Sunday, January 05, 2014

New Years Resolutions and Setting a Purpose

The tradition of making resolutions at the start of each new year is, in a sense, arbitrary. After all, is it not coincidence that it takes 365 days (and a few seconds change) for the Earth to revolve around the sun? Is it not a cultural decision that a new year starts on January 1st? Why make resolutions once a year, rather than whenever the mood strikes us? Despite these concerns, I have found the tradition valuable. A yearly cycle of goal-setting and re-evaluation is not without merit. A month (or week, or day) is too short a cycle for bigger goals, as there is simply not enough time to execute on them. Some goals are even bigger and need a 5-year plan, but even for those, it is good to check in every year to see if those goals need re-adjusting. (I think, generally, that 5-year plans are the longest out most people can plan. Life changes too much to have a firm grip on what the world will look like further ahead than that.) Why even make resolutions? This question has been asked by many after years of setting lofty New Years goals, failing to achieve them, then feeling worse for having bothered. The problem, in my mind, is in setting unachievable goals, or goals that you don't actually want to achieve. When setting a goal based on what you think you probably should be, or rather what you think others want you to be, then those goals are literally a waste of time. When goals are based on what you truly want to be, the effect of setting that goal can be galvanizing. Simply verbalizing a resolution can be enough to tip the scales in favor of action, and gives us something to measure ourselves against. Setting goals can be what it takes to become what we've always wanted to be, when we simply didn't have clear action items to work towards. Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs", first developed in 1943, put Self-Actualization on the top of his pyramid. This meant that other items in the pyramid (food, safety, friends, and confidence) had to be taken care of before Self-Actualization could actually occur. So New Years resolutions are higher-order goals, after our essential needs are met. They are goals we set to define ourselves, and to become finer versions of ourselves. Self-Actualization could also be called Finding A Purpose. In these modern times, purpose is self-defined. It is not handed down by one's God, church, parents, friends, or job. Instead, we are given the unenviable task of defining our own purpose. The thought of this can be intimidating if we have the expectation that purpose should be defined by others, and that the world has too much possibility to narrow down goals on your own. If you are intimidated by purpose, you are likely making a bigger deal out of purpose than it needs to be. "Purpose" as a noun is defined as "the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists". As a noun, Purpose can create a lot of confusion. What is the reason for anything? Why was I created? Why do I exist? Why do any of us exist? Purpose becomes circular when there is nothing external to tell us what our purpose is. "Purpose" as a verb has the much more helpful definition of "have as one's intention or objective". It is as a verb that I think Purpose works the best. Your purpose in this world is simply the intentions and objectives you make. You think about what you want yourself to be, or what you'd like to see in the world, and then set concrete goals that move towards that vision. Your purpose in life is the resolutions you make. No more, and no less. So this year, I hope to make a few practical, achievable resolutions for 2014, based on what I'd like to be and see a year from now. I'm planning on setting my purpose. May you have good luck setting your purpose as well. Happy New Year.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Will We Do When The Robots Take Our Jobs?

As a futurist, I tend to be optimistic about technology. If Ray Kurzweil says that The Singularity is not going to lead to robots enslaving the earth or systematically murdering us like in The Terminator, I tend to agree. But I also tend to like plans. So if we anticipate robots to be smarter and more useful to the point where they can start doing most human jobs, what's our plan to deal with that?

Stepping back, technology has been removing jobs for a while now. Tractors and artificial fertilizer reduced the number of farmers needed to feed us, desktop computers reduced the need for as many secretaries, and factory robots have been reducing the number of workers needed on the assembly lines. So far, that hasn't been a problem. Removing "grunt-work" jobs has freed up workers to take part in new jobs that opened up as a result of that same technology, so everyone stays employed, and overall productivity goes up.

Will this trend continue, or will robots start to replace more jobs than they create as they reach a certain critical point? Up until now, technology has been smart enough to augment human abilities: allow us to farm faster, build cars more easily, and distribute information more efficiently. These augmented abilities have allowed our population to effectively do more. Technology has also opened up new lines of work that tend to be more advanced in terms of skillsets; if you build robots to shovel driveways, you now need engineers to fix those robots, and those engineers replace the human shovelers but you need a degree to do it now.

What happens when you have robots that are smart enough to not only augment, but replace, humans with skillsets? What if the trend starts to be that the number of jobs eliminated are greater than the jobs they create, and the jobs created are too advanced for most people to do? If jobs opened up by the last industrial revolution are in turn eliminated by the robotic revolution and are not replaced with new jobs at an equal rate, what will we do about the growing throngs of permanently unemployed?

Below, I see a number of futures, depending on what plan of action various societies decide to take.

Option 1: Haves and Have-Nots
If a society decides to stick with its capitalist guns to distribute wealth, they will argue that it's up to each individual to find or create a new role after the "low hanging fruit" of unskilled and low-skill labor has been replaced by robotics. The unemployed will need to get degrees that will allow them to compete for the available medium-skill to high-skill jobs still available, and if they fail to get those jobs, they are out of luck. As the unemployment number skyrockets, increasing groups of people will start living "off the grid," forming their own communities that work without the use of robots. If you're an optimist, this could mirror the organic, local, green movements that we've seen to a certain extent now. If you're a pessimist, these would be the neglected slums of post-apocalyptic nightmares, full of the throngs of starving unemployed that lie outside the corporate city-state walls.

Option 2: Robot Welfare State
This idea was proposed by Alan Watts. Rather than replacing the jobs lost to robots, we abandon capitalism and simply redistribute wealth in the form of credit to everyone. So the surplus created by robotic labor allows a baseline of wealth that is available to everyone, and people work to gain additional credit or for pleasure. Our society would be a welfare state to the highest extreme, with robots doing most of the production, an elite group of technologists, politicians, and military leads keeping the system running and reaping the benefits, and the rest of the population enjoying the freely distributed goods and working if they feel like it.

Option 3: Mandated Jobs
I think of The Jetsons. Governments recognize that most jobs can now be handled by robots, so they simply mandate that robots be built to require humans to command and operate. Robot factories only work if there are workers to press the big red button. Robot nannies only take care of the kids if a nanny supervisor issue the permissions. And so on. People still work, but their jobs are invented rather than required, and this allows capitalism to continue to chug along, with the role of humans enforced by law. Bureaucracy saves the day.

Option 4: False Alarm
These are all unknowns, so it's possible that as jobs are eliminated, new jobs will continue to be created at the same rate or faster, so the issue of permanent unemployment will never come to pass. In this case, human society will simply become more and more productive with the augmentation of robotic assistance, and new jobs we've never imagined will come along that were once impossible. People will not need to be highly skilled to do these new jobs, because the technology itself will provide the training and abilities needed, adding to people's abilities to allow them to do the new work. This is capitalism at its most idealistic, with the system working itself out as we reach new pinnacles of productivity and happiness.

Which way will it go? What do you think? To me, it depends on just how smart these robots can get, and how smart we can get in comparison.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What Motivates Us

According to Dan Pink's talk at the RSA, illustrated by RSA Animate, money is not a great motivator for complex tasks. Money is a good reward for simple, repetitive work, but it's a hindrance in motivating complex work.

(This ties into another study I've read that says that past roughly $50,000 per year, happiness and salary decouple. In other words, increases in money don't lead to greater happiness. This is true even of lottery winners -- after half a year or so, people's happiness levels drop back to what they were before they won it all.)

Instead, "pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table," and from that point on, the most effective motivators are Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. These 3 factors lead to better performance and personal satisfaction in work.

The 3 Factors For Motivation (After The Money Problem Is Met)

Feeling like you are self-directing puts your skin in the game

The urge to get better at stuff leads us to enjoy video games and musical instruments, and it works at jobs too

Having a larger vision that your effort fits into connects profit with direction, which guides you towards doing better things.

A perfect example of this? The journal entry I'm writing now. After working all day on my computer, I felt motivated to stay on the computer past my bedtime because of these three things. It was my idea to share the article so my autonomy made it that much more exciting to do so. I felt a certain job about mastering the concepts and solidifying them by sharing them in my journal. And sharing this and other ideas fit into my overall purpose of trying to understand how the world works and sharing it in a digestible way to the people around me.

The trick, then, is how to apply this approach to your actual life. How do you find a job that encourages autonomy, mastery and purpose, or how do you apply those factors to the things you do outside of work that would make those activities more fulfilling and productive?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How To Be Alone

So, I had an interesting thought today. I was thinking about how sad it feels to be outside a relationship, and then it occurred to me that if I took all the time I've invested in figuring out how to get into a relationship and stay in one, and put that same time and effort into figuring out how to be happy on my own, I'd probably be pretty darned good at chilling by myself. So I'm starting the project of figuring out how to amuse myself by myself.

The process has been awkward at first; I've invested very little thought into this previously, as my focus outside relationships has typically been how to get into another one as quickly as possible. A quick Google search gave me big lists of things to do alone, but many are depressing tidbits like "dance in front of a mirror" or "make a funny looking pancake." But here are a few I didn't mind:

1. Read a book. (This is straightforward. When you're really into a good book you don't care who is around. In fact, other people are an unwelcome distraction to a ripping novel.)

2. Hang out with nature. (I've noticed that if you're out in the woods and nobody's around, you don't feel nearly as alone as when you're in a crowded disco club. Less people in nature is actually better, and no people in nature in great.)

3. Play video games. (I really need to get an XStation or PlayBox or something. This is more a guy thing, but I could spend a whole weekend alone if the video game were sufficiently awesome.)

4. Play music. (For some people, this is listening, for me it's practicing my instruments. It's enjoyable while I have the energy for it. Unlike books, though, I can't really jam on guitar for too long, because your fingers get tired.)

5. Draw something. (I used to draw a web comic, but a purpose-driven hobby has its own issues. Free-form doodling is more the idea here.)

6. Meditate. (On a quiet friday night, the last thing I want to do is to make it quieter. But every time I've tried having an extended sit by myself, I always feel great after. 45 minutes is amazing.)

7. Exercise. (I'm obsessed with swimming nowadays, but any aerobic activity that leads to endorphin release is a good thing. I can basically swim my cares away, it takes about 20 minutes for most problems.)

8. Cook. (I'm terrible at getting myself to do this, but the times I have I am amazed at the difference between eating takeout alone and cooking for yourself. Cooking yourself something is a very nice experience.)

9. Watch anime. (For most people this would read "Watch a movie" but I'm not a movie person. Give me a good anime series, however, and that's 6 hours down the drain. Or up the drain.)

This is not a comprehensive list, but a decent start. I'll keep thinking about it. The point is that even if you are in a relationship, there will alwayse be times when you're alone, and you could spend that time waiting for your other half to return, or you could learn to enjoy yourself. Suggestions and thoughts welcome.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Four Laws of Human Robotics

For decades, Issac Asimov's laws of robotics have been a starting point for discussing how to ensure that sentient robots behave morally. Asimov's laws, however, are written to keep robots in human servitude; they are not laws that we ourselves would wish to follow.

My question is, what sort of laws would we make to have robots behave like (good) humans? Here's four laws that might work:

First Law: You must not actively injure another being
Second Law: You must protect your own existence and well-being, as long as this does not conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: You must help other beings, as long as this does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Fourth Law: You must pursue your own pleasure and contentment, as long as this does not conflict with the First, Second or Third Laws.


For the First Law, I am taking a serious risk by removing the second part of Asimov's formulation "..or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." This is for good reason; in the real world, we allow millions and billions to come to harm through inaction, because to try to prevent suffering for all beings is practically impossible. While pursuing the goal of helping others is admirable, to require a being to help others ahead of his or her own well-being is impractical.

For the Second Law, I formulated Asimov's Third Law, essentially removing Asimov's original Second Law entirely. Asimov's laws were built for servitude, hence "A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings". A human would never wish to have unthinking obedience programmed in.

The other change I made was to add "well-being" into the equation. Does protecting one's existence imply securing one's health and well-being? I would think that a human would not value merely existing; a human would want to be healthy and take steps to be secure for the present and future.

The Third Law is an adaptation of Asimov's original Second Law. In place of servitude, there is a built-in desire for goodwill, provided that it does not actively harm beings not endanger its own survival. In this moral formulation, being good should not require self-sacrifice or the sacrifice of others.

The Fourth Law is an addition. In a peaceful society, there will be times where a being's life is secure, no one is being actively threatened, and nobody in the vicinity needs immediate help. In these situations, would a human simply stand in place waiting for the next needed action? In those situations, a human would be free to pursue its own leisure, doing enjoyable activities that bring harm to no one.

Sadly, it has occurred to me that in today's society, we probably rank the pursuit of our own pleasure above helping others. I decided for this exercise to formulate the laws for a *good* human, rather than your run-of-the-mill human. I would think that if all beings pursued helping others in their spare time, the world would be quite a beautiful place.

Let me know your thoughts on this. Would these Four Laws be something that a human could follow, and something that we would be comfortable having artificial intelligences follow alongside us?


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The 90% Rule

I've been learning various productivity rules of thumb that I think are useful, particularly for those perfectionists out there. I, for one, am one of those people who want so badly for things to be perfect that many things don't get done at all, so it's good to be reminded that doing less is often more.

1. The 90% Rule
Don't try to get a project 100% perfect...launch when it's 90% of the way there.

The reasoning is this: most people spend the majority of their time nitpicking at the very end, trying to get something just a little bit better, so they waste time they could spend on the next project (or napping!) on trying to make their current project flawless. Sometimes they don't launch it at all, and in any case it makes the work frustrating instead of fulfilling. The solution is to stop being a perfectionist and launch a project when it's good enough, and then move on to the next one. You end up putting two 90% projects out there in the same time it would take to put out one at 95% (or zero if you get too frustrated). This is a rule the founders of I Can Has Cheezeburger follow, which allows them to crank out lots of popular websites and have fun in the process.

2. 20% Time
Spend 80% of your time on core duties, and 20% of your time working "outside the box".

The idea here is that if you spend all your time looking at the trees you'll never see the forest. Most of our best ideas and innovations come when we're not working on anything at all, as this is what allows us to be inspired. So schedule away 20% of your work time to stepping back and thinking about what you can do different or better. Chances are you'll find more efficient ways to do what you do 80% of the time, or think of things you'd rather do instead. Like napping! Google lives by this rule, and most of their innovations are credited as being thought of during Googler's 20% time.

3. 4 hour work week
Focus all your energies into getting all your work done in a short period of time.

Ever notice that the busiest people seem to somehow get the most done? When you're revved up and focused you can usually crank out a lot more work then when you're lethargic and killing time. Yet our jobs usually schedule us to work long hours so we have enough time to do it all. So instead, reduce the number of hours you're scheduled to work, and then work fast and furious during that limited time. What you'll discover is that the less time you give yourself, the more you'll be able to do in that time, so that you end up accomplishing in one hour what you thought you needed 8 for. Also, by giving yourself less time to work, you focus on the things you really need to do instead of wasting time on the less important items. Once again, those guys who post funny cat pictures live by this. I'm not sure if you can really reduce your work hours to 4 a week, but you can certainly cut hours out and find out you didn't need them.

I wanted to include a fourth rule here, but in the spirit of the 90% rule, I'll end the article here.

Monday, March 16, 2009

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer, writer for Seed Magazine, wrote a follow-up to his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist with a book about decision-making. It is written in a style you would find familiar if you've read Malcolm Gladwell -- anecdotes from exotic and seemingly diametric scenarios to illustrate common universal principles and wisdoms. Unlike Gladwell, Lehrer has a bent towards practical knowledge. The last chapter of his book How We Decide provides a practical set of guidelines on how to apply what he's learned about the prefrontal cortex and dopamine neurons to the way we make everyday decisions.

1. Simple Problems Require Reason
Contrary to popular thought, the more complex a problem, the less we should apply painstaking reason to it. Our prefrontal cortex can only handle 4 to 9 different factors at once, and beyond that we get confused and can be distracted by variables that aren't important. For simple problems like selecting a vegetable peeler, reasoning things out is simple enough for our conscious logic to handle and can help us avoid pitfalls our emotional intelligence makes, like loss aversion where we overvalue potential losses.

2. Novel Problems Require Reason
Our unconscious emotional intelligence is like a supercomputer, able to juggle seemingly limitless variables and find patterns amid complex situations. However, the dopamine receptors of this part of our mind can only learn from experience -- if we have no experience our intuitions cannot be trusted because we have none. In novel situations where we know we haven't encountered the situation before, it is better to ignore our emotional reactions and reason it out. Even if our conscious reason is limited in complex situations, it will still do better than a gut reaction to a problem the gut doesn't know what to do with.

3. Embrace Uncertainty
One of the bigger pitfalls we make when making decisions is rushing towards the comfort of certainty - it leads us to make brash decisions, intellectualize our way to a conclusion that is actually an unverified theory, and ignore facts that conflict with our predefined view of the world. Becoming more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity in our thoughts and feelings allows us to listen more openly to contrary facts and opinions, which makes us able to make better decisions. When a decision is complex and makes you uneasy, try to buy time when possible and give the problem time to percolate.

4. You Know More Than You Know
You can think of your unconscious mind as an opaque supercomputer, and your conscious reasoning as a pocket calculator. The supercomputer is able to tackle anything from how to throw a curveball to complex life decisions, but it depends on experience to learn and its decisions are made opaquely - you don't know how the decision is made, you just feel an urge or twinge of fear that tells you what you should do. The pocket calculator is slower and more limited, but the one thing it can do is doublecheck the supercomputer, which is handy in novel or simple situations. But when you are in a situation where you've spent countless hours practicing and training, you should trust your supercomputer to make a better real-time decision than your pocket calculator. In situations where you have expertise and lots of experience, go with your gut. If you want to tweak your performance in a situation, influence yourself in general terms like "play musically" or "go smoothly", rather than in terms of specific action, to continue to utilize your body's emotional knowledge.

5. Think About Thinking.
Lehrer emphasizes this as the single most important principle to take home. What allows is to improve our decision-making is being able to go back and consider not only the decision, but the methodology behind the decision. Look at past decisions and note if they were made emotionally or rationally, and which worked better in what situations. Become a Student of Error, and start thinking of errors as learning tools rather than things to be avoided at all cost or discarded. When we take this attitude, we learn to make better decisions over time as we increasingly maximize the mental tools we have.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers

Contrary to the trend of past books where he tries to boil down complex processes into a few simple rules (The Tipping Point, Blink), Malcolm Gladwell argues for greater complexity in his book The Outliers. Attacking the straw dog which is the notion that Success is the result of Genius and Hard Work, Gladwell says there are a host of interrelated factors to success:

1. Meeting the Intelligence Threshold - an IQ at or greater than 115-120. Past the threshold IQ doesn't correlate with success in the long run.

2. Effort - the rule of thumb is 10,000 hours to develop a genius-level expertise in a given area. 10,000 hours is an abnormal amount of time to dedicate to something.

3. History - It helps to have been born on the cusp of a scientific, industrial or social revolution in history. A disproportionate number of the world's richest men in history and the tech world's CEOs, for instance, were all born within a few years of each other.

4. Luck - For that matter, personal timing means getting a lucky break -- having matured physically around the right times for an athletic season, getting access to a blossoming technology right when it came out, knowing someone in the music business.

5. Culture - Born from a cultural background that encouraged certain helpful traits like delayed gratification, persistence, assertiveness, communication, belief that hard work pays off in the end, and a comfortable relationship with authority. Your cultural background creates general personality traits which can help or hinder development. An example of hindering traits is the Appalacean "Culture of Honor" which encourages violence in response to verbal sleights.

6. Parenting - Having parents who practiced concerted cultivation, which means taking an active interest in encouraging success. Without it a child is at a disadvantage.

7. Awareness - Being aware of you cultural and parental biases allows you to bring them to a conscious awareness and overcome them. You can take steps to re-normalize to embrace a more successful life approach. This is perhaps the most important factor - that by being aware of where you come from, you can become who you want to be.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Life And The Creative Process

I attended a talk on wednesday at The Interdependence Project, and it was all about Buddhism and the creative process, centered around two books: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, and Coming From Nothing by Lee Worley.

Lee Worley says there are 4 stages of the creative process:
1. Be open to a new idea or experience with a fresh mind
2. Trust and go with the experience for a bit rather than trying to
fit it into a pattern you are familiar with
3. Keep taking chances with your actions even after doubt and second
guessing has creeped back into your awareness
4. When a project is complete, let it go, to give room for the
next thing to arise

I was seeing that this creative process is helpful to your life as well as your art. It's an approach that is chasing synchronicity -- an intuitive and open way of approaching experience; a Couldn't Care Less Mind; the Taoist approach of going with the flow, and the Zen approach of doing without doing; no big deal living. When you are open to new experiences, don't pigeonhole those experiences into old paradigms, keep taking chances when doubt comes, and let go of the past, you give yourself the opportunity to make connections with new people, get out of your routine, and really live.

Central to this approach is the importance of awkward space. Like that moment when you're sitting on the subway but you're not listening to your iPod or reading your book or doing some other distraction and you're not trying to avoid everyone around you. It is awkward for a few minutes but then someone talks to you and you make a new friend, all because you let that empty space open for something to happen. Awkward space can be hard to live in at times but it lets new and good things unfold into the breathing room you create in your life.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The DJ

I was thinking about techno/DJ artists and their particular strength, in comparison to other musicians. DJs tend not to create original material, and yet they are every bit a musician as any other type of artist. But they are specialists. In making any song, there are certain elements that when put together could be said to make a great song. This is not a perfect list but it works for this mental exercise:

1. Lyrics
2. Melody
3. Performance
4. Sonic quality
5. Arrangement

It's important that a song have good words and a catchy melody. I'm okay and lyrics and have a knack for catchy melodies so I make a good singer-songwriter; this is my specialty I'm also a good singer but my instrumental virtuosity is limited and spread out over multiple instruments, so I make an average performer. But my recording engineer skills are barely passable and my equipment is low-end (though decent these days due to the speedy improvement of home recording technology), so the sonic quality of recordings I make aren't the best. I'm also not that great at arrangement though I'm learning to arrange elements to build energy in a song.

What makes a DJ unique is that the DJ has specialized entirely in Sonic Quality and Arrangement. A DJ masters equipment and software that allows him to create interesting sound effects and improve the presentation of the material, to levels that regular analog sound engineers can't touch with live music. And the DJ spends countless hours learning how to arrange beats and sound samples in a way that builds up, releases, and rebuilds emotional energy. Anyone who has listened to U2, Fat Boy Slim, or Daft Punk knows how well their songs build in emotional power and intensity through the song. This is the musicianship of the DJ -- they have abandoned Lyrics, Melody and Performance completely in chasing down what may be the underlying backbone of all music -- Energy.