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This age of cold AI, incandescent rock throwers and casual haters, faithfully balanced by true human kindness


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the hurt and discomfort of others, should not be transactional, or utilitarian, and it is most definitely not driven by fear of burning in hell or going to heaven. You do good deeds, and remain humble, because they are good in, and of, themselves.

That I had a bit of an accident last Monday has been in the news. The details are too gruesome to recall. Besides, when I read the official medical documents, a few phrases jump out at me – dento-alveolar fracture, open reduction and internal fixation of mandibular fracture, and fracture of skull and facial bones – my head spins.

I should mention, also, that I now have only one or two teeth still standing in my left jaw…. All of that is for another round of surgery in November to put “plates” somewhere in my jaw. Don’t ask me where or how, I’m not that kind of doctor.

On a much more serious note, what followed last week’s attack has stunned me in ways that are unfamiliar. I have had an outpouring of empathy (solidarity, concern, support and sharing) that I had long considered a thing of the past. It made me re-evaluate many of my own ideas about friendship. Please bear with me, I shan’t get too sentimental. 

Daily Maverick columnist Ismail Lagardien injured in Kleinmond abalone protests

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that my bedtime reading over the past 12-18 months has been on the science that drives Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, cosmology and astronomy. To be clear, quite early, I am not a physicist and I am very much a lay person in all branches of physics, string theory and quantum mechanics. If you don’t believe just how little I know, come visit my home, and watch me struggle to add decimals to pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter…. It sounds easy when you say it that way, “the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter”. 

Since January, I have been reading about an envisaged time when robots or machines (many of which are already faster and smarter than almost all of us) make decisions independent of human beings. 

Humans and machines, and matching forms of empathy

At about the same time, my reading drifted into an area of research (the relationship between AI and neuroscience) that I have great difficulty to accept for many reasons, but it makes for great reading. One aspect of the readings is the ability, or inability, of people to empathise with others. 

To establish a crude and unscientific binary; one position puts forward the idea that the ability to empathise is shaped by religion, and another (the one to which I subscribe), is that empathy is shared for the sake of itself. Nonetheless, in my mind, empathy – the ability to understand, and share the feelings of someone else – should not be transactional or utilitarian, and it is most definitely not driven, exclusively, by a fear of burning in hell, or going to heaven.

In plain speak, you do good deeds and remain humble, because, well, they are good in and of themselves. You don’t do good or live an ethical life to avoid burning in hell for an eternity.

And so I come to the responses to my little “accident” last week. Having worked as a journalist and academic in public policy, you learn that it’s often best that you (yourself) not be the story – especially if you’re writing it. I do have some appreciation for New Journalism, though. It helps explain why I appreciate my colleague Richard Poplak’s style so much. 

Anyway, as you mature into essay writing, you may drift into the tedium of your daily life. You may write something like: “I went down to my favourite Yiddish baker this morning and bought some challah and three bagels”, and then you bring in a discussion on a new construction site, or a new art exhibition, or the dying out of old Yiddish culture.

As one of my mentors – in broadcasting – explained, you can tell people about your personal life, but not your private life. So, I will share my (sometime) preference for Yiddish baked goods, but you will never read anything about whatever romantic relations I may have had, or any other peccadillos, for that matter. 

And so, in my dotage (I think I’m there), I have become more reclusive, more solitary and try, as much as I can, not to be a burden on friends and family. Last week, a single friend’s efforts exploded in an outpouring of empathy that I never thought possible in this impossibly cold world in which people have stopped caring for one another.

Charles Bukowski more or less summed up this disposition when he said, “I’ve never been lonely. I’ve been in a room – I’ve felt suicidal. I’ve been depressed. I’ve felt awful, awful beyond all, but I never felt that one other person could enter that room and cure what was bothering me… or that any number of people could enter that room. In other words, loneliness is something I’ve never been bothered with because I’ve always had this terrible itch for solitude. It’s being at a party, or at a stadium full of people cheering for something, that I might feel loneliness. I’ll quote Henrik Ibsen: ‘The strongest men are the most alone.’ I disagree with Ibsen on strength, I’m just better at hiding my tears, and my fears.”

After my accident I experienced an outpouring of empathy, a genuine outpouring of friendship, solidarity and concern. Last year sometime, someone told me that I “overempathised” pain – and that that was a problem. Selfishness will do that to you. 

The happiness of friendship amid the absurdity of cruelty

I am, at the best of times, a terribly pessimistic person. For one, I truly believe that we humans will destroy ourselves, and the way we will achieve that will be through our stupidity. 

Notwithstanding this general feeling – let’s call it absurdity, because we have never been so well educated, yet so profoundly unwilling to learn – I have, over the past week or so learnt that there were no limits to human kindness. 

One person offered to help pay my bills; another offered to bring me newspapers; another offered to make me some soup; another took care of my car when I was taken to hospital by ambulance; another person – already taking care of a loved one – offered to help me, where possible; a (church) minister called to check up how I was doing; a domestic worker who had helped me twice, in two years (because she is not South African she feels particularly vulnerable) expressed concern; people I banter with (seriously banter with) on Twitter – people like Mike Schussler, but only because I enjoy messing with economists – sent truly heartfelt greetings. A cousin has offered to take me in for a few weeks while I recover.

People I have never met (like Schussler). People I have seen twice in 30 years, and people from corners of Southeast Asia across the world to California offered a word or two. Former students, former colleagues and supervisors, diplomats around the world – everyone had kind words to say.  

So what is the connection between all of this empathy, and my bedtime reading on the science that drives AI, robotics, cosmology and astronomy?

Well, it occurred to me over the past few days that while neuroscientists and other clever people were attempting to identify overlaps or homologies between actual and artificial neural networks, (machines don’t show emotions, no?) how does one explain the empathy that friends and contacts showed me in a moment of weakness and immense pain, and how does one reconcile all of that with the clear lack of empathy that my attackers showed? 

It does not take a genius to suggest that the person who took a rock, pelted it at the driver-side window, and fractured my skull and jaw, removed six teeth and left me concussed, lacked empathy and any sense of compunction. I can see the attack in the context of general poverty, with no clear chances of upliftment in sight, with types of displacement and dislocation. 

But how does one account for the celebrations, the laughter and jeering that followed the attack on me? How does one explain the callousness? 

The difficulty of the case that we are predisposed to cruelty

I last saw that callous behaviour among the crowd that killed Maki Skosana in 1985. These were people who, on the face of things, saw nothing wrong with what they were doing. It was as if their deeds were sanctified. Apartheid was so bad that killing Skosana in the most brutal way was “easy” – necessary, even… 

What about today? Well, if the past four or five years are anything to go by, if your headache will not go away, you can always burn down the local clinic. But let me get back to the intellectual conundrum.

Some of the readings I had by my bedside were by neuroscientists who would insist that some people are genetically predisposed to violence. The neuroscientists had a deep concern for the neurology of psychopathy, and the lack of an ability to feel empathy. Because of this, they would insist, there has to (necessarily) be a moral plain on which we all ought to be situated, in the sense that we ought to all (7 billion of us) act and react, empathise or not empathise and show compassion, in the same way – if only we were taught the right lessons. This all sounds too much like we’re approaching eugenics from a different (AI) direction – almost by stealth.

I am not sure that I believe that a kind of uniform being – made up of a combination of human and artificial neural networks – will get us to that moral plain through education only. That’s another discussion. 

For the time being, we can be clear on one thing. Well, a few things. Human-like deductive reasoning, and decision-making by a computer lies a long way into the future. A lot of the thinking is also behind us. In-brain stimulation was proposed at the end of the 1960s by Jose Delgado, a neuroscientist and professor of physiology at Yale University. 

Delgado envisaged a “psychocivilised society” whose members would influence and alter their own mental functions by way of brain chip implants. Right now, however, we can only speculate on a functional human brain that is a combination of human and artificial neural networks. The scary part is that there are people working on these things…

At a purely intellectual level, it is thrilling to read all the physics, probability theory, computer science, robotics and machine learning, mathematics and statistics, signal processing, psychology, linguistics and neuroscience. It is frightening to consider that there are very smart people who consider science and religion to be overlapping magisteria. 

If, or when, God forbid, they make any progressive gains, and do manage to compute consciousness (and, indeed, empathy) through artificial intelligence and robotics, we’re properly doomed. I’m still with Stephen J Gould’s belief that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria. 

Perish the thought that there would come a day when we can flick a switch and someone can become a good Muslim, a pious Buddhist, a devout Christian or a nice Jew. Worst still, would be a time where machines make decisions independent of humans, but remain devoid of empathy, and humans with artificial neural networks running with the natural processes of the brain, start to populate public or private spaces…

But, I am getting ahead of myself, all I know for sure, right now, bundled up in bed with a fractured skull, drugged up and in a semi-concussed state, feeding myself through a straw (I hope to be able to slurp spaghetti sometime over the next couple of days) I have difficulty reconciling the cruelty of the merry band of rock throwers, and the humility-inducing kindness of people, some of whom I have actually never met. Siyabulela. DM


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  • I am deeply grateful that you are safe. Hope you recover well. Your reference to the way religion is a source of love is, as far as Christianity is concerned, not on point: Christians love because God loved them first (1 Joh 4:19). And of course, there is a whole story of good news behind this statement. It is a common misconception that Christians should earn the right to escape hell and gain heaven by doing good. Maybe “we love because we were loved first” bring another angle on AI and our society to light? I enjoy your writing. Thanks.

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