Random finds (2018, week 33) — On 21st century education, why the Japanese don’t fear robots, and fame and the ethics of true craftsmanship
I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
This week: Another abstract from Yuval Noah Harari’s new book ’21 Lessons for the 21st Century’; why Westerners fear robots and the Japanese don’t; does recognition validate our endeavours or is mastery in and of itself the true measure of success?; the Japanese concepts of shokunin and shuhari; Charlotte Higgins’s obsession with labyrinths; the Medici effect; Shanghai’s shikumen architecture; Andrei Sakharov; and some music I have been listening to.
Yuval Noah Harari on education for the 21st century
Last week, I wrote about Yuval Noah Harari’s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, in which he turns his attention to the problems we face today. This week, WIRED published another extract. This time about education.
An abstract of Harari’s extract with illustration by Britt Spencer…
“Humankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all our old stories are crumbling and no new story has so far emerged to replace them. How can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties? A baby born today will be thirty-something in 2050. If all goes well, that baby will still be around in 2100, and might even be an active citizen of the 22nd century. What should we teach that baby that will help him or her survive and flourish in the world of 2050 or of the 22nd century? What kind of skills will he or she need in order to get a job, understand what is happening around them and navigate the maze of life?
Unfortunately, since nobody knows how the world will look in 2050 — not to mention 2100 — we don’t know the answer to these questions. Of course, humans have never been able to predict the future with accuracy. But today it is more difficult than ever before, because once technology enables us to engineer bodies, brains and minds, we can no longer be certain about anything — including things that previously seemed fixed and eternal.”
In the 21st century we are flooded by enormous amounts of information, Harari writes.
“In such a world, the last thing a teacher needs to give her pupils is more information. They already have far too much of it. Instead, people need the ability to make sense of information, to tell the difference between what is important and what is unimportant, and above all to combine many bits of information into a broad picture of the world.
In truth, this has been the ideal of western liberal education for centuries, but up till now even many western schools have been rather slack in fulfilling it. Teachers allowed themselves to focus on shoving data while encouraging pupils ‘to think for themselves.’ Due to their fear of authoritarianism, liberal schools had a particular horror of grand narratives. They assumed that as long as we give students lots of data and a modicum of freedom, the students will create their own picture of the world, and even if this generation fails to synthesise all the data into a coherent and meaningful story of the world, there will be plenty of time to construct a good synthesis in the future. We have now run out of time. The decisions we will take in the next few decades will shape the future of life itself, and we can take these decisions based only on our present world view. If this generation lacks a comprehensive view of the cosmos, the future of life will be decided at random.
Besides information, most schools also focus too much on providing pupils with a set of predetermined skills such as solving differential equations, writing computer code in C++, identifying chemicals in a test tube or conversing in Chinese. Yet since we have no idea how the world and the job market will look in 2050, we don’t really know what particular skills people will need. We might invest a lot of effort teaching kids how to write in C++ or how to speak Chinese, only to discover that by 2050 AI can code software far better than humans, and a new Google Translate app enables you to conduct a conversation in almost flawless Mandarin, Cantonese or Hakka, even though you only know how to say ‘Ni hao.’”
“So what should we be teaching? Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’ — critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products — you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.
To survive and flourish […], you will need a lot of mental flexibility and great reserves of emotional balance. You will have to repeatedly let go of some of what you know best, and feel at home with the unknown. Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the first world war. You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The teachers themselves usually lack the mental flexibility that the 21st century demands, for they themselves are the product of the old educational system.”
“To succeed in such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years, philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the 21st century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account — they are in a race to hack you, and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s hardly half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.
The algorithms are watching you right now. They are watching where you go, what you buy, who you meet. Soon they will monitor all your steps, all your breaths, all your heartbeats. They are relying on Big Data and machine learning to get to know you better and better. And once these algorithms know you better than you know yourself, they could control and manipulate you, and you won’t be able to do much about it. You will live in the matrix, or in The Truman Show. In the end, it’s a simple empirical matter: if the algorithms indeed understand what’s happening within you better than you understand it, authority will shift to them.
Of course, you might be perfectly happy ceding all authority to the algorithms and trusting them to decide things for you and for the rest of the world. If so, just relax and enjoy the ride. You don’t need to do anything about it. The algorithms will take care of everything. If, however, you want to retain some control of your personal existence and of the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much luggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy.”
Why the Japanese don’t fear robots
“A study in 2017 for the Royal Society reported that the British public, while welcoming many applications of AI, are distinctly wary of its being used for social care. In the UK, even digital natives — 18- to 29-year-olds — express fears about the downgrading of human-to-human interaction as a result of robot carers, including robot nannies,” Margaret Boden, a research professor of cognitive science at University of Sussex, writes in Robot says: Whatever.
“These worries are not widely shared in Japan. There, attitudes towards robots/chat-bots are very different indeed from those in the West, as the anthropologist Jennifer Robertson shows in her book Robo Sapiens Japanicus (2017). The Japanese, whose population is ageing fast, are being officially encouraged (by state-funded visual and textual propaganda) to rely on robot care-helpers for the elderly. Robots are preferred as carers over human immigrants, or even foreigners with permanent residency.
The ‘Ethical Guidelines’ of the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence envisages a robot as ‘a member or a quasi-member of society’. As such, robots may even be thought to deserve rights. An early instance of PARO was in effect given citizenship in 2010 (technically, the status is known as special family registry). Special residency permits — which are granted to non-citizen humans only very rarely — were authorised for nine individual robots between 2003 and 2013. And a chat-bot called Mirai (meaning future) was granted official residence in Tokyo in October 2017.
Robots are often regarded in Japan as family members, in a culture where to be officially declared a family member is critically important. The long-lasting family group (or ei) is constituted and conceived very differently from the family group in the West. Consequently, it satisfies the need for love and belonging in significantly dissimilar ways. Indeed, it follows that any AI application focused on ‘the family’ would not be equally useful in both nations.
Perhaps even stranger to Western sensibilities, Buddhist temples in Japan are currently recruiting new followers by offering funeral services for robots.
The key reason for the greater willingness in Japan to acknowledge robots as members of society lies in the Shinto cultural tradition, which does not make a stark distinction between the animate and inanimate worlds. (Funerals are held for other material objects, too.) If robots aren’t exactly ‘living things,’ they aren’t discontinuous with life either. Like everything else, they lie in a continuum or network of existence, which allows for affinities across categories that can seem inconceivable to some Western minds.
Japanese roboticists — and politicians — draw on this tradition in seeing robots as interchangeable with humans in everyday life, and as (mutually) enhancing our being. The dread that ‘The robots will take over!’ is virtually absent in Japan.”
In WIRED, also Joi Ito writes about robots and the differences between Japan and the West.
“It’s not that Westerners haven’t had their fair share of friendly robots like R2-D2 and Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid. But compared to the Japanese, the Western world is warier of robots. I think the difference has something to do with our different religious contexts, as well as historical differences with respect to industrial-scale slavery,” Ito argues in Why Westerners Fear Robots and the Japanese Do Not.
Ito believes that the Western concept of ‘humanity’ is limited. He thinks it is time to seriously question whether we have the right to exploit robots simply because we are human and they are not.
“The general idea that Japanese accept robots far more easily than Westerners is fairly common these days. Osamu Tezuka, the Japanese cartoonist and the creator of Atom Boy noted the relationship between Buddhism and robots, saying, ‘Japanese don’t make a distinction between man, the superior creature, and the world about him. Everything is fused together, and we accept robots easily along with the wide world about us, the insects, the rocks — it’s all one. We have none of the doubting attitude toward robots, as pseudohumans, that you find in the West. So here you find no resistance, simply quiet acceptance.’ And while the Japanese did of course become agrarian and then industrial, Shinto and Buddhist influences have caused Japan to retain many of the rituals and sensibilities of a more pre-humanist period,” Ito writes.
In his view, “merely replacing oppressed humans with oppressed machines will not fix the fundamentally dysfunctional order that has evolved over centuries. As a Shinto, I’m obviously biased, but I think that taking a look at ‘primitive’ belief systems might be a good place to start. Thinking about the development and evolution of machine-based intelligence as an integrated Extended Intelligence rather than artificial intelligence that threatens humanity will also help.
As we make rules for robots and their rights, we will likely need to make policy before we know what their societal impact will be. Just as the Golden Rule teaches us to treat others the way we would like to be treated, abusing and ‘dehumanizing’ robots prepares children and structures society to continue reinforcing the hierarchical class system that has been in place since the beginning of civilization.
It’s easy to see how the shepherds and farmers of yore could easily come up with the idea that humans were special, but I think AI and robots may help us begin to imagine that perhaps humans are just one instance of consciousness and that ‘humanity’ is a bit overrated. Rather than just being human-centric, we must develop a respect for, and emotional and spiritual dialogue with, all things.”
Fame and the ethics of true craftsmanship
“Fame is relative, of course. Most of us can honestly say we have no desire to be on the cover of ‘Hello! Magazine,’ yet almost all of us crave recognition, believing that it validates our endeavours. A myth of our age is that talent, dedication and ambition bring such recognition — and its associated rewards — in gastronomy as in everything else,” Baggini writes.
“The Stoics were entirely dismissive of the pursuit of fame, which they thought involved an excessive desire to please others. By example, Epictetus asks why we should feel annoyed when we ‘were not invited to some one’s entertainment’ — for our purposes, let’s call it an invitation to be a keynote speaker at a conference or to appear as a guest on a chat show. Everything has a price, says Epictetus, and the price of such invitations is that you must lavish praise and attention on those who can help you get one. Now it’s true that some individuals achieve fame without ever having sought it. But it’s far more likely that the desire for acclaim has driven them to ingratiate themselves with influential people in their field. In the restaurant world, for example, many of the most ambitious chefs are obsessed with winning Michelin stars and do all they can to satisfy the guide’s inspectors, even though they usually do not entirely agree with these judge’s verdicts. ‘Who are these people, by whom you wish to be admired?’ asks Epictetus. ‘Are they not the very people whom you have been in the habit of describing as mad?’”
As Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations (6.24), “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.” But Aurelius does concede one benefit to recognition when he wrote (4.19), “What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?” He clearly didn’t think this a significant gain, given the concomitant losses.
“Aristotle’s view was more moderate,” Baggini writes. “He believed it was good to be able to accept an appropriate degree of recognition with good grace for deeds that merit it. But he insisted that honour could not be the highest good because it ‘is felt to depend more on those who confer than on him who receives it’. Our focus should be on cultivating virtue and excellence, not the good reputation that often comes with it.”
Baggigi believes “You should do what you do to the best of your ability, and whether you gain recognition for it or not is secondary.” This, he says, is the ethic of the Japanese shokunin, the true craftsman who completely dedicates to mastering and perfecting his craft. Honour simply comes from the work and not from the recognition others give you for your doing it.
“It sounds simple: the only ambition worth holding is to do whatever it is that you want to do as best you can; the only true measure of success is whether you manage to do that. But the austerity and purity of this vision of the good life comes up against a problem. It seems impossible to judge our own success without some external measure. And this is not entirely mistaken. There is a fine line between the admirably self-contained and modest shokunin who doesn’t seek the approval of others and the deluded egotist who believes they have achieved excellence without any evidence that they have.
That’s why ultimately I side with Aristotle against the Stoics. Success does not require recognition, but it is better on the whole that people hear your music, read your words, taste your food, than not. Moreover, though we should not place too much emphasis on the opinions of others, to have no regard for them whatsoever is supremely arrogant. Recognition is a kind of success, even though it is not the ultimate measure of it.”
Jiro, who started working in a restaurant at the age of 7, became a qualified sushi chef by the age of 26. Some 14 years later, in 1965, he opened his own sushi restaurant named Sukiyabashi Jiro, a nondescript 10-seat restaurant, hidden in a basement attached to the Ginza Metro Station in Tokyo. To this day, Jiro makes the trek to work at his 3 Michelin star restaurant, one of the most heralded sushi restaurants in the world. His persistent, singular focus is a perfect example of shokunin.
“One thing [Jiro] espouses is ‘Once you decide on your occupation … you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success … and is the key to being regarded honorably.’ The value of not just enjoying your work, but of ‘falling in love with it,’ as he says, is critical,” Bennett writes.
In his essay, Bennet also refers to another Japanese concept, shuhari, which describes the three levels of ‘guided mastery’ and was first presented as jo-ha-kyū, a concept of modulation and movement applied in traditional Japanese arts. Roughly translated to ‘beginning, break, rapid,’ it essentially means that all actions or efforts should begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly. More recently, it has been adopted by IDEO for their collective career development.
“The centre, the first level, or shu, is to see oneself as the apprentice, of being in ‘learning mode,’ relishing the act of not-knowing, at whatever stage of your career you are at, hopefully acquiring new skills, behaviors, and of course, craft, whether it is design, research, business operations or finance, everything is about understanding how to bring artistry to bear on that discipline. […]
The next level, the second concentric circle, the ha, is what we would describe as ‘fluency.’ This is about the ability to let go, about finding your own ‘creative confidence,’ […] but I would categorize it as ‘post-ego’ behavior — the ability to be calm, to be empathic, to understand and relish in deep collaboration with others, to learn broadly and to enjoy how other people can both reflect back your ideas and build on them, but help keep you in check. […]
The final, third circle, the ri, is the level of abstraction that we would describe as ‘teaching.’ ‘Transcendence’ is a heavy word, for us it simply means getting over yourself and helping others. Quite simply, we take our craft and the craft of others very seriously, and help make sure that we are present and nurturing of one another. Personal progression is marked as much by the people you have helped as things you have done, and by the people that have helped you.”
And also this …
“Apparently Akshay Venkatesh [a Stanford professor of mathematics and the winner of the Fields Medal for outstanding mathematical achievement] uses his diverse interests to ‘swiftly develop insights that can be applied to other branches of maths.’ Where others have become stuck in a certain way of thinking about a problem, he introduces a completely leftfield perspective,” writes Ryan Wallman in The curious case of a creative genius.
“This would appear to be a good example of what is known as the Medici effect. Coined by the entrepreneur Frans Johannson, this term refers to the innovation that happens when disciplines intersect, such that ideas from one field are brought into another.
While most of us won’t ever make the kind of groundbreaking discoveries described by the Medici effect, there is a valuable lesson here.
Namely, curiosity is a catalyst for creativity.
This is why it’s so important for us to take an interest in the world beyond our own industry. Many people in advertising will tell you that they get their ideas from all sorts of seemingly unrelated places — books, films, art, history, people-watching, perhaps even maths. Without this broader perspective, the work turns in on itself and inevitably becomes conventional.
So you don’t need to be a genius to see things that others haven’t. Sometimes you just need to open your eyes — and your mind — to what else is out there.”
“Once upon a time, when I was a child, my parents took me to Crete,” writes Charlotte Higgins, chief culture writer for the Guardian, in Myths, monsters and the maze: how writers fell in love with the labyrinth.
“We went to Knossos, whose remains, discovered a little over a century ago, are not classical, but of the bronze age, traces of a civilisation a thousand years older than the busily literate Athens. […]
I can remember the guide saying that the myth of the labyrinth started here: the story that Minos, king of Crete, ordered the inventor Daedalus to build a labyrinth to house the half-bull, half-man Minotaur. That the Athenians were forced to pay the Cretans a regular tribute of seven boys and seven girls, who would be left in the labyrinth to be consumed by the monster. That one year, Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, came to Crete as part of this tribute. That with the help of King Minos’s daughter Ariadne, he killed the creature and found his way out of the perplexing building. That Theseus and Ariadne escaped over the sea, but instead of marrying her as he had promised, the Athenian prince left her behind as she slept on the island of Naxos. That when Theseus sailed within sight of Athens, he forgot to lower the ochre sail and hoist the white fabric that would signal to his father that he was alive, so the old king, in his grief, threw himself off the rocks and died. And that the god Bacchus came to Ariadne on Naxos, and fell in love with her.”
Higgins has been obsessed by labyrinths and mazes since her childhood trip to Knossos. Her latest book, Red Thread, is “a learned journey through the role and history of mazes in art and reality, writes Natalie Haynes in a review for the Guardian. “But it is also a deeply personal exploration of the role of the labyrinth in Higgins’s own life,” starting with a few postcards from her first visit to Knossos.
“The book itself is structured like a maze: some chapters leading the reader forwards through the story, others just a sentence or two before they peter out, as though we have taken a wrong turn. […] Higgins is Ariadne to the reader’s Theseus: she offers us a ball of red thread to guide us through. Indeed, the hardback is stitched in red, so that the reader turns the occasional page to find the metaphor (as is befitting for a labyrinth) hiding in plain sight.”
Red Thread is a wonderfully constructed book. Every page is an invitation to explore, to wander deeper into the labyrinth of Higgins’ imagination. It is a intriguing journey, full of unexpected connections and surprising pleasures. If that isn’t enough, the book ends with a beautiful translation of Catullus 64 by the Roman poet Catullus (c. 84 — c. 54 B.C.).
Here are a few lines from Catullus’s epyllion about Theseus ‘downing’ the Minotaur (line 105–111):
“Think of an oak, or pine with resinous bark,
shaking its branches on Taurus’s peak.
A fierce gale twists its doughty trunk,
topples it. It lies prone, uprooted,
ripped out, everything under it
smashed. Theseus downed
the beast like that, felling
its devastated body.
It waved its horns
— From: Catullus 64 (line 105–111), by Catullus
Shanghai-based Kokaistudios is one of the leading architecture firms working on the re-use of the city’s built heritage, such as these traditional ‘lane houses’ or shikumen lilong buildings; a traditional Shanghainese architectural style combining Western and Chinese elements, which first appeared in the 1860s.
Originally these shikumen buildings were designed for middle class families in Shanghai and as they lacked modern plumbing facilities they were often seen as products with little value to preserve and were either demolished or just the shell was maintained and they were converted it into commercial use.
After extensive research and study, teh architects developed an architectural renovation strategy that maintained the architectural features of these lane houses while altering the internal layout and transforming them into spaces suitable for modern living.
“Nothing threatens individual freedom and the meaning of life like war, poverty, terror. But there are also indirect and only slightly more remote dangers. One of these is the stupefaction of man . . . by mass culture with its intentional or commercially motivated lowering of intellectual level and content, with its stress on entertainment or utilitarianism, and with its carefully protective censorship.” — Andrei Sakharov, Nobel Peace Laureate 1975 (From: Fifty Years Later, Andrei Sakharov’s Seminal Essay Is a Powerful Model of Writing for Social Change, by Masha Gessen for The New Yorker)
And finally, a Spotify playlist with some of the music I have been listening to this week. Lots of Portugese fado, a few tracks, recorded on March 6, 1963, from John Coltrane’s Lost Album, Schubert’s Quartettsatz, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet, and Talking Heads with David Byrne (don’t forget to read his brilliant essay from 2017, Eliminating the Human).