16 June 2011

from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting: The influence of technology in our emotional life, + NEWS for today and Maths tertulia

Short essay + gospel choir TODAY and Maths tertulia
Dear friends,
It was a natural progression to move on from Artificial Intelligence to
"The influence of technology in our emotional life" which we will be
discussing this Sunday.
The subject is vast, and the philosophical issues and relevant and deep,
but what matters for us is that this is a subject that could only be
idiscussed today in the technological paradise we live in. But
technology comes with its own duality which is as unpleasant as
technology is useful.
In the meantime the news:

----- Marga-----
Próximo concierto: 17 de junio, Madrid
Estimado tertuliano,
Te envío adjunta la información de la conferencia que ilustrará la
próxima Tertulia de Matemáticas:
Como verás se trata de un tema de mucha actualidad. Esperando verte por
allí, aprovecho la ocasión para enviarte un cordial saludo,

See you Sunday,


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The influence of technology in our emotional life

Hopefully we can progress this discussion beyond Error 404 and Fatal
Error. Indeed some of the most emotional influence technology has on our
life is the frustration and feeling or horror and helplessness when it
does not work.
I mean, early this week I was able to write six paragraphs of an essay
on my new smart phone, but unfortunately it was not smart enough to
remind me that I had to save the document. It is not that I did not
remember to save the document, but rather that in the three weeks I have
had the mobile phone I have become used to it doing everything
automatically for me.
If Error 404 is bad enough, then the maximum emotional influence must be
Fatal Error, since there is nothing more emotional in our life than life
and death, especially death. Frustration aside, when technology breaks
down we are caused a lot of inconveniences.
But when some technology fails, lives could be at stake and in many
cases this does happen. Ships breaking up and sink with all hands on
board, planes crashing and killing everyone, and today we have nuclear
power stations contaminating large parts of Japan that would be
uninhabitable for many years to come. So when technology goes wrong it
influences more that just our emotional life.
But technology need not break down to have an emotional influence on our
lives. In fact, nuclear technology has been one of the most emotional
subjects in modern life. We are now all familiar with the negative side
of nuclear technology. But to give up nuclear technology would imply
that we need to find some other technology to fill the gap. After all we
will need even more electricity due to an increasing population and
increasing standards of living.
On the one had we can accept that technology that by its very nature of
being physical has an inherent weakness: the weakness of a probable
break down. This idea basically reflect the principle of the second law
of thermodynamics. What is relevant for us here is that any instrument
based on technology will sooner or later breakdown. Needless to say that
this scenario presents a number of questions that can be examined
philosophically. For example, is it possible to have a technology that
does not break down, and would this go against any known laws of nature?
However, there is an even more pressing problem about nuclear energy,
and by extension technology in general: what are the necessary and
sufficient conditions at which we do not assume a risk no matter how
useful the technology? In other words what is an acceptable risk when it
comes to technology? Unfortunately, most times we can only answer this
question with hindsight. After the event we are all clever, and the
Japanese should have build a 20 meter wall. But should they?
In an article on the Al Jazeera English website, the author quotes Dr
Shoji Sawada, a Japanese theoretical particle physicist, on three
important issues. The first is that in the 1950 Japanese scientists
advised their government from using nuclear technology because it was
not yet well developed. Secondly, by adopting, at the time, power
stations that used enriched uranium as fuel this automatically made
Japanese stations subject to US nuclear policies. And the third issue is
that most of Japan's power stations are of US design. But the key factor
in this article and according to Sawada, is that these US designs just
did not consider the implications of earthquakes. (Fukushima: It's much
worse than you think -
Reading some of the comments about this article it would be an
understatement to say that this article is very controversial. But what
is of relevance for is this: when assessing risks related to technology,
should we limit ourselves take into account reasonable risks (all known
risks) or absolute risks (all possible risks)? The fact that in the 50's
there were no giant tsunamis in Japan and the idea of outliers was
itself a far off outlier did not help. And although we now know that
Fukushima was an accident waiting to happen, how about technology which
we do use intentionally to cause harm and to discriminate in the most
vile way.
I am of course not referring to cluster bombs but rather to medical
ultrasonography (see Wikipedia) which is used to identify female
foetuses so they can be aborted; a practice very common in some Asian
countries and also in countries not too far from our borders.
My issue here is not that of abortion, but rather the use of very
important and vital technology in gynaecology to discriminate against a
particular gender. If the politicians had the excuse that tsunamis were
not common in the fifties, what excuse do they have in 21st century,
maybe they never needed a ultra sound test because they are mostly males?
But there is even a third class of technology that can affect us even
more emotionally than the other two classes I mentioned above. And this
third class is technology that is used to sustain a person alive but
without hope of ever recovering, and even more, should this technology
be withdrawn the person would die.
The dilemma here is of course, all parties involved with these patients
strive to achieve the best for them. And the single most important right
we will ever have, that of the right to life, is being jealously guarded
by the carers, and yet whatever anyone will do, including sometimes the
patient, would result in an unacceptable outcome: pain, vegetation or death.
It is not surprising that in today's technological paradise, we find
equally devilish terminology as System Failure and Reboot. What is not
clear is whether we need to reboot the technology or the human users and
abusers of technology.

from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting: The influence of technology in our
emotional life
+ NEWS for today and Maths tertulia

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