Sunday, August 25, 2013
A few weeks ago, I was watching an episode of the popular TV show Fringe about transferring of consciousness, and it reminded me of a popular topic among technophiles over the past few years: the coming Singularity.
The term “Singularity” was first used by John Von Neumann and later by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge as an age of superintelligent computers which were smarter than humans. Whether these future computers will be more like Asimov’s benevolent robots, or more like Skynet (which takes over the world, trying to eradicate humans in the Terminator vision of the future), is entirely impossible to predict. In fact, the term singularity itself implies unpredictability: in physics it refers to a point like a black hole which has an event horizon, beyond which it’s impossible to predict what may happen.
More recently, the term has been popularized by well-known futurist Ray Kurzweil (also an MIT alum), who argues that with advances in computing and medical and nano-technology, we will be able to transfer our brain (and our consciousness) onto a super-human computer (or computer chip, or other computing device), allowing us to effectively live forever on silicon rather than biology!
In the episode of Fringe in question (spoiler alert!), the consciousness of William Bell (played by Leonard Nimoy, best known as Mr. Spock from Star Trek) is able to find its way back after his physical death, and embeds itself into FBI agent Olivia Dunham. In doing so, Bell’s consciousness “takes over” Olivia’s body for a time. In an attempt to preserve Bell’s consciousness, uber-mad scientist Walter Bishop comes up with a scheme that sounds a lot like Kurzweil’s singularity – he attempts to transfer the consciousness of the now dead Bell from its organic host (Olivia) to a silicon-based host – an electronic device set up to receive Bell's neural patterns and thus his consciousness.
If this all sounds like science fiction, Kurzweil predicts that the date of this singularity may be in the “near future”, as in 2045, and many others agree with him that “The Singularity is Near”! Some, like Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen, object and don’t think it’s coming anytime soon, but may occur much, much later. Both do seem to think that that the answer to “preserving consciousness” after physical death of the brain lies in ever more sophisticated technology.
In thinking about this type of projection of consciousness out of the human body to some “other place”, I would say that both Kurzweil and Paul Allen may be looking in the wrong direction – to the technological future rather than the past where human consciousness was a more serious study than it is today.
In science, proposing theories without understanding the existing literature is pretty much a cardinal sin. A few years ago, I went to talk to professor computer science at Berkeley about doing a PhD thesis on a particular subject that I was working on in my startup. She seemed very upset, and made clear, in that sort of academic haughty way, that I hadn’t taken time to review the existing literature and wasn't giving proper respect to what had already been published in this field! I might be surprised to discover, she suggested, that many smart people have trod this path before me and that I might even “learn something” from studying what others have already achieved!
So, is there already existing “literature” about the projection of consciousness outside the human body? Of course there is – anyone who has studied consciousness seriously through meditation and Yoga will note that the “literature” is full of instances of projecting consciousness outside the human body – everything from out of body experiences to near death experiences. Moreover, these have been going on for hundreds (if not thousands) of years so this isn't exactly a rare phenomenon that no one has taken the time to study (except in recent scientific circles, apparently!).
In my opinion, the most promising place to start in the existing “literature” of human cosnciousness is in the Six Yogas of Naropa.
Stories of Naropa, not so well known here in the West, have been carried down through the Tibetan traditions. Naropa was a academic scholar himself, at the ancient Nalanda University in Kashmir, who believed his studies had taught him all he needed to know about consciousness.
According to the Tibetan sources, Naropa was surprised to discover that all of his knowledge didn’t account for much – that the only way to study consciousness and gain “freedom” from the human body was through subjective experience, not study and debate, which he (and his fellow academics) excelled in.
After going through many tribulations at the hands of his teacher, Tilopa (another very interesting and enigmatic figure), Naropa realized the illusory nature of physical reality and finally achieved liberation by seeing the true nature of consciousness and how it attaches to and detaches from the physical body.
Afterwards, he systemized the Six Yogas of Naropa and taught them to, among others, Marpa the Translator, a famous Tibetan seeker who had trudged over the Himalayas to Kashmir to lean from him. Marpa, in turn, taught Tibet’s most famous Yogi, Milarepa, the ropes.
So what do the Six Yogas of Naropa have to do with this episode of Fringe and the Singularity?
A lot, actually. The Six Yogas, which have been taught primarily in secret over the years, are all about what happens to our consciousness when we go to sleep and when we die. Lest modern scientist dismiss these as simply “religious anecdotes”, the Tibetans have developed elaborate descriptions and models of how this process works, which in my opinion rivals in sophistication the models of the natural and electrical world that I learned at MIT (though they are much less reliant on mathematics and more on “conscious experience”).
Two of the Yogas, that of Consciousness Transference and Forceful Projection, are directly related to transferring the consciousness of a person who is dying \out of the body to “somewhere else” so that it can "live on" in the physical world. Interestingly, many modern listings of the Yogas of Naropa edit out “forceful projection” because it was considered “too dangerous” for all but the most adept Yogis.
According to the literature, adepts at this Yoga were able, at exactly the time of their death, to “transfer” their consciousness out of their body and “forcefully project” it into another living "host" nearby. Usually this was practiced with various creatures (birds, chickens, foxes, etc.) in the beginning. As they became more adept, in scenes that are reminiscent of modern horror films, Yogis would practice forcefully projecting their consciousness onto fresh corpses. They would re-animate the dead bodies, while their “original bodies” would be sitting in a state of suspended animation until they “returned”.
According to the Six Yogas of Naropa, written by Tsongkhapa and translated by Glenn Mullin, the Indian and Tibetan texts were filled with such anecdotes, and the tradition continued in Tibet for some time with gurus repeatedly demonstrating it for their pupils, though usually only under the strictest terms of secrecy.
In one of the most famous stories of this kind, Marpa’s own son, who had learned this art from his father, had an accident on his horse and his neck was broken. He supposedly used the Yogas of consciousness transference and forceful projection to leave his body and “transfer” his consciousness into a pigeon that was flying nearby. He then had the pigeon fly to the outskirts of the next town (where there were many dead bodies, since only the rich cremated their bodies at that time), and found a young man who had recently died and transferred his consciousness into this recently dead body. In this new, youthful body, he then took on the name Tipupa (the Pigeon saint) and began to teach the Six Yogas. In an interesting twist of events, years later Milarepa sent one of his students to go study this particular Yoga with Tipupa, who was, understandably, the expert!
Which brings us back to the episode of Fringe in question and the prospect of “digital immortality” by transferring consciousness after a singularity.
Could it ever be done?
In considering this we might learn a little wisdom by looking into the past (the Six Yogas of Naropa).
If we consider our “consciousness” as able to be separate from our brain, then in order to transfer the “software” of consciousness from one piece of hardware (our brain) to another, it seems to me that we would need to find a “compatible” hardware. We might even need one with a similar operating system. And this is exactly what the Yoga of force projection is all about - finding an organic host that can carry on our consciousness, even after the physical body is dead.
On this, both the lineage descendants of Naropa and the writers of this particular episode of Fringe agree: forget the computer and learn to project consciousness to another, organic host first. In the episode of Fringe in question, consciousness was successfully transferred to an organic host (Olivia), but completely failed and was lost when attempting to transfer it to a technological device.
So, it seems to me that before we barge ahead trying to transfer our brain's neural patterns to a physical device, we might want to invite in the experts at consciousness (Tibetan and Indian Yogis) and see if we can learn something from them about how consciousness works both while we're alive and when we die. Once we can reproduce the Yoga of forceful projection in a laboratory setting, we could then move on to how we might project our minds onto a superintelligent computing device.
To those awaiting the singularity, I might suggest, as that professor of computer science at Berkeley reminded me a few years ago: it pays to study what others have done before us...we might even learn something!
Sunday, August 04, 2013
“There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.”
Because I often speak in person and in my book about using meditation as a tool for self awareness (“clear the mind to see clearly”), and intuition to find your path (“follow the clues to reach the treasure”), I’m often asked for advice on how to be both happy and financially successful.
I’m also asked the same question, though in a different form, by entrepreneurs about their startups. “How can my startup be both financially successful and feel like we’re doing something meaningful/unique/making a difference?”.
It turns out that my answer to this question is the same for both individuals and for startups.
A Tale of Two Extremes
First let’s look at two extreme pieces of advice that I ‘ve often heard given (and followed):
Extreme Advice #1: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”
This is great advice (and if I’m not mistaken, was the title of a bestseller long ago) in theory, up to a point.
But what happens when you start to do what you love and the money doesn’t follow? The reason there’s still a self-help industry is because it isn’t always so easy to make a living doing just what you love.
I was reading a book by Dannion Brinkley recently (there’s a throwback to the nineties, when Dannion was a bestselling author, famous for having an NDE after being struck by lightning) and he said that one vision he brought back from the “other side” was a form of spiritual capitalism. In this vision, everyone would do work that they loved and earn enough income from it to make a decent living. Again, a great vision, but one that doesn’t always play out in the real world the way we’d like.
This is also true for startups/entrepreneurs as well, though it can seem paradoxical.
Some of the most successful startups did in fact start off doing something they believed in, and the monetization came around much later (think twitter, facebook, and Google). But these are also extreme cases; unfortunately, more often than not (let’s say 9 out of 10 times), simply focusing on your vision without taking the time to fit it to the market is also a recipe why most startups go out of business.
Too often I see entrepreneurs holding on to a vision of what they want their startup to be, but that vision isn’t producing results and isn’t generating enough cash to stay as an on-going concern, and they don’t admit it until it’s too late.
Extreme Advice #2: “Do what the market needs. Find meaning elsewhere.”
In a way, this is great advice to be financially successful, but it leads to a whole different kind of frustration. In the work world, many people have jobs that do not involve something they are passionate about and provides no meaning whatsoever – it’s simply a way to earn a paycheck.
For a startup, this means doing whatever a customer is willing to pay for. While this may lead to a successful company financially in the short term, as an entrepreneur you an feel like you’re “selling out” your vision and you’re not likely to make a big difference or feel passionate about what you’re doing.
I’ve been in startups which started out as “fun” and “innovative” but ended up being slaves to the almighty dollar – every decision that was made had to do with “will it improve our financials or not?”. That’s no fun either and you end up wanting to "quit" your own startup and go do something "fun" and "innovative" again!
The Middle Way: Find the Intersection of the Spheres
After reflecting on this question for most of my adult career, I have come to the conclusion that people are only happy and financially successful when they can find the intersection of three spheres.
Sphere #1: What you love to do, what you want to do.
Suppose you love writing. Or music. Or acting, and you decide you want to pursue these things full time. One thing to think about is that something that we “love” as a hobby may not be so “enjoyable” if it is the sole source of our income – it turns from a “hobby” to “work”.
Still, it’s useful to create a list of the things we “want” or that we would be happy doing. For a startup this is our “ideal vision” of what the world might look like with our product/service, without regards to the financial question.
As I mentioned before, focusing too much on sphere #1 often leads to unacceptable results in our careers and our startups but it’s a great starting point.
Sphere #2: What we are good at?
Creating a list of what we are “objectively” good at is not as easy as it seems. This is because we are often so concerned with sphere #1 and sphere #3 that we don’t stop to reflect on ourselves. In fact, I often recommend asking someone else for this list, and we are more likely to get objective answers.
It’s important to be honest with ourselves here. As an extreme case, suppose I want to be an NBA basketball player – but the truth is that I’m only 5’6 and not very athletic and objectively not that good at basketball. In fact, I’m a much better computer programmer than I am basketball player. Or for that matter, an actor. Orson Scott Card wanted to be a stage performer and “loved it”, but he realized he wasn’t that good at it. In fact, the was a much better writer than he was performer.
If you aren’t good at working with people, should you really pursue a goal of becoming the top salesperson (or multi-level marketer) in your region? How many of us set goals that aren’t appropriate for either our skillset or our DNA (here I don’t mean our actual DNA, I mean our energetic patterns and what we are intuitively drawn to - Steve Jobs would call it "fate, destiny, karma"). I’m not trying to be negative here, I’m saying that each of us has unique talents and aptitudes.
In his bestselling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes about 10,000 hours to become an “expert” at something. The thing he ignores though is that people aren’t interchangeable; we are drawn to different things and good at different things naturally. I have a friend who has spent this many hours rock climbing. She’s an expert. Would I be an expert too if I spent 10,000 hours rock-climbing? Maybe, but most probably I wouldn’t make it to 10,000 hours because I’m not that interested in it, and not naturally drawn to it. You might say it’s not in my karma.
This is equally true for startups. I’ve noticed that founding teams in different startups have different DNA (again i'm not talking about actual DNA here, i'm talking about aptitude and experience). As a result, certain business models are just easier for them to follow. Interestingly, they aren’t always the business models that they “choose to follow” because they aren’t being honest with themselves..
As an example, in one of my startups, we were very good at delivering developer tools that we sold for thousands of dollars and customized for many thousands more. Why? Well, it turns out because we were developers ourselves and really understood this market.
At one point someone (I think it was me!) came up with the bright idea to build an end user tool and sell it for $49 or so. We went ahead – and while we did an OK job, building end users products wasn’t really what we were good at – the product looked very “developer-y” and we couldn’t provide real end user support. The point here is not that you shouldn’t experiment with different business models or products, it’s that you need a clear mind to see what you are good at and then play to your strengths.
VC's will often tell you to "play to win". But you can't "play to win" if you're playing to your weaknesses.
Sphere #3: What the market is willing to pay for..
This brings us to sphere #3. If we are good at something, there’s a good chance that someone will pay us to do it, and more importantly – keep paying us to do it!
This may seem obvious, but many people set their sights on doing something that no one is willing to pay for, or they get paid for it once and despite the fact that they aren’t very good at it- they keep thinking that others will keep paying them for it.
The important point here is to define the “market” appropriately. In your career, it might mean local job market – it might mean any company anywhere willing to hire someone full time – or it might be much more specific: “online e-commerce companies that are willing to pay consultants for”.
For a startup, the way you define of market is crucially important. For example, if you are freemium model in video games, is your market that’s going to pay consumers or advertisers? This is an important distinction. You might find you have a free app that millions of people will download, but no one is willing to pay for it – that’s where the advertisers come in.
Usually, an entrepreneur can figure out what’s in sphere #3 by meeting with potential customers. Very often, they won’t be ready to buy what you are selling, but if you listen closely, you might hear them say something like: “well, yes, that’s nice, but if you could do X, I’d be willing to pay for it right now.”
By listing items in all three spheres, you can start to look for the “intersection of the spheres”. Seems obvious? In theory maybe, but in practice, it’s anything but, which is why I recommend you look to people that know you (or your startup) well and ask them what is in sphere #2 - what are you really good at? If you can do this, you can find the sweet spot that can propel your career or your business to the next level, and make you (and/or your employees) happy in the process.
Like the mysterious "one thing" in the movie City Slickers, I can't tell you what lies in the intersection of the spheres.
Like the mysterious "one thing" in the movie City Slickers, I can't tell you what lies in the intersection of the spheres.
That's for you to find out.