Friday, July 1, 2016

Who are the "fittest?"

I'm Doing Darwin a Disservice

Most of my days are spent at work programming. As 50% of the entire workforce and the sole programmer (though not for long - we welcome our first developer hire July 5!), I have a lot of work to do. When I program, I usually listen to punk and metal on Pandora, and today while watching a new data analysis process I was debugging cranking along in AWS, a lyric from the NOFX song "The Idiots are Taking Over" struck me:

Darwin's rollin over in his coffin
the fittest are surviving much less often

I've listened to this song a million times, and it's always good for a whipping up a little anti-conservative, anti-religious-establishment furor in me. NOFX really nails that in some of their songs (see also Leaving Jesusland), but that one line hit me in a new way today.

I'm not very evolutionarily fit.

What Do We Mean by "Fitness?"

Somewhat subconsciously, I've always considered myself extremely fit (I'm just going to say "fit" from here on out when I mean "evolutionarily fit" - my physical fitness level is a whole other topic, and you won't confuse me with a triathlete). I am smart, at least reasonably good at pretty much everything I try, and able to learn very quickly and develop mastery over pretty much any domain given enough time. I also think I'm socially competent, funny, a good speaker and leader, and not terrible looking, and someone who will do a great job raising kids. There isn't a good way to write this that doesn't sound vain, but I think, like I imagine most people do, that I'm a pretty good catch overall.

But that has nothing to do with evolutionary fitness. Evolutionary fitness is solely about your ability to survive and pass on your genes by reproduction. I didn't have kids until 32, when I had twins, and I probably won't have any more kids. Meanwhile, I know people who grew up with me in Alabama and have 3, 4, 5, even more kids. They are reproducing at a much higher rate than me and are far more successful from an evolutionary standpoint.

I am not unique in my experience. Many people are waiting until later in life to have kids and are having fewer kids, and society is creating new support mechanisms to enable this behavior, such as Apple and Facebook's offers to pay for its female employees to freeze eggs and have children later in life, after they have given the abundant energy of their 20's to the company to lay the foundation for a career.

While the number of children someone has might be an obvious sign of this trend, the age at which they have them is the more important factor. Because population growth is more or less exponential, generation time has a much larger impact on the number of individuals born to a given lineage than the number of children in a particular generation.

A Fitness Example

As an example, suppose we were to look at the progeny of two families starting from today for the next hundred years. One family tends to have people who are focused on achieving "high success" as defined by conventional values (for whatever reason - nature vs. nurture are interestingly not interesting for this kind of family tendency), such as obtaining a solid education with potential graduate degrees followed by demanding careers in fields like medicine, law, finance, or engineering. The other family tends to seek more "normal success" in conventional terms, with an education including some college education or a bachelor's from an average school, a job that keeps the family out of financial danger but offers little luxury, and emphasis on other non-career measures of fulfillment such as volunteering, community/church participation, or family time.

(Aside: it's not useful to try and decide whether one family is "wrong" about how they live their lives and the other is "right." Such discussions are fundamentally subjective and nothing can be proved. Avoid spending cycles on these kinds of thought trains. The only important thing in real life is whether the individuals feel fulfilled by their lives. The only important thing in this post is that the two families hypothetically exist.)

In the first family, the average generation time is 33 and they tend to have 2 children. In the second family, the average generation time is 25 and they tend to have 3 children. That may not seem like a huge difference, but over the course of 100 years, the first family will produce 14 children: 2 children in 33 years, 4 grandchildren after 66 years, and 8 great-grandchildren after 99 years. The second family will produce a whopping 120 children, nearly 10 times as many: 3 children in 25 years, 9 grandchildren in 50 years, 27 great-grandchildren in 75 years, and 81 children in 100 years. Exponential growth is a powerful thing.

So which family is more fit?

Well, fitness is generally related to the "ability to survive and reproduce." Because we're dealing with hypotheticals and averages, we can assume there is little difference in the ability of the two families to survive - at least inasmuch as survival would inhibit reproduction. Similarly, we can assume there are no issues affecting ability to reproduce. The key difference postulated is that the choices about reproduction are different between the two families. If we want to define fitness as something concrete regarding the ability to reproduce, those choices are the key difference in fitness between the two families.

How Does Intelligence Relate to Fitness?

NOFX's lyric is a catchy turn of a familiar phrase, but the problem is not that the fittest people are not surviving. It's that many people who think they are very fit because they are intelligent, successful people are actually not very evolutionarily fit at all if they don't have children.

Or, perhaps worded more in alignment with other definitions in evolutionary theory but ultimately amounting to the same thing, despite these intelligent, successful people being very fit in terms of ability to survive, they are not reproducing at a rate commensurate with their success surviving. They are effectively behaving like they were less fit to survive and reproduce, or even as if they died if they choose not to reproduce. One could even view whatever qualities they possess that make them successful and intelligent as evolutionary negatives. Even though they might personally be doing quite well, the fact that they are reproducing less often is actually an evolutionary weakness, destined to be bred out of the population.

None of these are original observations. Satoshi Kanazawa wrote a great article pointing out the ways in which intelligence is actually an evolutionary disadvantage. Mike Judge's Idiocracy basically takes this premise that intelligent people are being bred out and turns it into a movie. Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene explores some of this territory, including coining the original meaning of meme to describe social and cultural elements that essentially undergo an evolutionary process in our collective minds.

These make good arguments that there might be something to the idea that intelligence is an evolutionary disadvantage at this point in our species history (even putting aside the fact that our intelligence has grown sufficiently for us to create existential threats like nuclear holocaust and catastrophic climate change). So is there something to it?

Memes are Important lol

The meme connection is also interesting and relevant here. Memes are basically little cultural nuggets that compete for survival in culture at large. Dawkins explained them with an analogy to his claim that evolution operates at the gene level, with the propagation of useful genes being the process underlying evolution. Memes can be grouped into ideologies, which are an analogy to entire organism genomes: collections of genes that form a larger coherent entity better able to spread all of the genes together than any one gene would be on its own.

Memes that correlate with or encourage increased reproduction, such as anti-contraceptive/anti-abortion messages, ending one's education sooner, agrarian lifestyles, and general "be fruitful and multiply" religious beliefs, tend to have an evolutionary advantage because they speed up generation times and/or increase the average number of children per generation. Over time, one would expect these kinds of memes to dominate society and push out competing or incompatible ideas. Indeed, many of the worlds leading religions have been around for thousands of years and, among other moral principles, espouse having many children as primary goals.

I love my kids and think parenthood is the most rewarding thing you can do in life, so my point is not to suggest there is something wrong with memes that encourage you to have many kids. I get why someone would like having many kids, although it's not for me. My point is that these memes are expected to win and push rival ideologies to the side. Over time, ideologies that feature memes emphasizing having many children should increase their prominence in society to the point of domination.

Yet that is not what we observe. If it were possible for strong memes about bountiful reproduction to propel the ideologies that contain them to dominate society, we would never have left the Dark Ages. So something else must be going on.

Memes Evolve

Certainly part of the reason ideologies with hyper-reproductive memes aren't totally dominant is that ideologies are not monolithic or static. People are free to adopt parts of an ideology and reject others, or even adopt parts of multiple ideologies, and the memes constituting an ideology can and do change over time. Today, most religious people accept that the Earth revolves around the Sun, even though 1000 years ago such a belief was a great way to get the Church to burn you at the stake.

Most modern religions do not reject science, and while I personally think there is no way to truly accept science and believe in a religion, I recognize many people do and I am happy for them as long as they don't impose those beliefs on others (although I am stricter about that than many religious people are probably comfortable with - things like being against LGBTQ equality are an obvious no-no with me, but so are little things like the "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance).

But another important role science has played has been to increase the overall ability of our species to survive and reproduce. Humans and our ancestors have gone from learning to stand up to dominating every aspect of life on this planet in only 4 million years, or 0.09% of the lifetime of Earth. Homo sapiens have gone from achieving rudimentary modern behaviors like being able to plan and think abstractly to figuring out how to land on the moon, create the Internet, and feed a population that has been growing exponentially without limit in only 50,000 years - 0.001% of the lifetime of Earth. These are incredible achievements, not to be overlooked as possible contributors to resolving the Fermi paradox.

Science is an Ideology, but *Inherently* Not One That Can Survive Independently

It pains me to the core of my soul, but I don't think a science-first society like the United Federation of Planets can ever exist.

Science is a symbiotic ideology composed of symbiotic memes. On its own, science will tend to be overwhelmed by other ideologies and memes that encourage more, faster reproduction, which works against allowing people to spend more time engaged in learning, thinking, experimenting, and inventing. Science by itself is unlikely to become a dominant ideology on evolutionary timescales as long as biological reproduction is necessary for the growth of a population.

But there is a bright side to science's symbiosis. Any ideology which rejects science loses access to the powerful technologies and other benefits it generates, which ultimately makes that ideology weaker than its competitors. If an ideology abandons science or randomly comes to prominence with anti-science memes, other ideologies that do permit science will rise up to replace the science-rejecting ideologies over time due in part to the power science brings them.

This is why the mainstream belief systems of major religions tend to have some sort of love/hate relationship with science. They accept as much science as they can, while leaving room for their deepest beliefs in order to encourage the application of science within their ideologies wherever doing so doesn't threaten the ideas they most want to preserve. Where there are direct tensions, over time (perhaps generations), the religion will let go of certain specific memes in order to maintain a connection to science and not prevent it from being applied fully by it. Hence the Sun-revolves-around-Earth flip flop.

But We Still Need to Make New Science People

To ensure a supply of new scientists and other science-minded people in the face of memes which push for more reproduction and thus less science, successful ideologies often incorporate other memes which reward a handful of individuals who do put aside reproduction and take up science. They may earn significant financial rewards, and they may earn respect from others and prestigious recognition. Some even achieve popular fame simply for being smart.

But the ideologies also constrain the number of those who can pursue these scientific goals in order to maintain the primacy of the reproductive memes. Only a few people can become tenured professors or be admitted to medical school. Only a few people can work at Google or get their startup funded. Even before those achievements, only a few people can be top of their class students or earn all A's.

One could argue that is natural because not everyone is equally capable. But if one doesn't let that sentiment stop one from continuing to think, one could also argue that the efforts to limit the number of people who go into scientific fields are baked into the way we teach our children from the very beginning, in what behaviors we reward vs. punish, how we teach science and math, and even how we pass on our own apprehensions (unwittingly or not) about science and math to our children. Only a few people can learn to read or go to school, or have enough to eat.

By constraining the ability of people to become engaged in scientific careers, and by glorifying those who obtain such careers at least in some circles, we create a limited opportunity for a few ambitious people to compete to fulfill the expectations of the special-purpose memes of science. These memes are poorly suited to survival on their own, but in the context of the larger ideology and society in which they exist, they contribute immensely to the survival of all.

Humans Win Because They Make Fitness About Ideologies and Memes

Ideologies that survive are complex webs of memes, pushing people to hold certain beliefs and perform certain actions, which make the overall population of people believing that ideology more numerous. Sometimes, the motives of different individuals holding an ideology seem to run counter to each other. Sometimes the motives in an individual even seem to contradict.

While I'm personally not perhaps as fit as someone else who has 6 children before 30, the fact that I have invested in my intelligence and education and am pursuing a technical career means I am creating means to support the people who do invest their effort in reproduction, almost as if they were my children. That seems like a good thing overall for whatever pieces of ideology we share, even though it's likely that we would hold very different beliefs and memes on other points and maybe not even like each other. But for our society as a whole, our ability to support each other even indirectly is a good thing.

And that perhaps is the most important trait humans have developed which have allowed us to take over the world: we have mastered the means by which a group of individuals with disagreements can become a cohesive meta-organism, with the individuals contributing to the fitness of the overall meta-organism even if they are not personally reproducing in great numbers.

So, the next time you meet someone who says or does or believes things you disagree with, realize they are more important to you than you might think. Your beliefs and actions can either support each other or work against each other, and you can choose to increase or decrease the support. You can choose to focus on your differences or on your similarities. But know that the evolutionary trend is toward support because that increases the fitness of your ideology, and you fight evolutionary trends at your own peril.

Of course, all of this assumes other people exist, and it's also likely that soon human intelligence won't matter, so yeah, there's that :)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Do We Live In Personal Universes?

It's generally useful to behave as if we all live in the same universe. Even if one agrees with quantum solipsism - the idea that one is the only person one knows exists and that the existence of the entire universe depends on you continuing to exist - walking around acting that way makes you look crazy and you're sure to piss off everyone around you if they do in fact also exist. Life is a lot easier to live if one accepts the postulate that other people really do exist even if it can't be proven - and even if they don't exist, behaving as if they do keeps your experience of reality consistent with the expectations your mind has built up over years of experience before you started questioning the reality of other people.

If one puts aside quantum solipsism, there is still a problem in knowing whether or not other people exist in the same universe as you or not. It turns out that one can only prove that other people's universe is consistent with your universe, and not that they are in the same universe.

The Observable Universe

Scientists sometimes mention the observable universe. The observable universe is basically the subset of the universe that we could possibly observe or otherwise be affected by. Because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light under relativity, it's not the case that some object in the universe an arbitrary distance away from Earth can affect Earth (although there are phenomena that do seem to violate the universal speed limit, they are either purely theoretical or confined to the quantum scale, so we will ignore them here).

Only objects that are no farther away than the speed of light times the age of the universe can have affected Earth, so one might guess that the observable universe is a sphere with Earth at the origin and a radius of about 13.8 billion light-years - the speed of light times age of the universe. However, the universe is also expanding, so 13 billion years ago many objects were much closer to us when they emitted light that we observe today. Taking the expansion rate of the universe into account, the actual radius of the observable universe is about 46.5 billion light-years. Also because of the expansion of the universe, there are a set of objects which will never enter the observable universe - they are becoming more distant fast enough that the light they emit will never reach us. In fact, because the universe expands exponentially but the rate of expansion of the universe is constant, objects in the observable universe slowly leave it!

Side note - because light takes time to travel to Earth, it's also the case that looking out into space is looking back in time. When we look out to the edge of the observable universe, we are seeing things as they were billions of years ago. If you go back far enough, the elemental composition of the universe was different, with heavy elements not yet having been synthesized in supernovas. In these conditions, stars and galaxies themselves often took different forms than they do today. Distant galaxies are usually bluer and more metal-poor because of their youth, for example.

The observable universe is relative to the point from which one looks out into the galaxy. Because its radius is so huge, the observable universe on Mars is very nearly identical to that on Earth - at its most distant, Mars is about 401 million km from Earth, or 0.0000423 light-years, or 0.0000000000000912% (9.12 e-14%) the radius of the observable universe. That is insignificant enough to consider the observable universe of Mars as the same as the observable universe of Earth for most purposes - any information that reaches Mars at the speed of light reaches Earth no more than about 24 minutes later, and vice versa. Compare to the age of the universe, that is nearly instantaneous.

But the difference is not zero. There is a slight difference between the observable universe of Mars and that of Earth, and while it's unlikely ever to matter, it's still not zero. It's still different.

Our Own Observable Universes

Earth is not a point in space, so similar to the difference between the observable universes of Mars and Earth, different locations on the Earth's surface have ever so slight differences in their observable universes. The differences are four orders of magnitude less than the greatest difference between Earth and Mars - the Earth's diameter is only about 12,742 km on average - but the difference is still not zero.

People are not points in space either, but because our observation and understanding of the universe arise from of the abstract viewpoint of our brains, we perceive the universe as if we were points in space. Because we are made of fermions, no two people can occupy the same point in space, so no two people can observe the universe from the same point. Thus, like Mars and Earth, we each have our own observable universes too. If we're having a conversation we might only be a meter apart - 9 orders of magnitude closer than the Earth and Mars at their most distant - but we are still a non-zero distance apart and we have different observable universes.

Being in different observable universes doesn't mean we are in different actual universes, however. As long as our observations of the universe are consistent, it only means we observe things at slightly different times - only if we observed a contradiction, like me observing a coin come up heads and you observing it come up tails, or me observing a distant supernova and you observing a star happily chugging along, would being in different observable universes show that we are in different actual universes.

But it also means that we can't prove that we are in the same actual universe. It only means that we can check our past observations against each other and determine whether or not they are consistent with the hypothesis that we are in the same actual universe.

There is a similar thought process some have explored regarding the fact that it takes time for light to enter your eye, cause chemical reactions in your retina, travel up your optic nerve, and be processed into information by your brain. This process means we are always observing the past, and the present ever eludes us. This is a valid observation, but different from the observable universe argument in that it speaks about our limits making observations, not about the content of the universe we are able to observe.

So, does it matter if we can't prove that we are in the same actual universe? Certainly, all our experience has been consistent with that hypothesis. And like quantum solipsism, running around saying that no one else is in the same universe as you is a great way to alienate friends and get committed.

But that's not the point. The point is to use things we can know to reason about the world and form a logical understanding of reality. And the fact that you and I are in different observable universes (assuming you exist :) ) means that neither I nor you can know that the other is also in the same universe. It means we either accept the loneliness that implies, or adopt some additional postulates into our worldview.

Personally, I find it more practical to accept the postulates and carry on with the assumption that other people are in the same actual universe as I. But it's good to know what beliefs you hold that are postulates, both because being logically explicit is mentally healthy and calling out your assumptions enables you to reason and understand other things more effectively. Plus, you never know when you'll see a coin come up heads that I see come up tails, and we'll suddenly realize we aren't in the same universe after all.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Preparing for the Singularity

Eight years went by fast! Better late than never picking back up a blog I suppose.

Since I last wrote (in addition to everyone driving home getting “Internet phones” to provide them real-time traffic data which should hypothetically lead to more efficient travel times) I’ve largely maintained most of the beliefs from my posts and developed my thinking along several lines. Today, I’m going to talk about something that’s been on my mind a lot recently: what will happen to society leading into and after the singularity?

On one hand, the definition of the singularity is that we cannot see what the world will be like beyond its horizon, because we cannot predict what the presence of one or more intelligences far superior to our own would do with the world. However, we can project some of the current aspects of our society forward to the singularity and make some educated guesses about what will happen to them after the singularity as well.

I’m going to first talk through the DMV as a case study in technological advancement, and then describe the two critical developments we need to focus on making now as a society to avoid the worst sociological effects of the singularity. Also, it should be noted that I continue to take the arrival of the singularity as a given – it’s important to prepare for it because there is no way it doesn’t happen.

I should also say this post began from an outline for a book on this topic, which would provide more examples, flesh out ideas further, and try to offer some more concrete suggestions. It also would have more citations, which I ordinarily would include in a blog post but have omitted now because of my purpose for sharing this. I’m posting this as a blog to get ideas down and see what others think of them. 

Why Do We Still Have The DMV?

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV – note that other states have different names for the same function, but DMV is most common) is the bureaucratic hell most of us have to experience every few years to replace our licenses. You go, get a number, wait, then talk to a person who does some work on the computer and prints some things out. A few weeks later, a new license arrives in the mail.

The DMV could be replaced almost entirely by a website. In fact, one day it almost certainly will be. A website could instantly field requests, handle routine activity totally automatically, and make complex decisions with little to no human involvement. A website could provide you an instant temporary license to print at home, and have a new license show up in your mail box within a few business days.

Some states have replaced portions of their DMV process with websites or call centers, but none have gone all the way (comment if you know of some!). There is indeed little effort to create all-software replacements for the current DMV process, and certainly any effort to do so would be encountered by tremendous resistance from the government and likely many other organizations. The DMV process is established and many public and private sector jobs depend on it. It would be easy for those organizations to stymie efforts to fully automate the licensing process by drudging up fear of terrorists, illegal immigrants, and reckless drunk drivers being given licenses by soulless computers.

Yet for the customers of the DMV, a totally web-based system would be a far superior experience. No lines, the ability to renew your license outside business hours or whenever is convenient for you, maybe even the ability to choose your license picture. Nonetheless, there is no real effort being made to turn the DMV experience into a website.

Why? Certainly part of the answer is that as a government organization, the DMV doesn’t really need to compete for customers. But many DMVs have private partners who do face competition, and the tendency of the government’s use of technology is to adopt it slowly rather than never. So why would there be resistance to creating software to make it easier for an organization to deliver better service to those it would serve? If people prefer a given piece of software to provide them a service instead of a human-based alternative, why is it hard to make that happen?

The answer is jobs. Putting software in charge of tasks humans currently perform eliminates the need for those humans to be employed to perform those tasks. Our current economic system is based on the premise that people acquire wealth by being employed in jobs, whether they work for others or themselves, so preservation of jobs is an important subconscious facet of almost all economic decisions. Without competition, the DMV doesn’t need to become more efficient or better satisfy its customers, so it faces no real pressure to change. Without that kind of pressure, the people within the DMV are not likely to start replacing their coworkers with software.

Using a public sector bureaucracy as an example enables us to really highlight a blatant existing inefficiency, whereas a private sector example would likely highlight a company that no longer exists. But this same broad theme is true in many areas: transportation, bartending, outdoor guiding, tailoring, piloting, accounting, investing, governing. Software could perform a great many functions for people, even better than people, and yet in many areas we see little to no application of software to truly improving them to that extent. Where there has been progress, with software like Uber, Spotify, or Amazon, numerous challenges have presented themselves from displaced interests.

Now, I don’t mean to celebrate this trend. Only clearly point out its existence. It’s not necessarily always a good thing to just start eliminating jobs with software (even though that’s what we’ve been doing since the ‘70’s – also, note that the local impact of this is very similar to jobs being exported overseas instead of given to computers). Like anything else there are pros and cons, and we need to recognize the cons in order to mitigate them.

Ultimately, the major con in this trend is that many people are losing their ability to acquire the resources they need to live. By having their jobs replaced, they stop making money, and they face the prospect of not being able to afford to live as they had been.

So, we need to mitigate the downside impact of people losing jobs to software. We’ll come back to that. But first, we need to understand the scope of jobs that are threatened by software.

The Singularity Means A Computer Will Be Bettter At Your Job Than You - ALL Of You

For many people, especially those who I’d expect to be reading my blog, jobs being replaced by machines or computers has always been something that happened to “someone else.” Manufacturing, labor, paper pushing, delivery, basic math, editing… the kinds of jobs that are highly repetitive and/or mainly involve executing a series of rule-based decisions. Not the white collar, intellectual, creative jobs of someone with a college education.

After the singularity, this will no longer be true. The singularity is the culmination of a larger software revolution in which, as Marc Andreessen says, “software will eat the world.”

It can be tempting to argue that the software revolution, like all technological revolutions of the past, on the balance will actually create jobs. For example, while the invention of the mechanized loom drastically shrunk demand for human weavers, it created other, higher-level jobs that could assume the availability of cheap fabric as given and create larger net productivity. Although it’s true that many weavers who lost their jobs could not transition to new roles and suffered as a result, society as a whole benefitted.

What is different about the software revolution is that it results in technology which supersedes essentially all human capabilities. The technology of the singularity is by definition of superior intelligence to humans – it is better than us at any mental task. When a stockbroker or an aeronautical engineer or a lawyer is replaced by software (software more effective than the humans, in fact!), there is no longer a higher-level role a human can move into in order to fulfill some need better than another piece of software could (at least, not in significant enough numbers to provide traditional jobs for all the displaced). There may be a tiny number of jobs created to manage all these pieces of software, but not enough for even 1% of the displaced. And even then, these management jobs will likely be better performed by more software anyway.

The core economic disruption caused by the software revolution is that it will *never* be economically correct to hire a human to do a job over having a machine do it. There will not be jobs to be had because those who might need some work done – owners, for lack of a better term – will find computers a far more cost effective way to have the work performed. Without a need for human labor, the only humans to whom wealth accrues will be the owners.

This means that the people at the DMV, the taxi drivers, and the baristas aren’t the only ones whose livelihoods are endangered by the singularity. Unless you own some technology that will be part of the transformation the singularity entails, you too are threatened.

So, with essentially everyone on the planet at risk of economic disaster, how can we mitigate the downside of jobs lost to software? We'll have to deeply understand the problem first...

The Core Problem: How We Gain Wealth

The primary means by which most people acquire wealth is by having a job. In a job, people sell the hours of their life to perform the tasks that job is intended to achieve. If there are almost no tasks which a human is better suited to perform than software, what happens to all the humans displaced by software? And perhaps more importantly, what happens to the humans who own that software?

The answer today is that the humans who hold the displaced jobs are themselves displaced. They lose their ability to gain wealth and the survival of both themselves and those who depend on them is endangered. Meanwhile, those who own the software and related means that replace them gain the wealth the displaced would have otherwise acquired.

This is not a sustainable arrangement as software becomes more and more capable of performing complex tasks. It’s not the case that a very small few can concentrate the wealth that the great many expected to acquire without consequences. It is hard to predict specific consequences, but these are the circumstances on which revolution is built. Left unchecked, one of two things will happen: revolution, or a return to feudalism. Neither result benefits the progress of humanity; a different result must be obtained.

The advance of technology cannot be stopped. The solution is not to reject technology and attempt to preserve human roles in economic functions. Such an effort may achieve temporary, local successes, but cannot stop the tidal forces of technological advance. The solution is to change the system by which technological advances are managed.

How do we change the system in such a way?

Basic capitalism is a good first order description of a better system, but not the same capitalism that applies in a world where the majority of work is performed by humans. Capitalism is based on the two premises (1) that the application of owned capital is the basis for economic development, and (2) that human labor is an essential function of applying capital. In a world where software can replace the output of multitudes of humans, the second premise breaks down.

The only humans who win in this scenario are those who own the software in question, because our economic system provides them with all the benefits generated by the software. If a new X-ray analysis program eliminates the need for radiologists (or more precisely, offers the same services as radiologists at 10% the price and with 200% the effectiveness), the entity which owns that program gets to assume the economic benefits of a tremendous swath of formerly well-paid, useful humans who no longer have marketable skills.

Left unchecked, this trend will cause a return to feudal society, with ownership of software rather than land as the core mechanic. However, unlike feudal society where tiers of humans were necessary to administer the land and humans occupying it, the need for intermediate tiers of humans will be minimal to none. Instead of a king, dukes, earls, barons, and serfs, we will only have kings and serfs.

The antidote to this problem is not simple. It requires social, political, and economic advances on several fronts. But the critical step is to redefine how wealth is accrued: most people cannot expect someone else to pay them to perform work for them, and simultaneously most people cannot expect to own some set of software that generates wealth for them.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a specific plan for a specific system (yet?), but I do know the two critical characteristics a good plan must have, and these characteristics are goals we can start heading towards now. 

Step 1: Eliminate Time As The Core Wealth Generator

Firstly, we must stop thinking that selling the hours of our life is how wealth is acquired. Whether you are a grocery checker, truck driver, lawyer, doctor, stock broker, or even computer programmer, after and even soon before the singularity, there will come a point where your employer will find it in their economic interests to replace you with software under the current economic paradigm. You cannot expect your time to remain a resource others will want to purchase (and besides, they've been paying you to browse the internet and read blogs like this from your desk at least *some* of the time, right? :) ).

While broad changes are needed to resolve this at a macro level, one can pursue this goal on one’s own, without any of macro changes, in order to build a more robust livelihood in the face of larger trends. One can prepare now and set oneself up to survive through the singularity even if one is not one of the privileged few who will own the mechanisms of the singularity.

The entrepreneur is a person doing this already: a person starting their own small business, selling a product or service others will pay for. One is still selling one’s hours under this model, but one is not selling them to an employer who has a monopoly over them and decides what they are worth. One is converting one’s hours into products or services which the market values, and one can pursue increased value for one’s hours according to one’s wishes. You are converting your hours into a marketable good which can be priced according to the demand it satisfies. Becoming one’s own boss is not just a luxury – it is a necessity to survive the software revolution.

A key concept to becoming this kind of entrepreneur is to generate a marketable good whose marginal labor cost is trivial. The total marginal cost can be non-trivial – for example, maybe you make a widget that requires you purchase raw materials and manufacture something on an assembly line – but it must not take a noticeable amount of human effort to produce a unit. Like those sitting on top of the singularity, you need a product which you can allow machines to largely create and deliver for you.

Also note that “entrepreneur” is meant in the classic sense of someone starting their own business, to generate income for themselves. The shiny Silicon Valley “entrepreneur” is not necessarily this person, for many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are still ultimately selling a product with non-trivial marginal labor costs or with significant outside ownership. Someone who is attempting to create a business that existing capital holders (rich companies or people) will purchase for large amounts of money, but with a majority of the return on their effort being diverted to other existing capital holders (venture capitalists and their investors) is not the right kind of entrepreneur to strive to be.

While the shiny Silicon Valley approach can be a valid short-term strategy for generating wealth to sustain oneself through before we get too close to the singularity, it’s important to recognize this form of entrepreneurship is not going to remain effective for the entrepreneur as the singularity approaches. Perhaps worse, it is improving the financial situation for a small number of people by contributing to the overall problem of capital accumulating in fewer and fewer hands. Those involved in this activity aren’t inherently bad, but they are taking the efforts of intelligent people and applying them towards the furthering of the problem of capital consolidation, which is not the best use of their abilities.

So, to take steps towards preparing for the singularity economy, one should look for ways to create a high-demand product with negligible marginal labor costs. Examples include designing a product that can be manufactured and delivered mostly by machines, writing a book or blog, making music or movies, lecturing online, or making software.  Unfortunately, it’s not obvious there is enough demand for these kinds of products for everyone to find profit making them (although my ability to come up with examples of these products is limited to my own capabilities - others who can identify new kinds of products can profit greatly). But there is enough demand for many to find a good living at such pursuits. Starting now is a great way to try and find a niche before nearly everyone is trying to do the same thing. 

Step 2: Make Ownership Less Important

Secondly, we must stop treating owners as more important than doers. A man who owns a business deserves no more credit for the success of that business than those who work in it. He deserves some – providing capital to the business is usually essential to its success – but ascribing most of the benefits of success to an individual simply because they put in money instead of time overemphasizes the role of capital in achieving success. Further, because benefits of success accrue to owners rather than doers, the problem of capital consolidation grows worse when we use ownership to allocate benefits, because owners gain even more capital to benefit from over time. “The rich become richer.”

However, it’s also not the case that Marxian distribution of the benefits of success to doers is correct. Communism is not the answer to this problem because communism runs counter to human nature at a macro scale. Both owners and doers deserve a share of benefits. But it’s hard to know how to distribute benefits effectively.

It’s important to allocate benefits to those whose actions contributed to success, but to do so one must measure their contributions. Just as capital spent is not a good metric for assigning benefits, time spent to create is also not a good metric. Nor are metrics which measure volume of output, such as units made or lines of code written. Any such metrics can be gamed and organizing the distribution of benefits based on them will only result in activity that optimizes those metrics at the expense of greater success.

Without an obvious way to measure contribution to success, it's best that the profits of success be distributed in a manner agreeable to everyone involved in making success happen. Success comes from a combination of capital and labor that is different for every business, so it seems best for each business to decide how to allocate profits among owners and employees on their own as part of a profit sharing program.

Today, we already have examples of companies who practice profit sharing. In these models, some of the total return of the company is distributed to those who generated that return. Employee ownership models offer similar incentives, as do typical sales or money management jobs where a commission is paid. The key component in these kinds of businesses is that the compensation due to everyone involved scales with the success. Everyone involved earns a percentage, rather than a fixed sum.

However, most jobs are not like this, and many people – not to mention entities like lending organizations – are uncomfortable with jobs whose compensation has little to no floor. And in many of these jobs, the profits shared are a relative pittance compared to the total profit. For example, an employer who shared 5% of profits with employees would be exceptionally generous.

I am not sure how to cause macro changes to our economic system in this vein, but I can see ways for individuals to align themselves more in that direction. The step you can take today is to try and find jobs which include some percentage-based share of profits to their employees. The higher the percentage, the better, even if the actual numbers are less than a different job you could get.

Further, try and encourage your employer to increase profit sharing. It’s still the case that most employers need their employees to do their work today, so leverage that need to gain for yourself while you still can. Try to get profit sharing as a permanent component of your employment contract, and encourage your co-workers to do the same. If you can, organize – unions have always been the friend of the worker (how capital holders have managed to convince workers to hate unions is a tragic coup for another discussion).

The key is to distribute the benefits of ownership away from actual owners and into more hands. If possession of capital remains the primary determinant of how wealth is accrued, capital will continue to concentrate into fewer and fewer hands because the ability to leverage capital becomes nearly infinite post-singularity. Even if you are a millionaire today earning 7 or 8 figures at your job, be aware that the 10 figure owner of your company will be happy to replace you with software as soon as possible.

Possible Bonus Step 3: Other Transformational Technology*

There is a possible third way to resolve the problem of economic inequality post-singularity. Whether through the means in which the singularity is achieved or simply through technological advances on other fronts, new technology could disrupt the current economic paradigm in such a way that capital concentration is no longer a problem. Sufficient benefits for every human being might be available no matter how the benefits of success are ascribed.

For the benefits of success not to be ascribed based on capital invested or work performed, benefits must be distributed based on some basis orthogonal to the success itself. This may seem to imply the creation of some sort of magical charity state, where people invest lots of capital and do lots of work for no reason, but there is an incorrect assumption in that implication which provides a different answer: that the supply of benefits is finite.

It’s not the case that everyone in the world can have a mansion, 68’ yacht, and steak dinners every night. But it is the case that everyone in the world can have a comfortable house large enough for their family, access to wonderful recreation, and enough good food to eat. With the reduction of the need for human labor to achieve goals through the software revolution, enough value can be created without significant capital or labor investment to provide significant benefits to every human on the planet as long as so many benefits are available that they cannot accrue in the hands of a few kings.

One way to achieve this is simple to state and hard to achieve: the software revolution must be for all. It must be embodied by freely available, open-source software, with contributions from the greatest minds available (at least, until the greatest minds are themselves open-source software). Today, it’s the case that these minds are generally employed by would-be kings – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, even places like Stanford and MIT. But there is no reason that this must be so, and no reason that must remain so once momentum is built towards a different way. If fantastic productivity is available via free, ubiquitous software, there is no reason every single human cannot live what one would call a comfortable upper-middle-class life because all their needs are met by free software and machines. Some may even still live extraordinarily comfortable upper-class lives, but that does not mean others must suffer for it or that the extraordinarily comfortable need oppose this development (for if one has a wonderful life, what does it matter if another has more?).

Another possible development is significant advances in energy, food, and other forms of production such that the availability of the resources needed for a comfortable life is practically infinite. Even if there are kings, if there is so much available that they could not possibly possess it all, then it doesn’t matter if they possess arbitrarily large amounts. And over time, if possessing more does not matter, the drive some feel to acquire more and more may subside – if owning things and acquiring more wealth has little to no bearing on how you live your life, why own more?

This essentially attacks the problem of ownership and greed on the supply side, instead of the demand side.

An example of such a change could be practical fusion energy. In theory, fusion power could provide orders of magnitude more electrical energy than produced by all the world today, and primarily consume water as its power source. Energy costs would go so low as to approach zero, and suddenly wealth would not be required to obtain nearly any amount of energy. Were this to be true, power could be treated as a basic human right, enabling many to improve their lives significantly – even if other people still have more than them.

An analogy can be drawn right out of Adam Smith’s original thinking on capitalism. For him, it was important that people engaging in capitalism not take ownership of so much as to leave others unable to survive and participate economically. Suppose there were an island with 10 people on it, and the primary food source on that island were banana trees producing 1000 bananas a day. A person needs to eat 10 bananas a day to survive, and perhaps another 10 to have some surplus to feel comfortable.

Under Smith’s vision for capitalism, it’s OK for 1 person to own a banana harvesting business and gain 820 bananas a day, with the other 9 as his employees earning 20 bananas each. It might even be OK for the 1 owner to gain 910 bananas and leave the other 9 only 10 each – they can still survive, so it’s an ethical question whether it’s acceptable for the owner to deprive the other 9 a feeling of comfort because he owns the business. But it’s not acceptable to go any farther than that.

But what if the supply of bananas were infinite? Well, then the 1 owner can take as many bananas as he likes, because the 9 employees can still get their 20. In fact, the owner can let the employees take as many bananas as they like, because it doesn’t prevent him from having as many bananas as he likes. It’s even possible the owner will stop even caring or noticing that he owns the banana harvesting business, and it will become a mundane property of just living on the island, same as having air to breathe and a sun in the sky.

Because it requires a either the singularity to be achieved in a specific way or significant technological breakthroughs on other fronts, it’s not a given that a solution like this will present itself, so one should not bank on this over the first two steps. But it’s a good low-probability get-out-of-jail-free card, and if you happen to be someone in a position to push in these kinds of directions, doing so would be a great service to humanity. 


So what was that all about? Well, briefly:
  • Most people today get money by being paid for their time at a job
  • Organizations (like the DMV) are made of people, who resist the elimination of jobs
  • Nonetheless, eventually software will eliminate all jobs
  • Significant social change is necessary to truly prepare for a world without jobs
  • Whether or not significant change will happen, one can personally prepare for a world without jobs by
    • Finding ways to earn money besides selling one’s time
    • Finding jobs that include significant profit sharing that scales with profits
  • There is a chance that through either being purposeful about making the singularity work for all or by dramatically improving production on other fronts that people will end up living comfortable lives despite the problems the current trajectory to the singularity imply

Hopefully this post gives you some things to think about in how you live your life. For me, these realizations have caused me to become a lot more entrepreneurial and look for multiple passive income streams I can implement in my life. After all, the alternative is to wait around until software eats me, and I would prefer to be immortal and comfortable because of the singularity rather than chewed up by it.

* - much credit for the step 3 section goes to Ryan Flynn, who first told me about his thoughts around fusion and infinite energy and inspired me to think about addressing the capital concentration problem from the supply side.