Understanding = Knowledge + Connection

Something we have been wrestling with at work. Finding places where workers really need to understand to do their jobs well is not as easy as we thought. This in the context of over 18 million US workers participating in Knowledge and Technology-Intensive industries.

This post below from KMWorld’s Dec 2015 issue struck a chord.

Understanding = Knowledge + Connection

Understanding is about seeing things connected into larger contexts. That’s why understanding admits of degrees—I can understand a little about something or understand a lot—whereas knowledge is generally binary: You know or you don’t know…. Understanding is not a narrowing of knowledge. It is an enhancement of it: knowledge + connection.

Intelligence -> Conscience

In Sapiens,  Mr. Harari makes the argument that the ongoing development of humans, leading to the creation of AI technology will bring about a divergence between intelligence and consciousness (conscience?). This is also the idea elaborated on in more ominous terms by Mr. Bostrom in his book Superintelligence.

Ruminating on the above got me thinking about the ideas described by John Erskine in the early nineteen hundreds “The Moral Obligation To Be Intelligent”. It is a short essay in 5 delightful chunks. With World War I horribly close, he made one of the most civilized arguments I have read – intelligence is a virtue we are responsible to develop in ourselves.

I subscribe to his views and believe that our collective conscience is directly linked to the development of the faculty we call intelligence. For this to be the case however, we will need to address an issue which may be a lot more problematic now than it was in  Mr. Erskine’s time. We need to radically expand our notion of intelligence from simple numeric characterizations (for example, IQ metric), to a more nuanced multi-dimensional description, of the likes offered by Howard Gardner.

Standardized test driven ideas of intelligence are perhaps damaging our societies and culture more pervasively than AI. Prevailing models of intelligence are also to blame for the lack of imagination in teaching and learning – in both human and machine varieties. The tendency to discretize and quantify what is to be learnt about ourselves and our relationship with the world is more harmful than we can imagine. This is certainly a threat.

The etymology of the word “Conscience” as described in an essay by Ms. Korsgaard, a Professor of philosophy at Harvard, hints at the far from adversarial relationship between intelligence/knowledge and morality:

… Latin “conscientia,” a direct translation of the Greek “syneidesis.” This ranges in meaning from being aware of something (hence our “consciousness”) to “knowing something in common with” someone

She concludes the essay with a point, referring to Nietzsche and Freud, that I think is the other pole in the argument between intelligence and morality that I started this post with:

… the vindication of our moral nature depends on whether the self-mastery which we get from conscience can be detached from social and parental authority, and exercised instead in the name of a set of sane and realistic standards derived from reason

We could end the topic where she does and we are already less confident that intelligence is opposed to morals. However, rather than rely on ill defined terms such as ‘sane’ and ‘realistic’ we should go further.

There is an urgent need today for Mr. Erskine’s criticism of the still-live-and-kicking Anglo-Saxon suspicion of intelligence in favor of morals. He reminds us of the ancient Greek tradition – where intelligence and morality were synergistically responsible for the civilized growth of a human. While he focuses on the Western tradition, I would like to add that his general theme is not divergent from the emphasis on concentrated, contemplative and dispassionate study one finds in other Eastern traditions, say in the Buddhist texts. The ancient Indians, also, lauding ritualistic but comparable forms of studious practice, called their oldest texts Veda – Knowledge

I think the suspicion of artificial intelligence being popularized by some loud voices is misguided. We should instead be remediating and expanding our notion of human intelligence. The machines we create will follow consequentially. We can then fearlessly encourage the development of intelligence as enthusiastically as possible.

Reminding us of the arguments made by John Erskine in 1915, this is my contribution to the Human Vs AI debate – .

  1. Intelligence (of the Gardner variety) connects our experience to those of others, the environment and history.
  2. Taken to its limits, by artificial or natural means, will lead to Morality – allowing us to be con scientia (with knowledge).

Intelligence (of all kinds) is Good.



1907, “the action of seeing by means of Hertzian waves or otherwise, what is existing or happening at a place concealed or distant from the observer’s eyes” [OED] – http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/television

We saw the Shanghai Circus yesterday. Humans performing at extremes of our species capability. We were thoroughly entertained. The program was a ceaseless embodiment of precision, endurance, strength, concentration and skill, the like of which I have rarely seen.


Yet, I wondered if I was alone in feeling distant from this unimaginably wonderful spectacle. We applauded, oohed and ahed, but yet from afar.

Without first-hand experience that allows us to, at least, metaphorically relate and engage with what enters our field of perception – can we truly appreciate peak performances?

In a world where specialists excellently perform while others audit: Are we increasingly forced to cognize experience as if from a distance? Are we ailing from Television?

I am trying to learn how to do a handstand. It is unimaginably hard. This gave me a better appreciation of my afternoon with the Shanghai Circus. My skill as a member of the audience was still far, far from what the show and the performers deserved.

Maybe I can be better. Engaged learning and an amateur’s willingness to physically try related experiences.

Growing knowledge (of the full body kind) – needs alertness to understand and a bias to experiment and act. Perhaps these help as antidotes. So we don’t live through Television.

Liquid nourishment for the soul

book – to drink your way to wisdom. When you share a drink you partake in the oneness of human history – raise a glass and you time travel to the days of the Sumerians. How have I missed reading this book until now?

6 drinks: Beer, Wine, Spirits, Coffee, Tea and Coca Cola.

Wonderful insights like –

  1. Beer allowed humans to break the tyranny of proximity to running water
  2. Wine’s crucial role in religion and thought (symposia!)
  3.  Spirits were the lightest way to transport alcohol on ships
  4. Coffee and Tea fueled business people, scientists, philosophers (cafe culture)
  5. Coca Cola a truly global unifier