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Robin Hanson has identified what he believes to be an alternative to the incremental growth of machine superintelligence through AI with the idea of brain emulations or ems, scanned copies of human brains that are downloaded into computers and then in some cases given robot bodies. You would choose the greatest minds and allow machines to improve their knowledge at a head-spinning clip, intelligence exploding at ahead-spinning clip. Armies of ems could take over all the work, the whole economy, industries could rise and fall in days, output would be increased at heretofore unimaginable speed. Humans wouldn’t need to labor anymore and post-scarcity will have arrived. We’ve moved immensely culturally from foragers to Digital Age denizens with no explosion of intelligence, so the changes to life on Earth with one would be seismic. Hanson believes it all could occur within a century.

I’m not a physicist or economist like Hanson, but I believe his timeframe is wildly aggressive. Let me accept his prediction wholly, however, to ask some questions. What if we don’t wisely choose our brains to emulate? As I posted yesterday, Russian scientists carved the late Vladimir Lenin’s brain into more than 30,000 pieces searching for the secret of his intellectual powers. If the technology was available then, they certainly would have chosen the Bolshevik leader to make millions of ems from. Lenin wouldn’t be my first choice to emulate, but he would be a far better choice than, say, Stalin, who would have been the chosen one for the next generation. Hitler’s brain would have been replicated many times over in the mass delusion of Nazi Germany. In North Korea today, the Dear Leader would be the brain to embody inside of robots. 

Even the best among us have terrible ideas we have yet to admit or realize. For example, the American Founding Fathers allowed for slavery and didn’t permit women to vote. Every age has its sins, from colonialism to wealth inequality, and its only with a wide variety of minds do we come to realize our wrongs, and often those who speak first and loudest about injustices (e.g. Abolitionists) are deemed “undesirables” who would never be selected for “mass production” of their minds. Wouldn’t choosing merely the “best and brightest” be a dicey form of eugenics to the nth degree?

Even further, if ems truly become possible at some point, wouldn’t they also be ripe for destabilization, especially in a future that’s become that technologically adept? Wouldn’t a terrorist organizations be able to create a battalion of like-minded beheaders? Isn’t it possible that a lone wolf who wanted to unloose mayhem could hatch a “start-up” in his garage? You can’t refuse to create all new tools because they can become weapons, but wouldn’t ems be different in a dangerous way on a whole other level?

Excerpts follow from two pieces about Hanson’s new book, The Age of Em: 1) Steven Poole’s Guardian review, and 2) A Q&A with the author by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute.

Poole’s opening:

In the future, or so some people think, it will become possible to upload your consciousness into a computer. Software emulations of human brains – ems, for short – will then take over the economy and world. This sort of thing happens quite a lot in science fiction, but The Age of Em is a fanatically serious attempt, by an economist and scholar at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, to use economic and social science to forecast in fine detail how this world (if it is even possible) will actually work. The future it portrays is very strange and, in the end, quite horrific for everyone involved.

It is an eschatological vision worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. Trillions of ems live in tall, liquid-cooled skyscrapers in extremely hot cities. Most of them are “very able focused workaholics”, who “respect and trust each other more” than we do.

Some ems will have robotic bodies; others will just live in virtual reality all the time. (Ems who are office workers won’t need bodies.) Some ems will run a thousand times faster than human brains, so having a subjective experience of much-expanded time. (Their bodies will need to be very small: “At this scale, an industry-era city population of a million kilo-ems could fit in an ordinary bottle.”) Others might run very slowly, to save money. Ems will congregate in related “clans” and use “decision markets” to make important commercial and political choices. Ems will work nearly all the time but choose to remember an existence that is nearly all leisure. Some ems will be “open-source lovers”; all will be markedly more religious and also swear more often. The em economy will double every month, and competition will drive nearly all wages down to subsistence levels. Surveillance will be total. Fun, huh?•

From the American Enterprise Institute:


The book is not about us; it’s about the ems, about their life, their culture. You make a lot of speculations; you draw a lot of conclusion about what the life of these synthetic emulations are like. So how can you do that?

Robin Hanson:

I am taking our standard, accepted theories in a wide variety of areas and apply them to this key scenario: what happens if brain emulations get cheap?

Honestly, most people like the future as a place to set fantasy stories. In the past, we used to have far away places as our favorite place to set strange stories where strange things could happen but then we learned about all the far away places. So then we switched to the future, it was the place we could set strange stories. And because you could say, well no one can show my strange story is wrong about the future because no one can know about the future, so it’s become an axiom to people that the future must be unknowable, therefore we can set strange stories there. But, if we know about the world today and we use theories about the world today to understand the past, those same basic theories can also apply to the future, so my exercise is theory.

I am taking our standard, accepted theories in a wide variety of areas and apply them to this key scenario: what happens if brain emulations get cheap? And if we have reliable theory to help us understand the world around us and to help us understand the past, those same theories should be able to describe the future


Give a couple examples and how that gives you some insights into what this new world of synthetic emulations would be like for them.

Robin Hanson:

First of all, I’m just using supply and demand to describe how wages change. I use the same supply and demand theory of wages that we use to understand why wages are higher here than in Bangladesh or why wages were low a thousand years ago. That same theory can say why wages would be high in the future.

I also use simple physics: for examples these emulations can run at different speeds, I can use computer science to say if they run twice as fast they should cost twice as much, because they are very parallel programs. I can also use physics to say that if they have bodies to match the speeds of their minds, if their mind runs twice as fast, their body needs to be twice as short in order to feel natural to that mind. So very fast emulations, very small bodies. I can use our standard theory of cities and urban concentrations to think about whether ems concentrate in a few big cities or lots of smaller cities.

Today, our main limitation of having a lot of us in one big city is traffic congestion. The bigger the city the more time people spend in traffic, and that limits our cities. Emulations can interact with each other across a city using virtual reality, which is much cheaper so they face much less traffic congestion, so I use that to predict that they live in a small number of very big, dense cities.


And we’re not talking about an alien intelligence or a super intelligence, but a synthetic duplication of a regular human brain or human mind, therefore it would work in some sort of predictable manner.

Robin Hanson:

Exactly, so we know a lot of things about humans, when they work they need breaks and they need weekends and they need vacations, so we can say these emulations will work hard because it is a competitive world, but they still will take breaks, and they’ll take the evening off to sleep.

These are all things we know about human productivity; these emulations are still very humans psychologically.


I was reading a review of the book and someone said, you could have a whole factory of “Elon Musk” workers, all very smart, and those ems would go out after work to a bar or a club and they would see an em of Taylor Swift. So Elon Musk #1,000,400,000 or something could be listening to Taylor Swift # 2,000,100,000. So it’s a duplication of human society but with some rules changed. 

Robin Hanson:

Right, so it’s in the uncanny valley where it’s strange enough to be different but familiar enough to be strange. If it were completely alien, it would just but weird and incomprehensible, but it’s not.


Is this something you think the science supports and that could happen over the next 100 years or so?

Robin Hanson:


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Ridesharing offers advantages over taxis while destabilizing secure jobs. Like so much of the modern economy, it’s a victory for consumers at the expense of workers. The endgame for cabbies may be Lyft providing reservations in advance, something Uber has now emulated. The funny thing is the two services are locked in a death battle, each hoping to become a monopoly, and if Uber already had the field to itself, it never would have been able to ape its competitor’s innovation. That scenario would be bad for both workers and consumers.

From the Economist:

One of the things that appeals to business travellers about Lyft is the ability to book cars in advance, a service the firm unveiled earlier this year. With Uber, on the other hand, clients can only book a ride as and when they want it, and must hope that there is a driver nearby (although there nearly always is). That explains why Uber announced last week that it will follow Lyft’s example and allow riders to book cars between 30 minutes and 30 days in advance.

All things being equal, that development will sound the death knell for taxis; expect cabs’ share of the business market to diminish to almost nothing in the coming years. That will leave only one battle worth watching: that between Uber and Lyft. In all likelihood, only one will be left standing. As Om Malik, a startup-watcher, pointed out in the New Yorker earlier this year, the importance of network effects means that most competition in Silicon Valley now leads towards one monopolistic winner.•


In Adrienne LaFrance’s latest smart Atlantic piece on technology, the writer suggest Honolulu as the ideal place for Google to import its driverless technology, since the Oahu city has optimal weather conditions and terrible traffic. Embedded in the latter part of the article is a counterintuitive contention that makes sense: The rise of the autonomous car may lead to a greater, not lesser, demand for public transit, even if the eternal search for parking spots is removed from the equation. The excerpt:

If driverless cars are going to take off anywhere, Oahu seems like a strong candidate for early adoption. That’s still no guarantee.

“I believe that driverless taxis are going to induce a large-scale abandonment of car-ownership in urban areas over the next two to three decades,” said Shem Lawlor, the director of Clean Transportation at the Blue Planet Foundation in Honolulu. “However, since the pricing will still not be as cheap as walking, biking, or transit—and since it’s logistically impossible for driverless taxi services to ever move a sizable percentage of peak-hour traffic volume, I believe we are going to see a tremendous increase in demand for public transit, biking infrastructure and walkable neighborhoods.”•

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Sisyphus’ task was a long, slow and steady one, until the Internet and smartphones turned it into a game of Frogger. While the King of Ephyra could never win, he at least had time for deliberation, where we’re reduced by our gadgets to a constant state of anticipation, only as good as our next like, follow or text. It’s abeyance, interrupted every few seconds by a notification that can never satisfy us for very long. It’s a food that makes us hungrier. 

In a really good New York Review of Books piece about a slate titles on technology, Edward Mendelson writes about many aspects of our new normal, a good and bad thing, including how we live in perpetual anxiety today, how we’ve become the harried characters inside the screen, waiting for some message or recognition to deliver us, though it never can. Two short excerpts follow. 

Computers and smartphones bring to daily life some of the qualities of another artifact of the digital era: the video game in which a player sustains an anxious state of vigilance against sudden unpredictable intrusions that must be dealt with instantly at the risk of virtual death. This too has its benefits: drivers who grew up playing video games are reportedly quicker than others to respond to sudden danger, more capable of staying alive.

Dante, always our contemporary, portrays the circle of the Neutrals, those who used their lives neither for good nor for evil, as a crowd following a banner around the upper circle of Hell, stung by wasps and hornets. Today the Neutrals each follow a screen they hold before them, stung by buzzing notifications. In popular culture, the zombie apocalypse is now the favored fantasy of disaster in horror movies set in the near future because it has already been prefigured in reality: the undead lurch through the streets, each staring blankly at a screen.•

After [Bernard E.] Harcourt’s book appeared, Apple and the state came into conflict when the FBI tried to force Apple to make it possible to decrypt a terrorist’s iPhone. Apple holds to the largely admirable view that it should provide no means to invade anyone’s privacy, while its software is designed to intrude on everyone’s privacy with messages, ads, alerts, and notifications, and to record and sell everything spoken to the phone’s built-in “digital assistant,” all in the name of convenience and profit.1 The knowledgeable and elite can reduce these intrusions to the extent that Apple permits, and the strong-willed can turn off their phones, but Apple relies on everyone else’s passive acceptance of interruption and eavesdropping in order to keep its profitable data moving.

Harcourt describes a new kind of psyche that seeks, through its exposed virtual self, satisfactions of approval and notoriety that it can never truly find. It exists in order to be observed; it must continually create itself by updating its declared “status,” by revealing itself in Facebook narratives and Instagram images, while our “conscientious ethical selves” need to be reminded—by ourselves and others—to exist at all. Harcourt apparently does not expect such reminders to have much effect and concludes despairingly: “It is precisely our desires and passions that have enslaved us, exposed us, and ensnared us in this digital shell as hard as steel.”•


liberland1 liberland-1If Silicon Valley Libertarians collectively vomited over a three-square-mile space, the result might resemble the blueprint for Liberland, a planned micronation of 400,000 that aims to be situated on a legally disputed dot of land between Serbia and Croatia. The not-yet-a-nation is the brainchild of right-wing Czech politician Vít Jedlička, who enlisted architects and economists to focus on sustainability and optional tariffs. The experimental mini-country, which will almost definitely never come to fruition, is committed to being a car-less, algae-powered tax haven. If on the off chance it actually was realized to some degree, it would likely be a clusterfuck.

Excerpts from two articles follow, the first from Adele Peters new Fastcoexist piece, the latter from Daniel Nolan’s 2015 Guardian report.

To save space (the whole country is only three square miles) but allow the city to grow, neighborhoods are stacked in layers.

“I envisioned an intimate-scale city,” says Raya Ani, director of RAW-NYC, the architecture firm that created the winning design in response to a competition hosted by Liberland. Rather than build massive skyscrapers to house the 400,000 people who hope to live in the new city, each layer includes smaller, densely arranged buildings that allow sunlight to reach the street.

The underside of each platform is covered with algae—a genetically engineered version that doesn’t require sunlight to grow, and that can be converted into power. “The horizontal surface layer seemed to be the perfect home to grow algae that could power the city,” she says.

The design also includes solar power, and a waste-to-energy system that converts any organic waste to biogas for cooking. Other trash is incinerated to create electricity.

In the design, the neighborhoods are clustered around transit, with libraries, sports arenas, and other public areas no more than a 10-minute walk from public transit. The city is also covered with bike and pedestrian paths—with zero cars.

“It’s a very walkable city where you could reach any point at a reasonable time whether you use the train or you walk,” says Ani.•

From the Guardian:

In the week since Liberland announced its creation and invited prospective residents to join the project, they have received about 200,000 citizenship applications – one every three seconds – from almost every country in the world.

Prospective citizens are also offering Liberland their expertise in areas from solar power and telecoms to town planning and coin minting. “There is a spontaneous ordering taking place,” Jedlicka says. “People have planned the whole city in three days and others really want to move in and invest … what seemed like a dream now really looks possible.”

Liberland’s only stipulations are that applicants respect individual rights, opinions and private property, and have no criminal record or Nazi or Communist party background.

Jedlicka says: “The model citizen of Liberland would be [American founding father] Thomas Jefferson, which is why we established the country on his birthday. Citizens will be able to pursue happiness and this is the place where we can make this happen.”

Crucial to this flourishing, he believes, is fiscal policy. Liberland is the dream of a man whose earlier membership of the Czech Civic Democratic party and current loyalty to the Free Citizens party puts him firmly on the right. Staunchly anti-EU, Jedlicka says he has “pretty close relations” with the Swiss People’s party and “will meet with British politicians to discuss Nigel Farage’s plans to leave the EU”.

“Taxation will be optional and people will only finance specific development projects,” says Jedlicka. “We have to see how the foreign ministries react and we need to explain to them the kind of prosperity we can bring to the region. It will bring in money from all over the world: not only to Liberland, which would be a tax haven, but to the whole area. We could turn this area into a Monaco, Liechtenstein or Hong Kong.•

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Jacque Fresco, one of those fascinating people who walks through life building a world inside his head, hoping it eventually influences the wider one, is now into his second century of life. A futurist and designer who’s focused much of his work on sustainable living, technology and automation, Fresco is the brains behind the Venus Project, which encourages a post-money, post-scarcity, post-politician utopia. He’s clearly a template for many of today’s Silicon Valley aspiring game-changers.

Caroline Winter of Bloomberg Businessweek traveled to Middle-of-Nowhere, Florida (pop: Fresco + girlfriend and collaborator Roxanne Meadows), to write “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Lives in the Future,” a smart portrait of the visionary after ten decades of reimagining the world according to his own specifications. He doesn’t think the road to a computer-governed utopia will be smooth, however. As Winter writes: “Once modern life gets truly hard, Fresco believes there will be a revolution that will clear the way for the Venus Project to be built. ‘There will be a lot of people getting shot, including me,’ he says wryly.”

An excerpt from her story is followed by one from a 1985 Sun Sentinel profile by Scott Eyman, and two videos, the first about Project Venus and the second a 1974 interview conducted by a pre-suspenders Larry King.

From Bloomberg:

To reach the Venus Project Research Center, a utopian compound created by a 100-year-old futurist, drive through vast stretches of fields, orchards, and dirt roads in south-central Florida. There’s little cell phone service and no signs of other humans on the way to a white gate. A sandy path flanked by lush tropical trees leads to a cluster of white dome-like structures. Inside one sits Jacque Fresco, hunched on a couch within his own model of an ideal society.

Fresco, now hard of hearing, gave me a nod when I visited in March. “Thank you for driving all this way,” said Roxanne Meadows, 67, a former portrait artist and Fresco’s longtime girlfriend and collaborator. A dozen people had turned out that day to see the secluded 21-acre property, including Venus Project devotees from as far away as Australia.

Fresco’s 100th birthday bash, held days earlier at a convention center in Fort Myers, drew more than 600 fans. For them, these rounded retro structures in the wilds of Florida are a hint of what could be: a master plan for a City of the Future without money, a place where all needs are met by technology. That city, Fresco says, will be run not by politicians but by a central computer that will distribute resources as needed. It’s a vision he’s been working on for most of his life. “A machine doesn’t have emotions,” Fresco likes to say. “It’s not susceptible to corruption.” Social engineering and favorable living circumstances will ensure that people act responsibly toward one another.•

From the Sun Sentinel:

You can hear the glorious, smoothly humming hydraulic future in Jacque Fresco`s eager voice, see it in the eye in your mind. Cities and their inhabitants thrive under the sea. Houses are heated by pipes laid beneath highways that conduit the gathered asphalt heat into private residences. Grain is stored in the natural refrigerator of the polar regions.

Fossil fuels have been abandoned, as solar power runs everything from your air-conditioning — if you need it in houses that are properly built and insulated, which you probably won`t — to your backyard barbecue, where a mirror and two pyrex reflectors cook both sides of the meat at the same time. And when something goes wrong with your car, two handles are turned, the entire engine unit pulls out, a courtesy engine is plugged in and you`re back on the road while the garage works to find the problem.

Welcome to the future, or at least Jacque Fresco`s vision of it. It all seems eminently attainable . . . until you open your eyes and look around. What you see are 22 acres with four organically flowing domed structures — two of which are finished, one of which is furnished — a little lake with a baby alligator sunning himself by the water`s edge, and a landscaped path leading back among 400-year-old cypress trees. It is here, on this quiet patch of land in Venus, Fla., that Jacque Fresco and his companion, Roxanne Meadows, are constructing a prototype of the possible.

“I tried walking around with a briefcase, and selling myself,” says the peppery Fresco, a vigorous and muscular 69. “And I found that people think you`re an idiot if you don`t have anything to show them, if all you have are ideas and a vision. All right. I`ll show them something.”

Welcome to the world of Jacque Fresco, social conceptualist and inventor, one of those people who create something tangible where before there existed only that most intangible of intangibles: an idea.•



Elon Musk, the self-appointed governor of Mars, may or may not be deceiving himself about the timeframe for settling our neighboring planet, as he has sometimes with his schedule for Tesla deliveries, but he isn’t oblivious to the perils involved in rushing people headlong into space. “It’s dangerous and probably people will die—and they’ll know that,” he tells the Washington Post, in an article by Christian Davenport that provides deeper details about the twin missions of establishing a cargo route and a permanent colony.

What’s amazing is that regardless of Musk’s success in creating Martians, it only seems somewhat audacious that a recently founded private company can compete with governments in Space Race 2.0. That speaks to so much about our era: technological innovation, the moonshot mentality and, of course, wealth inequality.

An excerpt:

In an interview with The Post this week, Musk laid out additional details for the first time, equating the spirit of the missions with the settlement of the New World by the colonists who crossed the Atlantic Ocean centuries ago. And he acknowledged the immense difficulties of getting to a planet that is, on average, 140 million miles from Earth.

The months-long journey is sure to be “hard, risky, dangerous, difficult,” Musk said, but he was confident people would sign up to go because “just as with the establishment of the English colonies, there are people who love that. They want to be the pioneers.”

Before those pioneers board a rocket, though, Musk said the unmanned flights would carry science experiments and rovers to the planet. The equipment would be built either by SpaceX, or others. The early flights also would serve to better understand interplanetary navigation and allow the company to test its ability to safely land craft on Mars.

“Essentially what we’re saying is we’re establishing a cargo route to Mars,” he said. “It’s a regular cargo route. You can count on it. It’s going to happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station. And if scientists around the world know that they can count on that, and it’s going to be inexpensive, relatively speaking compared to anything in the past, then they will plan accordingly and come up with a lot of great experiments.”

The mission is all the more audacious in that SpaceX is a private company without the resources of a government agency.•

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There’s no reason why Big Auto can’t win or at least keep pace in the race to driverless–at least in the short run.

The bigger question, the one marked by existential risk for the sector, is if autonomous makes ownership unattractive for enough consumers. That could happen. 3D printers could likewise eventually decentralize Detroit, making vehicle creation and specialization open to anyone with a strong design sense.

The battle for talent to remove humans from behind the wheel is ferocious, as you might expect, with Uber hiring away most of Carnegie-Mellon’s technologists in the field and startups offering stock options to poach the best and the brightest employed at traditional automakers.

From Christina Rogers at the Wall Street Journal:

Bibhrajit Halder left the Midwest and a job developing autonomous trucks for Caterpillar Inc. about a year and a half ago to join Ford Motor Co. in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the auto maker is working on self-driving vehicles.

The Dearborn, Mich., auto maker, however, soon lost the software engineer to Faraday Future Inc., an electric-car startup luring auto industry veterans with Silicon Valley-like perks including stock options, free health care, catered lunches and foosball tables. 

“The work is exciting,” Mr. Halder said in an interview about six months after joining Faraday, where he says he has more responsibility than at the blue chip companies he left. “The company is dependent on you to deliver.”

Ford is at the center of a ferocious hiring battle now pitting traditional car makers against startups out to force a shift to electric and autonomous-driving vehicles. As they vie for skilled workers, the demand for people who know how to design or build a car has swelled, putting auto makers behind the eight ball.

“Across the auto-engineering spectrum right now, there is a bit of war for talent,” said Ford product development chief  Raj Nair. Ford said its voluntary workforce departures overall were less than 1.9% last year. But says Mr. Nair: “right now, where we’d like to be in hiring for our growth this year, we’re behind our curve.”•

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So glad Vanity Fair is a vital, lively thing again, no mean feat to accomplish during the media’s winter of discontent. The magazine has always published some great articles in the Graydon Carter years, but for awhile it began to feel like the house organ of the Kennedy Administration, an odd choice for this millennium. With what appears to be the same people atop the masthead, the title reinvented itself for the Digital Age. Good work by all involved.

Nick Bilton, a recent hire at VF, weighs in on the Peter Thiel-Gawker contretemps, applying lessons learned from the ugly gamesmanship more broadly, examining how wealth inequality plus Silicon Valley hubris is a danger of some degree to democracy. The Libertarian billionaire and freshly minted Trump delegate may be elated over forcing Gawker into bankruptcy, but he’s proven to be a very good argument for a return to the Eisenhower era’s draconian progressive tax rates. The arrogance isn’t limited to the politically dicey and thin-skinned, either. Even a seemingly progressive person like Elon Musk believes he should decide what type of government Mars should have. How nice for him.

The former NYT scribe came to realize Thiel’s lack of empathy when he visited the Paypal co-founder’s home for a dinner gathering of business and media types and was subjected to the host’s weird diet of the moment. A petty complaint perhaps but a telling one when applied to matters of greater importance. An excerpt:

I was struck by a profound epiphany about Silicon Valley: Thiel, in many ways, sums up the entire mentality of the tech industry. He doesn’t necessarily care what other people want; if Thiel is on a weird and special diet, then we should all be on a weird and special diet. If Thiel thinks that people shouldn’t go to college because it’s a waste of time, as he’s said innumerable times before—regardless of the way such a decision could affect people’s lives in the future—then we are all fools for not dropping out. (Thiel, for what it is worth, has a B.A. and law degree from Stanford.)

If Thiel thinks people who wear suits are “bad at sales and worse at tech,” then you better change your sartorial choices. Go buy a hoodie; look the part. And if Thiel wants to disrupt how Washington works, he will become a delegate for Donald Trump. If he thinks that a blog called Gawker shouldn’t exist, then he will try to eradicate it. (Thiel did not return my request to comment for this article.)

I’m not telling this story to defend Gawker. I personally feel that citing the First Amendment to justify outing someone as gay (as Gawker did to Thiel, in 2007), or publishing a sex tape as “news” (as the site billed its Hulk Hogan scoop), is heinous. But the First Amendment in our country says the press has certain rights. That’s the law. As citizens, we have to abide by it.

But reality doesn’t seem to be the case for some of the elite in Silicon Valley. They play by their own rules. There is, of course, a positive side to all of this. These so-called disruptors have given us the iPhone and Uber and PayPal. But there is also a darker side, too—and we’re really starting to see those forces at work now. For a long time, technology pundits have wondered what will happen to the relatively young, very rich, Silicon Valley elite after they leave the companies that they created, and that made them wildly and incomprehensibly rich. What does Mark Zuckerberg, who is just 32, do after Facebook? Where does Travis Kalanick, 39, go after he’s done at Uber? What about all the young V.C.s in their 30s and 40s worth hundreds of millions?

These aren’t the kind of people who simply retire on a beach and sip Soylent through a thin straw.•

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Apart from the Strand, I don’t go to brick and mortar bookstores in NYC anymore. There are far fewer in general and far fewer good ones. Sometimes I stop at the bookseller tables occasionally set up outside NYU and pick up a title. That’s pretty much it now for my non-Internet book buying, a surprising turnabout for someone raised on printed matter purchased all over Manhattan, from St. Mark’s to Colosseum to the A&S used magazine shop. Times change.

Paris bookstores have been clobbered by online shopping and rising rents the same way as New York’s, with one classic spot reimagining itself as a volume-less space that allows customers to choose titles from tablets and have them printed instantly on demand. Something is certainly lost without a stock to browse, but it’s better than shuttering for good. I do suppose, however, that when same-day delivery becomes de rigueur, the margins for such a business model will shrink even more.

From Ciara Nugent at the New York Times:

The pronounced stock shortage inside the Librairie des Puf, run by the publisher University Press of France, or Les Puf for short, is not the result of an ordering mistake, but the heart of the shop’s business model.

There are books, but they are not delivered in advance from wholesalers. They are printed on request, before the customer’s very eyes, on an Espresso Book Machine. On Demand Books, the American company that manufactures the machine, chose the name as a nod to an activity you can complete in the five minutes it takes to print a book: Have a quick coffee. …

It is a radical reinvention of a store that first opened its doors in 1921. The original Librairie des Puf occupied a far larger, multilevel space in the corner of Place de la Sorbonne, and had packed window displays and a bustling intellectual crowd from nearby universities. It was long a cultural and academic symbol, until it was forced to close because of falling profits and soaring rents. Then, about 10 years ago, the site was sold to a men’s-clothing chain, much to the chagrin of locals.

But its closing was no exception. From 2000 to 2014, 28 percent of Paris bookstores closed, according to a 2015 report from the Paris Urban Planning Agency, a body assembled by the City Council in 1967 to chart social and economic evolution in the French capital. Crippling rent increases in Paris’s densely populated center were mostly to blame, as well as growing competition from e-commerce sites that are able to offer far more titles than a cramped city bookstore. The decline in sales of newspapers and magazines also contributed, since these are often sold alongside books in French bookstores.•



As I mentioned last week, Elon Musk, among other Silicon Valley stalwarts, has been on a Nick Bostrom bender ever since the publication of Superintelligence. In a smart Guardian profile by Tim Adams, the Oxford philosopher is depicted as being of two minds, believing technology may be the Holy Grail or it could read us our Last Rites. That’s the dual reality of a Transhumanist and Existentialist.

Bostrom tells his interviewer he thinks the risk of human extinction by AI will likely be largely ignored despite his clarion call. “It will come gradually and seamlessly without us really addressing it,” he says.

There seem to be only two cautions in regards to Bostrom’s work: 1) Attention could shift from immediate crises (e.g., climate change) to longer-term ones, and 2) Rules developed today for a possible future explosion of machine intelligence will have to be very flexible since there’s so much information we currently don’t possess/can’t comprehend. 

An excerpt:

Bostrom sees those implications as potentially Darwinian. If we create a machine intelligence superior to our own, and then give it freedom to grow and learn through access to the internet, there is no reason to suggest that it will not evolve strategies to secure its dominance, just as in the biological world. He sometimes uses the example of humans and gorillas to describe the subsequent one-sided relationship and – as last month’s events in Cincinnati zoo highlighted – that is never going to end well. An inferior intelligence will always depend on a superior one for its survival.

There are times, as Bostrom unfolds various scenarios in Superintelligence, when it appears he has been reading too much of the science fiction he professes to dislike. One projection involves an AI system eventually building covert “nanofactories producing nerve gas or target-seeking mosquito-like robots [which] might then burgeon forth simultaneously from every square metre of the globe” in order to destroy meddling and irrelevant humanity. Another, perhaps more credible vision, sees the superintelligence “hijacking political processes, subtly manipulating financial markets, biasing information flows, or hacking human-made weapons systems” to bring about the extinction.

Does he think of himself as a prophet?

He smiles. “Not so much. It is not that I believe I know how it is going to happen and have to tell the world that information. It is more I feel quite ignorant and very confused about these things but by working for many years on probabilities you can get partial little insights here and there. And if you add those together with insights many other people might have, then maybe it will build up to some better understanding.”

Bostrom came to these questions by way of the transhumanist movement, which tends to view the digital age as one of unprecedented potential for optimising our physical and mental capacities and transcending the limits of our mortality. Bostrom still sees those possibilities as the best case scenario in the superintelligent future, in which we will harness technology to overcome disease and illness, feed the world, create a utopia of fulfilling creativity and perhaps eventually overcome death. He has been identified in the past as a member of Alcor, the cryogenic initiative that promises to freeze mortal remains in the hope that, one day, minds can be reinvigorated and uploaded in digital form to live in perpetuity. He is coy about this when I ask directly what he has planned.

“I have a policy of never commenting on my funeral arrangements,” he says.•

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The swarm intelligence system known as UNU, which recently did a Reddit AMA about politics, returned to conduct one about futurism. Human extinction, Brexit, driverless cars, Mars colonization, technological unemployment and marijuana legalization were among the topics. The question isn’t whether all of the answers are correct–they wont be–but whether such systems can get to the point where they outperform groups of humans educated on a topic. A few exchanges below.


What are the chances that humanity will go extinct before we become an interplanetary species?


UNU SAYS: “1%”

COMMENTARY: UNU expressed a high level of faith in humanity. Or, maybe he expects us to reach Mars pretty soon. Either way, it seems we will reach another planet before we wipe ourselves out.


What will be the average human life-span in 2050?


UNU SAYS: “98 years old”

COMMENTARY: UNU expressed high conviction on this point.

It’s worth pointing out that people who live to 98 years old in 2050 will have lived most of their life under current technology. It would be interesting to ask UNU what the lifespan of people BORN in 2050 would be.


How long until we can hail autonomous taxis?


UNU says: 7 years.

Let’s check back on this one in 2023.


Will Space X hit their target to put people on Mars in 2025?


UNU SAYS: “I’m Torn”

COMMENTARY: UNU was highly conflicted on this question. In fact, it took two tries to reach an answer.


Will the UK vote to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum




COMMENTARY: UNU expressed high certainty around this answer, but did not go for the stronger answers of “I don’t believe”


Do you think robots will take our jobs?



COMMENTARY: UNU was surprisingly certain about this fact.


When will universal basic income be implemented in Europe?


UNU says: 5 years

Europe is way ahead of the US on this one, according to UNU.


The first permanent settlement on Mars will be in __ years?




Is the first person to live 200 years already born?


UNU says: totally disagree

Note: except for Peter Thiel, of course.


How many years until cannabis is federally legal in the US?


UNU SAYS: Cannabis will be federally legal in the US within 10 years.


When will artificial/lab grown meat be as common as traditional meat?




Will artificial intelligence eventually overthrow the human race as the dominant lifeforms on Earth? Yes, no, possibly, or unlikely?


UNU says: i doubt it

Let’s call that “unlikely?”•

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Sometimes mental illness wears the trappings of the era in which it’s experienced. Mike Jay has written beautifully in the last couple of years about such occurrences attending the burial of Napoleon Bonaparte and the current rise of surveillance and Reality TV. The latter is something of a Truman Show syndrome, in which sick people believe they’re being observed, that they’re being followed. To a degree, they’re right, we all are under much greater technological scrutiny now, though these folks have a paranoia which can drive such concerns into crippling obsessions.

Because we’re all connected now, the “besieged” have found one another online, banning together as “targeted individuals” who’ve been marked by the government (or some other group entity) for observation, harassment and mind control. In “United States of Paranoia: They See Gangs of Stalkers,” Mike McPhate of the New York Times has written one of the best and most troubling articles of the year. It clearly demonstrates that the dream of endless information offering lucidity has been dashed for a surprising amount of people, that the inundation of data has served to confuse rather than clarify. These shaky citizens resemble those with alien abduction stories, except they seem to have been “shanghaied” by the sweep of history. The opening:

Nobody believed him. His family told him to get help. But Timothy Trespas, an out-of-work recording engineer in his early 40s, was sure he was being stalked, and not by just one person, but dozens of them.

He would see the operatives, he said, disguised as ordinary people, lurking around his Midtown Manhattan neighborhood. Sometimes they bumped into him and whispered nonsense into his ear, he said.

“Now you see how it works,” they would say.

At first, Mr. Trespas wondered if it was all in his head. Then he encountered a large community of like-minded people on the internet who call themselves “targeted individuals,” or T.I.s, who described going through precisely the same thing.

The group was organized around the conviction that its members are victims of a sprawling conspiracy to harass thousands of everyday Americans with mind-control weapons and armies of so-called gang stalkers. The goal, as one gang-stalking website put it, is “to destroy every aspect of a targeted individual’s life.”

A growing tribe of troubled minds

Mental health professionals say the narrative has taken hold among a group of people experiencing psychotic symptoms that have troubled the human mind since time immemorial. Except now victims are connecting on the internet, organizing and defying medical explanations for what’s happening to them.•

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Earlier in the week, I published a post about science writer Fred Hapgood’s 2003 prediction that automated drilling would lead to the rapid development of underground cities and even a global subway system. It proved to be a dream deferred, at the very least.

A few decades earlier, when American cities were marked by blight and in desperate need of renewal, underground real estate was often theorized as an important piece of the puzzle, a haven for pedestrians in climate-controlled environments. Montreal took advantage of this underutilized resource thanks largely to the subterranean visions of urban planner Vincent Ponte, but most cities failed to capitalize.

In “What Happened to the Dream of Underground Cities?” Ernie Smith of Vice “Motherboard” wonders what went wrong. An excerpt:

A funny thing happened since Ponte had his time in the sun. To put it simply, the idea of the underground city has become more controversial. Now, urban leaders see them as an antiseptic way to draw in suburbanites, rather than a way to give people flavor of the actual city. They’re almost seen as a way to get around the city, rather than to dive in. That may have been a good idea when downtowns were seen as scary by tourists, but during an era when high-rise lofts are common and bars are hipper than ever? Not so much.

In fact, one of Ponte’s project cities, Dallas, has spent years pushing back against the urban planning work he put in 45 years ago. Onetime Dallas city mayor Laura Miller, speaking to the New York Times in a 2005 interview, didn’t mince words.

”If I could take a cement mixer and pour cement in and clog up the tunnels, I would do it today,” Miller told the Times, the very newspaper where Ponte made his argument for underground cities 38 years earlier. ”It was the worst urban planning decision that Dallas has ever made. They thought it was hip and groovy to create an underground community, but it was a death knell.”

The city has since de-emphasized the tunnels in its marketing, and in 2011, a report on the city’s future development referred to Ponte’s grand idea as “a sterile, unexciting environment that draws life from streets above.”

Unfortunate for Dallas, but for Montreal, the urban area under the surface remains lively—it has become one of the things Montreal is known for, a tourist must-see with four stars on TripAdvisor. Like most other big Canadian cities, Toronto has one as well, built up around the same time as Montreal’s, but it’s used by a third as many people as Montreal’s is on a daily basis.

Outside of Montreal, at least, urban renewal came not from the massive network of tunnels, but from a massive change in perception. We like our downtowns these days.



People of the future will look at our methods of invasive surgery and marvel in how barbarous the whole thing must have been. For us, the corollary would be reflecting on pre-general-anesthesia surgery. How horrid that was and how wonderful the advance of pain-killing substances in the late 19th century. It made sugery acceptable if not agreeable. For the first time, illness and cure were not viewed with equal trepidation.

Via the always interesting Delancey Place, an excerpt about pre-anesthesia operations from Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s Dr. Mütter’s Marvels:

Surgical lectures at medical universities in the early nineteenth century were brutal, for the teacher, student and patient. Medical training was limited, tools were often not sterile (in some cases a wound oozing and puss filled would indicate a successful surgery), and anesthesia was limited to wine:

“In Philadelphia, there were two great medical colleges — the University of Pennsylvania and Jef­ferson Medical College — and it was customary for the rival schools to hold surgical demonstrations so that prospective students could choose between them, a glorified public relations exercise. … The lectures were often packed, as eager established and prospective doctors thrilled at the city’s best sur­geons attempting to outdo one another with their skill and showmanship. However, the combination of ambitious surgeries and unprepared young [doctors] sometimes proved disastrous. On one occasion, a Jefferson Medical College professor attempted a daring removal of a patient’s upper jaw, using marvelous speed to incise the face and rip out the bones with a huge for­ceps. But the surgery was perhaps too much for a public display. Doctors who were present would later recall the spectacle of it, how the partially conscious patient spat out blood, bones, and teeth, while unnerved students in the audience vomited and fainted in their seats.

“But regardless of how brutal or simple the case, all surgical lectures were a challenge to watch. The anxious patient would be publicly examined and forced to listen to his surgery loudly outlined to an audience of strangers. Next, the patient would nervously drink some wine with the hope that it would dull the nerves and lessen the pain. (In Paris, the need for medicinal wine was so great, the hospital system maintained its very own wine vaults, spending more than 600,000 francs a year on an extensive collection of red and white wine housed exclusively for its patients.)

“The patient was then instructed to lie on the surgical table, where he would be held down by the surgeon’s assistants and told to stay as still as possible. Everyone — the patient, the doctor, even the students in their seats — knew how impossible this command would be to follow.

“The first incision usually brought the patient’s first scream — the first scream of many. Soon came the blood, the struggle, the shock.•


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When it comes to robotics, China is developing a yawning credibility gap. More than most nations, it desperately needs machines of varying levels of intelligence to deal with work that can’t be fulfilled by a rapidly graying population. “Robots will show up in China just in time,” predicts Daniel Kahneman. The nation certainly hopes so.

Hoping and executing are two different things, however. In 2011, Foxconn promised a million robots would be installed in its factories within three years. That did not transpire. More recently, the Apple-enabler was reported as saying it was on the verge of automating 60,000 jobs. According to an article by Adam Minter of Bloomberg, that appears to have been an empty promise as well. You could dismiss the hype as the irresponsibility of one giant company except the writer reports that bureaucrats were intimately involved with the deception.

From Minter:

The story first turned up in mid-May: Foxconn, Apple’s favorite manufacturer, was replacing 60,000 of its workers with robots. Everyone from the BBC to Apple fan sites soon reported the ground-shifting news. There was just one problem: It was mostly false.

Last weekend, a Foxconn spokesperson told Chinese media that the company hadn’t laid off anyone, much less replaced them with automation. That part of the story came from overly enthusiastic bureaucrats in Kunshan, a manufacturing town keen to promote itself as a hub for innovation.

The incident seemed like an apt metaphor. Across China, officials are hoping that robots are the future. Thirty-six cities claimed last year that robotics was critical to their development. More than 40 government-funded robot industrial parks have recently opened or are in the works. Shenzhen, the southern Chinese tech hub, is now home to more than 3,000 robotics companies — up from 200 just two years ago.

In theory, this should be great news for a country hoping to encourage innovation In reality, it’s a sign that China has subsidized yet another investment bubble with capital that would’ve been better invested elsewhere.•



Donald Trump, the Dumpster fire of American politics, is sad despite all the Happy Meals. His immense psychological wounds and elephantine ego cause him to receive concerns about ISIS terrorism and needling about his defunct line of steaks with equal gravity. He’s incapable of staying on message, and since he will be besieged about his dicey business practices between now and November–just read the new USA Today article about all the working people he’s allegedly stiffed–his campaign will be scattershot in an unprecedented way. 

Michael D’Antonio, author of The Truth About Trump, has spent a good deal of time interviewing Bull Connor as a condo salesman as well as his family members, with Donald Jr.’s comments about his “genetic superiority” particularly telling. The journalist shared his findings in an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.


Do you think Trump has a sense of morality?

Michael D’Antonio:

Good question. He understand right and wrong on a basic level, but he doesn’t have a lot of empathy for other people. He judges every situation on the basis of how it affects him.he also will take things to extremes…to places where others won’t go…in order to get what he wants. Related to this is an exchange I had with him about his criticism of a famous elderly actress. Kim Novak. He tweeted horrible stuff about her. I asked him about it and his reply was “I don’t think I got into a lot of trouble for that.” He didn’t understand that he hurt her and that was what I was asking about.


In your opinion, how much of the Trump persona that the average person sees is authentically him and how much of it is an act?

Michael D’Antonio:

It’s weird…much of what we see on the campaign trial is authentic. He is very opinionated and believes very strongly that he is one of the most intelligent and talented people in the world. Seriously, in the world. So all the bluster is real.


What about that casino? How did he fail to take money from suckers on that one?

Michael D’Antonio:

Strange isn’t it that he was in a business where the “house” always wins, and somehow he lost. The big problem there was that he got overextended with construction. He ran up huge debt he couldn’t service. Also, Trump is a good deal maker but a so-so operator of businesses. He gets bored with managing complex service industries and doesn’t do well.


What’s the secret to stopping him?

Michael D’Antonio:

I think the key to stopping him is gentle mockery. It would be a bad idea to get down in the gutter with him. Nicknames and wild accusations wouldn’t work. But if a candidate points out his deficiencies, and keeps reminding voters of his failures including Trump U and the bankruptcies, he will feel provoked and do self destructive things.


How was it meeting and interviewing all of his family members? Any big surprises there?

Michael D’Antonio: 

His kids are smart, and well spoken. I was pretty shocked, though, when Donald Jr. told me that the family believes that people are like “racehorses” and that breeding is what matters. he said he was the product of the breeding of a high quality mother and a high quality father so he was genetically destined to succeed at a high level. Very weird stuff to say on the record. His wife Ivana was interesting. She started to tell me she thought that Donald could be explained as a guy who was never loved and sought to make up for it by seeking attention from the world. Then she stopped and said, “You know, I don’t really understand him at all.” She’s known him for forty years and still doesn’t get him.


What is the truth about Trump in one sentence?

Michael D’Antonio:

The Truth About Trump is that he is a damaged man, with an enormous ego, who wants the prize of the Presidency because it’s the biggest thing he could possibly go for.•

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In 1921, before there were Talkies, Arthur Blanchard invented a machine to create plots for big-screen pictures. Thirty years later, B-movie Hollywood director Edward Ludwig believed the time was soon when computers would do the screenwriting. Is such a thing possible now? Not exactly, though there’s a new AI that probably could replace Michael Bay and his incoherent, big-budget Hal-Needham-in-space crap. Bay’s someone who needs to be technologically unemployed.

In an Ars Technica article, Annalee Newitz writes about “Sunspring,” a short sci-fi film about a futuristic love triangle that was wholly written by a neural network named Benjamin, the brainchild of NYU AI researcher Ross Goodwin. The resulting work is odd and spirited, an offbeat and stilted regurgitation of current sci-fi tropes but with something of an eccentric auteur’s touch and the Dada poet’s pen. In its own way, it’s compelling.

Newitz writes of her reporting on the film: “As I was talking to [director Oscar] Sharp and Goodwin, I noticed that all of us slipped between referring to Benjamin as ‘he’ and ‘it.'” (You can watch the movie if you go to the article.) An excerpt:

Knowing that an AI wrote Sunspring makes the movie more fun to watch, especially once you know how the cast and crew put it together. Director Oscar Sharp made the movie for Sci-Fi London, an annual film festival that includes the 48-Hour Film Challenge, where contestants are given a set of prompts (mostly props and lines) that have to appear in a movie they make over the next two days. Sharp’s longtime collaborator, Ross Goodwin, is an AI researcher at New York University, and he supplied the movie’s AI writer, initially called Jetson. As the cast gathered around a tiny printer, Benjamin spat out the screenplay, complete with almost impossible stage directions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor.” Then Sharp randomly assigned roles to the actors in the room. “As soon as we had a read-through, everyone around the table was laughing their heads off with delight,” Sharp told Ars. The actors interpreted the lines as they read, adding tone and body language, and the results are what you see in the movie. Somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world. It even has its own musical interlude (performed by Andrew and Tiger), with a pop song Benjamin composed after learning from a corpus of 30,000 other pop songs.

Building Benjamin

When Sharp was in film school at NYU, he made a discovery that changed the course of his career. “I liked hanging out with technologists in NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program more than other filmmakers,” he confessed. That’s how he met Goodwin, a former ghost writer who just earned a master’s degree from NYU while studying natural language processing and neural networks. Speaking by phone from New York, the two recalled how they were both obsessed with figuring out how to make machines generate original pieces of writing. For years, Sharp wanted to create a movie out of random parts, even going so far as to write a play out of snippets of text chosen by dice rolls. Goodwin, who honed his machine-assisted authoring skills while ghost writing letters for corporate clients, had been using Markov chains to write poetry. As they got to know each other at NYU, Sharp told Goodwin about his dream of collaborating with an AI on a screenplay. Over a year and many algorithms later, Goodwin built an AI that could.•

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When I posted a passage from science writer Fred Hapgood’s overly ambitious 1990 Omni piece which had Venter-esque visions of micro-organisms doing our bidding, it reminded me of another of his articles. In 2003, he wrote in Wired that he believed automation coming to underground drilling technology would soon make entire subterranean cities, even a supersonic global subway, possible. 

Well, a lot of things are possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re politically attractive, financially feasible or even desired. But it’s still a fun read. An excerpt:

Among the first wave of tunneling projects under way are subway extensions, highway re-siting projects, and petrochemical repositories. These will pave the way to further standardization and automation needed for transnational, Chunnel-type digs. The East – which has never been shy about big engineering – will likely plow down first, linking Japan and Korea, China and Japan, and Taiwan and China. The West might follow by tunneling under the Gibraltar and Bering straits.

The last stop on this train is the ultimate TBM megaproject: a supersonic world subway. Maglev trains running through depressurized tunnels are the logical successor to airplanes, at least between large cities. Magnetic levitation would eliminate rolling resistance, and the vacuum does the same to air resistance. The trains could “fly” down the tracks at many times the speed of the Concorde – without creating a sonic boom. In a couple of decades, we may see a world where major international cities are within a few hours’ commute of each other.

By 2005, some under-urban highway projects will start to include parking lots. Where there is parking, malls will spring up. By 2008, developers might offer these retailers subterranean warehouse space, then offices, and, finally, full-fledged industrial parks. By 2013, we could see some hotels, probably marketed to international commuters and located just below the financial centers of Tokyo, London, and New York.•



In 1969, computer-processing magnate Ross Perot had a McLuhan-ish dream: an electronic town hall in which interactive television and computer punch cards would allow the masses, rather than elected officials, to decide key American policies. In 1992, he held fast to this goal–one that was perhaps more democratic than any society could survive–when he bankrolled his own populist third-party Presidential campaign.

Today Elon Musk wants to blast this vision of direct democracy to Mars, writes Loren Grush of the Verge, asserting that representational government is too prone to corruption. Whether or not Musk realizes his dream of dying on Mars–but not on impact–his grand ambitions speak to the insanity of wealth inequality in the second Gilded Age. The SpaceX technologist seems one of the more well-intentioned thinkers among Silicon Valley’s freshly minted billionaires, but think how preposterous it is that any individual is declaring what type of government a planet we’ve never visited most likely will have. 

Walter Isaacson famously compared Musk to Benjamin Franklin, but the latter flew kites any child could purchase. Musk’s toys are far more expensive and in the hands of the few. That’s not really good for a democracy, direct or otherwise.

An excerpt:

Elon Musk has been pretty focused on setting up a colony on Mars, so naturally he has a few ideas as to the type of government the Red Planet should have. Speaking at ReCode’s Code Conference on Wednesday night, the SpaceX CEO said he envisions a direct democracy for Martian colonies, as a way to avoid corruption.

“Most likely the form of government on Mars would be a direct democracy, not representative,” said Musk. “So it would be people voting directly on issues. And I think that’s probably better, because the potential for corruption is substantially diminished in a direct versus a representative democracy.”

Musk also suggested that on Mars it should be harder to create laws than it is to get rid of ones that aren’t working well. “I think I would recommend some adjustment for the inertia of laws would be wise. It should probably be easier to remove a law than create one,” said Musk. “I think that’s probably good, because laws have infinite life unless they’re taken away.”•

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McDonald’s food is junk that will harm your health, but it’s the lesser of two evils for those dealing with low income, homelessness, poverty, lonely senior years and other tears in the fabric of American society. In an excellent Guardian article, Chris Arnade writes of struggling citizens drawn to these fast food places by the cheap coffee, free wi-fi and a generous policy that allows them to sit for hours. They find kindred souls, hold Bible studies, check headlines, etc. To many, McDonald’s arches represent an unsavory, low-rent remnant of the last century, but to these people left behind in a transitioning country, it looks like brick-and-mortar salvation in an increasingly virtual world. It’s not mentioned in the article, but public libraries have become the same kind of haven in our Digital Age, a place to gather for those who have nowhere else to go.

The opening:

In the morning of their wedding, Omar and Betty shared a breakfast of egg McMuffins at a small McDonald’s table, dressed in their finest clothes. Before driving to a Houston courthouse to be married, they walked into the attached child’s play area and joked about one day bringing their kids there.

Few understand celebrating at a McDonald’s, but for Omar and Betty it made sense. They don’t have a lot of money, and McDonald’s is part of their life. It is that way in many poor and middle-income neighborhoods, where McDonald’s have become de-facto community centers and reflections of the surrounding neighborhood.

When many lower-income Americans are feeling isolated by the deadening uniformity of things, by the emptiness of many jobs, by the media, they still yearn for physical social networks. They are not doing this by going to government-run community service centers. They are not always doing this by utilizing the endless array of well-intentioned not-for-profit outreach programs. They are doing this on their own, organically across the country, in McDonald’s.•



Mussolini built his own Hollywood in the 1930s to spread his Fascist message. Today he would just tweet.

Artifice used to be more real in a sense when the movie industry was in the business of “nation-building,” when sets were an elaborate, eye-popping selling point and simulacra was not sacred but esteemed, since there was not yet the technical acumen to create any sort of profound special effects. “A cast of thousands” was the un-humble brag used to peddle Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 remake of his own epic, The Ten Commandments, and there was another “cast” of a similar size behind the scenes making the Nile run and bushes burn.

Then the collapse of the studio system hit in the 1960s, and moguls lost their religion, mostly downsizing scale and Labor. For a while, relatively cheap, personal productions by Hoppers and Fondas and Coppolas and Scorseses ruled the day. Eventually, the studios were ready dream big again, and in 1975, the robot-shark technology of Jaws captured the summer in its animatronic maw. Two years later, Star Wars relied heavily on Industrial Light & Magic to realize its vision. It was still a long way to the technology behind today’s tentpoles, but the rise of the machines and the diminishment of human craft began in Hollywood–as it did in a big-picture way all across America–decades ago. The Herculean returned, but Hercules was now a bit player.

From “True Fakes on Location,” Tom Carson’s excellent Baffler article about auteurs and architecture:

2016 marks Intolerance’s centenary, and that shouldn’t be a milestone only to high-minded fans of cinema’s artistic dawn. Because [D.W.] Griffith predicted everything in movies, it’s also a milestone for any garden-variety filmgoer who’s ever been wowed by coarse and costly Hollywood spectacle. I suspect only prigs are completely immune to the delights of whole foreign environments—whether antique, exotically international, familiar but exaggerated, or just plain fantastical—that have been erected, populated, and photographed for no better reason than to knock our socks off. For my money, Intolerance is where fake movie architecture began its complicated dance with the real thing, affecting how audiences perceive the past, reconfigure their present, and anticipate the future.

The ambition of Intolerance did have precursors. Griffith himself had built a biblical town in the San Fernando Valley for Judith of Bethulia two years earlier. The imported Italian period epicsQuo Vadis? (1913) and Cabiria (1914) had stimulated both his ambition and his envy. But in scale and pull-out-the-stops grandeur, nothing like Belshazzar’s Court had ever been seen before—except by, well, Belshazzar and some two hundred thousand other lucky but very dead Babylonians in the sixth century BCE. Even Griffith’s own 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation hadn’t required particularly extravagant exterior sets, however unprecedented in scope (and vicious in sentiment—Intolerance was conceived in part to rebut its critics) his love song to the Ku Klux Klan had otherwise been.

One reason Intolerance’s Babylon still looks stunning is that the age of computer-generated imagery has all but ruined our capacity to experience Hollywood’s imagineering as something nonetheless rooted in the material world.•

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There’s no easy answer if it’s different this time than during the Industrial Revolution and the tens of millions of jobs that are automated into oblivion aren’t replaced by equal or better positions. Most often the best possible solution offered is that we need an education system that enables adult Americans to transition into higher-skilled positions and instills children with greater critical thinking that will allow for a more flexible mindset as industries rapidly rise and fall. That would be wonderful, but I think it ignores reality to some extent. If the new normal is abnormal by the standards we’ve come to expect, then, regardless of schooling, some–perhaps many, too many–will be left behind. What becomes of them? What becomes of us? 

In a New York Times piece, Eduardo Porter, who doesn’t support Universal Basic Income, tries to think through this potentially scary scenario in which scarcity isn’t a problem but distribution is a big one. The opening:

They replaced horses, didn’t they? That’s how the late, great economist Wassily Leontief responded 35 years ago to those who argued technology would never really replace people’s work.

Horses hung around in the labor force for quite some time after they were first challenged by “modern” communications technologies like the telegraph and the railroad, hauling stuff and people around farms and cities. But when the internal combustion engine came along, horses — as a critical component of the world economy — were history.

Cutting horses’ oat rations might have delayed their replacement by tractors, but it wouldn’t have stopped it. All that was left to do, for those who cared for 20 million newly unemployed horses, was to put them out to pasture.

“Had horses had an opportunity to vote and join the Republican or Democratic Party,” Leontief wrote, they might have been able to get “the necessary appropriation from Congress.”

Most economists still reject Professor Leontief’s analogy, but the conventional economic consensus is starting to fray. The productivity figures may not reflect it yet but new technology does seem more fundamentally disruptive than technologies of the past. Robots are learning on their own. Self-driving cars seem just a few regulations away from our city streets.

As the idea sinks in that humans as workhorses might also be on the way out, what happens if the job market stops doing the job of providing a living wage for hundreds of millions of people? How will the economy spread money around, so people can afford to pay the rent?•

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People wearing hats used to sit in subway cars reading newspapers. First the hats disappeared, then the papers.

Anyone who’s lived on both sides of peak-print news knows the industry has shrunk precipitously as the Internet enjoyed its meteoric rise. If it were as simple as trading one medium for another, that would be no problem. But in the last few decades of good health for newspapers, the industry was propped up on print ads and classifieds and such, the cover price no longer able to float the enterprise. Once those crutches were yanked away by new tools, the business wasn’t really a going concern anymore. Online journalism hasn’t come close to filling the void, so there’s more information than ever, but the day is largely ruled by free-floating headlines, “citizen journalists,” soundbites and 140 characters.

From Jessica Conditt at Engadget:

Anyone reading this, an article that exists only on the internet, is aware of the dramatic shift that’s taken place in the media world since the 1990s. As internet penetration has grown, newspaper sales have dipped dramatically, as have traditional newspaper jobs. New research from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics quantifies these losses — and they’re hefty.

Between 1990 and 2016, the newspaper publishing industry shrunk by nearly 60 percent, from roughly 458,000 jobs to 183,000 jobs, the bureau found. In this same time, the number of internet publishing and broadcasting jobs rose from 30,000 to 198,000. In just under three decades, the newspaper industry has transformed from a media juggernaut into a secondary form of communication, and there are no signs this trend will reverse any time soon.•



Science writer Fred Hapgood dreamed big when Omni asked him, in 1990, to pen “No Assembly Required,” an article that predicted how insect-sized microorganisms would be serving our needs by 2029. None of his Venter-esque visions of designer bugs seem even remotely possible 13 years from now. They’re not theoretically impossible, but they’re likely to arrive tomorrow than tomorrow. Three excerpts follow, about futuristic dental care, housecleaning and home security.

Dental Microsnails That Brush Your Teeth for You While You Sleep

During the average lifetime a human spends a total of 40 days of his life brushing his teeth. (Sixty if he flosses.) Recent breakthroughs in microtractor technology, however, have now made it possible for us to offer our customers the dental microsnaii.

Just rub onto teeth before sleeping: During the night each microsnaii glued to a pair of traction balls, systematically explores the entire surface of the tooth on which it lands. As it moves, powered by the mouth’s own natural electrochemistry, it secretes minute quantities of bioengineered enzymes that detect and epoxy microcracks in enamel, remove plaque, and shred organic material caught between teeth. You awake to find your smile polished to a high gloss. Microsnails are small enough to be barely detectable by the tongue and harmless if swallowed. They vanish down the gut after they’ve finished their job.

For those interested in the latest in decorative dentistry, Microbots also makes an “artist microsnaii” that colors your incisors in the pattern of your choice, from a simple checkerboard to selected graphics based on works of Braque, Klee, Mondrian, and De Kooning. lmages fade after 24 hours.

Tiny Quicker Picker-Uppers

Let your fingers do the housecleaning. Order Micromaids from our catalog and put a thousand domestic servants in the palm of your hand.

Arrange “anthills” (small containers, each the size of a bagel) inconspicuously under chairs and behind furniture (autocamouflaging is standard with this year’s models). When the colony has detected no footfalls in that room for an hour, thousands of Micromaids, legged vehicles the size and shape of a clove, spread-out through the room. They locate loose grains of sand, grit, lint, skin, hair, and other debris, then carry the refuse back to the anthill. If the hill detects vibrations, it releases a high-pitched acoustic signal, summoning the Micromaids to return.

These home bases serve as tiny waste disposal plants. Each contains specialized microbots that process the trash. Some secrete enzymes and bacteria to break down and sanitize organic matter. Others use tiny pincers to crush and cut up larger items. The anthill then seals the garbage in a polymer bag, which it custom-produces to surround the excreted refuse. The Micromaids carry this package to a preprogrammed location, such as a chute leading to a trash compactor in the basement of your house.

RoboHornets: The Ultimate Weapon for Home Security

Let’s face it — as wonderful as the  twenty-first century can be, home security is a growing challenge for all of us. Here’s how Microbots can help you deal with it: Whenever the nest detects a possible intruder entering a zone you have designated as “private,” a mosquito-size probe takes off and lands quietly on the person’s clothing and locates a flake of skin caught in the garment. An onboard DNA sampler then radios the raw biological data back to the nest, where a DNA fingerprinting lab performs an analysis and checks the results against a list of those individuals cleared for access to the area. If the person is unauthorized, the mosquito probe triggers a loud and explicit warning message from a rooftop speaker while summoning a cloud of other RoboHornets, each carrying a vicious-looking one-inch-long crimson-colored stinger. Any intruder continuing to ignore the warning message will receive a lesson in the sanctity of private property, the memory of which will linger for several months.•

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