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An economically inclined take: technology as perspective

What is technology?

What is technology? It’s quite easy to generate examples of technology: cars, motherboards, air conditioning units, computer programs. But how do we capture its essence or definition? I propose a definition inspired by neoclassical economics, adjusted to fit realistic conditions we face in the world- we may envision a production function set towards a task, so instead of considering an infinite output potential bounded by constraints, we instead consider a scenario where a finite output is required, and that is all that is required. A custodian must sweep a floor, which will be represented as partitioned tiles set to 4x5 sections. All 20 tiles must be swept. This function and grid represent the productivity of the sweeper and the floor which must be swept, respectively:

Here, the variables are z for technology, k for capital, l for labor (in minutes), and finally f is the output. Capital is measured in brooms, hence capping capital at 1 is sufficient for our purposes (anything more than one broom adds nothing, and no broom makes sweeping an arduous task). Labor is assumed to be uniform in use, but this is not always true1. We may set output equal to 20, to represent the number of tiles needing to be swept, also, we may set capital to 1, for that is the optimal choice irrespective of anything else. We see our function:

We can easily simplify the equation like so:

It’s clear to see labor will be directly impacted by technology, imagine two separate workers, one who has a z of 2 another with a z of 1.

As we can see, the one with superior technology completes the task in 5 units of labor, over the one with inferior technology who takes 10. They both have the same broom, so what is the driving force behind z? The organization of one’s time. The perspective one takes to utilize their capital and time in the most effective way possible. Compare these two methods of sweeping:

Clearly, the organized way that minimizes the need to move around the room results in less time required to sweep the room. Hence, technology is the specific use of the resources one uses to solve problems. In other words, the way in which we organize our processes determines the amount of technology we have. We can apply this thought to all applications of productivity, and it becomes clear that there simply are swaths of optimization problems of a large variety (e.g., compare sweeping the room to city planning to data organization, etc.). What remains the same, however, is that we possess the ability to contemplate and experiment to find more efficient implementations of our current resources, leading to greater results in a shorter amount of time.

Automation of tasks greatly decreases the amount of labor required for completion of tasks. This does an excellent job of explaining how AI (Artificial Intelligence) is so useful- AI takes aspects of our problems and sets itself towards a solution. What must be remembered, however, is that it is in our use of the AI that determines its worth, not the AI itself. My argument, then, is that alongside the improvements of AI as a field, our continued improvement in our perspective of AI must go in tandem. Like the sweeper, we must plan out a route and solve our problems with efficiency. Haphazardly approaching a problem with all your resources might seem like a promising idea when all you want is a solution but taking the time to reassess can help bring your level of z higher than you would think.

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Nicholas Tessier 🧠

Director, Ethical AI