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Report on the first expert panel of the 2019 NEC Future Creation Forum

Can technology break free from efficiency?
The long path, pain, and smiles—three hints for a world beyond the singularity

November 19, 2019

As technology transforms society, the economy and culture, what sort of future should we strive for looking towards 2050 and a world beyond the singularity? Since 2017, NEC has hosted the NEC Future Creation Forum in order to envision the future we should seek and methods to solve the challenges that stand in our way.

The NEC Future Creation Forum has invited experts in a wide range of fields from Japan and overseas to discuss how to realize our For All People, an Abundant Society model , emphasizing the importance of improving the human mindset alongside technological development centered on artificial intelligence (AI). The experts who participated in the previous forums spoke about the need to base arguments on an awareness of the characteristics of both humans and AI, and discussed how the divisions cropping up in various layers are at the root of future challenges. To overcome these divisions, the forum proposed a vision of a “Will Resonant Society”

This year, four sessions are planned around the topics of relationship, experience, value & trust, and learning/unlearning in order to deepen this discussion and suggest avenues for implementation in society. Each session brings together experts related to a particular topic from diverse backgrounds including legal scholar, Buddhist priest, and game creator.

Overcoming divisions

The four experts who gathered for the first session titled "Relationship: How can we overcome the Division between ‘I’ and ‘We’?” were Buddhist Head Priest Ryojun Shionuma (Jigen-ji Temple), information scholar Dominick Chen (Waseda University), NEC fellow Katsumi Emura and WIRED Japan Editor-in-chief Michiaki Matsushima, who served as moderator.

There is growing concern in recent years about the widening of divisions across different strata of society, many of which are caused by the acceleration of technological efficiency. Modernization has created broad benefits through social infrastructure, but has also coincided with the disintegration of communities. It seems that without addressing the divisions between individuals and society, no amount of technological progress can enable all people to live rich and meaningful lives.

Communities that connect individuals and society are key to overcoming these divisions. What should be done to create communities that can overcome division and encourage resonating minds? The conversation addressed the relationship between individuals and society, centered on the two questions of "how can the community bridge the division between individuals and society?" and "how can communities be designed to bring about a resonance of minds?”

The value in the long road

Regarding the first question of how communities can eliminate the divisions between individuals and society, Chen pointed out that filter bubbles have grown ever more powerful, dividing humans into primitive opposing sides. Chen sees the emergence of these bubbles as a regression in the human condition.

Dominick Chen (Information scholar, Associate Professor at the School of Culture, Media and Society, Waseda University) conducts interdisciplinary research into how to create better relationships between human society and technology from the perspective of digital well-being.

“As people have consciously sought out more comfort, safety, and security, our conscious being has expanded to an unhealthy degree. Especially in developed countries, I feel that we have neglected our unconscious and physical sensations. In addition, we’ve seen the proliferation of a faith in evidence that we might describe as a cult of quantification. If we quantify and scrutinize the efficiency of everything, humans are forced to become more conservative,” he warns.

As Chen argues, contemporary society places extreme emphasis on cost performance, and the value of everything is determined in the way of an investment, as a calculation of cost and return. Of course, efficiency improvements make it possible for people to live more comfortably, but a certain form of efficiency has also driven a convergence that saps humanity of its diversity. When this convergence begins to encroach even on human dignity, individual freedom is lost.

Alongside the changing times, the lifestyles of young people are also changing. Chen, who teaches at a university, discussed how students in recent years harbor a sense that their lives are converging as they embark on job-hunting. The job-hunting process breaks down their personalities, leaving them no choice but to assume fake personal traits, he says.

Responding to Chen’s comment, Shionuma argued that the problem begins with education in the home. "Particularly in developed countries, there is social pressure for everyone to be the same. Everyone tries to get their children into good schools, but the goal is unclear. What we actually need to do is educate in a way that develops the strengths of individuals in accordance with their personalities."

Ryojun Shionuma (Head Priest/Acharya of Jigen-ji Temple) became only the second person in 1,300 years to complete the 1,000 day Kaihogyo*.

How should we develop the strength of individuals? Shionuma argues that the only choice is to pursue the “long and difficult path.” Yet this is the very path that efficiency and optimization are closing off. Nonetheless, thinking about how to follow the longer path will be a source of value in the future.

Chen is a leading scholar of well-being in Japan. He and Shionuma had a spirited discussion.

*Kaihogyo is an ascetic practice with a walk about 30km on the mountain path for 1,000 days

Overcoming the dichotomy between positive and negative

A long path may appear unappealing at first sight, but Chen points out that this is also seen as an important element in well-being research. "According to the self-determination theory developed by Edward L. Deci, a pioneer of the study of intrinsic motivation, lasting well-being cannot be achieved unless there is a feeling that a decision arrived at autonomously results in a changed situation. So, autonomy is crucial," says Chen. Taking the long and difficult path also serves to strengthen this autonomy.

In response to Chen, Emura raised the issue of the body that was discussed at last year's NEC Future Creation Forum. As the phrase “gut feeling” reveals, when we are truly convinced of something, it is not the mental being of our head at work, but the physical being of our body. That is why we don’t have a physical response to things that we are compelled to do, Emura argues.

Katsumi Emura (NEC Fellow) joined NEC in 1982 as a researcher in optical communications technology. Later he ran the Central Research Institute and served as an operating officer and CTO before his current post.

In an era when nearly everything is quantified, modeled, and compared, there may be increased value of analog aspects of life such as the body. Shionuma has performed countless Buddhist homa (rituals), and says that he can tell whether the day’s ritual will go well or poorly the moment it begins. This cannot be predicted in advance, but seems to be determined in the moment the space is entered.

Shionuma's comments caused Emura to reflect that "there seems to be a parallel here to the distinction between Western medicine and Eastern medicine. Western medicine depends on sensors to evaluate ailments and treats them through prescriptive therapy, whereas Eastern doctors approach the body beginning with the patient’s posture when they walk in.”

Chen says that in the field of well-being as well, standard Western ways of thinking used to suggest that happiness could be achieved simply by increasing positive emotions, but researchers now think that negative feelings also contribute to the richness of life. Moreover, this is directly connected to the stance of placing value on long and difficult paths. Overcoming the dichotomy of positive and negative, and accepting difficulty—that is exactly what produces a diversity of individuals and bridges divisions.

NEC Fellow Katsumi Emura has been involved in the NEC Future Creation Forum since its inception and helped to connect the discussion in this session with past years.

Escaping from individualism, understanding others

The discussion soon moved to the second question of how to encourage resonating minds as we create communities.

Matsushima said that "clicking the ‘Like’ button on a social networking post is simply a form of empathy. Today we face a situation of empathy overload. Society still hasn't taken the next step from there to achieving resonating minds," and distinguished between "resonance" and "empathy." He suggests Chen's idea of a "Japanese well-being" may offer hints for upgrading empathy into resonance.

Michiaki Matsushima (WIRED Japan Editor-in-Chief) worked on numerous popular books at NHK Publishing before serving as the editor-in-chief of WIRED Japan, which covers topics ranging across tech, business, and culture.

Chen responds, "We have to escape from individualism. As I said before, autonomy is important, but with autonomy alone we remain tied to the individual and tend to compare ourselves to others. We should think about how people are not all independent, but part—and are formed from—pieces of others."

Chen said that he developed ideas related to the concept of Japanese-style well-being from the Buddhist concept of engi. The belief of engi, that everything in the world is interconnected, means that others form a part of the self, and the self forms a part of others. Shionuma responds that "the Buddhist heart is a compassionate heart." To have a compassionate heart is to think of the other. That means using one’s imagination to put oneself in the position of the other.

In essence, to escape individualism means to understand others. "To be able to understand others is an extraordinary skill," says Chen. “Understanding others means you become that person. You think about how he or she might be suffering or happy. You can break away from individualism if you can set the self aside and imagine the other.”

Matsushima moderated the conversation while tying in some recent debates in technology.

Breaking free of "I" and thinking as "We"

To understand others different than the self sometimes entails sharing in their pain. If we can’t understand others’ pain, there is no way to incorporate autonomy and benevolence into the relationship. This is an altruistic perspective of “we” rather than a selfish perspective of “I.” Chen touches on the lively debate around the "we-mode,” nothing that "researchers of interaction theory have been discussing the concept of the 'we-mode,’ an idea that objective science has limits and that an entire world of information goes unseen unless the observer becomes a part of the observed." In the interaction between individuals, we enter into a collective “we-mode” wherein it is thought that the perspective of individuals changes to the perspective of others, and one’s focus of attention and beliefs greatly increase their influence upon the information held by others. The we-mode is what we find after leaving the self.

According to Chen, we have long done this through our art and literature. We become immersed in characters when we read novels and watch films. Even if a character faces entirely different circumstances than us, art gives us the ability to empathize with the pain of others.

In contrast, Emura points out, "social networking services do not offer the same immersion as novels or films." Social networks are built around the idea of connection to others, but their architecture actually prevents us from immersing in the experience of others. Instead, many people grow jealous or sad as they engage in comparisons. This could be because people try to hide their pain and weakness when on social networks.

"Social networks are kaleidoscope-like spaces that diffuse details of various people’s lives, where everyone tries to show off their strengths, sapping you of the ability to think about your own life." Chen suggests that there is no room to create resonance in social networks.

Emura adds, "we get carried away with a strong word such as ‘mind,’ and are forgetting humans’ inherent weaknesses." We must recognize that humans are weak creatures in order to know the weakness of others and resonate with them by making that weakness our own.

Head Priest Shionuma expanded the scope of the discussion by offering a religious perspective from time to time.

The philosophy of quantification, efficiency, and optimization of everything oversimplifies things and breeds division. Yet it also makes people afraid of failure, pushing them to hide their weaknesses. People cannot take on challenges when they are afraid of failing, and without challenging themselves, people become more homogenous.

Shionuma sums up this discussion with the symbolic remark that "life is short so we have to be happy. We need to smile." In any era, no matter how much technology improves, enjoying oneself remains the most important key to a rich life.

Chen continues, "to smile is to show your vulnerability, but a smile inspires another smile. Smiling is a very active action. Indeed, we don’t often smile when alone. It is the existence of a relationship that allows us to smile."

How should we overcome division and create communities that cause a resonance of minds? The answers proposed by the experts were the simple ideas of long paths, pain, and smiles. Indeed, these are certain to produce value as society speeds into the future and towards the singularity.

Thus concluded the first session of the 2019 NEC Future Creation Forum on the topic of "Relationship: Overcoming the division between ‘I’ and ‘We.’" The discussion began by considering the relationship between individuals and social infrastructure before proceeding to the concept of well-being, then illuminating the benefits and detriments created by modern technology and hinting at future potential. The four participants departed from technology and jumped across a wide range of topics including religion and culture as they updated the NEC Future Creation Forum’s vision of Will Resonant Society.

The second session will focus on the topic of "Experience: redefining experience from the mirror world." The development of the Internet and other information technology has been said to increase the value of experience. In the NEC Future Creation Forum’s vision of Will Resonant Society, what will be the value of experience? And how can technology be utilized in this space? The NEC Future Creation Forum will continue its discussions as we search for a future society in which diverse individuals can pursue rich lives.


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