Thinking in Extremes

Karl L Hughes
Jan 14, 2017 · 2 min read

I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein this month, and one of the many things it’s got me considering is how when developing theories mathematicians and physicists think in extremes.

For example, when developing the theory of general relativity, which concludes that time is not a constant measure, but rather another dimension entirely, Einstein considered a speeding train going by an observer at close to the speed of light. If a light were turned on in the train car as it flew by the observer, the light would appear to illuminate the back of the car first because that was the part “catching up” with the light. While it’s impossible to test this logic, it makes conceptual sense, so it helps bolster the mathematics behind his theory.

Similarly, economists use this kind of “extreme” thinking to predict or model events. The Laffer Curve for example attempts to make predictions of how much money a government would make with different tax rates as moving tax rates lower (theoretically) causes consumer spending (which is taxable) to increase.

I’m less afraid of thinking in extremes now that I realize their value in thought experiments. For example, what happens to our population if robots replace 100% of human jobs?

One theory could be that humans die out. Self-replicating robots become the next big evolutionary step. Another might be that humans create new frontiers — they create jobs that robots couldn’t have conceived of.

In this 100% robot-workforce world, what if robots continue to get cheaper? If robots can do an increasingly large number of jobs while their cost goes down to $0, what happens to our ideas of income? What about material possessions? Scarce resources might still have value, but what about recyclable resources?

Maybe it’s impossible for the cost of robots to catch up with the number of jobs they do and a curve like this is more realistic?

Anyway, that’s my wild thought of the week. How about you? What’s on your mind?

What I’m reading

Karl L Hughes

Written by

Technology team builder, software engineer, and startup enthusiast. CTO at @GraideNetwork and helping technology speakers succeed at @cfp_land.

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