Attack of the killer robots

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Nowadays, to talk about morality is a bad thing. It speaks to many, particularly the young, of suppression of freedom, self-expression, and creativity. To the simplistic-minded, morality is synonymous to the repression of sexuality. And to ask that morality be applied in public life is taken as alternatively a demand sprung from naivety or, worse, to dictate the imposition of one’s beliefs on what is supposedly a pluralistic society.

But what is morality except to refer to the behavior of human beings? It doesn’t necessarily refer per se to determinations of good or bad. Morality was derived from the French "moral", which in turn was taken from the Latin "moralis". Moralis simply denotes "manners" and is also related to the Latin word "mos", which means manner or custom.

Today, of course, when one speaks of morality it generally is taken to mean discussions of good or bad. But the reason why "morality" has presently taken such a meaning is precisely because in discussing morality it actually refers to acts of human beings. Assuming you are somebody who thinks that human beings are not merely "ideas" (i.e., that reality are all only thoughts or imaginations) or merely bodies (i.e., without intellect, that we are ruled by passions or compulsions; for the religious, they’d make reference to a "soul"), then you would have to agree that we have the ability (or the freedom) to make choices (i.e., a free will) on how we are to act.

Assuming you further believe that human beings have a purpose (or an "end", which is logically so because we are moving, only the dead are static), whether it be the Aristotelian or Platonic belief that we are meant to be "happy" (which is taken to mean us truly fulfilling our humanity; the religious, of course, would say heaven), then the acts we do will now take a categorization of whether such makes us achieve that happiness. In which case, that act is considered "good". If that act does not allow us to achieve that happiness or if it’s a happiness that is at the cost of greater happiness, then that act is considered "bad". Since man has an intellect (and free will), the reasonable thing for him to do is to choose "good" (which allows him to be really "happy", really human and not a mere animal ruled by compulsions) and avoid the bad (which makes us unhappy, less human). By the way, "ethics" simply refers to the formal study of morality.

That, in a reasoned logical nutshell, is what morality is (no references to religious scriptures here). Morality takes significance simply because we are human beings possessed of an intellect and the freedom to make reasonable choices as we are not mere animals ruled by instinct, passion, compulsions, or hormones.

The problem is that: robots are apparently becoming… like us.

This The Economist (Morals and the Machine, 2 June 2012) pointed out: "As robots become more autonomous, the notion of computer-controlled machines facing ethical decisions is moving out of the realm of science fiction and into the real world. Society needs to find ways to ensure that they are better equipped to make moral judgments…"

With robots (and computers) becoming more "intelligent" and their immersion in our lives get all pervasive, they have now come into positions whereby their calculations become a matter of life or death for humans on a daily basis: "Should a drone fire on a house where a target is known to be hiding, which may also be sheltering civilians? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid pedestrians if that means hitting other vehicles or endangering its occupants? Should a robot involved in disaster recovery tell people the truth about what is happening if that risks causing a panic? Such questions have led to the emergence of the field of ‘machine ethics’, which aims to give machines the ability to make such choices appropriately -- in other words, to tell right from wrong."

One remedy is to not use robots. However, the problem is that, even in warfare, between having the risk of using robots and having thousands of soldiers in harm’s way, the advantage of resorting to robots is clear.

International law has certainly not been remiss in examining this new reality. As Dave Go of the Ateneo Law School wrote (in his 2012 paper Weathering the Electric Storm: Analyzing the Consequences of Cyber Warfare in Light of the Principles of International Humanitarian Law): "Cyber warfare is a new kind of warfare. As such, the present principles of war laid down in International Law should apply -- much more specifically the principles of International Humanitarian Law. In conducting war, participants must ensure that humanitarian rights are still upheld."

The irony of it all is: while we are now worrying on how to make robots moral, some people are still obsessing in removing morality from our so-called pluralistic society.


No court for old men (only)

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Amid heightened public awareness of the search for the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, now would be an opportune time to examine the merit of one of its more cherished traditions: that of the "seniority rule." By such, the succeeding chief justice is always the one that previously served longer as member of the high tribunal regardless of the comparative merit of the contenders.

Many lawyer commentators have come out supporting such a return to "tradition." The usual argument cited is that by resorting to seniority, the politicization of the appointment of chief justice would be minimized. However, whether such reasoning holds water is another matter.

The fact is, to become a member of the Supreme Court, whether as Chief Justice or as Associate Justice, one follows the same route -- nomination by the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC) and then appointment by the President. It has been assumed that the JBC process is a far less political affair than the previous one which passed through the Commission on Appointments (as was the case prior to the 1987 Constitution). So, technically, each of the 15 members of the Supreme Court is qualified to become Chief Justice. The only question remaining is: who does the President believes is actually the most qualified?

As Chief Justice, he would have to function quite differently than the Associate Justices. Aside from deciding cases, he is also in charge of a large bureaucracy, as well as managing the egos of 14 other lawyers that make up the collegial body that is the Supreme Court. Skill sets other than legal scholarship now come as requirements. Energy, creativity, organizational skills, and the ability to clearly communicate goals -- all the characteristics necessary for one leading an organization -- very clearly matter.

His qualifications, therefore, are somewhat akin to that of the President: representing the need to function as leader. It must be remembered that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is essentially the judiciary’s equivalent of the Executive Branch’s President of the Philippines. If it was deemed wise to elect a 50-something year old to the presidency rather than the most senior official of the Executive Branch, then the reason to demand seniority in the Supreme Court finds no basis.

There is also one important factor that we must consider. As we previously pointed out, the power of the Supreme Court is extremely fragile. Freshman law school teaches that the Court is the most passive of the three co-equal branches of government. Perhaps that is why alone among the top of the three branches of government, it’s only the members of the Supreme Court that are required to possess "proven competence, integrity, probity, and independence." Maturity, self-restraint and being psychologically able to work collegially are what’s needed in a Supreme Court justice. Being the weakest among the three branches of government, the Supreme Court’s authority rests delicately on its unified voice, dignity, and prestige.

Arguments have therefore also been made that by appointing based on seniority, harmony within the Supreme Court would be encouraged. But that is to belittle its members, who are not children. Assuming that a less senior member of the Supreme Court, or even somebody outside it, is appointed Chief Justice, one would think that the remaining venerable Justices possess the selflessness and sense of duty to support the President’s decision. If they’re the type who will just whine about "loss of face," then they’d better just resign because the country would be better off without such crybabies.

Contrary to popular belief, the seniority rule has not done well for the Philippines. It has actually been disregarded quite rarely, with fairly even results. On the other hand, the scandals that surfaced about the Supreme Court (as can be seen, for instance, in the books Shadow of Doubt or Res Gestae) took place under the reigns of chief justices appointed through seniority.

An added reason for disregarding the seniority rule is that the Philippines scores poorly in the Power Distance Index (a standard mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers). The Index "measures the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. It suggests that a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders." Socially and economically developed countries score well, while the Philippines posted the fourth worse score (amongst the company of the likes of Panama and Guatemala). This says a lot about what our penchant for undue deference and sentiment has gotten us.

So we must get the habit of appointing the best for the job. Perhaps those who stand purely on their seniority will resent the fact of them playing second fiddle but they’ll just have to suck it up. Between massaging their feelings and upholding the interests of the country, surely there’s no need to think upon where our priority must lie.


Father should know better

is the subject of my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

It being Father’s Day weekend, there was this radio commentator saying that we should take the time to reflect on the value of dads. The point was: fathers need to know that they are special and important in our lives. That all the work they do is appreciated and will never be forgotten. We should make the effort therefore to listen to fathers’ needs, of their struggles and concerns, of their dreams and frustrations, of their longing to connect with us, finding themselves, and being accepted for who they are.

Which led me to ask this question: since when have fathers become women?

Really, is it just me? There are fundamental differences between men and women we should respect. And I cannot get the need of today’s men to spill their guts out to every person within social media or cable TV range. Men are silent (particularly about themselves), control their emotions, and do rather than talk. John Wayne puts it best: talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much. Though actually an advice on acting, the Duke might as well be giving a master class on how to be a man.

One of my favorite lines was from the movie The English Patient. Ralph Fiennes’ character Almasy on a past expedition: "I once traveled with a guide who was taking me to Faya. He didn’t speak for nine hours. At the end of it he pointed at the horizon and said, ‘Faya!’ That was a good day."

Now that may be very un-PC, but screw that. A grunt and a squint is enough. We don’t spend time trying to empathize or share feelings. No. We get things done. Or get wasted. And if we can do both simultaneously so much the better. Feelings are to be shared, privately, with wives; under the constitutional proviso that the wives do not divulge such confidences to their girlfriends. At least, not within embarrassing hearing range.

So, regardless of what Oprah says, men shouldn’t shed tears in front of others or exchange emotional issues with other guys. Or use facial cleansers in public. In fact, don’t even give a damn what a TV host says. Period. We don’t, as Al Pacino spat out in Heat, share our feelings so that we could "somehow cathartically dispel all that heinous shit." (By the way, if you can’t tell what the central friendship in that movie is, you’re a girl).

Because, really, who needs a man (a father at that) with issues? What would the world have become if Arnold Schwarzeneger in the Terminator movies, instead of the confident declaration "Come with me if you want to live," had gingerly asked: "So, what do you think? We don’t want to offend anyone." Or remember Gregory Peck in Twelve O’clock High? Doggedly carrying out the mission, defiantly alone in command. Instead of issues (or tattoos and washboard abs), real men have a moral compass, inner strength, commitment to purpose, self-mastery. It may and will hurt inside sometimes but the trick for a man, as Lawrence of Arabia would say, is "not minding that it hurts."

Guys today need comfort and hugs. But the fact is, the last thing we need is a mechanic or plumber who suddenly breaks down weeping because he suddenly felt inadequate upon seeing an exhaust pipe or piece of plumbing. Men don’t despair. They have a drink and then saddle back up. Think of Rick in Casablanca. Or Frank Sinatra. Of Steve McQueen in Bullitt: no speeches, no apologies. Just easy cool, the quick-draw shoulder holster, and the 1968 390 CID V8 Ford Mustang. Think Lee Marvin’s effortless riff in the Dirty Dozen. Or Denzel Washington in the Book of Eli wordlessly going west to preserve the Bible. Of Jordan or Kobe.

Undoubtedly, the Beatles (the 50th year of their assembling is being commemorated this year) exemplified all this. As writer Martin Lewis said: "Unlike vast legions of entertainers before and since, The Beatles’ objective in forming a group was not to become famous or rich or have their pick of the opposite sex…They were motivated by the love of music. It colors your approach. How many kids today make a record on their Mac with Pro Tools and expect it to be No. 1 in 10 minutes? From 1957 to 1962, The Beatles played hundreds of live shows in front of very few people, making no money, sleeping in disgusting locales. They had no sense of entitlement. Just drive and commitment."

In short, as Lewis would emphasize: The Beatles had "skill, personality," and -- most importantly -- "grit." Troubles, worries, drama? That’s to be hidden backstage. Onstage, it was purely to deliver and deliver with a grin and a smart alecky line. In fact, that’s what we remember of The Beatles: able to come through without the effort showing that they simply seemed preternatural.

And that's how fathers should remain.


Condom confused

is my Trade Tripper column in this Friday-Saturday issue of BusinessWorld:

Last week, a couple of friends of mine had the opportunity (or misfortune) to attend a workshop at the University of the Philippines on "Religion, Gender & Sexuality." I say misfortune because -- as that line in Platoon goes: "hell is the impossibility of reason" -- nobody should be subjected to hour after hour of reason’s absence. Or, as the late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once, quite correctly, exclaimed: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts."

The workshop’s major flaw is that, rather than providing a venue for honest intellectual engagement, it presumptively made a judgment call at the onset framing the entire discussion, thus advocating for a particular view. And that particular view (as the workshop’s program declares) is that "the Roman Catholic Church poses as a major block in population and reproductive health work."

While it proceeded to ostensibly assist participants to discern and "make informed decisions about gender and sexuality-related issues, including family planning, abortion, and homosexuality;" it also made clear that workshop’s intent is to "serve as venue for RH advocates to be able to reconcile their personal faith with their work."

The manner in which that is to be achieved is by portraying religions as not "monolithic, that there are varying views and positions among officials, clergy and laity"; and that rather than faith, there are "social and historical circumstances that shape official Catholic Church policies around gender and sexuality."

In short, the tired old argument that Church teachings "evolved," came about due to existing social norms, or that "believers" are licensed to interpret Scriptures that will accommodate their particular thinking and allow them to "follow their conscience."

There is nothing radical, new, or modern about such stale positions.

And the reply to that is simply to repeat the same answers given so effectively by far better teachers than the pro-RH academe can ever produce.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in his famous Erasmus lecture of 27 January 1988, tells us the proper way to approach Scripture (and, consequently, our faith): one who studies the Bible "must realize that he does not stand in some neutral area, above or outside history and the Church. Such a presumed immediacy regarding the purely historical can only lead to dead ends."

But even way before that, Thomas a Kempis, in his classic The Imitation of Christ (written circa 1418-1427ad), wrote: "Mankind is always changing; God’s truth stands forever. And he has many ways of speaking to us, regardless of the human instruments he uses. Often enough, our reading of Holy Scripture is distracted by mere curiosity; we want to seize upon a point and argue about it, when we ought to be quietly passing on. You will get most out of it if you read it with humility, and simplicity, and faith, not concerned to make a name for yourself as a scholar. By all means ask questions, but listen to what holy writers have to tell you; do not find fault with the hard sayings of antiquity, their authors had good reason for writing as they did."

And then even way before a Kempis, St. Paul warns us that "the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations." (2 Tm 4:2)

The simple fact is this: while the Church as an organization and with regard to its externalities may have evolved through time, and while the manner with which it preached its message may have adapted to sociological circumstances (i.e., pastoral references to a people whose life revolved around agriculture and sheep herding), its doctrine, its message, its teachings have not. The Catholic Church’s position on contraception and homosexuality, from Scripture, to the Church fathers, to Sts. Augustine and Aquinas, to Popes Pius XI and John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict XVI, has been unflinchingly constant.

It must also be emphasized that, contrary to what most people think, the Church’s position on those issues is based heavily on natural law, an expression of right reason universally applicable to everyone regardless of belief or culture.

The Church compromising on contraception or homosexuality, considering both violate natural law? It will never happen. In the same way that the Church will not agree that 2 plus 2 equals 5.

So, again, I repeat this urging: Considering the incredibly smarter people who’ve defended the Church and the fact that the Church has always been proven right, one would be wise to take this piece of advice from Archbishop Charles Chaput: "If you’re Catholic and you disagree with your Church, what do you do? You change your mind."