What if people run out of things to do? Basic Income and the “Purpose” problem


Beijing, China. 2015.

Imagine this. Your basic expenses are covered. You don’t need to work anymore. You have Monday to Friday free. Nowhere you need to be. Nothing you need to do. You can live (reasonably) comfortably. You have all the time in the world.

Now what?

With the rise of automation and technological advances, some researchers predict that within the next couple of decades, up to 47% of American jobs could be vulnerable to automation. In developing nations such as Ethiopia, Nepal, and China, the impact could be even higher.  With a large percentage of the population out of a job, governments around the world (Finland, Alaska, Uganda, Canada, Switzerland) have begun to explore an ambitious and controversial social policy:  Universal Basic Income (UBI).


Graphics and text from Futurism.com.

Before reading on, check out this awesome animated video on the motivations, benefits and complexities of UBI, particularly with regards to welfare, tax and pension systems. I won’t cover that here. What I would like to explore are the potential social impacts of UBI – i.e., what Bill Gates has termed the ‘purpose’ problem. He writes:

In my view, the robots-take-over scenario is not the most interesting one to think about. It is true that as artificial intelligence gets more powerful, we need to ensure that it serves humanity and not the other way around. […] But I am more interested in what you might call the purpose problem. […] War and violence are at historical lows and still declining. Advances in science and technology will help people live much longer and go a long way toward ending disease and hunger. What if we solved big problems like hunger and disease, and the world kept getting more peaceful: What purpose would humans have then? What challenges would we be inspired to solve? […] What if people run out of things to do?  […]

It’s important to note that one of the arguments for UBI is to “free up individuals from the burden and stress of financial instability”, potentially “leading to a spark in creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation”. (Even with automation changing the workplace landscape, such skills will still be in high demand).

So let’s talk about creativity and innovation. It occurs to me, that while UBI satisfies our low-level ‘physiological’ needs (food, water, warmth, shelter), and maybe our ‘safety’ needs (security), it does nothing to address our higher level needs of ‘Belonging’, ‘Esteem’, and ‘Self-actualization’.  (See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs below). Yet, Maslow’s pyramid implies that humans are driven to satisfy lower-level needs before satisfying higher-level ones.  Whether or not you agree with this pyramid (and many don’t), let’s pretend for now that it’s true. And let’s evaluate what the current workplace offers us – and if taken away, what universal human needs could be left un-fulfilled.


Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” from SimplePsychology.com

  1. An income ==> [Security]
  2. A place to go and a time to be at every day.  ==> [Esteem and Belonging]
  3. Coworkers and colleagues for social interaction.  ==> [Belonging]
  4. If you’re lucky and love your job, intellectual challenges and a sense of accomplishment. ==> ]Esteem]
  5. If you’re really lucky, fulfillment of your highest potential, ability to make a positive impact to the world, and finding a sense of purpose and meaning. ==> [Self-actualization]

Most people will get benefits #1, #2 and #3 from their work. Some might get #4, at least for some portion of time. Yet, given that only 13% of workers worldwide feel engaged by their jobs, its unlikely you get benefit #5 from your current work. (Sad, but true).

When UBI comes into the picture, it will give people benefit #1 [Security].  But with automation and a lack of jobs, people will lose benefits #2 and #3 [Belonging and Esteem]. This means (unless there are specific measures to account for that – e.g. public spaces/clubs/venues where people could go to meet people, to connect, to ‘belong’ somewhere, to achieve common goals), lower-level needs are left unsatisfied, potentially making it harder to achieve the higher-level need for self-actualization. (For example, have you ever tried to drive a creative project by yourself? At home? In isolation? Without the support, feedback and social interaction of like-minded people in a place of belonging like ‘work’? I’m trying it now. Let me tell you – it’s friggin’ hard). Consequently, the intended benefit of “creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation” as an automatically assumed outcome of UBI  is …. well, somewhat questionable.

Another thing – sure, aiming for creativity is great and all, but our education and schools are not currently set up to nurture creative thinking. Most people have self-narratives around creativity (e.g. “I can’t draw. I don’t make art. I am not a creative person”), often as left-over residue from unfortunate teacher criticisms in primary  school. These narratives are not only self-debilitating but also dangerous to our health and well-being [Brene Brown].  Additionally, in the Western world, we tend to give up easily in the face of obstacles and failure, for fear of not looking “smart” enough. But fear and failure are a huge part of being creative. You can’t innovate without it! While researchers such as Angela Duckworth, Carol Dweck, Adam Grant, Kelly McGonigal and Brene Brown have made significant (and very inspiring) strides towards addressing this issue –  our current systems are not set up (yet!) to breed the general public in pursuing creativity, encouraging initiative, and driving innovation.

So perhaps that should be one of the new goals governments should aim for:  Alongside with UBI, setting up societal support and systems that nurture and nourish creative thinking, and reward initiative and entrepreneurial spirit.

Well, that’s my ramble for today. Then again, I could be completely wrong. Either way, this was fun to write!


I looked to see what was holding me back – and I realized it was me.

I’m re-reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. For maybe the 5th time. Underlined, highlighted and bursting with multi-colored post-its.

I’m at a crossroads in my career – deciding between the safe option that I know I can do (and can do pretty well, according to some others), versus learning new skills, trying new things, failing, flailing, and trying and trying again. There are a lot of voices in my head right now – excitement, inspiration, and doubt, doubt and more self-doubt. Doubt and fear mix in a big black cauldron, resulting in a smoky brew of rationalization that tells me I should quit while I’m ahead – i.e. while I haven’t made a fool out of myself. Yet.

In (re)reading “Lean In” this time, there’s one quote from Sandberg’s book that hit me hard:

“Women need to shift from thinking ‘I’m not ready to do that’ to thinking  ‘I want to do that – and I’ll learn by doing it’.   […] In my experience, more men look for stretch assignments and take on high-visibility projects, while more women hang back, […] saying ‘I’m just not sure I’d be good at that’ or ‘That sounds exciting but I’ve never done anything like it before’.

One reason […] is that [women] worry too much about whether they currently have the skills they need for a new role. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since so many abilities are acquired on the job. […] Multiple studies in multiple industries [page 29] show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is. […] Research [pg. 62] revealed that women only apply for open jobs if they think meet 100% of the criteria listed. Men applied if they think they meet 60% of the requirements”.

Wow. Doesn’t that just get you in the gut? In all this talk about gender equality, there is surprisingly very little discussion on the internal barriers that women impose on ourselves. Sandberg writes, “internal obstacles are rarely discussed and often underplayed”, but play a huge role in understanding and rectifying gender equality issues. After reading Sandberg’s book, I’m convinced that we (women) need to change how we think about our own potential and abilities.  It seems to me that doing that is already half the battle.

First, if you haven’t read Lean In, please do. It is fantastic. Eye-opening. Life-changing. At least for me. You’ll learn about…

  • the unconscious biases men (and women!) have in how we perceive ambitious, driven, successful, powerful women (i.e. they are competent but not very likable)
  • self-prophetic internal barriers and the Imposter Syndrome (i.e. I accomplished amazing feats X, Y, Z but I’m pretty sure it was all luck and connections rather than internal ability);
  • practical career advice (i.e. when picking a job, only one criterion matters: the potential for growth; “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.”);
  • equal partnerships/marriages/relationships (i.e. because you can’t do it all, you shouldn’t do it all, and research shows that children grow up healthier and more well-adjusted when you don’t do it all. That is, in a family where both parents work).

To end off this International Women’s Day, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Sandberg’s book, where she quotes Padmasree Warrior, CTO of Cisco:

There is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. 

The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have’.  

Face the fear! Questions for the AI revolution

There sure is a lot of fearmongering in the media these days. Watch any clip of mainstream news and you’ll get scared out of your pants about terrorism, nuclear war, biosecurity, climate change, and machine intelligence taking over the world. Yes – these are real and important global issues ripe for discussion – but jeez, must we talk about them in such a doomsday (and in fact, completely useless) way?

Let’s take the societal fear of machine super-intelligence taking over the world, a.k.a. Man versus Machine. The scenario we all fear is this: Man programs machines to learn how to learn. Machines become more intelligent than man. Man loses control over machines. Machines overtake man. Man is exterminated or become enslaved by machines.

Or another scenario: Man programs machines to learn how to learn. Machines augment mans’ intelligence. Man employ machines as support to achieve mans’ goals. Depending on what those goals are, the world may (or may not) become a better/fairer/more equal/ideal place.

The first step mentioned above – “Man programs machines to learn how to learn” – is inevitable. In fact, we’re already there. Anytime you use a spam filter, choose a movie from a list of personalized recommendations, or type a search query, you are using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. And arguably, you are benefiting from it.

The next step – whether we choose to compete with machines (as in Man vs. Machine”) or collaborate with machines (as in “Machine augments mans’ intelligence”) – is up to us.

It all depends on what question we ask.


The Calgary Supermoon in 2016. Photo taken by Mark X. He (aka my dad!)

If we take the first scenario, we might begin by asking How we can program machines to be as smart as us? First, we could duplicate whatever capabilities man has, so that the machine will have it too – that is, programming machines to mimic human intelligence. We’ll start with manual tasks which are simple for man but difficult for machines, such as turning a doorknob or vacuuming the living room. Later, we’ll move on to more complex tasks like recognizing debris versus people when rescuing victims after an earthquake, or responding to subtle emotions in a human face. Once we’ve achieved these tasks, maybe our question might evolve to Can we program machines to be smarter than us?  For some tasks, the answer is yes. Examples are Garry Kasparov – the former World Chess Champion who competed against IBM’s supercomputer “Deep Blue” in 1997 and lost, or how Google AI beat Ke Jie, the world’s Go champion in May 2017.

In the second scenario of collaboration (“Machine augments mans’ intelligence”), we would take a completely different approach. As Tom Gruber states in his TED talk“instead of asking ‘How smart can we make our machines?’, maybe we’ll ask ‘How smart can our machines make us?” To answer this question, maybe we could first identify what mans’ strengths and weaknesses are, particularly when compared to machines. What are the things we humans do easily and intuitively that machines can’t? And what are the things we consistently fail at or come up short on? (For examples, check out our many cognitive biases). How can machines augment, supplement or overcome our weaknesses to make us better/more rational/empathetic people? On that note, perhaps instead of pursuing “smart” or “intelligent” machines, perhaps the question we really should be asking is How can machines make us better people? How can machines help us to live our best lives?



Photo credit: Mark X He

But wait – how you would you define “better” or “best”? In Zeynep Tufekci’s TED talk, she states that “We’re asking questions to computation that have no single right answers, that are subjective and open-ended and value-laden. We’re asking questions like, Who should the company hire? Which convict is more likely to re-offend? Which news item or movie should be recommended to people?”

Tufekci says: “These systems are often trained on data generated by our actions, human imprints. Well, […] these systems could be picking up on our biases, amplifying them and showing them back to us, while we’re telling ourselves, ‘We’re just doing objective, neutral computation’.  For example, “Researchers found that on Google, women are less likely than men to be shown job ads for high-paying jobs. And searching for African-American names is more likely to bring up ads suggesting criminal history, even when there is none. Such hidden biases and black-box algorithms that researchers uncover sometimes but sometimes we don’t know, can have life-altering consequences.” (More about inherent biases in our technology design here.)

She argues that “Artificial intelligence does not give us a ‘Get out of ethics free’ card. We need to cultivate algorithm suspicion, scrutiny and investigation. […] We need to accept that bringing math and computation to messy, value-laden human affairs does not bring objectivity; rather, the complexity of human affairs invades the algorithms”.

The AI revolution is already here. There is no point in denying and restraining progress. Human beings have an innate curiosity and a creative spirit. Innovation may be the hallmark of our species. As machine learning and AI advances in the next years, let’s make sure we are asking and focusing on the right questions. The most effective questions. Like, what does it mean to be human? What values and morals do we care about, across countries, across cultures, across the human species? What are the goals we want to achieve? What kind of world do we want to live in, our children to live in?

And how can AI get us there?

Addictive technology and the race for our attention

Let me start with a confession. A (not-so) well-kept secret. In the five years since I’ve started this blog, this is the first post I’ve written about technology. The very first. This might make me a terrible computer scientist. Or it might make me a really focused one. Let me explain.

Researcher Dr. Eric Baumer studies the disuse of technology – why some people consciously engage in no use or limited usage of Facebook and other social media. Having never used social media myself (exceptions: LinkedIn, Twitter) and being a late adopter to new technology trends, I would have been a prime participant for his studies. Which is why when Tristan Harris posed the question of “How do you ethically steer people’s thoughts?” when designing technology, I was more than intrigued.


Freshly picked wildflowers at my old desk in the People and Computing Lab, University of Zurich.

Harris begins his TED Talk by saying that there are a hundred people in a control room who “shape the thoughts and feelings of a billion people”. He argues that the design of technology is not evolving randomly but rather “in a very specific direction” – that is, “the race for our attention”. As Netflix CEO recently said, “our biggest competitors are Facebook, YouTube and sleep.” Perhaps this is why Netflix has designed their interface to auto-play the featured show on your homepage without waiting for a user click; why Facebook’s notification buttons are red (to take advantage of our visual perception system) rather than blue; why teens go through almost any means to maintain their SnapChat SnapStreaks.

Technology design is not neutral. Why? Because designers of technology are real, live, human beings – like me and you– with values, goals and intentions. The designer may or may not be conscious of such values, goals, and intentions, but nonetheless, they are there. Harris argues that technology companies are actively manipulating its users in the race for more attention and more screen-time. Harris states, “the reason it feels like it’s sucking us in”, is because it was intentionally designed to do so. In his (previous) role as a design ethicist at Google, he would know.


Photo of an art piece made out of floppy disks in Paris. (Unfortunately, I forgot to jot down the artist’s name).

But why does this matter? Why should we care? Harris argues this is the most urgent problem of our day – “because this problem is underneath all other problems. It’s not just taking away our agency to spend our attention and live the lives that we want, it’s changing the way that we have our conversations, it’s changing our democracy, and it’s changing our ability to have the conversations and relationships we want with each other. And it affects everyone, because a billion people have one of these [smartphones] in their pocket”.

As human beings then, our attention and focus – our ability to do deep work – is our most precious resource. Without a conscious awareness of how technology usage can negatively impact our attention and in turn quality of life, we are losing, I argue, everything it means to be human. To connect and engage authentically and empathetically with our family, friends and strangers. To be creative, innovative and inspired, both when alone and when together. To critically reflect on the problems facing our world today and to collectively work towards solutions. And most importantly, to have the time and space to develop clarity on what we want in life, not only to protect against what we don’t want.


Harris proposes three radical changes to reach this goal:

1) To recognize that we human beings (as users of technology) are easily (and almost laughably) persuadable;

2) To encourage technology companies to be more ethical, accountable and transparent in their persuasive technology design. As Harris argues, “the only form of ethical persuasion that exists is when the goals of the persuader are aligned with the goals of the persuadee.”

3) For technology companies to design technology that empower users by aligning with their goals and values. In other words, you say ‘I want this’, and technology goes ‘I’ll help you get there’. Harris offers a simple example: “Let’s say you wanted to post something super controversial on Facebook, which is a really important thing to be able to do, to talk about controversial topics”. Instead of the current design – a big comment box, asking what you want to type to keep you on the screen – “imagine instead that there was another button saying, ‘What would be the most well spent time for you?’ And you click ‘Host a dinner.’ And right there underneath the item it said, ‘Who wants to RSVP for the dinner?’ And so you’d still have a conversation about something controversial, but you’d be having it in the most empowering place on your timeline – which would be at home that night, with a bunch of a friends over to talk about it”.

So let me end this post now, by turning off my computer, getting some tech-free time and doing what feels most empowering to me – cooking with my loved ones, then doing some painting.

I wish you, dear readers, a reflective and empowered day!


A beautiful, honest mess

I’ve been pondering the nature of spaces. How their design can make us feel the way we feel, and the subtle ways our environments can impact what we do and how we interact with each other and ourselves.

Take where I’m at right now. A Starbucks in Calgary, Canada. It’s -20°C outside, cold wind and fresh snow on the ground. I’m sitting at a long wooden table, typing and hidden away in the corner. Customers stream in, and the chatter of background voices and music drowns in and out as I focus and type. I’m warm, comfortable and productive here. With no one at my table, I feel alone but together – perfect for writing with my introvert self.

In the last months, my interest in the design of public spaces has grown considerably, sparked by the work of urban artist Candy Chang.  In her work Before I Die, a simple prompt written in chalk on an abandoned building led strangers to anonymously share their dreams and aspirations with one another.


In Confessions, voting-like booths allowed people to confess anonymously on post-it notes, which Chang later shared in a public art display – inspired by the idea of ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’.


In this talk, Chang says: “People’s responses ranged from the functional to the poetic. […] It made me laugh and cry, they consoled me during my toughest times. […] It reminded me that I’m not alone as I’m trying to make sense of my life” (minute 28).

She says in that eloquent, quiet way of hers, “These public walls, are like this honest mess. An honest mess of the longing, pain, joy, insecurity, gratitude, and fear and wonder that you find in every community. Everyone is going through challenges in their life. And there’s great comfort in knowing you are not alone. But it’s easy to forget this because there are a lot of barriers to opening up” (minute 31).

Chang says in our society, When we feel fear or anxiety or confusion, we often do our best to hide it from others. But what if we could make more safe places to share? There’s great power in knowing you’re not alone. You’re not alone as you’re trying to make sense of your life. And you’re not the only one that feels like they are barely keeping it together.” (minute 39).

She asks: “How can our public spaces become more contemplative and more nourishing to our mental health? […]  Through opportunities for collective introspection, I think we can gain great value in self-realization and communal kinship. […] Our public spaces play a profound role to help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life with the people around us.” (minute 39/40).

What a fascinating question. What might a vision of such a public space look like? In this time of prejudice, polarization and isolation, how might such spaces unite and connect us? Inspire us to be our best selves? Extend our compassion to strangers? Instead of our carefully curated self-presentations on social media, how might the design of public spaces encourage us to share with one another in more authentic and vulnerable ways? To visualize the struggles of our common humanity and the beauty of our imperfections and failures?

Exciting questions to ponder. I’d love to hear your thoughts.




Figuring out your thing in life

There’s an episode of the Robcast called “Listener Questions“. As the name suggests, listeners write in with questions and Rob Bell answers them. Of all of his podcast episodes, this is one of my favorites. Lots of goodies in here, though I’d like to bring your attention to minute 4:20, when a woman named Susan asks, “How do you figure out your thing in life?”

Wow. Super succinct. I want to know the answer too.

Rob answers: “First off, we all have to eat and pay rent and mortgage and put gas in the car, […] so let’s take that issue and put that aside. And let’s talk about your thing in life.”

Okay Rob. It’s put aside ♣.


Little statues in Nara, Japan.

Rob says, “Listen to your life, because its been speaking to you the whole time. […] Look for the thread, look for the base note, look for the connections. […] When is it that you felt most alive? […] When you felt the most peace? […] The most satisfaction? […] When you felt like what you were doing mattered? Like it was bigger than you?”

Rob offers three ways to figure this out.

  1.  “What do you love to do? What is that when you do it, that you lose track of time?”
  2. “What fills you with anger? What is it that when you see it, you think – someone should do something about that. […] Somebody should fix that. The question is, are you that somebody? This is not a petty like, ‘someone hurt my feelings’ anger – but a divine, sort of injustice anger, like, that’s…not…right”.
  3. Curiosity. What vision of the future makes you most curious? What is it that you most want to know more about? A lot of my work is driven by curiosity. I write that book because I find that topic or theme fascinating. And I have to make it because I have to see what’s its like if I make it. […] Follow your curiosity.”
    • “One more thought. The Japanese have a word called ikigai 生き甲斐 – translated to ‘that which gets you up in the morning’, […] at a deep, soul, spirit level. What is it that you wake up going ‘I get to do this for another day’. […] What is it that’s exhausting but also exhilarating? Somewhere in there, perhaps is the thing that is your thing in life”.

Before we move on, let me just say that I love Rob Bell and his humor and wisdom. When I feel lost, I turn to his podcast to regain some perspective and remind me of the miracle of my own existence. So thank you Rob Bell, for all that you do.

unnamedBut let’s go back to that little clover ♣ , when Rob so sagely asked us to put aside the practical considerations of making money so you can support yourself/your family. It reminds me of this Venn diagram that went around on social networks about “purpose” –  drawn at the intersection of what you love to do, what you’re good at, what the world needs, with what others would pay you for. In essence, Rob asked us to take out “What others would pay you for” when talking about your purpose / calling / thing in life.


But, wait – that’s not what 21st century society tells me nowadays! I’m told I need to make money to live. But, I, coming from a rich, Western, developed country, shouldn’t be making that money in a soul-sucking job. I should be doing something that’s morally ethical,  environmentally sustainable, intellectually challenging, fulfills a higher purpose, serves a bigger community, and oh, answers the call of my soul. While getting paid big bucks.


I don’t know about you, but this sounds a bit like the Holy Grail. Times sure have changed from when work was just work, and what brought you joy and meaning was something completely different altogether. And to combine the two and not know the answer yet, does that mean I’m supposed to suffer in quiet, existential angst while I slowly [read: over the course of my lifetime] figure it all out? This type of “life design” will likely take years of experimentation, failure, lessons, and creativity. Am I destined never to feel fulfillment until I finally reach this “destination”?

I imagine I feel the same as entrepreneur Marie Forleo once did. In her video intro to “Why you’ll never find your passion”, she writes: “When I think back to my earlier self, I often had a hard time enjoying simple pleasures because so much of my mental and emotional energy was focused (umm, obsessed) with figuring out my life’s passion. In other words, I spent an extraordinary amount of energy trying to figure out exactly what I was supposed to do with my life.” Her antidote was to:

Stop thinking, and start doing. […]

Clarity comes from engagement, not thought”.

So this week, I will begin Doing, rather than Thinking. I will stop consuming articles and inspiration on the Internet in the pretext of “researching”. I will stop agonizing over which ideas are the “right” one to move forward with. I will stop anticipating what I will or won’t enjoy in future imagined scenarios. And I will separate the ‘making a living’ from the ‘call of your soul’ bit.

I will Experiment and Try. I will Create, rather than Consume.

Here goes!


The next right thing

There is something beautiful about watching lightly falling rain. Clear glass droplets rolling off of autumn leaves. Small pools of cascading ripples. Me, inside, with a cozy cup of tea. Writing.

It has been one month since I’ve moved to Germany. The PhD feels close yet far away. I’ve been learning how to slow down, to relax, and to take time. I’ve been learning not to measure the worth of my days (and indirectly, myself) by how productive I’ve been. I’ve been learning how to sit in the discomfort of not knowing what’s next, and all the anxiety, anticipation and questions of self-worth that it encompasses. It’s hard and scary. And sometimes, if I dare, exciting and electrifying.

I don’t know my path yet.


StadtPark. Köln, Germany

So I bike around and explore the city. I try out new cafes and people watch. I read and think and draw. I get inspired. I write down ideas. I feel up. I feel down. I feel like I’m making progress and gaining clarity. I learn that clarity can’t be forced. In moments of quiet and stillness, I know I’m on the right path. In moments of fear, I’m itching to have it all figured out and am despondent I’m not there yet.

As Glennon Doyle Melton writes, “You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it. It’s meant for you. Be still with it, let it come, let it go, let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth.

So I sit with this discomfort. I invite it for tea. Stay as long as you like, I say. It’s okay that I don’t know what’s next. I’ll just keep showing up. I’ll do my part and move forward everyday. I’ll sift through what I want and don’t want. As I do this, Clarity makes brief  appearances. Discomfort becomes a familiar friend. Process and Journey become my guide posts.

As Melton writes, “Just do the next right thing, one thing at a time. That’ll take you all the way home.”