Mindfulness to remain a key part of what it means to be human in the future
While we look in awe at the videos of amazing robots coming out of labs worldwide on ever smarter smartphones, sceptics and academics are meanwhile busy wrestling with the real value of mindfulness.
A leading British expert has made a huge claim linking the two.
“Mindfulness may come to be seen as the core 21st century capacity, because it concerns our only competitive advantage over the machines: awareness itself,” wrote Jamie Bristow, director of the Mindfulness Initiative in the United Kingdom. The Initiative is an institute that lobbies politicians to include matters “of the heart and mind” in their policy decisions worldwide.
That’s right. We may actually have an edge over machines.
We have known for decades that machines have the potential to outperform humans in almost all areas of life. The World Economic Forum (WEF) concluded in a 2020 report that “a new generation of smart machines, fuelled by rapid advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, could potentially replace a large proportion of existing human jobs.”
In the next few years, 3% of jobs will be potentially automated by AI, according to PwC’s report “Will robots really steal our jobs?” Increased digitization resulting from COVID-19 may accelerate this trend. By the mid-2030s, as AI advances and becomes more autonomous, 30% of jobs and 44% of workers with low levels of education will be at risk of automation.
“Artificial intelligence and robots are not just challenging blue-collar jobs; they are starting to take over white-collar professions as well. Financial and sports reporters, online marketers, surgeons, anaesthesiologists, and financial analysts are already, wrote Business Insider’s Kathleen Elkins.
The ‘technological singularity’ is the name given usually given to the point at which artificial superintelligence sees machines ‘transcend’ human beings. Some experts in the area believe this will happen before 2045, although Google’s director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil thinks machines will match human intelligence by 2029.
A slightly newer take on the idea is that it’s not black and white, and that we are simply merging intelligence – a process that accelerates the more we rely on it. Think of our use of google maps instead of street map books of just 15 years ago.
So, as we merge with machines, what parts of us survive?
Writing for Mindful.org, Jamie Bristow pointed out that some of the world’s thought leaders are looking past inevitable explosion in AI and to how our innate humanity can solve problems robotics cannot.
One of the key issues put forward at the 2017 World Government Summit in Dubai was that “We need to develop 21st century job skills that cannot be replaced by robots and AI, which means exploring and cultivating what makes us uniquely human.”
Bristow alluded to the fact that plenty of parts of many jobs, such as being listened to by, for instance a GP, carry value beyond anything a machine could do.
In 2021, Bristow was more certain than ever than our innate humanity
‘As the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ advances, bringing with it increasing automation and escalating AI, it will be ever more necessary to retell our stories of purpose and value around qualities that are innately human,” he wrote in a recent paper, Mindfulness: Developing Agency in Urgent Times.
“Indeed, it has been suggested that we are entering the age of humanics rather than robotics: “an age that integrates our human and technological capacities to meet the global challenge of our time.”
A great example of this at play is how Big Tech is paving the way with the global roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines. “Globally, we will be using everything from AI to machine learning, the Internet of Things, and blockchain to process huge amounts of data about vaccinations happening in real time, says Daniel Newman principal analyst of Futurum Research. And the data isn’t just about “shots in arms.” It’s about cold-chain traceability (proper storage), serial number verification, vehicle routing and geofencing of vaccine delivery, and more. It’s a supply chain problem at a massive scale.
Another key idea proposed at that summit, by Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, was “new, human-centered thinking—considering happiness, wellbeing, purpose and meaning” in policy-making. Human happiness was also consistently near the top of the agenda, especially with mass unemployment a big possibility due to automation.
“It goes without saying that anything that we can do on autopilot, robots and AI will soon do better,” Bristow wrote.
Mindfulness could be a key, partly because it can be much more powerful than simply quieting the mind.
“Mindfulness practice is about more than just attention training. It’s also largely about developing kind curiosity towards inner experience, and provides a framework for deep inquiry into the psychological mechanisms of distress and wellbeing,” Bristow wrote.
In other words, when we observe thoughts without judgement we can see past our own insecurities and find it easier to empathise with others.
“This heightened empathy arises in part through the development of body awareness—as it turns out, the more we are grounded in the body and know stillness, the more we can feel moved,” wrote Bristow.
Psychologists who utilize mindfulness in their work might well add guilt and healthy shame to empathy on a list of things machines could mimic but would find it very difficult to do as naturally as humans. Could a machine that malfunctioned and injured its owner slow its output and produce extra reporting until it had regained trust?
If you consider financial stress too, it’s hard to imagine how machine learning can cope with the highly complex emotions involved in our dysfunctional and illogical behaviours with money – such as shame and remorse from things like gambling, impulse spending, or comfort-spending.
A mindful approach is inclined to accept the confusing, even contradictory and move forward purely based on empathy not only a focus on outcomes.
“Far from just another fad, perhaps the mindfulness craze is the start of a macro trend towards putting self-awareness and contemplative practice at the centre of human endeavour. Let’s hope so.”
It’s hard to argue with that – unless you are a super smart phone capable of understanding this on your own.