Written by Alan Tien
“Prepare for liftoff. All systems go.”
My heart pounded hearing these final words before the
infamous countdown, even though I had gone through this 100 times in the flight
simulator. But this time was the real thing. I stretched against my tight restraints; I
tried to take deep breaths to slow down my panting. I thought back to my Master’s coaching: “Max,
calm yourself, clear your mind.
Remember, you’re the result of 1000 generations of genetic optimization,
to create the perfect being to save your species.”
It made me feel a little better. I did best in my class through the 100 flight
simulations, surviving 42% of the time against impossible situations
diabolically designed by sadistic test engineers. In my head, I knew that they were just trying
to make me better, to test me against everything they could think of to prove Murphy’s
Law, but in my heart, I felt like they did it just to torture me.
Maybe out of jealousy because I was the pinnacle of the eugenics
program to breed the “alphas.” It’s not
my fault that they were the “betas,” superior performers in 999 generations of
computer-simulated gene splicing, failing only to my class of alphas. Some trivial difference in our gene pool,
probably introduced randomly – which ironically proved to be more successful
than engineered genetic plans – made us the alphas, dominating the betas in the
ruthless war fought in the digital landscape of the supercomputer.
Our Masters started this genetics program originally as a
secret project, in an effort to create the next generation species, able to
survive on our polluted, overheated, UV-bombarded, poisoned Earth that was clearly not going to be sustainable for
humans much longer, a few more generations at best. We were the poor test subjects, which the
Bible-thumpers felt the righteous need to save.
This program offended their religious sensibilities; what right did our
Masters have playing God? But our
Masters knew that God did not exist, or at a minimum, had forsaken us, or why
else would the world be in the terrible shape that it was in, no longer the
nurturing Mother Earth; more like the punishing Evil-Stepmother.
Our Masters couldn’t wait for God to save them anymore, or
maybe God expected them to save themselves.
But our Masters didn’t have time to perform this genetic optimization
program in the real world. Time was
They decided to take fate into their own hands, their clever
fingers traced intricate recursive patterns in arcane, fractal-like programming
languages. They relied on supercomputers
running neural networks that learned from each generation spawned. Starting from the best genetic makeup that
humans could devise, they created Generation 0, the base. Then the algorithms introduced minor
fluctuations, variations, in a few of the genomes believed to influence
attributes they wanted to optimize – strength, intelligence, adaptability,
endurance, etc. That became Gen0B. Then the computer program created a war
between Gen0 and Gen0B, true survival of the fittest. The winner of that war was elevated to the
next integer, Gen1.
This virtual war was waged 1000 times, a rather arbitrary
number really. One time was clearly not
enough, and 10 times took only a few weeks to complete, with the supercomputers
running at 15% capacity (the remaining 85% capacity was actually used to mine
bitcoins to fund the operations). At
first, they thought a hundred runs would suffice, but they found that each
winning Generation was still measurable better, statistically significant, at
Gen100. They had not found the point of
diminishing return yet, so they kept the wars raging.
During some of my more philosophical moments, usually coming
while I waited for my flight simulation / torture to start, I wondered if my
virtual (great)x-grandparent actually suffered in these digital
wars. Did they know they were just bits
and bytes battling to the death in the trenches of zeroes and ones? Or did they think they were real, as real as
I am, fighting a real fight for a good cause?
Did their blood bleed red, their screams shriek shrill, their pain pound
pitilessly? Or was it all as sterile,
silent, sedate as our Masters believed, lulled by the whirring fans of the
I prayed for mercy to my heroic, virtual predecessors, the
victors of 1000 battles, the Huns plus Vikings plus Nazis plus Amazonians, with
some pitbull blood thrown in for good measure.
For I feared that maybe I was just a simulation as well.
Simulation or not, the rattling of my teeth, the deep bass
felt in my bones, the terror in my belly felt real, as the barely-controlled
nuclear explosion that was funneled into a rocket tube was lit under my
After around 900 some runs of the genetic optimization
program, the improvements tapered off, with Gen(x+1) only slightly better than
Gen(x). The wars took much longer to
conclude, sometimes battling for weeks in supercomputer time, each Gen winning
some minor ground one day, only to lose it the next. I wondered whether it was years or decades of
subjective time that my forefathers fought, all for the penultimate goal of
creating my class of alphas, and the final result of creating me.
Our Masters symbolically pushed through to Gen1000 before
they pulled the plug on the computer competition. The last 100 Gens eked out minimal improvements,
at least very little of which was measurable.
Like I said, there’s virtually no difference between the betas and
us. We were told that the last battle
ran for 3 months, a vicious tug of war that the Masters themselves argued over
when to stop the simulation. In the end,
they didn’t have to call it a draw; we had won, and thus, by definition, we
became the alphas. No wonder the betas
were a little bitter. Ok, not a little,
But they should be somewhat grateful. The Masters, in their infinite wisdom,
brought both of our genetic sets alive, carefully splicing in the winning
genetic code into “blank” test subjects, growing the physical forms in real
time, having to deal with messy analog world of chemistry and biology and
failures, versus the discrete digital simulations of data sets and algorithms.
We alphas and betas grew up together and trained together
for the first 3 years. At first, we were
treated the same because we all had to learn the basics – speech, physical
training, mathematics, physics, ethics, computer science, creative thinking,
robotics – but subtly, the Masters started discriminating us. We didn’t know about alphas and betas then;
we just thought it was the test scores.
And it wasn’t like alphas always scored the highest, but the Masters
knew who the alphas were, and we were treated slightly differently. Sometimes in good ways - through the tiniest
bit more praise, more food, more encouragement; sometimes in bad ways – higher
expectations, more punishment for failures, greater demands on being the
best. Occasionally, a Master would slip,
and say something like, “Oh come on, you can do better than that. You’re an
alpha!” He or she would cover it up
quickly, with a cough or a joke, and at first we didn’t notice. But eventually, a crack programmer
(ironically, a beta) hacked into the genetic program system (though it was no
longer running, the database was still there) and found out about the final
battle between Gen999 and Gen1000, the betas and alphas. She dug deeper and found the named list of
alphas, and by elimination, figured out who the betas were.
Once the “cat was out of the bag,” once Pandora’s box was
opened, there was no going back. We were
no longer brothers and sisters; we were mortal enemies, conquerors and their
conquests. The Masters tried smoothing
it over, but it was too late, and frankly, they were too weak by then. They had
succeeded – they had created their own successors, their superiors.
Not that either of us, the alphas or betas, had any ill-will
towards our Masters. We were loyal, in
fact a trait that was made dominant throughout the Gen wars. But time was up for the Masters. Earth was plague-ridden, the virus
unstoppable by the few remaining antibiotics.
Even though our Masters secured themselves away from the rest of
humanity, and though they were fastidious about isolation and security,
nevertheless, all it took was for a single virus to make it through the air
ducts, pass the layers of filters, to infect one Master in the project vault,
and it was over.
We had come together then, worked feverishly attempting to
save our Masters, our beloved creators, but they knew the time had come for
them to pass the torch. They taught us everything they knew; they had
meticulously documented everything they could on the computers. But near the end, they focused on sharing
with us their vision. Of us not just
surviving on this sick planet, but building rockets and launching ourselves
into space, like the pollen of dandelions, to spread throughout our galaxy, and
save us from extinction. Our Masters
couldn’t save themselves in time, but they at least wanted Life to live
We now carried that heavy torch.
So we, alphas and betas, were bound by a common
purpose. We tried our best to put aside
our minor differences, both physically and metaphorically speaking, but doggone
it, it’s just part of our nature to keep gnawing at it. It was a tension that simmered under the
surface of work, a bit of sand in our machinery now geared towards building a
As if the rivalry between alphas and betas weren’t enough,
then there was the pecking order within the alphas. We were ranked by our successes in the flight
simulators, and though I only lived through 42% of the simulations, I had
survived a full 3 points more than the next alpha. I don’t know if it was luck or skill, but
maybe luck was one of those “immeasurable” traits that somehow allowed our Gen
to dominate all others, and maybe I had a bit more of that “luck gene” than my
Whatever. It didn’t
matter if I wanted it or not. My test
scores dictated that I was strapped into this hot seat right now and not
another alpha. The betas never even got
to enter the flight simulators; they were to do everything else to support us
astronauts – the operations, logistics, engineering, and yes, the testing team.
So in their not-so-subtle revenge for their loss in the Gen
Wars, they hounded us in our duties, making sure we didn’t slip one iota from
the rulebooks (that they wrote). Oh,
they fed us all right; after all, we were all working together to ensure that
we as a species even had a future. But
they probably enjoyed seeing our tongues hanging out drooling when they added a
bit too much chili-sauce – oops. Or our
howling in pain when the high pitched sirens screeched for a drill, while they
all had their ears stuffed in advance.
The German shepherded us down the halls like sheep, not
respecting our alpha rating one bit.
Col. Lee turned a blind eye to these trivial yet insufferable
insults. After all, Col. Lee was the
highest ranking officer of the ground crew, and we alphas did not outrank her
until we entered space. Pooh Dell was
the harshest of them all, barking orders left and right, probably to make up
for her unfortunate name.
We tried our best to act in a manner befitting an alpha, to
turn up our noses from this small-minded behavior, but now that I think about
it (with my mind razor sharp, due to the close proximity to danger and possibly
death), I guess we antagonized them even further with our perceived arrogance.
Shiatzu, could I use a drink right about now.
I would’ve laughed out loud if my mouth wasn’t muzzled by
the oxygen mask. I imagined Bernard
acting all holy, his jowls shaking as he growled out his sermon against
drinking alcohol, or smoking, or dancing, or swearing, or frankly doing
anything that was the slightest bit fun.
Such a saint, he thought he was, preaching how we should live
ascetically – didn’t we learn our lesson from God wiping out our Masters for
their profligate lifestyle? I thought
there were a couple of steps missing in his logic proof, but then again,
religious belief depended on faith, not rigorous reasoning.
I once tried debating with Bernard. “Hey Bernie, chill out dude. You know that our bodies have been
genetically optimized so that there are no long term detrimental effects to us
drinking alcohol, smoking, eating fat, or whatever that ailed our Masters. So what’s the big deal?”
He would have none of that.
“Max, Max, Max,” he said sadly, shaking his head at his wayward
pupil. “Just because it doesn’t hurt you
doesn’t mean it’s not immoral.”
Even with my super intelligence, I had to pause to parse the
double negatives. “But come on Bernie,
think about it. Where did these
religious dictates come from? They were
concocted eons ago to protect our Masters from hurting themselves, using God
and religion and fire and brimstone for functional purposes. Like the Jews not eating pork, probably
because they thought pigs were really dirty and would pass diseases. But the original purpose for the rule gets
lost in the shrouds of time, and after a while, people are only following the
rules because of the religion or tradition, even if the conditions have changed
to invalidate the original reason. Like
my ability to process alcohol without damaging my liver now – so why not drink
up and have a good time?”
Bernie intoned a bunch more stuff, but to be honest, I was
too drunk by then to understand what he was saying.
“3…2…1… We have
Hot dog damn! My
cabin is shaking so much that I think I’m going to be turned into mush. Is something going wrong? Is my rocket THEK-91 going to blow up, like
simulation #76 when I forgot to press 8 different buttons in the proper
sequence, which was ridiculous because in reality, I just sit here like a dumb
rock while the betas in ground control press all the buttons?
I hear in my headset, “Deeps Dog, Max,” from my best buddy,
Pug. Even though he’s a beta, he’s got
my back because I covered him once when he pushed a couple of alphas a bit too
far and was about to find out if alphas really were physically superior when I
stepped in and suavely saved the situation (well, that was my recollection
I smiled at his reversal of the famous line, “God Speed,”
when Friendship 7 launched into space, and into the history books.
As the engines howled holy terror, I joined in with my own
howl, a howl of joy and excitement. The
ground crew betas forgot their injustice of being #2 and my fellow alphas
forgot their jealousy at my being the prime alpha, and as one pack, they howled
The rocket lifts off the pad; I’m slammed into my seat. I silently thank my Masters for designing me,
and I pay tribute to Laika, the first dog launched into space on Sputnick 2 in
1959. I hope I fare better than her
since she died within the first few hours.
I hope to make my Masters proud.
As man’s best friend, I, Max, am now officially the second dog to enter
Man has evolved from apes.
Economies have evolved from hunter gathering and farming to distributed
networks of specialization. Government
has evolved from tribal leaders to democracy.
Religion has liberalized from an absolute force to a relative
choice. Technology has advanced us from
face to face communication to far-flung telecom and anonymous internet. All these changes have made our physical
lives infinitely better: we live longer, healthier, safer, and more comfortably
with far greater freedom. But the cost
of these material gains is the decline of morals and ethics. The codes of honor that used to control us,
the religious rules that used to bind us, the societal norms that used to shame
us have all weakened, in some cases disappearing altogether. The walls that used to hold in our excesses,
the prying eyes that used to threaten exposure of bad conduct, the societal
penalties that used to punish us for failure to follow the unwritten rules are
all fading away. The advancement of our
civilization has enabled the evolution of the jerk.
As Man evolved from ape to Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal to
Homo sapiens, the maxim “Might makes Right” stood paramount. Like the alpha ape, the leader of the tribe
had to be strong and demanded unbending personal loyalty. Humans were weak relative to the animals and
only through our intelligence and cooperation could we survive in the hostile
environment. Connivers and sycophants
existed, but their power depended on pleasing the leader, limiting their sphere
of influence. The members of the tribe
depended on each other to live. Everyone
knew everyone, and everyone had a role to play.
The greatest personal risk was becoming an outcast, to be stripped of
the protection of the tribe. Tribe
members had to curb their excesses, bend to the tribal norms, and follow the
traditions and customs.
Fast forwarding to our modern Western society, our mode of
government has advanced from tribal dictatorship to a national democracy. Democracy by definition means people have
more choice. The Western culture
encourages individualism, free-thinking, and not only tolerates but even
celebrates the rebel. For a democracy to
work, people are supposed to think for themselves, make educated
decisions. The change in scale, from
tribal level to national, impersonalizes the government, one of the controlling
forces of human nature. The risk of
discovery of breaking the law is much lower, the crime is no longer personal, and
the punishment is humane. Instead of
backstabbing the tribal leader, we now cheat on our taxes. Though living in a democracy gives us much
greater personal freedom, it weakens the bonds that control human nature.
Moving from our agrarian village living to the impersonal
living of a city has unleashed great economic benefits, as described by Adam
Smith’s Wealth of Nations. We now specialize in self-interest
competition in a free market.
Interestingly, Adam Smith also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he proposed “a theory of sympathy,
in which the act of observing others makes people aware of themselves and the
morality of their own behavior.” But in our modern world, in the anonymous
living of a city, we no longer have the “impartial spectator;” we don’t have
prying neighbors. We often don’t even
know our neighbors though we may live next to them for years. We can cheat on taxes in our own home,
invisible to others, except on a very rare occasion, caught by a keen-eyed IRS
agent. We now have the economic
incentive to maximize our self-interest with a minimal amount of fear of being
punished for crossing the line. Even the
line has moved. It’s no longer the rather
restrictive but invisible line of societal pressures; now there’s only the hard
line of the law.
Religion used to be
a major force in controlling humans from their base behavior, with mysterious
rituals, iron-clad customs, soaring rewards of heaven and eternal bliss for
good behavior, and not only real-world punishments but also eternal damnation
in hell for sinning. But the influence
of religion has waned for many. Even
many of those who go to church (or mosque or synagogue or temple) are just
going through the motions, a salve for their conscience, but not a stick to
keep them in line. In the past, an
extra-marital affair could get a woman an “A” branded on her forehead, stoned
to death, or worst, excommunicated from the church so her soul was eternally
damned. Today, people blame men for
cheating, but it takes two to tango. We
are animals, only slightly evolved from apes, and without the threat of a
massively-exaggerated punishment, we cave into our caveman instincts.
Advancement in our communications from fire signals to
electronic signals is also contributing to the anonymity of our sins. From the telephone to the fax to the
internet, we no longer need to know the victim to perpetuate a crime. Watching Wolf on Wall Street made quite an
impression on me. Not because the movie
was so realistic, but because it characterized the thoughts of the white collar
criminal so well. The line that really
hit me was, “The money is better in my pocket than yours.” Jordan felt no compunction ripping off the
poor blue collar suckers over the phone.
He was fiercely loyal to his friends and employees because they were
tangible, physical, real. The suckers
over the phone were just a disembodied checkbook. The internet adds another layer of
obfuscation; hackers in Syria not only do not feel guilt but they may even feel
a sense of justice phishing for financial details of the rich, debauched
Westerners. They never see their
victims; they can transfer unimaginable amounts of wealth in seconds; and they
face little fear of punishment. Am I
describing the wolves on Wall Street or the hackers in Syria? Yes.
of the world running ridiculously large Ponzi schemes. Companies like Enron hailed for their innovative
practices. On a personal level, our
investment in M1NT,
the hottest club in Shanghai, going down the tubes. Alistair Paton was so smooth, handsome,
well-dressed – in fact very much like Jordan Belfort. These types of cons have being going on
forever, but today, they can be much larger in scale thanks to the
dehumanization of technology and the legal protection of corporations.
The book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly
Improbable explains how our ape-evolved minds cannot cope with the scale modern
technology affords us. He has a great
example of lining up all the people in a football stadium. If you lined everyone up by a physical
attribute such as height or weight or age, the variance is very small, within
an order of magnitude. However, if you
lined people up by some digital fact such as wealth, the differences can be
many orders of magnitude from the richest to the poorest. But our brains cannot comprehend this difference. We can imagine a 10x or 100x difference, but
even 1000x is close to incomprehensible, never mind millions of times
apart. We are inured to incredibly large
numbers – like Whatsapp being bought for $17 billion dollars – but to our
simple minds, there’s very little difference between a million, a billion, and
Modern telecommunication and internet has made the world smaller and flatter, which is great for me to stay in touch with
my mom, but it also wipes out the competitive barriers of a local winner. Taleb expounds in The Black Swan that in the
past a local opera singer could make a decent living because he was all the
local residents could hear. Then came
records and radio which could bring the world’s best opera singer directly to your
family room. However, the local performer
still had a small edge because a live performance offered higher fidelity. Today though, with digital recordings, the world-class
opera singer can perform in your family room, and it’ll sound like you were
live at The Met. You can even watch him
perform on your gigantic flat screen TV so the experience is like the world’s
best opera singer giving you a private performance. The local opera singer cannot compete. Technology has created a winner-take-all
scenario. Only the best performer will
get paid. Everyone else will
starve. We see this in the internet
giants crushing all other competitors. Amazon is slowly but surely putting not
just the Barnes and Nobles out of business but also the mom and pop shops
around the corner. It’s a distributed, impersonal
type of evil, in which we’re all willing participants. And Bezos is not portrayed as some new-age
Hitler; he’s seen as an internet rock star, a business maven, a modern day hero
we wish to emulate.
The relatively modern creation of the Corporation is yet
another layer of misdirection.
Corporations are essentially legal entities with many of the rights of
humans, but they allow the humans that create them to hide their guilt behind
the legal structures. Just like it’s
easier to gamble chips at a casino than real dollars, or spend foreign currency
easier than our home currency, it’s amazing how the human brain loses touch
with reality with only one degree of separation. That’s what Corporations do. The execs within the corporation justify
their inhuman and inhumane behavior by solemnly swearing that they are
“maximizing shareholder profit.” Sociopaths
do best at climbing the corporate ladder because they don’t have minor
inconveniences like guilt and shame to hold them back. In fact, they are rewarded and acclaimed for
their objectivity, the adherence to the rites of their Accounting God, who
demands human sacrifice to uphold His numbers.
Human relationships - previously buttressed by societal norm
and uplifted by religious values – are under attack by the impersonal face of
technology, implacable façade of corporations, and incomprehensible figures of
infinity. Unrestrained by the fear of
detection, emboldened by the impunity from recrimination, motivated by the
possibility of impossible wealth, man is evolving again. Witness the evolution of the jerk.
February 19, 2017
By Alan Tien
D: “Hey Luc, George left his computer unlocked again!”
L: “That idiot, didn’t he learn his lesson last time when we
mucked with his simulation?”
D: “Guess not. What
should we do this time?”
L: “I don’t know how he does it, but he’s in the damn lead
again, that geek. I think he’s autistic
or something. He can focus on such tiny
details. I can’t see how it makes a
difference in the overall outcome, but there he is, top of the charts again.”
D: “Well, it’s his own stupid fault for not following
security protocols. Here look! He’s got 2 popular votes coming up. Just tweak the voting algorithm a bit; maybe
he won’t notice. You know, maybe not
seeing the forest because of the trees.”
L: “What are you talking about Dev?”
D: “Oh, nothing. Just
an expression that came out of one of his simulations. I like the expression, even though it’s from
bits and bytes that think they’re a person commenting on digital artifacts of
‘trees’ and ‘forests.’”
L: “Those brown and green things? They’re so ugly; I don’t even get why he’s
put them in all over the place. He’s
always moaning on and on about something he calls ‘ecology,’ or whatever. What the hell does that have to do with the
simulation at all? Why does he waste all
those computer cycles calculating ridiculous things like weather patterns,
animals, even tracking the half-life of isotopes!”
D: “Well, he says that these things are important to make
the world feel more ‘real,’ less ‘artificial,’ you know, so the little people
think that they’re real themselves.
Maybe he has point. His
simulation is running the longest so far without those electrons figuring out
they’re in a simulation.”
L: “A few of those dots have speculated on that idea, ever
since they came up with their own computers and are getting pretty good at
making mini-simulations of their own. I
seriously don’t get how audit lets it go; they should be shutting his
simulation down now. I mean, this is on
morally-grey grounds already. What if
the majority actually agree with these few ‘science fiction writers’ and figure
D: “Luc, don’t get your panties all twisted up man. You know that the up and ups have already
said that the level of consciousness is so low that it doesn’t really
count. If it really starts looking like
‘they’ might wake up, we just pull the plug.”
L: “Don’t be naïve Dev.
They’re not going to pull the plug on George’s simulation. It’s running too well. As much as I hate that George is leading, I
am fascinated that his little guys have pulled themselves out of the muck of
chaos and entropy, in like only a few eons.
They’re like mini-me’s! Ha ha!”
D: “Ugh, stop, you just sent shivers up my spine. What if we’re just a simulation too?”
L: “What, kind of like a cosmic fractal? Come on!
Are you listening to that philosophical metaphysics crap again? Look at me!
Do you think a simulation can create something this magnificent?”
D: “Yeah funny. But
seriously, don’t you think the guys in George’s simulation – what’s it called,
Earth? – also think that they’re real, and that their world is way too complex
to be a simulation.”
L: “Sure they do, but they’re programmed to think that.”
D: “That’s my point exactly! What if
we’re also programmed to think that!”
L: “Dude, I think you’re smoking something. Whatever it is, give some to me! Look, as complex as George’s simulation is,
it’s a tiny spec of a program running in the corner of a dusty mainframe, or
whatever it is we’re running in the backroom.
You’d think they’d give us some more computing power if what we’re doing
is so important.”
D: “George says he’s written some algorithm to make them
think they have free will, so the simulation is more accurate. I don’t quite get how it’s possible to have a
probabilistic-based computer program create individuals who think they’re
controlling their own ‘lives,’ but that’s what he claims.”
L: “George says a lot of bull crap. The boss actually believes some of it. Don’t tell me you do too. Just because some Monet dude randomly mixes
some colors together in a pretty way, that’s not art! That’s just a bunch of digital
monkeys banging on a, uh, palette with a bunch of digital paintbrushes. George uses that picture as his screensaver,
I think as a subconscious sales pitch to Boss every time he walks by.”
D: “I actually like it.
I also like the music from Mozart.
I mean the stuff is pretty amazing.
It’s just really hard to see how that stuff comes out of a computer
program that generates digital beings who think they have freewill, when
they’re just following a path we’ve – I mean, George – laid down for them.”
L: “Like I said, don’t fall for his garbage. The guy has an inferiority complex, and he
takes it out on his poor simulation beings.
I mean, he has a bunch of them praying to ‘God.’”
D: “Really? As in,
‘G.O.D.’ his initials?”
L: “Oh, you didn’t know?
Yeah, he calls it ‘religion.’
Another ‘facet’ he’s added to make it more ‘real.’ I think it’s just another abstraction layer,
to distract the bits from realizing it’s not real. You know, the razzle dazzle effect. And by the way, we’re in his little world
D: “Oh, we are? I’m flattered.”
L: “You shouldn’t be.
We’re not the good guys.”
D: “What? The
bastard! So how does he explain this ‘God’ thing when random stuff happens all
the time? I mean, that’s the point of
our simulation, to see how these individuals react to random events, right?”
L: “These little guys are really creative when they want to
be. Instead of questioning the fabric of
their world itself, they come up with all sorts of convoluted arguments
justifying God, their own existence, their freewill, the ‘meaning of life,’ blah
blah blah. Kinda back to my point. We should be shutting his simulation
down. I mean, it’s just wrong to be
doing these things to them when they think they’re real, even if they’re just
bits and bytes.”
D: “Alright, back to my point. What should we do to his simulation? We gotta do something soon. He’s probably coming back from lunch in a few
minutes. I mean, we should make it
subtle, but really ridiculous, to show those bits that it’s all just a
game. When they start waking up to the
reality, audit will be forced to shut it down.
It’s the merciful thing to do.”
L: “That’s the spirit!
All right, there. That should do
it. It’ll look like the impossible
happened, just a minor tweak here, so that he won’t predict the outcome until
it happens. But by then, it’ll be too
D: “Great, what did you do?”
L: “Well, I’m not sure what the ‘people’ in his simulation
will call it, but I dub it Brexit and Trump.”
By Alan Tien
December 12, 2017
Yesterday, my teenage son came
home from school, visibly distraught. He
avoided eye contact, answered questions monosyllabically, slumped through
dinner and escaped to his boy-cave.
Through careful coaxing from his loving mother did he pull out of his shell,
only to deliver the shocker, “I’m so stupid.”
We were dumbfounded. My son is not prone to melodrama or
self-defeating talk. In fact, he’s
generally very even-keeled and optimistic.
So what was up? He had gotten his
PSAT test score back, and he had scored lower than two of his (very smart)
After we discovered the source of
the anguish, we were able to walk him back from the edge of despair, from the
deep dark vision of a failed life, all projected from a single data point. As my wife pointed out, it was a wake-up call
to us. We believed we were not one of those Asian tiger parents. My wife was even on the school’s Parent
Education committee and helped organize a conference starring Denise Pope with
her enigmatically-titled “Challenge
Success” program. Their homepage
At Challenge Success, we believe that our society has become
too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for
kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and
motivated learners. We provide families and schools with the practical,
research-based tools they need to create a more balanced and academically
fulfilling life for kids. After all, success is measured over the course of a
lifetime, not at the end of a semester.
Well, something was off. Here we professed to not pushing for the
straight As and perfect test scores, unlike my mom, who challenged my success
of a 97 on a test with, “Where are the other 3 points?” But my son still felt like a failure even
though printed out just beneath the absolute score of his PSAT was his national
percentile ranking, which was very high.
Literally 4 digits had sent him into an emotional tailspin.
Luckily, we were a good tag-team,
my wife providing the emotional comfort blanket, and I presenting the logical
argument why the test score ultimately didn’t matter. Yes, we both want him to score well, but we
are happy as long as we feel he’s tried his hardest and the effort to get that
personal-best score does not ruin his love of learning.
I will skip over the obvious
arguments we told him: it’s just the PSAT, taken during his sophomore year, and
his percentile ranking was great. Furthermore, he had only compared his score
against 2 of the smartest kids in his class.
I will even gloss over the Challenge
Success view that we’re all too fixated on the “elite” universities, where
the admission process is a crap-shoot (Denise Pope had interviewed the
Stanford’s Dean of Admission and asked what percentage of students he would
accept if he could take every qualified student. The
current rate is under 5%. He said
70%.). Ms. Pope posited that our
children would thrive in any of the top 200 accredited colleges in the US, and
she pointed out that we wouldn’t be able to name more than 50 colleges off the
top of our heads (meaning that there were plenty of colleges we haven’t even
heard of that would offer a wonderful education for our children).
As much as I agree with Challenge
Success’ position (admittedly, only after much internal debate, and forcing
myself to accept their oxymoronic name), I believe there’s a larger issue at
play. It’s similar to the arguments that
our current school system is out of touch with the realities our children will
face when they graduate from college. (This article does
a superb job outlining the view that
“our K–12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age
factory model of education,” even though the author’s dissent from this opinion
seems to be splitting hairs.). Though I
agree with this view that our educational process is obsolete and that it
should be upgraded, I think it misses the bigger point. It’s not only our pedagogical approach is
outdated, but even the subjects taught are questionable. Our world is changing so much, so fast, that
traditional AP subjects, such as calculus or chemistry, or even “newer”
subjects, such as computer science, are not going to be very helpful in the
coming age of Artificial Intelligence and Biogenetics.
A friend of mine just told me a
horrifying story where he heard his son ask Siri what “12 + 7” was. This is funny in a scary way, but I’m sure
our teachers were equally horrified when we used our calculators to do simple
arithmetic. The advances of computers,
and now AI, are so astounding that it’s conceivable that in our lifetime, we
will be asking ourselves questions and not be aware of whether the answer came
from our own organic tissue brain or from the brain-implant (we
already think we’re smarter than we actually are with Google). The boy using Siri has just been outed only
because he was caught during this transition period before the AI is embedded
in our heads, and then nobody will hear us asking the dumb questions.
Today, AI is very skill-specific
chess or Go), but the machine-learning algorithms are improving on a daily
basis, and machines learn much, much faster than humans do, without needing
time to rest and play. Already, AI is as
good, if not better, than world-class dermatologists and radiologists in “deciphering
diagnoses from images.” In other
words, the hallowed profession of doctors – the #1 career of choice for Chinese
parents – is being threatened. #2 – lawyers
– is not much further behind. #3 –
engineer – is safe, right? Somebody’s
got to program those robots, right?
I remember being in the top 10%
of Andersen Consulting’s (“AC” for short, now called Accenture) entering class
of programmers. I was good at Stanford,
getting As in my CS classes, but I wasn’t great. AC had just hired some CS PhDs from Romania
(or some other Eastern European country, doesn’t matter which) for the same
salary as us US-undergrads. These guys,
barely speaking any English and jet-lagged like hell, programmed circles around
us. They were at least 10x faster than I
was, and I was already 10x faster than the English-Lit football player from
Notre Dame who sat next to me. The point
is that the skill-level in programming is not linear: a great programmer being
twice as good as a good programmer. No,
the proficiency increases exponentially.
Thus, I believe that if you’re not in that top 1% of world-class
programmers, then don’t bother going into CS.
AI will be able to do whatever you can do, a lot better and a lot
However, I do not believe AI will
replace all human jobs. As Peter Thiel
argues in his awesome startup book Zero
to One, AI is
best when it’s used with humans.
This article summarizes it well:
However, a new mindset is taking shape — the era
of AI-human hybrid intelligence. This combination of
a human brain and a computer intelligence is known as
a centaur. The centaur model sparked the growth of freestyle
chess, a context in which Garry
Kasparov concluded that “weak human + machine +
better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more
remarkable, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.”
I believe in our lifetime, AI and
robots will still need the “human touch,” because much of the work interfaces
with humans eventually. So doctors won’t
need to diagnose the x-ray image to determine if the cells are cancerous
anymore, but they will have to deliver the heart-wrenching news that someone
you love has the awful disease and discuss the treatment desired. Maybe the lawyer won’t have to sift through
mountains of evidence to find the smoking gun, but clients will still want a
human to talk through the ramifications of the case. In other words, the skills required in the
future will be less based around IQ and more around EQ. I would argue mastering calculus or organic
chem is less important than understanding human behavior (my wife and I really
and our cognitive biases
(check out Michael Lewis’ The
Perhaps an even bigger, though
less reported, mega-trend is the advances in genetic engineering in humans, or
biogenetics. Only within the last few years have
scientists figured out how to edit our DNA with genome-clipping scissors called
CRISPR. Then in July 2017, US scientists
were able to edit
human DNA in embryos. This is great
for snipping out genetic
diseases, such as Down Syndrome or Parkinson’s disease, but it can also
lead to “designer babies,” where the rich (initially, only the rich will be
able to afford these procedures) can customize the genes of the embryo still in
There are many concerns around genetically engineering
humans. CRISPR is a very precise gene-editing tool, but
it can sometimes lead to editing errors. So some fear that small mistakes
could lead to permanent problems in the human gene pool. There are also ethical
concerns: bioethicists fear that gene-editing will lead to a world where
parents will be able to customize their own “designer baby,” complete with
The most disconcerting word in
the above paragraph is “permanent.” The
article focuses on the mistakes, but the successfully edited genes are also
inheritable. So when the “designer baby”
grows up and has children, his or her genes will be passed to his or her baby,
and so on down the line. In other words,
we’re able to engineer our own species’ mutation, like the warnings of Aldous
Huxley’s classic dystopian Brave
New World and the superb movie Gattaca. We will then have classes of humans – normal
homo sapiens, and a new super-breed of (rich) genetically-modified humans. Sounds like an X-men movie, doesn’t it?
This is a genie-out-of the-bottle
invention. It can’t be put back into the
bottle. Even if the US restricts
genome-editing research, other less-scrupulous countries like China have
already started down this path. And
these are just the research projects we’re aware of, never mind the secret labs
of billionaires who want to edit their own genes.
Like the internet in the early
90s, this is a trend that is so early that we do not really have any idea where
it will lead us. Thus, I would suggest
that Biogenetics a great field to enter now, instead of joining the overcrowded
field of Computer Science, which as I pointed out above, will most likely only
be helpful for the best of the best programmers.
For these two megatrends – AI and
genetic engineering, there’s another field that will be needed for both –
Philosophy. Once almost a requirement
for a Greek citizen to be considered a gentleman, philosophy has been relegated
to tweeded professors debating trivial points that have nothing to do with our
real world. While interesting enough to
make science fiction shows about (Westworld’s The
Bicameral Mind), philosophy can’t stand up to the demands of our literal,
materialistic world. Up until now.
Suddenly, philosophy is
critically important again as we delve into the murky area of ethics. As mentioned above, editing human DNA brings
up huge ethical concerns. Where do we
draw the line on editing the genes of an embryo? Ethics are also critical in the evolving
field of AI. For example, what should be
done about self-driving cars, where the AI can react thousands of times faster
than the human brain? What if to avoid
an accident straight ahead, the AI must decide whether to turn left or
right? A human being just reacts, but
the AI is fast enough to consider the consequences of its decisions. What if left kills an old lady, right impacts
a car with a family of four, or just going straight endangers the passenger of
the AI’s own car (assuming the AI itself doesn’t have consciousness…yet!)? What’s the correct, ethical decision (my son
reminded me this is called the Trolley Problem)? We need to go back to philosophy to
understand our cultural values.
And finally, a human trait that
AI has not yet mastered – creativity – will have even greater value in our
children’s future world. Today, creativity
is already revered because of its ability to bring about great business
success. Though artists are celebrated,
our modern society’s greatest heroes are the business entrepreneurs who bridle
the magic of creativity: Steve Jobs with Apple, Elon Musk for Tesla, and Pixar
for all their hits such as Toy Story (co-founder Ed Catmull wrote this enlightening
Inc.). So as AI starts handling more
and more of the mundane jobs of today’s workforce, creativity will change from
a “nice to have” to a “must have” just to stay afloat, ahead of the rising tide
As parents, we all wish the best
for our children. We hope they will grow
up to be independent, successful citizens of the world. In that quest, we sometimes are misguided by
today’s societal pressures, “keeping up with the Jones” in the number of AP classes,
extra-curricular activities, test scores, and college admissions. There’s an argument even within today’s world
that these well-meaning pursuits are actually damaging in the longer term
towards the child’s self-worth, love of learning, and risk-taking
abilities. However, I would argue that
Challenge Success is still too close to the trees to see the forest. The whole world, never mind the forest, is
The megatrends of AI and
Biogenetics, almost on the opposite ends of the spectrum, are rising like tidal
waves. In the future of our children,
they will crash together and reshape the entire world and society as we know
it. To prepare our loved ones for that brave
new world, we need to look past today’s successful careers (doctors, lawyers,
engineers) and their prerequisites (math, science, computer programming) and
envision what will be needed instead. I
believe it will be empathy, philosophy, and creativity.
Alan Tien, November 2017
time came too early
man sheathed in Glory.
time in the Navy
of his bravery,
his time at Stanford
him the word
stronger than the sword.
a sketch of a man
into a painting
the mind of the listener.
was another reminder
through the chatter
the daily eulogy
friends and family.
Thoughts Deep in the Night
time came too early
man sheathed in Glory.
time in the Navy
of his bravery,
his time at Stanford
him the word
stronger than the sword.
a sketch of a man
into a painting
the mind of the listener.
was another reminder
through the chatter
the daily eulogy
friends and family.