Peak prediction, peak human?

On Twitter and here I’ve mentioned a few times that I think “science fiction” has become kind of a meaningless term — if we can think of something, we likely can achieve it. (Go ahead, try to come up with something that you think we won’t be able to realize…eventually. I’ll wait. 🙂)

The last few years I’ve been fond of saying that there really is no such thing as science fiction any more. It seems to me the term will soon become an anachronism harkening back to a time when humans (or our robot heirs) couldn’t bring every idea to fruition.

Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, there are things we don’t yet understand. Yes, I think there are things we’ll never understand; the machines — created by the machines that we create — most certainly will take the reins before we can fully unlock the universe. But, on the whole, there are few nuts we humans haven’t been able to crack, or otherwise won’t be able to soon.

Maybe at its edges the AI singularity is simply the inability for us to predict our future…at which point we will begin to struggle to maintain our dominance on Earth (and potentially other planets). It’s a completely insane time to be the organic kings of this spinning rock we call home. Enjoy it while it lasts.

It’s not enough to be busy anymore

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about? – Henry David Thoreau

We’re all busy, and increasingly so — all of us. Some (much) more than others, obviously, but busy is the new normal, and (as long as humans are at the top of the food chain) there’s no going back. Increasingly this “busyness” is becoming decoupled from mere subsistence, and it’s not totally clear yet what it will mean when this already taut connection breaks completely.

Even when AIs are doing all of our work, and the fortunate among us effectively don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do, we’ll still have to find ways to sate our starving brains, which have been primed over millions of years to need all kinds of sensory input, and all of the time.

If white space makes you uncomfortable now, how are you going to deal when that’s all there is?

For much of my life I thought if I just remained busy I’d be successful, and “lucky” for me it never really felt like I had a choice. Busy learning. Busy writing. Busy seeking out knowledge. Busy creating. Curiosity has always been a staple of my being — I was never not doing.

Being hyper-productive and driven has served me exceptionally well professionally, but it’s also been a total drain. Compulsions — even those as seemingly benign as learning — don’t usually feel like a choice, and the pressure to chip away at them can be suffocating.

It’s more than a little crazy (and sad) that if you graphed homo sapiensintellectual output over time it would rise quickly and to the right, and then…automation and AI…and then nothing? What’s the answer? How do we keep ourselves busy in the future? How do we make anything that matters? VR? Drugs?

Idiocracy is on the march, and may end up being the new normal until the machines figure out what, if anything, we can do for them. We need to crack this if we think we’re at all special in view of our technological creations.

What I expect from a modern news reader

Or, how to not annoy an information junkie

I’ve come to expect a certain number of “core” features when it comes to my precious feed-reading rituals, and if any of them is missing from an app I probably won’t use it for very long.

When reading through the below list please keep in mind that 100% of my feed consumption is via iOS devices, and because of that I’m just not too concerned with the desktop/mobile browser experience. That said, most of the things listed below should apply to those surfaces as well. Also, these features mostly are concerned with user-facing clients and not backend systems and services, so I’m not getting into syncing or anything else like that — plumbing is table stakes.

I’m fully aware that some of these may seem a bit trivial, especially when considered individually, but when taken together over hundreds of feeds ingested every day, they make for an incredibly powerful — and efficient — skimming/consumption experience.

  • Mark-as-read-on-scroll (in a multi-item view) I’m always surprised when this is missing. It’s especially handy for high-volume feeds, where without it you’d have to scroll through every unread item before being able to move on to the next feed/folder, because only then would you feel comfortable marking the feed/folder as read.
  • Offer multiple ways of moving to the next unread item When viewing a particular item, moving to the next item should always be possible by swiping up when at the end of the item. Additionally, an on-screen control for this sort of thing can be especially useful when dealing with full-content items, where, in the case of “long” items, getting to the next one may require a lot of scrolling before being able to transition to it using the swipe-up gesture.
  • Ability to turn off animations Animations can be pretty, and delightful, but when experienced hundreds of times a day they can start to feel “heavy” and inefficient; sometimes it makes more sense to just turn them off completely. This should be configurable.
  • Act on feed items without having to jump into them Here I’m referring mainly to the ability to save an item to a “read later” service while scrolling through a multi-item list. Often as you’re scrolling through a list of feed items you can tell whether an item is something you want to act on without having to actually jump into it. In Newsify, for example, if I want to save something to Pocket while scrolling through a list, I simply long-tap the item (no matter the layout mode) and it gets shuttled along.
  • Save internal links to a “read later” service How often are you reading an article and want to save to a “read later” service a link you come across within that article? Most clients offer the ability to act on the link via the system-wide iOS dingus, but only a few let you send the link directly to your “read later” service of choice. If the “read later” option isn’t available, I usually have to open the link in Safari, and then use a bookmarklet/extension to send it to the service I want. That’s crazy, and about 10 steps too many.
  • Show thumbnail images if available I realize some people don’t like thumbnails in their feed readers (especially given the propensity for some writers to add images to their articles that don’t necessarily inform the reader, because they know articles with images tend to get more views), and want to see only the title and maybe a line or two of preview text, but I find my skimming usually is much faster when thumbnails are shown; it’s much easier for me to determine at a glance whether the article is something I want to see more of. This is especially true for particular feeds; for example, I have a feed that’s focused on car news, and because of thumbnails I can blaze through its unread items very quickly.
  • Offer multiple layout modes There usually are two that are most important: a list view where each item is presented in a uniform size (including length of title, number of preview lines, etc.); and a newspaper-style view where the width (and sometimes height) of the “box” in which an item is presented can vary based on, for example, whether that item has any images associated with it, etc. This should be configurable (and, ideally, on a folder-by-folder and feed-by-feed basis).
  • Show only feeds and folders with unread items This one seems so obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many apps out there force you to scroll through your entire list of feeds/folders, despite there being something new in just a few of them. Silly. Hide that shit.
  • Show oldest items first Again, another thing that you’d think couldn’t be more obvious. I want to view articles in the order they’re published, not the reverse.
  • Never require mark-all-as-read confirmation Ever. Just don’t do it.
  • Show read/unread progress when inside a feed or folder There are certain feeds or folders of feeds that I always run through item-by-item (e.g., my folder of individual bloggers), and it’s nice to know how far along I am in the list while in the process of going through it (e.g., display “3 / 8 articles read” above the current article).
  • Offer options when finishing a feed or folder of feeds Some clients jump right into the next unread feed or folder, others bring you back to the main list of feeds/folders. This should be configurable.
  • Customizable “Services” menu The client should support as many services as is practicable, and the user should be able to choose which of those appears in the services menu.
  • Switch easily to a web-based view 99% of the time I’m fine with being shown a “sanitized”, uniform, content-only version of an item’s corresponding web page, but it should be very easy to view the page “natively” in an in-app browser. Which of these to show by default (i.e., sanitized or in-app browser) should be configurable (and, ideally, on a feed-by-feed basis).
  • Filtering at the item level Frankly, I think this is something that should come with anything you use to consume any type of content, but it rarely does. In fact, I’m not aware of any major RSS app (for iOS) that lets you hide some of your feed items based on constraints you specify. For years I used Yahoo! Pipes for this sort of thing, and while it was a little clunky, it worked really well…but Yahoo killed that a coupe of years ago. (I’m aware that Feed Wrangler offers filters, though I don’t think at this point they’re too robust (e.g., no regex, etc.). I’m keeping my eye on this.)
  • Site/author attribution in folder view When looking at more than a single feed at once (e.g., when viewing a folder’s worth of items), it’s nice to be able to see which site and/or author a particular item belongs to, because that information might ultimately determine whether you want to take further action on that item. Same goes for multi-author sites.
  • Prefetch all the things All feed images should be downloaded when syncing, and not when an item is opened. The last thing you want to do when jumping into a feed item is have to wait for an image to load; do this a hundred times in a row and you’ll understand how truly maddening it can be. There should be an option to turn this off if using a connection other than WiFi, but otherwise you should be slurping down everything at sync time.

So, what do I use?

Newsify, on both iPhone and iPad. I’ve been using it for years without issue, and it’s updated fairly often. It talks to Feedly (through which I manage my RSS feeds) without a hitch, and does all of the things listed above and more (except item-level filtering). As mentioned, I basically just don’t do news reading on the desktop anymore, but in a pinch, Feedly’s site is perfectly usable.

What happens when evolution finally has a purpose?

For the entirety of life on earth — some 4,000,000,000 years — evolution has pushed everything forward…blindly. Literally. No rhyme, no reason. Just random mutations that sometimes benefited their carriers, sometimes were deleterious, but mostly were of no consequence whatever.

We now know evolution was less a competition, and more a cooperative expression of accidentally mutually-beneficial creativity. Novelty propels species.

We’re going to get to the point where we can (easily, cheaply, and accurately) engineer the evolution of our own species. When this happens the process no longer will be aimless, but by definition the exact opposite. What does it mean when you can predict everything about the coupling of a particular sperm and egg? When you can “reach in” and alter it to suit your desires?

Precision gene editing is coming, and over time no disease or otherwise undesirable trait will be immune. The queue of “fixes” is as long as the diseases and flaws of which we’re aware. The ultimate goal likely will be to enable us to thrive on currently inhospitable planets, but in the nearer-term the curing of diseases and the enhancement of our abilities will remain paramount — and who will get to determine and define these goals? Does safety govern? Ideology? Religion? Progeny IQ?

Maybe we’ll be able to control this in a way soon enough that will allow us to extend our usefulness in the eyes of the emergent machines? Maybe all of this converges on a race of über-humans who’ve no interest in procreating with others who are “less than”; maybe carnal desires won’t matter as we can intervene post-conception, but pre-birth?

It’s crazy to think about, but after nearly 4,000,000,000,000 years of haphazardness, we’re developing tools to inject our knowledge and desires into the evolutionary process that produced all of us. You can bet it’s going to get…weird.

And when machines start to practice natural selection in ways both orders of magnitude more frequently than humans, and systematically instead of randomly, things are going to get…weirder still. A human-created Cambrian explosion may not be too far off.

The compulsion

YOLO, for real

Like many people, I struggle with my legacy. What will I leave humanity? I’ve been successful in nearly every sense of the word, but I hardly ever feel successful. I’ve always just put my head down and banged shit out. So what? There’s never been any other option for me.

Some of that is mental illness. Some of it is escapism. Some of it is fear. All of it is grit.

I think if I leave a dent in the universe at all, it will have to do with artificial intelligence. How? I’m not quite sure yet, but I can’t come up with anything else that would matter in the least and so I’m hanging my hat on that. No pressure.

Is my purpose to read the entire internet and a thousand books and assimilate all of that knowledge into something that helps other humans (or our successors) advance something?

Is my purpose to make and share beautiful photos? Is it to make people laugh? Is it to help others be all they can be? Is it to engineer stuff? Is it to code? Is it to teach adults how to read? Is it to have opinions on a particulary potent style of beer?

It’s impossible to quantify “success” when you think about life at this all-encompassing scale, and if you zoom out just a little further it’s as if you never existed at all. What a shitty paradox.

We’re close to a point where the impossibly slow, random, ladder of evolution simply ceases to matter. We’ll be able to give human evolution purpose, reason…an active goal. Is the ultimate measure of success having a hand in that? Making something that eventually displaces humans?

On using Uber every day for six months

For the last six months or so I’ve been taking Uber (or Lyft, whichever is cheapest at that moment) to go from work to home at the end of the day. The ride is short — just a few miles — and usually takes about 15 minutes. The cost lands mostly between $8 — 10, assuming non-surge pricing. The following are a few observations in light of this.

It’s always a little awkward

Most of the time when I’m being driven in an Uber I’m concentrating hard on something else and not paying too much attention to the obvious dynamic in the car. But my mind of course often wanders and then I can’t stop thinking about the drivers and why they’re doing this; why they likely have to do it. Ultimately, I end up feeling bad and thinking that in most instances they’d rather be doing anything other than shuffling nobodies from A to B. The only thing that helps is to remember how many taxi drivers there are (were?), and that there’s really nothing new about this transaction. (DoorDash, however…)

Please don’t talk to me

I have zero desire to talk to you. I realize you’re probably bored, but I’m legitimately trying to get stuff done. That’s why I’m paying you to drive me. It’s not always a problem, but when it is it can make the entire trip somewhat pointless. The worst is when I have my headphones in and am clearly busy (or whatever), and the driver is motioning me for something other than help with where they’re going. Look, I can give you the best and funniest conversation of your life, but I don’t want to — I’m busy.

No joke; I think this should be a setting in the app. How much would you like to interact with your driver? Zero → sex.

It’s never cold enough

I run hot. Like, really hot. Like, “manopause” hot. It seems every Uber driver is most comfortable when sitting on a heat rock in the sun. This is California. I don’t get it. Instead of being able to control the car’s stereo (via Spotify, which is super cool, but something I’d never do, because I’m not an asshole), I’d much rather be given control of the A/C system.

They still haven’t worked out where to pick me up

Uber, it seems, has no memory. I work at Facebook, and get picked up from the same location every single day. I place the pin in the same spot every single day. Yes, the campus is large, but it’s not that large. Often I can watch my car — via the app — go right past me, and I just sit there waiting for the eventual u-turn. Routinely the drivers reach out asking which building I’m at, and sometimes they even call to request this information. I’m pretty sure I’ve never answered the phone, because that defeats the whole fucking point of using the service/app.

They still haven’t worked out where to drop me off

I get dropped off at the same apartment complex every day, but I always have to say something to the driver about where to actually let me out. Uber’s mapping software takes the driver one of two ways home, each of which ends up on a different side of my complex. No matter the side, I have to give explicit instructions to the driver as to which building is actually mine. How is this not yet codified in their system? “Yep, it’s Blanton again, at that same spot. Go here.”

Surge pricing sucks

And it sucks not just because it’s more money; it sucks because it can’t be predicted. There really seems to be no rhyme or reason to when this occurs and how much it’s going to hurt my wallet. I leave the office close to the same time each day, but often I’m hit with a 1.4–2x price hike. When this happens I of course open Lyft and see if they’re offering normal rates. Sometimes, they’re both in surge mode, but usually only when there’s some sort of event going on.

There’s been discussion recently about Uber getting rid of surge pricing; great for riders, terrible for drivers. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

The democratization of knowledge

…or why kids don’t make me feel stupid

We — gen-X/Y — grew up in a fascinating, and at least for me, fortuitous time: never before has there been such a dramatic societal change in so short a period, and but for the internet I’m really not sure what I’d be doing.

Like nearly all generations that came before them, the newer generations have it better…but (as with job displacement) it’s different this time. Not only is there just infinitely more information and understanding today than ever in the past — and empathy as a result of both — but the ability with which we can access the information is unprecedented. In most (1st-world) cases, access effectively is a zero-friction, zero-cost endeavor.

If the ultimate aims of an advanced civilization are access, opportunity, and professional choice, then my and later generations absolutely lucked out (well, until the machines do everything).

We grew up hearing all the time how stupid we made our parents and teachers feel because we were so good with computers, the internet, etc. I’m 36 now and have never felt that way with regard to those younger than me. No, I don’t have kids, and I’m sure if and when I do I’ll be made to feel stupid every single day, but I’m also fairly certain those moments won’t have much to do with technology (but rather my ineptitude with regard to nearly everything else).

Maybe I’m a little over-confident…or maybe my and later generations have been given the cognitive and behavioral tools to take on anything tech’ish? To be clear, I’m not saying we’re all this way; my younger brother is about as big a luddite as you can possibly be in this day and age, and I quite literally don’t know how he functions in society. But, he’s a big outlier, and 34, so…

I’m of course not saying that future tech won’t wow me — it most certainly better — just that it won’t scare me (minus AI, obviously ;). For the majority of us the internet is our medium (sorry). Our spacetime. It’s scaffolding that our reality ceases to exist without. That this is a given I think helps us navigate and absorb all of the new technologies that are exploding around us at ever faster rates. And “absorb” doesn’t need to mean fully understanding, but rather the notion that we know we can understand if we invest enough time and energy. Nothing seems unknowable. Nothing seems scary.

We know there likely are unlimited answers to any questions we might have, and that it’s up to us to find (read: search for) and select the best ones…the correct ones…and ignore the bullshit. At this point we do this almost without thinking, the practice nearly unconscious.

Regarding not feeling stupid, this Buzzfeed piece about how young teens use Snapchat is utter madness. Seriously, it’s hard to read without getting upset. These kids are insane. Go the fuck outside and build a fort or something. At the very least stay inside and create something. There are unlimited things for teens to do other than swap a hundred pictures of themselves with friends who don’t even look at them. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Have you had the “AI talk” with your kids?

The jobs are going away…and this time it’s different

The problem, in a word, is specialization, or rather the dearth of it with respect to most humans and what they do for a living. You have a lot of folks tip-toeing around this right now, and rehashing that tired trope about how old jobs that got displaced by new technologies eventually were replaced with new, but different jobs we couldn’t fathom at the time.

That’s not the case this time. This time it’s different.

There still will be jobs for the most determined, imaginative, intelligent, and resourceful among us, but for everyone else (especially in emerging economies) it’s going to be a bloodbath. We’re talking about billions of people.

Machines obviously will grab the low-hanging fruit (quite literally in many cases), especially as they become more dextrous and generally intelligent; think digging ditches, construction, laying concrete, cooking, transportation…the list goes on and on. Much of this is already happening.

The bigger issue though is that in the long run machines will take the specialized jobs as well; think investment and portfolio management, surgery, accounting, loan officers, mortgage brokers, coders, many aspects of law…the list goes on and on. The last of these to fall may be the people-facing professions that require heavy doses of education, experience, and empathy to really excel (e.g., therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.)…but they too will fall.

For some this seems unfathomable now (despite the fact that a lot of it already is in motion), but it is coming and there’s no stopping it. Like us (eventually), the machines will converge on the most efficient paths, and most of those paths won’t involve humans…they can’t.

At what point does it become unfair to ask a human to compete with a machine that always performs perfectly? Are we going to create jobs that don’t really have a reason for being other than to provide humans with incomes? If machines are performing most of our jobs and not getting paid, where does that money go instead? And what does that unpaid money no longer buy?

Something will have to be done to immunize the effects of automation, but I’m not sure yet what that will look like. No one is. Is universal basic income unavoidable? Can we even decouple income from work? Is there another option for a compassionate society that cares for its less capable?

No nation — least of all the US, and especially emerging economies — is ready for the coming labor displacement; the explosion of potential energy (what will humans do all day?), plus the future lack of consumers will lead inexorably to social instability.

Where does all of this end? I’m not sure. Machines can or soon will be able to do your job, which leaves us with these inevitable questions: is work for suckers (/machines) and everything else for humans?

The infinite queue

For better or worse, queues are how I’ve come to view nearly every aspect of my life, and I know I’m not alone. Apart from some work-related responsibilities, nearly every other dimension of my life flows into “one” sinuous, malleable, and ever-growing list of things to digest and process. This includes queues for Netflix, DVR, RSS, Twitter, Facebook, Pocket, Kindle books, personal/work email, skeletons of blog posts, etc. etc. etc. It quite literally never ends.

Lucky for me my infinite queue intersects nicely with work such that reading, learning, assimilating information, and generally keeping up with the world (especially tech) helps me excel at my job.

Each of us has a limited (average) number of heartbeats (assuming you stay relatively healthy and don’t suffer a freak accident), and if you think constantly of that it’s hard to get away from the pressure of always trying to do as much as you can and never waste time. For me, queues really are the only way to handle this pressure…and to keep a handle on what’s been ‘accomplished.’

Much of this pressure is self-created, and at any point I probably could shut off many of these overflowing pipes and get on with my life, but that’s just not how I’m wired — this is my life. I think this is becoming the case for more of us over time; we’re all becoming obsessive completionists (with respect to certain things). Algorithmic ranking can help some people with some of these things, but not all of them, as many have to be completed.

I used to pride myself on how much I could accomplish in a single day, and while I’ve backed away from that metric a fair bit in my old age, it’s still a yard stick I can’t get away from completely. I’ve learned to be a bit better about not letting this over-abundance of information control me, but I do let things accumulate (or rather, snowball), and so at some point the length of certain lists becomes almost comical.

I guess it could be argued that this is nothing special to me, or humans generally these days, and that it’s been at least semi-normal since the dawn of our species. But, I think a big difference at this point in time is that many of the tasks are so discrete and plentilful (e.g., power through 1000 tweets/day) that in aggregate they seem more insurmountable than in the past (e.g., milk our three cows, sow two rows of seeds, harvest the ripe plants, make dinner for four, go to bed, etc.).

I’m not sure what any of this means, but I do know that I probably should stop typing here and get back to my queue.

Shitty internet is everything

Let’s pretend we’re all living in 1st-world countries, hunger and cancer have been solved, world peace is a given, and everyone on the planet has fiber. Are you still with me? Cool.

Is there anything worse than shitty internet? Let’s be honest, no internet is preferable to shitty internet most of the time. Nothing blocks, gates, or frustrates like shitty internet. Road rage is nothing in the face of shitty internet. Shitty internet ruins relationships. Shitty internet makes you long for simpler times. Death may sometimes be preferable to shitty internet.

In the future the machines will punish us with shitty internet.