not continue with ‘business as usual’ - just ignore the elephant in the room!

“Values and complexity are focused more and more on prioritizing exponential financial growth, led by for-profit corporate entities that have gained autonomy, rights, power, and nearly unregulated societal influence. The behavior of these entities are akin to cancers. Healthy cells regulate their growth and respond to their surroundings, even eliminating themselves if they wander into an organ where they don’t belong. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, optimize for unconstrained growth and spread with disregard to their function or context.” - Joichi Ito

We will need to understand how we operate ‘collectively’ from the ground up and encourage any efforts that we can make - on every level - to effect change.

From the link: “when human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings.”

As Buddhists we are required to reflect on - and embody - ‘right livelihood’ and act responsibly and not just knit into an organisation and be used - or use others - like mindless cogs in a machine.

“Technological somnambulism is a concept used when talking about the philosophy of technology. The term was used by Langdon Winner in his essay Technology as forms of life. Winner puts forth the idea that we are simply in a state of sleepwalking in our mediations with technology. This sleepwalking is caused by a number of factors. One of the primary causes is the way we view technology as tools, something that can be put down and picked up again. Because of this view of objects as something [we believe] we can easily separate ourselves from […] we fail to look at the long term implications of using that object. A second factor is the separation of those who make the technology and those who use the technology. This division causes there to be little thought and research going into the effects of using/developing that technology. The third and most important idea is the way in which technology seems to create new worlds in which we live. These worlds are created by the restructuring of the common and seemingly everyday things around us. In most situations the changes take place with little attention or care from us because we are more focused on the menial aspects of the technology (Winner 105-107).” - Wikipedia

Instead of merely fitting-into a situation that provides us with our needs and wants and, merely adapting to whatever comes next. I get the impression that this article is encouraging more concern about the kinds of worlds we co-create through indifference or conscious participation.

“If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space.” - Stephen Hunt

Idealism (action and reaction):

“I […] observe your country’s conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East – West-Indies – and even on the coast of Guinea. The grand object of English navigators – indeed of all Christian navigators – is money – money – money – for which I do not pretend to blame them […] In Africa, the poor wretched natives blessed with the most fertile and luxuriant soil - are rendered so much the more miserable for what Providence meant as a blessing: the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them strong liquors to enflame their national madness – and powder – and bad fire-arms – to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.” - Ignatius Sancho

“It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.” - Winston Churchill

“In order to become a force for social change, Buddhism needs to rid itself of enduring ills—the barring of female ordination [first among them*].” - Ajahn Brahm

“By the late 1970s, the Sarvodaya Movement, with support from partner organisations in more prosperous countries, became capable of reaching nearly every part of Sri Lanka. The programme of self-reliance, community participation and a holistic approach to community “awakening” appealed not only to people in poor communities, but also to donors. Thousands of young men and women learned how to motivate and organise people in their own villages to meet the ten basic human needs, ranging from a clean and adequate drinking-water supply to simple housing and sanitation, communications facilities, energy supplies, education and ways of satisfying spiritual and cultural needs […] The momentum of the movement was such that by the early 1990s, in spite of harassment by the government and political violence, Sarvodaya had achieved an enormous outreach. The movement’s work now included peace building, conflict resolution, appropriate technology and programmes for children at risk, elders and those with disabilities all the while focusing on a holistic approach to social mobilisation through empowerment of people beyond mere economic development.” -

*If the barring of female ordination is the first among them, I wonder what 2 and 3 might be?

You mentioned aversion… two and three has to be craving and delusion. Take your pick! What evil men can do with the three poisons, all who are not enlightened, will eventually do.

with metta

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Greed, hatred and, delusion are fuelling the disorder - inwardly and outwardly. There were strategies devised by the Buddha to respond to this predicament. The Buddha taught meditative inquiry and created a living breathing community of Dharma-Wayfarers - sensitive and intelligent forms of communal interaction. All things are impermanent, we live with a different set of circumstances. Inquiry and the application of findings is an ongoing process that evolves according to time, place and, circumstance. We can learn from the past and preserve that which is meaningful and valuable. We can take advantage of lessons learned but, we cannot rely on the past in its entirety - the world keeps on changing and we need to do our best to keep it a good place for Dhamma practice.