Category Archives: The Future

Book Review: Homo Deus

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Homo Dues is Yuval Harari’s follow-up to Sapiens, which was excellent.

I. Book Summary 

The Past 

For most of time, humans struggled to overcome three evils: famines, plagues, and wars.

In part because humans really had no good answers to these problems, God became the center piece of coping with this evils. It was God’s will, rather than human agency, that was the causal foundation for what happened on Earth.

The Turning Point 

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution changed all this – rationality and science allowed humans to begin taming famines, plagues, and war – which also eroded God’s standing.

The Present 

Together, the emergence of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – as well as the decline of religion – led to a very turbulent 20th century, where numerous countries and societies experimented with new social structures.

Ultimately, capitalistic welfare states won out on the economic front, and Humanism (seeking meaning by looking inward rather than by following God’s will) is winning out on the social / spiritual front.

Because we’ve made so much progress defeating famine, plagues, and war – we’re now turning our attention to achieve immortality, happiness, and, ultimately, god like abilities.

The Future

Humanistic capitalism will be threatened by the rise of robots / computers that will undermine the foundations of both humanism and capitalism.

Because machines will be become more advanced than us, it won’t make sense for human intuition and reasoning to be the foundation for morality; and because machines will takeover the human economy, human centered capitalism / welfare states will no longer be the optimal way to structure an economy.

The two most likely futures are: techno-humanism (humans become part machine) or data-ism (humans become functionally obsolete and are replaced by intelligent machines that will likely not be conscious).

Harari indicates that techno-humanism would likely collapse on itself pretty quickly and that data-ism is our more likely future.

II. Harari is a Great Writer and Historian

It’s hard not to envy Harari as a writer: he’s logical, funny, insightful, and has an uncanny ability to elucidate complex subjects through pithy one-liners, stories, and thought experiments.

We’d all be a lot smarter if more non-fiction writers wrote with his intelligence.

Harari also does an incredible job of identifying and explaining the drivers of human material and cultural development.

III. Harari Adds Little to Futurism

Most of the main ideas in Harari’s analysis of the future can be found in deeper and more expansive works (writers along the lines of Ray Kurzwel, Robin Hanson, etc.)

While Harari’s writing and analytical abilities make him a first class historian, these skills do less work in enabling him to make insightful predictions about the future.

What I would have thought would be obvious topics of deep exploration – such as technical analysis of the computing power needed for a singularity type event, as well as the underpinnings of consciousness – receive very little treatment.

Harari just argues that data-ism will likely occur and that we can’t really predict what that will be like.

I would have loved to read a much deeper analysis of on how and when data-ism might occur, as well as some hard thinking about what economics and values might govern this new world.

Sapiens is required reading.

Homo Dues is worth reading, but, unfortunately, it’s not groundbreaking.

What comes after science – religion or politics?

There is some chance that, in the future, we will interact with either (1) aliens who are so much smarter than us that we can’t really comprehend them or (2) artificial intelligence that will far surpass human intelligence.

The Rise of Science 

Over the past few hundred years, science has ascended as one of the primary mental models of humanity. So many of the ideas that we determine to be true, or whose adherence grant status, are born out of science.

This is not to say that religion and politics are unimportant; rather, it’s only to say that for most of humanity science didn’t really exist – and that over the past few hundred science has grown to be a primary mover of humanity.

As far as I can tell, the rise of science has been a generally good thing for humanity, though I’m open to the idea that the hunter and gatherer life was pretty ok – and that science may be the foundation from which we destroy ourselves.

The Limits of Human Science

The limits of human science stem from the limits of the human brain. There’s a reasonable chance that there are truths out there that we will never be able to understand because of our limited brain capacity.

On planet Earth, humans are the best there is at science, so we’ve not yet had to confront the humiliating inadequacy of our science.

But aliens or AI may understand the world in ways which we are simply incapable of mastering.

Then What?

Once we encounter entities that render our science functionally moot – in that it no longer explains the knowledge we know possess from witnessing the wonders of aliens or AI – then human science will lose its usefulness and status at a rapid pace.

At this point, my guess is that either religion or politics will increase in importance.

Religion is the practice of finding meaning in the unknowable.

Politics is the practice of finding meaning in the tribal.

Givent that aliens or AI would be knowable, my guess is that politics would trump religion and science in this new world.

Humanity, at this point, might divide itself in accordance to (1) tribal affiliation to specific alien or AI personalities or (2) tribal affiliation of how to interact with the knowledge that we are intellectually inferior to other beings.

Putting Science in Its Place

Human science is a pretty amazing thing, but it’s dominance is probably temporary.

The ROI on voting, door knocking, and phone banking in swing states

I’ll be spending this weekend phone banking.

I encourage you to go knock on doors or phone bank as well.

This is a very important election and a very close election.

As 80,000 hours demonstrates, it’s well worth you time to both vote and encourage others to vote.

I. The Stakes are High 

Both in terms of finances and global peace, American elections are very important. 80,000 hours writes:

By this measure then, a single vote with a 1 in 10 million chance of changing the election outcome would be worth $300,000 to US shareholders as a whole. This also ignores effects on economies overseas, which in some cases seemed to be almost as large – or domestic impacts like unemployment.

On top of this, each four years the US President makes decisions affecting the immigration status of millions of people, and choices about wars that in some cases have resulted in 100,000s of deaths.

Speaking of war – imagine you think over four years with one candidate there’s a 0.1% chance of nuclear war, and 0.2% with the other. How valuable is it to vote for the safer one?

II. Swing States Matter

They note:

But if you’re in a swing state, like Florida, Nevada or New Hampshire, the odds are often around 1 in 10 million that your vote will change the outcome, and can be even better. In the closest state in an election with perfectly even polling, the odds could be as high as 1 in 1 million.

III. You Can Influence People in Swing States by Using Phones and Knocking on Their Doors

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Every 38 people you call may change one vote in a swing state!

IV. Get to Work!

Over the next few days, there will be a high anticipated ROI for getting out the vote in swing states.

Book Review: The Wealth of Humans

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I just finished Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century.

Summary: Economic Disruptions Require New Social Contracts, which can be a Bloody Process 

Ryan’s primary argument is as follows:

1. Periods of rapid technological innovation usually lead to increased prosperity, but the transition can be very disruptive to the existing social and economic order.

2. During these periods of disruption, workers, the economic elite, and those in governmental power have to create the social contract will be for the new order. This is a very difficult process that involves a lot of trial and error.

3. The last time this happened was after the industrial revolution, where numerous wars and revolutions eventually led to a few dominant orders: capitalism and the welfare state (in the West, South and Central America, and parts of the East), socialist dictatorship (in China), and resource based dictatorships (primarily in the Middle East). Of these different variations, capitalism + the welfare state have proven most successful.

4. The digital revolution, which is being driven by continuing gains in computing power, will requite a new social order, especially if this revolution leads to massive surpluses of labor.

5. Creating a new social contact for this age could be just as bloody – or bloodier – than the last go around (WWI, WWII, Mao, the Cold War, etc.).

Reflection #1: Time Between Disruptions is Decreasing, Power of Weapons is Increasing 

I generally agree with Ryan’s argument. One additional issue to consider is that the time between economic singularities is decreasing. It took us a very, very longtime to get from hunter gathers to farmers, and a very longtime to get from farming to the industrial revolution.

It’s barely taken us a 150 year to get from the industrial revolution to the computing revolution.

And it’s likely that the computing revolution will seed another revolution (perhaps general artificial intelligence) in another 50-100 years – and who knows what next economic singularity will spring from superior artificial intelligence…

Additionally, technological advancement increases the power and scope of our weapons. We will likely continue to build new weapons that can wipe out humanity, such as synthetic viruses.

In short, the time between the rolls of the dice will decrease, while our odds of losing any given die roll may increase.

One way to reduce the odds of losing is to disperse ourselves and / or our decendents amongst the cosmos in order to decrease the fragility of single planet living.

Reflection #2: A Minor Guess of How to Ease Into the Next Social Order

The more I puzzle over the accelerating impacts of the digital revolution, the more I come back to wage subsidies as the best tool we have for stumbling our way into the next social order.

While universal basic incomes might at some time be warranted, this will be incredibly expensive (given current productivity) and we don’t yet know how to structure a modern society where many people simply don’t work.

Wage subsidies, on the other hand: (1) maintain the connection between work and income (2) lead to less economic distortion, especially compared to minimum wage raises (3) can be raised over time to maintain a sense of economic progress, and (4) help avoid an economy where purchasing power (and presumably social power) consolidates with the top 10%.

Reflection #3: What is Inflationary? What is Deflationary?

Over the past few decades, goods have faced deflationary pressures (most things you buy for day-to-day uses are cheaper now).

Education and healthcare, on the other hand, have been subject to inflationary pressures (they cost more than they used to).

From a pure material progress standpoint, a deflationary future means that wage subsidies might not be necessary to keep improving welfare.

However, if healthcare, housing, and education continue to eat up budgets, people will need higher wages to keep up, especially those that don’t receive government subsidies in these areas.

Lastly, it’s possible that even if purchasing power increases, if income inequality is still increasing, social unrest could still be a major issue.

All this is to say: it’s worth looking at both income and expense.

Reflection #4: Consider Yourself, Consider the Monkey, Consider the Dog 

To the extent humans survive the new social order that comes after an artificial intelligence singularity, it’s worth considering what this existence might be like.

Dogs, for example, have done quite well during the era of human dominance. Specifically, they were bred to be happier.

Dogs have also been provided a universal basic income in the form of shelter, food, and treats.

I often struggle with the gap between what I believe to be the best version of myself and the actual reality of the current version of myself. I sometimes get depressed by the lack of progress I’m making.

The fact is that it’s incredibly difficult to become an even better person once you’ve eaten up the low-hanging fruit of adopting classical liberal beliefs and not murdering your fellow humans.

So it’s worth noting that humans (perhaps?) have created the best version of dogs.

Perhaps our descendants will do the same for us, especially if we are able to bring value to whatever is they are seeking in life. Interestingly enough, more intelligent primates have not faired as well as dogs and cats. So don’t assume being #2 on the intelligence pecking order means you’ll be ok.

This may all sound crazy, but it seems extremely unlikely that humans are the endpoint of evolution. So it’s worth considering – what comes next?

Should Ed-Tech Platforms Empower or Restrict?

I’ve previously written on being bullish about the potential of ed-tech platforms.

Currently, both Summit Public Schools and Alt Schools are leading the way on developing platforms that may eventually be used by thousands of schools across the country.

Many people are drawn to ed-tech platforms because they can: (1) support teachers to curate innovative lessons and execute more personal coaching; and (2) allow children to learn at their own pace and explore their intellectual interests.

In short, ed-tech platforms are about empowerment.

But it is unclear to me that empowerment will be the only way that ed-tech platforms improve education.

I think they might also improve education by restricting educators and students.

I’m still trying to work through this, but see below for a graphic representation:

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The goal of many (thought not all) personalized and ed-tech enthusiasts is to move from wherever they are to the top right corner.

This vision has much to be said for it, and under the right conditions it very well may work.

But there is also another option – one based more on restriction than empowerment. A couple of great educators have been pushing me to think about this path as well.

The argument for restriction goes something like this:

  1. The No Excuses charter movement has learned a lot about what it takes to increase the learning of students who are multiple grade levels behind.
  2. It will be very difficult to scale No Excuses charter schools due to human capital, operational, and political constraints.
  3. Professional development has proved generally ineffective in spreading the practices of No Excuses charters to mediocre charter and traditional schools.
  4. A tech platform that utilized software that mimics the instructional practices of No Excuses charter schools – and then frees up teachers to do scripted small group and individual tutoring – could be a way to scale the core components of the No Excuses model while bypassing traditional human capital, operational, and political constraints.

Under this scenario, the goal is to move from the bottom-middle row (I do think No Excuses charters are empowering students more than before) to the top-middle row (with more scripted curriculum and teaching structure preventing this model from being ed-tech progressive).

In this model, the tech platform is really a backend way to scale a high-performing whole school model, in that the platform would dictate curriculum, assessments, pacing, and staffing.

Ideally, this packaged model would only take up 3-4 hours a day, and there could still be plenty of time for true project based instruction, extracurriculars, etc.

In summary: perhaps there is a (mostly) best way to teach basic reading and math, and, perhaps, a tech platform can scale this (mostly) best way.

And maybe the “big data” from such a platform could further evolve the (mostly) best way.

I’m not really sure. All feedback welcome.

Quantitative Curriculum Adoption

*Note: I don’t have high confidence in my opinions on curriculum. The below is speculative.*

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I recently visited a high-performing charter high school that serves very low-income students.

During the visit, I sat in on a chemistry class. A student came over to explain to what they were working on and walked me through a problem that had something to do with converting moles to atoms.

To be honest, my initial internal reaction was: “who gives a f**k?”

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I did not expect to have this reaction. So I first tried to check myself on bias: did I think chemistry was not important in this setting because I have low expectations of poor students?

No.

While I do think that the cost of having to learn useless material is higher for students who are further behind, all told, my negative reaction to chemistry is broad: I wish I hadn’t been taught chemistry during my sophomore year of high school.

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I’m surely not the first person to wonder if advanced classes should be taught in high school. A recent New York Time piece made the same argument (but focusing on math instead of chemistry).

The opportunity cost of learning content that will never be used has been recognized by experts for decades, as there is a significant research base on the idea that most knowledge is not transferable across domains (i.e., learning chemistry does not help you learn literature).

But what I haven’t seen is a fleshed out formula about how we might go about making curricular decisions.

So here goes (it’s not rocket science).

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Creating the Curriculum Index:

  1. Analyze some mix of current and medium-term job forecast projections to get a back of the envelope idea of perhaps the top few thousand jobs high school students will be working in over the next decade.
  2. Then tag each job with the prerequisite classes a high school student would need to take to be on track to being prepared for that job upon exiting 12th grade.
  3. Job Skill Index: Create an index that ranks classes (existing or yet to be created) by the % chance that a high school student will utilize this information in the first 2-5 years of  her career.
  4. Core Thriving Index: Couple this an analysis with an analysis of the non-job knowledge, values, and skills that will be important in adulthood (moral living, mental health, appreciation of arts, personal finance, civic knowledge, etc.) – and tag these non-job learning objectives to high school classes.
  5. Rerun every few years.

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Potential implications:

My guess is that conducting the above exercises would lead to numerous additions to the high school curriculum (data-analysis, sales, marketing, project management, policy analysis, etc.) and the demotion of numerous classes (calculus, AP literature, advanced biology, etc.).

Additionally, it might lead to new classes, such as “sprints” – whereby students could take courses that covered the foundational concepts of a few classes (i.e., a science sprint could cover biology, chemistry, and physics in one year), which would raise the class score on the Job Skill Index and allow for student exposure to numerous fields without overcommitting to any specific field.

Duel enrollment in colleges and on-line courses could also allow for personalized specialization in the later years of high school, thereby avoiding the broad mandating of classes that score low on the index.

As a set of classes, Common Core would fair poorly as measured by the index.

Creating the index would also lead to many questions about tracking, as the probability of utilizing information will vary based on a student’s current achievement.

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The benefits of beginning with a more quantitative approach to curriculum would be numerous:

  1. It would bring clarity to why and when we teach vocational knowledge. While some might cringe at teaching sales in high school, the truth is that sales and Algebra II are both predominantly vocational skills (if anything, sales probably provides more insight into our condition than does Algebra II). If we are going to teach a vocational skill in high school, we should have a good idea why we’re doing so.
  2. It would bring clarity to the non-vocational purpose of school: By defining what adults need to thrive, and determining what of this can be taught by schools, it would help harness the high school experience to increase the probability of adult thriving.
  3. It would help us understand trade-offsEven if we decide to offer a class that will only benefit a minority students of the long-haul (and there might be good reasons for doing so), there is a difference between a class benefiting 1% of students and .001% of students. Understanding these differences would allow us to make better decisions.
  4. It would serve as an automatic trigger: Conducting this exercise every few years would force to have conversations about what should be taught. It would help prevent us from relying on hundred year old assumptions that have been mostly developed by content experts (who always overvalue their content).

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Creating and adopting these indices  via public debate and democratic adoption would slow them down immensely and subject them to political considerations.

Some will consider this a feature while others will consider it a bug that needs to be fixed.

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In case you’re curious, see here for broad labor category projections from BLS:

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Who Will Education Platforms Liberate?

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I’ve been living in San Francisco for a few months now.

During this time I’ve had the chance to talk with some great educational entrepreneurs who are making different platform bets.

A platform is a plug-and-play business model that allows multiple participants (producers and consumers… who may be one in the same) to connect, interact, and create value.

Education platforms are varied.

Some are content neutral: numerous programs can plug in and users can access in any way they want.

Some deliver more standardized content: fully baked competency curriculum, tasks, and assessments – with  more heavy curation of user generated content.

What I’m most curious about is this: who will education platforms liberate?

Platforms could liberate students. They might be better able escape mediocre curriculum, weak assessments, and substandard teachers and get better instruction, psychological development, and career guidance through platforms.

Platforms could liberate teachers. They might be able to better escape terrible district mandates and simply close their doors, plug into the platform with their students, and execute a far better instructional model.

Platforms could liberate school founders. The barriers to entrepreneurship could significantly decrease if a new school is plugged into a platform that does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of technological, operational, and academic infrastructure.

Of course, platforms could end up liberating them all: students, teachers, and school founders could equally benefit.

On the other hand, platforms might also not deliver and simply liberate investor of their money and educators of their patience.