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Atoms of a Thought: Emotional Intelligence in the AI Era

If all human knowledge was about to be extinguished, and only a single piece of learning could be preserved for the future of humanity, what would that be? This question was once asked of the physicist Richard Feynman, to which his response, paraphrased, was the knowledge of atoms as the key to understanding the physical world.

Atoms are what we are made of and they constitute the basis of our physical world. The Brazilian writer and physicist Luiz A. Oliveira described understanding atoms as a cognitive function: we tend to think of money in terms of fixed blocks of ten cents, and one, five, 20, and 100 dollar bills, lets say, but these denominations are themselves made up of cents and half cents and even smaller values that we seldom consider, although we know that putting together many lesser and tiny values can add up to $100. Simplified, it’s the investigation of such basic and fundamental “lesser” values that we call quantum physics. 

In the study of sacred geometry, we understand the world of particles and geometrical forms through the repetition of drawing, learning that all organic, fluid, and complex curves in nature are constituted of simple geometric parts, because geometry is also part of the subatomic world. Everything is just a matter of perspective: living on the surface of Planet Earth, we see mountains and valleys bursting with a multitude of shapes and lifeforms—trees and birds and rivers and horses and so on. But if our point of view were to shift to the moon, the Earth would appear as a shining blue ball, and from even further away, as just a speck of dust among many other specks of dust—from complex shapes and textures, to geometry, to dust, to nothing . . . depending on our point of view. 

For those hypothetical humans who were left with only the knowledge of atoms and how all things are made of repeating elements of fractal formulas, they would need to put these building blocks called atoms together to rebuild civilization. But from a subatomic perspective, everything looks like dust. How can I shape a new world out of matter without an underlying idea? One cannot simply throw bricks and wood together and expect that a house will come out of it. We understand the intrinsic importance of organizing intelligently these raw materials from an initial idea. I need to have the concept of a house before I can put the raw materials together to form a shelter. Physical matter does not become a house without being specifically organized around a consistent idea. With the same quality and quantity of matter, one person with an idea might build a house, while another might build a chapel, or a stable, or a prison. The structure itself is given meaning according to the relationship between the parts and the idea. This all relates absolutely to what Buddhism has to say on the subject of emptiness, which is not about the absence of things but about infinite space and the unfixed definition of possibilities.

If we analyze human beings, we are quite incomplete yet with an incredible capacity to survive and learn despite our limitations. Our teeth are weak, our nails are short and soft, and for this very reason we went looking for sharp edges to put together with a piece of wood to create an axe. With an axe we could cut bigger trees and shape pieces of wood into a boat or a house, or burn it to cook our food or to melt iron to create better tools. This ability to imagine and create extensions for a better version of “me” helped humanity to evolve to where we are today. From having an idea based on survival needs, we “improve” ourselves. Our creativity was stimulated thanks to our limitations. We are able to translate images in our heads into physical objects, and have become very efficient in doing so. We are also able to come together to create communal objects: people sharing a common idea and creating complex monuments such as the pyramids in Egypt, Stonehenge, and Angkor Wat. We have created societies, cities, and countries with complex rules and laws, cultures and languages. Our objects and monuments have purposes, histories, and significance because we had the ability to imagine, which is very different from other species on our planet. 

In our quest to perfect our extensions and live better lives, we grew in number and became better at exploring, exploiting, and modifying our environment. The British environmentalist James Lovelock (1919–2022) posited that we have already reached the point that by 2100 humanity will be a very reduced species living on a degraded planet. Our ability to survive efficiently has reached a point of imbalance, in that we have interfered with our environment to such an extent that we are annihilating our own ecosystem. Is this shadow of a dark future creating an within us an urgent impetus to reconsider our motivations even as our most admired virtue turns against us?

We have greatly extended our identities, our connections, and activities through the Internet and rapidly into the realm of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality, and meta-universes, allowing us to inhabit many places simultaneously. I can transfer my imagination into objects that represent my mind, such as a digital device. So where do I begin and where do I end? By creating so persistently these artificial extensions of who we are, we blur the line between the self and our artificial extensions. We are multiplying and our sense of self has never been so fickle. Yet something might emerge from this—perhaps in the form of a more collective identity. 

The Brazilian philosopher Viviane Mose (b. 1964) gives an example of how humanity is moving away from a pyramidal hierarchy toward a more horizontal unifying net. The pyramid has a square base of larger mass sustaining an apex far above of much lower mass—a pharaoh ruling the people with the power of vision and command over them. Now we might benefit (but with all the implied dangers) from a different kind of ruling intelligence through social networks in which everybody receives the same opportunities to express their minds, giving a voice to every single person on any topic, from teaching casual cooking classes to war and political machinations. Everybody is talking about some version of “truth,” and we are bombarded by opinions and concepts that are reinforced by a delivery algorithm that “matches” our opinions based on our online activity, enclosing us in thick bubbles of like-minded opinions, excluding diversity and invitations to think outside of the box. It’s a collective movement, without a chief-in-command; we are definitely moving much more as a school of fish rather than a pack of wolves in need of an “alpha.”

First we evolved the mechanical capacity to create things, then sensorial capacity, and now the cognitive. And, increasingly, we are talking to things! Soon we will not even need to talk; the “things” will already know all about us. Our own fridge will know when to automatically reorder milk online for delivery to our door. The lines between object and subject are blurring, and it’s all for our convenience, with the intention of creating a “better” way of living. But in doing so, aren’t we removing the primordial necessity that makes us creative? Are we handing this over to AI—not only the mechanical practicality but also the emotional?

Born in the 1980s, I grew up without any internet, and for many years without electricity because my parents moved to an isolated area to seek out this primordial experience. For sure I didn’t miss any of the artificial virtual world, and I definitely worked a lot with my own inner virtuality that was my imagination. And so, many times as a small child, a branch would serve as a sword, and the horse that I used to ride was a magical unicorn. I can clearly remember the power of my imagination, which made my days so fun-filled and fulfilling. I believe we still do the same today, just on a much grander scale, yet the tragedy we see happening now is the handing over of that power to create significance, and our relationships and our life as a whole. And this might be at the root of the escalating incidence of depression around the world.

Picture this: a world in which machines, fueled by intricate neural networks, discern our preferences, anticipate our needs, and tailor experiences to suit our individual desires. On an emotional level, this symbiotic dance between human emotions and artificial intelligence gives rise to a nuanced ballet—a delicate choreography where algorithms strive to anticipate and understand our joys, sorrows, and idiosyncrasies.

Yet, in this dance of progress, we also encounter poignant moments of discord. The integration of AI into our lives raises questions about the authenticity of human relationships. Can an algorithm truly comprehend the intricacies of a heartfelt conversation? The unspoken nuances that characterize the bonds between individuals? As we entrust AI with tasks ranging from curating our social media feeds to recommending life partners, we find ourselves standing at a crossroads of convenience and authenticity.

Consider the profound impact on our intelligence, both artificial and human. With the omnipresence of AI-driven applications, our collective intellect is augmented, and the boundaries of what we can achieve expanded. However, the very essence of human intelligence, with its quirks and imperfections, is at risk of being overshadowed by the relentless march of progress. The emotional intelligence that distinguishes us as a species becomes a delicate balance between binary coding and the beating heart.

In the realm of human relationships, AI becomes a double-edged sword—a companion that enhances our lives yet threatens the depth of our connections. While algorithms may predict our preferences, can they decipher the unsaid? The nuances that make us truly human? The emotional resonance in our relationships, once guided solely by intuition and empathy, now contends with the cold efficiency of artificial intelligence.

In the artful strokes of this narrative, we find ourselves contemplating a delicate equilibrium between the marvels of AI and the emotional terrain it traverses. Perhaps there is another way: let us paint our relationship with technology with mindfulness and intentionality, preserving the warmth of our humanity amid the cool embrace of artificial intelligence. In this symbiosis, may we cultivate a future in which the emotional melodies of our shared human experience harmonize with the algorithms of progress, crafting a tapestry that is both technologically advanced and emotionally profound—it still depends on us, humankind. 

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Tiffani Gyatso
Yangchenma Arts & Music

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