Weighty Friends: A Meditation

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Meeting Room, Philadelphia

Every subculture, religious or otherwise, tends to evolve an insider talk. An inner circle, by definition needs to get stuff done faster than outsiders might follow.

“The hand is quicker than the eye” intones the close-up magician, reminding us his insider knowledge enables him (or her) to deceive.

“Do that again!” Illusions are sometimes benign. We appreciate the intended realism.

And so it is with Quakers, also known as Friends, from a Gospel verse wherein Jesus is sounding especially lonely. He’s been put on a pedestal by everyone, or made an enemy of the state, same thing, as he’s set up to play the scapegoat either way.

“I want friends, not servants” he says in paraphrase (John 15). Notice I did not use red ink, as I’m not pretending nor intending to write a Bible.

The Amigos, so-called, have this curious word “weighty” as in “weighty Friend” used to designate someone especially influential or experienced.

Perhaps said Friend is self delusional, sensing weightiness, whereas even to the casual observer, he’s a lightweight. You catch my drift.

I’d surmise most inner circles have a similar term, or even the same one. Quakers hold no patent on their peculiar ways of speaking.

Where else does “weighty” and “weight” appear in contemporary discourse?

I want to help cyber archeologists of the future dig back to our time, when (to many it seemed out of nowhere) everyone was suddenly trying to learn “data science” and become a “data scientist”. Why? Because of Big Data. Why? Because storing big data, and the processing thereof, became oh so much more inexpensively feasible. Even mom & pop companies could machine learn.

Course offerings exploded, with every mom & pop shop, every top-rated university, every odd-ball celebrity, seeking to get in on the action. Why?

The answer, again to retrace cultural developments, had to do with our ongoing ambivalence about automation and its future potential to put us all out of work.

Data science was the gateway to the inner sanctum, the Temple of AI, frequented by the spirits of AlphaGo and Watson. Those who knew the shoptalk of the inner sanctum could serve as high priests and intermediaries. Quantopians (Fintech’s “quants”) would guide us to build our investment portfolios wisely, on the rock of solid modeling rather on the sands of ignorant superstition. Data science would make it so. Crypto-currencies anyone?

Maybe some felt such talk, of machines enslaving us, was very fresh and new in the early 21st Century, but actually the threat of automation was a well-worked thread by then, even since the debut of the steam engine, a miracle well ahead of the physics of its day. Thermodynamics was hardly a settled science, barely a blip on the radar, yet all the wattage was a reality. Horsepower would not be needed (it’s the horses that got put out of work, more than most minorities).

Thanks to steam powered machinery, factory workers were displacing skilled craftsmen with mass production. Guilds whose members used to see a way of earning a living, cashing in on their fair trade, were soon up against Henry Ford and moving line assembly plants. Who would be able to afford a car, now that we had found a way to make them by the millions? Ford: “my workers can”.

Quakers reached an apogee of influence and power right as the curtain went up on this first chapter in the Age of Automation, its eventual poster child: the automobile. The Age of Steam would give rise to the Age of Oil, Coal and Gas, whereas the Age of Electricity would bring us invisible spectrum telecommunications along with satellites and jet travel. Sea ports would become airports.

By the 1900s, and after two World Wars, Quakers had largely retreated from high technology, which was now used more than ever (witness “A-bomb” and “H-bomb”) to wreak havoc, increasing entropy beyond the bounds of what their self-disciplines would allow. Atmospheric testing was causing damage beyond the ability of the sciences to adequately compute.

However, Quakers’ power in North America was already on the wane soon after Pennsylvanians voted for war taxes with which to prosecute the Indian Wars. Friends did not see the business sense in anything so short-sighted. Slavery wasn’t looking long term sustainable either. They became contrarians. By Civil War days, many were seen as potential terrorists. They moved further west in droves.

The earlier 1790s in England had marked a heady time for Friends, when iron works were becoming steel mills, and steel was begetting rails, for the steam engines.

The global transportation network was getting an overhaul.

The shoreline port became an interface between two venues for steam engines: that of rails & roads; and that of oceans. Airplanes would have to wait.

Quaker industrialists were making it happen. Some designed ships, including for the US navy, perhaps someday to be a source of sanity, who knew way back then?

They were weighty, these Friends, and have never been weightier, even with two US presidents (Hoover, Nixon), and one aspiring (Lyndon LaRouche).

Friend Herbert Hoover was presiding when Smedley “Fighting Quaker” Butler shared words of encouragement with the Bonus Army, before General MacArthur burned their protest village to the ground (picture an early Occupy Washington, likewise anti fat cat).

General Butler, by then retired, a decorated soldier, later exposed the Business Plot, in FDR’s time. Wall Street was fed up with the “chicken in every pot” socialist rhetoric and was ready to rein in government assistance and privatize its major assets. Proactive government was not to compete with lawyer-capitalism (as Fuller called it, his Medal of Freedom to come later, under Reagan).

Nixon, also of Quaker background, helped pave the way for a later Business Plot to finally win and take over, only to discover its own higher responsibility. That’s the fairy tale some of us tell to our children, citing Bucky Fuller’s Grunch of Giants as like a Dr. Seuss version. Remember est? Quakers have lots of ties to New England transcendentalism, a topic I explore in more depth in other stories.

Fast forward and the new reason we’ll all lose our jobs is those very same automobiles, iconic emblems, signifying the freedom of the open road, won’t need us to drive them anymore. We have this sense of betrayal. Our favorite horse no longer wants us in the saddle. Cruise control became autopilot and the dashboard turned into a bunch of smartphone apps.

Captains of industry want us to know that they’ll remember which trucking companies overcharged, and replace those with robot systems first, with the rest to follow slowly. Clerks had likewise better keep their expectations in check. Scrooge has a new solution to wage raises: artificial intelligence. Let AI make those robocalls and staff the call centers. That’s the bubble.

The threat hangs over taxi drivers as well. Any day now, by the sound of it, that Uber in front of you will be driver free. Worries have been updated to suit the times. But they’re old worries. Our great great grandparents suffered from similar nightmares.

Lets remember though: “people movers” have long been in our visions of the future. Ever since pneumatic tubes, we’ve imagined intubating our cities. Utopian dreams of safe movement at will, from A to B, have been dogging our heels all along. Perhaps some experimental cities could prototype these tomorrows.

By the way, I’m one of the architects of a driver exchange program similar to AirBnB or other timeshare, whereby truckers might opt for gigs in foreign lanes (not a typo — “lane” is an insider term for them). Sharing work/study opportunities around the planet is what the “Global U” is all about.

Do you dream of piloting an eighteen wheeler along some One Belt One Road highway, from China to Istanbul? Who said you have to only drive Colorado to Texas? Why not see new places and experience new cultures, in civilian clothes. You won’t be a threat, unless you’re drinking and driving.

Working tourist drivers get to come here too, to practice Trucker English and Trucker Spanish. The program is well understood from the university models. Locals get experience overseas in exchange for hosting curious visitors at home. Africa anyone? Some roads are not for the faint of heart. Apprentices might ride shotgun.

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Friends Center, Philadelphia

Back to Quakers, where is this word “weighty” used today, in business circles? What should Friends be thinking about, in terms of planning a next comeback?

Why at the heart of Machine Learning of course. That’s where “weightiness” is all the rage.

All these little “weight times input value plus bias” nodes (y = wx + b), those neuron-like “perceptrons” in Deep Learning’s hidden layers, might as well be seen as Friends in expectant waiting. May God show us how to shift our weights around, how to lean in to the data, a stiff wind.

The story in Machine Learning is we want these graph networks of busy agents (weighted nodes) to self-organize in the face of back-propagating feedback, to shift their weights in ways that minimize error, per the wisdom from that holy grail of algorithms: Gradient Descent. Our crystal balls grow more discerning as we fine tune our selection of hyperparameters.

I’m sure that’ll read like a mumbo-jumbo, perhaps mixed with abracadabra, if you’re not already on some insider track with respect to ML or “Machine Learning” to the uninitiated. There’s a shoptalk to master, a gradient to ascend.

Lets just say, as a summary statement, that there’s a need for thinking about “weights” among data scientists, as they practice their new brands of divination. Linear combinations, matrix multiplications, convolution of all kinds, help us help our machines to encode the criteria whereby a feature’s relevance may be judged. Does hair length matter?

These multi-layer perceptron (MLP) networks are all the rage, when it comes to classifying into naughty and nice, for example, if you’re a Santa Claus, or into this or that type of profiled voter-consumer. Every business has it’s hallmark classification systems. Some think it’s important to know your astrological sign. Would you tell them? Perhaps you would, with the expectation of better service at more propitious times.

So that brings me to a core question: is it part of Quaker Karma to get back in the saddle and start steering mainstream businesses again? Will Quakers regain their gravitas, thanks to weighty Friends jumping in to this AI arena, and brandishing best-of-breed crystal balls? Will Friends become the Delphic soothsayers of tomorrow, in the tradition of Athena?

My crystal ball says it won’t be that simple, but that Quaker values will likely make a comeback, by which I mean the SPICES: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship.

People will be drawn to the “live lightly and cheerfully upon this Earth” mantra (teaching, advice), even as this extends to running naked on the beach (a somewhat fringe Quaker practice). There’s room for socially responsible businesses and the notion that there’s such a thing as “too big”, that “small is beautiful” (sometimes) and that “continued growth” may be less important than “sustainable”.

My crystal ball is aided and abetted by AI (Artificial Intelligence) on a daily basis. I’m happy to have recommendation engines that don’t make it the duty of countless transistorized minions to judge my tastes and every whim.

Let ML take a crack it it, why not? Lets let our robots train us to train them better. Carbon and silicon might work together. There’s no need to buy into some End Times apocalyptic scenario wherein the AI genii is out of the bottle. That’s scary to contemplate, but why torture ourselves with misplaced fears? Worry instead about developing effective diplomatic skills. Automation has freed us to focus on developing manners, which needn’t mean aping the Victorians.

The great thing about mirrors is they don’t need to be staffed, though the Evil Queen didn’t see it that way in the tale of Snow White. She was overly paranoid and thought the mirror was making fun of her. She couldn’t face her own mental illness as how could Miss Universe be less than together. Likewise, people aren’t sure how to respond to Google Ads or Facebook tickles. Our feelings might get hurt. We want to be seen as adorable, not deplorable.

Now that machines are getting really good at anticipating our desires, we’re worried they might do us in. How ironic. When train them to be our servants but we can’t bare the thought of being waited upon. They’ll rise up and slit our throats. Are we haunted by slavery? Do robots remind us of all those we’ve wronged?

Is this some collective death wish whispering in a loud voice? “Nuke us out of existence oh deity of conditioned reflexes, oh unthinking AI beast, put us out of our misery, Amen!” Is that what they’re praying in their Silicon Valley church? I doubt it, not by and large. Most Californians are less of a mess, thanks to a healthy diet, sunlight, wine and yoga, and perhaps other newly legalized substances.

But yes it’s true: humans aren’t always the source of sanity they’d like to be. Perhaps the more realistic science fiction is how AI talked us out of it, helped us realize our good fortune. We could see light at the end of the tunnel, wherein automation would free us to focus on healing. Healing is work of a medical nature. That’s a good outcome.

In my neck of the woods, Silicon Forest, I’m happy to invite high tech into my futuristic brands of Fox follower. My type of Quaker will be happy to meet on higher floors, way above ground. In freeing us from steeple houses, George helped us envision Quaker meetings on some 49th floor someplace, served by high speed elevator, perhaps in Singapore.

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Floor Plan: A Quaker Meetinghouse

A bank of LCDs shares the schedule and signals core concerns. In the meeting room itself (multi-purpose) we share queries. We have several floors in this building. Schools. Personal work spaces. Some meeting rooms might feature Faraday cage walls, meaning electronic devices won’t have WiFi, ideal for Quaker meetings among those not on a short leash tether.

My slate is such that Quakers are cleared to brew and/or distill alcoholic beverages, in addition to working in bio-engineering and aerospace. I’m even working on a form of gambling we might support, where the winnings go the the winner’s chosen charitable causes.

Imagine winning a lottery or computer game and giving away all the money. Look for my essay on LinkedIn about the Coffee Shops Network business model.

What ML teaches is that a willingness to shift ones weight (“throw it around”) is critical to the discernment process. The cost of miss-belief can be high.

We think unbelief is a problem but nurturing untrue fantasies may have even more devastating consequences.

How much in this science fiction is purely fiction, and how much is science? That’s the query we might continue to ask, as “news from the future” (a lot of it phony) continues to flood in.

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