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Reintegrating Ancient Techniques

Math and mechan­ics haven’t changed as much as their appli­ca­tions have. There is much to be gained from redis­cov­er­ing the dex­ter­i­ty of long-estab­lished craft tra­di­tions that reveal the beau­ty of math and mechan­ics. We believe these tra­di­tions can offer an exam­ple of how to design pat­terns of con­nec­tion through time­less tech­niques.

Like tex­tiles, humanity’s soci­etal fab­ric is a com­plex arrange­ment of inter­con­nect­ed pat­terns. To improve con­nec­tions between strangers, much can be learned from study­ing how com­plex pat­terns in phys­i­cal mate­ri­als can be decod­ed, under­stood, and reworked into new prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions.

The Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion recent­ly fund­ed a new five-year project called “What a Tan­gled Web We Weave” to inves­ti­gate the math­e­mat­ics and mechan­ics of knit­ting. This deft manip­u­la­tion of yarn is an ancient tech­nol­o­gy with futur­is­tic poten­tial, and the lead researcher, Dr. Mat­sumo­to, is com­pil­ing a knowl­edge base of dif­fer­ent stitch­es and the ways to describe a knit’s qual­i­ties, like “emer­gent elas­tic­i­ty”. The stitch pat­terns Dr. Matsumoto’s team are inves­ti­gat­ing con­sti­tute a code that is more com­plex than bina­ry, and results in much more mal­leable mat­ter. Through an inter­sec­tion of applied math­e­mat­ics, non­lin­ear elas­tic­i­ty, mate­ri­als engi­neer­ing, and “soft con­densed mat­ter physics”, Dr. Matsumoto’s project is advanc­ing under­stand­ing around “topo­log­i­cal pro­gram­ma­ble mate­ri­als”.6 The time­less tech­niques shown in this work reveal beau­ty not only in their assem­bling process but also in the result­ing prod­ucts. We feel inspired by the time­less tra­di­tion of knit­ting as an adapt­able process that can inte­grate near­ly end­less vari­eties of mate­ri­als. We sense a con­nec­tion between learn­ing to strength­en our skills at weav­ing togeth­er tex­tiles and our human need for weav­ing togeth­er sto­ries with­in our com­mu­ni­ties and rela­tion­ships.

Sci­en­tif­ic inquiries into ancient prac­tices, allow for inno­v­a­tive inter­pre­ta­tions of those prac­tices. In terms of new prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions for how topo­log­i­cal pro­gram­ma­ble mate­ri­als can be devel­oped, per­haps the fusion of ancient stitch-work with emerg­ing mate­ri­als might enable cloth­ing that’s wire­less­ly con­nect­ed, with the wires stitched direct­ly into the fab­ric. Tak­ing a broad­er per­spec­tive, the ways in which we inte­grate dig­i­tal lay­ers of infor­ma­tion into our phys­i­cal real­i­ty, can ben­e­fit from increas­ing­ly seam­less inte­gra­tions. We are curi­ous how low-tech skills like knit­ting might show us a wise way for­ward.

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Biomimicry as a Powerful Tool for Systems Architecture

We can learn to emu­late the mas­ter crafts­mans-hip of all liv­ing sys­tems. The regen­er­a­tive nature of cells offers an ide­al ref­er­ence point for renew­al.

“Sen­si­tized to such guid­ance from the very struc­ture and func­tion­ing of the uni­verse, we can have con­fi­dence in the future that awaits the human ven­ture.” — Thomas Berry

“Soap Bub­ble Struc­tures”, Kym Cox

We are proud of human inge­nu­ity, but it pales in com­par­i­son to the inven­tive genius of nature. There’s no need to be too down­trod­den by this; rather, we should be elat­ed by this fact. After all, it means that much of the hard work has already been done for us. We just have to copy what nature has already fig­ured out.

The idea of bio­mimicry was pop­u­lar­ized by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Bio­mimicry: Inno­va­tion Inspired by Nature. In her book, she pro­pos­es that mod­els found in nature should be drawn upon as a rich source of inspi­ra­tion for indus­tri­al design. She believes that we can look to the intri­cate struc­tures, and bio­log­i­cal process­es, found in organ­ic enti­ties, and apply the con­cepts already learned by plants and ani­mals, in order to solve human prob­lems. It’s cer­tain­ly not a new idea, peo­ple have been tak­ing lessons from the nat­ur­al world as long as peo­ple have exist­ed. And we’ve made strides over the last cen­turies. Obser­va­tions of fly­ing crea­tures offered the ear­li­est inspi­ra­tions for mechan­i­cal fly­ing machines. The Chipewyan peo­ple, indige­nous to what we now call West­ern Cana­da, learned more effec­tive hunt­ing tech­niques through observ­ing how packs of wolves stalk their prey.

Through mil­len­nia of tri­al and error, nat­ur­al process­es have inno­vat­ed a stag­ger­ing­ly, diverse col­lec­tion of life-forms. There are count­less genet­ic adap­ta­tions that have been made for every liv­ing sit­u­a­tion on plan­et Earth. These muta­tions offer a huge wealth of poten­tial knowl­edge, to be attained to bet­ter see how species learn to evolve with their envi­ron­ment. One area in which nature espe­cial­ly excels is in its effi­cient use of ener­gy. In the often harsh con­di­tions of the wild, it is a neces­si­ty to con­serve ener­gy when­ev­er pos­si­ble. Math­e­mati­cian Karen Uhlen­beck, in her stud­ies of the struc­ture and behav­ior of bub­bles, revealed how “nature opti­mizes its every struc­ture for gain at min­i­mal cost.”7

Rapid­ly wors­en­ing cli­mate change con­di­tions, caused by ris­ing lev­els of co₂ in our atmos­phere, means that it has nev­er been more a press­ing issue for us to find new ways to cap­ture, store, and use ener­gy effi­cient­ly. Already there are exam­ples of this thought process in action. Zim­bab­wean archi­tect Mick Pearce ana­lyzed the air flow and ther­mal prop­er­ties of ter­mite mounds and designed an entire build­ing capa­ble of self-cool­ing with­out air con­di­tion­ing based on these insects’ design mod­el. On the oth­er side of the world, sci­en­tists from MIT have been research­ing how the struc­ture of sun­flower petals can be used to con­fig­ure high-den­si­ty arrange­ments of solar pan­els. They’ve found that by copy­ing the pat­tern and spac­ing of their ped­als in their solar tech­nol­o­gy design, that land use can be reduced by 20% with no loss in ener­gy cap­ture. Sim­i­lar­ly, researchers at Cal­tech applied the same think­ing in their stud­ies of the vor­tices gen­er­at­ed by the move­ments of schools of fish, in order to arrange wind tur­bines more effec­tive­ly. These exam­ples show us the tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of imi­tat­ing the ele­gance of nature by lever­ag­ing forces that do not con­tribute to fur­ther plan­e­tary dev­as­ta­tion.

At the MIT Media Lab, Neri Oxman has been work­ing at the inter­sec­tion of com­pu­ta­tion­al design, dig­i­tal fab­ri­ca­tion, mate­ri­als sci­ence, and syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy. Her group con­cen­trates on the search for “mate­ri­als and chem­i­cal sub­stances that can sus­tain and enhance bio­di­ver­si­ty across liv­ing sys­tems, and that have so far endured the per­ils of cli­mate change.” One par­tic­u­lar­ly enchant­i­ng project called Totems explored the prop­er­ties of melanin.8

Melanin, known as the “uni­ver­sal pig­ment”, shows up in skin, hair, eyes, feath­ers, wings, and even ink sacs of squid. Evi­dence of melanin’s evo­lu­tion dates back to giant squid fos­sils from around 160 mil­lion years ago.9 Oxman’s group, Medi­at­ed Mat­ter, describes melanin as an expres­sion of “uni­ty in the diver­si­ty of life”. The group has cre­at­ed a series of spher­i­cal orbs fea­tur­ing the dynam­ic com­po­si­tions, and diverse col­ors, of liq­uid melanin, grown into fixed chan­nels. These beau­ti­ful struc­tures speak to the ever-evolv­ing expres­sions of col­or and dis­tinc­tive­ness through­out var­i­ous forms of life. By inter­pret­ing a fea­ture of evo­lu­tion, like melanin, into fab­ri­cat­ed phys­i­cal objects, those who come into con­tact with these struc­tures are able to sense a con­nec­tion to an excep­tion­al force of cre­ativ­i­ty. This exam­ple of bio­mimicry brings the vivid qual­i­ty of a time­less evo­lu­tion­ary occur­rence to the fore­front of our imag­i­na­tion.

But bio­mimicry can also go deep­er. After all, we do not want to sim­ply appro­pri­ate nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na for sin­gu­lar ends. Rather, we want to ful­ly inter­nal­ize and man­i­fest nature’s most pro­found teach­ings. The har­mo­ny of bio­log­i­cal ecosys­tems can be our frame­work for rear­rang­ing our­selves on a mass scale.

We are man­i­fes­ta­tions of nature just like any liv­ing being, but we must begin to com­pro­mise in our nego­ti­a­tions with the rest of the nat­ur­al world. Rather than force our demands through coer­cion, we should begin to show nature the same flex­i­bil­i­ty we ask of every­thing else. Oth­er liv­ing sys­tems have their own needs and rights them­selves. Co-exis­tence is a mat­ter of give and take. As we begin to build rela­tion­ships between our­selves based on mutu­al aid, so too must we extend this altru­is­tic notion to the var­i­ous liv­ing organ­isms on this plan­et. And if we treat our plan­et well, it will treat us kind­ly in return.

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Utilizing the Veil of Ignorance for Social Fairness

Ques­tions of moral­i­ty are often deeply sub­jec­tive. And yet, the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple would prob­a­bly con­sid­er them­selves to be gen­er­al­ly moral by their own stan­dards. We believe every­one can ben­e­fit from tools to help impart moral clar­i­ty.

Let’s assume that we want to build a fair and moral soci­ety that does not favor cer­tain groups at the expense of oth­ers. How can this be done when our under­stand­ing of fair­ness may vary so dras­ti­cal­ly? The “veil of igno­rance” as a con­cept has been dis­cussed for cen­turies, and more recent­ly revis­it­ed by philoso­pher John Rawls. The idea is laid out in a thought exper­i­ment, exam­in­ing the delib­er­a­tion of polit­i­cal deci­sions from behind a men­tal veil. Imag­ine a deci­sion-mak­er who oper­ates in com­plete igno­rance of their own rel­a­tive sta­tus with­in a prospec­tive future. The decision-maker’s own attributes—such as eth­nic­i­ty, gen­der, eco­nom­ic class, health —are com­plete unknowns to him or her. In this way, the deci­sion-mak­er could well find them­selves on either side of any rela­tion­ship with an ingrained imbal­ance of pow­er. Unless this par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­ual is a gam­bler, the the­o­ry upholds the expec­ta­tion that this deci­sion-mak­er would take great care to craft a tru­ly fair soci­ety, expunged of exploita­tion of any kind for fear of poten­tial­ly being the vic­tim of their own design.

The veil of igno­rance shares a cer­tain ele­ment at its core with the Gold­en Rule. Found in some form in count­less reli­gions through­out the cen­turies, the Gold­en Rule can be expressed: “do unto oth­ers as you would have them do unto you” or, in the neg­a­tive, “do not do unto oth­ers as you would not have them do unto you”. Both ideas rely upon the sense of self as the most effec­tive arbiter of moral action. If some­thing feels intu­itive­ly desir­able or unde­sir­able to us, we can assume that this is true for oth­ers as well. With this barom­e­ter to gauge right from wrong­do­ing in place, we can become less sus­cep­ti­ble to poten­tial­ly ruinous risk-tak­ing.

As a thought exper­i­ment, the veil of igno­rance reveals the role of bias in deci­sion-mak­ing. In the real world, those with the pow­er to make major struc­tur­al deci­sions are like­ly the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of cer­tain struc­tur­al favor­a­bil­i­ty. Those who con­scious­ly prac­tice moral action are already geared toward the pur­suit of fair­ness. The veil of igno­rance would be most effec­tive as a way of redi­rect­ing the intu­ition of one who is nor­mal­ly inclined to act exclu­sive­ly in their own self-inter­est toward deci­sion-mak­ing that would be more equi­table for all who are impact­ed by the effects of that individual’s deci­sions.

Ulti­mate­ly, there is no short­cut to moral­i­ty. There is no set of hard and fast rules we can use to deter­mine what are the right things to do. Build­ing a new vision for the future requires that we ven­ture into unknown spaces. What we find there will neces­si­tate entire­ly new kinds of think­ing for which estab­lished ide­olo­gies may not have the req­ui­site tools to nav­i­gate. But we can adhere to sim­ple prin­ci­ples in our jour­ney to this future: don’t hurt peo­ple, be kind, and don’t seek to con­trol oth­ers. These guide­lines can cre­ate a gen­er­al field for us to play in, but they are not a sys­tem in and of them­selves. The world is messy and unclear, and that cer­tain­ly isn’t going to change. We should not look for a prepack­aged solu­tion to moral deci­sion-mak­ing. Rather, we must learn to be able to decide for our­selves what is fair and just. By employ­ing guid­ing principles—like the veil of igno­rance and the Gold­en Rule—we will have a much bet­ter chance at ensur­ing that the deci­sions we make will not cause harm. It is nev­er too late to start being empath­ic and com­pas­sion­ate. With­in inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, as much as in pol­i­cy-mak­ing, we are well served when we con­sid­er the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of our actions beyond our own self-inter­ests.

“The Trou­velot Astro­nom­i­cal Draw­ings”, Èti­enne Léopold Trou­velot, 1882
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Choose Extended Intelligence Over Artificial Intelligence

AI evokes a tool. EI evokes a part­ner­ship. We believe in the impor­tance of set­ting a col­lab­o­ra­tive inten­tion for how we inte­grate the super intel­li­gence of machines into our lives.

“The cru­cial role of humans in an EI sys­tem is to under­stand and group infor­ma­tion to inform analy­ses in new ways. Intu­ition and inven­tion allow for the com­bi­na­tion of data in dif­fer­ent ways to tease out new under­stand­ing.” — Satya Basu

The ways in which we deploy machine learn­ing to enhance human endeav­or must also respect the fun­da­men­tal inter-rela­tion­ships between peo­ple and all liv­ing sys­tems. For this rea­son, we find val­ue in dis­tin­guish­ing EI from AI.10 Extend­ed Intel­li­gence can serve as an inte­gral com­po­nent to the com­plex sys­tems that com­prise the world we inhab­it.

As human-made systems—including the machines and algo­rithms that accom­plish many of our tasks—become increas­ing­ly capa­ble of tak­ing over work, it is essen­tial we see those sys­tems as an exten­sion of our­selves, and not as some­thing sep­a­rate. We don’t want our most pow­er­ful tech­nolo­gies to replace us. We want them to work with us.

When it comes to how we think about tech­nol­o­gy work­ing on our behalf, there are mas­sive eco­nom­ic and social impli­ca­tions at play. Pur­suit of cap­i­tal mar­kets has facil­i­tat­ed major progress. Mas­sive enter­pris­es have suc­ceed­ed through the sourc­ing of cap­i­tal. In many ways, humans have already entrust­ed our own­er­ship of these cap­i­tal mar­kets over to the machines, because bots trade stocks in nanosec­onds. This might be effi­cient, but in the quest for effi­cien­cy, we seem to be giv­ing up agency over our own human­i­ty.

Alex Knight, 2017

We need to secure the integri­ty of these rela­tion­ships between influ­en­tial human enter­pris­es and of new machine tech­nolo­gies. To this end, we also need to claim the right to expe­ri­ence inno­va­tion in our own lives with­out the neces­si­ty of a new gad­get. We want to keep our focus on the impor­tance of build­ing inno­va­tions in con­nec­tion to our minds. In this way, we can hon­or the com­plex­i­ty of one of nature’s most mys­te­ri­ous sys­tems.

In a recent move to fur­ther pro­pel the idea of Extend­ed Intel­li­gence, the MIT Media Lab has part­nered with the IEEE Stan­dards Asso­ci­a­tion (IEEE-SA) to cre­ate a glob­al Coun­cil on Extend­ed Intel­li­gence. The heart of this part­ner­ship rests on the impor­tance of social and eth­i­cal progress through respon­si­ble design. The coun­cil empha­sizes a “holis­tic evo­lu­tion of our species in pos­i­tive align­ment with the envi­ron­men­tal and oth­er sys­tems com­pris­ing the mod­ern algo­rith­mic world”.11 In pur­su­ing this the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work, the rela­tion­ship between humans and machines can evolve along more thought­ful and respon­si­ble guide­lines. This is a vision of the future of new tech­nol­o­gy in which we choose to par­tic­i­pate.

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