Earlier this year, I wrote my friend Lukas Mathis and proposed a new project. What if we worked through The Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies and discussed each one in email. And what if we did it with an optimistic perspective instead of a pessimistic one? The world doesn’t need more Black Mirror.
There’s a conventional wisdom that people keep coming up with ideas without considering their effects on the world, but that’s not what I’ve seen recently. I see people too afraid to offer new ideas, too afraid to tackle big challenges, and gleefully explaining how everything is doomed. We care so much we’ve stopped dreaming.
Caution is good, but over-caution and despair can be deadly. We need more things like David Byrne’s new Reasons To Be Cheerful. It takes courage to keep looking for solutions, and it takes courage to be excited and hopeful. But if we can get more people thinking this way, it could have a greater effect than a million lazy, despairing, cynical hot take retweets. Here goes!
re: an Optimistic Future
It’s Saturday morning at 7:50am, and I just got inspired. I see a way to combine several interests together into a new thing, and I’d love your help.
Interest one: I sometimes write essays under the name Design Dare. The idea is I wrote correspondence like this about a new design idea, and I just let my thoughts unravel. One of the first ones was “how would I design a Japanese-style bathtub?” and people seemed to enjoy it. There’s something endearing about watching the messy, early stages of design thinking. I wrote enough of these to fill two books. I’ve written more since.
Interest two: We wrote a bunch of emails to each other, and I ended up calling the project Letters With Lukas. We wrote enough for two books, and it was a lot of fun.
Interest three: Lately I’ve been writing an essay series called Near Future Field Notes, where I’m trying to think less about the distant future and more about what’s coming in the next year or two. By aiming my attention at the near future rather than a jetpack future, I’m finding I have more confidence in my predictions. Will we have flying cars in 50 years? No idea! Will Texas start voting Democratic within twenty years? Absolutely, and I have the charts and data to me back up.
Interest four: I’m reading a book right now called Enlightenment Now, and it’s the sequel to The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both books are explaining how there’s never been a better time to be be born, or be alive. But he’s not saying it idly, as some smart and rich guy in his ivory tower. He’s able to back up his thesis with solid data, data that most people don’t know because it doesn’t lead the daily news.
Here’s an example: the UN decided to cut extreme poverty by half within 25 years. Most people rolled their eyes, if they noticed at all. That’s a billion people and the system is fundamentally broken! How could humanity possibly do such a thing? Well, they did. And they did it five years early. That’s nuts.
It gets better. Every single day, 137,000 people are lifted out of extreme poverty. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of wealth being created. When you hand one of these people a smart phone, some estimates say the GDP of their country goes up by $30,000 because they’re able to more efficiently use their time and make more income. For example, fisherman knowing where the fish prices are higher means more fish get sold, fewer fish go bad, and fisherman make more money.
I’ve been fascinated by this book and its implications on humanity. 137,000 people aren’t going to buy your Tesla tomorrow. But 137,000 might be a step closer to making more money. And as they make more money, we see a lot of good things kick in. And those good things snowball.
Interest five: William once told me about a video game blog where the guy would write a review based on “what if this game were your favourite game?” So instead of saying “This game does x wrong” he twisted it around to “Let me tell you about the people who might love this game.” That inspired me to write Design Explosions, a way to critique products that was less about calling out the problems and more about sympathising with all the tradeoffs and complexity that go into making great products. I really like writing like that.
So. Let’s put it all together.
Gartner has a thing they call the Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. On the far right-hand side they’ve listed Augmented Reality in something they call the Trough of Disappointment. On the far left-hand side they’ve listed Biotech: Cultured or Artificial Tissue in a section called Innovation Trigger.
They’ve put their finger on something here. Tech is fun to dream about when it’s new on the scene or only found in speculative fiction. But it gets a lot less fun as we work through the actual details and tradeoffs. That doesn’t make it less valuable, but it can seem like it at first.
I propose we discuss through these features via correspondence, starting on the right and moving to the left. Like Design Explosions, I think some guiding principles might be a good idea:
- Don’t ignore the challenge, predict how we’ll beat it.
- Add to ideas, don’t disprove them.
- Err on the side of progress, not pessimism.
I’ll share an example that has nothing to do with technology: American Democracy. Principle #1 says I’m not allowed to just say “I’m sure it’ll all be fine,” or say “Actually I think it’s a great idea that America is becoming less Democratic by the day.” I need to put on my thinking cap, which you did on this very topic a year ago. And I might point out what the core problems are (for example: unlimited money in politics, low turnout numbers, electoral college) and then some ideas how things might work out.
Then, as a response, we go improv-style as shown in principle #2. Ideas have to be added to, not torn down. So instead of “I disagree that the Supreme Court will ever agree to that and you’re dumb,” the response would be more “Yeah, and I can see the Supreme Court agreeing to that if X were to happen. Which could happen if Y.”
Which brings us to #3, which I think is key. If I were reading a book like this, I wouldn’t want it to be 100% cheerleading (“I’m sure it’ll be fine!”) but the market is oversaturated with people explaining how everything is doomed. I don’t need to read another book talking about how it’s broken. I think it’s a moral imperative that if you think everything is fucked, and if you think that’s a shame, and if you want the world to change, that you have to actually start inspiring some people.
I’ll say it in the reverse: if you are sad about the world, and you’re looking to make things better, one thing everyone can do is stop spreading misery. I’d rather be concerned and then point to a plan than be concerned and concern 100 more people straight onto the depression couch with a bucket of ice cream.
We recently talked about augmented reality in that email thread with Mark. I propose we start there. If we could see the future a few years out and Augmented Reality was reaching its full exciting potential, what does that look like? How did we get there? What were some big challenges and how did we address them? For starters, I want contact lenses that completely remove all labels and advertising from everything I see. I wrote a short story where I called it Quiet Mode. I’d pay good money for Quiet Mode. And the advertisers would pay good money to ban it. But I believe the consumers will win this battle in the end.
Interested? If so, hit me with An Optimistic Future: Augmented Reality.
Augmented Reality (Lukas)
The history of human progress has, in large part, been a history of controlling things that were previously uncontrollable. We learned to control fire, animals, electricity and even electrons. Technologies like vaccines even allow us to control our own bodies, and to make them resistant to viral infections. We’re now living longer, safer, healthier, happier lives than any of our ancestors.
One thing that has remained elusive, though, is human perception. We can’t control what we perceive. People that don’t have our best interests in mind decide which ads to put up on the street next to our home. Chaotic events outside of our control decide when it rains. City planner decide which street signs are most useful.
I recently installed an app on my phone that detects when I drive, and then shows alerts about dangerous situations. “Dangerous intersection ahead: drivers often fail to observe the right of way.” This is incredibly useful when driving in unfamiliar places. It’s information that exists about a place, but that is invisible to most people. This app makes this information available to me. Now, imagine a world where this kind of invisible information literally becomes a visible part of the world.
There is a danger to being able to control one’s perception. We all love our biases to be confirmed by our perception. This is causing problems right now, where people prefer to live in a bubble information that confirms what they already believe, which, in turn, can radicalise people’s views. In politics, there is a concept called the Overton window, which describes which ideas on a spectrum between two extremes are currently seen as acceptable by people. Take healthcare, for example. A politician advocating for socialised healthcare would be in the middle of the Overton window in most European countries, where this is seen as a reasonable, mainstream idea. That same politician in the US, espousing these same ideas, would be called a “socialist”. The difference between Europe and the US is not the idea, or the politician, but the Overton window. In Europe and the US, it is in a different place.
The Overton window exists because most people look to society for information on what ideas are acceptable. If humans were entirely rational, every person would make a determination on their own, come to a conclusion in isolation, and not allow other people’s subjective opinions to influence their own. But humans are social creatures. We want to fit in with everybody else, so we adapt our ideas to that of the larger society we live in.
Therein lies the danger: if we surround ourselves with people who think alike, our own personal perception of where the Overton window is starts to shift. And as our window shifts, and the ideas we talk about move along that trajectory, so do we shift the window of our peers in that same bubble. Augmented reality has the power to make this effect exponentially stronger, because it’s no longer just our Twitter friends which have this effect on us, it’s now literally everything we perceive.
The good thing is that we know about this issue. Twitter and Facebook and Google and all of the other companies that create these self-reinforcing online bubbles of extremist ideas are aware of this issue. We have a few more years to find solutions to this before AR really hits. These are solvable problems, and, in fact, they’re not just solvable. We can not just get rid of the problems. We can make things even better than they have been in the past.
Online systems have the power to break up our myopic views of what the world is, and get a much larger perspective of who we are, of what humans are, and of how we want to live together.
This is also something that is happening: the trend towards higher acceptance for gay and transgender people, for example, was helped by the Internet exposing us to ideas that we very likely would not have been exposed to in our limited group of real-world friends. The Internet can push people into bubbles, but it can also force them out of these bubbles.
AR has that same ability, if we make use of it. And it can bring that ability out of the Internet, into the real world.
Augmented Reality (Jon)
Ok, I think this is how handoffs will work. Person A posts some ideas, person B responds, then person B kicks off the next topic.
Gosh I love your response. I feel like I can see the openings for me to respond to. But before I dive in, I need to consult our rough guidelines for how to respond to each other. They are:
- Don’t ignore the challenge, predict how we’ll beat it.
- Add to ideas, don’t disprove them.
- Err on the side of progress, not pessimism.
So one challenge you’ve brought up is how our biases and echo chambers might just get more rigid and strict when we can overlay metadata onto everything we experience in our perception. And you hinted at how the Twitters and Facebooks of the world have a head start thinking about this problem, and we can build on it.
Speaking as someone who worked at Twitter, I think I have something specific to add here. It’s a controversial thing to say, but I’m bolstered by the idea that I’m objectively right and have seen the data. Ready? Twitter has never done a better job at abuse as it’s doing right now. And in a year it’ll be better still. Five years? Even better. The progress was too slow, but it’s definitely progress.
Did you know Twitter had no block function for the first year? And then it took something like seven years to do mute! But within about 12 months, a tremendous number of features came out at once, all more complex than the original block and mute. I was there. I was on the team. If you chart the graph, it almost looks made up. One feature over the better part of a decade, then suddenly about a dozen features much larger all within a year or two.
There was a time where you could do certain bad things on Twitter, and now you can’t. Some people still slip by and do bad things, of course. But there’s a huge difference between “that’s not against the law” and “we just haven’t caught you yet.” That’s improvement.
So when we get ready to overlay information on people’s eyes, we have all these lessons learned from social media that will let us apply them. I’m not claiming it will be easy, I’m not claiming there won’t be mistakes. Just that the mistakes in 2019 will be different ones from early Twitter. They’ll be meatier and more complex because we’ve solved for these. That’s progress.
Another detail, though, is that Google Maps doesn’t have opinions for its core experience. You don’t do a search and have two warring factions fighting over the name of a restaurant or the speed limit. Augmenting our reality, in theory, should be closer to a utility like translating a parking sign than a tech religious war.
Which brings up another giant leap forward: curated software marketplaces. It was a radical idea for Apple to say they were going to review everything by hand on their new store, and that you couldn’t side-load anything. But that foundation, as developer-hostile as it may be, sets a really strong foundation for the store. If Apple sees an app is harming society, they have the ability to stop it. That’s not something we had in the 90s, and that’s why malware was so much more common then on PCs than now on iPhones.
When it comes time to augment everything, I can imagine a philosophy closer to Apple 2019 than unix 1992. I’m a fan of unix 1992, but I think it’s clear that there are real benefits to curation, and I think they’ll come in handy when it’s time to go big on AR.
Put it all together, and I think it could look like this. I have contact lenses. Most of the time they don’t add anything. But in some scenarios, with my permission, little overlays appear on what I see. For example, I get in my car and fire up directions. My contact lens adds extremely subtle yet helpful overlays to help me see when my turn is coming up. When I arrive at my destination, my mapping application knows I’m there and stops reading directions. At the same time, my contact lenses stop adding information.
Pause there. Even that minor interaction proves out a useful experience without having to worry about echo chambers. I think there will be more like these, and I think I will appreciate them. But only if they’re designed well, like any software.
And I think in this world, “designed well” will have a bar similar to an Alexa app. People will probably have a super low tolerance for gimmicky stuff, but if you can show them something genuinely useful, then sure. They’ll give it a shot. But they’ll uninstall the second the ROI isn’t there.
Smart Fabrics (Jon)
I have never thought about Smart Fabrics before, so we’ll see what I come up with off the top of my head after a quick wikipedia search for e-textiles.
One thing that jumped out at me was the idea that Smart Fabrics are separate from wearables. So a Watch with a computer in it is a wearable. But a shirt with a computer in it, that’s Smart Fabric. And I think any time technology disappears, interesting things are able to emerge.
For example, maybe in the past you need a microphone to capture your voice well. Maybe now microphones are tiny little clips on your shirt. Maybe in a future world of smart fabrics, you don’t need a microphone anymore. Maybe if you’re recording a scene for a movie, and three people are involved, maybe the triangulated (times a thousand) concept of computers and machinery woven into everyone’s shirt means a greater sound quality than was ever possible before.
Or I think about 3D tracking in studios, where people wear those green suits with a bunch of white balls attached to them, then the data is sent back to computers in order to render something from it. Well, imagine playing an online video game where you don’t need wires down your back, or a big headset, or big bulky controllers in your hands. Nope, just wear your smart shirt and it’ll track what you’re doing just fine.
Let’s drill down into that one a bit. Wii was pretty cool, but it was one device in your hand. (Or two) The current VR stuff is pretty cool, but it’s still holding two (optional) wands in your hands. Much like Angry Birds was one of the big hits in a world with swiping, I can imagine Smart Shirts having some game I can’t imagine needing in 2019 but by 2029 it’ll be really obvious.
I haven’t even talked about health yet. A watch can be nice if it monitors your vital stats. But in theory combining a blob of tech on your wrist with a Smart Shirt would provide more data points for a more accurate reading. Maybe not heart rate, since the wrist is pretty great at it. But maybe there’s other stuff that’s better suited to something touching a bunch of places on your skin.
Or I wonder if a shirt could be extremely cooling or warming depending on conditions? What if your shirt knew it was cold and just adjusted itself to make sure you’re warmer? That could be pretty useful. Maybe there’s a farming application for animals too.
Gosh, I know if I read a book on Smart Fabrics, they’d have hundreds of pages of ideas here. Those are just some that come to mind. What are your thoughts?
Smart Fabrics (Lukas)
Humans are bad at introspection.
There’s this fascinating anti-smoking ad where a child goes up to a person who’s smoking, and asks them to light the child’s cigarette. The smokers react very compassionately, and tell the child about how smoking is bad for them, and beg them to stop smoking. But they don’t have that same kind of insight into their own behavior, they don’t have that same compassion for themselves.
In psychotherapy, therapists often encourage their patients to take an outside view. “If your friend was in your position, what would they tell you to do?” It’s difficult to see one’s own situation objectively. Even just understanding one’s feelings, and where these feelings come from, is often difficult or impossible.
Misattribution of arousal, for example, is a phenomenon commonly observed in psychology studies, where people mistake the reason for feeling aroused. People confuse fear with romantic arousal, for example, since both result in high blood pressure and shortness of breath. Similarly, the feeling you have before giving a speech in front of people can both be interpreted as excitement or fear, and your interpretation of your own feelings then influences your behavior, and consequently, how your performance is perceived by the audience.
The point is, we don’t have a lot of insight into what our own bodies are up to, and we’re often mistaken about the meager insight that we think we do have.
Smart fabrics can help gain an external perspective. They can help understand what we’re feeling, and perhaps even why we’re feeling these things. They can provide an external perspective that can be an invaluable help for introspection.
Of course, the danger here is that this is basically the precondition for an unprecedented invasion of privacy. Your insurance would love to know how you feel every day, how much you exercise, how your heart beats, how much you perspire, weigh, eat, and then jack up your pricing based on things you might have little to no control over. As happens quite often, a technological advance turns into a political problem. This makes it a problem that is incredibly easy to solve if the will is there, and impossible to solve if it is not.
But actually, the smart shirt I want is one that can change its appearance.
Augmented Reality (Lukas)
I just saw an interview with Monica Lewinsky where she was asked if her experience would have been better or worse if it had happened today, instead of in the 90s. She pointed out that, while social media would have given a lot more people the opportunity to voice their negative opinions, it may also have allowed her to hear from people who supported her. And that would have meant a lot to her.
(She also said that blocking people on Twitter feels really empowering to her, so that seems to be working.)
I think in the end, that’s the thing: there are a lot of people out there who revel in making other people’s lives miserable, but I also think that most people are fundamentally good, and want to do the right thing. It’s just that most of them aren’t as invested in making things better as the angry minority is in making things worse.
Technology can change that imbalance. If technology is built to encourage good behavior, and has options for fighting back against bad behavior, things will turn out okay.
I think silicon valley started out with an idealistic notion of how human societies work, with this idea that if we just connect people, things will turn out well. The problem here is that this gives a vocal minority with a lot of time on their hands a lot of power over everybody else. We’re learning from these mistakes now, and these lessons will only become more important as technology reaches out of the phone screen, and truly becomes a part of our real world.
Now, let me disagree a little bit with one thing you said.
Human progress is often subversive and messy and illegal. Democracies didn’t start because kings were tired of being kings, it started because people chopped their heads off. People had homosexual relationships before it was legal. Black people sat in front of the bus before it was legal. That’s how progress was made.
These things were possible because laws are squishy. Humans enforce laws, and human law enforcement isn’t perfect. People can violate these laws. That’s where dangerous things happen, but it’s also where exciting things happen.
In our brave new world of proprietary augmented reality, we’re replacing squishy laws with code. I can’t install an app on my iPad that Apple doesn’t want me to install. They decide what I can do. If I buy Apple’s future AR glasses, they will literally decide what I see. They will decide what my world is. And there won’t be any room for civil disobedience in Apple’s world.
But here’s the optimistic view: I don’t think Apple will win this. I think the most interesting AR platform, the one people will actually want to use, will be the one that allows people to experiment, just like Android is the dominant smartphone operating system.
Fear, Principles, and Religion (Jon)
I’m enjoying how this discussion is unfolding, but I’m also eyeing the original principles to see how we’re doing:
- Don’t ignore the challenge, predict how we’ll beat it.
- Add to ideas, don’t disprove them.
- Err on the side of progress, not pessimism.
I don’t want yet another religious war, since the internet is full of them. Google’s evil! Apple’s evil! Microsoft’s evil! I thought it was a great encapsulation of the ongoing OS debate that your positive spin on a negative section was “Apple won’t win.” It reminded me of the great quote “You should never say bad things about the dead, you should only say good. Joan Crawford is dead. Good.”
I think we’re doing a good job at half of #1, where we’re not ignoring the challenges. For example, the ability for Smart Fabrics to spy on us. But I want to dial up the second part, predicting how we’ll beat it. Then I think #2 and #3 are going pretty well, but I’m still wondering how to not get into a religious war. Wish me luck!
Crime was really high in the Wild West. Without a strong governmental presence, people took the law into their own hands. The book I’m reading, Enlightenment Now, is currently discussing crime and how there tends to be a transition from zero people to some people to lawlessness to more law and order. So if an old time cowboy were to bemoan how everything is too buttoned down these days, I think he’d have a good point relative to what he might expect out of life, or compared to what he’s used to. But for society at large, you can list a bunch of quality of life metrics and say that for the greater good of all people, not just cowboys, it’s a better time to be alive. Even with the reach of the law reaching much further.
I think the positive view of computing is that all sides won. Viruses used to be a much bigger deal than they are on an average consumer’s laptop or phone today. But if you want to install crazy things on your laptop, you’re still allowed to. And Android versus iOS is a great example. There are objectively fewer security holes and threats on Android than iOS. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one is that there are a zillion forks, so even if a version of Android had no exploits, billions of versions of Android around the world wouldn’t have that version, or would have forked from it, or whatever.
So that means more things are possible on Android, both good and bad. Apple’s singular view of computing didn’t kill Android, and Android’s massive extensibility didn’t kill Apple. Both co-exist, and customers can align to the experience they want more of.
I look at Twitter’s original idea that you should let everyone say everything, and that the best content will rise to the top. Then the internet realised how unworkable that would be. So Twitter said you couldn’t do certain things, like publishing personal information. At the time, people called that scary. Then they said you couldn’t threaten or wish personal harm on someone. People called it scary too. Then they said if your account’s main purpose is to incite harm towards other groups, you can’t be on Twitter either. More scary. But I just think it’s a world evolving past angry mob justice and towards realising that we have to curate the sort of world we want to see. “You should be able to do anything because innovation” keeps proving to lead to more harm than the average person is keen to take on.
But, again, when it comes to AR it’s not hard to see how we can have our cake and eat it too. Maybe one platform decides the 3rd party apps you’re allowed to see, and removes content that helps you hunt Jews in real time. Maybe another platform sticks with “letting people decide” and lets you hunt Jews in real time. I’m confident in the end that both platforms will decide what people are allowed to see, and it will look a lot like where Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter have landed with this sort of content. I’m also confident a locked platform will cut too close to the bone on some judgement calls, and miss out on some super leading edge stuff. But that in the end we’ll hit an equilibrium where no one’s bemoaning the lack of Jew hunting apps in the core store and thinking it’s an offensive attack on free speech. If Twitter offered anything to the world, it’s a good example of what happens when you just say “anything goes, good luck!”
To be clear, I don’t want to set up a dynamic here where it sounds like I’m saying “Android did everything wrong and loves Nazis” and “Apple has never made a mistake, and we need someone babysitting computing.” It’s way more nuanced than that — I think it’s healthy to have a range from more locked down to less locked down. And you can argue in either direction and have a good point. I see the surprisingly basic Android security threats that go un-patched and think “I’m not missing this vast world of innovation now that I’m not using Android anymore, but I do appreciate the tighter security.” Meanwhile, an Android person would have a great point in saying “I can actually buy Amazon Kindle books from inside the app instead of having to do this double reverse bankshot thing Amazon makes me do on iPhone, and I’m not noticing any lack of security.”
I typically think the “just let people choose” argument is boring and weak, but in the case of the future and AR I like that Android and iOS are both motoring along without causing each other much pain. It’ll set us up better for success through the next waves of computing.
Autonomous Driving, Level 4 (Jon)
I skipped over Mixed Reality because I think the things we said about AR apply to MR. Up next on our Gartner Hype Cycle is Autonomous Driving, Level 4. Huzzah!
A lot has been written about this in the last five years, and that by itself is a really positive development for me. I remember being at Design Play Seattle — which was five years ago! — having brunch at Portage Bay Cafe and a few people were talking about Uber’s plans. I think it was Justin, Basheer, and Sha? What surprised me was how consistent they all were with each other. I had apparently missed a memo, or some super popular article that everyone read. They were practically finishing each other’s sentences.
They told me how parking lots are just full of unused cars, and how Uber was going to be much more than a car company, and how advances in technology were going to cause x, y, and z. And they were so sure, and reading from all the same information I realised that I was behind. It was only a few years prior that I had downplayed self-driving cars on safety grounds. It wasn’t that I didn’t think they could ever be safe. I knew they could be safer than humans, because that’s a very low bar. But emotionally I couldn’t figure out how people were going to deal with the first dead kid as a result of a robot car. Even if there was only ever one in a year, if the timing was wrong it could mess everything up.
I was also concerned with, and annoyed by, the US government’s inability to move quickly on things. That’s part of the design of the US government, but when you have congresspeople who can’t even manage to learn email it can be dispiriting to think how our tech policy will improve.
So I’d just like to call out that ten years ago the amount of progress we can now claim is absolutely shocking. I don’t follow Elon Musk that closely, but there are a big handful of times he or someone like him has announced a thing that’s not some vague vision for the future, it’s here now. On sale. And does this crazy futuristic thing. And I went “whoa.”
So that’s how I’d like to start. I think the Overton Window has shifted a ton on this topic, and for me it’s because I keep being shown impressive shipping products that can do impressive things.
Which isn’t to say we’re ready for all cars to drive anywhere they want yet. There a lot of of gotchas. From what I’ve understood, cars can do simple driving scenarios pretty well, but when you count up all the tricky situations you realise we’re still a ways out. But that’s fine. Society doesn’t replace things as often as we believe. Things can and do co-exist. I think I’ll still be driving in ten years. But I also think the technology will be in a pretty exciting place.
Sometimes people in America refer to the Great Works projects around the time of the New Deal as a boon to the economy. Take a bunch of unemployed men and ask them to build a national highway system. It costs time and money, but makes the country better. I see a similar thing with reorienting the world’s societies to technological advances like self driving cars. Will some things cost a lot of time and money? Yes. And once we realise that those projects can be a good thing both in the short and long term, I have high hopes we’ll invest in them more.
Fear, Principles, and Religion (Lukas)
It’s interesting to see how difficult it is to follow these principles when it comes to topics where we disagree. I was struggling to find anything good to say about a future where Apple’s current philosophy is applied to AR, and “I don’t believe that they will dominate AR” was genuinely the only good thing I could say.
This is not because I think that Apple is evil, and it has nothing to do with Google or Android or Microsoft or any other company. In fact, I don’t want *any* company to control AR. So instead of having this religious debate about which international corporate giant we pledge allegiance to, let me try to explain my point in more detail, and then maybe I can try to err on the side of progress and come to some kind of optimistic conclusion.
First premise: the Internet is no longer something you can opt out of, and AR will be even less so. If you want to participate in society in any relevant way, you have to use the Internet. For example, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t travel to the US without using the Internet extensively. I need to renew my passport: book an appointment on the Internet. Find where the passport office is: Internet. Book a flight: Internet. Find a hotel: Internet. Find out which additional forms to fill in, and fill them in: Internet. And so on. I think some of these things could be done without using the Internet, but I’m not entirely sure how.
It’s difficult to function effectively in today’s world without using the Internet. This will also be the case for AR, but even more so.
Second premise: code beats laws. I’ve talked about this previously. You can ignore laws. You can’t ignore code. If something is written down in code, you’re bound by it.
Third premise: progress comes from breaking rules. I’ve talked about breaking real-world rules before, but now let’s talk about breaking digital rules. The first Mac came out in 1984. Apple stopped supporting that branch of operating systems around 1999, when System 9 came out. These 15 years represented an explosion of innovation. Desktop publishing, photo editing, digital music, the Internet, online gaming, and literally thousands of other amazing new things were created in those years. System 9 in 1999 was a fundamentally different thing from System 1 running on Macs in 1984.
Back in 2007, the iPhone came out. That’s 12 years ago, almost as long as the time span from System 1 to System 9. Yet the OS that ran on iPhones back in 2007 would look very familiar to people who buy a new iPhone today. The App Store was introduced in 2008, yet many of the apps you could get back then are functionally the same as the ones you get today. Why don’t we see the same explosion of innovation we saw with the original Mac? I’m sure there are many different reasons, but one of them is that iOS developers can’t break the rules. Apple won’t allow them to.
If you combine these three premises, you should understand my argument: Having a non-optional system that literally controls our view of the world and enforces rigid rules defined by an international corporate giant is not a desirable future. In fact, it’s a dystopia.
That’s why the only good thing I can say about this is that I don’t think Apple will control AR. Not because I have anything against Apple, and not because I prefer any other company over Apple, but because I think Apple — or any of these companies — controlling AR would be truly bad for humanity.
To be perfectly clear about that, I’m also not taking the side that we should opt for anarchy instead. I’m not a libertarian or a free speech absolutist.
And, just to also say this: none of this is about Twitter, or any similar services. I have no problem at all with Twitter having whichever rules it wants on its website. I think it’s great. The difference is that Twitter isn’t a monopoly, it’s not a singular, dominant, unavoidable platform that controls everything built on top of it. Anyone can start a website where people publish their thoughts. Unless your job is literally to be on Twitter, nobody really loses by not using Twitter (in fact, avoiding Twitter might even make you happier).
Instead, what I’m talking about is specifically a situation where there is a natural tendency towards a few companies (or even one company) owning almost all of the market, where people are essentially forced to participate in that market, and where it is very difficult for other companies to break into the market.
A hypothetical future AR platform is not going to be like Twitter. It’s going to be a natural monopoly.
So here’s the positive argument: we can have our cake and eat it too. That’s what every democracy is doing. It’s difficult, and squishy, and not perfect, because humans are difficult and squishy and imperfect, but it works. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it doesn’t have to. In fact, it shouldn’t work perfectly. That’s the whole point.
It means not letting a company like Apple (or Google, or Microsoft, or anyone else) define the rules, but instead debating what we want, and then creating laws that govern these things, instead of code, and enforcing them with people, instead of algorithms. It’s the difference between copyright law and DRM. It’s the difference between having your lawyer send a cease-and-desist, and having an algorithm remove everything from YouTube that fit certain predefined parameters. It’s the difference between common sense and robot logic.
It also means restricting the power of these companies with things like anti-trust laws.
In short, it means meaningful, thoughtful government regulation.
This is difficult, and it requires trust in governments over corporations, which is not something a lot of people currently have, but that is changing. It means voting for smart politicians, which is not always happening, but I think that is also changing. I have trust in the generations that come after ours.
And that’s why I’m optimistic.
Autonomous Driving, Level 4 (Jon)
Cars are weird. There’s a very strong social component to cars. This becomes obvious when you travel internationally, and notice how people in similar situations have very different car preferences. But culture changes, and sometimes quickly.
I’m getting the impression that safety is a very individualized concept for Americans. People keep themselves safe. That’s why they buy guns, and want to drive their own car. But in other places, safety is a common good. You trust that the police will protect you when there’s danger, and that public transport — which is often already almost fully automated — will get you to your destination safely.
Of course, there are psychological effects that affect everybody. When you’re behind the wheel, you trust your own ability to brake quickly, so you tailgate the car in front. But when your friend is driving, the same situation scares the hell out of you.
All of these things are very subjective and contextual. The idea of being driven by a robot might scare you now, but once everybody has a self-driving car, perhaps the lone person who keeps insisting on manually steering their vehicle will be the one who’s scary to everybody else.
As technology progresses, these kinds of feelings can change drastically in tiny amounts of time. Somehow, people survived without cell phones for hundreds of years, but today, your friends might admonish you when you go jogging without your phone. What if something happens? The Overton window of what is considered safe, normal behavior has moved a lot, in a small amount of time.
And that’s good! People are living longer, healthier, safer lives than ever before, so their expectations have changed, as well.
The other thing is that new technology doesn’t appear immediately. I guess when we imagined a future full of self-driving cars, we pictured a situation where one day, we’d buy a regular old manually driven car, and the next, car companies would sell us cars without a steering wheel at all. Wouldn’t people revolt? Yes! They would! But that’s not how progress happens. Cars are changing gradually, and these automatic systems are added one-by-one, often advertised as safety features. Anti-lock braking, traction control, cruise control, these are all steps towards autonomous driving.
Looking back, change often looks like a sudden, dramatic shift. The Egyptians built those incredible pyramids! Must have been aliens who helped them! But then you look at archeological digs, and you see that the ancient Egyptians learned how to build pyramids over thousands of years. Their earliest attempts weren’t particularly impressive, but over time, they got better and better, and eventually built the Great Pyramid of Giza. If aliens really helped them, these aliens can’t have been much more advanced than the humans of that time.
But if you just look at the Great Pyramids, you don’t see that. You just see the end result.
Progress happens much faster today. It didn’t take thousands of years to go from something like a Sinclair ZX Spectrum to an iPhone. But it also didn’t happen immediately. In fact, while we were in the middle of this evolution, it felt pretty slow to us. It sure felt like I was stuck with that freaking Performa 450 for ages.
And that’s how car drivers feel, I think. I doubt they want a car without a steering wheel right now, today. But I bet a lot of them would be happy if their car was just a little bit smarter.
And it will be.
And then a little bit more.
And then we’ll be there, and we won’t even notice it.
And then we’ll build shopping malls for cars, where you order things online, and your car picks it up for you. And instead of buying a car, maybe you get a subscription from Mercedes, and you get a car dynamically assigned to you when you need it, from a huge fleet of constantly renewed cars. Maybe there will be pricing tiers, and you get the newer cars in the fleet if you pay more? And we’ll redesign our cities so all of these empty cars drive in tunnels, because there aren’t humans inside them who want to see daylight. And all of the cities will be optimized for pedestrians again.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
Connected Home (Jon)
Oh neat, the next item on the Gartner Hype Cycle graph ties in pretty well with what we’ve been talking about. I think there are broad areas of agreement between us and most people thinking about tech:
- You need innovation, lots of it
- You need some guardrails
- When a single company has a monopoly, that can be bad
My motivation and inspiration doesn’t come from a single company, it comes from a philosophy. If we took my philosophy and applied it towards government, I’d be a “big government liberal” in US terms. I believe in universal health care, and it’s easy for a “free market conservative” to say it’s going to stifle innovation and growth. So they do! I believe in government finding the areas that capitalism doesn’t do a great job at addressing very well and investing in them. A free market conservative wonders what the hell government is doing in the markets, because their philosophy is memorably summed up as “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” Wow.
So you can point to charts and graphs that say investing in things like reducing poverty can often have the end result of making everyone lots and lots of money. Which capitalists should love, but they struggle with the first step, which is the idea that government is meddling in the first place. Needle exchange programs. Protecting the environment with strict regulations on business. Universal basic income. These are all ideas that are easy to paint as “big government” but someone like me sees them more as “investing in ideas that pay huge dividends.” I see regulation as the launchpad to great innovation because it increases trust and makes the design of society better and less dog-eat-dog.
People can — and do — call this naive, because I’m essentially saying you can have your cake and eat it too. Big government and more prosperity? It sounds too good to be true. Maybe it is. But it’s my political philosophy. And I know I have a lot of allies in Europe. (And even America, which is a lot more progressive than it looks. The majority agrees with me, wonderfully.)
Then we turn to computing. I believe in strict regulations and controls and I believe they can make a design much better. I believe that I can’t trust an app developer not to slurp up my address book, or track my current location, or find a million ways to scam me or install malware. I need big government or big tech to help push back and say no to really bad things. Some things need to be curated at that level, or it’s everyone for themselves and criminals cause a bunch of trouble.
So when it comes to a connected home, in which a bug, hack, or scam can literally mean the doors of my house aren’t locked even though I think they are, this stuff gets deadly serious. It’s not that I think there’s a killer roaming outside every window — it’s more that connected homes are competing with standard homes. Where flipping a light switch makes a room brighter 100% of the time, and counting “uptime” isn’t part of the vocabulary.
But in order to prevent this from being an ongoing back and forth, I want to call out our agreements again:
- We both want this stuff to be great (in terms of innovative)
- We both want this stuff to be great (in terms of trustworthy)
So neither one of us is saying we should cease all exploration and development outright since houses are fine. And neither one of us is saying scams and hacks in our home are a reasonsable price to pay for a room being able to be controlled from our phone. I assume we both want both.
So what does the ultimate connected home look like? I’ve thought about this for over a decade and I never really got anywhere with it. There’s the classic “your fridge knows when to order more milk” scenario that every design agency played around with. There’s the “turn on the lights when I get home” scenario. Or controlling the temperature from my phone. Those are fine.
But the one that really captured my imagination, and nothing has come close since, is Berg’s exploration from 2014:
And the things I like about it — surprise! — are things that play more to the exciting DIY world of Android. They took a normal washing machine and added a little brain to it. With that brain they connect it to an app and the cloud, of course, but that enables some great things. Delays so the wash finishes as you come home. Do Not Disturb mode for times it should be more quiet. And so forth.
There’s no question that every bit of machinery, once it hits a certain complexity threshold, is going to be designed better. And that ideas like this are going to move from “wow, why didn’t I think of that?” to “of course my machine does that, why wouldn’t it?” But it’s fun thinking about the details about how products like this actually make it to market, because there are better and worse ways you can do it.
Let’s say I buy the Berg Washing Machine tomorrow. In today’s reality, I’d buy the machine and I’d need to install the app as well. Right off the bat, that’s a flakey system because Berg could go out of business, meaning the app might wither and die, meaning I’d lose functionality. And it’s even more of a concern if they need to push a critical laundry-delaying update and Apple won’t let them, or they push it slowly.
So that’s not ideal. And then you factor in my security-minded concerns. Where the app needs access to my address book to help find my flatmates, but whoops, they used Facebook and now using my washing machine means hundreds of contacts get slurped up. It’s not anything most people are aware of, but I think that’s pretty bad. I think when people learn how loose it’s gotten, they concerned, then shrug because we’re just used to it. That seems bad too.
So the system is flakey for a few reasons if it relies on an app. And then the sharing of location and contact data could be used against me. (All while a standard home, with standard appliances, has none of these issues, is cheaper, and do we really need new washing machines anyway?) And these issues aren’t even a science fiction imagination speaking, we know the last years have been unkind to these sorts of privacy concerns. And a lot of that is due to a drive for innovation at all costs. Small government! Stay out of our way! We’re very important people inventing the future here!
So how might we capture that excitement I felt when I saw this video while removing the flakiness and privacy concerns that enter into play when you tie it to an app? How do we get the goodness while avoiding the badness? I see two ways of “belt and suspenders”-ing things.
First, every great feature should be possible on the physical equipment itself, no app required. The app will be better at a lot of things, but a person visiting your apartment shouldn’t have to fail at task completion just because they don’t have the app installed. Second, I think connected home tools should be open sourced. Not that anyone in the world is going to care about this feature other than nerds like us, but still. If you and I started a connected homes company, I think this would be a great counter to flakiness and privacy concerns. To future-proof, if you will: “Our products have apps, but don’t require them. We wrote our own apps but you can write your own.”
I’d go further and get into the details about login screens. Sign up with Google+ or Facebook? No thanks. It’d be nice to just wave your device in front of the machine, and presto, now your phone is tied to this device. We don’t need your name or email address. We don’t need your Facebook login. We just need these two devices to talk to each other online. There could be some innovation around this, I think. We have to stop just assuming everything needs your data in the cloud. Not just “the cloud,” the cloud of companies who have been caught being pretty loose with data multiple times.
So I’m excited about this. Step one: innovate a cool connected home thing in a lab. Step two: find a way to bring the product to market, but in a way where an app is helpful without being required. Step three: open source the product so people can have some of that Android-style innovation while also hedging against the company going under. Step four: find light-touch ways to sign people in. Step five: find the 9 people in the world that care as much about security as I do, and market this to them.
Curious to hear your thoughts! And when you reply to this one, guess what’s next? Blockchain. Dun dun dunnnnnn. Have time to kick that one off? I don’t want to be the kicker-offer every time. I want to respond to your kicks-off sometimes :)
Connected Home (Lukas)
The first person who figured out that global warming was going to be a problem was an Exxon scientist. That happened in 1977. This is, of course, incredibly valuable information. As a company, this information could make your probably the wealthiest, biggest corporation in the world. For example, Exxon could have invested in renewable energy decades before people understood how important this was going to be, and how much money there was going to be in it.
The problem? This would have been a long-term plan. Yes, it would have probably been the most lucrative plan any company could every have executed in the history of mankind, but it would have been a 50-year plan.
None of the people who were at Exxon back in 1977 would have benefited from such a plan.
So what did Exxon do instead? They started a decades-long misinformation plan that guaranteed them profits each quarter, but also doomed the world.
Instead of making themselves into the most powerful company in the most lucrative 50-year plan of all time, and also saving the world, they decided to instead destroy the world and make a few percent more money the next quarter.
That’s the problem with companies: they’re sociopathic, and they have the long-term planning of a hungry cat next to a goldfish bowl.
So what’s the alternative? Well, we come together and decide what world we live in, and then we build the systems that allow for that world to exist. That’s what democratic governments are, it’s people coming together and making the world better for themselves.
Sometimes I think people forget why we do anything at all. The goal isn’t market share or GDP or low taxes. The goal is for people to be happy. I think we understood that basic reality until the 80s came around. Back then, as productivity rose, people decreased the amount of time they worked, so they had more time to do things that truly fulfilled them.
But in the 80s, something changed.
Technology still made people more and more productive, but at the same time, people also started working more. But how? How can people be more productive, and also work more? What is all this work that people are doing?
I’m reading this book called “Utopia for Realists” by a Dutch historian called Rutger Bregman, the guy who told the Davos people that they should pay their taxes. And he has this idea, which I think is probably at least partly true, that that the work these people are doing is basically nothing. He calls these “bullshit jobs.” They’re jobs that are socially useless, they don’t really contribute anything useful to anyone. For example, all of the people who manage mutual funds. Turns out that not having these people at all generates better results. But we pay these fund managers a ton of money for being worse than random chance.
In fact, Bregman says that there’s a correlation between high wages and bullshit jobs, and that there are four times more of these bullshit jobs in the private sector than in the public sector.
Back in the 60s, people had the right idea. If you watch the Jetsons, it’s pretty clear that people in that future have a lot more leisure time. Part of that comes from working less, but another part of that comes from home automation.
The Jetsons is what I want. I don’t want a fridge that tells me when I’m running out of milk, I want my home to order the ingredients, cook my food, and clean up the dishes so that I can do something that I truly enjoy doing. Unless I enjoy doing the dishes, of course. But I don’t.
And I think that’s where we’ll end up.
And here’s where this comes full circle: if I can’t trust Exxon not to literally destroy the world just to make a few more bucks next quarter, how can I trust any company to have this much power over me?
We’re probably on the cusp of living in a global post-scarcity society. Technology will end poverty and hunger, and make us all prosperous. But only if we will it to.
In the previous chapter, I was just talking about how great democratic governments are. I believe that. Countries, on the other hand, are a terrible idea.
Countries create a lot of problems.
They create needless and often completely arbitrary ingroups, which leads to nationalism, which leads the hatred, which leads to war. They create borders, which make it harder or impossible for people and goods to move, which hurts economic growth and technological innovation.
And, of course, countries are the most blatant source of inequality. Where you’re born is completely random, yet it determines whether you’ll live a happy, healthy, and long life, or will die young, in pain and misery.
Cryptocurrencies create their own problems, but they also solve many problems. In particular, they solve this one problem: they allow money to flow freely across borders.
It can be incredibly difficult to improve the lives of people who are stuck in poor countries. They often can’t move out of these countries. Giving them goods hurts their local economies. Giving them money is difficult, because these countries often suffer from extreme corruption and crime, and poor people in these countries don’t have access to banking at all.
Cryptocurrencies can solve these problems. They are relatively safe, they don’t need bank accounts, money can be transferred immediately without middlemen and without delay across large distances. This is what makes me optimistic: cryptocurrencies empower charity, because for cryptocurrencies, national borders do not exist.
Of course, there are other uses for blockchains, but I think cryptocurrencies are the most immediately impactful one.
I recently read Enlightenment Now and it’s completely changed my thinking. I could write many things on this topic, but we’ll start with a little pinprick of an idea first: money is good.
I grew up in an affluent area and saw a lot of odd behaviour. And as I started pattern-matching based on my own experience, it felt to me that people with a lot of money seemed to struggle on this totally different level from normal people. Not better, not worse, but their concerns were just different. A while back someone came up with name “affluenza” in a book, and it resonated with me. I’ve never believed we should go back to the barter system, but people do get corrupted by too much money. People do get spoiled. People do need to know how to work well with each other, and money can get in the way of that.
So that stuck in my head for years. And I experienced it all over again when I worked for big companies. A lot of my co-workers were really rich and in some cases it made it sort of impossible to work with them. Not always. But there seemed to be a correlation between money and pigheadedness.
And then here comes this book and it’s managed to remind me of a simple truth: when people have no money, suffering goes up. When you give them more money, like $1 a day to $3 a day, suffering goes down. And the investment is extremely efficient. It doesn’t just change their life in an abstract way, it improves it dramatically in easily quantifiable ways. They get access to completely different things from before, and the extra income directly ties to less suffering. I knew this, distantly and abstractly, but I didn’t have to think about it daily. The book reminded me.
Both things can be true: a person with a billion dollars doesn’t help the economy much more by getting two billion. But at the same time, a person going from a dollar to two dollars a day is fundamentally changed. It doesn’t just make them better, or their family, or their community. In aggregate, it changes the world for the better. Leading to less suffering. And we should all be for less suffering. And I think Bitcoin, alongside micro-loans, fit right into that. Give people the means with which to earn a living and they will take it.
Another thing the book pointed out is that the world has been amazingly effective at reducing poverty, but no one ever talks about it. Here’s a great little bit from the book:
“Most surprises in history are unpleasant surprises, but this news came as a pleasant shock even to the optimists. In 2000 the United Nations laid out eight Millennium Development Goals, their starting lines backdated to 1990.25 At the time, cynical observers of that underperforming organization dismissed the targets as aspirational boilerplate. Cut the global poverty rate in half, lifting a billion people out of poverty, in twenty-five years? Yeah, yeah.
But the world reached the goal five years ahead of schedule. Development experts are still rubbing their eyes. Deaton writes, “This is perhaps the most important fact about wellbeing in the world since World War II.”26 The economist Robert Lucas (like Deaton, a Nobel laureate) said, “The consequences for human welfare involved in understanding rapid economic development are simply staggering: once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.”
So I’ve been ruminating on this. Admittedly, the idea that you need money to not suffer is hardly a novel idea. But for me it’s provided a welcome counter-balance to my disappointment with extreme capitalism. It’s reminding me that as long as markets are designed to protect the people at the bottom of the economy, markets are the best tool we have to reduce suffering. And the data tells us that the system has been working. There’s always more to be done, and we can never get complacent. But my assumption that the poor are staying poor, and that the status quo is only good for rich bankers is demonstrably false.
So we’ve established that avoiding banks is an interesting idea with huge implications for the poor. But one of the main problems with Bitcoin is that it takes a lot of energy. Which is not good. So next up let’s talk about nuclear fusion. That’s a lot of fun to imagine.
Nuclear Fusion (Jon)
Let’s start by talking about marijuana.
American cities, and then states, have been legalising weed over the last decade. And the day after Washington legalised it I remember asking about the social grace side of it. If you say “I need to head out to the bar,” or “I was out drinking last night” to a co-worker, no one bats an eye. But “I’m going to go get high” or “I got stoned last night” feels weightier. And not just because it was against the law. It just feels … extra.
So that was years ago. And from what I saw, things changed a little but not a lot. It still felt a little taboo. It’s still not something my co-workers would necessarily talk about openly. More than anything, it’d look like you’re trying too hard.
(And I am aware that in some places, weed is not a big deal at all. Americans are a lot more uptight about a lot of things, and this is one of them.)
So I smoked some legal weed a few days later. It had been a very long time, and it hit me hard. I remember I looked at some music video and it was intense. So I sat there thinking of something to do while my head spun. And eventually I opened some web forum and saw a headline that said nuclear fusion had been tested successfully. Boom. My head exploded.
I now know that nuclear fusion is the sort of thing that’s always 30 years away. I now know that if that headline had been true, and as momentous as I thought it was, we’d be talking about it. But I didn’t know any of that. And I was stoned. And so the resulting brainstorm was strange.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction and I don’t watch Star Trek, so I had never untethered my mind on energy matters. I had never tried to grapple with the idea that energy could be cheap, safe, clean, and most importantly, plentiful. Solar and wind power are fun ideas and they have a role to play in the energy pie chart. But nuclear fusion, in my very basic understanding of it, would fundamentally change all the math.
For example, if you could have infinite power, you could process salt water to fresh water in great enough numbers to never run out of clean water. Crazy. You could power everything in the world at a fraction of the cost, without adding more CO2 into the atmosphere. Crazy. You could suck bad things out of the air and actually make an impact. Crazy.
Now, I’m probably misunderstanding lots of details. There are surely a bunch of gotchas that mean it’s less magic and more just dealing us totally different pros and cons from the deck. But I was excited on that first head-spinny night, I was excited the next day, and now it’s been years and I’m still excited about it.
If I had some scientific background to lean on, I could argue if it’s ever going to be feasible, and estimate when. But speaking as a person that doesn’t know how anything works but continues to see the world fundamentally change every decade, of course we’ll get nuclear fusion. And it’s going to be in my lifetime. And it’ll fundamentally change enough of society that there will be whole areas we don’t even recognise anymore.
Explaining today’s energy policy in 50 years might feel as quaint as explaining how people obtained information 50 years ago. I can see why you’d rely on a monk to translate the bible if you’re living in 16th century Italy, since everyone was illiterate and information was precious. And I can see why I’d rely on power companies and wars for oil in modern days since energy is so precious. But when it’s not as precious anymore, what a world that’ll turn out to be.
One of the weird disconnects about how the world really works, and how people think about the world, is illustrated by the Laffer curve. If you ask people to describe their opinion about taxes, they usually fall into two groups: one group thinks low taxes (or no taxes at all) are good, since low taxes leave more money to the private sector, which, they reason, is better at deciding how to best spend that money. The other group thinks that high taxes are good, since the government can allocate resources more fairly than the private sector.
And, just to say, I’m severely simplifying everything I’m talking about here, in reality, everything is much more complicated and nuanced, of course.
So one opinion trends towards “no taxes are good”, the other towards “higher taxation is better.”
Now, there are a lot of problems with the Laffer curve, but I think the central premise is correct: if you tax people with 0%, you get no tax revenue, so you can’t build roads, you can’t have a police force, and you’ll effectively devolve into anarchy. So that seems bad (to most people). You also can’t tax people 100%, since then you remove a major incentive for people to work (and we’re assuming that we’re still living in a scarcity economy, so we should want people to work). So there has to be at least one local maximum between these two points where you have optimum taxation.
So when thinking about taxes, it is a bit misleading to think of it in terms of extremes. We shouldn’t argue for “no taxes” or “high taxes”, we should argue for the correct level of taxation.
I’m pretty sure (and I think science backs me up) that the same applies to money. Having no money is bad. Having all of the money is also bad (and some people would also argue that just having a lot of money is already inherently unethical, but let’s ignore that for now).
So there has to be at least one point between “no money” and “all of the money” that is a local maximum.
And what are we maximizing? A lot of philosophers are chasing each other in circles about what to optimize, and, as is always the case with philosophy, the chance of them reaching a generally accepted, well-argued consensus is zero (because philosophy is mostly people trying to find justifications for their preconceived, intuitively generated notions, in my not so charitable opinion), so I think a good approximation for what we want to maximize here is just happiness.
So now we have something we can measure! We can measure happiness by income! And people have!
Turns out that happiness closely correlates with income up to the point where people make about 100K each year. It differs a bit by country, but for developed countries, 100K is about the average.
In other words, money *can* buy you happiness — until the point where you make enough money that you don’t have to really worry about money anymore, and then more money stops making you happier.
None of this has anything to do with blockchains, but I think it does make an important point: if you think about what this means, it looks like it isn’t money that makes people happy, it’s having to think about money that makes them unhappy. Earning enough to not have to think about it removes that unhappiness.
I agree with you that capitalism has been one of the most effective means of reducing poverty. Ironically, it’s globalization in particular, and the ability for poor countries to sell manufactured goods to rich countries, that has helped. I’m not saying that everything went perfectly here, far from it. But I think the long-term outcome of all of the suffering and negative consequences caused by globalization has been that money has moved from rich countries to poor countries, and that this has helped bring a lot of people out of poverty (and it has also made rich countries effectively richer, by lowering the prices of goods to the point where we now routinely discard working phones that would have been the world’s fastest supercomputer not too long ago).
But I also think that we’re now reaching a point where we have to rethink how our societies are structured. The fact that poverty is falling so quickly is an indicator for something important: we’ll eventually reach a point where almost everybody will effectively be above the monetary happiness line. At the same time, productivity keeps going up, but we’re not working less, so more and more of the work we’re doing is effectively pointless.
If we are wealthy enough that pretty much everybody is above the monetary happiness line, and, at the same time, most of the work we’re doing is effectively pointless, then there is something very wrong, and fundamental things need to change.
Nuclear Fusion (Lukas)
I don’t think fusion reactors are 30 years away. It’s true, we’re too optimistic about fusion, but I think there’s a convergence. Fusion was 40 years away in the 50s. It was 30 years away in the 80s. I think today, it’s a mere 20 years away. So there’s a good chance we’ll see it happen in our lifetimes.
Nuclear fusion has, in fact, been tested successfully. The problem here is the definition of “successful.”
Does “success” mean achieving fusion? Getting more energy out of it than was put in? Sustaining it for a few seconds? Sustaining it for a minute? At some point in the past, it meant all of these things, but of course, none of these are sufficient for building an actual reactor that will work for years, and put energy into the grid.
But they’re all steps towards that goal.
And today, we’re finally working on reactors that have the explicit goal of putting energy into the grid. In fact, the technology is now at a point where multiple private companies are investing into building such reactors.
We will see this happen.
And what it will mean is momentous. This will change the trajectory of humanity more than the steam engine did (okay, so, fusion reactors would probably effectively *be* steam engines, but I think you know what I mean).
Fusion reactors will bring clean, cheap energy to everybody — so cheap that it might as well be free. The implications this has for humanity are completely unpredictable, they are staggering.
But I think they will be good.
Silicon Annode Batteries (Jon)
You have more of an academic background than me, so I like this tick-tock pattern we have. I say a bunch of stuff that feels right, then you respond and explain in a more logical way. So when your point of view validates mine, it’s quite nice. Hurray for nuclear fusion in our lifetimes!
It’s funny, New Zealand went out on a limb many years ago and said it will refuse all nuclear power. And it was hailed as being very brave as well as really annoying its ally the USA. But for years a lot of environmentalists like Greenpeace have grudgingly changed their policies to reflect the idea that nuclear power is scary, but it’s safer and better than anything else. I don’t think New Zealand is ready to admit anything good about nuclear, and the idea that it’s improved a lot since Chernobyl. But maybe when fusion comes they’ll reassess.
Speaking of power, let’s talk about Silicon Annode batteries. I did some research and discovered a few things. One, the guy who invented the batteries we all use in smartphones today is named John B. Goodenough, which is an incredible name. Second, the same man, who is now 96 years old, has come up with a really awesome new battery. It can store 3–10 times the charge, can recharge in minutes, does better in extreme temperatures, and can’t explode. Sounds pretty great.
Humans are pretty bad at thinking of new things until they adjust their mental framing. I see that and I think “wow my smartphone won’t run out of battery” and “wow a Tesla can drive further.” My brain just applies what I know to exist today to a longer length of time and stops there. But 3–10 times battery is the sort of thing that can open entirely new scenarios. Like running a video camera at all times.
That reminds me. At Microsoft, we had this proposal where you should be able to say to your phone “tag that” and it would figure out what was said 15 seconds prior, grab the recording, and store it away. That feature only works if the phone is recording at all times. Now multiply that times video. Pretend that phones were always gathering great video, and sometimes you could say “remember that” to store it away.
I watched a video of future batteries and was sent to a video that describes contactless charging in a room. Imagine a big copper pole in the middle of a room. Imagine that no one’s phone runs out of power as long as you’re standing in that room. Imagine 300 phones could simultaneously charge off one pole. Well, researchers at Disney have invented this. Which is sort of fascinating to imagine.
What if you placed these power poles the way you place street lights? What if just walking through a city was enough for your phone to always be running at 100%? And what if even if you went to an area with no fancy charging poles, it wouldn’t matter because your battery would last 2 or 3 full days without a charge? And what if it was no problem to power every city, even small ones, because of fusion?
I felt like I might have been over-stating things when I was talking about how fusion could change everything, but then you also said it’d be a really big deal. So it sounds like we’re both pretty bullish on this front. It would be funny if the history books showed that everyone in 2019 genuinely thought the world was going to end. “Didn’t they know that the world was about to fundamentally improve if they could just wait until 2027?” future people might ask. “Just hang on! It gets better!”
Ok, back to you. Next up, once you talk about batteries, is virtual assistants. Seems like an area where we can so clearly see where we want to go, and so clearly see our disappointment of where we are. The road seems quite clear. But nothing’s ever as clear as we think.
Silicon Annode Batteries (Lukas)
I think the funny thing about these conversations is that we’re probably both smack-dab in the middle of the Dunning-Kruger danger zone on most of these topics. But it’s still fun to speculate!
Nuclear power is one of the great tragedies of the last century. First, a lot of very well intentioned, smart people built very dangerous devices that caused a lot of harm. Then, a lot of very well intentioned, smart people fought hard against these devices, but accidentally ensured that these very devices would either remain active for much longer than originally planned (because replacement had now become impossible), or would be replaced by even more dangerous devices (like coal power plants).
There’s a nuclear power plant in Switzerland, the Kernkraftwerk Mühleberg, which has a very similar design to the one in Fukushima. It was constructed in the 60s, and even back then, problems with the construction were immediately detected, so it didn’t receive a long-term operating license until 2009. It’s still running today.
The reason it is still running, despite of the fact that it probably shouldn’t, is that it has become impossible to build a replacement. Ironically, it was the Fukushima meltdown that finally killed all plans to build a safe replacement plant for Mühleberg.
Fusion is, of course, nothing like fission. It’s the very opposite of fission, and fusion plants work very differently from traditional nuclear power plants. There is no danger of a nuclear meltdown. So I’m hopeful that people will see fusion as something to work towards, not something to fear.
The problem is that there’s a gap between where we are today, and when fusion reactors will come online. We probably don’t want to keep our aging nuclear reactors from the 60s and 70s online until fusion reactors can replace them. So there has to be something to tide us over. Part of that will be covered by wind and solar, but not all of it. At some point, we’ll most likely have to accept the fact that a new, safe nuclear power plant is a much better choice than keeping dangerous, old power plants like Mühleberg running indefinitely.
Back in the late 1800s, it became clear to people that we’d probably want to distribute electricity to everybody, but it wasn’t yet clear how to best achieve that. Nikola Tesla’s idea was that he’d just set up what we now call Tesla coils everywhere, and then things would just have energy by default. You’d have a light bulb, and it would just glow because it would be powered by induction.
Imagine if things just had electricity, and you’d never have to worry about it!
Of course, the 20th century, another option became available, the one we just discussed: nuclear power. In 1957, Ford showed a (non-functional) concept car called the Ford Nucleon: a car with a built-in nuclear reactor. It would go 10,000 km until you had to swap the reactor.
Now, driving around in a car with a built-in fission reactor seems like a pretty bad idea in hindsight, but maybe with a fusion reactor, it’s suddenly not such a dumb idea. And a fusion reactor needs a lot less fuel than a fission reactor, so perhaps you could have a car that has effectively infinite range; it has power for the car’s whole life span.
And if we can do that for a car, why not for a laptop? A phone? For an artificial limb?
Virtual Assistants (Lukas)
I know I shouldn’t, but I love Alexa. I don’t use her for much, just to control Spotify and my lights, but even so, it’s just so damn convenient! And, what’s more, other people love her, too. I had visitors this weekend, and at night, when they were about to leave, they noticed her (or, uhm, I guess technically, they noticed *it*).
They proceeded to spend the next hour talking to her.
They asked her to play obscure music just to see if she’d find it, they asked her personal questions (to which she almost always had an apt response), they tried different accents to see how much she’d understand (she is pretty good at even understanding weird Swiss pronunciations of German sentences), and they just chatted with her.
When they were about to leave.
For a freaking hour.
At the end, they had bought into the experience so much that they apologized to her for having to leave, and everybody said bye to her individually.
I recently saw Alita, and I was googling the movie afterwards to see how it was made, and now my Android phone recommends me tons of random stories about Alita. This way, I’ve discovered that there is a whole Internet community of people who love Alita, and talk about her as if she was a real person.
People are very willing to accept artificial people as real. I guess it makes sense; I can’t see inside your brain. I don’t really know if you’re truly self-aware. I just assume that you are because I am, and because you behave as if you were. So I think we just apply that same intuition to artificial people.
We generate a lot of data that could be used to train virtual assistants. Perhaps even to create virtual clones of ourselves. Maybe at some point in the future, people will just stop dying; once their real selves die, their virtual assistants just take over for them. At that point, who is to say that these artificial people are any less real than their originals?
Alexa and Robot Sex (Jon)
I see Alexa through two different lenses. From the standpoint of how much people love her, I totally get it. The only reason I don’t love her more is I don’t have a Spotify subscription and my kids like to tease each other by making her turn on and off, interrupt each other’s songs, etc. But when I’m using the device without kids and it’s doing the things I want, I totally get it. I’m a big believer in people liking what they like, and how it’s our job as designers to understand why people like it. Not lecture them on how they shouldn’t. (Comic Sans)
The other lens is as a designer. I worked at a lot of products that used voice recognition for their key products. I didn’t invent Cortana, but I was definitely an early advocate for it, before Siri was even announced, and even did a pitch to the executives saying “get ready, voice is coming.” And when the team was staffed up, my friend was the lead and most of the designers were people I mentored. They sat right behind me. “Cortana Notebook” comes straight from me encouraging them to think about why assistants have to be such black boxes. Why can’t I tell Siri that she’s wrong in assuming I love Jay-Z? Why can’t I have a text-based way of adding new interests instead of her guessing based on voice prompts? So. I have some opinions about voice.
And Alexa is fascinating to me as a designer because there are tens of thousands of apps for Alexa and almost none of them matter. There are a bunch of common mistakes people make when dealing with voice assistants, and I think the over-arching mistake is assuming people are super excited about your app or feature. When in reality people want your app or feature to be as invisible as possible so they can complete a task. Alexa has her handful of things she can do well, that everyone uses (music, quick answers) and nothing else “moves the needle” as they say.
Which isn’t to say I think those apps should go away. It’s a long tail thing. Person X might really benefit from an app that almost no one else cares about. Person Y has their little app too. In aggregate, there’s value. But as a designer, gosh, it’s really hard to find the use cases for the mainstream beyond the ones Alexa comes out of the box with.
This is why I think HomePod positioned itself pretty well — a minority opinion to be sure. They decided to make the best sound quality speaker, since that’s the use case everyone cares about. And then Siri lives on top to do super basic things like turn lights on, tell you about your calendar, set alarms, egg timers, etc. And then there’s no third party APIs, which so far doesn’t seem to be a hugely limiting factor. At least not on paper. It’s likely that between the price and Apple ecosystem tie-in, the idea that it doesn’t have 30,000 apps like Alexa is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
I agree completely with the “as long as I think you’re real, who cares if you’re technically a smart algorithm?” angle, and always have. About five years ago I was having a conversation at work that veered off into “not safe for work” territory. I think it was inspired by the movie Her. I thought “It’s not actually that hard to get someone to fall in love. Chemistry and rapport is actually something you can fake, and I wouldn’t even say it’s that hard!” And that got me wondering.
I can 100% imagine falling in love with a sufficiently advanced voice and text bot. It makes me feel stupid for admitting it, but I think I can be manipulated into having feelings, and I don’t even think the model is as complicated as we’d want to believe. And then when you add a physical body, I think people can reasonably fall in love and in lust.
I’ve seen pictures of Real Dolls and I think everyone would agree that current robots fall into the uncanny valley. Starting with the dead eyes. And my understanding is they don’t move. And even if they did move, robotic jerkiness isn’t particularly lifelike. If you met a person that looked at you the way a Real Doll does and moved the way an animatronic does, you’ve be terrified. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
But if I got a text message from someone that was flirting with me, I’d feel flattered. (Let’s assume I’m not married for this scenario) If the conversation continued and we were both having fun, I’d be happy and entertained, like any other good text thread. If the texts asked if we could hang out later that night, I’d feel excited. If we met each other somewhere and her movements were lifelike, eyes not dead, and her conversation was interesting, that’s 99.9% of the way to a real human date. And if we ended up having sex, that’s 99.9% of the way to a real human sexual experience. The 0.1% is me knowing intellectually that it’s not technically flesh and blood, but I wouldn’t really care.
We’re a long way from smooth conversation and body movements. But as you point out with Alexa, we often don’t mind what’s happening in the mind of the robot as long as it’s making us feel good on our side. It’s easy to think of downsides, like people commanding real friends around because they forget how to think of others. But there are a lot of upsides, like by the time I’m 90 I’ll probably have a robot helping me around the house in basic (or not so basic!) ways.
Whether housecleaning, sex, or conversations, I think humans are both more and less complex than we think. More complex because the details really do matter. Less complex because my life isn’t actually particularly complicated when I get home. Other than my kids, I eat, consume media, maybe make a thing, then go to sleep. That seems possible to automate. And a lot of other things do as well.
Alexa and Robot Sex (Lukas)
One of the weird things is how difficult it can be to think of actual humans, real people you see in real life, as truly real, as human being with their own thoughts and stories and emotions.
There’s an idea in psychology called the fundamental attribution error. When people evaluate their own behavior, they think of it in the context of their current situation, they attribute it to external factors. I’m late for work, and I have an important meeting, so I have to go a bit above the speed limit. I’m also distracted from yesterday’s visit to the doctor which showed a concerning blood test result, so I stole that guy’s right of way because I just didn’t pay enough attention, and I feel bad and stressed out about everything.
But when people evaluate the behavior of others, the attribute it to the other person’s intrinsic personality. This asshole in his Audi is speeding and stealing my right of way because he’s an asshole who doesn’t care about other people.
Most of the time, in most situations, we don’t really think of other people as full, complex human beings in the same way we see ourselves. We don’t consider the fact that they have problems and feelings and all of that messy stuff. We remove all of that context.
So in most situations, there’s probably already not a huge difference between the way we see other humans and the way we see computers. It might be just a tiny step from this to seeing other humans and computers as pretty much the same.
There’s a whole genre of “virtual girlfriend” apps. There are games all the way back to the Nintendo DS, and perhaps even further. Apparently, there are people who just leave the game running on their DS at all times, and treat the virtual person like their real girlfriend. Now, there’s even an Alexa-like holographic virtual girlfriend — it’s only available in Chinese, but if you google for Naomi Wu, she has a review on her YouTube channel where you can see some of the things she can do.
So even today, in their very basic state, it’s possible to have a relationship with these virtual people.
It’s pretty clear that these systems will only get more lifelike, more complex, and it’s interesting to speculate about what this means.
Is this bad? I don’t think so.
There are a lot of people who feel very lonely, and feel like they have no ability to change that. It’s easy to make fun of incels, for example, but these people genuinely really feel despair and hopelessness. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving them companionship, provided that it actually makes them happy, instead of helping further isolate them and eventually making their situation even worse.
As these systems become more advanced, and get real robotic bodies, it’s not implausible to think that more and more people would prefer to have a robot companion over a human companion. Human relationships are difficult and messy and confusing at the best of times. To some people, maybe that’s what makes them compelling and interesting and worthwhile. But to others, this may be exactly what prevents them from being in a relationship.
I think this might be one of the reasons why many people are so captivated by Alita. One of the things I found slightly disturbing when watching the movie was how Alita’s personality was depicted. She falls in love with the first boy she meets. She immediately becomes interested in all of his hobbies, and is devoted to him to the point where she offers to die to help him by quite literally giving him her heart.
She’s incredibly powerful, but she’s also lost without him.
If this was a relationship between two human beings, it would be an incredibly toxic, unhealthy relationship.
But perhaps a lot of people love the movie, and Alita in particular, because this is exactly the kind of simple, straightforward relationship they want.
And you know what? If these people can buy their robot and have that relationship, and if it makes them happy, then maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe then they spend their spare time having long walks on the beach with Alita, instead of writing angry YouTube comments about SJWs, doxing Anita Sarkeesian, and watching movies where Jordan Peterson tells them that eating more meat will fix their lives.
Everybody involved will be much happier, and that’s a good thing.
So bring on the sex bots!
CRISPR is the greatest human achievement since (at least) the Internet, and it will change the world in ways even the Internet did not.
CRISPR is a technology that allows us to edit the genome of living organisms. This makes it one of the most powerful tools ever invented by humanity. It can be used to treat diseases, to repair genes that cause cancer, and even to completely eradicate illnesses like Malaria.
But the really, truly, incredibly amazing thing is that it can literally change what it means to be human. We now have the power to transcend our genes, to actively control what was previously forced upon us by evolution and random mutation. We can change the human germline.
The immediate reaction to that is fear, but should it be? If we fear this technology, if we try to outlaw it, it will not disappear. But it will only be available to a small number of very rich people. We should instead embrace it, with the goal of democratizing it, and making it available to everybody.
We shouldn’t want to live in a world where only the richest people have the ability to improve their genes. If we fear this technology, then this is exactly the world we will create.
What world should we create instead?
A world where people are smarter, healthier, happier, and live longer. A world where it isn’t random chance, a throw of the dice, that decides whether you have the genes that make you successful, or the genes that make your life difficult. A world where everybody is given the best chance.
If that sounds scary to you, then imagine that you already live in a world where everybody is born intelligent and healthy and happy. If somebody proposed to you that there is something wrong with being happy and healthy, that the world would be better if somebody threw a dice and randomly made newborn babies ill, or depressed, would you think this a worthwhile argument?
The danger of CRISPR isn’t the technology itself. The danger is that only a select few will profit from it.
But we can make sure this doesn’t happen. If we embrace this new world, and don’t fear it.
I remember watching Gattaca in the late 90s. I’m going off memory and I’m sure terabytes of intelligent discussion can be found if I were to look. But here’s what I remember, and here’s what I theorise from a distant memory.
I remember that the main character is a normal human, and somehow slips into these factories where only the genetically modified superpeople are able to be employed. He needs to score really high on tests — higher than his DNA would predict — and maintain a very high quality of work. Sort of like we were saying about aliens, if we don’t know he’s faking, does it really matter? If he’s scoring as well as perfect genes, does it matter?
The evil people in the movie say yes. The movie pushes this idea that all ability can be found in your genes, so lesser-than people can never perform at the right levels and don’t deserve those good jobs. And it’s not hard to extrapolate that further, where the super-people aren’t just getting the best jobs, they’re pushing the normal people into ghettos, camps, and prisons. We root for the main character for three reasons. One, we like underdogs. Two, we don’t think it’s fair to split people into groups like that. Three, we don’t really buy the idea that everything comes down to genes. So we in the audience root for the scrappy upstart, and we’re rewarded with his great work ethic smashing the system. Hurray for unquantifiable human spirit!
I totally agree with the spirit part. And I totally agree that when there’s a power differential, humans have proven they will do mean things to get ahead, and to “other” people. I also agree CRISPR is a really big deal with really big implications. And that the world would be better, not worse, if more people had access to it. So how we do we blend everything together while being optimistic while also realistic?
It’s not hard for me to imagine a Gattaca world. Look at how you can buy a building for a university, then your kid is more likely to be let in. If we think money buys access, and follow that access leads to more chances of success, and that higher chances of success are better than worse, then there you go. And the more benefit something has been proven to have, the higher the price can go. This reminds me a little of two things. Health care and privacy on digital products, as we talked about before.
America didn’t have a health care system until recently, and it’s still not very advanced compared to many other countries. And it’s easy to line up dollars and cents to make the argument that implementing national health care is too expensive. If a company previously had to spend $1000 per employee on health care, and now has to spend $2000, that’s more expensive. Case closed! But, no. There are a ton of other costs that national healthcare actually reduces. So on paper it looks more expensive, but maybe it’s not.
When a company sells your data, and that lets the product be free, that’s similar. Getting $40 per customer versus $100 per customer means you can call privacy “too expensive.” You can go further and say “privacy costs us $60 per customer.” Which is what you say right before deciding privacy concerns are exaggerated.
This is why I’m weary of the type of capitalism that believes “if it makes money, it’s good.” In America it’s often paired with a view of government that says “the less control the government has, the better things will work.” But, ah ha, there’s a hidden benefit to these “expensive” realities. When you tell businesses they have to reach a certain bar for something, whether it be safety, privacy, quality, or anything else, there’s money in it. You give corporations something to distinguish themselves on. Seatbelts were seen as a ridiculous overreach by government, then companies like Volvo were able to not just make seatbelts but differentiate themselves on safety. Neat. You see the same thing with green technology. It turns out it’s not just a hippie dream, there are real gains to be made.
What I’m most excited about with CRISPR is that governments will invest in it, regulate it, and hold a high bar for it. And that we’ll see a similar approach for all sorts of things, from AI to space exploration to sharing security data between organisations to track down international criminals. In the long run, really important things end up getting regulated with more care than when they’re brand new.
Design Ethics is a big topic recently. I think we saw what happened with an unregulated tech sector, spotted some clear drawbacks, and now we have better ideas for how these sorts of things can be addressed in the future. What we learned about disinformation on Twitter can’t be directly applied to CRISPR, but the mindset can. That means that there will be a lot of bumps on the road, but every year we’re building more of a capacity to predict them, learn from them, and push things forward.
I don’t think the goal has to be “no mistakes,” just “a better world than ten years ago.” If we frame it that way, and we see how readily people call out problems when they see them and speak up for change, I think the future looks bright indeed.
Carbon Nanotubes (Jon)
I went looking up Carbon Nanotubes and I feel like I hit a wall. But it’s a good wall. Because when I got ready to respond, I felt my brain kick into the same pattern I’ve been writing about until now:
- This is the same technology done better (in this case lighter)
- Any new technology can cause problems
- But if we’re smart about it, it can reduce human suffering
- Being smart about it is a blend of capitalism and regulation
- The internet can tell me some cool stuff
- But what will actually happen will be cooler still
Like in this particular case, maybe carbon nanotubes lets the military make drones that can kill more effectively than ever before, and no civilians get access to it for a long time because it’s so expensive. But when you zoom further out, and the technology is everywhere from nanobots to space elevators to better skyscrapers to cheaper building materials, etc etc it’s yet another example of progress. Everything better, faster, cheaper, happier, marching forward and improving. As long as you have a long enough view.
Space elevators are exciting. From the view space science fiction books I’ve read, I think the key is that you can more cheaply and efficiently get out of the (relatively) thick atmosphere of earth to launch things from a much better vantage point for space stuff. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress I think the space elevators actually connected all the way to the moon.
I want to keep writing and getting to the other future technologies. I want to dream big about what each can bring. I think it’s a bit predictable that I’ll talk about each thing the same. Maybe that’s a sign that I should the boilerplate stuff aside and my remaining chapters should go all-in on cool ideas.
Over to you! You get carbon nanotubes and then Deep Neural Nets.
Genetic Engineering (Lukas)
Now that we’ve talked about CRISPR in particular, we probably should also talk about genetic engineering in general.
Genetic engineering is freaking amazing, and the saddest thing is how hard people have fought against it during the past few decades. I want strawberries that look big and juicy like modern store-bought strawberries, but also taste like actual strawberries, like the strawberries my grandma had in her garden when I was a little kid! I want new kinds of bananas! I want rice with beta-carotene!
But there’s also a more urgent reason why genetic engineering is amazing.
Fact 1: there are now 7.7 billion people living on our planet. Population will eventually level off, but not until it has reached over 11 billion people.
Fact 2: most of the world’s arable land is already being cultivated. There isn’t a lot of room for growth.
The situation isn’t quite as dire as it looks, since, while we’re using almost all of our arable land already, we’re wasting a lot of the stuff we grow on it. Only about half the calories we grow on that land are being eaten by people. About a third is used for animal feed, and about ten percent are used for biofuels.
Feeding animals and then eating them wastes about 90% of the original calories, so even just switching from eating animals to eating lab-grown meat or other meat replacements is already going to help (and will also solve a pretty big ethical problem).
But it’s unlikely that this alone will be enough. We’ll also have to drastically increase crop yields. There, genetic engineering has already made a huge impact. It will be even more important in the future.
Deep Neural Networks (Lukas)
In 1874, his advisor Philipp von Jolly apparently told Max Planck not to study theoretical physics, since it was “almost fully matured.” Nothing was left to be discovered! He was, of course, the wrongest a human could possibly be.
Knowing that, I realize that this is kind of a dumb prediction to make, but here goes: I think it is conceivable that we might truly be reaching the end of scientific progress.
Here’s some evidence: the average age of a Nobel price winner is now over 70 years. Back in the 1950s, it used to be below 50. What this seems to imply is that people are making breakthrough discoveries later and later in their lives. Which might mean that there is more and more people have to learn about a field until they reach the point where they can make meaningful contributions to that field.
The problem? People die.
We have a finite life expectancy, and so we’re now getting closer to the point where people just die before they reach the point where they have been able to learn enough to make novel contributions to scientific topics.
How can we fix this?
Idea 1: We could try to live longer, preferably forever. Apparently, this has turned out to be quite difficult to achieve, so we’re back to the problem that we just might not live long enough to figure out how to live forever.
But this brings up a second problem: living forever along might not be enough, maybe we’re also just too dumb. Maybe some things are so complex that the human brain is incapable of understanding them.
So now we come to idea 2: make something that doesn’t die, and that’s smarter than we are. This actually looks like it might be possible.
And deep neural networks are a step towards something like that.
So let’s build that singularity, and hope we can build it before we reach the limit of what we can achieve!
Nuclear Power (Jon)
Previously we discussed nuclear fusion. But fission has existed for a long time. I did some work with Greenpeace in 2000 and I remember being surprised to learn that Greecepeace is pro-nuclear power. But once I read the facts, I wasn’t surprised anymore.
- Nuclear power is much safer than the conventional wisdom
- Nuclear power’s pollution is low compared to other power sources
So I’m not surprised that Greenpeace ran the numbers and decided that nuclear power, despite the drawbacks, is more aligned with their goals than coal power.
This is yet another example where the conventional wisdom is partially right (nuclear meltdowns are scary and bad) but it’s missing a greater point (the technology has advanced significantly since Chernobyl). But I see signs for hope for two reasons: our short memory and the way emotions fade.
If I polled Americans about nuclear power one week after Chernobyl, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re distrustful and scared of it. But if I polled people now, the majority of them weren’t even alive when it happened! So I wouldn’t be surprised to see the numbers shifting away from emotional fear and towards a more logical analysis.
People often make the point that we under-invested in nuclear power for years, so we can’t just turn around and have great plants tomorrow. And that’s true. But we can turn around and decide to invest more tomorrow. Then we just have to be patient, like with anything.
It reminds me of genetically modified food. The knee-jerk reaction at first was “Franken-food? No thanks!” But as the decades have gone by, we’ve been able to study and consider more. And the interest in it has gone up. We would have made more progress if we started earlier. But that can be said about anything. The real issue is whether or not we’re making progress, and on this we are.
I have strong opinions about documentation. We need more of it, but more isn’t good enough. We need more of it … that’s actually good enough for people to want to read. That’s the tricky bit.
For almost a decade I’ve written “design rationale” documents for the teams I’m on. The elevator pitch is that we shouldn’t be writing what we shipped, we need to be explaining why. We should go into the trade-offs, we should call out assumptions we’re making, we should outline the things we know and things we don’t know. We should go deep, deep, deep because the team will always be adding and removing members. There should be something that outlives each person on the team. And it should be written down in a compelling format that other people can read at some point in the future.
And that reminded me of what you said about scientific progress and deep neural networks. It would be nice to be able to differentiate between things that are open for debate versus things that have been decided and settled. If we can more clearly understand the difference, I feel like we can focus our efforts better that way.
If you join my team and say “but why didn’t we do X?” then the conversation can split into one of two directions. One direction is “Because of these reasons, and once I’m done explaining, we’re likely to agree.” The other direction is “This is still open for debate and we’d love additional insights.” Call the first group objective facts and the second group subjective debate. Understanding the difference between the two would help a lot.
On the other hand, there are plenty of things you just need to discover on your own. Someone at work asked me about something they’ll only learn with a lot of experience. So I tried to explain it, but then I said “If I stepped on the moon, and you asked how it felt, I could give you a superficial understanding of it. But to really understand, there’s no way around it. You’d just need to stand there yourself.” But I see this as a positive as well, in a “the journey is the reward” sort of way. I’m excited to have computers help turbo-charge knowledge but at the same time know that some things just need to be experienced and felt. There will always be room for that.
Up next: Digital Twins and Biochips! I peeked at them and they’re beyond what I know so far. Over to you, good luck!
Digital Twins (Lukas)
About a year ago, we were driving to Zürich to meet some friends, and a Fiat 500 passed us by. I was thinking about buying an electric car, so this sparked a memory: I suddenly remembered that Fiat made an electric Fiat 500 just for California. The only reason this car even exists is because California’s mandates force Fiat to make it, so Fiat doesn’t sell it anywhere else.
But then I wondered if there was anyone who imported these cars into Switzerland, and I fired up Google. I found an importer, and sent them an email asking when I could go test-drive one.
Perhaps a week later, while talking to somebody about all of the things Google knows about people, I showed them my Google ad settings page, and to my own surprise, there it was: it said that I was looking to buy an electric car, and that I was interested in a Fiat.
I bought a Fiat 500e a few weeks later.
It’s uncanny. Sometimes it feels like Google knows more about me than I do. The ads they target at me almost seem prescient.
Given that this technology exists, it’s absurd that the only thing we use it for is to target ads at people. Come on, Google! You know what I’m going to do better than I do, and all you can do is show me a stupid ads? Yes, I do understand that this is literally your business model, but still…
The idea of having a clone that does our work for us has been around ever since the idea of cloning has (actually, perhaps longer, given stories about Golems and similar ancient robots). Perhaps a digital version of that isn’t too far off.
3D Printing (Lukas)
I don’t think this is on the list, but I think it should be.
3D printing is awesome. I bought a 3D printer a few years ago, and not a week has gone bye where I haven’t printed something useful. I now have 3D printed lamps, boxes, replacement parts, toys, and tools in every room in my flat, in my car, on my bike, and in all of my friends’ places.
Something broke? Lukas will fix it.
3D printing is amazing. But right now, it’s only plastic. Plastic is great, you can do a lot of stuff with plastic, and there are 3D printers that can even print different kinds of plastics at the same time (so you can print an object where parts of the object are stiff, and others are elastic, for example), but in the end, it’s still all plastic, which is limiting.
But let’s move a few decades into the future: what if you could also print metals? Suddenly, you could print PCBs directly, for example. And what if print resolution got better? Perhaps you could print things like chips, fully working speakers, maybe even screens! So now you can print simple electronic devices.
Let’s move a few decades more. What if you can place individual atoms? Now you literally have a replicator that makes everything from food to computers.
That’s probably a long ways off. It will happen, but not in the next few decades.
What we have now, though, is already really cool. Just the fact that when my friend’s baby stroller broke, I could print the exact replacement part he needed — and print it in nylon so it will never break again, that is completely amazing.
3D Printing (Jon)
I wanted to say a few things about 3D printing. You love it. I’ve played with it some and I’m also excited by it. I agree with everything you said.
But a few years ago I read a book about 3D printing and DIY culture when it was brand new and white hot. And I remember being underwhelmed by the book. And that feeling was very instructive.
I wasn’t disappointed because I thought the ideas were boring. It was more that I could tell the ideas were big, but I wanted more tangible products to geek out over. Yes, cool, I can print things easily. What next? More things. More easily. I remember finishing the book thinking that it was half done and a bit ahead of its time.
It’s like someone explained that someone had invented the wheel. So I went and looked at three wheels. And I thought “ok, I can see how this could be great.” But maybe what I was looking for was a car show. But gosh, the gap between me thinking “is that it?” and the point where I say “take my money” is where so much cool stuff can happen. Right now, around the world, people are operating with the assumption that 3D printing is possible and powerful. So now they’re casting their dreams higher up. And as a consumer I just have to wait.
I think 3D printing will always be under the radar. It’ll go from “Cool idea but you don’t need to buy one unless you’re a nerd” to “of course everyone has access to one” without necessarily ever having a mainstream ah ha moment. And I think that’s totally fine! It gives me more faith in its future use than something we’re all breathless over.
Digital Twins (Jon)
Ok, we’ve entered into the part of this exercise where I’m out of my depth. And it’s occuring to me that if I were reading this as a book, I’d need the authors to explain concepts more. So I just spent some time figuring out what a dang digital twin is and here’s what I came up with.
In the past, you’d manufacture a physical thing, like a car engine. That engine would exist in meatspace and do its job or not. But you’d need to install sensors to figure out how well it was doing its job. These systems are extremely complex and advanced and do a pretty good job.
But the concept of a digital twin is that you invent the virtual model alongside the physical model, then unite them with data. And since they were both born from the same data, you’re able to test things, get results, and make improvements much faster. So maybe on the digital side you’re able to find opportunities for improvement, and since the digital model is a carbon copy of what exists in the real world, those insights should translate to the real world.
But it goes in the opposite way as well. The real world item is going to be returning data as well: “Hey, I get hot when this happens.” So that information is able to be shared directly with the digital copy to improve its modeling. So that’s what a digital twin is. Whew!
My brain is searching for ways to tie that to consumer technology or things that non-engineers experience every day. It reminds me a little bit of the A/B testing that goes on in software at all times. Companies like Google are able to push out all sorts of experiments and in a very quick amount of time they can get data that proves or disproves a hypothesis. I’ve been on teams where the designers resented this. They thought the magical robot was stealing their creativity. And I get it.
But the thing is, design isn’t about your creativity. It’s about problem solving. If a robot is offering to help you understand where your design works or doesn’t, don’t be too proud to learn! I think so many things I’ve been learning about all come back to a similar echolocation style of improving. Try a thing. See how it did. Modify. Repeat. It’s evolution, baby!
Biochips! This is sometimes called a “lab on a chip.” Imagine combining micro-processors, which aren’t typically excited about being covered in fluids, with biology. Which can get pretty wet and goopy. So the most obvious idea here is a chip that can detect early traces of the sorts of cancers that can slip by undetected. I just read an article that said this very research is happening now. Which is exciting.
And what’s even more exciting is how this is the 101 level of this technology. It’s not hard to draw a line from a chip that can detect a cancer to … zero people getting cancer one day. And every step along the way is going to require new designs, new thinking, new laws, new societal expectations, etc. That’s cool.
And what a crazy end run to make! Sure, you can cure cancer. And we should! But how interesting is it that biochips could make it so you can get all the early cancer you want, no worries, we can catch it and get rid of it. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
And that’s just the most basic case. Once you can test for things at a molecular level, it opens up a whole new group of things you can do. Does it happen in real time? Could one positive match trigger something that puts drugs into the system? If that could exist, could you have a self-regulating system that’s constantly keeping your bloodstream and health up to snuff? Even if that’s a long way away … it’s on the horizon.
3D Printing (Lukas)
New technology works in a weird way. Its impact has two components to them. One component is the technology itself. The other component is how the technology changes people, and changes society. The second component is incredibly hard to predict. Perhaps it’s impossible to predict.
Consider, for example, recommendation algorithms. The technology itself isn’t that hard to understand. If people watch YouTube movies, YouTube learns which kinds of movies people like, and then recommends more movies like these.
One of the weird, kind of unpredictable implications this has is that it shifts people’s personal Overton windows. Let’s say I like cats. Originally, I rarely see any cat videos on YouTube. I see some cat videos, and some dog videos. So I watch a the cat videos, and ignore the dog videos (sorry, dogs). Now YouTube learns that I like cats, and recommends more cat videos, and fewer dog videos. Now when I open YouTube, suddenly, maybe a quarter of the videos I see are cat videos. Naturally, this means that I watch more cat videos. YouTube notices that, and recommends even more cat videos to me. Suddenly, half the videos I see on YouTube are cat videos, and I never see any dog videos anymore. And because I see so many cat videos, the cat videos that I do see are less and less mainstream, they’re not the kind of average “cute kitten” videos everybody sees. Now I also see videos of cats fighting off dogs! Maybe I see anti-dog videos from fanatic cat lovers!
And because I just see this on YouTube, this becomes my normal. This is where my cat Overton window now sits. Clearly, the fact that there are so many cat videos on YouTube means that everybody loves cats! The fact hat all of the videos I see that involve dogs portray them negatively means that everybody hates dogs! Ever so slowly, I’m being changed from somebody who kinda likes cats into somebody who loves cats, and really doesn’t like dogs.
The idea of a recommendation algorithm is pretty easy to understand, but predicting these kinds of societal and personal implications is probably impossible.
Anyway, when I got my first 3D printer, I turned it on once, printed a random trinket I found online, put it back in its box, and let it sit there for perhaps a year. Then I saw some online article about a tool that allowed you to make your own 3D models, OpenSCAD, and I also needed some kind of phone stand for my mobile, so I took this as an opportunity to learn how to use OpenSCAD, and to get the 3D printer out of its box. I printed a few phone stands, and then I forgot about my printer again.
Maybe two months later, I installed some Philips Hue bulbs in my flat, and I wanted to prevent people from turning them off using the normal light switch. So I needed some way to disable my light switches. I remembered OpenSCAD, opened it up, designed covers that I could put over my light switches, printed them out, and solved that problem.
Now, I was starting to change. My brain was starting to change. My brain slowly learned that I now had the ability to manifest physical items. Items that did not previously exist, that nobody had designed or invtented or injection-molded for me.
I needed new lamp shades for my flat. I didn’t find anything I liked. I made lamp shades. The shower head holder in my bathroom broke. I went to the store and found out that these little pieces of plastic cost an amount of money that seemed out of proportion with their value. I made a shower head holder. My niece’s Barbie doll’s arm broke. I made a new arm. Now my brain had completely accepted the idea that I could generate any kind of object I wanted or needed. A friend’s cat figured out how to open the cupboard door and steal his treats. I made a lock the cat couldn’t break. I wanted an NES case for my Raspberry Pi. I made one. I needed a phone holder for my car. I made one. I made custom Lego pieces. I made replacement parts for my and my friends’ cars. I made a drone, toys, pots for plants, a spice rack. At the moment, there are 400 different objects I’ve made, just the things I personally designed, not counting all of the stuff I’ve downloaded from the Internet.
But that’s just me, that’s just how 3D printing is starting to change my brain, and my behavior. What does it mean for society if people can just make new physical objects? How many new things will be invented that could never have been invented if people would have had to pay for injection molds? How will society change if people can just make anything they want? How can people improve their lives if they can design things that solve their specific problems, instead of buying off-the-shelf things that are built to satisfy everybody else’s needs?
What is the cat video effect of 3D printing?
Digital Twins (Lukas)
Oh! That’s what a digital twin is! Great, because that gives me the opporunity to talk about 3D printing some more. All 3D-printed objects have digital twins, I guess. If you want to 3D-print something like a load-bearing part, you can actually test its strength, and where it will break, based on the digital model, and then you can print it in a way that the specific parts that are most likely to break are enforced during the printing process. Maybe the part has more plastic or a thicker wall in an area that receives more stress during use. Or maybe the part uses a different material in that area, if the printer supports multi-material prints. So that’s pretty cool!
Okay, I’ll shut up about 3D printing now.
The idea of testing things digitally, and having those results be valid in the real world, is super cool. I guess we’ve always done something that, to some degree. Even before we had computers, architects would use building plans to figure out if they could withstand winds and earthquakes. I guess digital twins are just much more exact and complex, and the kinds of analyses and simulattions you can do are much more exhaustive.
One place where this could be enormously beneficial is medical research. Medical research is expensive and error-prone. Most tested compounds go nowhere. If you had a digital analog to a human being, and you could simulate the effects of a chemical compound, imagine how useful that would be! We could test millions of new medications every year, easily a hundred times more than we do now.
And maybe even further in the future, we could make an actual digital copy of ourselves, of individual humans, and then simulate how our bodies will respond to medication before prescribing it!
Okay, so this is awesome, and I want it. But while we are talking about sticking chips into people, what about all of the other things about the human body that are kinda sucky?
Our teeth are made for a 30-year life span, and the only reason we keep them longer is because we carefully brush them thrice a day until we die. Get rid of them! Give me teeth that last forever! What about our brains. We can barely remember anything, and the mechanism for remembering is so poorly designed that every time we do remember something, we also change that memory. Dumb! Get rid of it! Give me a memory chip! What about our eyes. Some people get bad eyes from the start, but even if you don’t, eyes start to break around 40, and anyways, they can’t even zoom in on things, something even the cheapest phone can easily do. Give me digital eyes!
And, of course, once we’ve finally figured out how to live, we die. Just when life gets interesting, it ends! Give me a chip that fixes death!
Bodies are kind of bad at everything. It’s about time we started fixing them, and if biochips are the first step towards that, then please, by all means! Inject them in my arms or wherever they need to go!
Smart Workspace (Jon)
At Microsoft I was asked to think a fair amount about the future of work. I have lots of opinions about this. But before we even get into all the crazy digital stuff that can and will happen in various ways, there are some basic human things that will always be true.
First, it’s hard to concentrate when people are in your space. But also there are some kinds of interaction that are simply better in person. So I think about this a lot. I think about how to give people their own spaces but also make collaboration super great. The first one is easy for me: people should have offices. I imagine a world where everyone has an office but there are also lovely collaboration spaces. Done.
Is it expensive? Yes. But I wrote an essay about the beautiful story arc that would happen, and I think you can apply it to all sorts of things. If I started a new company and insisted that everyone have an office, it’d cost way more at first. Fewer people would fit, the whole office would cost more, and everyone would tell me I’m crazy. Fair enough. But then word would get around. For some people, it would just be novelty: “Did you hear about JonCo? They give everyone an office! What a weirdo.” But for some people, gosh, it’d be like a glass of water in the middle of the desert: “I heard JonCo would give me my own office. I need to work there. Like, now.”
You see this all the time. A thing is crazy until, oops, turns out there was demand. It turns out we had switched our brains off and gone with the default again. But the default shifted. Because every day new information is shared. New generations are born and show up with different points of view and different ideas about how things should be done. Everyone — and I mean literally every single person I know outside of Microsoft — works in an open office. But I’ve noticed the enthusiasm for it go from “Of course it’s great” to “Of course it’s great but sometimes I need to get away.”
I remember when I realised that my work at home was way more productive than my work at the office. It seemed like such a waste. But that’s how it goes. When you throw a bunch of people into a petting zoo format, people are going to get distracted by each other. Throw everyone behind cubicles and there’s less in your sightline (and your ears) that can throw you off. Productivity goes up. Stuff gets done.
So imagine a company where everyone gets an office. Imagine a company where everyone works remotely. Imagine a company where in-person standups are completely eliminated, replaced by everyone putting down a few bullet points in a document. The gears of capitalism would begin to turn. It’d be like we used to say about foosball tables or free lunch. It’d be a sign of a forward-thinking and amazing place to work. So people would go. Early adoptors at first, but give it enough time and people will be saying “Ew, they’re still on open floor plans,” or “Gosh, they still do standups like it’s 2009 or something.” Over time the crazy idea becomes the new conventional wisdom. And then the same process will play out. Someone will have a lonely and crazy idea, like “I know the JonCo model of offices and remote work is the conventional wisdom, but I think … lasers!” Or whatever.
So that’s the biggest thing I see. If something makes me enjoy work more and do better, cool. Let’s do it. I don’t think open floor plans, standups, and disallowing remote work check those boxes, though.
But between workplace-oriented Hololens scenarios, better video conferences, better communication methods, etc I think we’re going to find all sorts of new ways to work. The key is to keep an open mind about it, and not think about “well we’ve always done x.”
I have more to say but I have to go to bed. But next time I want to talk about how limiting Powerpoint/Keynote is for communication and how much richer it could all become. Some real Bret Victor/Douglas Engelbart stuff.
Brain computer interface (Jon)
So! This one is pretty self-explanatory as long as you know what all of those three words mean. But, yet again, this is something I haven’t had a chance to think about for myself yet. How would I feel if I could communicate directly with a computer with my brain? What sorts of experiences would improve my life?
I just read an article that said they can make sounds come out of a computer that are inspired by things you’re hearing. So you hear the words “1–2–3” and a robot voice says “1–2–3.” And how does it happen? They trained what each of those numbers looks like when your brain is processing the audio, then it matches them. It’s a little less impressive since it’s listening rather than reading your thoughts, but process is being made.
One of the first things I thought of when this came up was automating things I’d normally do with my fingers. Like mind-transmitting a thought to my wife about how I’ll be home late. But of course a lot of written communication requires the right tone. Even a single word being wrong can sort of mess up the message you’re looking for. So I don’t know that literal word translation is necessarily as exciting to me.
So then I thought about automating things. Siri Shortcuts and Google Slices (is that the right term? There a couple technologies doing similar things) are doing this. So you could have a single automated thing that sets up a map to your house, and turns on your favourite radio station, and logs you out of Harvest or something. Cool. So moving from 15 taps to 2 taps (launch app, tap automated script) is pretty help. And then beyond that, voice is even better. And that’s where voice really stands out. Saying “Siri, launch my home routine” is genuinely helpful because it’s faster and there’s no need to get the tone and phrasing exactly right. Launch the app. Done.
Ok, so what about a step further? If I didn’t need to tap twice or say it out loud because I could use my brain, would that be helpful? I’m not sure. Obviously if I have to do something in public I’d rather it be quiet than loud. But while mind input might be preferable to 15 taps, it’s hard to imagine it being better than two or three taps. So I’m sure mind is a ton better than voice, and the real benefits for automation are in the automation of multiple steps, not the input method.
But you know what would be much better? Helping people who have various disabilities that cause trouble with speech. It’s inspiring to think that some day this technology is able to assist with or even eliminate certain kinds of handicaps. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot more about since reading Enlightenment Now. Every human has a certain amount of potential, and when you use science to give them more ability and potential, it can affect everyone around them for the better. Imagine if 500,000 around the world can’t communicate well, then this technology unlocks them. That’s a lot of people! That’s a really big impact.
Sometimes I think I need to remind myself that I’m doing ok, which means a lot of my explorations are at the point of diminishing returns. Figuring out how to save myself a few taps is fine. But figuring out how to let 500,000 people communicate properly for the first time is a much more noble and exciting scale. It’s not that there aren’t any more problems for tech workers to solve for themselves. It’s just that they’re probably not as impactful as people are historically overlooked, at least at first, when cool new tech hits the scene.
Autonomous Mobile Robots (Jon)
Researching Autonomous Mobile Robots, or AMRs, led me to a fascinating new term just now: RaaS, or Robots as a Service. And just like Hololens, Google Glass, Brain-Computer interfaces, and many other things, this is a situation where I need to think bigger and broader than consumer tech.
Consumer tech is fun to think about when it comes to robots. Basically you’d have a robot do your laundry and take care of other things around the house. Fine. And even better if the person has trouble with mobility. That’s good, and that’s something humankind has been thinking about for decades.
But when you go broader than consumer tech, and think instead about business, that’s where the AMRs are already having a field day. I don’t know much about factories or supply chains or any of that. But it doesn’t take much imagination to think that if a factory can move x number of things in y minutes, a robot can probably move more faster. And with less danger.
And that’s the kind of thing that excites me. If a car company can make things faster, it could reduce defects, lower costs, and go faster. If you apply that sort of improvement to all businesses and all factories, you could imagine a world that looks like today’s work, just … faster and cheaper. And that’s not a small thing. What if car prices got cut in half because advancements in factory technology made it feasible? What if the process of all factory-made goods were cut in half?
A minute ago I noticed that Panic Software just announced a gaming device. I love the idea. It’s $150, with a black and white screen, and every week a new game shows up on device. Sort of a fun idea. Plus they’ve gotten some cool indie game makers to help out with the game. So the Katamari guy is making a game, for example. How cool!
But what about that price tag? $150?! Ten or twenty years ago, that price would have been … impossible regardless of price. Maybe five years ago it’d have to be $350 because the tech was here but not optimised yet. And now someone can do something crazy like this for $150. Who’s to say it’s not going to go even lower as things get more efficient?
I love the feeling of walking into an art store and getting inspired by everything. “Oh, a paint brush! I could paint something cool!” Or “Oh, that’s a cool eraser! I could erase so much better with that.” There’s something about people telling me the new things that are possible (or the old things that used to be impossible and no longer are) that gets my creative juices flowing.
That’s what I see with a lot of improvements. Factories used exist at such-and-such speed. Now they’ll be twice as fast and half as expensive. That’s the sort of thing that thinks maybe I could make a gaming system. AMRs are just one more tool inspiring bigger and bigger ideas.
Brain computer interface (Lukas)
Human brains are made for social interactions. A not insignificant part of our brains are dedicated to thinking about other people, trying to guess what they think, how they feel. This simulation is so good that, with close friends, you can have imaginary conversations in your head, and they’re not that far removed from how a real conversation with that person would go.
This means that there are literally structures in our brain that are, in a surprisingly real way, other people.
You were talking about brain-computer interfaces as output, but they could also act as input. A brain-computer interface could read your thoughts and feelings, but it could also put thoughts and concepts and feelings into your head.
Now imagine that we connect people. Instead of just simulating how other people are feeling, you could actually truly feel their feelings. The simulation of that other person that exists in your head would literally be that other poerson. You could sense when your spouse is sad and needs your support, and feel when your children are scared and need your help.
I don’t know, is this weird? Or useful? Or just cool? Will this just be how humans experience each other in the future?
An important part of human existence, of being human, is interaction with the outside world. That’s why solitary confinement is such a horrible punishment that has such devastating, traumatic psychological effects on people. It tortures and destroys people to be alone without meaningful sensory input.
That’s why we need bodies and senses and interactions. That’s why a brain on its own is not a human being.
But if we have brain-computer interfaces that provide input to the brain, maybe we don’t need our bodies anymore. Maybe computers are sufficient input for us. Maybe they’re even better than the real world, than real experiences.
What does it mean to be human if we don’t need our bodies anymore?
Autonomous Mobile Robots (Lukas)
When I was a kid, my grandpa got me a Pac-Man game at a flea market. That was in the early 80s, when people didn’t have computers, and many people didn’t even have color TVs yet. At home, I took it apart to see what made it work, and it was kind of disappointing, because it immediately became clear to me that, no only was it impossible to understand how it worked just from looking at it, I also had no idea how any of the things in that device were made, or where I would even start to figure out how any of these things could be made.
I couldn’t make a chip, or a PCB, or a screen, I couldn’t make plastic molds to make parts for the device. Worse, I couldn’t even buy any of these things, or have somebody make them for me. Maybe if I had lived in Sillicon Valley? I don’t know.
Today, there are flourishing websites, like tindie.com, dedicated to letting individual people sell complex, custom-made electronic devices. You can watch YouTube movies of people building gaming devices at home. They make wooden cases in CNC machines, they make their own PCBs, they print buttons on their 3D-printers. And they make real, beautiful, professional, usable, working hardware.
We’re living in a world governed by electronic devices. Being able to understand them, and make them, and truly own them, is the democratization of our modern world. It’s important, but it’s also interesting and fun and satisfying.
And it’s only possible because the machines that do these things, the robots that do the work, have become affordable and understandable.
All of us have more ideas than a few of us. More ideas means better ideas. That’s to all of our benefit.
By the time we got through 40 subjects, we found that the remaining ones were going to require much more research because the technologies are further and further away from what we know in 2019. So we’ll stop there for now, and may address the rest in the future.
Thanks for reading! (And shout out to the 99% who didn’t read and just jumped to the end. I do the same thing :)