Equivalent progress for technology and human institutions

“The humanities are far more powerful than most people believe,” writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to Donald Trump’s plans to cease all funding for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I couldn’t agree more with Kristof’s sentiment — and I’m an engineer.

Civilizations may indeed be built up from the resources and materials that constitute the technologies, industries, and cities within it, but I would argue that this infrastructure is really just an outward manifestations of the ideas, beliefs, and values that are embedded within the minds of its people.

Not only do we need the arts and humanities now more than ever, but we will need more of it in the future. The advent of powerful new technologies like artificial superintelligence, for example, will demand that its creators first be able to think clearly about (or even solve) some very old problems in moral philosophy.

As someone who understood this quite well once remarked, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” These words of wisdom were, in fact, voiced by a U.S. president, but it certainly wasn’t the current one. These were the words of Barack Obama.

Conscious Cities: Bridging Neuroscience, Architecture and Technology

Can neuroscience teach us about the built environment? If so, how can these insights be used to create urban spaces and technologies that improve human health and well-being?  And to what extent can industry and governance help in achieving these goals?

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Health, wellness, and experience in the built environment: From green buildings to Conscious Cities

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1. Health, wellness, and experience as core elements of green buildings

The concept of Conscious Cities has been defined as a new field that proposes to replace the focus on efficiency in the built environment with a focus on human health and well-being. It is a concept that “arose in reaction to the widening gap between our potential to design with the human experience in mind, and its lack of application in practice.” Although by no means substituting efficiency, there has recently emerged within the green building industry a complementary focus on human health, wellness, and experience.

This refocusing of priorities stems from the recognition of a failure of humanism in the way we design, building and operate the built environment, Modern humans have essentially become an indoor species, with people in the industrialized world spending almost 90 percent of their time inside buildings. Many of modern society’s chronic health issues related to lack of physical activity, stress, and poor diet, can be directly or indirectly linked to the architecture of buildings and cities.

And yet, the humanistic element has been systematically overlooked by many in the industry. This is not to say that those in the industry have completely ignored it. Building codes, for example, have dictated performance requirements related to indoor air quality, ventilation rates, and thermal comfort. And while health and wellness considerations have also been integral to various green building rating systems, it has often taken a backseat compared to other environmental criteria such as energy performance, water management and material selection.

Consideration of the human dimension in green buildings has gained momentum in recent years. The World Green Building Council noted in 2015 that “a new market demand is emerging within the building industry: to more intentionally address human experience, health, and wellness as core elements of green building practice”. Similarly, the American Institute of Architects predicted that “by facilitating greater collaboration with the public health community, there is an opportunity for green buildings to move past the premise of “do no harm” to a focus on holistic health promotion.”4

This development partly arises from economic considerations. On average, 90 percent of typical business operating costs are employee related (salaries and benefits), while nine percent goes to rent, and only one percent to energy. Therefore, even a modest reduction in sickness or absenteeism can lead to a meaningful reduction in overall operating costs.

To continue reading, visit Conscious Cities Journal No. 2

Artificial intelligence as a philosophical endeavour

It’s true that artificial intelligence will quickly disrupt the economy and society, but not necessarily in ways that are beneficial. To dismiss the potentially adverse consequences of AI demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it will be capable of. Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) — a machine or system that cannot only learn, but also teach itself to learn — would quickly outpace human intellectual ability in scope and scale, something referred to as an “intelligence explosion”. Unless an AGI’s goals are aligned with our own, the economic and ethical risks posed by this scenario are obvious.

This is why many experts have predicted that moral philosophy will soon become part of the tech sector. So, while the federal government may see AI as a path to reverse stalled economic growth, it needs to remember that it isn’t just a technical or economic endeavour — it’s also a philosophical one. The very people who are developing AI — those trained in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) — should also have a better foundation in the humanities.

Plato for Plumbers

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[Note: This essay appeared in Issue #13 of New Philosopher magazine and was chosen as the winner of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XI ‘technology’.]

“To be an engineer and nothing but an engineer means to be potentially everything and actually nothing.”

José Ortega y Gasset, History as a System (1934)

It’s a truism to remark how much our world is becoming increasingly technological, exponentially complex. The pace of change is evident in our everyday experience. From the grand feats of transcontinental flight to the mundane tasks of flushing the toilet to the seemingly miraculous joy of accessing the world’s knowledge through the smartphone in your pocket, we are at once passive and active participants in a landscape that has become progressively mechanised, digitised, and automated.

Behind the scenes, this technical infrastructure is being planned, designed, constructed, and maintained largely by one type of person: the engineer. Whether we realise it or not, it is the humble engineer who now forms the clay which moulds not only our external environment, but also our mind’s interior realm. As we enter the geological era known as the Anthropocene, the engineer has also become, perhaps unwittingly, an ecological force on a planetary scale.

There’s just one problem: at almost no point in their education, training, or practice are engineers given the proper intellectual tools with which to reflect, in any meaningful way, on themselves, each other, or their world-transforming enterprise. Engineers, and the general public, rarely stop to ask: “Should we do this, simply because we can? Is this actually good for the betterment of humanity or for the planet?” Continue reading

An Eco-moo-dernist Manifesto: Technology, meat, and the future of food

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Humans are naturally novelty-seeking animals. Whether it be music, art, fashion, even human relationships, most people, most of the time, are rarely satisfied with the status quo. We want new, and we want it often. The mantra of “new is better” is assumed to be a foregone conclusion and often passes unchallenged.

This is particularly true for technology. Many of us become reflexively obsessed with any and all new technologies and new ways of doing things, regardless of the utility or actual benefit they provide. The latest iPhone can be revealed to the world with giddy enthusiasm, and not 24 hours later people become dissatisfied, asking, “When can I get one that’s even better?” It’s a constant grasping for more, an anticipation of what’s next, a hope for something more fulfilling. It’s a symptom of all human minds Continue reading

Our Last Invention

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Many people — specialists and laypeople alike — celebrate the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) as a means to render work as we know it obsolete. While AI has the potential to provide many labour-saving benefits, not to mention the ability to solve many of our current problems related to economics and ecology, it also holds many ethical – and potentially existential – risks. Continue reading