This past week an article appeared in the New York Times, The Human Brain is a Time Traveler, which described how the algorithms which are part of digital machine learning systems are becoming increasingly adept at making complex, accurate predictions of what the future might hold in any number of different areas of human endeavor by accessing dynamics of the past. For example, these algorithms could generate dozens of separate predictions for the prospective college student for colleges in which he/she was interested; predictions synonymous with whatever long-term goals a college applicant had defined as being important to him, such as happiness, financial security, social-justice impact, fame, or health. In other words, the algorithms would be using relevant data to provide a detailed picture of what the future beyond his/her college years would look like for a certain student who attended a specific college.
Similarly, as late as 2017, according to the same article, the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago announced a new collaboration with the Chicago Police Department to build a machine-learning-based “officer support system” designed specifically to predict which officers were likely to have an “adverse incident” while on the job. This was to be done by allowing the algorithms in the system to sort through data generated for every cop on the force relative to arrest reports, gun confiscations, public complaints, or supervisor reprimands in order to detect patterns of information that could be used to predict future problems such as the shooting of an unarmed citizen or other excessive uses of force.
If much of this reminds you of the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, in which a pre-crime unit used similar data to actually predict when future crimes might take place, and then to arrest the “perpetrators” for what crimes they might commit in the future, such a realization about where our world could be headed might not be very far from the truth. However, there may be something about machine learning systems using data and algorithms to predict our futures that might be just as potentially dangerous as living one’s day-to-day existence within such a world. And that would be the potential constriction of the space within ourselves in which we continually attempt to observe how the future might relate to the past; a constriction of inner space that could have profound implications for human consciousness.
If we as humans come to live increasingly in a world in which the algorithms inside digital learning systems begin to determine the future for us, and we then depend on that analysis of what the future might hold to make decisions about our lives, the connections within our thinking minds between the past and the future that we’re now so used to naturally making might well begin to gradually evaporate. That is, if we move away from thinking about what has happened in our past in order to imagine what the future might hold, and instead allow data and algorithms to essentially imagine that for us, then we will almost certainly begin to likewise move away from an apprehension of how our thinking minds are so integrally related to the movement of time. That is, how thought and the movement of time are essentially one and the same.
Consequently, although so few people will actually pursue this idea, those who might be inclined to do so might give up investigating how the movement of thought and time might come to an end inside them; in effect ceasing to investigate the possibility that a timeless state of being and a quiet mind might be things that could actually exist. For developing a quiet mind necessitates beginning to see the limitations of thought (i.e. how it so often cannot provide us with any real truths about our lives and the world around us). In point of fact, only immediate, direct insight can regularly accomplish that purpose. And as one’s mind grows quieter as a result of that realization, a more expansive consciousness becomes ever more of a possibility.
Inevitably, technological advancement and a true exploration of consciousness in the pursuit of something larger are going to come ever more into conflict with one another. And as our fascination grows with how the digital revolution might affect all our lives until the realization eventually comes that the machines may be running us, there is in fact a real danger that all of our digital devices will affect our minds, brains, and inner lives to the point where it has become nearly impossible for those who are interested in doing so to explore what the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu called the Tao. This being true simply because our inner vision has become so stifled by our technology. Let’s hope that never happens, although unfortunately we be well on our way.