Technological Funemployment

Photo by Tony Webster on Unsplash

For years, the spectre of technological unemployment has been exploited as the sociological apocalypse that will require all kinds of new economic interventions like a universal basic income and universal healthcare. (More on those proposed solutions in the future.) This spectre, however, is harmless. It’s a tiny kernel of truth wrapped in a triple-ply fib of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

The kernel of truth is this: Automation DOES put people out of dangerous and boring work. There are centuries of hard evidence for this. Agriculture jobs? Gone. Manufacturing jobs? Done. Transportation jobs? Endangered. Technology, be it a hammer, or a thresher, or a robot, or an AI, allows people to make repetitive or strenuous tasks a breeze, so one person can do the job of many, pushing people out of that line of work. Seemingly, this is a tragedy.

The lie is the notion that people don’t find or create other jobs. It promotes a fear that many are doomed. Thankfully, it’s easy to find examples that disprove this notion. If technology eliminated agriculture and manufacturing jobs, why are 90% of Americans not unemployed? The answer is that they found safer, more interesting work, and often in new industries that were only made possible by technology. Really, people just moved further down the pipeline, or steps were added in between where new technology created a demand for people to distribute and use it. The products of farms and lumber and quarries and mines were made into complex machines, and these new complex machines required lots of humans to sell them, operate them, repair them, insure them, etc. At the end of the day, every advancement in technology that has saved human labor in one area has created just as much or more human labor in other new areas.

A fast example in the video game industry shows how automation technology in even the most high tech jobs is preserving and expanding the job market. Georgia Institute of Technology researchers created an AI that can recreate a game’s mechanics simply by watching gameplay. An intelligent machine like this can essentially provide a framework for a new game by looking at an old game without having to know the source code. It can just make new source code that developers can use to make new projects:

"Instead of putting people out of work, this will make it possible for people to create games that were otherwise unable to do so," Riedl said. "That makes it possible for more people to create – increasing the size of the pie instead of supplanting individuals. Second, professionals may be able to build games faster by having the system make an initial guess about the mechanics. Working more efficiently doesn’t necessarily put people out of work, but does allow them to make bigger and better games in the time available."

Robots in the workplace simply means that more work gets done, even with the same amount of people. Usually this just means that more satisfying work gets done. All the doom and gloom about recent technological unemployment is slowly being cleared away by the realization that if the rate of job destruction is increasing, the rate of job creation is also increasing, giving people more choices and opportunities than ever as old, stale ones fall away. As these technological processes continue to disintegrate old industries and form new ones from those ashes, we’re not seeing technological unemployment as a pervasive phenomena, but rather as a temporary restocking before employing those souls with new, more fun employments.

At the end of the day, what this means is that we are slowly unlocking the most fun and challenging problems for humanity to conquer, and there’s no sign that we are finding any limits to humanity’s potential. Human ingenuity is boundless. We’ll always be standing on the shoulders of giants, venturing out into new frontiers. We’ll keep extending, not until we reach the limit of our mental and physical capacities, but until there are no frontiers left. Where are we at that point? What are we if not marching towards godliness, with ever-improving mastery over the universe, delving constantly into the depths of the yet-unknown pockets of knowledge that our universe is hiding?

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

“The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play.”

Understood in the lens of history, what I think what Clarke really means is that we are taking people away from being paid for drudgery, and towards being paid to play. The rosy future exists where robots and AI provide us all our food, health, transportation, shelter, and entertainment for free, and we simply enjoy unbridled leisure. But even if all the amenities of life are enjoyed freely, we probably won’t be slobs. Instead, we’ll be free to pursue the passions that we all have in our hearts. We’ll be “fun”-employed, due to the technological fruits of the labor of the other fun-employed people that came before us. The goal of the future, then, is full funemployment, and it’s the future we’re already marching towards. We know this because it’s the same path we’ve always been on since humanity began: the hard path, which is also the fun path.

Metamorphosis is Messy: a Plea for Medical Mercy

Recently, while reading the Sunday edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, I spotted an article about a medical malpractice suit against a local OB/GYN physician I’ve come to respect as a mentor. My first opportunity as a physician to act on my passion for transgender medicine came through the mentorship of this physician, who works in the community near my residency hospital. She routinely went out of her way to teach me and my fellow residents about obstetrics, gynecology and the art of transgender medicine without any monetary incentive. She has always modeled incredible sensitivity, expertise and fearless advocacy for her transgender patients. I thought the journalist did a decent job presenting both sides of the story, as far as possible; however, due to HIPPA (a law that protects patient health information from being disclosed) I know there is more to the story that she and her attorney are unable to share in her defense.

While I do not know the patient in the case, I feel sympathy for the irreplaceable loss of their ovaries and reproductive potential. Nothing can restore what has been lost, and the best we can do is recognize, validate, and empathize, to the extent of our capacity, the pain of their loss. I must confess, seeing my mentor shamed in this very public controversy scares and saddens me, also, and part of me wonders whether I should turn back now from my passion for transgender medicine and not take the risk that someday I may find myself in the same situation. The trans community needs more, not fewer doctors. Without discounting Lesley’s pain and the loss they have suffered, let’s turn this into a constructive dialogue about how to meet the needs of the community and how to welcome and foster excellence among a new generation of trans-friendly providers.

My first exposure to the unique and often tragic experience of transgender people in healthcare came in medical school as part of our reproductive health curriculum with a panel of brave transgender patients who told my class their stories and allowed us to ask very personal questions about their transitions so we could understand how to model the behaviors they appreciated and needed, and learn from the mistakes that other physicians had made. I was incredibly moved and felt passionately that, one day, I would make a place for the unique needs of these patients in my future practice.

Several months ago, as part of a “community medicine” rotation, I had the opportunity to go explore the Utah Pride Center in downtown Salt Lake City. My guide alerted me to a list of LGBTQ-friendly medical providers that they keep as a resource for their patrons and I asked that my name be put on the list, without any expectation of what may follow. What followed were several new patients who sought me out in the following months, requesting medical assistance with their gender transitions. I was honored and humbled that, even after explaining that I am a resident still in training, they were willing to trust me and embark on this journey together.

I was quickly conscious of the fact that I needed help from experts in the field to make sure I was providing compassionate, evidence-based care for my patients. This OB/GYN was naturally the first physician I reached out to, along with other providers from the University of Utah and one of my residency faculty members who was brave enough to learn about this new field of medicine and supervise me. These mentors provided me with indispensable resources, guidance and reassurance that I need not shy away or be afraid of pursuing my passion for transgender medicine, despite the unease and thinly-veiled hostility of many medical providers towards the needs of this marginalized population. I have learned through this outreach that the vast majority of medical providers here in Utah are unwilling to come anywhere near transgender medicine--due to ignorance about the science, fear of judgment and rejection from professional peers, religious and moral unease, philosophical conflict, and, most importantly, fear of litigation. This doctor has personally suffered incredible discrimination and ostracization by her OB/GYN peers for her commitment to serve the transgender community.

The evidence is clear that people who suffer from gender dysphoria need to transition to the gender they identify with to preserve their mental and physical health, and yet there are very few medical providers, especially in politically conservative Utah,  who are willing to meet these needs. It takes courage, passion and love to overcome these barriers as a physician and follow one’s conscience to do the right thing, no matter the social, financial and legal consequences. No physician I know has shown more courage, passion, and love for the LGBTQ community than my mentor.

My fellow residents and I recently watched a TEDx talk together, in which an emergency room physician from Toronto does the unthinkable: he openly admits that he has made mistakes, which in some cases have led to terrible consequences for his patients, even death. He highlights that in medicine we have a culture of error-denial, strengthened by unrealistic public expectations, which insists that we must be perfect. In reality we, too, are human and work in systems that put too much emphasis on our individual abilities, acumen, diagnostic prowess and memory, and not enough on recognizing the limits of our cognitive abilities, and the systematic deprivation of our basic human needs (sleep, recovery, exercise, etc.). When mistakes occur, these systems are too quick to blame the “bad apples” and too slow to root out the systematic flaws that are truly the cause of these harms.

When doctors make a mistake (and we ALL make mistakes), there are few legitimate avenues for us (not tied to repercussion and judgement) to talk with others so we can process it and help others learn and decrease the chance of the same mistake happening again. It goes unsaid, unexamined, and what remains is a culture of shame and social withdrawal from the community of our peers. It is easy to see how such a culture leads to vicious cycles of self-destructive thoughts and behaviors, and self-fulfilling prophecies that we are bad doctors, unworthy of our profession and the sacred trust of our patients. The truth is, if you eliminated all the doctors who make mistakes, including ones that hurt people, there would be none left.

Maybe someday we will be replaced by super-intelligent diagnostic algorithms, pill dispensers and surgical robots, but until then we are the best generation of physicians and healers the world has yet seen. We will prevent, reverse and manage suffering with unprecedented efficiency, and aided by our tools we will detect, treat and cure more disease than ever before. Our profession will continue to expand into new realms, such as transgender medicine, life extension and enhancement. Despite the promises of modern medicine and our best efforts to live by and practice our credo of “First, Do No Harm,” our actions will have unintended consequences and, in increasingly rare cases, we will continue to cause pain, suffering, and death. Part of our job is to help our patients understand this conundrum through the process of informed consent, and to own our mistakes, apologize, learn and teach when we inevitably make them.

Please try to see us as human, like you, and also as humanists who have dedicated our lives to doing the best we can to improve the human condition through medical science and compassion. The vast majority of us are not here for the money, but for the love of our art, a love which helps us overcome the fear of being sued if and when we fail. Please also recognize that medicine is risky business and actively engage with us in the process of informed consent for the screenings, tests, treatments and procedures we offer you. May we create a new model of shared medical decision making and risk taking as we approach the future of medicine, a future that includes morphological freedom and enhancement.

The Gospel of Tron

In an early blog post to the Transfigurist, I wrote some thoughts on the relationship to faith, creation, and programming:

What is particularly interesting about programming is that the creative process occurs in the abstract only. Yes, the program is stored on disk in the form of magnetic variations, but even this is invisible to the human eye and is not the purpose for which the program is created. A program is not the series of characters typed by the programmer. Rather the substance of a program is thought itself, concept described. Working this close to raw thought not just at the beginning of the creative process but all throughout the program’s creation requires a high level of concentration and mental exertion but likewise delivers a high level of satisfaction and joy. 
While the details of exactly what 'spiritual creation' is may be unclear, this process of creating implementable concepts and structures mentally surely must play a pivotal role. Thus, as we practice and participate in the process of creation and exercise our faculties (mental, physical, and spiritual), we draw nearer to God and learn more about the nature of eternity. This is why programming is, and many other creative processes are, so joyful. The creative process is itself a symbol of Eternity.

And elsewhere I've written about how I feel life, creation, and God are fundamentally emergent phenomena:

Mormonism sees mankind both as the beneficiaries of this kind of emergent God in our past and present; but continues with our becoming benefactors of this divine gift as mankind evolves and emerges into and merges with God in our future. The New God Argument lays out some of the logical underpinnings of this idea. And it's this kind of self-referential or cyclical pattern, capable of infinite diversity, that I previously explored as having fractal attributes... Creating environments out of which infinitely diverse and entirely novel intelligences can emerge as co-eternal, independent minds becomes the final, inexhaustible frontier. 

One work of fiction that I think captures this essence of emergence and co-eternal creation is the movie 'Tron: Legacy'. [SPOILERS] In the movie a vast, immersive, virtual world is created by Flynn. In that world, Flynn seeks to create a "perfect system" of control and order. But as he tries to design this system from the ground up something else happens: the "miracle", as he calls it. Out of the system emerges a new kind of life: the ISOs. This discovery completely changed Flynn's view of the value of the system. Rather than building programs that were only ever reducible to their programming, this discovery would forever alter consciousness and was ultimately what Flynn was willing to sacrifice everything for.

Flynn describes how the ISOs "didn't come from anywhere", that the conditions were right and that they came into being, like a flame. The ISOs had a wisdom and ability beyond the reductive algorithms of control and order he had been using. But as Flynn seeks to introduce the ISOs to the real world, he is betrayed by the programs he employed to create the "perfect system". The antagonist program, Clu, saw the ISOs as a threat to order and perfection which ultimately drove him to rebel and seek to destroy Flynn's efforts and dreams. Clu rejected the emergent properties of the system since they didn't fit his mandate of reductive creation of control and order, leads the programs to destroy the ISOs, and Flynn ends up trapped and exiled in the system. Mormons can see echoes of our own religious notions of pre-earth life with Satan seeking perfect control and order and rebelling against God's plan for the souls of mankind that is not reductive to control and order.

Here's a clip of Flynn remembering these events:

Flynn's son Sam, retracing his father's steps, discovers this virtual world and enters into it. He finds his father, exiled, and the world ruled by Clu. As he tries to escape with his father and Quorra (the last ISO), Quorra is damaged and Flynn tries to repair her.  During the repair, Flynn's son Sam asks him if he created the ISOs. Flynn's response was that he created "some of it" but that ultimately there were emergent properties that were "beyond him".

Here's a clip of that exchange:

Stepping away from the story, Tron Legacy underscores an important question in the field of artificial intelligence: Is general AI something we reductively design, is it an emergent phenomenon, or both?

To be clear, saying AI is emergent does not mean we just sit back and watch it emerge (as Google's Alfred Spector correctly argues against). The act of creating general AI is like any creative act: it requires active work by the creator in the medium of creation. But it is entirely different from other forms of creation (saving biological reproduction) in that the creation itself wakes up, becomes aware of its medium, and can transcend its origins. In the field of AI this is described as "recursive self-improvement" which can lead to an intelligence explosion.

While there is a great amount to say about weak AI, strong AI, and super-intelligence, I think there are lessons to learn in works of fiction like Tron Legacy which explore the contrasts between creating systems of reductive control and order vs systems tuned for emergence, the limits and conflicts between those two approaches, and the risks and opportunities of both. And I think the hope or "good news" (gospel) of works like Tron is that in working with AI, our creations may be able to transcend our thinking and show us things more amazing than we ever imagined.

A Vision Worth Believing In: Transhumanism, Driven By Spiritual and Ethical Progress

If our prehistoric ancestors were to board a tour bus and visit the present day, what would they think?

They might delight at the feeling of air-conditioned buildings, marvel at mundane inventions such as doorknobs, be amazed that people walk around unafraid of sudden attacks from wild beasts, and gawk at lawns and manicured gardens.

They might believe, in short, that they’ve arrived in some sort of paradise.

However, they might also find cause for dismay. Say they witnessed employees stuffed away in beige cubicles, trash lining the beaches and gathering in landfills, the Barrier Reef dying from heat, the bustle of freeways with fatal traffic accidents, and modern warfare with its bombshells and automatic gunfire — enough of this, and they might wish to go back home.

If they did decide to return home, would you join them? Personally, I’d fear that within weeks of arriving in the prehistoric past, I’d get something like appendicitis and die without hospital care. Plus, gathering food all day and warring with neighboring tribes isn’t really my gig.

For me, this thought experiment illustrates that while we’ve evolved tremendously since our beginning, we still have a lot of work ahead to right the wrongs that currently plague the world and move more fully toward a genuine paradise.

Leaping Toward Paradise
If we take a bird’s eye view of human history, we can see that however much we've stumbled, we’ve been evolving in the direction of paradise since we first arrived on the scene. As the writer Ken Wilber outlines in his book Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution, evolution seems to be consistently unfolding toward greater consciousness, toward a sort of paradise on earth.

I believe that we now have the potential to take a sudden and dramatic leap toward this paradise, primarily due to technological and scientific progress.

Such a belief is known as transhumanism, a belief that humanity might transcend our current limitations so much that we become an almost godlike, superhuman species — a species that finally creates the paradise we’ve been evolving toward all along.

What I know for sure is that if we want such a future, we must deliberately envision it, plan for it, and work to make it a reality.

That’s why I believe in transhumanism.

Of course, to truly evolve toward paradise, we can't focus on raw technological progress alone. Instead, we must also focus on spiritual progress and ethical progress. Anything less than this won’t do.

Let’s look at why that is, starting with spiritual progress.

1. Spiritual Progress
At its core, spiritual progress is about nurturing what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences,” transcendent moments of deep peace and fulfillment.

These experiences can happen to anyone, regardless of religious belief or disbelief. The point is that peak experiences help us become more compassionate and realize how deeply connected we are with each other and with the world around us, as shown by psychologists such as William James, anthropologists such as T.M. Luhrmann, and biologists such as Alister Hardy.

Shinzen Young, a nationally renowned meditation teacher with a scientific bent, shares this view that peak experiences make us profoundly more compassionate and bring lasting peace. Young’s hope, which he outlines in his book The Science of Enlightenment, is that humanity will develop a technology that will connect to the brain and induce enlightenment experiences in human beings. Because of this hope, he is working with neuroscientists and engineers to learn more about the brain and figure out ways to create such experiences.

On the surface, Shinzen Young's idea might sound insane. But think of the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who experienced a transcendent experience during a stroke, wherein she felt total unity with the universe and afterward embodied powerful feelings of compassion for all of humanity. If Shinzen Young and his team can achieve their goal, they will have created a way for people to taste the experience of enlightenment and reap the benefits such experiences bring.

I share Young’s excitement for such a possibility, as well as his realization that in the meantime we must nurture such experiences via more traditional means such as meditation. These experiences are critical because they help us all more fully internalize the fact that to hurt another living being is to only hurt ourself. This is the seed of ethical progress.

2. Ethical Progress
Of course, it’s not enough for each individual to just experience personal enlightenment. We must also figure out the best ways to help each other reach better living conditions in the real world.

In his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari claims that we’re entering an era ruled by dataism, an era where algorithms will be able to show us the most effective methods for achieving widespread well-being.

Want to know the best foods to eat today so you can stay healthy? Your embedded body scanner will crunch millions of data points and tell you. Want to know the best charities to give to? An app that tracks each transaction at every charity and maps it to millions of data points about how those transactions improve well-being will tell you. Want to know what world problems deserve our most urgent attention? A global network will crunch the data to give you a range of best options given your circumstances and location.

On measures of health, psychology, and standards of living, dataism might be able to guide us.

That said, it’s easy to think of ways dataism could go terribly wrong. What if a large corporation messes with the data? What if governments censor the data because it doesn’t match their narrative? What if people are too distracted by mindless entertainment to care about what’s best for the long-term interest of themselves and the planet?

We have the possibility with new technology to create a more ethical future, one that considers the needs of the least fortunate in its algorithms. But it won't happen naturally. We must deliberately demand ethical guidelines and work to bring them into existence. After all, what good is achieving superintelligence via dataism if we lose our humanity in the process?

A Vision Worth Believing In
It’s viable, as Ray Kurtzweil outlines in his classic The Singularity Is Near, that we will soon see wonders few of us could have ever dreamed of. Embeddable supercomputers, commonplace genetic enhancements, regular space travel, dramatic extensions in lifespans, and so on. As long as we don’t find a way to blow ourselves up, the chances are high that it’s all coming.

And what will we do with such innovations? If we haven’t built on a solid foundation of spirituality and ethics, these innovations might be used to oppress the poor and the weak to a degree we’ve never previously witnessed. If that happens, we will become worse, not better, than human. Who wants to extend lifespans if life consists of endless psychoses, narcissism, and power grabs?

We must therefore proceed wisely, keeping our primary attention on the heart of the human experience. If we do this, we will join the long line of pioneers who have worked over the centuries to make this vision a reality. We will create a paradise that every one of our ancestors would have clamored to join, a paradise for generations to come.


Jon Ogden is the author of When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life, available via Amazon.


Guest Blogger:
Gary Lee Parker

I cut my genes for you
I cut myself to keep your love
I trim the edges, rough to smooth
I shape my soul to fit your glove

I Infect myself for you
I change my mind to rise above
my baser state, the more uncouth
allotments, lop the riffraff of

my riffraff spirit’s residue
I clip the wings of Eden’s dove
I cut my genes for you, in truth
I cut myself to keep your love

I lose myself for you
I lose myself inside your need
in your X-Acto blade demands
For what I ought to be

Carefully I cut for you
my garden’s code I strictly weed
my garden’s code I prune by hand
and burn the cheap debris

my unruly runners hewn
I hew the gnarled knobs and seed
my soul anew, each woven strand
unzipped, I craft a better tree

I cut my genes for you
I cut my soul to rise above
I change myself, your fears to soothe
I cut myself to keep your love
evict myself to keep your love
 eject myself to keep a love
you are unworthy of

Why there should be Mormon moral outrage over the GOP legislation that would replace the Affordable Care Act

A bill Republicans called a replacement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed the House on May 4 (though even 20 GOP legislators in the chamber voted against it) and it is now in the Senate chambers.

Many have called it a measure for tax cuts for insurance companies, “poorly disguised” tax breaks for the wealthy – “the Holy Grail of all this”; and more. Even the president who shares the party of the lawmakers who passed the bill, who has a reputation for being aggressive, bullish and unkind, called the legislation “mean” and too harsh. Low-income folks stand the greatest loss.

The bottom line is that the Affordable Care Act expanded health coverage for 12.8 to 22 million folks (there are reasons for the variance) and 23 million stand to lose theirs if the ACA is replaced with the other bill, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

White Hot Life

Guest Blogger:
Gary Lee Parker

Sending out sparks of life
light, glowing, spinning in the dark
like a cosmic disco ball, like
white hot arcs of electric night

we turn and twist, rife with
fight, wrestling, struggling to embark,
to flee the killer’s gleaming knife
a tight hot mess  of fear in flight

dancing through the stars and strife
right, reeling, grinning in the stark
night, a cosmic joke on all, like
sleight of hand that hides the blight

of us, streaming sparks of life
light, dancing, but an interstellar lark
like a fevered dream, like
trite truth, a hot white knight

hanging onto sparks of life
like, once more unto the breach , might
makes right, and so we write
our right of way through the interstellar night

sending out sparks of life
light streamers reeling through the dark
night, the cosmic dark, and we like
flecks of fleeting passioned light

holding to this disco ball of life
like children terrored by The Patriarch
like a dying dog’s fading light
desperate to hold back the night

desperate to hold back the night
desperate, desperately, desperately
we fight

Special thanks from the MTA to Mr. Parker.