Fiction is Innovation

There’s a sense of elitism amongst the tech crowd. Perhaps it’s due to the celebration and separation of “STEM” as this special set of disciplines that is constantly talked about. If one has been around higher education or even lower level education, there’s a persistent hum – there is a shortage of STEM students, educators need to encourage greater engagement in the sciences, science is the future.

Technology, at first glance, is an obvious extension of STEM – applied science; products of engineering.

As I often find myself, this post is inspired by an episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour – “How Things Spread.” One of the speakers mentioned was Yuval Harari, Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The remark that really stayed with me was this notion that homo sapiens were exceptional to all other animals due to our capacity to imagine. Most animals spend their days finding food, digesting food, and sleeping. Meanwhile, humans have been able to engineer our ways around these aspects and find time and ability to imagine beyond these day to day needs.

According to Prof. Harari, the human ability to come up with and share these fictional ideas is unique to humans and allowed us to grow into beings that do not loiter under fruit trees all day, but send people to space, create supercomputers, and imagine much more.

Which brings me back to the idea and focus on STEM. I generally agree with the notion that the world needs more scientists. In large part, compared to our imagination, our growth as a species may be hampered by our inability to create the appropriate amount of human resources. That being said, I dislike the connotation that STEM or even the more modern, and cleverly reworded adaptation, STEAM bring to education.

In order for innovation to continue, humanity needs to continue to cultivate our fictions. These fictions drive the innovations of the future. It was science fiction, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and so much more  that have brought us the tablet computer, A.I. assistant computers, and space travel. Perhaps certain people may understand this to be a calling towards science fiction. In some ways that may be true, we are at a moment in human history where the technological and societal maturity is generally more in-line the need for technological advancements rather than moral quandaries. However, even to that point, when we see the great divide seen not just in the U.S., but in many developed countries around the world, we see that there’s still so much work to be done that is not STEM, but in the humanities, to bring people together.

Having said that, this is all rather ironic coming from me. In the past several years, I had stepped away from reading fiction in favor of non-fiction. I had found the exposition and steps away from reality to be suboptimal use of time. Although I’d been telling myself that other forms of media such as movies provided ample aspects of that in my life, perhaps it’s a good time to read a fiction novel.

Podcast Response: Genetic Engineer for Sleeping Less

Original Podcast: NPR Hidden Brain – Eyes Wide Open: Part 1

Sleep is a huge topic these days.

In fact, it’s been a point of discussion for long time now.

I recently listened to NPR’s series on sleep titled “Eyes Wide Open” which discussed the various viewpoints on sleep over the past 30 years. Ranging from something that humanity thought was “pointless” and could be eliminated in the 80s, to most scientists agreeing that it is fundamental to our existence today.

A key point that stuck out to me was “if sleep is useless, evolution would have not made it so that we spend 8 hours of everyday sleeping.” Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, millions in mammalian biology would have gotten rid of sleep if it wasn’t necessary. But it didn’t, which means some part of the sleep process is very important for our biology.

Interestingly, one of the stories told during the podcast recalled a man who broke the world record for going without sleep. 11 days. And after the ordeal, he slept 14 hours and 30 minutes, and then was largely fine for the following days. He was able to function normally. Of course, during those 11 days, after the first 48 hours, he was dysfunctional in mental tasks, although was completely capable in physical tasks.

Sleep is very interesting. Personally, I still tend to look at sleep as an non-active activity. Something that could be “cured”, something that my life could optimize around. I tend to get somewhere around 6-6.5 hours of sleep a day, and I’m not sure if I want to increase that.

Having said that, I wonder about the implications of genetic engineering and what capitalism will demand sleep becomes. Since it is a purely biological process, in theory with advancing biotech we may be able to engineer humans who need less sleep. Will that be good? Is that beneficial for society? What are the implications during the early stages of this type of treatment when only certain members of society have this “productivity advantage?”

I think it’s inevitable. Humans will engineer ourselves around sleep. But there may also be unforeseen consequences. If the natural lifespan is about 100 years, is that 66 waking years with 33 sleeping years? If so does eliminating or reducing the need to sleep change the lifespan to something smaller than 100 or would humans be able to keep those 100 years? Does it matter if it means one could be awake more during their youth and most vibrant times? What does it mean to be young? Perhaps that’s a question to follow in the next blog post.

History and Tech

Something inherent about the tech industry is its focus away from history. The industry as a whole looks past history as a relic, something to be improved upon.

Or perhaps its a cultural shift in general of the 21st century. With ready made goods coming from assembly lines in China, new goods are as cheap as ever. Companies such as IKEA make disposable furniture and Starbucks serves us in disposable cups. Then again, if we observe cars, which usually come with about a 10 year life span, perhaps the focus towards the new in technology stems from a natural degradation of complex machinary over time. While a 100 year old chair, piano, or silverware may still function their designed functionality after time with equal efficiency, machines get outdated. A 1990 Honda Civic neither has the lasting design language or fuel efficiency to make sense keeping it on the road. But then again, is there an argument to be had that creating the lastest 2017 model is more wasteful?

Of course, there are antique cars as well. I’m sure people would love a 70’s Porche or a 80’s Mustang.

Then, we must be mindful that electronic gadgets probably have done a very poor job in everlasting design. There are some kitchen wares, such as stoves and fridges from the 20’s~40’s that carry a type of astetic that are pleasant to look at today (although if you’re goal was to cook faster, hotter, and keep your food colder at lower utilities bill, they might not be the best option.) It’s hard to think of an average consumer product that has lasted through the times. Perhaps the iPod, Sony Walkman, the boombox design, the corded telephone are things that are classic and have become iconic.

I’m sure there are also numous pleasant gadgets from the past that are still great design by today’s standards. It might just be that they were not popular.

In today’s digital age, admittedly the history is very short. The TCP/IP is only an invention from 1982. Even still, it would be encouraging to draw on our short history and celebrate it, cherish it, as times go by.

Tech, Diversity, and the Manifesto

Silicon Valley has a diversity problem.

Nothing new there, it’s been an ongoing discussion for years now.

Yesterday at 1:30PM PST – Gizmodo released a leaked document that has been circulating within Google. A 10 page document outlining “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber.”

I read the manifesto and while I can see the sentiments and even the intention of the author – there are some fundamental flaws that need to be addressed. Let’s try to dissect it piece by piece as Gizmodo have formatted for us.

Background [1]

People generally have good intentions, but we all have biases which are invisible to us. Thankfully, open and honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document.[2] Google has several biases and honest discussion about these biases is being silenced by the dominant ideology. What follows is by no means the complete story, but it’s a perspective that desperately needs to be told at Google.

The document opens on an intention to have an honest an acknowledgement that “bias” are a real thing and that discussion regarding it should happen. Beginning with this section gives me the greatest confidence that the writer had some well intentions and was driven to start a dialogue. While his ideas may be flawed, I agree that dialogue is always a good thing.

Google’s biases

At Google, we talk so much about unconscious bias as it applies to race and gender, but we rarely discuss our moral biases. Political orientation is actually a result of deep moral preferences and thus biases. Considering that the overwhelming majority of the social sciences, media, and Google lean left, we should critically examine these prejudices.

Left Biases

  • Compassion for the weak
  • Disparities are due to injustices
  • Humans are inherently cooperative
  • Change is good (unstable)
  • Open
  • Idealist

Right Biases

  • Respect for the strong/authority
  • Disparities are natural and just
  • Humans are inherently competitive
  • Change is dangerous (stable)
  • Closed
  • Pragmatic

Neither side is 100% correct and both viewpoints are necessary for a functioning society or, in this case, company. A company too far to the right may be slow to react, overly hierarchical, and untrusting of others. In contrast, a company too far to the left will constantly be changing (deprecating much loved services), over diversify its interests (ignoring or being ashamed of its core business), and overly trust its employees and competitors.

Only facts and reason can shed light on these biases, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence. This silence removes any checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies. For the rest of this document, I’ll concentrate on the extreme stance that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and the authoritarian element that’s required to actually discriminate to create equal representation.

I’m not sure if I agree with his divisions between left and right bias. Do conservatives readily give into authority? If anything I would’ve have thought that the right in the US leans towards independence from authority, Regardless, as we see throughout Silicon Valley – I am sure that he has suffered from what he describes as the “left’s politically correct monoculture.” That being said, I wonder if these ideas have come from a culmination of conversations between individuals or just his own personal thoughts about what he things they are. He portrays himself and the right-leaned employees at Google as victims and projects his own bias in this section.

Possible non-bias causes of the gender gap in tech [3]

At Google, we’re regularly told that implicit (unconscious) and explicit biases are holding women back in tech and leadership. Of course, men and women experience bias, tech, and the workplace differently and we should be cognizant of this, but it’s far from the whole story.

On average, men and women biologically differ in many ways. These differences aren’t just socially constructed because:

  • They’re universal across human cultures
  • They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone
  • Biological males that were castrated at birth and raised as females often still identify and act like males
  • The underlying traits are highly heritable
  • They’re exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

I fail to see how the evidence he presents supports his notion that biological differences support the gender gap that exists in tech. The “implicit and explicit bias” he cites to begin the section has been backed by data. The fact that the majority of tech CEOs (and now that Marissa Mayers’ Yahoo is mostly irrelevant, perhaps no high profile female CEO exists) are men speaks volumes in regards to these bias. The experience can be felt across the valley as women are continuously disregarded during review season for promotion and the pay gap has been well documented. Yes, men and women are different biologically – no one would argue against that – but how does that explain representation or lack thereof?

Personality differences

Women, on average, have more:

  • Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).
  • These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.
  • Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness.
  • This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.
  • Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.

Note that contrary to what a social constructionist would argue, research suggests that “greater nation-level gender equality leads to psychological dissimilarity in men’s and women’s personality traits.” Because as “society becomes more prosperous and more egalitarian, innate dispositional differences between men and women have more space to develop and the gap that exists between men and women in their personality becomes wider.” We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism.

Thoughts like this are very dangerous as it paints people into buckets. Women are good at X. Men are good at Y. This will make qualified candidates overlooked. Generalizing about half the world’s population is also an issue. Gender is a construct created over one’s entire upbringing. I haven’t looked at the data so I cannot say if there are demonstrated gaps in neuroticism and other personality metrics between men and women – but I would also be very interested to see how exposure to popular media and the school system helps form these internal bias as well. Companies like Google should fight on the grassroots level (that being schools) to help combat these bias. That’s why programs like Girls Who Code is so powerful.

Men’s higher drive for status

We always ask why we don’t see women in top leadership positions, but we never ask why we see so many men in these jobs. These positions often require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life.

Status is the primary metric that men are judged on[4], pushing many men into these higher paying, less satisfying jobs for the status that they entail. Note, the same forces that lead men into high pay/high stress jobs in tech and leadership cause men to take undesirable and dangerous jobs like coal mining, garbage collection, and firefighting, and suffer 93% of work-related deaths.

We never ask why there are so many men in those roles because it is very obvious. If the funnel has more men – of course more men will be on top levels. And seniority carries a big weight in promotions, as women are pushed out of positions well before they would be eligible for senior leadership roles, this gap occurs.

Non-discriminatory ways to reduce the gender gap

Below I’ll go over some of the differences in distribution of traits between men and women that I outlined in the previous section and suggest ways to address them to increase women’s representation in tech and without resorting to discrimination. Google is already making strides in many of these areas, but I think it’s still instructive to list them:

  • Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things
  • We can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration. Unfortunately, there may be limits to how people-oriented certain roles and Google can be and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves or students into thinking otherwise (some of our programs to get female students into coding might be doing this).
  • Women on average are more cooperative
  • Allow those exhibiting cooperative behavior to thrive. Recent updates to Perf may be doing this to an extent, but maybe there’s more we can do. This doesn’t mean that we should remove all competitiveness from Google. Competitiveness and self reliance can be valuable traits and we shouldn’t necessarily disadvantage those that have them, like what’s been done in education. Women on average are more prone to anxiety. Make tech and leadership less stressful. Google already partly does this with its many stress reduction courses and benefits.
  • Women on average look for more work-life balance while men have a higher drive for status on average
  • Unfortunately, as long as tech and leadership remain high status, lucrative careers, men may disproportionately want to be in them. Allowing and truly endorsing (as part of our culture) part time work though can keep more women in tech.
  • The male gender role is currently inflexible

Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role. If we, as a society, allow men to be more “feminine,” then the gender gap will shrink, although probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally feminine roles.
Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principles reasons for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that. For example currently those trying to work extra hours or take extra stress will inevitably get ahead and if we try to change that too much, it may have disastrous consequences. Also, when considering the costs and benefits, we should keep in mind that Google’s funding is finite so its allocation is more zero-sum than is generally acknowledged.

Ok I think I understand this man’s position now and would rather not spend the energy to through it more. Basically, he is upset that there are programs that promote diversity but he does not understand why they even happen in the first place. In his mind, women are born women, men are born men, and there are roles that are more fitting for these “roles”. His projection about defining people’s places in the world rather then allowing individuals to make their own decisions is a huge red flag. He is upset that Google and the rest of the industry spends a lot of resources trying to “fit a square peg into a round hole” to use a common phrase.

Luckily, it appears many around the tech community and the world disagree with this line of thinking and would like to continue the path towards greater equality of opportunities and promoting females as equals in all walks of life including traditionally “male roles”.

 

 

Last Names and the Mitochondrial DNA

In most societies today, last names are passed down from generation to generation paternally. It is generally the father’s name, and thus lineage, that gets recognized across generations and that keep family history.

I’d like to make the argument that society should transition towards the latin model where both the mother’s and father’s name are kept, and then work towards generally preserving identity through the mother’s lineage than fathers.

For one, most children can be easily matched with their mother on birth. It is much more difficult for a newborn to not be matched with their mothers than with their father. In most instances, the child that comes out of the womb has been carried by their biological mother for around 9 months from an egg that is from the mother. Short of rare in vitro cases and shady caesarean section procedures, the mother and child could be matched at birth in a medical facility.

The same cannot be said of fathers. Given a woman’s sexual activities, a huge number of males could be the potential father of a child. Of course DNA matching procedures could be done to identify the father, but such procedures are only useful if the potential father is ever identified.

Secondly, as mentioned in the title, the mitrochondrial DNA provides a biological reasoning to trace family history through the mother. We can identify a Mitochondrial Eve much deeper into human history (estimates vary from 99 thousand years ago to 148 thousand years ago) versus the Y-chromosomal Adam which range from 200 ~300 thousands years. The argument for the Mitochondrial Eve stems from the fact that the mitochondria that all human cells derive energy from is untampered with largely as it stays within the egg of the female gamete, while the Y-chromosome is only transfered from father to mother via the Y-chrome in the sperm cell.

Of course, given western and eastern society’s deep roots in patriarchy and last names being a rather arbitrary thing in the context of human existence, I don’t think governments will step up and mandate these changes any time soon. I do not think even ardent feminists will make last name lineage their agenda ahead of others.

However, perhaps last names could be a great way to solidify the mother’s role in our lives and make a societal contract for more female recognition.

A New Way to Spend the Pre-Med Gap Year

Back in 2011, 86,181 people took the MCAT. 1

According to Kaplan, there were 52,550 applications to med schools in 2015.2

From my observations, it’s hard to imagine that the number of students preparing to go to medical school has changed significantly in the past two years. And even generously assuming that half the applicants are coming from a working background, that leaves anywhere between 25,000 and 43,000 individuals who spend a consider amount of time preparing for medical school.

The norm these days is to take 1 or 2 years after undergraduate graduation to prepare for medical school applications. According to the Crimson, the Harvard newspaper, the number of students applying after a gap year has increased from 40% in 2004 to 65% in 2015.3 And my experience with several Ivy League type graduates in recent years has been that the 2 year gap is becoming much more the norm.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking time to figure out one’s life decision. But I propose that humanity could gain a huge amount of talented man hours if those years were put towards something else. It is very common for premed students to spend a large amount of their time with doctor shadowing and medical scribing. While these are good activities to get some insight into the daily lives of being a medical doctor, I don’t believe that it is the best way for these students to spend their time.

These college graduates, with degrees in biology, chemistry, public health, etc. are well equipped to contribute to the global pursuit of science and fight the inefficiencies of medical market for medicine and for health care.

Let’s assume the lowest, 25,000 people with 1 year of free time. That means about 40*48 = 1920 man hours per person per year. This means about 48,000,000 man hours for the year! Given that 10,000 hours per person per activity has been demonstrated to create expertise, could we assume that 48 million hours would create a huge amount of value?

Why do these young people provide virtually free labor for the inadequate hospital scene? Medical care is riddled with inefficiencies, old computing systems, poor logistics. If altruism was the goal, free labor to help improve these processes rather than become a part of it should be the task.

The greatest advantage to students of joining a lab, conducting experiments, starting a health care startup, or doing gainful employeement is that it opens doors, not close them.

The Role of Tech and the Environment

As soon as Trump announced that the United States will exit the Paris Agreements on climate change, there was a flood of Tweets, letters, and public announcements not only from the public sector but also the private sector.

Here are some examples:

Withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement is bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and it puts our children’s…

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, June 1, 2017

So why do these leaders stand up for climate change? Why does it matter to the tech industry? And what is the role that tech should play in the global climate change movement?

Well, to put it simply, I think these leaders respond because they personally lean as environmentalists, globalists, and and as progressives. And it’s become a lot more possible and important that leaders present themselves not only as business leaders, but also as moral leaders – guiding their company with profiting business decisions, but also use that capital power towards shaping the world as they’d like to see it. Google’s famous (and now dropped) motto is “Don’t be evil” and Tim Cook often cites Apple’s commitment to “leave the world better than we found it.”

Essentially, tech leaders are embracing the philosophy of greater corporate responsibility. If the industries of the last half century and Wall St. was one of a man’s success is a man’s own to keep – the recent progressive thought puts pressures on the rich to share the wealth.

For a 5-10 year period, the focus on reducing energy use has been in the home. Replacing incandescent light bulbs, turning off lights, adjusting the thermostat. But the relative lack of market appeal for products such as the Nest Thermostat has made it abundantly clear that the greatest impact comes from corporate responsibility. So tech companies have been making efforts to reduce their carbon footprint at places of high energy use, offsetting their footprint by purchasing cleaner electricity, investing in solar farms, making clean energy run offices and server farms.

So what is the moral imperative – if any – for tech companies to tackle climate change?

It’s becoming clearer that the responsibility rises, broadly to all corporations and some aspects especially for tech companies. If one accepts that the responsibility of a corporation is only to their investors and customers, these investors and customers can only thrive in a global environment that sustains as many people as possible. Classic economic theory says the majority of global value comes from wealth created by populations, the healthier and more abundant a population, the more wealth can be cultivated and spent in the marketplace.

In tech – with it’s premise as a future oriented and science based industry – combatting climate change is a big deal. It threatens the very future technology promises to solve, tech companies thrive on the premise that their products and offerings are an improvement to the human condition, and is subtly marketed with the context that the products offered by tech companies are the products of the “future.” Thus in order to maintain their image and brand power as a tech firm and future oriented future, tech companies have collectively decided that climate change is a problem they will address publicly.

It will be interesting to see how much investment the companies put into saving the planet. Will any of them take it up as a core part of their business? Or continuing using it as a pseudo feel-good mechanic? Aside from Tesla – none of the tech giants are greatly focused on environmental issues. Time will tell whether the narrative of climate change becomes urgent enough that focus will shift from the shiniest gadgets and faster web services to a greener world.

 

First post!

As I think it is almost customary – I think I will keep my first post light and congratulatory. Techeth is a thing now!

Hopefully this space will grow to be a space of reflection and discussion about the ethics of our species’s growth and evolution.