To Be Fully Alive

    Sanford Baran:  In these rather interesting times, it can seem as if the only thing on people's minds is that there is plenty to complain about. I'm sure we all realize that grumbling alone does little to improve things. If anything, such expression of discontent introduces additional negative energy which tends to make things worse. This is why it is so valuable to stand back from it all and fully appreciate how wonderful it is to be alive in the first place.

    Think about it. If you weren't alive you wouldn't be participating in this teleconference, you wouldn't have signed in during roll call and you wouldn't be hearing my voice right now. If you weren't alive you wouldn't be seeing the brilliant rays of the sun streaming through your windows illuminating the vivid colors and scenery outside. You wouldn't have been with your children or taken your dog out for a walk. You definitely would have missed breakfast, which in my case would have been too bad considering it was toast with butter and marmalade, eggs and a cappuccino. I think you get the point that there are innumerable little pleasures in life that are truly worth appreciating. Included in this is our amazing capacity for thinking and self-reflection. What could be more sublime than to be in a place of stillness contemplating the wonders of creation? Admit it—it really is great to be alive, not only delighting in all of life's magic but also realizing that each one of us has a significant and important part to play during our relatively short lifetimes.

    There certainly is more to life than our own personal enjoyment of it. Although, for many that's the whole point. "How do I get the most out of life?!"—as if that was Life's sole purpose—to ensure our pleasure and happiness in a style that we deem we deserve.

    Rightly the experience of life connects us to that which is meaningful. Throughout all of creation there is an omnipresent animating force, an invisible current that permeates everything. You can't directly see this current or measure it, but you certainly know that it is present. You know it because of its characteristic signature, revealed in all forms to the extent that the current is allowed to flow there. You certainly know it in yourself because of the characteristic vibration that is induced in each one of us as we allow the current to freely flow through us. You could think of life as the resulting expression of form that has been activated by this animating current. Quite simply, if the current is not flowing there is no life.

    Integrated into the fabric of the current is purpose. It flows to facilitate the means for all form to articulate truth and beauty in all of its creative possibilities. This happens because the current carries a template of the divine design, the fundamental nature of which is characterized by wholeness, trustworthiness, simplicity, and design. As the current is allowed to freely flow through form, that form is activated and expresses in its own singular way the character and persona of the divine.

    Life indeed is a gift to be enjoyed and cherished. It is the most wonderful of blessings but of course is not just for our own personal benefit. Each living moment is an opportunity to allow truth and beauty to be expressed through us, hence magnifying the overall richness and majesty of the whole. As the current flows unimpeded in us, we fulfill what we have come to do—to further magnify the splendor of creation, putting to good use our unique talents, life experience and specific circumstances.

    In our day-to-day living as we express the character of the divine, we find that this rightly manifests as an expression of the highest qualities of character. In many respects it's not so much what we do but how we do it. Attitude is so key. Importantly, it's not an exercise in self-righteousness—we're not trying to impress people with our rectitude. We simply and quite naturally sound the right tone in ourselves because in a way we no longer can do otherwise. And as we conduct ourselves with honor and integrity, this has an enormous impact on everything that we touch. You could say, "Now this is really living!"

    But there is much more. One of the truly remarkable capabilities that Life provides to human beings is the instrument of consciousness. Not only is this the mechanism that enables thinking, language and contemplation, it also provides us the ability to imagine, to dream and to create. Imagination is the realm of new possibilities, artistic expression, invention and insightful spiritual revelation. It allows what has never existed before to be born in consciousness and subsequently be brought into form as it proves useful within the context of the larger whole.

    Now a note of caution here. Just because something is clever, unprecedented and brims with promise for humanity, that doesn't necessarily mean it should be brought into form. Human beings don't exactly have the best track record in acting responsibly or honorably in this regard. Mankind is rife with bad actors who are more than willing to exploit wonderful new ideas and perspectives for their own devious and deceitful ends. And even with the finest of intentions, human actions frequently produce a myriad of unforeseen and unintended consequences. As we have seen over the last number of years, promising human technology can be a double-edged sword.

    But surely there is a place for imagination and creativity. Why else would we be endowed with such capability if there wasn't any useful purpose for it? I think the question boils down to who is going to use it. If human nature's ultimate goal is to "be as gods," Homo Deus, as Bill Isaacs described two weeks ago, it shows itself to be absolutely useless and more than likely dangerous. It seeks to control something of which it has precious little actual understanding. On the other hand, as there are men and women whose sole concern is to honor, complement and amplify the one creative whole, then imagination, innovation and artistry become indispensable pieces of the puzzle.

    About a year ago I retired from my job of many years as a software developer. Since that time, I've really appreciated having the time as well as bandwidth in consciousness to explore new avenues of inquiry. One of the things that I've been doing is boning up on some of the latest developments occurring in the field known as artificial intelligence or AI for short. Because I no longer have to practice technology for a living, it's been quite fun to retool and acquire new skills in an area that is both fast moving and quite interesting. I recently completed a series of online courses taught by one of the preeminent experts and spokespersons in this field, a man named Andrew Ng. I've also been attending some weekly lunch meetings with others in the Boulder area, to discuss the state of the art, tricks of the trade, and where we think AI is heading as the pace of development continues to accelerate. I am by no means an authority in this field, but I now have sufficient understanding and hands-on experience to know what is possible today, what is hype, and what some of the challenges are going to be moving forward. My gut feeling is that it's a mixed bag—lots of potential but also plenty of reasons for concern. The question I raise this morning is, given the rapid advances in automation, robots and machine intelligence what role will human beings play in this brave new world? The question obviously has spiritual implications.

    To get us started, I'll try to give you the two-minute primer highlighting some of the key technologies that are now center stage. One particular area that has become a hot topic over the last number of years is known as deep neural networks. These are a set of techniques that in a nutshell perform complex pattern recognition with impressive accuracy. Aided by dramatic increases in computational power along with exponential growth in data collection there have been some amazing successes to report particularly in the areas of image recognition, high resolution computer vision for autonomous vehicles, natural language processing and language translation. In many cases machines can now outperform humans in these types of tasks.

    What is interesting about these techniques is that they are not really programmed in the traditional way you program computers—rather deep neural networks actually learn to do these tasks from scratch, as if starting from a blank slate. Learning occurs by way of examples, lots of examples in a process called training. To illustrate what I'm talking about, a set of training examples might consist of hundreds of thousands of photographs of various animals. Additionally, each photograph is labelled—in other words a particular photograph which has been identified as a cat by a human is labelled a 'cat' and the same would be true for a zebra. In presenting these labelled examples to a deep neural network you basically are training it to recognize the many different ways that a cat might appear in an image and the many different ways that say a zebra might appear. Once a system is trained it can then identify photographs that have never been seen before. If trained properly the results can be amazingly accurate.

    On the surface this might appear to be quite similar to the way humans learn. But actually, it isn't at all. Even though the name deep neural networks sounds like the type of processing that would occur in the brain, what actually is happening under the hood has very little to do with how our own mechanisms of thinking and consciousness work. Interestingly, we humans typically can learn with a relatively small number of examples—maybe dozens—whereas machines typically require hundreds of thousands if not millions of examples. And although deep neural networks are able to do a remarkable job classifying or identifying objects, they really have no understanding of what those objects are. They can tell you that this is a photograph of a cat, but they have no idea of what a cat is or even what a photograph is. This is because there is no notion of context, no comprehension of the world that they live in, and absolutely no sense of what we humans quite naturally experience as understanding. Human consciousness on the other hand is definitely not a blank slate. It is rich with context and has a comprehensive awareness of the world around it.

    I don't think anyone actively working in AI today would claim that these systems think, understand or have even the slightest inkling of intelligence, at least in the way we experience it. The mysterious built-in processes of understanding that we take for granted in ourselves sets a pretty high bar. Of course, the question is, will human efforts be able to crack the code, hack consciousness so to speak? I think the overall expectation is that it's only a matter of time. I personally am much more skeptical, but ultimately if there is a failure to reverse engineer consciousness it won't be because of a lack of trying. Today some of the brightest and most talented minds are putting the full court press on this.

    So, if we think we are living in interesting times today, "We ain't seen nothin' yet!" Regardless of whether AI systems are eventually able to develop human-like capabilities of cognition and understanding, without doubt they will advance to the point of being significantly disruptive. Over the next decade or so, large sectors of the economy will be embracing these new technologies rendering many of the jobs that people depend upon for their livelihood as redundant. The futurists assure us that brand new types of jobs, jobs that haven't even been invented yet, will surely replace the ones that will disappear. This all remains to be seen. At that point, what of human beings? What value do they bring to the table?

    Well, the value that we bring depends upon how connected we are with the Divine. Robust connectivity to the Source is so absolutely critical because it provides context, heavenly context without which all human activity is meaningless and destructive. For human beings to be genuinely useful they must fulfill their reason for being here. Each living moment is an opportunity to allow truth and beauty to be expressed, magnifying the overall richness and majesty of the whole while fostering the processes of agreement and integration. Machines might be able to do useful things and presumably will also be made to do some horrible things; but either way the fact remains that machines are dead and soulless! Machines, robots and the like will never have any understanding of the world, let alone of heavenly context! They can't because they simply are not connected—at least not at the level of sentient function. But we are connected and fully alive. We know exactly what needs to be done.

    How wonderful to be fully alive, expressing the character of the divine. As such we give voice to what is noble and fine while also getting to do the fun stuff, exercising our imagination and creativity to extend and complement the one creative whole. Increasingly there are men and women everywhere who are compelled to do this in their own living, allowing an unprecedented experience of divinely-inspired thinking, discovery, invention and harmony to become a distinguishing component of the human experience. How can anyone not be looking forward to these exciting days ahead?

March 4, 2018

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