Happy New Year of the Dog! Rather than seek the advice of a fortune teller about what lies in store for me this year, I decided to see what the I Ching (易經) had to say.
Generally known in English as the Book of Changes, the I Ching is an ancient Chinese divination manual that was composed over 2,000 years ago during the Western Zhou period from 1,000 – 750 BC.
Despite all the mystical ether that surrounds it, the I Ching is based on a mathematical platform that can be likened to the artificial intelligence systems that we are developing today. It enables you to collect fragmentary data by casting yarrow stalks or (in more modern times) coins; to codify the data by converting the numbers generated from the yarrow stalk/coin cast into a hexagram using a mathematical table; to determine the meaning of this data by consulting the judgements on the character; to interpret the meaning of the data using the deep learning provided by the numerous commentaries that have been published about it; and finally to set a course of action based on all your findings.
The I Ching process of divination is quite easy to follow once you get the hang of it. First, you toss three coins six times to construct your hexagram. Heads counts as three, tails as two. If the total value is an odd number you draw a broken line, and if it’s an even number you draw an unbroken one. You must also build your hexagram from bottom up and should also note down the actual number generated by the coin toss.
This morning, for example, I tossed four sevens followed by two eights to produce this hexagram:
By consulting the I Ching hexagram table, I was able to see that the three first three lines form the lower trigram representing heaven (乾 qián or 天/tiān) and the second three lines comprise the upper trigram representing quake or thunder (震/zhèn). These two trigrams come together to generate hexagram 34 (大壯 /dà zhuàng), which means variously “great might”, “power of the great”, or “the great invigorating”.
Interpreting the meaning of the hexagram is where the real fun starts – not to mention providing lucrative opportunities for fortune tellers to charge extortionate rates for providing interpretations for their deep knowledge of the voluminous commentaries that have been written on this subject. Sadly, I will probably have to wait until my next lifetime to read these in Chinese, so I mainly rely on the excellent translation and analysis of the I Ching written by John Minford for this part.
Minford likens the image of hexagram 34 to a ram with horns. The four unbroken yang (male) lines underneath suggest an abundance of strength while the two broken yin (female) lines above them suggest that it should be applied judiciously and only in the pursuit of what is right. In other words, you should use the power you possess responsibly and not allow your ambitions to let you get ahead of yourself.
Although this interpretation doesn’t promise me limitless fame and fortune during the year of the dog, it did encourage me to think more carefully about the goals I have set myself and more clearly define the steps I need to take in order to achieve them.
Perhaps not uncoincidentally but certainly uncomfortably, it also highlighted a pattern of behavior that has led to a lot of unfinished projects in the past that I need to confront. Great ideas are useless without proper implementation!
While the I Ching may not have the same levels of scale and technological sophistication as the AI systems we are building today, it does serve a similar function of capturing, processing, and transforming data into an actionable format. It’s still up to us to decide not just whether but also how we want to make the best use of it.