NH-PHILOSOPHY, PART 2: In-your-face media bias?

I thought I'd share with you something I observed today, which I thought was remarkable. Browsing YouTube video recommendations late this evening, I first clicked on a months-old video of a NASA press conference on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs), which NASA has been officially investigating. In it, Dr. Sean Kirkpatrick, head of the investigative team, discusses two types of UAP cases. The first is that of seemingly metallic spheres that, somehow, move and manoeuvre without any signs of propulsion or control surfaces (go to timestamp 2:18):

As you can see, Dr. Kirkpatrick:

  1. Shows a video of one such sphere, as recorded by an MQ-9 'Reaper' military drone. The sphere shown moves fast, in a controlled, non-ballistic trajectory, despite the absence of any visible means of propulsion or control surfaces. It clearly isn't a floating balloon.
  2. States that this is just 'a typical example of the thing we see most of ... we see these all over the world'—i.e., there are many other cases on their records, some more 'enigmatic' than the unclassified video shown;
  3. Proceeds to say that these spheres make 'very interesting apparent manoeuvres' (this is a significant acknowledgment, as balloons and craft without control surfaces shouldn't be able to manoeuvre at all), and which he later indirectly characterises as 'enigmatic technical capabilities.'
Clearly, Dr. Kirkpatrick is acknowledging that there are UAPs 'all over the world' for which there is no prosaic account, even though there is no doubt about their existence and capabilities; they've been captured on film and by other sophisticated, military-grade data collection instruments.

Here is a more detailed video showing the sphere:

Dr. Kirkpatrick then shows another video clip, of a case that, although apparently anomalous, does have a prosaic account and represents no mystery at all. There are thus two types of cases: those that are genuinely anomalous, such as the spheres, and those that can be accounted for prosaically.

Literally a couple of videos later, during my lazy evening browsing, YouTube recommended a clip showing how CNN reported on this NASA press conference and Dr. Kirkpatrick's presentation:

Notice how CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Foreman, mentions only the case that can be prosaically accounted for; there is mention neither of the first type of case Dr. Kirkpatrick talked about, nor of the extraordinary video of the sphere—let alone a replay, which was obviously the most journalistic significant and news-worthy part of the whole press conference. With clearly dismissive tone and body language, Foreman proceeds to state that the UAPs are "measured with all sorts of crazy instruments out there." Should we construe this as meaning that an MQ-9 'Reaper' military drone, one of the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering platforms in the skies, is a dismissible "crazy instrument"?

I found it striking that CNN wouldn't even mention the spheres or replay the remarkable video that had just been declassified. They just replay now-old videos the Pentagon released years ago. The smirking commentary and laughter seem to have higher journalistic value than the very clear, concrete evidence discussed in the press conference; more value than NASA's explicit admission that there is a genuine mystery here. This is extraordinary; I mean, not only the video of the sphere and NASA's acknowledgment, by also CNN's coverage of this press conference.

It's difficult for me to imagine that this kind of coverage isn't a deliberate editorial attempt at perception manipulation and narrative control. Which raises the question: Why is there a need for such kind of manipulation?

How interesting, isn't it?


NH-PHILOSOPHY, PART 1: Accounting for UAPs' zigzagging, 'brownian motion'

PREVIOUS POST: NH-Philosophy, Part 0

As discussed in my previous post in this blog, I admit to having been caught off guard by the latest developments regarding UAPs and non-human intelligence. Nonetheless, I cannot help but take these developments seriously, and thus felt compelled to explore the subject further in two directions: first, to understand clearly how (im)plausible it is that the allegations are fabrications, given the legal context of the case; and second, to apply reason and information already disclosed to speculate educatedly on what we can expect a non-human intelligence to be like.

As luck would have it, the first part was already done 'for me' by Marik von Vennenkampff, writing for The Hill. I recommend his level-headed and well informed essay, which explains better than I could why I now take this whole thing quite seriously. In addition, yesterday I decided to watch James Fox's wonderful new documentary, Moment of Contact (about the Varginha UAP case in Brazil). I have always had respect for Jamie's work and this latest film doesn't disappoint at all: he captured very well what is perhaps the most important UAP/close encounter case of all times, because of the sheer amount, detail and consistency of witness accounts. As most of you know, I spent my childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And although I haven't been there in almost three decades now, childhood is a formative time, so I like to believe—perhaps too optimistically—that I can still judge the Brazilian demeanour, body language and tone of voice, in a culture-bound manner. Based on this, I do think the witnesses interviewed in the film were all telling the truth.

What this means is that, in addition to being a definitely psychological phenomenon in many ways—as I discussed in my own book Meaning in Absurdity several years ago—UAPs also have a stable physical facet: it would seem that there really are biological E.T.s from another star system visiting us by means of technologically advanced craft. Again, I hadn't expected this, but I am too committed to truth to ignore the new data. Perhaps, in fact, the high-strangeness aspect of the phenomenon is a thing apart, not directly related to metal spaceships from another planet. We may be dealing with two or more distinct categories here, artificially trying to stuff them together in our conceptual drawers. Or perhaps not; I don't know. (More on this in the next instalment of this series of posts.)

Meaning in Absurdity

However, whatever the case may be, the idea of very physical—meant here in the colloquial sense, not as a nod to physicalism—aliens coming to visit us in very physical craft raises a number of new questions: what can we expect these beings to be like? What about their technology? And how can we make sense of their weird behaviour, such as the typical 'brownian motion' of their craft?

Since we are far from being able to visit other star systems, if these beings are visiting us they are obviously more technologically advanced than we are. Therefore, one educated way to speculate about them is to extrapolate the technology development curve we have been following. This is admittedly fraught with potential errors, as there is no a priori reason to think that their development arch would resemble ours in any way; yet, it's the best we can do when armed only with our own cultural and conceptual references.

With the advent of DNA manipulation technologies such as CRISPR, it has become clear that, in a perhaps not-so-distant future, humans will be able to edit their DNA to suppress undesirable characteristics and emphasise desirable ones. Even without understanding how protein manufacturing relates to morphogenesis—i.e., how the proteins made by DNA are assembled together in just the right way to form a working body—we can still learn to tune our bodies by means of DNA manipulation on a merely empirical, trial-and-error basis.

Therefore, it is plausible that a more technologically advanced alien civilisation would have vast control of their own genotypes and phenotypes, thereby designing themselves for whatever functions are culturally valued. Space travel is one such a function, which could benefit greatly from DNA manipulation: just as ants specialise phenotypically—some are 'armed' soldiers, others flexible engineers, yet others tireless farmers, etc.—E.T. probably also specialises for space flight and other activities. For instance, since space if a near-vacuum, the senses of hearing, smell, touch and taste become redundant except for intra-craft communication and instrumental output; only vision remains relevant with regard to the extra-craft environment. This way, it is an educated guess that the 'biologicals' found in crashed alien craft aren't the typical alien walking about in Zeta Reticuli, but specialised phenotypes meant for space travel. What we see here is not necessarily what we would see there, in their homes.

Another human technology trend to take into account is that of higher integration between the human body and the technology it controls. Today, we still interact with our phones and computers through physical touch. But there are promising developments in thought-controlled technologies, be it through measurement of brain waves or internal brain implants. Extrapolating this development arch, the ultimate goal is technology that reacts as instantly to our intentions as our own eyes and limbs do.

If this is where we are going, it is plausible to think that E.T. is already there. Then, by putting this idea together with the first trend discussed above, we get to a scenario in which alien pilots are DNA-engineered to be directly integrated with their craft. We should thus not expect their craft to have displays, keyboards, buttons and levers like ours do, but to be an extension of the pilots' minds, directly reactive to the pilots' intentions just as our eyes and limbs directly react to ours. This is an important point for any reverse-engineering team: they must abandon our paradigm of what 'controlling the craft' means, and think of it in a more organic manner. Regrettably, this also means that we probably won't be able to go for a joyride in an alien craft.

Interestingly, these ideas provide a way to understand one of the most bizarre but consistent aspects of the UAP phenomenon: their seemingly random, zigzagging, 'brownian motion' way of moving, which doesn't conform to any reasonable trajectory. They go back, forth, and sideways, in a manner we can't quite make sense of... unless, we understand that the craft aren't 'controlled' by their pilots at arms-length, but are instead extensions of the pilots' minds.

To see this, just consider our own eyes: we are constantly moving them around, scanning our environment in a fashion akin to brownian motion (most of us don't even realise that they are doing it all the time, even while dreaming, in the so-called 'Rapid Eye Movement' or 'REM' state). Different elements of our visual field grab our attention at different moments, leading to immediate, instinctive, jerking movements of the eyes so they can focus on that part of our visual field. We do it because we can only see the very centre of our visual field in focus and in high-resolution—an area corresponding to just about 0.1% of the field (!)—and must thus constantly scan our surroundings seemingly haphazardly, so to construct an accurate visual model of our environment. We do it autonomously, instinctively—as opposed to deliberately—this being the reason why the motion ends up being 'brownian' in nature. We bypass deliberation because our eyes are directly controlled by our minds, without the intermediation of a control panel. If the minds of E.T. pilots are directly linked to the motion and operation of their craft, their movements stand to also be spontaneous, instinctive, non-deliberate, and thus somewhat 'random.' And sure enough, this is precisely what witnesses report, repeatedly and consistently.

That UAPs move in a manner akin to how we autonomously move our own eyes—so to scan and construct a model of our surroundings—seems to me to betray their immediate, seamless connection with the minds of their pilots. This is the only logical, reasonable, satisfying way I could find to account for this consistent peculiarity of the phenomenon. And it, of course, suggests a more sophisticated metaphysical perspective, which does away with the delusional separation between mind and matter still prevalent in our own culture. But this is a topic for the next instalment of this series of posts, so stay tuned.

NEXT POST: NH-Philosophy, Part 2


NH-PHILOSOPHY, PART 0: UAPs, advanced non-human technology and disclosure

Over the past few weeks, the subject of Unidentified Anomalous Phenomena (UAPs) and advanced non-human technology has been catapulted to the forefront of our cultural attention. The historical UAP hearing at the US congress has conferred on it a whole new level of legitimacy, and for good reason: this time, the whistleblower isn’t an ‘anonymous high-ranking official’ shot in silhouette with a distorted voice, but someone with a name, credentials, a history, willing to appear on camera and make statements under oath, and with corroborating witnesses. Pilots with impeccable credentials are reporting phenomena that seem to violate the known laws of physics, and their observations are corroborated by instrumentation. Throughout the cultural history of UFOs, we haven’t seen anything like this before, despite the persistent lack of a proverbial smoking gun. So, what do I make of all this?

More than ten years ago, I wrote a book—Meaning in Absurdity—discussing anomalous phenomena such as UAPs. Those who read that book know that I view UAPs and so-called ‘alien abduction’ phenomena as largely psychological. Now, as an idealist, when I say that something is psychological I don’t mean that it is unreal, for under idealism everything is ultimately psychological. But I did regard these phenomena, at least to a large extent, as the result of our own ‘subconscious’ projections onto elements of the world. Under this view, UAPs really are real, but ‘dressed in the clothes’ of our own projections. Their core is independent of our human psychology, but their physical presentation isn’t.

One could argue that an implication of this view is that the physical phase of the phenomena is necessarily unstable, fluid, not immutable or permanent, but mercurial and impossible to pin down, like the Hessdalen lights. And this is why the allegation that human beings have managed to recover, store, disassemble, and even attempt to reverse engineer craft not created by humans, if true, would force me to put my view in a new perspective. Although their mental phase is self-evident, I had not expected the phenomena to have such a stable physical phase.

Which, of course, raises the question: are the allegations true in the first place? I feel quite comfortable in saying that what the pilots are reporting is true. They experienced these phenomena themselves—unlike the intelligence official, who has not observed anything directly—and their observations match measurements from instrumentation. The number of witnesses is also overwhelming. So, it’s quite safe to say that there is something out there—something controlled by a deliberate agency—which behaves in ways that seem to contradict the laws of physics as we understand them. In and of itself, this is already spectacular, but not really new, if you’ve been paying attention.

What is new is the weight of the allegation that the US defense establishment has possession of several of these craft. And this is what forces me to reconsider the view that the phenomena always have an ephemeral, fluid physical phase. Can we trust such a grave allegation?

The sincere answer is: I don’t know. I am impressed by the circumstances of the case; I am struck by the willingness of those involved to double-down under oath; and by their carefulness in following a lawful process. This is all new and inspires some confidence. Yet, they didn’t present any smoking gun. So, all I can say is that I now take the allegation more seriously than before.

And in taking it seriously, I feel compelled to revisit everything I saw or read about the phenomena before, so to reconsider it all under this new light. For instance: might Robert Lazar have been telling the truth all along? Surely his allegations sound a tad less incredible today than they did in 1989. And if he has been telling the truth, what are the implications? What are we to make of it all?

I believe it’s clear—as I argued in Meaning in Absurdity—that the phenomena have been with us since as far back as the beginning of recorded history, and probably much earlier than that. It is therefore unreasonable, in my opinion, to think of UAPs as performing some kind of survey or mapping of our planet and species; any such mission would have been completed long ago, and wouldn’t require the recurring, frequent visiting of UAPs that we witness.

If UAPs are, to some extent, mental projections of our own, then their repeated visits simply reflect ourselves, and will thus continue to recur for as long as we are us. There is no deep mystery here. But if they are solid, concrete technology bringing life from other planets, dimensions or realities here, then we must ask: what makes them keep on coming? What are they trying to do?

Potential planetary surveys can’t explain the visits, for the reasons above. So what could? Well, only one thing comes to my mind: an experiment carried out on Earth at a geological time scale, which requires constant monitoring. I have no idea what that might be, so I can’t make the hypothesis more precise. But some kind of experiment is all I can think of—assuming, that is, that the allegation is true in the first place, which right now I just don’t know to be the case; I don’t even have an opinion on the matter.

Now allow me to say something that you won’t like to hear. Do I think that we have the right to know the truth about UAPs?

Well, if by ‘right’ one means legal right, I don’t know; I am not a lawyer. Only a US lawyer can answer the question in this sense, but there should be a definitive, non-polemical answer. On the other hand, if by ‘right’ we mean ethical right, my answer is: it depends. I’d love to believe that I, along with everybody else, have an extra right—who doesn’t like rights?—particularly because I am very curious about the phenomena. But I am too committed to truth to allow my preferences to dictate my opinions on the matter. I don’t think there is a trivial case to be made here; our potential ‘rights’ are not self-evident. Allow me to elaborate on this with an example.

In a decades-old video called ‘The Lazar Tape and Excerpts from the Government Bible,’ Bob Lazar goes into a fair bit of detail regarding the non-human tech he allegedly helped to reverse engineer. At a superficial level, the material sounds largely coherent (although, at a slightly deeper level, I believe it to be incoherent, as I discuss in the postscript below, which is the reason why I, personally, don't believe Lazar's technical story). I don’t know whether it’s true but, for the sake of argument, let us imagine that it is. Then, if you watch the video, you will see that Lazar is giving everyone—including the Russians and Chinese—a roadmap for figuring out gravity drives, invisibility cloaks, and high-energy beam weapons. The material, superficial as it is, tells everyone what they should look into—starting from element 115 and the relationship between gravity and the strong nuclear force, neither of which is trivial or self-evident—and what problems they should try to solve. This constitutes enormous help: people now know where to start. If that stuff is true, I am horrified that it’s out in the open.

I don’t read any maliciousness in Bob Lazar; at best naiveté. But this doesn’t change the fact that disclosing what he did—again, assuming for the sake of argument that it is true—is atrociously, seismically, catastrophically irresponsible. I feel furious at the defense establishment for the delinquent vetting and security that allowed a kid, with a psychological disposition to sharing information, to have access to that kind of knowledge. For the past 18 months we have been watching the overwhelming level of evil, carnage and destruction that a totalitarian regime in Europe is unleashing upon the continent. Now imagine a Russia with high-energy beam weapons, gravity drives and invisibility cloaks—that would be the end of democracy, personal freedoms and our very way of life. So no, I don’t think it is obvious at all that we have the right to know everything there is to know about the phenomena. In fact, I feel enthusiastically inclined to believe we don’t. Any information that is made public is also made available to those who want to destroy our way of life; regrettably, there is just no way around it.

That’s not to say that some level of carefully redacted disclosure wouldn’t be useful. The mere suspicion that we might not be alone in this universe has already brought the Democrats and Republicans together; imagine what disclosure would do for bringing humanity together. There is much to be gained from it; so much it is hardly imaginable. And thus I do think disclosure should be done. But it should be done responsibly; not because we are psychologically unstable kids that need to be protected from the truth, but because the world is crammed with criminal regimes that would use whatever technical means at their disposal to exploit, and curtail the freedoms of, everybody else. Let us not be naïve here, thinking that disclosure will cause we all, Putin and his cronies included, to hold hands and sing the Kumbaya. The only reason we still enjoy the freedoms and way of life we do is our ability to apply superior military force when threatened. And if the phenomena have demonstrated anything beyond any doubt about the intentions of non-human intelligences, it is that they won’t protect us from ourselves.

Disclosure, when properly done, can significantly advance our culture, science and civilization at large, in almost unimaginable ways. It can open entirely new horizons for human life and aspirations. But we should guard against irresponsible disclosure and the demonization of a defense establishment that, whatever else might be true about it, ultimately protects our freedoms and way of life.

Postscript: Lazar's argument that one needs an element with high atomic number to expose the strong nuclear force beyond the atomic nucleus seems coherent. The claimed relationship between that force and gravity is intriguing. What doesn't seem to add up is talk of amplifying the strong nuclear force with an anti-matter reaction. There he conflates strengthening the nuclear force with energy release, which are fairly different things. The analogy he makes with signal amplification also doesn't add up: amplification is about increasing the amplitude of a pattern, such as that from a radio station. But here he needs to strengthen the force itself, not a particular pattern. It is completely unclear how an anti-matter reaction can amplify the strong nuclear force, as opposed to just releasing energy. Due to this, my opinion about Lazar's technical revelations is that they are bogus (even if the rest of his story turns out to be true), this being the reason why I felt comfortable publishing his old video above.


AI won't be conscious, and here is why (A reply to Susan Schneider)

I have just participated—literally 10 minutes ago as I write these words—in an online debate organized by the IAI, in which Donald Hoffman, Susan Schneider and I discussed the possibility that computers become conscious in the future, with the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). My position is that they won’t. Susan’s position is that they very well may, and Don’s position is that this isn’t the right question to ask.

If you watched the debate live, you know that, at the very end, I wanted to reply to a point made by Susan but couldn’t, since we ran out of time. The goal of this essay is to put my reply on the record in writing, so to take it out of my system. Before I do that, however, I need to give some context to those who didn’t watch the debate live and don’t have a subscription to the IAI to watch it before reading this essay. If you did watch the debate, you can skip ahead to the section ‘My missing reply.”


In a nutshell, my position is that we have no reason to believe that silicon computers will ever become conscious. I cannot refute the hypothesis categorically, but then again, I cannot categorically refute the hypothesis of the Flying Spaghetti Monster either, as the latter is logically coherent. Appeals to logical coherence mean as little in the conscious AI debate as they do in the Flying Spaghetti Monster context. The important point is not what is logically coherent or what can be categorically refuted, but what hypothesis we have good reasons to entertain.

Those who take the hypothesis of conscious AI seriously do so based on an appallingly biased notion of isomorphism—a correspondence of form, or a similarity—between how humans think and AI computers process data. To find that similarity, however, one has to take several steps of abstraction away from concrete reality. After all, if you put an actual human brain and an actual silicon computer on a table before you, there is no correspondence of form or functional similarity between the two at all; much to the contrary. A living brain is based on carbon, burns ATP for energy, metabolizes for function, processes data through neurotransmitter releases, is moist, etc., while a computer is based on silicon, uses a differential in electrical potential for energy, moves electric charges around for function, processes data through opening and closing electrical switches called transistors, is dry, etc. They are utterly different.

The isomorphism between AI computers and biological brains is only found at very high levels of purely conceptual abstraction, far away from empirical reality, in which disembodied—i.e. medium-independent—patterns of information flow are compared. Therefore, to believe in conscious AI one has to arbitrarily dismiss all the dissimilarities at more concrete levels, and then—equally arbitrarily—choose to take into account only a very high level of abstraction where some vague similarities can be found. To me, this constitutes an expression of mere wishful thinking, ungrounded in reason or evidence.

Towards the end of the debate I touched on an analogy. Those who believe in conscious AI tend to ask the following rhetorical question to make their point: “If brains can produce consciousness, why can’t computers do so as well?” As an idealist, I reject the claim that brains produce consciousness to begin with but, for the sake of focusing on the point in contention, I choose to interpret the question in the following way: “If brains are correlated with private conscious inner life, why can’t computers be so as well?” The question I raised towards the end of the debate was an answer to the aforementioned rhetoric: if birds can fly by flapping their upper limbs, why can’t humans fly by doing so as well? The point of this equally rhetorical question, of course, is to highlight the fact that two dissimilar things—birds and humans—simply do not share every property or function (why should they?). So why should brains and computers do?

Susan then took my analogy and gave it a different spin, taking it beyond the intended context and limits (which is the perennial problem with analogies): she pointed out that, if the Wright brothers had believed that only birds can fly, they wouldn’t have bothered to try and build an airplane, which is itself different from a bird. Her point was that one phenomenon—in this case, flight—can have multiple instantiations in nature, in different substrates—namely, a bird and an airplane. So although silicon computers are different from biology, in principle both could instantiate the phenomenon of private conscious inner life. This is a point of logic that I wanted to react to at the end of the debate, but didn’t have time to.

My missing reply

Here’s what I wanted to say at the end of the debate: indeed, we are not logically forced to limit the instantiations of private conscious inner life to a biological substrate alone. But this isn’t the point, as there are a great many silly hypotheses that are also logically—and even physically—coherent, yet obviously shouldn’t be entertained at all (such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or that there is a 19th-century teapot in the orbit of Saturn). The real point is whether we have good reasons to take seriously the hypothesis that private consciousness can correlate with silicon computers. Does the analogy of flight—namely, that airplanes and birds are different but nonetheless can both fly, so private consciousness could in principle be instantiated on both biological and non-biological substrates—provide us with good reasons to think that AI computers can become conscious in the future?

It may sound perfectly reasonable to say that it does, but—and here is the important point—if so, then the same reasoning applies to non-AI computers that exist already today, for the underlying substrate (namely, conducting metal, dielectric oxide and doped semiconducting silicon) and basic functional principles (data processing through electric charge movement) are the same in all cases. There is no fundamental difference between today's 'dumb' computers and the complex AI projected for the future. AI algorithms run on parallel information processing cores of the kind we have had for many years in our PCs (specifically, in the graphics cards therein), just more, faster, more interconnected cores, executing instructions in different orders (i.e. different software). As per the so-called ‘hard problem of consciousness,’ it is at least very difficult to see what miracle could make instructions executed in different orders, or more and faster components of the same kind, lead to the extraordinary and intrinsically discontinuous jump from unconsciousness to consciousness. The onus of argument here is on the believers, not the skeptics.

Even new, emerging computer architectures, such as neuromorphic processors, are essentially CMOS (or similar, using philosophically equivalent process technologies) devices moving electric charges around, just like their predecessors. To point out that these new architectures are analog, instead of digital, doesn’t help either: digital computers move charges around just like their analog counterparts; the only difference is in how information arising from those charge movements is interpreted. Namely, the microswitches in digital computers apply a threshold to the amount of charge before deciding its meaning, while analog computers don’t. But beyond this interpretational step—trivial for the purposes of the point in contention—both analog and digital computers embody essentially the same substrate. Moreover, the operation of both is based on the flow of electric charges along metal traces and the storage of charges in charge-holding circuits (i.e. memories).

So, if you grant Susan’s point that there can be instantiations of private consciousness on different substrates, and that one of these substrates is a silicon computer, then you must grant that today’s ‘dumb’ computers are already conscious (including the computer or phone you are using to read these words). The reason is two-fold: first, the substrate of today’s ‘dumb’ computers is the same as that of advanced AI computers (in both cases, charges move around in metal and silicon substrates); second, whatever change in organization or functionality happens in future CMOS or similar devices, such changes are philosophically trivial for the point in contention, as they cannot in themselves account for the emergence of consciousness from unconsciousness (vis a vis the hard problem). If you are prepared to go this far in your fantastical hypothesizing, then turning off your phone may already be an act of murder.

Alternatively, if today’s computers aren’t plausibly conscious, then neither do we have good reasons to believe that future, advanced AI computers will be, even if Susan’s flight analogy holds. For the point here is not one of logical—or even physical—possibility, but of natural plausibility instead. A 19th-century teapot in the orbit of Saturn is both logically and physically possible (aliens could have come to Earth in the 19th-century, stolen the teapot from someone’s dining room, and then dumped it in the vicinity of Saturn on their way back home, after which the unfortunate teapot got captured by Saturn’s gravity field), but naturally implausible to the point of being dismissible.

Are water pipes conscious too?

You see, everything a computer does can, in principle, be done with pipes, pressure valves and water. The pipes play the role of electrical conduits, or traces; the pressure valves play the role of switches, or transistors; and the water plays the role of electricity. Ohm’s Law—the fundamental rule for determining the behavior of electric circuits—maps one-on-one to water pressure and flow relations. Indeed, the reason why we build computers with silicon and electricity, instead of PVC pipes and water, is that the former are much, much smaller and cheaper to make. Present-day computer chips have tens of billions of transistors, and an even greater number of individual traces. Can you imagine the size and cost of a water-based computer comprising tens of billions of pipes and pressure valves? Can you imagine the amount of energy required to pump water through it? You wouldn't be able to afford it or carry it in your pocket. That’s the sole reason why we compute with electricity, instead of water (it also helps that silicon is one of the most abundant elements on Earth, found in the form of sand). There is nothing fundamentally different between a pipe-valve-water computer and an electronic one, from the perspective of computation. Electricity is not a magical or unique substrate for computation, but merely a convenient one. A wooden tool called an 'abacus' also computes.

With this in mind, ask yourself: do we have good reasons to believe that a system made of pipes, valves and water correlates with private conscious inner life the way your brain does? Is there something it is like to be the pipes, valves and water put together? If you answer ‘yes’ to this question, then logic forces you to start wondering if your house’s sanitation system—with its pipes, valves and water—is conscious, and whether it is murder to turn off the mains valve when you go on vacation. For the only difference between your house’s sanitation system and my imaginary water-based computer is one of number—namely, how many pipes, how many valves, how many liters of water—not of kind or essence. As a matter of fact, the typical home sanitation system implements the functionality of about 5 to 10 transistors.

You can, of course, choose to believe that the numbers actually matter. In other words, you may entertain the hypothesis that although a simple, small home sanitation system is unconscious, if you keep on adding pipes, valves and water to it, at some point the system will suddenly make the jump to being conscious. But this is magical thinking. You'd have to ask yourself the question: how, precisely, does the mere addition of more of the same pipes, valves and water, lead to the magical jump to conscious inner life? Unless you have an explicit and coherent answer to this question, you are merely engaging in hand waving, self-deception, and hiding behind vague complexity.


That there can logically be instantiations of private conscious inner life on different substrates does not provide reason to believe that, although ‘dumb’ computers aren’t conscious, more complex computers in the future, with more transistors and running more complex software, will become conscious. The key problem for those who believe in conscious AI is how and why this transition from unconsciousness to consciousness should ever take place. Susan’s flight analogy does not help here, as it merely argues for the logical possibility of such transition, without saying anything about its natural plausibility.

If, like me, you believe that ‘dumb’ computers today—automata that mechanically follow a list of commands—aren’t conscious, then Susan’s flight analogy gives you no reason to take seriously the hypothesis that future computers—equally made of silicon and moving electric charges around—will become conscious. That they will run more sophisticated AI software only means that they will execute, just as blindly and mechanically as before, a different list of commands. What those computers will be able to do can be done with pipes, pressure valves and water, even though the latter isn't practical.

It is very difficult—if at all possible—to definitely refute someone whose view is agnosticism, or a wait-and-see attitude, since that isn’t a definite position to begin with. So what is there to argue against? “Well, we just don’t know, do we?” is a catch-all reply that can be issued in face of any criticism, regardless of how well articulated it is, for what can we humans—monkeys running around a space rock for less than 300 thousand years—know for sure to begin with? Yet, I feel that I should nonetheless keep on trying to argue against this form of open-mindedness, for there is a point where it opens the doors to utter and pernicious nonsense.

You see, I could coherently pronounce my open-mindedness about the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for we just don’t know for sure whether it exists, do we? For all I know, there is a noodly monster floating around in space, in a higher dimension invisible to us, moving the planets around their orbits with its—invisible—noodly appendages. The evidence is surely consistent with this hypothesis: the planets do move around their orbits, even though no force is imparted on them through visible physical contact. Even stronger, the hypothesis does seem to even explain our observations of planetary movements. And there is nothing logically wrong, or even physically refutable, with it either. So, what do we know? Maybe the hypothesis is right, and thus we should remain open-minded and not arbitrarily dismiss the Monster. Let us all wear an upside-down pasta strainer on our heads! Do you see the point?

No, we have no good reason to believe in conscious AI. This is a fantasy unsupported by reason or evidence. Epistemically, it’s right up there in the general vicinity of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Entertaining conscious AI seriously is counterproductive; it legitimizes the expenditure of scarce human resources—including tax-payer money—on problems that do not exist, such as the ethics and rights of AI entities. It contaminates our culture by distorting our natural sense of plausibility and conflating reality with (bad) fiction. AIs are complex tools, like a nuclear power plant is a complex tool. We should take safety precautions about AIs just as we take safety precautions about nuclear power plants, without having ethics discussions about the rights of power plants. Anything beyond this is just fantastical nonsense and should be treated as such.

Allow me to vent a little more…

I believe one of the unfortunate factors that contribute to the pernicious fiction of conscious AI today is the utter lack of familiarity, even—well, particularly—among highly educated computer scientists, with what computers actually are, how they actually work, and how they are actually built. Generations have now come out of computer science school knowing how to use a voluminous hierarchy of pre-built software libraries and tooling—meant precisely to insulate them from the dirty details we call reality—but not having the faintest clue about how to design and build a computer. These are our ‘computer experts’ today: they are mere power users of computers, knowing precious little about the latter's inner workings. They think entirely in a realm of conceptual abstraction, enabled by tooling and disconnected from the (electrical) reality of integrated circuits (ICs) and hardware. For them, since the CPU—the Central Processing Unit, the computer's 'brain'—is a mysterious black box anyway, it's easy to project all their fantasies onto it, thereby filling the vacuum left open by a lack of understanding with wishful, magical thinking. The psychology at play here has been so common throughout human history that we can consider it banal. On the other hand, those who do know how to build a CPU and a computer as a whole, such as Federico Faggin, father of the microprocessor and inventor of silicon gate technology, pooh-pooh ‘conscious AI’ every bit as much as I do.

Having worked on the design and manufacture of computer ICs for over two decades, I estimate that perhaps only about 2000 people alive today know how to start from sand and end up with a working computer. This is extremely worrisome, for if a cataclysm wipes out our technical literature together with those 2000 people tomorrow, we will not know how to re-boot our technological infrastructure. It is also worrisome in that it opens the door to the foolishness of conscious AI, which is now being actively peddled by computer science lunatics with the letters ‘PhD’ suffixing their names. After all, a PhD in conceptual abstraction is far from a PhD in reality. (On an aside, PhD lunacy is much more dangerous than garden-variety lunacy, for the average person on the streets takes the former, but not the latter, seriously. With two PhDs myself, I may know a thing or two about how lunatics can get PhDs.)

But instead of just criticizing and pointing to problems, I’ve decided to try and do something about it, modest and insignificant as my contributions may be. For almost three years now, I have been designing—entirely from scratch—one complete and working computer per year. I put all the plans, documentation and software up online, fully open source, for anyone to peruse. I hope this makes a contribution to educating people about computers; particularly those computer scientists who have achieved lift-off and now work without friction with reality. Anyone can download those plans—which include gate-level details for how to build the associated custom ICs—and build their computers from scratch. The designs were made to not only work properly, but to also be easy to understand and follow. If I can bring one or two computer scientists back to the solid ground of reality with those designs, I’ll consider my efforts successful.


The silver lining of a terrible year

I don't recall ever feeling so consistently angry and frustrated, for so long, as I have felt in 2022. I thought large-scale war was a 20th century thing, but here we are again, with large parts of Europe gutted by criminal, unjustified, heinous warfare. I have been having a very hard time contemplating this desecration of our continent and the brutalisation of one of our peoples with equanimity. I feel angry from the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep.

I also feel betrayed by a country and a people I used to love, and secretly still do; a country that now openly calls me a satanic, decadent, immoral, depraved, drug-using scumbag; that openly belittles and threatens my people; that makes a point of alienating me and of reminding me that it is pointing nuclear weapons at my backyard. And I feel frustrated with myself, for having been so wrong about this land and, to some extent, this people I used to love and still do.

So, as an exercise to help myself out of this horrific mental space, I will now try to discern the good in an otherwise disastrous year. And I will share this exercise with you in the hope that it might be helpful to you too.

This year has seen the free world go over the hump of the first truly global pandemic. Five years ago we were talking about the catastrophe we would face if a new virus, for which we'd have little immunity, were to quickly spread around the globe through air travel. Many thought of it as a likely scenario for the end of civilisation, and Hollywood portrayed it as such. Ominously enough, in the beginning the pandemic seemed to fit that bill perfectly: it was the nightmare coming true before our terrified eyes.

But governments in the free world, although initially slow to react decisively, quickly stepped up, developed and implemented what has proven to be largely effective strategies. Most importantly, the immense, overwhelming challenge of developing and distributing an effective vaccine for a completely new virus was met in an unbelievably short time. New messenger RNA (mRNA for short) vaccine technology came from idea to global rollout within just months. And the vaccines worked surprisingly well, with very few side-effects, statistically speaking, if compared to the roll-outs of previous vaccines and drugs (I and my partner have had zero side-effects after three doses, with the fourth coming soon). Over a dozen billion vaccine doses have now been administered, which has allowed the free world to reemerge from the worst of the pandemic in 2022. Millions of lives were saved, at the cost of statistically very few collateral losses.

If you had described these events to me three years ago, as a hypothetical scenario, I'd have said that you've been smoking too much weed. What Western societies have accomplished during this pandemic, as our normal lives in 2022 prove, is nothing short of extraordinary. And now, mRNA technology, having been overwhelmingly proven effective and statistically safe at an unprecedented global level, offers amazing new possibilities for fighting many other diseases, including cancer. This is deeply promising news. Out of the misery of the pandemic comes a brand new, uncannily effective weapon against our physical ills. Our governments and companies often get things wrong; sometimes even criminally wrong. But let us celebrate and recognise them when they come through for us like this.

Still on the theme of cancer research, this year has seen two other breakthroughs in effective new therapies. They use the patient's own immune system to attack the cancer, without the poison and side-effects of chemotherapy, radiation, and even surgery. With one of these new therapies, "All 14 patients [of rectal cancer] who were given the new drug ... were found after six months to have no trace of cancer. Researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer center in New York could find no sign of the disease through physical examination, endoscopies, MRIs or other scans." With the other therapy, "A teenage girl's incurable cancer has been cleared from her body in the first use of a revolutionary new type of medicine." For the first time in my adult life, I truly believe we're beginning to unravel the puzzle of cancer and may, still in my life time, find true cures for many common types of cancer, without chemotherapy, surgery or radiation.

Yet the challenges we face go way beyond health care alone. Human-induced climate change, together with nuclear war, are the two greatest threats to civilisation today. Key to resolving the former is the development of an overwhelmingly abundant, practically free, non-polluting source of energy. For not only do we have to stop polluting the atmosphere while burning fossil fuels to produce the energy we currently consume, we need to produce much more energy yet, to enable recycling across the entire value chain, urban vertical farming and water desalination. I discussed this in a previous post.

And so it happens that, in 2022, a major breakthrough in clean energy production has taken place. For the first time, after 70 years trying, scientists have been able to induce nuclear fusion in a laboratory, thereby producing more energy than they had to use to start and maintain the fusion process. Yes, this doesn't mean that there will be a fusion reactor producing your home electricity tomorrow, but the significance of the accomplishment cannot be overestimated. Scientists have now proven the principle, which is usually the most challenging part. From now on it's a matter of engineering: scaling, cost reduction, deployment, distribution, etc. Make no mistake, these are still formidable challenges. But history has shown, again and again, that once we have a proof of principle, the engineering steps follow in surprisingly rapid succession to make the technology economically viable. We've seen it with airplanes, semiconductors, the Internet, mobile telephony, and so forth. So I, for one, do not dismiss the possibility, raised by the US government, that fusion reactors will be deployed in a decade. And even if it turns out to be three decades, we may still be just in time. The holy grail of clean, abundant, cheap energy production and sustainable living has never been so tangible.

These are epoch-making breakthroughs, and would by themselves make 2022 a year that future generations will celebrate as seminal to human wellbeing. But there's something yet more significant: the free world's outstanding reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Who would have imagined, just 12 months ago, that a notoriously dysfunctional European Union, a rusty and defunded NATO, and an American government facing historic levels of domestic unrest, would close ranks and rise to the challenge so quickly, and so effectively? The magnitude of what has been achieved is nothing short of seismic.

Let's take one example: for 30 years Germany had believed that the best way to deal with Russia was to establish so many links of economic cross-dependence that conflict would become impossible, due to overwhelming shared interests. Their industrial base, the biggest in Europe, thus became willingly dependent on cheap Russian gas and oil. Their military spending was notoriously low, since economic cross-dependencies were supposed to have circumvented any conceivable military threat from the East. And Russia was also a major export destination for many German goods, not the least of which were cars.

In 2022, within a few short months, German geopolitical and economic doctrine and infrastructure were turned on their heads. As I write this, Germany and Europe as a whole are importing no more gas from Russia. Alternative sources of LNG have been found and set up, and the associated logistics put in place. Germany's military budget shot up above 2% of GDP, as per NATO norms. Germany also came through and is now exporting weapons to help Ukraine defend itself, despite 80 years of a pacifist policy and cultural consensus that precluded that. These are seismic shifts for Germany, downright unbelievable in such a short span of time. And they represent an enormous economic sacrifice that the German people and government were overwhelmingly willing to make, in the name of freedom. How remarkable.

But what happened goes much beyond Germany. The West has come together in a manner very few of us would have thought possible. The speed and coordination with which the economic, political, military and logistic challenges of helping Ukraine and deterring Russia have been collectively addressed is awe-inspiring. For instance, despite fears that Europe wouldn't have enough gas to warm our homes, our gas reserves are now above average level. Our governments have, somehow, performed the miracle of radically restructuring our entire energy infrastructure within months, while helping one of our peoples fight a brutal war against a terrorist aggressor. And it's not just governments: the private sector, too, made the voluntary choice to write off tens of billions of investment capital to leave Russia, instead of helping their economy fuel a criminal invasion. Let the cynics digest that.

We got so used to normality in the West that we may have difficulty seeing just how extraordinarily... well, difficult it has been to secure that normality today. I'm still saving energy at home for moral reasons, but if I wanted to, I could run my thermostat at its usual level. Nothing collapsed. Even the energy price increases are now capped by the Dutch government. And despite not having applied for it, even I, who can afford the current prices, am getting money back from the government to help offset expenses. Moreover, inflation in other sectors of the economy is, somehow, declining, despite a large-scale war in our continent upsetting just about every conceivable cog in the value chain. This is extraordinary. What our governments have managed to secure is worthy of at least a sincere round of applause and gratitude.

2022 has shown the world that democracies not only work, they work better. Free governments work better. The peoples of the free world come together when things get serious. International cooperation among them is truly effective. And let's not forget: our militaries and military industrial complexes, which were much maligned before this year's war (something I admit to have been guilty of myself), have proven their worth and ability to defend our values against even the biggest foes. I am deeply thankful we have them.

Yet, none of the above is truly the greatest silver lining of 2022. That honour has got to go to the baptism of fire, the coming of age of the free world's newest, probably most vibrant and strongest democracy: Ukraine. The Ukrainian nation, its unique character, founding story, values and cultural cohesion have now been forged in the crucible of war. They can never be undone. Ukraine is a flower of freedom blossoming in the fires of hell. What the Ukrainians are doing is a formidable lesson to all of us in the free world: they remind us of the true worth and price of freedom, which many of us take for granted (I did, too, only a few months ago). Their struggle is awe-inspiring and epoch-defining; their light, the shiniest beacon of the free world, which will project its illuminating power forward for many decades to come. Their blue and yellow will reinvigorate Europe's flag for generations.

May 2023 bring them victory and an end to their suffering. And may all of us, myself included, never lose the capacity to discern the silver lining of history through the brutal fog of war.


Free speech must have limits, lest democracy is doomed

Since Elon Musk's chaotic takeover of Twitter, influential voices have called for a form of "free-speech absolutism," a term coined by Musk himself. Influential podcaster Lex Fridman, for instance, recently tweeted: "Trump is back. Freedom of speech in action." The idea here is that we must have the right to say just about anything we want, and that no crime can be committed by speech alone. Patrick Brauckmann went as far as to state to me, publicly, that "Freedom of speech does include & mean the freedom to call for the end of freedom" (my emphasis). In other words, our beloved freedom of speech is so invaluable that one must have the right to use it so to end, well, our invaluable freedom of speech.

(The statement, in the tweet above, that I claimed to be the arbiter of law and truth is a flat-out lie, ostensibly protected by free speech.)

The first thing to notice about this surprising trend is that it seems, at first sight, to be the ultimate reification of freedom: we must stick to freedom even if it means putting freedom itself at considerable risk. And I believe that the intentions of some of the (naive) people calling for this are, in fact, sincere. But the flawed reasoning behind it is so severe it borders on insanity.

To see why, simply consider the following few things that, under free-speech absolutism, would be protected by law: the freedom to lie, mislead, subvert, threaten, intimidate, to call for the bullying of vulnerable individuals or groups, to call for genocide, for crimes, libel, sedition, and so on. Should these be protected by freedom of speech?

In a democracy, every freedom comes hand-in-hand with responsibility. The freedom to speak—a motor action like walking or pulling a trigger—is no different. It is as insane to make speech legally untouchable as it would be to do so for pulling a trigger; for the consequences can be entirely equivalent. As a matter of fact, historically speaking, speech is considerably more dangerous than pulling a trigger, as it can potentially affect many more lives.

Clearly, crimes and morally indefensible actions can be carried out by speech alone; they should never fall under the umbrella of protection provided by freedom of speech. This is why most civilised countries have laws against, e.g., false advertising, online bullying, intimidation, libel, sedition, and so on. It is absolutely nonsensical and supremely dangerous to over-interpret freedom of speech in such a manner that demagogic propaganda, public misinformation, intimidation and sedition become rights.

Even when freedom of speech does apply, one's freedom to speak their mind does not translate into another's obligation to amplify or provide a platform for it. Even if toxic individuals using a social media platform have the right to say some of the things they say, such right does not translate into the social media platform's obligation to host their speech. And here, ethics and moral values come into play.

But many of the free-speech absolutists out there interpret the right to speak so broadly that it translates into the obligation by others to amplify morally and legally unacceptable nonsense. They do exactly that when they consider e.g. Twitter's original decision to exclude some toxic individuals from its platform a form of censorship. This is itself dangerous misinformation, for no private individual or organisation is required by law to host, amplify or provide a platform for everything everyone wants to say. Instead, individuals and organisations have the freedom to follow their own priorities and moral compass when deciding who they want to collaborate with or give a voice to. And that is protected by the law.

In his book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper discusses the 'paradox of tolerance': if a society is tolerant without limits, thereby not curtailing the actions of the intolerant in its midst, its ability to be tolerant is eventually hijacked, subverted, and ultimately destroyed by the intolerant. In other words, tolerant societies must not tolerate the intolerant, or tolerance will die. The same can be said of freedom in general, and freedom of speech in particular: an absolutist form of free speech will lead to the end of freedom.

And this is why free-speech absolutism is internally contradictory. Those calling for it are effectively calling for the end of free speech itself. History has an overwhelming precedent for it: on the 5th of March of 1933, the nazi party took part in free, democratic, multi-party federal elections in Germany. Through a combination of what was then highly-innovative propaganda methods, intimidation campaigns carried out through publicly-spoken threats, and endless misleading and false public statements—that is, the criminal subversion of free speech—the nazi party came to power. The next multi-party federal elections in Germany took place only in 1990. In the interim, tens of millions of people were murdered worldwide as a direct result of the 1933 election, Stalinism unfolded, half of Europe lost its freedom for decades, and the cold war was fought at great expense for all parties involved. That is what you get with absolutist freedom of speech.

The very call for absolutist free speech is a subversion of freedom. If anything can be publicly said without legal consequences or ethical oversight—whether it is true or false, productive or criminal—then nothing that is ever said can ever count; nothing can ever be taken seriously or relied upon. Public discourse and debate become meaningless, eventually die, and, with them, democracy. As a matter of fact, this is precisely what modern Russian propaganda tries to achieve, as explained by political scientist Dr. Vlad Vexler in this extremely important video. And just like in Russia, doing this may be a deliberate attempt by some interests in the West (and abroad) to lay the groundwork for an authoritarian take-over of Western societies, under the guise of—of all things—defending freedom. The perniciousness and vileness of such an attempt is sickening.

We must not be naive, lest we lose our way of life. We must not allow free speech to be subverted. An often unspoken truth at the present historical juncture is that democracy has become a threat to many established interests within the West itself, for cultural and demographic trends mean that groups who have always had their hands in the levers of power may no longer do so in the near future. What better way to avoid this than to undermine democracy from within, by subverting the democratic process itself, while shouting to the four winds the limitless applicability of free speech? So the next time you hear a call for absolutist free speech, ask yourself whether it really is a defence of freedom, or perhaps precisely the opposite; a wolf dressed in sheep's clothes.

Why the West needs Ukraine

With the geopolitical discourse in the West revolving around how much Ukraine needs our weapons and economic support, it becomes increasingly clear to me that the other half of this relationship is just as pressing, just as urgent, and just as vital: the West's very survival may depend on what Ukraine is inadvertently teaching us. This may sound counterintuitive at first, but it's compelling once you see it.

The world today is almost incommensurable with what it was only three years ago, prior to the pandemic's start. Back then, globalisation was taken for granted; Russia and China were so economically intertwined with the West that a hot conflict seemed remote and implausible; working from home was an exceptional luxury granted to very few; economic activity was tightly tied to commutes and air travel. Who would have imagined that, only three years later, Europe would be buying no gas or oil from Russia, business would routinely be conducted remotely, globalisation would come to an end, geopolitics would regain centre stage, and the spectre of nuclear holocaust would once again loom large?

In that ancient world of 2019 and earlier, the advantages of a democratic system of government based on individual freedom were being questioned. The four years of government-by-tweet during the Trump administration, with its eccentricities and unpredictability, and the chaos surrounding Brexit left many wondering if peoples could be trusted with choosing governments. Democracies looked disorderly, weak and unstable. By contrast, the clinical and sanitised veneer of authoritarian systems, such as the Chinese and Russian, looked dependable, efficient and trustworthy. Putin had brought an end to the chaotic Yeltsin years, delivering stability to a resurgent Russia, while Xi presided over perennial economic growth and ever flashier mega-projects.

And so it was that many in the West—painful as it is to admit it, myself included—began to wonder if democracies weren't too unreliable to be sustainable on the long run; whether populations at large—as opposed to experts—really could be trusted to make reasonable choices for their future. A political minority sensed opportunity and openly began to schmooze with authoritarian regimes. On the extreme of this spectrum, immature demagogues—such as Trump in the USA, Le Pen in France and Baudet in the Netherlands—lavished praise on the strongmen of Russia, China and—incredibly enough—even North Korea. Sycophancy towards dictators wasn't shameful or disgraceful; it even looked fashionable and avant-garde.

And then it happened: Russia actually invaded a neighbouring country in the most heinous way imaginable; war crimes started promptly; civilian populations were routinely targeted; and Europe descended once again into the darkness of large-scale warfare. Sympathetic as I originally was to Russia's case against NATO expansion, I still was caught off-guard by the invasion, for I could never have imagined that a seemingly rational dictator, such as Putin, would put geopolitical abstraction above the well-being of the people of Ukraine, let alone the Russian-speaking amongst them.

As the war raged in Europe, China's traditional system of leadership rotation every eight years—meant to prevent a cult of personality, or the dominance of personal agendas over the prosperity of the country as a whole—seamlessly came to an end. Xi now amasses more power than any of his predecessors, bringing China in-line with the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea; what a cheerful club.

Suddenly, in the space of only a few months, what had been unthinkable became a palpable and undeniable reality: Russia proved itself to indeed be willing to invade European countries, and China proved itself to be just a vile dictatorship threatening its vibrant democratic neighbour, Taiwan. In addition, the sanitised veneer of the Russian and Chinese systems was eaten away by the acid of war: instead of the "3D-chess player" he was thought to be, Vladimir Putin turns out to be an extremely incompetent leader; a true loser. Throughout 2022, he has not missed a single chance to make the worst possible decision for himself and Russia. And Xi hasn't exactly demonstrated astuteness with his major economic and public health mismanagements.

The Russian army, far from the sleek image of modernisation it has cultivated for years, turns out to be a bottomless pit of near-comical levels of incompetence and corruption. Their hardware doesn't work. Their industry is incapable of mobilising, to the point that mighty Russia now buys armaments from the likes of North Korea and Iran (and re-sells consumer robots bought from AliExpress as high-tech military gear). We've always known that, aside from extraction (that is, pulling things from the ground and then selling them), the only thing Russia could make were arms; what we didn't know is that even that they can't do properly.

China didn't fare much better over the past few months. As it turns out, the chaotic Western response to COVID was far, far superior to China's prompt and high-resolve approach based on the curtailment of individual freedoms. The West is now largely out of the pandemic, while China is still stuck in endless lockdowns and economic meltdown. Their vaccines don't work, and neither do their public health policies. Their unwillingness to support Russia betrays profound fear that, if the West were to impose on China the same sanctions it has imposed on Russia, China's economy would collapse. And indeed it would, for China is entirely dependent on the system of globalisation hitherto maintained by the West (particularly the USA). Without it, China simply cannot exist in its present form.

So much for the inferiority of the 'chaotic' and 'unstable' democratic system. And so much for our trust that autocratic states, such as Russia and China, could perhaps still be reliable partners. Nonetheless, the virus of dictator-sycophancy and wanna-be totalitarianism, planted in the West by the likes of Trump, Le Pen and Baudet, continues to fester. These immature demagogues have their public images invested in their 'strong-hand' affinities, and they lead large movements. That is what constitutes the greatest threat to the West; not Russia or China. The threat is an infection festering within, not an outside enemy. And here is where we need Ukraine.

Ukraine has been teaching us not only that freedom can win, even in the face of long odds, but—and more importantly—that freedom can never be taken for granted; that we have to nurture and defend it, if we want to live as we do; that, although divided in our particular political positions, we must be united, as a society, in our resolve to preserve democracy, our institutions, values and the rule of law, and never tolerate those who try to undermine them. Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine is showing us how desirable freedom is, that a price of the magnitude they are paying for it is still worth paying. They are a beacon of light we dismiss at our own peril.

We have forgotten how important freedom is. We now take it for granted, having no memory of what it is like to live without it. This is thus a moment and a place of great danger in our collective psyche. Three generations after the end of the Second World War—a war started by a criminal dictatorial regime that devastated the European continent—Europeans and Americans have grown lax and complacent. Three generations have now come of age in an environment where personal freedom is as common as the air we breath. Extraordinarily, we're no longer alarmed enough when a Trump lavishes praise on a Putin, and then takes home top secret nuclear documents after his term (for what purpose?); when parts of the Western news media defend Russia even after the latter's repeated war crimes are splashed on television screens every evening, for months on end; when apologetics toward Europe's fascist and nazi past become normalised; when the argument that prosperity and efficiency can only be realised at the cost of individual freedom starts to sound reasonable. We have lost touch with what it feels like to lose freedom, and what it takes to preserve it.

When individual freedom—individual life itself—is not valued, men with wives, children and careers are sent untrained, unarmed, unclothed and unfed to the frontline, to serve as cannon fodder; people with families and dreams are locked down at home—or, worse, at their work places—like criminals, for three years, because their government chose that as the most cost-effective way to deal with a pandemic; ethnic minorities in their millions are forced into labour camps for crimes they might commit in the future. When geopolitical abstraction and the power agenda of dictators win over personal freedom, we become numbers, statistics, insects in an ant or termite colony. Life becomes banal and cheap. Not only can this happen, it is happening right now, to people just like you and me, a mere 18-hour drive away from the place where I am writing this essay. Do we want to live like that?

Ukraine has woken me up. And I'm sure they have awakened many others to the threats to our values and way of life in our midst. But much still needs to be done to curb the sleek and sanitised image of authoritarianism that continues to seduce Western populations; much still needs to be done to reveal its true, ugly, treasonous face. We need Ukrainians to constantly remind us of both the desirability and cost of freedom, and to prevent us from ever taking it for granted. We need them to remind us of who we are, and the price we paid to get here. They know what it takes to be free, and what it feels like to lose one's freedom; they know the traps and pitfalls. And thus we need them as the custodians of freedom in the collective Western mind. We need their stories, their examples, their memories, their articles, essays and books, their plays, their art, their speeches, their very presence in the midst of Western society. And we may need them more than they need us at this point.

Glory to Ukraine; Glory to the heroes.

And glory to freedom; Glory to those who defend it.