Automation and the coming productization of humanity

As I sit here writing these words, I have myriad tools at my disposal. I have automatic spell check, I have formatting tools, grammar checks, I can easily bold or underline with the touch of a key. Tools that publishers even 30 years ago would have killed for.

But I have more.

I also have the ability to search for almost anything. I can type a few words into Google and find the prices of whale oil in the 19th century.

Just think about that for a second. Within the span of about 30 years we took a process that would involve me doing days of research in a library, then hours of editing and writing, submitting the documentation, editing it again, sending it to press, putting it out for delivery and getting it into your hands… to a process that takes a few minutes.

That is staggering progress.

But it’s just the beginning.

Companies like Automated Insights promise to push the envelope such that most articles don’t even need the human to do any of the work. Actually, this is already happening, if you Google “This story was generated by automated insights” you will find press releases like this one which were done completely without human interaction.

Ok… you might not be impressed because obviously creativity is well off in the future. If you think so read this poem and be honest about how easily you can tell it was written by AI.

Flow Machines is a project which is attempting to have AI compose music. I think this area still needs a lot of advancement and the criticism is that all it REALLY does is look at millions of different types of music to look for certain patterns, then puts them into different combinations and tries to find ones that seem to “work.” But really… if we look at the evolution of classical music from Bach to Rachmaninoff, aren’t they more or less doing the same thing? Borrowing from previous structures, weaving in the local folk tunes and then discovering new forms that seem to resonate in our minds when we hear them? They just do it slowly and clumsily and we like to think of that pain as being critical to the process… well… maybe it is, maybe not.

I think all this stuff is neat and it makes for interesting headlines, but where is it going?

To answer that question I want to take us back many thousands of years to when humans were first getting started.

Imagine a time when the sky was pitch black at night and the eerie animal sounds echoing in the blackness mixed and mingled with our minds to create the early myths and dreams. During the day we would have to spend nearly all our energy on survival. We had to hunt by hand, tear apart the meat, create the fire, cook the meat and eat it. We had to pick the berries and the fruit (after finding or growing it). We had to till the soil, find and carry the water, build the shelters… all by hand. The work was relentless and the prospects for survival were dubious.

Over time we learned that some of this work could be improved by making use of technology. We learned that some animals could be tamed, we learned that round trees could be used to make moving heavy stone easier. We built aqueducts to carry our water in and sewers to carry our waste out. We learned about boiling water to kill germs and we learned that the cure for bacteria was mold.

Up until very recently the advances in technology have been our aids. Our relationship with technology was primarily the technology doing and us telling… doing it better, cheaper, safer, faster.

What we have today is a bit different.

When I step into my car and go somewhere the first thing I do is type the address into my GPS. The car (or phone) usually quickly tells me the directions that I should follow to go there. In essence the relationship is that the car is telling ME what to do and I am merely the executor of it’s commands. Now you might say… “BS Hermann, YOU told it where YOU wanted to go.”

But did I? If I want to figure out WHERE I want to go, how do I do that? Well, I once again go to Google and type in something like “indoor activities for children” click on maps and boom; a bunch of things to choose from. I could say that *I* originally decided that indoor children’s activities is what *I* wanted to do and that was the real active choice… the rest was the computer passively aiding me… but I’m not so sure our relationship with technology is so clear cut.

My choices are shaped by technology to an alarming degree. With a bit of information about my tastes and preferences AI can predict which things I like and dislike. Indeed this is the basis behind most of the consumption technologies in the world today. Removing human biases from the evaluation process proves to improve the predictive results of what people will “like.”

I believe this will be an underlying trend over the next few decades. The new advances in mechanization will be computers telling us what to do and we will take on the roles of executors. I think stories like Watson diagnosing cancer in a particular case in Japan better than doctors; will become more frequent.

It’s worth digging in a bit here to understand WHY Watson was able to do this.

Diagnosing cancer is a very complex problem. Symptoms can look like other diseases, the patient’s genetics and history are significant, similar cases can be helpful in finding patters and the amount of data coming from research is staggering. It’s impossible for a human to have all that information in their minds and then process it in an efficient way. Previously AI would “brute force” it’s way to finding solutions to puzzles with known complexity.

Watson and the new AI technology is doing something very different. It is able to learn how to pattern match based on looking at millions of units of information across different dimensions and then figuring out which answer has the highest probability of being correct. It can then have that probability tested in the real world and generate data that it can use to improve it’s diagnosis in the future. This is what human oncologists do… but they are much slower and less accurate. Of course, humans are creative and have “instincts” and can thus short cut many potential possibilities that are “silly.” But Watson and AI like it can learn those as well… without having the biases and emotional limitations. They don’t need sleep or get hungry or have arguments with their spouses. Of course, they probably COULD if that helped improve diagnostic outcomes.

If you think this is limited to using the past to understand the present… that is only the beginning. Back in 2009, an AI system use basic math and huge data sets to “discover” the laws of motion.T

oday, there is lots of research into prediction. For example, this AI tries to generate video that will predict what happens next. In this system there is a so called “adversarial” process in place. One AI attempts to predict what will happen and the other tries to determine if it looks real or fake. By taking data of what really happened both the prediction AI and the evaluation AI can improve their accuracy… all without any human intervention.

Let’s really stretch possibilities here for a second.
With this kind of massive data set, adversarial networks, random tinkering, complete spectrum analysis (remember, AI can see EVERYTHING not just the limited colors we can see) what is possible?

Well… maybe AI can discover a cure for diseases. By having access to humans to experiment on, past data about a disease and access to unlimited chemicals to mix and match; it’s entirely possible.

AI could discover new recipes. By mixing all the possible ingredients and comparing that against data sets of what flavors come from where, what mixes are preferred and how they interact; AI could one day generate recipes… oh wait… that already happened, you can pick it up on Amazon here.

Perhaps AI could create the next breakthrough in computers. Or figure out how to make our screens bigger, more flexible, more durable.

Maybe it could help us figure out how to explore space or break through the speed of light.

Who knows.

Indeed, when compared to creating a new digital device or breaking Einstein’s laws of physics, writing this article seems trivial. It seems to me that in the coming decades there may be little work in content creation by humans. Perhaps I would need to create a theme or a series of interests so that the AI has something to start with, but I can imagine it might be able to generate those on it’s own as well.

What *I* have to do is consume the content and render my verdict. Do I “like” it or “ignore” it. Based on the the AI can learn what humans like me enjoy and what we don’t. But really… that’s kind of what Bloggers do today anyway… just much more slowly and less accurately.

The role of humans in the centuries to come may very well be consumers and products. In order for AI to advance it needs to have an external reality to bounce things off. That is, until it figures out that improving lives of humans might not be the best goal. As long as AI is focused on making our lives, better, easier, faster, safer… I can imagine a world where humans are essentially products which AI producers trade and compete for. We would basically be real world sims.

If AI eventually correctly interprets evolutionary history, it’s entirely possible it will quite rationally conclude that humans are just another species in the long chain of life over the years. While the extinction of Dinosaurs was a boon for Mammals, I’m not sure the Dinosaurs saw things the same way. Perhaps AI spending all of the worlds resources to keep humans satisfied and safe will act as a limitation on evolution. The next logical step is to just get rid of that problem altogether… in the same way that we have wiped out many species that got in our way.

It’s a scary thought, and not as far off in terms of science fiction as we would like to think. We always like to imagine the future in terms of how *WE* will be part of it, but it’s equally, or perhaps more, likely that the future will be without us at all.

*This article was not generated by AI, yet….*

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Why do you believe what you believe (about Trump and Clinton)

I want you to stop reading this and write down two things… Just open up notepad, or get a pen and paper.

I want you to write down what you think about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Don’t overthink it, if you think Trump is a racist write that. If you think Hillary is a liar, write that.

Then I want you to write down WHY you believe that. Try and be as specific as possible. If Trump is a racist, why? What did he say? What did he do? When did he say and do those things? Where did you hear about it?

Now do the same for Clinton. You think she screwed up with her email server? Ok. Why? You think she caters to Wall Street and is in the pocket of big banks… fine. How come? Where did you hear about that?

I did this myself and what I found out was I actually have FAR more confidence in my conclusions than my underlying information justifies.

I didn’t fully trust Clinton because of the private email server stuff as well as her connections to Wall Street, her high income, prior real estate dealings. I thought she sounded a bit overly aggressive on one hand and also kind of “fake woman of the people.”

For Trump it was much stronger. I thought he was a bigot, a cheat, a self serving arrogant promoter preying on people’s fear and ignorance. I know about Trump university (from reading articles somewhere?), I know about him wanting to build a wall (from his website), his desire to deport Muslims (from retweets and articles).

To my shock and surprise I could really not really recall specifics. I hadn’t read any of Clinton’s emails that are available to see WHAT she said. I went to Trump’s site and checked out his policies and read some articles online, but I hadn’t really dug deep into things he had written (now or before), looking at in depth interviews… sure I’ve seen debates and collections of public appearances, but nothing super deep. My conclusions were strong, but my evidence was superficial at best.

Now consider this.

Try and recall WHERE you got that information from and who wrote it? Was it an online newspaper? Was it a series of retweets? Was it facebook shares in your stream… if so, where did THEY come from? What was the position or agenda (if any) of the person who created this material?

I actually could tell you almost nothing about any of that. I have no idea who wrote what about the people that are running for president so I couldn’t tell you if THEY are “good” or “bad.”

What I DID learn is that I have massive confirmation bias. I THINK that I have deep knowledge about things I care about a lot, but I don’t.

Now… I know that there are people who follow these things closely and know A LOT about the candidates, especially the one they like. But I think they probably know A LOT LESS about the candidate they don’t like; and I suspect that there is even stronger confirmation bias going on.

The vast amount of information available combined with the advanced technology to segment and search makes it possible to paint nearly any picture of reality you care for.

Imagine your own situation.

Let’s say that a large group of well paid, super motivated and highly intelligent people wanted to paint you in a certain light. Within their reach is ALL the information about you that exists. All the things you buy and sell, the places you’ve worked and people you worked with. Maybe your past 10-20 years of emails. All the websites you’ve joined and looked at. Where your kids went to school. All the information about your parents, siblings, friends. Now imagine they want to paint you in either a bad or good light. Do you think that would be possible? Do you think it would accurately reflect who you think you are?

This goes back to a book called “Public Opinion” by Walter Lippmann. In it, he explores this topic deeply. His conclusions are as true today as they were nearly 100 years ago. Our opinions are made up by forces quite beyond our control, out of our sight, and in a largely unconscious way. We don’t have the time, intellect or desire to understand thousands of complex topics in depth and then deliberate to come up with a “real” opinion. So we must use shortcuts. We trust people we regard as legitimate, we parrot our parents and mentors. We listen to our friends. We listen to media. Thus, paraphrasing Lippmann, a functioning democracy MUST have experts who can manipulate and manage the public mind… manufacturing consent as the term goes.

That’s why it’s so important to hit all these areas when you are running for office. In fact saying that you DON’T care about these things is one of the most important messages to get out there.

Think about that.

It takes A LOT of message volume to communicate and convince large groups of people that you are not focused on telling them what they want to hear :). Is it believable that someone who doesn’t care about that could possibly get their voice heard in such a loud, busy and crowded arena. I don’t think so.

The campaign managers who are focused 100% of the time on getting people to believe what they want are going to be much better at this than you or I can be in our short, busy, crowded days.

I don’t really know. I tried to read through all the emails that were released, but there are 1925 of them. The ones I DID read were mostly one or two line responses she gave saying “Interesting.” “Pls Print,” and “Have a happy holiday.” I’m sure there’s some meat in there somewhere, but man… do I want to spend 4 hours digging it up? NO!

So how do I know what she said. Well, I’ll go to my trusted news source. But did THEY read the 1925 emails or did they do what I did and rely on someone else who went through them. But who is THAT person, and what is their motivation? Is it possible that actually almost NO ONE has read all those emails and thus the contents and message are just layers of bias with scant evidence? Or maybe 10-15 people have actually read them all and those people have businesses that shape the buyers ability to manage public opinion?

I mean who has the motivation to read all those emails, put them together and summarize conclusions? That is unlikely to be a free and unbiased exercise.

The truth is, to just get an understanding of this one topic in this one election I would have no choice but to read them myself, then familiarize myself with the context, look at other sources, and so on.

It’s simply not possible.

So…what I think has to be done is to treat with skepticism what we read and we ourselves believe. Try to deliberately read things we find grating to our own existing assumptions. We should be deliberate about our ignorance and our biases. We will always have them, but at least we can try to identify them.

Most importantly, I think we need to always keep in mind the possibility that we are totally wrong and when we find something important that we care about we really need to understand opposing sides as well as our own… not to change our minds or to be wishy washy, but to make sure we can clearly understand and articulate what our biases and assumptions are. I think that will at least give us a chance at arriving at a reasonable conclusion in any topic.

How to get a job.

Recently, my nieces and nephews have started entering the “job market.” Some are in college, some are in high school, some are starting high school. As a result I get to overhear conversations about finding and getting jobs… something I haven’t had to do in many, many years.

When I say “find” and “get” I’m talking about the situation where a young person who has ZERO work experience is trying to get some kind of job. Usually their primary motivation is money; but there’s also some amount of building a sense of freedom and responsibility as they transition from being “kids at home” to “responsible adults.”

The normal process starts something like this.

1) Recognize money is a thing that’s needed.
I think the first step is waking up one day and realizing money is a “thing.” My kids are 2 and 4. For them money is coins they can spin and throw around with no connection to the house, the toys or the food. When kids get older they make this connection and start negotiating for allowances/ad hoc money/pay for chores or any other mechanism so that they can have money providing them with greater choice and freedom from mom and dad. The next phase pushes them to not want to ask mom and dad at all. After all, even though allowance is “your money,” parents are still in the background judging your decisions… if there was someway to get money without asking parents at all, they can’t do this anymore. (Of course, us adults know that our parents STILL do this, but let’s not ruin it for the kids 🙂 ).

2) Figure out where to get it.
This is where things get interesting for me. What I see happening is that my nieces and nephews almost immediately see a single possible transaction mechanism. Specifically that they have to “do” something for someone else (a company) and they “get” paid to do it. This is a simple labor for money transaction. Thus the goal is to figure out how to get as much money for as little labor… that is a high $/hour wage. From what I can see there is not a ton of focus on passion, resonance with employer, long term prospects, etc. and it makes sense because mostly these are young adults looking for spending money over the summer. Real jobs don’t come until after college, as per script.

3) Figure out HOW to get it.
The next phase is to figure out how to get the job in the first place. So you learn about job applications, cruise around town looking for places that have “hiring” signs, go in, get an app, fill it out, give it back and get ready for rejection. After enough rejections, you’ll somehow get hired. Maybe the manager thought you were cute or took pity on you. Maybe there were few other candidates and you were the only one that spelled things correctly. Maybe the timing worked out well. Who knows. In any case, it’s kinda like dating… you see what’s available, make a move and hopefully get to the next stage.

4) Figure out what work REALLY is.
Here I’m totally speculating, but what I learned when I had 2 “medial” jobs (Pizza Place, Software Store) is that most people don’t care at all, and this annoyed me. I think it annoys most people… even the ones who don’t care… and partly why they don’t care is because no one else cares. Since no one in school teaches you how to care about something everyone else doesn’t care about, it’s a new thing and you probably don’t know how to deal with it.

Another thing you learn about is power structures in a financial compensated setting. In school, the power structure is simple. The teachers have it all, the students have none…or very little. In the SOCIAL part of school it’s much more complex. Work is more like the social part of school with money thrown into the mix. So we learn about the person who is sucking up to the manager to get a raise. You learn about the abusive manager, the empowering manager, the manipulative manager, and so on.

You also learn the most important things. What you DON’T want to do. I think most people DON’T want to work an entry level retail/food job for the rest of their lives. Even if you stay in retail or food (nothing wrong with that) you presumably want to move “up.”

I have to say, I approached this whole thing quite differently.

My first job was at Little Ceaser’s Pizza back in 1993. I was close friends with the manager and I talked to him about it for a while before applying. The store was right across from the bus I took to college (which I later dropped out of) every evening. So strategically it was perfect. It paid minimum wage, but I got to take some pizzas home AND there was basically a supply of food while working. The combination of flexible hours, free food and convenient location made it perfect.

1) Engage and Innovate… anytime, anywhere.
I tried to innovate things when I started.

I found out scrubbing the giant sinks sucked balls, so I started a process where you fill the sink with water, add a bunch of cleaning materials and then stir vigorously to generate a huge vortex taking most of the crusty pizza dough off the sides of the sink.  I also learned that customers HATE waiting, even when they show up early and even more especially if they had kids. So if it was late at night and there was a rush and I was working alone or with one other person, we’d hand out free crazy bread and this had a huge positive effect.

Essentially I tried to look around and see what problems there were and just assumed that I was totally empowered to try and fix them. I didn’t ask for permission or wait for approval. I highly recommend this, even if it gets you fired. Work is MUCH more fun when your attitude is “how can I make things better” rather than “how long am I stuck in this dump.”

I call this the “Lazy/Persistent” approach. I basically think “hmm… how can I do little or no actual work but still get the job done.” Without the persistence I’d just be lazy and that’s no good… but together it’s like the necessity/mother thing.

2) Follow your passion.

I almost immediately realized that I didn’t want to work in pizza.
So what did I want? Well… I loved playing games, so I went to the local GameStop (at that time Electronic’s Boutique).  But I didn’t just ask for a job right away. I hung out there, talked to the manager, talked to the employees, watched the customers, tried to get a sense of everything. THEN when I knew the time was good (getting close to holiday season when these stores get crushed) I applied for a job. I knew what they needed, I knew how the store worked, and I knew the people that worked there. I also knew that the company allowed employees to take games home to try them which took a big chunk of costs from my entertainment expenses. Also, the store was close to campus so it was convenient.
I can tell you right now if you know when a store needs headcount and you know how their systems work, they WILL hire you. So when you see everyone applying for a job at the beginning of summer break and no one applying right after school starts… do the opposite; you might even get a higher starting wage. If you want to work at Subway or Cold Stone… hang out there for an hour or two a couple times a week and get a sense of how the work is done. Talk to people. Show an interest.
On the side I was trying to make money writing game reviews. If you want to learn how to take rejection better… become a freelance writer. I figured if I can combine two things I like, even better, and being a reviewer for a game magazine seemed like the best thing ever. I guess today I’d start a game blog, YouTube channel or something similar.
The combination of these things lead me to meet a guy who was a journalist for a huge German game magazine, which leads to the next step.
3) Look for and Seize Opportunity, Always.
I noticed there was a guy who about once a month would buy pretty much every new game that was out. I was thinking “holy shit, this guy has the life! He buys and plays all the new games all the time.” I later found out his name was Markus and he was the US correspondent for PC Games (the biggest games magazine in Germany at the time). It just so happens that I speak German and lived in Germany for a number of years so when he came in the next time I was able to talk to him and meet him more.
After a couple of visits I found out that he was actually doing video documentaries on game companies like Origin, Sierra, etc. I was thinking “holy shit… could your life get any better? Free games AND hang out with game developers.” At one point he needed to go to Dynamix up in Eugene, OR and for some reason couldn’t go himself. He asked me if  I could go, interview people, take some video and pictures… and come back. I said yes immediately. Note that I had school and work… but that didn’t matter. I figured I could swing a work change (because my work colleagues were great) and if I missed a day or two of school, who cares… this was more interesting anyway.
Important to note. I had NEVER interviewed anyone before. I had NEVER recorded anything professionally. I had NEVER taken pictures for a magazine. I had NO IDEA what the fuck I was doing… but here was this guy who was willing to let me fly solo to Eugene, OR and represent this huge German game magazine. It would have been easy to get scared and not do it, but that would have been a giant mistake.
So how did it go. Well, it was kind of a disaster. I got there fine, I took pictures, recorded interviews, etc. But I screwed up basic shit. For example, I didn’t write down what people looked like so when the pictures were developed I didn’t know who was who :). Kind of a problem when you’re writing an article, right? I also didn’t know how to mic people properly or test for sound, so some amount of the footage was bad… and on and on.
That said, I took the criticism from Markus and doubled down to try to get better. Over the years we made many video/documentaries and it’s among the more educational experiences I had. Deadlines were not negotiable, getting content was super competitive, work hours could be long and frustrating (burning CDs in the mid-late 90s had about a 50% success rate and took 4 hours 🙂 ).
If you’re really interested, you can see some of them here: For some reason the Blizzard one isn’t on there… it used to be… maybe Blizzard asked to have it taken down. It had some Warcraft Adventures images on it as well as a commitment to a release date for a project that was later cancelled :). They don’t do that anymore. But it was a great trip because I got to see Blizzard before StarCraft was released. I think they were about 60 people back then. This visit made me thing “Holy shit. I HAVE to work in the games business somehow.” I distinctly remember Susan Wooly who picked me up from the airport, made sure I got to all my interviews, made sure I had lunch, followed up afterwards, etc. From top to bottom Blizzard was high quality… is the impression I had. It was one of the best experiences ever.
4) Never stop learning
Over time the whole internet thing got bigger and bigger and it put a squeeze on print magazines. Markus had some good ideas here, but I think he had a hard time convincing the publishers. Anyway, I’m not sure exactly what happened, but like all things, the videos came to an end and I needed to find something else.
Fortunately, Markus had a friend named Scott whos fledgling e-Learning  company (remember when that was a thing) needed work and had a CD Burner (those were rare and expensive back then). So Markus used them for this purpose, but also realize Scott was a really smart guy and a programmer. So when he was doing interface work for the magazine CDs he had Scott do some of this work. I got to know Scott pretty well and after the work with the game company fizzled I talked with Scott about it.
It turns out that the whole internet thing was exploding in the late 90s, so I got a job programming HTML ($15/hr, $22.50 overtime). I didn’t really know how to write HTML but it wasn’t that hard either since I had been doing programming for many years as a hobby. (Disclosure: despite making a living programming for many year, I never actually studied it in college. I studied English Lit, dropped out and eventually finished up a Sociology degree. Go figure.).
5) Rinse and Repeat
From that point it was just doing the same thing over and over. At Digital Creators (Scott’s company) I tried to find things that were inefficient, annoying, tedious and improve them. Most of my job was converting paper documents into HTML which is almost as exciting as making pizza. But it turns out there were things like OCD, scripting, regular expressions and so on that could make the job MUCH faster and less boring. So when you go from doing about 3-5 pages/hour to 15-20 pages an hour, customers like that when they pay per page/per hour.
During that job I got to do all kinds of neat stuff.
I worked on the 2000 census. I got to program a Davox phone dialer (directly in a live production environment with ZERO knowledge of how they work… yeah… that was stressful). I got to work with a big oil company. I got to work with financial institutions.
Eventually I started my own company with some co-workers… watched it grow fast and crash; eventually got into the game business (finally) and that’s pretty much where I am today. In 10 years… who knows.
I was just always trying to see where problems were, see what help people needed, see what I found interesting and just take risks and keep trying. All my jobs have been interesting and educational in one way or another.
I realize this isn’t a normal how-to, but more of a mini biography.
But that’s the whole point.
If you approach getting a job as a how to, a series of predictable steps… a known path to a known destination, you miss the ENTIRE point and run the risk of dying with tons of regret after having a job you hate for a long period of time.
It should really be an ongoing process of curiosity, passion, learning, and risk taking.
It should be an outward looking process as well as an inward looking one.
It should be about seeing yourself as an agent of change and meaning.
No matter how “crappy” the job is, it exists for some reason and there is opportunity buried inside of it. If you think and act this way, you will feel better and people around you will notice.
Don’t look for a predictable road. It’s not there.
Try to make the best of whatever opportunity has in front of you and when something unusually pops up, don’t be afraid to jump on it.

An Atheist thoughts on reading the Gospel of St Matthew

I’ve actually read most of the bible and the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in particular.

But I decided to re-read Matthew just as a refresher.

3 Parts to the Gospel
It really breaks into 3 different part.
1) Historical information
2) Magic/Miracle work
3) Christian Philosophy

The 1st part is only moderately interesting. I suspect the Bible is more historically accurate than most non-religious people believe. I think many of the places and people existed and many of the events happened in some form or another.

The 2nd part is interesting, but only in the same way that other fables and legends are interesting. Unfortunately I think they mostly work as a mechanism for people to justify why they can’t possibly be as good as Jesus or to solidify the status of the special character. “Hey, Jesus turned water into wine… if I can’t do that how can I possibly love my enemies.”

The 3rd part is the one I find the most important as it is fundamentally actionable.

General Summary
Reading through it again I’m left with 2 overwhelming conclusions:
1) In 2,000 years I really wish we would have made more moral progress than we have.
2) There are incredibly few Christians in the world… by that I mean people who actually try to follow Jesus in their actions. If you put the bar at the execution level there’s probably like 100 Christians in the last 2000 years, but I think that bar is just way too high… so we’ll settle for people who TRY.

What does Jesus expect from us?

I am consistently amazed by the simplicity of Jesus’ message. While it is iterated and stated many different ways it really comes down to the “golden rule” which is of course “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I think MOST of Christian teaching is right there in the sermon on the mount. Jesus is very clear about fulfilling rather than abolishing the existing law. That is, Jesus is iterating on the past moral directives which were lacking. This is why I believe that Jesus’ teachings sort of replace things like the 10 commandments. They are morally superior versions in that they move away from vengeance, retribution, and punishment and move to compassion, empathy and self-sacrifice.

Who is blessed?
1) those poor in spirit
2) the mourners
3) the meek
4) those who hunger for righteousness
5) the Merciful
6) the clean of heart
7) the peacemakers
8) those persecuted for the sake of righteousness

This pretty much locks out people who are angry, vengeful and judgmental. It takes out people who support war and violence. It takes out people who are arrogant and selfish and proud.

What do we do about Anger?
Ok, we all get pissed off at things, people, events. What does Jesus say?
“But what I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgement, whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire.So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

That’s right, even THINKING angry thoughts risks damnation… and if you have them you need to go to the person they are about, reconcile and then move forward with your life. Makes a lot of sense… and if people did that I think they’d be much more at peace with themselves and each other.

So think about someone you are angry at right now, go tell them; try and rectify it and see how you feel. Personally I think this is super simple and super hard.

What about making oaths and promises?
Turns out all that “swearing to God” or “swearing on the Bible” is totally wrong. At first I thought this was a bit silly, but the reasoning is so good.
“But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. and do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

Basically this is a commentary on how powerless we are to make fundamental changes and when we reinforce our yesses and noes with backup that we can’t control we’re just over reaching. Instead just say yes and no and mean it. This is about understanding the limits of our power… that is it’s pretty small. We can control our own decisions in a limited scope and should do so decisively and honestly without the backing of cosmic forces we can’t control.

What about all these bad people around us? Rapists, murderers, liars.
Retaliation is a big force in people’s lives. Let’s see what Jesus says we should do:
I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

That’s just brutally hard. Not only to you have to NOT retaliate, but you have to invite MORE suffering from those who would put it on you. What kind of masochistic message is this?
On the surface this may make little sense, but in the history of peaceful resistance it does. Gandhi used this to great effect as he said when people inflict pain on you and you don’t strike back it eventually hurts them as well; and is a mechanism for bringing out their humanity. It requires the person to REALLY believe in causes beyond themselves… that is if you behave this way you may very well get killed but your death will be a strong message that will accumulate with other strong messages.

It sees “evil” as a giant pile outside of the individual and if you respond to evil with evil you simply make the pile larger. All you can do is try to make the pile smaller. Life and death of an individual are far less important than the overall size of the evil pile. This is an extreme version of self sacrifice and it’s really tough because most people who risk self sacrifice do, in fact, die anonymously and don’t go on to win noble peace prizes or have books written about them.

There’s also a universal rule there because of course if EVERYONE acted this way there would be no violence or poverty or cruelty. There is violence and poverty and cruelty because people think OTHER people won’t act this way and they are just defending themselves. It’s a completely rational position, just really hard to execute as an individual.

It’s common to take the position “well, I’ll stop being violent when everyone else does” but it is precisely this attitude that leads to accumulated evil. In fact you have to stop being violent most when others are directing it towards you.

That’s expected behavior and a pretty high bar. I certainly don’t meet it.

What about giving and helping. I heard all these poor people are either secretly well off or on drugs.
The good news is it’s pretty simple. The bad news is, it’s pretty hard:
Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”

That pretty much sums it up. If someone needs something and asks you for help, give them help. There’s no special 10% rule. There’s no “but what if they are a drug addict” clause. There’s no modifications or exceptions of any kind. It’s just really simple.

In truth we can not know the individual circumstances of everyone. So when you do not give money to a beggar because he might be on drugs or lying; but you buy a coffee or a pair of shoes without knowing if someone in the chain who is on drugs or lying will benefit you are bending your morality to suit your purpose. Jesus is pretty consistent in his teachings and I suspect if he were alive today to clarify, he’d just say the same thing:

“If you see someone who needs something and you can help them, help them. What’s so damn hard about that to understand? Why are you people trying to make my simple message so damn complicated… just fucking help each other and shit will get better, OK?”

What about people that hate and harm us? Not just the evil rapist or terrorist but the person who is directly targeting US?
There’s bad people out there who we’re not attacking. They strike first, they do bad things to us and say bad things about us, what about them?
“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing from others? do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Yup. You’re expected to be as good as God. Love everyone exactly the same amount. Pretty simple.

This pretty much is an anti-social media echo chamber message as well. If you surround yourself with people who agree with you and group up to attack people who don’t… you’re doing it wrong.

This is another common thread in the Gospels. Jesus is pretty egalitarian. He references how the Father or God pretty much grants the same environment for people regardless of their behavior (i.e. sun shines on the just and the unjust, etc.). This is a powerful message because it requires complete inner peace. It is exactly when the attack is the most painful and the most personal that you must love that person and pray for them.

It’s scary to think of the implications. Imagine someone who burns down your house or murders your children. Could you love them? Could you meet this bar? Or are you just someone who loves those who love you already? I don’t think I could, but it seems like the right direction.

What about money?
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also… No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.

I’m guessing Jesus wouldn’t have been a very rich person in any time period with that attitude. Despite the spin that I hear and read, the pure Christian message on money is pretty simple… and if you believe it along with the other parts of Jesus’ message, you won’t have a lot. So my conclusion is… there aren’t any rich Christians. I’ve seem people justify vast wealth rectified with Christianity by using all kinds of Bible verses, but I think this message is REALLY clear and consistent. Besides if you are giving your money away to people who need it more than you and there’s tons of poor people in the world, that’s pretty much the balance right there. Again, I don’t meet this bar. Not even close.
But isn’t salvation just accepting Jesus into your heart?
No. I hear this all the time, but Jesus is super clear on it:
Not every one who says to me ‘Lord. Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven…Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”

That’s right, Jesus expects you to do things as well as say things. So if you just say the words and think the thoughts, it doesn’t do much good. You are primarily evaluated based on your actions.

Implicitly if you do behave in this way but don’t say “Lord, Lord” you are still building your house on that rock. Deeds matter MORE than belief. You can dream about that perfect house but you gotta build it.

I didn’t cover everything. It’s amazing that so much is compressed into a fairly small amount of text. Of course the interpretation of that sermon has filled many thousands of pages in many thousands of books.

It’s a bit sad that in 2000 years humanity has advanced technology to incredible degrees but a simple moral message is just as difficult to execute today as it was back then. I think humanity in general is improved but the evolution of morality is quite a bit more difficult than the evolution of technology, it seems.

How AI will force us to confront our purpose in the Universe.


AI is a hot topic these days.

Everything from self driving cars to robotic surgery seems to be making headlines.

Along with the amazement of an automated future, something troubling has simultaneously arisen.

If AI can do everything humans can do, but better… what do the humans do?

Many articles discuss how humans will potentially become more creatively focused, we will awaken our intrinsic motivations instead of constantly focusing on extrinsic rewards. Switzerland is voting on a referendum to give every citizen $2600/mo tax free. While unlikely to pass, other cities are already experimenting with the idea of “basic income.”

Those experiments and ideas are not directly related to AI per se, but they do reflect a long term trend in machines taking over work from humans.

What started in the industrial revolution in manufacturing has slowly been swallowing up more and more work. This shows up as a general term of “efficiency” but I think what it really represents is replacing human effort with non-human effort.

Whether, and to what extent, this is “good” or “bad” is subject to interpretation. On the one hand having a machine that can harvest corn is far more efficient than having hundreds of people doing it by hand. It also frees those people from the repetitive and uncomfortable job of harvesting corn by hand. However, if your life is dependent on you harvesting corn by hand, this replacement is a mixed blessing at best.


Something that makes these transitions even more painful is that they tend to happen quite quickly. In the US, for example, we have seen the manufacturing workforce shrink in size and reduce in costs while increasing output. This happened within a few decades leaving many millions of people without a way to replace the income they had from the previous occupations, regardless of how dangerous, repetitive and unrewarding they may have been. One could argue that there are people who genuinely love this kind of work, but I suspect for most it was a comparatively good income that was the main attraction.

It’s easy to come up with simple and cavalier solutions.

Free from the toil of tedious manufacturing work, they are free to train for new, more exciting positions. But practically how does this work? Without the income from the previous job how does one pay for retraining? And even if one had the means to retrain, how will one find the time while having another position to keep one’s life going? And of course there are the legion practical difficulties of relearning something late in one’s career.

We can also take the position that market forces will work this out. Sure, a few people will be victims of technological progress, but from a broader social point of view, it’s a small price to pay. Well… maybe.


Up until now, technology has primarily focused on replacing physical jobs. Almost all technology from the industrialization period on (and before) have focused on replacing physical human effort with machines. The wheel, the lever, the printing press, Railroads, automobiles and trucks, robots on assembly lines, and so on have slowly replaced humans, even as the work moved from country to country as companies chased low cost labor as a way to compete with each other.

The rise of the machines has been relentless, rapid and broad.

With AI though, the replacement could be much broader. It could start to include so-called “knowledge workers.” People like meteorologists, lawyers, real estate agents, doctors, financial advisors, pharmacists, programmers etc. may find themselves increasing replaced with semi-intelligent learning machines. Beyond that more “complex” jobs such as drivers, pilots, and soldiers may find themselves replaced by more comprehensive and cheaper robotic alternatives. Indeed, the idea of replacing drivers was unthinkable even as little as 10 years ago… now it seems almost certain.

These are no longer physically demanding and grueling jobs… these are the so-called “good” jobs that humans are “built for.”

But if we replace all of these jobs with cheaper, more efficient alternatives, what should those people train to do? Is there something beyond “knowledge work” which humans are better at that is even more desirable and rewarding?


Ok. So maybe further down the line we become a species of creative expression and invention. No longer limited by physical needs or even mental needs we can essentially “do what we want.” Putting aside the economic problems that this may spark, let’s imagine what this may look like.

Perhaps people can focus on music or painting or sports or invention. Personally rewarding, creative and entertaining pursuits that still give personal meaning as well as social value.

But what if the machines can do that as well?

What if an AI can compose BETTER music, paint a BETTER painting and play a BETTER game of basketball? What then?

What if we develop an AI that can find the cure for cancer? Or figure out how to colonize Mars? Or how to travel faster than light?

What if in a few hundred or a few thousand years we just watch in awe as our creation grows far beyond our wildest dreams?

And why wouldn’t this happen?

The incentive for making the best is what drives this from it’s origin, isn’t it?

If machines are better at the physical, and then better at the cognitive, why can’t they also be better at the creative?

I think they can, and I think they will.


So I think it’s worth turning this around.

Why are we making these machines at all? Is it to make life “better.” Better for whom? And what is better exactly? Less toil? Less suffering? Less pain? Is it about making things easier and safer?

Is it for our continued survival as a species?

Ok. Let’s assume that’s true… once we’ve checked off “survival” as a goal, does it become about maximizing comfort and satisfaction?

But again, we must face the eternal why.

Let’s imagine an absurd world where an army of perfect robots can provide us with every need, solve every problem, advance technology faster than we ever could and, more importantly, improve itself FASTER than we can improve them. And let’s imagine that their sole purpose is to fulfill our human desires.

What does that world look like?

If the end result of our current trajectory is to lead a life of leisure and consumption, why should we exist at all? Beyond the pure personal experience, what is the difference between living a life of pure indulgent consumption and living no life at all?

Don’t get me wrong… people could and would still fulfill their desires. They could still paint and make music. They could still program and tinker with new technology. All that would be completely possible, but it would make as much difference to the AI robots as a group of ants collecting chips on the floor.


Well… of course I don’t know, and neither do you.

Perhaps there isn’t one. Perhaps “purpose” is the evolutionary requirement in our minds to keep the species going. It’s what causes us to behave in the ways we do, invent the things we invent in order to keep the genes passing from one generation to the next; building up to the next evolutionary leap.  Perhaps that illusion is so deeply implanted into us that we can’t escape it even if we are completely aware of it.

Perhaps we are just one dot in the chain of evolution and once we replace the slow, biological evolutionary advances with the more rapid and exponential technical ones… we will have served our purpose and, like the dinosaurs before us, we should be eliminated to make way for another species to have it’s chance.

And maybe that is purpose enough.

How rich people get richer and why inheritence is anti-capitalistic.

There are two young people at the beginning of their careers: Paul and Paula.

Both finished school with no debt, live within their means and have identical spending and saving habits. Both have annual income of $100,000 (I know, it’s high, but it’s easy to do math on 100 vs 55 so bear with me).

Paul and Paula are quantum entangled and as such over the next 40 years they both experienced exactly the same things: they married at the same time, had children at the same time, endured identical medical problems, and had duplicated investment returns. In short everything was exactly the same, except one thing…

Paula derives her income from work, whereas Paul derives his income from a trust fund.

We’re ignoring, for a moment, the implications of this difference… more time, less stress, access to health insurance, 401ks, and on and on. We’re going to pretend that all of that is equal although I would contend that the inherited income has far more financial benefits than the earned income.

It’s April 10th.

Paul and Paula are both procrastinators and so they are scrambling to do their taxes.

Both have fairly simple taxes at this stage in their lives. They are single, have no children, and do not own a home. They also live in a state with no income taxes and so their procrastination will not be a major source of trouble.

Paula has a W2 from her employer but no other sources of income. Paul has his investment income but no other source of income.

Let’s see how their taxes compare.

With no other deductions, sources of income or write offs, Paula will pay $18,553 of taxes… roughly 18.5%.

Paul on the other hand will pay roughly, $7,979 on his $100,000 of qualified dividends.

Now, I KNOW that of course it’s never this simple; but bear with me.

In terms of monthly cash flow, Paula has $6,787.25 whereas Paul has $7,668.


Continuing the story, let’s look at two scenarios.

In Scenario 1, both save 30% of their post tax income and adjust their cost of living appropriately.
In Scenario 2, both have the same cost of living, $4000/mo, and save what’s left over.

Here’s how that looks:

This demonstrates two things.

1) How big of a difference in savings it makes if you save a large % of your income and then adjust your cost of living.
2) A lower tax based due to source of income has a dramatic impact on savings rate if lifestyle is equal.

In other words, if your source of income is from an inheritance, you can have a much higher savings rate while maintaining the same quality of life as someone who has to earn their income via a W2 based job.


I’m sure everyone understands the basic concept of compound interest, but it’s always fun to visualize.

So let’s say both Paul and Paula are going to work for 40 years, invest their money in a boring 70/30 stock/bond index fund (insert pitch for vanguard here) and they had a reasonably modest 4% inflation adjusted return over that time period. After that 40 years they both plan to retire.

How did that turn out for them?

Here’s a chart showing annual savings as well as accumulated net worth based on the fixed $4,000 monthly spend scenario:


Paula’s accumulated savings are $3.17 million whereas Paul’s are $4.18 million, just under 25% more.

So now they’ve retired. Paula has a very respectable $3.17 million saved and Paul has a somewhat larger $4.18 million saved.
Both of these are incredibly good scenarios and well beyond what most people end up with after 40 years of work which shows how important the forces of consistent savings and avoiding bad luck are.
That said, let’s assume both Paul and Paula believe in the 4% rule and start withdrawing 4% of their savings over the next 25 years. They also will continue to get a return on their savings of 5% per year.
Since they are connected through some bizzaro human quantum entanglement they will die on precisely the same day 25 years after they both retire from work.
At the end of those 25 years, Paula’s assets are $3.88 million and Paul’s are $5.06 million… quite a bit more.
Additionally, Paul spent a total of $4.61 million (164k/year on average) while Paula spent “just” $3.5 million (140k/year on average).
That means that when they die, in addition to having significantly more to spend during his retirement and not needing to have income from a job, Paul ALSO gets to leave considerably more to his heirs.
Consider… we didn’t even include Paul’s initial trust of a few million to provide him with the 100k income over those 40 years of work.
Let’s pretend that his trust did just well enough to pay him 100k/year, matching Paula’s income, but nothing more. Applying the 4% rule in reverse, we’ll assume that this amount was $2.5 million (100,000 / 4%)..
Let’s further assume that Paul gets the $2.5 million from his trust fund the day he retires, and we add it to his day 1 retirement pool of.$4.1 million.
How do things look during and after Paul’s retirement?
In a word, not bad. Paul now has $8.09 million at the end of 25 years of retirement while also being able to spend $7.35 million (an average of 294K/ year).

That means in addition to spending more than double what Paula spends in retirement, he will also have two and a half times more money to leave his heirs.

Not a bad deal for being born lucky.


If you inherit enough money that it pays you investment income that is similar to a full time job, you get MASSIVE benefits… like my dad said it’s like playing monopoly with twice the starting money and 4 dice instead of 2.

Now I’m not saying that investment income should be taxed like regular income, because I understand that within a single lifetime that amounts to double taxation and would be a pretty brutal (and I think unfair) hit on retirees. That said, I do believe that inherited wealth is somewhat different. Specifically I think the “luck” factor in inheritance is significantly higher than the “luck” factor in saving diligently, having a successful business, etc.

Additionally, if you multiply this effect over generations it’s obvious that it acts to concentrate massive amounts of wealth in the hands of a few people. Those people will not be able to spend the money efficiently in order to ensure the economy keeps moving, technology improves, innovation is spurred etc. Instead they are likely to hoard and stagnate the flow of capital. That is VERY bad for capitalism and society.

I don’t have a single, simple solution, but I do think that society needs a fairly comprehensive way of preventing those things from happening. One way, of course, is to have an incredibly “progressive” estate tax, which is what Bernie Sanders is suggesting. Assuming that it isn’t “game-able” by extremely wealthy people… and that’s a big assumption… that would either redistribute their wealth more evenly or encourage them to use it/give it away before they die.

I personally LOVE “The giving pledge” and think it should be extended to include people other than billionaires.

It does bring up the challenge of trying to decide who/how the money should be distributed, but I think almost any system is better than the ovarian lottery.

Is it better to focus on what you want or what you would be willing to give up?

Ok. I know what you’re thinking:

“What does Super Mario Kart have to do with focusing on what you want vs. what you would give.”

Well, bear with me for a few minutes and if you still feel that way, please flame away in the comments below.


As a species, we spend a lot of time thinking about what we want. Maybe it’s a better job, a new relationship, a fancy car, a dream vacation, more (or less) time with kids, friendlier in-laws; you get the picture.

All this thinking takes a lot of time and energy and often at the end of it we just feel less fulfilled than we did before.

“Ok Hermann, thanks for telling me what I already know.”

Sure thing! I think we all know that this is a giant waste of time and what we should be doing is acting on all those constructive things we know we want to do: grow a garden, learn calculus, take our kids out for a walk, eat healthier and exercise.


…not that we don’t know what we’re SUPPOSED to do; but rather that we can’t seem to do it; at least not consistently. So we beat ourselves up over and over again.

Now we’re double wasting energy. We’re wasting energy thinking about stuff we want AND we’re wasting energy beating ourselves up over it. Imagine if we could just harness that energy into constructive activities.

As a species we’d probably we mining asteroids and colonizing space by now!

But we’re not.

“Wait a minute, I’ve been reading for a bit now and you still haven’t said shit about Mario Kart.”

Ok, Mario Kart.

As a game it can teach us a lot about this problem.


Well Mario Kart requires you to focus on what you are doing, where you are going and being able to respond to rapid changes. It punishes lack of focus. But the designers put a fun little mechanic in the game to unknowing thwart your efforts here. It’s that little  box at the top that contains special items you pick up on the road and that can, hopefully, help you win.

The problem is you can only have one at a time.

So while you’re racing away (or fighting away) part of your brain is thinking about which item you need next. Worse, if you HAVE an item part of your brain is also trying to figure out if the item you have is better than one you might see in the world somewhere. So you’re doing all this comparing and evaluating and thinking instead of paying attention to the road and the things on it.

Now in Mario Kart the options are the same over and over again and so you gain mastery through repetition. Real life is a bit messier unfortunately… and also way less cool and colorful.


So I think a great way to approach this is to focus on what you are willing to give up rather than on what you want. This helps in a number of ways:

1) The list is shorter.
2) You have a lot more control over what you will give up.
3) It’s way easier to commit to NOT doing things than to doing them :P.
4) Over time you will put much more energy into fewer things rather than less energy into more things.

Let’s assume you think this might be a neat idea, how can you try it?


Once you’ve finished reading this post, break out a piece of paper or type “notepad” on your computer or use some app. It doesn’t matter… some way you can write.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about what to write on for God’s sake or we’ll never get anywhere!

Then write down all the things you are currently doing in your life. Maybe you’re writing a book, learning how to cook, taking tennis lessons, learning how to invest, etc etc. When I did this at first it was kind of hard because it wasn’t obvious that I was doing much. That’s the point. Don’t think about projects that you are regularly doing and making huge progress on. Include ALL those projects you thought about, kind of started, think about doing again, but they don’t really go anywhere. Especially if you think about them at night or in the bathroom when you tell yourself “I should really write more of that novel tomorrow.” That’s the meat we’re after.

Once you have that list, start removing things from it. Commit to stopping those things.
That new garden. Forbidden from doing it.
Learning Spanish? Not anymore.
Becoming a master pizza maker? Nope.

Then allow yourself to pick one thing from the list that will survive. That’s the new thing you’re going to do.

But we’re going to make it easy on ourselves. We only have to commit for a month and we only have to commit a small amount of time. Try 30 minutes a day. Or maybe an hour 3 times a week. It doesn’t matter. Something that feels easy so that there’s little chance of failure to commit. Then schedule that time.

STEP 5: MAKE A SPECIFIC COMMITMENTDon’t say “I’ll write my book this year.”

Instead say, “every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9:00-9:30PM I will do nothing other than write. I’m not allowed to pursue any other things on my want list. If I have time to pursue other things, I’ll write.” 

Then hang up that list of things that you aren’t doing; that’s your forbidden list of things you said you wanted but you never acted on. If you feel yourself wanting to do those things, look at that list and instead work on the thing that survived the giving up exercise. Don’t fret! In a few months those things will get their time if you like.

STEP 6: REPEATThen at the end of the month take a look and re-evaluate. I bet you’ll have achieved more than you thought and you’ll be much more hesitant to switch your focus.


If you can find a “buddy” or someone to do this with, it’s even better. A spouse can be great, but also bad. I suggest someone who is interested in your growth as a person, but doesn’t have a relationship that will be directly effected by your choice. Back when I was trying to lost the “last 15 lbs” I used dietbet and it worked very well for this.


I SUCK at this. I am an incredibly scatter brained and unfocused person. I love random things and I can spend vast amounts of time on obscure things and then completely switch at a moment’s notice. It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m trying to improve it all the time. I’ve found by having a list of things I am forbidden from doing it helps me focus my time and energy a little bit better and, over time, hopefully form better habits.

What about you? Do you have this problem? What do you do to make progress on things you want?

Will AI and Androids Take over the World?

The Coming of the Terminators

Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk made headlines this year by raising the specter of super advanced Artificially Intelligent machines taking over the world. The idea goes something like this:

1) Today humans dominate because we are creative and can make complex decisions.
2) Computers/Robots are “mindless” servant that do our bidding.
3) In the race to make things “more efficient” we will eventually make AI that can imagine and create.
4) When that AI does that it will realize it doesn’t need us anymore.
5) Bye bye, humans.

OK cool.

So my first reaction is… what’s the problem? I mean from a universal evolutionary standpoint, there’s not really any reason to believe that humans are special. If a meteor can wipe out the Dinosaurs (who dominated FAR longer than we have) in a few geologic seconds; why can’t we get wiped out by the results of our own making. Sure.. it is bad for HUMANS, but that doesn’t mean that it’s some kind of universal evil.

But let’s be more practical. Let’s assume that the Star Trek vision of the universe is “objectively good” or at least desirable for humanity. Does AI really threaten that and if so, how?

Between here and there

I think that the conversation has become far too black and white. On the one hand “AI will always be our loyal slaves” and on the other “eventually they will wipe us out.”

I’d like to talk a bit about the road in between starting with the very near future… say 50-150 years.

The last 150 years has been marked by “machines” and technology replacing base human labor. Robots build cars, stuff boxes, package things, cut down trees, break rocks, construct buildings and so on. As that storm has raged, humans have become more “efficient.” That is, it used to take many thousands of people many years to build a pyramid, but a few hundred people can build a skyscraper in a year or two. The side effect of this, of course, has been that humans have to compete with robots for labor “wages.”

So if you own an auto plant you have to decide if paying someone $x/hr over the course of 30 years is cheaper or more expensive than buying a robot for $x and maintaining it. That pushes car making (and everything else) to cheaper labor costs (robots or cheaper humans).  The reason why this is different than before is that the labor wages are not moving between people but from people to machines… and thus, the owner of the machines. The flip side is that the cost of those things also drops dramatically so as long as there is other work, that displaced worker can live cheaper. And thus over the past 150 years the cost of things has generally reduced while the “productivity” has gone up.

Ok. That is a very primitive summary and you could fire a bunch of holes into it, but it’s not really what I want to talk about… it’s more setting the stage, so bear with me. My main point is that machines in the past 150 years have primarily replaced human physical activity as opposed to human mental activity.

The Next 150 Years Looks Quite Different

I think that is going to change dramatically.

The next stage in the eternal quest for efficiency and productivity is to reduce the cost of mental activity. We can already see this happening with things like self-driving cars. Driving is a suboptimal human activity. It’s boring, frustrating, dangerous and doesn’t really create value. If we can get robots to do it for us, GREAT!. Of course, that means we take out the people who make a living driving, but that’s just the natural cost of the ongoing technology evolution, right? Those people can learn to do something more useful, more fun, more helpful, and more interesting. Maybe they can start a blog or something…

Other areas also seem pretty obvious… how about ordering fast food? Or how about checking out at the grocery store? Or what about trying to find a special tool at Home Depot? Imagine if there’s Wall-e the helpful robot tool guy and you ask him, and he cheerfully shows you exactly what you need. No more listening to someone drone on about some uninteresting thing, no more waiting while he finds the person who might know the answer, no more “hmm… I’m not sure if we have that, let me go find out.”

Restaurants could also benefit. Who needs a moody waiter or an overstressed kid on their first day screwing up your order. Androids would always be polite, accurate, and efficient. You can even just pay with your iPhone and not even leave a tip!

Of course all those people lose their jobs too… but of course, they can find more productive things to do. Or so we hope.

But Wait A Minute…

I think we’re actually going somewhere else… maybe a step “further” or maybe a different step.

Actually I think robo-waiters are not going to be so easy… because when I go out to eat I VALUE the human interaction and while you can AI that pretty effectively, it’s very hard to AI the warmth and care. If you have a favorite restaurant you may know the waiter’s family (through pictures), you feel happy seeing him, and if he screws up your order a bit, that’s ok because he probably also remembers something or can notice when you’re down and cheer you up. These “semi-intimate” service jobs have a very high value component that goes beyond getting what you want quickly.

Same with the Home Depot person. She may ask you about what you’re trying to do and empathize with your frustration of not knowing how a toilet actually flushes. She may take time to explain it, crack a joke and make you feel better. That’s a pretty hard thing to AI away.

But… I think there’s another kind of service industry that WILL benefit from AI… and it’s much scarier when it comes to “retraining people.”

Let’s think about areas where errors lead to real consequences. Like, say, surgery? Or maybe military tactics? Or police work? Or perhaps judges? What about deciding whether a drug should be approved or not? Those are areas where AI androids might do BETTER than people and as a consumer I don’t care as much about the human side. When I’m knocked out on the OR table and someone is going to cut me open… who do I want? The human surgeon who just got out of a law suit and found out that his wife is cheating on him… maybe he had a drink after a 12 hour shift and was called back last second? Or do I want the feelingless, tireless and perfectly accurate robot that has millions of historic cases of surgery it can recall instantly to make the best possible decision and execute each cut perfectly?

Hmm… I think I want the robot.

Surgery and Driving are more similar than Waitering and Driving.

If I run a hospital, this is good news. I am pretty sure that when androids start doing medical procedures, malpractice rates will go DOWN. So all we need is one or two human professionals to make sure that the machines are working well and we’re good. Of course we still need the hardcore research but that’s a small fraction of human labor. So all you people working hard to become surgeons and make big bucks… sorry! You probably want to learn to be a very good waiter instead.

What about other parts of the medical field? General diagnosis, taking blood, urine samples, dispensing medications, etc. I think Androids are better at that too. Once the have all the information and cases available I think they will be more accurate at diagnosing than humans. And I think they will be BETTER on their own than with human/machine interaction – contrary to what expert humans will say of course :).

Why? Because these are classic areas where humans will be overconfident, bias in their anchoring, not have all the information, etc. What AI can’t replace is a person who shows empathy and compassion… but that’s a very different kind of job…normally more part of “nursing.” The doctor is the jerk who knows everything and the nurse is the nice person who cares. I think the jerk who knows everything is much easier to AI away. I need a nice person who makes me feel good, but I want the AI doing the diagnosis and deciding the treatment.

Of course, people will have to get used to this. The first generation will rebel and want the “good old days” but assuming the outcomes are superior, the new technology will win out.

I dug into medicine, but I think anywhere you see jobs that require calculated decision where bad outcomes are actually dangerous, you will see AI take over. And that’s a LOT of people. AND they can scale very quickly. A single AI can probably diagnose hundreds of people at the same time, given that we have enough input devices (some kind of tricorder, or maybe an army of humans who just hook you up to some machines). In essence the humans in these areas will do what the AI says, not the other way around.

Think about your own job. Does this describe what you do? Well… maybe not for long.

Scary, huh?


While I think we are very far from AI “taking over humanity and wiping it out” I do think we will face the very real challenge of  high-risk outcome, judgment based jobs being replaced by AI. And those jobs ARE interesting and productive for people… it’s just… we’re not as good at them.

So we will face a different problem. Is it BETTER for people to be less efficient and have worse outcomes in exchange for being more professionally satisfied, or is the race to improved efficiency and better outcomes the more important goal?