Todd William

A Brief Thought Experiment ~ Technology & Jobs


What if there were no longer enough jobs to support society?

One of the big fears of technological advancement is the displacement of workers. If humans create machines capable of replacing most jobs, a lot of people will end up out of work.

Yet history has shown that employment is not a zero sum game. Technology can displace a massive number of workers while simultaneously producing new opportunities. Less than 200 years ago over 80% of the employable population held jobs in agriculture. Thanks to technology and a lot of human ingenuity, that number has been reduced to well under 5%..

The Value of Efficiency

This is a good thing, not because displacing workers is favorable, but because making any process more efficient is a win for society. It is this reason why you can walk into a grocery market with a few bucks in hand and find more than enough options to feed yourself for the day. 

But we forget, because we're not after mere nourishment ~ that's beneath most of us. We buy items based on flavor, and thus, a few bucks doesn't cut it. 

Consider what it would take for you to produce some of the meals you regularly eat on a farm of your own

How many hours (more likely days) would it take for you to produce even a crappy version of eggs, bacon, toast, and orange juice. 

Make no mistake, technology will replace jobs. This is something that has continually occurred for centuries, and history has proven that not only should you be happy about it, but that you overlook how grateful you ought to be. 

Why? Because technology makes things more efficient, and that efficiency vastly improves the average quality of life for everyone, even those that lose jobs in the short term. 

What if it's Different This Time?

As the saying goes, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. What if technology really does eliminate the need for enough jobs for everyone. Suppose we're all fighting for a much smaller portion of working hours. What then? 

Perhaps we're not asking the right questions. 

If you knew that you'd earn a little less money in the future, but you'd only have to work 50% as much, would that necessarily be so problematic? 

Stretch it out a little further. If you knew that you could maintain close to the same quality of life while having to work only 1 hour a week instead of 40, wouldn't you jump at the chance? 

Maybe the right question should be what we're aiming for as a society.

Why is Employment even the Goal?

The folly is trying to measure everything by a static definition of what is "good". If your income dropped 10% but everything you buy gets 20% cheaper, this is a good thing - but not if you judge by income alone. 

Until the early 1900s, the 8 hour workday was not the norm. The average workers put in 12-14 hour days to make ends meet, and often worked 6 or 7 days of the week. 

You're asked to do a lot less today just to be average. 

But let's be honest. You don't compare yourself to people in history, you compare to those around you, so these benefits go completely unseen.


Our standards change with the technology we build. Why is working an 8 hour/day job so vital? 

We're so obsessed with trying to ensure that everyone can find employment that maybe we're shortchanging ourselves. What's really important in the big picture? 

The most important thing is time. We want as much time as possible to do the things we love doing. 

Maybe we should be aiming to maintain the same quality of life by having everyone work 4 hours a day, or even less. That seems to be a much better goal than ensuring everyone is working 40 hours a week. 

But that would require embracing technology in lieu of the possibly of job losses, something not everyone is ready to do.  

Are you?
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Todd William

The Power of Framing Questions


In the early 1980s cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky and his colleagues set out to study if the way a question was framed influenced the way people think.

They presented patients, medical students, and doctors with statistics about the effectiveness of surgery versus radiation therapy in treating cancer. 

The participants were given information about effectiveness and survival rates and asked which treatment they would prefer, but framed with two different perspectives. Think about what you would choose as you read the statistics.

CASE 1: Half the participants were provided the following data:

<> SURGERY: 90 percent of people who have undergone surgery survived the treatment, and 34 percent survived for at least five years afterward

<> RADIATION: 100 percent of people who have undergone radiation therapy survived the treatment, but only 22 percent who were still alive five years later

CASE 2: The other half were given the same information, but framed in terms of mortality rather than survival. They were provided the following data:

<> SURGERY: 10 percent of people who have undergone surgery died during the surgery, and 66 percent died within five years

<> RADIATION: None of the people who have undergone radiation therapy died during treatment, and 78 percent died within five years


You will notice that all patients were given the exact same set of statistics, just framed differently. The result had a remarkable effect on their decisions. 

With the survival frame (Case 1), only 25 percent preferred radiation. When the possibility of dying during surgery was highlighted (Case 2), radiation therapy was chosen 42 percent of the time, even at the cost of deceased long-term survival. 

What's more, even doctors with extensive training in these areas were as vulnerable to this framing bias and unable to judge based purely on the numbers. 

If merely framing a question can influence a doctor's thought process even within his own domain, what does that mean for the rest of who merely hope to make rational choices?

Source: The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
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Todd William

Isaac Asimov on why YOUR Ignorance doesn't equal MY Ignorance...

In every century people have thought they understood the Universe at last, and in every century they were proven to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about out modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong.

Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." 

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

Let me dispose of Socrates because I am sick and tired of this pretense that knowing you know nothing is a mark of wisdom. No one knows nothing. In a matter of days, babies learn to recognize their mothers. Socrates would agree, of course, and explain that knowledge of trivia is not what he means. He means that in the great abstractions over which human beings debate, one should start without preconceived, unexamined notions. Now where do we get the notion that "right" and "wrong" are absolutes? 

Young children learn spelling, for instance, and here we tumble into apparent absolutes. How do you spell "sugar?" Suppose Alice spells it p-q-z-z-f and Genevieve spells it s-h-u-g-e-r. Both are wrong, but is there any doubt that Alice is more wrong than Genevieve? When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is more wrong than both of them put together.


Source: Relativity of Wrong: Essays on Science by Isaac Asimov

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Todd William

A Brief Thought Experiment ~ Theories of Consciousness


Is it theoretically possible to create consciousnesses in software that is comparable (or better) to our human capacities? Are we going to eventfully write enough code that the code itself becomes self aware?
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Todd William

A Brief Thought Experiment ~ The Island


What would you do to Survive?
If you found yourself on a deserted island, with no hope of being found, what might be your biggest priorities. If you chose to live, it would no doubt be water and food, followed by some sort of shelter.

Once you've established these, ensuring your safety and health would soon follow. And should those needs be met, you could then get to work on improving the quality of your life, for starters, making all the prior efforts as minimal as possible.

The less time you have to waste gathering food, repairing your shelter, or running from danger, the more time you have to spend doing whatever you would like to do.


But this is considerably different than ordinary life. For one, we have different objectives. We don't merely eat food to live, we live to eat good foods. We don't just care about shelter, we care about curb appeal

Our everyday needs are so easily met that almost all our focus and concerns are directed toward things that are not essential to life, they are just creature comforts. We are very fortunate to live in a time period when we can concern ourselves mostly with how we want to improve our lives, not with merely maintaining that life.

We have no reason to apologize for this. We don't live on a deserted island, and improving our quality of life has value. That we've reached a point where most of our daily efforts are put towards creature comforts rather than necessities is a fine tribute to human ingenuity. Yet the implications of this are easily overlooked.


Most jobs are about the icing on the cake. Once you move beyond things that involve food, water, housing, safety, and health, the necessity of any job begins to quickly fall into the that grey area where usefulness is purely subjective.

The point isn't that these jobs aren't worthwhile, its that we're addicted to the icing, and we should be. Why not improve our lives. But this addiction keeps us blind to the possibilities. 


We've reached a point when we can realistically discus the possibility that technology may be able to replace most jobs. This is a scary notion. Yet maybe it shouldn't be. 

If the use of technology permits us to produce all of life's essentials with negligible manual effort, then all jobs would be related to icing. Any job losses related to technology would merely determine the amount of icing any of us would share.

There would no doubt be disparity, but in exchange, the notion of working to "get by" would be gone. Life would suddenly be merely a matter of how you decide to use your time - and that has more to do with imagination than circumstance.

This is a hard concept to fathom because we're so accustomed to assessing the value of our lives by comparing what we possess relative to those around us.

But isn't more appealing to judge the value of life by the amount of quality time we have as our disposal? That is the great equalizer. No matter how much power, wealth, or influence you have, you're still getting the same 24 hours a day that we all get.

The Island

We don't live on an isolated island, but we do live on an isolated planet. Maybe its not so different after all, we just need to get over our addiction.

Consider for a moment what it would mean if you no longer felt compelled to always have more . If food, water, shelter, health, and safety we're all guaranteed to you, might you look at your job differently? Would you feel a bit more selective on how you use your time?

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Todd William

A Brief Thought Experiment ~ Who are You?

When you look at your arms and legs, clearly they are yours, or at least part of what makes up “you”. But you are more than just a body. You have thoughts flowing through your mind that belong exclusively to the subjective “you”.
So who exactly are you? Are you the whole package? I am going to suggest that you are not.
The Coma
Suppose tomorrow you fell into a coma, and remained unconscious for decades until finally passing away. From your perspective, what value would you attribute to the decades you spent laying in a bed, unconscious and unaware of your own existence?
From your perspective, there would be no difference between whether you died tomorrow or decades from now.
To your family and loved ones, that your body is technically alive gives them hope – the prospect that you might regain consciousness. But even to them, it’s as if you’ve lost the essence of being “you” unless you reawaken.
Technically, for several decades, you would be alive. That is your body laying there. Those are your internal organs being kept alive.
But everything that you value about being you is found in your conscious awareness. This is why there’s such a striking difference between losing an arm and losing a head.
What is more important to you? Your physical being, or your notions of consciousnesses?
Forget about the idea that you need both of them. Your comatose body can survive for decades without your consciousness. And your body is constantly reproducing itself at the cellular level without interfering with your consciousness.
The value of “you” is the idea of your subjective awareness, which is entirely tied to your consciousnesses.
Streams of Consciousness
Though that may seem to sum it up nicely, there’s a problem. Leading neuroscientists and philosophers have been slowly converging on the idea that consciousnesses is not all its cracked up to be.
What you perceive to be a steady steam of experiences is merely a number of layered inputs that give the impression of a fluid version of reality. There have been an abundance of experiments that demonstrate this convincingly (see “change blindness”).
Now that might not be so bad. When you go to a movie, the fact that you are seeing a massive series of still images perceived as fluid motion is not problematic.
What is perhaps unsettling is that the more we dig, the more we are led to the notion that what we think of as being consciousness is mostly an illusion. That doesn’t mean we don’t have awareness, we just don’t have the level of awareness we think we do.
Most people have this notion that we take in reality and its stored inside somewhere. Why, after all, can we close our eyes and envision our surroundings. This is what famed philosopher Dan Dennett refereed to as the “Cartesian Theater” three decades ago. He refuted the notion that there is a single place in our brain somewhere that it all comes together, and neuroscience has spent the last three decades validating this position.
So what is consciousnesses? Who are “you”? Are you really just a very complex layer of perceptions melded together to give you the illusions of self?
The Hard Problem
The tricky thing about consciousness is that we don’t fully know how to explain it. David Chalmers introduced the term “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” in the 1990s that seemed to put a definitive wall between the things about the brain we can explain easily (relating psychological phenomena to specific parts of the brain) and those that are much more difficult (what consciousness actually is…”quala”).
Roger Penrose, a leading philosopher of science, perhaps explained the issue best with the following:
"There's nothing in our physical theory of what the universe is like which says anything about why some things should be conscious and other things not."
Thus it would seem we really don’t know anything of substance about consciousness. Though that isn’t wholly true. For starters, there is a good case that there is no such distinction between the easy and hard problems, they’re all merely layers of one big problem.
A good metaphor for this is the weather. Until the last century, the complexity of the weather reached well beyond any human understanding. But with investigation, meteorology made huge strides over the past century. Though this knowledge did not come easily, there was never any need to conclude there was a “hard problem of weather”. So why do we do it with the mind?
The answer may simply be fear. If we discover that consciousnesses is nothing more than an emergent property of a physical brain, we risk losing the indispensable quality of what it is to be human. Many people reject the idea on the notion that its completely undesirable, which has nothing to do with whether its accurate.
Room for Optimism
When you fall asleep, there is a big difference between having a dream and a lucid dream. The latter is magnitudes more interesting. If someone told you that your lucid dream was still merely just a dream, they’d clearly be missing the point.
From our experience of awareness, consciousness isn’t just the opposite of unconsciousness, it feels like something. In fact, its everything. It shouldn’t matter if consciousness is nothing more than a complex physical process, its still beautiful.
So why does it even matter what we discover about consciousness? There’s much to be fascinated about, but none of it will change what it feels like to be you.
And besides, if our consciousness proves to be nothing more than a feedback mechanism where billions of neurons are firing away to give the illusion of observing reality, we still are left with one glaring question:
Who is doing the observing?
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Todd William

The Semantics of Free Will

What do we mean when we say "Free Will"?
When people talk of individual freedom, many things come to mind. Of primary importance is the question of whether you are free to do what you want to do.
Someone locked in a room tied in a straight jacket is clearly less free than you are at this moment. You are more free because you have more options.
In a broader sense, we can say that a free society is more valuable than an oppressed society precisely because one is more able to do as they wish. Few would argue that this freedom is worth having. But is this truly what it means to be free?
In a recent discussion on free will, Dan Dennett, one of the world’s most renown philosophers of consciousness, proposed the following scenario:
Imagine a chess program that contains a flaw that limits the movement of its queen to only one square at a time. (1)
This limitation would considerably decrease its chances of winning against a comparable program without this flaw. In fact, if given the opportunity to gamble on a series of games, you’d be crazy not to put all your money on the program without the flaw.
Yet look at what’s really the difference here. One program has more “freedom” of moves than the other solely on the basis that its queen is not constrained. But is this kind of freedom really what we think of when we talk of free will?
Hardly. We know each program is fully tied to its data. Every move is merely a calculation predetermined by its programming. If you could understand its code, you could predict its move in every sense.
Thus by any genuine sense of the word, no one would attribute freedom to this program, despite one being described as more free than the other.
Isn’t what’s really important far more significant than just having more options?
Perhaps we should define genuine freedom as having some sense of control. When we are free, we are able to influence the behavior of things or the course of events. This would seem a sensible way to differentiate between the type of freedom you and I have versus that of a chess playing computer.
Yet this also has issues related to semantics. As Dennett explains, if a pilot gives up control of a plane to an auto pilot program, then the program designed to run that auto pilot is, by all definitions, controlling the plane in that moment.
This is true, made evident by the fact that the pilot could be sleeping while the auto pilot navigates the plane, a situation where the pilot is clearly not in control of the plane.
Yet is an auto pilot program “free” in any useful sense of the word? Isn’t it just as tied to the data as the chess playing program?
It seems control isn’t enough either. We need something better than control to convey the type of freedom we have. But if having options and control is not enough to illustrate genuine freedom, then what is?
Perhaps the missing ingredient that demonstrates genuine freedom is the ability to act on one’s desires.
This would surely differentiate the type of control we have over that of an autopilot. For as much as it is in control of the plane, it is not doing this because it wants to, it does so because its programmed to fly. It has no desires.
So we can say that the freedom we attribute to ourselves that genuinely differentiates us from a computer program is not simply having more options, or having the ability to do as we wish, its the ability to have those wishes in the first place.
Options, control, and desire. No sensible human would suggest we don’t have all three. So why isn’t this case closed?
Genuine Freedom
The reason is that for many, its not enough to simply say we can act on our desires. That’s top level stuff. What’s really important is the root of those desires. Our thoughts.
Famed German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted this issue almost two centuries ago when he said,
“Man can do what he wants but he cannot want what he wants.” (2)
Isn't genuine freedom of will best defined as the ability to consciously originate and control our own thoughts and desires? Consider what it would mean to not have this ability.
Suppose every thought you had all day was merely placed into your mind by your neighbor. Though you would be aware of the thoughts entering your consciousness and could follow along with the process of deliberation, you would have no control over any thought.
In such a scenario, you’d be at the behest of your neighbor’s desires. In what possible way would anyone describe this situation as being free? Thus consciously initiating our thoughts is genuine freedom.
Initiating Thoughts
Luckily, though we’re susceptible to influence, no other person is in control of our thoughts. But are we consciously initiating our own thoughts?
It sure seems so that way. Yet there’s no logical manner to demonstrate the ability to consciously initiate a thought because for that to be possible, you’d have to think a thought before you thought it.
There is no logical way to consciously author our own thoughts because each thought either pops into our consciousness for reasons we’re not aware of, or they each require a preceding thought of their own.
Though it may feel like we are consciously originating our thoughts, the idea is nonsensical.
The Endless Loop
And thus we end up with two distinct ideas of free will that keep the world’s top thinkers endlessly debating. It ultimately comes down to what you value.
If the ability to make choices and to follow your own desires is how you define free will, then surely have it.
But if you value the notion of consciously originating your thoughts, actions, and desires, there is no logical manner in which free will is possible. You cannot think a thought before you think it.
It’s a game of semantics. How you define free will is really what determines your position. There is nothing wrong with either view, you merely must choose what elements you value most.
(1) Harris/Dennett Free Will Discussion:
(2) Arthur Schopenhauer Quote:
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