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If you want to fight evil, start with yourself

(Photo credit: suchosch / Flickr)

Microsoft recently encountered an unexpected problem online. It introduced Tay, an artificially intelligent chat ‘bot’ to the world. It was conducting an experiment to see if Tay would learn from its conversations with people online and get progressively smarter.

It was a train smash. Within 24 hours, Tay had turned into a genocidal racist on Twitter, and was sending out highly offensive tweets. Microsoft was forced to backtrack rapidly and had to switch Tay off completely and apologize profusely for its “wildly inappropriate and reprehensible words and images.”

So, far from becoming more enlightened from its first contact with humans, the bot turned into a nasty and offensive creature! And we worry about what robots will be like when they become part of society? We should worry more about the humans we already have…

To be fair, Tay was not tainted by its conversations with all humans; just by a malicious few who took great glee in turning the bot into a troll. But the fact that so many intelligent people take juvenile pleasure in messing with human advancement is worrying enough.

Last week I discussed the phenomenon of children torturing animals. That behaviour – preying on the weak – soon mutates into a targeting of the weakest children amongst them. Bullying is a scourge that has been with us since humans first arrived on the planet. Mobs of kids think nothing of humiliating, abusing or defiling their weaker fellows, leaving them scarred for life. In schools (or whole societies) where this behaviour is allowed to run unchecked it becomes almost impossible to eradicate.

The same behaviour then turns into rape, pillaging, war and massacre.

What are we to do with this tendency? It is not simply a matter of isolating the offenders and locking them up, as some would think; we all have the trait latent in us. Given a certain set of circumstances, most of us are capable of crossing the line of decency. We are really little better than the animals we dismiss as savages.

Yet we cannot simply shrug and accept this fact. Humanity is in an endless war against its own base nature. The point of life is to stare down the demon in the mirror and rise above reprehensible behaviour. It is also in our nature to be kind, compassionate, sympathetic, helpful and generous. Those parts of us are what allow us to have lives of meaning. Without them, we descend into hedonistic, self-centred barbarism. And then we wipe ourselves out.

How should we fight these battles? Enlightenment remains a personal matter at the end of the day – we have to all come to terms with our shortcomings and rise mightily against them. But it is also a matter for society. Children growing up in an atmosphere of rampant bullying will soon accept it as the norm. Even those not inclined to bully will do so to avoid being in the targeted group. Honest people working in organizations where all the bosses are known to be thieves will also be tempted to steal. And after a while, what they do will no longer be thought of as ‘stealing’. Witness the number of educated Kenyans who now go around asking if corruption is that big a problem, after all…

That is why mature societies have strong systems of law and order – and they permit no exceptions. Bad behaviour has to have consequences. That is why children need to have good values inculcated in them at an early age, and taught to be considerate and compassionate. That is why every society needs powerful role models and exemplars. We respond to our environments. Good influences resonate and reverberate.

But don’t just look to society or government to do this; you have to begin with yourself. We each have to do our level best to create good influences around us. It is the duty of every enlightened person to instil good behaviour and true values in as many people as possible: through teaching, through respect for rules and laws, through moral appeal, and most powerfully, through example.

Bad behaviour is rampant all around us. Don’t just look away; you are seeding your own eventual ruin. None of us have the power to eliminate the evil that rampages across the world; but all of us have the power to diminish it in ourselves and arrest it in our immediate circles. It’s a start. Without that start we are indeed finished.

(Sunday Nation, 8 May 2016)

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