Almost all of wealth inequality’s consequences, intended or not, are bad, but I doubt so much money would be pouring into the Immortality Industrial Complex were it not for haves having quite so much. No one wants to die when they have stock options. In London as in Silicon Valley, those with ridiculous disposable wealth pursue radical life extension. From Rebecca Newman at the Evening Standard:
Across the road from Harrods sits Omniya clinic, a calm, contemporary white space amid the hustle of Knightsbridge. At street level it is a luxuriously reimagined pharmacy, whose curated selection includes recent launches from Hollywood’s favourite ‘cosmeceutical’ brands Zo Skin Health and Dr Levy. ‘I wanted to create a place that brings the newest advancements in medical and regenerative health to London,’ says co-founder Danyal Kader, a former lawyer, radiant with bien-être. He was so depressed by the difficulty of finding the best medical treatment for his father, who suffers from a heart condition, that he decided to create his own one-stop conduit to wellness. ‘We optimise the lives our clients can lead, body, mind and soul.’ To this end, he has brought together a team of leading specialists who analyse the health of their clients in the most minute and sophisticated detail — a kind of space-age human MOT.
One of these is cellular ageing specialist Dr Mark Bonar. As his title suggests, Bonar is passionate about the very specific degradations that happen in the cells of the body as we age — and still more excited about the new ways he can use to slow such deterioration. Consider, for example, telomeres. ‘Telomeres are the caps on the ends of our DNA,’ Bonar explains. ‘A bit like the plastic on the end of a shoe lace, they prevent the ends from fraying. By measuring their length in the lab we can determine how well the body is ageing’ — for instance, if at 30, you show the wear and tear you’d expect in a 40-year-old. ‘The length can also inform you about your risk of various kinds of disease such as breast or bowel cancer.’
More dramatically, Bonar continues, a product has been patented — it has been around in the States since 2011 — called TA-65, which can rebuild your telomeres, pausing this process central to ageing. In fact, by making the telomere length longer, you can actually make cells ‘younger’, he argues. In one study, fruit flies given TA-65 doubled their life expectancy, while another study on rats discovered that the risk of them developing certain cancers fell by some 30 per cent. And yes, Bonar can prescribe it for you, in a capsule or a cream.•
Writer Carl Zimmer did a predictably smart Ask Me Anything at Reddit, fielding all manner of queries on his forte, science. One exchange is about ancient humans, who were a decidedly more heterogeneous mix than we are, something that could again be true of our species in the future. An excerpt:
What ancient human fact do you find to be the most fascinating?
Can I give two answers? A tie?
First off, all the species of ancient humans! One scientist I interviewed recently said he likes to say that the Middle Pleistocene was like Middle Earth, with orc and elves and such. I guess that might be a bit strained if you consider that the different hominin species probably couldn’t talk to each other. (Imagine the Lord of the Rings movies with no dialogue…) Still, tiny Homo floresiensis, Denisovans and Neanderthals having sex (and babies too) with modern humans, plus Homo erectus and probably a bunch of other species/lineages we have yet to find. Our current loneliness is a fluke of human evolution.
The other fact is that in one respect Darwin got human evolution very wrong. He saw bipedalism and human behavior as intimately tied together. But the earliest hominins, 6-7 million years ago, were fairly upright (even if they could scale trees to get away from the occasional leopard). Despite being upright, their brains were puny till less than 2 million years ago. So for most of hominin evolution, they were essentially bipedal apes, rather than what we’d call human. Which, of course, leaves us with the question of why human brains got big so fast when smaller ones did just fine, thank you very much.•
Roughly five years after DARPA’s 2004 not-ready-for-prime-time driverless-car contest mercilessly dubbed the “Debacle in the Desert,” Google was testing autonomous vehicles on American streets and highways. The latest DARPA Robotics Challenge earlier this year, the one aimed at pushing humanoid rescue machines to new limits, was likewise far less than a complete success, though I doubt we’ll be bossing around tin butlers by 2020. However, progress will be made.
Even though opposable thumbs were a lovely development in the course of life on Earth, there’s some question as to whether we should be so concerned about humanoid-type robots. We didn’t create a “robot person” to handle the wheel of a driverless car and drones don’t flap wings like birds (nor do airplanes). There is something satisfyingly narcissistic about inanimate metal and plastic replicating familiar life forms–especially our own–but many of the needed maneuvers in Fukushima and flood zones could probably be accomplished by unfamiliar figures.
In a GQ article, Bucky McMahon looks back at DARPA’s June contest and looks ahead. An excerpt:
Southern California, June 2015
Here, now, on day one of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, the little humans in the crowd are the opposite of patient. Overstimulated, brainy children—future roboticists, perhaps—they half-pack the stands at the Los Angeles County fairgrounds, chanting “Go, robots, go!” as the first four competitors enter the open-air arena. In just a few short minutes, against a backdrop of rusty corrugated iron and dusty windows reminiscent of a 1950s sci-fi-movie set, the robots will navigate the course like giant praying mantises cast in community theater. Five Jumbotrons will offer fans close-ups and instant replays as the robots wrestle with various Mr. Fix-It tasks, clear debris, or walk on a jumble of concrete blocks. It’s a little like the Roman Colosseum, but with bizarre humanoid machines instead of gladiators, masterpieces of engineering that are still battling their own limitations as much as one another.
Twenty-three robotics teams from seven nations are here in Pomona, California, competing for $3.5 million in federally funded prize money dangled by DARPA. (Full name: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.) Despite its buzz-cut reputation, the agency is putting on a pretty good show here at the DRC Finals. There’s a festival atmosphere, with a tech expo outside the stadium, under dozens of white tents. And though the purpose of the event is grim enough—to test robotic technology for emergency disaster relief at the Three Mile Islands, Chernobyls, and Fukushimas of the future—the competition format is kind of hilarious.
For each heat of the two-day comp, up to four robots at a time walk or drive vehicles from the racetrack oval toward the grandstand—a Futurama Shriners parade—arriving at four identical obstacle courses. You are invited to imagine that this is the scene of an industrial accident—a chemical spill, say, or toxic-gas leak—some terrible thing man has wrought that man ought not, something so bad we just can’t be there, not in person. But our metal friends? If they’re up to snuff, yes indeed. The final task is to climb a stairway, at the top of which is catastrophic doom’s off button, figuratively speaking.
For the robotics world, this is the greatest show on earth, and everybody’s here—all the best U.S. university robotics programs, industry reps, toy companies, even a would-be pirate with a robotic parrot named Polymer. You couldn’t swing a robotic cat—there are a few of those, too—without hitting a genius.•
The future usually arrives gradually and only occasionally with an asteroid strike. For the taxi industry in New York, Chicago and many other major cities, it’s been the latter. Ridesharing (a misnomer) via companies like Uber and Lyft is an improvement in numerous ways over business as usual, but, wow, lots of people are being hurt in the transition. Many more will be in a similarly tight spot in time, since Uber has vowed to replace all its piecework drivers with autonomous cars as soon as technologically possible.
Taxi owners and lenders on Tuesday sued New York City and its Taxi and Limousine Commission, saying the proliferation of the popular ride-sharing business Uber was destroying their businesses and threatening their livelihoods.
The lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court accused the defendants of violating yellow cab drivers’ exclusive right to pick up passengers on the street by letting Uber drivers who face fewer regulatory burdens pick up millions of passengers who use smartphones to hail rides.
According to the complaint, the number of Uber rides in the “core” of Manhattan increased by 3.82 million from April to June 2015 compared with a year earlier, while medallion cab pickups fell by 3.83 million.
They said this had driven down the value of medallions, which yellow cab drivers need to operate, by 40 percent from a peak exceeding $1 million and caused more defaults.
Uber’s rise also contributed to the July 22 bankruptcy of 22 companies run by taxi magnate Evgeny Freidman, and the state’s Sept. 18 seizure of Montauk Credit Union, which specialized in medallion loans, the complaint said.•
A couple months before its historic eruption on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens began to slowly awaken. Tourists toting binoculars went to the mountain to get a better look, but some experts warned them to not expect too much, predicting it very unlikely to be a major geological event. The experts were wrong. From the April 21, 1980 People magazine:
It was hardly Vesuvius or Krakatoa, but when Mount St. Helens—near Washington’s border with Oregon—began to gurgle seriously last month, geologists and thrill-seekers gathered from all over the world. They hoped to see one of the rarest and most spectacular of nature’s performances: a volcanic eruption. Not since Mount Lassen in California began seven years of activity in 1914 has a volcano in the lower 48 states put on such a show. Still, some watchers may be disappointed by Mount St. Helens. “People have this idea about lava from old South Sea movies,” says Donal Mullineaux, a volcanologist in the U.S. Geological Survey, “with everybody in sarongs hotfooting it away from this smoky, glowing stuff that comes oozing out of the crater and down the mountain like cake batter. Lava can be dangerous, sure, but that’s only a part of it.”
The rest of it—clouds of poisonous gas, searing hot winds and cascades of mud and rock—now seems unlikely at Mount St. Helens. Mullineaux, who had predicted an eruption in a scholarly 1975 article, is maintaining a vigilant calm. “The probability of a big, big eruption is very low,” he says. Asked if the gases already escaped pose a pollution threat, he smiles and says, “Any comment I could make would be facetious. I grew up in a paper-mill town.”•
The CBS News report three days after the volcano blew, with Dan Rather and his folksy whatthefuck subbing for Walter Cronkite.
Most men (and women) lead lives of quite desperation, but from Brooklyn to Big Sur Henry Miller hollered. That resulted in some genius writing and some considerably lesser material. In 1961, the author explained in a Paris Review interview how he believed his tools shaped his writing:
Do you edit or change much?
That too varies a great deal. I never do any correcting or revising while in the process of writing. Let’s say I write a thing out any old way, and then, after it’s cooled off—I let it rest for a while, a month or two maybe—I see it with a fresh eye. Then I have a wonderful time of it. I just go to work on it with the ax. But not always. Sometimes it comes out almost like I wanted it.
How do you go about revising?
When I’m revising, I use a pen and ink to make changes, cross out, insert. The manuscript looks wonderful afterwards, like a Balzac. Then I retype, and in the process of retyping I make more changes. I prefer to retype everything myself, because even when I think I’ve made all the changes I want, the mere mechanical business of touching the keys sharpens my thoughts, and I find myself revising while doing the finished thing.
You mean there is something going on between you and the machine?
Yes, in a way the machine acts as a stimulus; it’s a cooperative thing.•
Robert Snyder’s deeply enjoyable 1969 documentary of Miller in his middle years, when he had befriended, among many others, astrologer Sydney Omarr, a relationship which helped the author indulge his curiosity in the occult.
Wilt Chamberlain was a hybrid of topdog and underdog, fully aware that all his greatness could never make the public quite love a Goliath. To merely be himself was to be unfair. In Allen Barra’s 2012 Atlantic appreciation of the late NBA, volleyball and track & field star, the writer compares the legendary basketball player favorably with Babe Ruth, and recalls the humble environs in which he recorded the NBA’s only triple-digit scoring performance. An excerpt:
The celebration of Wilt Chamberlain’s career that accompanied the 50th anniversary of his 100-point game last weekend was too short and passed too quickly.
Wilt Chamberlain was the Babe Ruth of pro basketball. Like Ruth, he was by far the most dominant force in his time, and quite possibly of all time. Like the Babe, Wilt was the lightning rod for interest in the sport in a time when it was badly needed. In Chamberlain’s case, he was more important to basketball than Ruth was to baseball.
Contrary to popular opinion, baseball was doing quite well at the turnstiles when Ruth came along and would have survived the stink of the Black Sox gambling scandal with or without him (though the recovery certainly would have taken longer). But without Wilt, who knows if the NBA would have made it from the 1960s—when it was scarcely one of the big three pro sports behind baseball and football—to the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird boom of the late 1970s and the Michael Jordan tidal wave a few years later?
If you doubt this, consider one extraordinary fact: Wilt played his 100-point game not in New York or even in the Warriors’ home city of Philadelphia but in an odd-looking, plain concrete barn-like structure with an arched roof in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the Warriors played several games a year in order to increase a fan base that wasn’t showing them overwhelming support in Philly.
Try and imagine the equivalent in baseball: Babe Ruth hitting his 60th home run in, say, Newark, New Jersey, at a Yankees “secondary” park in front of a handful of fans. If not for an unknown student listening to a late night rebroadcast of the game who thought to tape the fourth quarter on a reel-to-reel, we’d have no live coverage of the game at all.
Chamberlain’s triumph came at the Hershey Sports Arena. Today the HersheyPark Arena looks virtually the same, a practice facility for the AHL’s Hershey Bears and home ice for a local college that is also open for public skating. It’s easy to miss the notices that here Chamberlain played his landmark game: a small sign on a pole outside the main gates and a copy of the photo of Wilt holding up the handmade “100” in the back side of the lobby.
There is one primary difference between the careers of Babe Ruth and Wilt Chamberlain: Ruth was—and is—regarded by most baseball analysts as the greatest player in his game. But basketball people have never quite been able to make up their minds about Wilt.•
Ed Sullivan interviews Chamberlain soon after his heroics in Hershey.
I think I went from devoted moviegoer (250-300 films every year) to completely uninterested in the medium for reasons deeper than the seismic shifts of the business wrought by globalization (i.e., the march of comic-book blockbusters not dependent on nuance or language), but these changes helped usher me out of the theater.
The new Star Wars is coming out and I don’t care, but at least Adam Rogers’ Wired article “The Force Will Be With Us. Always.” makes me interested in the dynamics behind the endless stream of familiar films that are more than mere sequels. The various productions are designed as an ever-expanding supply of “connective tissue” that can stretch and cover us with comforting entertainment until we’re mummies. Unless, of course, some unforeseen disruption takes the industry in another direction. I mean, nothing is truly forever. For now, though, the template is fixed.
The company intends to put out a new Star Wars movie every year for as long as people will buy tickets. Let me put it another way: If everything works out for Disney, and if you are (like me) old enough to have been conscious for the first Star Wars film, you will probably not live to see the last one. It’s the forever franchise.
These new movies won’t just be sequels. That’s not the way the transnational entertainment business works anymore. Forget finite sequences; now it’s about infinite series. Disney also owns Marvel Comics, and over the next decade you can expect 17 more interrelated movies about Iron Man and his amazing friends, including Captain America: Civil War, two more Avengers movies, another Ant-Man, and a Black Panther (not to mention five new TV shows). Thanks to licensing agreements, Disney doesn’t own the rights to every Marvel property—Fox makes movies about the X-Men and related mutants like Gambit and Deadpool. So you’ll get interrelated comic-book movies there too. Warner Bros. Entertainment, which owns DC Comics, is prepping a dozen or so movies based on DC characters, with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016, Wonder Woman, and eventually the two-part team-up Justice League. Warner is also trying to introduce Godzilla to King Kong (again). Paramount is working on a shared universe for its alien robot Transformers. Universal continues, with limited success, to try to knit together its famous bestiary (Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, etc.).
Everywhere, studio suits are recruiting creatives who can weave characters and story lines into decades-spanning tapestries of prequels, side-quels, TV shows, games, toys, and so on. Brand awareness goes through the roof; audiences get a steady, soothing mainline drip of familiar characters. Forget the business implications for a moment, though. The shared universe represents something rare in Hollywood: a new idea.•
Maybe we should tell the GOP Presidential candidates that climate change is Muslim?
Like most people, I don’t give a crap what the Islamic State wants, except insofar as comprehending that mindset will aid in the destruction of the terrorist organization. Empathy is a useful tool, even in war. In addition to understanding the ideology of the monstrous group, I’m also curious how much drug use is employed to “program” the modern suicidal soldiers. We know that a mélange of medieval brutality, Hollywood technique and social media are the heart of its methods, but what is driving the execution?
When it comes to the murderous principles, Graeme Wood raises many intelligent points about the terrorists’ apocalyptic nature in his new Atlantic essay. The opening:
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The group seized Mosul, Iraq, last June, and already rules an area larger than the United Kingdom. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been its leader since May 2010, but until last summer, his most recent known appearance on film was a grainy mug shot from a stay in U.S. captivity at Camp Bucca during the occupation of Iraq. Then, on July 5 of last year, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, to deliver a Ramadan sermon as the first caliph in generations—upgrading his resolution from grainy to high-definition, and his position from hunted guerrilla to commander of all Muslims. The inflow of jihadists that followed, from around the world, was unprecedented in its pace and volume, and is continuing.
Our ignorance of the Islamic State is in some ways understandable: It is a hermit kingdom; few have gone there and returned. Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.•
Rodney Brooks still thinks the future will be fast and cheap, but perhaps not out of control.
In Errol Morris’ 1997 documentary, the roboticist famously says that in tomorrow’s world of intelligent machines, humans might not be necessary. In a BBC piece written by Regan Morris, Brooks backs off that statement (“You can’t expect me to stand by something I said during a long day of filming 20 years ago!”), and also explains why he doesn’t fear technological unemployment or appreciate “cute” robots.
Brooks is certainly right that AI handling rote, backbreaking tasks is a good thing in the big picture, though distribution of wealth is a sticky point. And the work that disappears won’t only be of the blue-collar variety.
Some people remain nervous about the growing role of robots.
Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots, says robots will change the global economy in drastic ways beyond manufacturing. White collar jobs, are equally susceptible and likely more at risk, he says.
“I think it’s inevitable that robots will displace a lot of jobs, if you have a PhD in science and engineering, you’re probably safe. But that’s not many people,” Ford says.
“We can’t stop it. We can’t educate ourselves out of it. Top level, highly creative, highly skilled jobs will survive. But most people do average stuff. Even if we tried we couldn’t educate every person to be a rocket scientist or brain surgeon.”
Baby boomers need bots
Mr Brooks is less concerned. He thinks fears of robots taking over jobs are overblown and that robots will improve people’s lives.
“I think there’s a misconception amongst the wealthy people in the bubble that there are endless rows of people wanting dull, boring jobs in factories. It’s not true,” Mr Brooks says, adding that robots will become more pervasive in society as baby boomers age and require more self-driving cars and home healthcare.•
Despite his intelligence–or perhaps because of it–philosopher Nick Bostrom could have just as readily fallen through the cracks as rose to prominence, making an unlikely space for himself with the headiest of endeavors, calculating the likelihood of humans to escape extinction. He’s a risk manager on the grandest scale.
Far from a crank screaming of catastrophes, the Oxford academic is a rigorous researcher and intellectual screaming of catastrophes, especially the one he sees as most likely to eradicate us: superintelligent machines. In fact, he thinks self-teaching AI of a soaring IQ is even scarier than climate change. In aNew Yorker pieceon Bostrom, the best profile yet of the philosopher, Raffi Khatchadourian writes that the Superintelligence author sees himself as a “cartographer rather than a polemicist,” though he’s clearly both.
In addition to attempting to name the threats that may be hurtling our way, Bostrom takes on the biggest of the other big questions. For example: What will life be like a million years from now? He argues that long-term forecasting is easier than the short- and mid-term types, because the assumption of continued existence means most visions will be realized. He refers to this idea as the “Technological Completion Conjecture,” saying that “if scientific-and technological-development efforts do not effectively cease, then all important basic capabilities that could be obtained through some possible technology will be obtained.”
My own thoughts on these matters remain the same: In the long run, we either become what those of us alive right now would consider a Posthuman species, the next evolution, or we’ll cease to be altogether. A museum city can linger for a long spell, beautiful in its languor, but humans doubling as statues from the past will eventually be toppled.
Bostrom has a reinvented man’s sense of lost time. An only child, he grew up—as Niklas Boström—in Helsingborg, on the southern coast of Sweden. Like many exceptionally bright children, he hated school, and as a teen-ager he developed a listless, romantic persona. In 1989, he wandered into a library and stumbled onto an anthology of nineteenth-century German philosophy, containing works by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. He read it in a nearby forest, in a clearing that he often visited to think and to write poetry, and experienced a euphoric insight into the possibilities of learning and achievement. “It’s hard to convey in words what that was like,” Bostrom told me; instead he sent me a photograph of an oil painting that he had made shortly afterward. It was a semi-representational landscape, with strange figures crammed into dense undergrowth; beyond, a hawk soared below a radiant sun. He titled it “The First Day.”
Deciding that he had squandered his early life, he threw himself into a campaign of self-education. He ran down the citations in the anthology, branching out into art, literature, science. He says that he was motivated not only by curiosity but also by a desire for actionable knowledge about how to live. To his parents’ dismay, Bostrom insisted on finishing his final year of high school from home by taking special exams, which he completed in ten weeks. He grew distant from old friends: “I became quite fanatical and felt quite isolated for a period of time.”
When Bostrom was a graduate student in Stockholm, he studied the work of the analytic philosopher W. V. Quine, who had explored the difficult relationship between language and reality. His adviser drilled precision into him by scribbling “not clear” throughout the margins of his papers. “It was basically his only feedback,” Bostrom told me. “The effect was still, I think, beneficial.” His previous academic interests had ranged from psychology to mathematics; now he took up theoretical physics. He was fascinated by technology. The World Wide Web was just emerging, and he began to sense that the heroic philosophy which had inspired him might be outmoded. In 1995, Bostrom wrote a poem, “Requiem,” which he told me was “a signing-off letter to an earlier self.” It was in Swedish, so he offered me a synopsis: “I describe a brave general who has overslept and finds his troops have left the encampment. He rides off to catch up with them, pushing his horse to the limit. Then he hears the thunder of a modern jet plane streaking past him across the sky, and he realizes that he is obsolete, and that courage and spiritual nobility are no match for machines.”•
Whenever seemingly intelligent people get taken in by what’s so obviously a con, there’s an urge to dismiss them, to laugh at their utter foolishness. But it would be far better to understand what went awry, because in some ways we all get taken, by ideologies or belief systems or lies we want to be true.
Niall Rice, an Internet consultant troubled by anxiety and addiction, got “sucked in” and cleaned out by psychics who promised him something they couldn’t possibly deliver. How could a smart, successful person so completely lack a filter to prevent grifters from exploiting him? Is there something he failed to learn despite learning so many other things? Why did his emotional problems supersede intellect at key moments? Are some people just wired to be more prone to such scams?
The opening of Michael Wilson’s fascinating New York Times article about a man who wanted, too much, to believe:
He sat in a Denny’s restaurant, drinking coffee between cigarette breaks after a long and sleepless night, answering question after question.
He knew none of it made sense: He was a successful and well-traveled professional, with close to seven figures in the bank, and plans for much more. And then he gave it all away, more than $718,000, in chunks at a time, to two Manhattan psychics.
They vowed to reunite him with the woman he loved. Even after it was discovered that she was dead. There was the 80-mile bridge made of gold, the reincarnation portal.
“I just got sucked in,” the man, Niall Rice, said in a telephone interview last week from Los Angeles. “That’s what people don’t understand. ‘How can you fall for it?’”
There was even, between payments to one of the psychics for a time machine to cleanse the past, a brief romance.
The sidewalks in Paris weren’t yet dry when America’s leading ghoul Bill Kristol was being wheeled in front of cameras to call for 50,000 U.S. ground troops to be deployed to the Middle East, for a war that would no doubt last decades and get many thousands of people killed. All that money and death for something so impractical as a ground effort against a moving target, when a flexible, selective offensive is much safer and more intelligent. But what can you expect from this embalmed-looking buffoon, who seems at this point to only be able to get hard from inhaling the scent of soldier blood.
Of course, this routinely discredited dunderhead won’t be alone in calling for a large-scale war effort. With GOP rivals trying to out-extreme one another, the war drums are now to be pounded with many fists.
Think, for a moment, about what France is and what it represents. It has its problems — what nation doesn’t? — but it’s a robust democracy with a deep well of popular legitimacy. Its defense budget is small compared with ours, but it nonetheless retains a powerful military, and has the resources to make that military much stronger if it chooses. (France’s economy is around 20 times the size of Syria’s.) France is not going to be conquered by ISIS, now or ever. Destroy Western civilization? Not a chance.
So what was Friday’s attack about? Killing random people in restaurants and at concerts is a strategy that reflects its perpetrators’ fundamental weakness. It isn’t going to establish a caliphate in Paris. What it can do, however, is inspire fear — which is why we call it terrorism, and shouldn’t dignify it with the name of war.
The point is not to minimize the horror. It is, instead, to emphasize that the biggest danger terrorism poses to our society comes not from the direct harm inflicted, but from the wrong-headed responses it can inspire. And it’s crucial to realize that there are multiple ways the response can go wrong. …
Finally, terrorism is just one of many dangers in the world, and shouldn’t be allowed to divert our attention from other issues. Sorry, conservatives: when President Obama describes climate change as the greatest threat we face, he’s exactly right. Terrorism can’t and won’t destroy our civilization, but global warming could and might.•
One of the better understandings I’ve read of the current American mindset is Ben Casselman’s Five Thirty Eight piece “The Economy Is Better — Why Don’t Voters Believe It?” The reporter travels to Davenport, Iowa, to get a sense of why voters in a city with a mercifully low unemployment rate still have a profound fear of falling.
The passage below is poignant and a little heartbreaking. Local citizens (and others, no doubt, across America) yearn for a return to the time when you were educated when you were young and then coasted to success for the rest of your life on that foundation. Not only is that not coming back, but it’s going further and further away. We’re just at the beginning of a very bumpy technological and cultural transition.
I was in Davenport just days before a closely contested local election in which the city’s mayor wasunseated after eight years in office. The campaign was focused on local issues — a riverfront development project, a new on-shore casino, the controversial firing of the city manager — but Jason Gordon, a city alderman running for re-election, said he had heard voters talk about how the economy had changed.
Gordon, who wasre-elected, got his start in politics working for U.S. Rep. Jim Leach, a moderate Republican, and is drawn to mainstream presidential candidates, not the insurgents. (Local government races in Davenport are nonpartisan.) But he said he understood voters’ concern about the long-term direction of the economy.
“This is a county that 40 years ago, you could go to college and you’d be set for life, or you could come out of high school and get a job at Deere orCaseor wherever and also be set for life with a solid, middle-class lifestyle,” he said. “That doesn’t exist here anymore, and I don’t think it exists anywhere anymore.”
The recession may not have hit Davenport hard, Gordon added, but it nonetheless revealed how fragile the economy can be, shattering what was left of the illusion of stability.
“If you look at a lot of the numbers, unemployment and other data, they look good, but I still sense some angst that you’re one development away from a dire set of circumstances,” Gordon said. “It’s not your house that burned down, but your neighbor’s did.”•
While the rise of the Islamic State, a nightmarish quasi-nation of no precise borders, was certainly made possible by the senseless invasion of Iraq by the United States, I don’t think the destructive impulse that drives it was. Unfortunate geopolitical decisions liberated the madness but did not create it. Terror is usually thought to be a response, but it can also be a call, driven by deeply embedded ideologies and psychologies, whether we’re speaking of a large-scale operation like Nazism or a relatively small-scale one like ISIS. Sometimes evil is just evil.
Disappear every last Westerner from the Middle East and attacks such as the horror in Paris will continue, because the very fact of liberalism and secularism is incompatible with this small but destructive band of zealots. The world just means something different to them, and they can’t abide by such differences.
The overwhelming majority of the globe’s nearly 1.6 billion Muslims are clearly living peaceful, productive lives, but the members of ISIS and Al Qaeda aren’t among them. There’s no easy strategy to defeat them for good, with trillions of dollars of boots on the ground unlikely to bring about a lasting peace and likely to be attended by many casualties. A broader coalition of free nations acting in an opportunistic military fashion is really the best guess right now.
In his latest FT column, Edward Luce looks at the impact of the Paris attacks on the U.S. 2016 election season. An excerpt:
Even before the carnage in Paris, the sands of American public opinion were shifting. Last week a majority said they were prepared to put more US troops into Iraq and Syria to defeat Isis. After November 13, that number is likely to rise. The pressure on Mr Obama to take more drastic action, such as agreeing to “no-fly zones” within Syria, is rising. At nearly every point, Mr Obama has been caught behind the curve on Syria. In early 2014, he described Isis as “junior varsity”, which meant they were unlikely to trouble the grown-ups. Within weeks the group had taken control of up to a third of Iraq and was spreading rapidly in Syria. Whatever the reality on the ground today, Americans are prone to distrust Mr Obama’s reassuring words on Isis.
He is losing his grip on the language. When he came into office, Mr Obama quietly dropped George W Bush’s “war on terror”. That downgrade looks unlikely to outlast his period of office. It was motivated by the view that the US had brought much of the terror on itself by the mistaken 2003 invasion of Iraq, which Mr Obama vowed to undo. By 2011, all US troops were out of Iraq.
But the success of Isis, which filled much of the vacuum left by a departing US, has challenged Mr Obama’s worldview. Instead of seeing Isis as a product of the botched aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq — notably the decision to disband Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated army and leave Baghdad in the grip of the Shia — many Americans see it as a result of Mr Obama’s decision to pull out of Iraq in 2011. He has already put 3,500 troops back into Iraq. US public opinion would like to see more. The Paris attacks will increase that drumbeat.
Mr Obama’s fellow Democrats have yet to catch up with that reality.•
In the two decades after one of the most sensational murders in American history, the 1906 rooftop shooting of architect Stanford White, the batshit crazy gunman Harry K. Thaw sunk deeper and deeper into his sadistic mania, and the woman at the center of the love triangle, Evelyn Nesbit, downed disinfectant, trying to wipe herself clean from the face of the Earth.
She failed. Eventually, when Nesbit was done with red velvet swings and speakeasies, the former chorus girl found her footing and dedicated much of her later life to sculpting and teaching the art. She spoke of passion for her work and her disdain for brassieres in a 1952 issue of People Today, which I found courtesy of the Old Magazine Articles site.
Even at his most outlandish, George Saunders never seems to me to be writing about the future but about life right now. What is a quiet nightmare The Semplica Girls Diaries about if not growing divide between the haves and have-nots as we shift from the Industrial Revolution to the Digital one, the way technocracy removes the friction from our lives and disappears the “downsized” from our minds?
One topic I’d like to someday take on in a work of “futuristic” fiction is our increasing materialism — we are coming to believe that our minds are entirely sufficient to understand the universe in its entirety. This means a shrinking respect for mystery — religion vanishing as a meaningful part of our lives (or being used, in its fundamentalist forms, to beat back mystery, rather than engage it); an increasing acceptance that if something is “effective” (profitable, stockholder-enhancing), then that answers all questions of its morality. This insistence on the literal and provable and data-based and pragmatic leaves us, I think, only partly human. What will the future look like, given that premise? Bleak, I’d say. But interesting.
I’m actually working on a novel based in the past now, and to me, there are some parallels between writing about the future and writing about the past. Neither interests me at all, if the intention is just to “get it right.” It’s nearly impossible to recreate a past mind-set, and also, why bother? That mind-set already existed, if you see what I mean. The goal of a work of fiction is, in my view, to say something, about how life is for us, not at any particular historical moment (past or present or future) but at every single moment. By necessity, we have to choose some precise time to depict, but we wouldn’t want to confuse ourselves by thinking that the “correct depiction” of that time was the goal.
I’m curious what period are you writing about, and what led you to do that?
Yeah, I’m going to be a little secretive about it, as sort of a mojo-protection move. … but it’s the 19th century. And the motivation for doing it was just this really cool, sad story I heard around 1998. For years, I was playing with that idea in different modes and screwing it up, and then one day I had a little insight into how I might do it. It’s also got a supernatural element. So, weirdly, although it’s ostensibly “historical,” it actually feels more like a sci-fi story than anything I’ve ever done before. There’s a heavy element of world-building — figuring out the internal rules of the place and so on.•
I can’t say whether Tesla Motors and Faraday Future will both be successful electric-vehicle companies, but I can say there’s room for two EV makers. In fact, there’s room enough if all car makers go electric, the way it was when all manufacturers were working with fossil fuels. Faraday seems to have an Amazonian approach to profits: Get the “gadget” into consumer hands and make money from apps and subscriptions.
Is there room enough for both Tesla Motors and Faraday Future in our electric-car, uh, future? A Chinese billionaire is backing what hopes to be a rival to Elon Musk’s enterprise. The 18-month-old company, based out of Southern California, aims to roll out itsfirstlong-range, premium model, comparable to Tesla’s Model S, by 2017. The engineer who oversaw the chassis design of the Model S, Nick Sampson, is now Faraday’s research-and-development chief.
The billionaire backer is Jia Yueting, founder of LeTV(“China’s Netflix”). A partner of Yueting is listedon the incorporating documents as chief executive. There have beensome rumorsof the company being an Apple-affiliated venture; Apple is said to want to get into the car business. In any case, Sampson has said the car will be more like a smartphone.
“Our business model is not based around moving a car out of the dealer,” Sampson said. “We envision this like a smart phone. The revenue starts once you get the device in the owners’ hands. We’re looking at subscriptions and apps and other opportunities.” This could include car-sharing services, which already operate off your phone.•
In a 1968 Playboy Interview, Eric Nordern tried to extract a definitive statement about the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey directly from the mouth of the horse, but Stanley Kubrick wasn’t having it. The director was happy, however, to expound on the potential existence of extraterrestrials of advanced intelligence and what it would mean for us relatively lowly earthlings. An excerpt:
Speaking of what it’s all about—if you’ll allow us to return to the philosophical interpretation of 2001—would you agree with those critics who call it a profoundly religious film?
I will say that the God concept is at the heart of 2001—but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don’t believe in any of Earth’s monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguingscientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that its star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visibleuniverse. Given a planet in stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of sun’s energy on the planet’s chemicals, it’s fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It’s reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high. Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia—less than a microsecond in the cosmology of the universe—can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.
Even assuming the cosmic evolutionary path you suggest, what has this to do with the nature of God?
Everything—because these beings would be gods to the billions of less advanced races in the universe, just as man would appear a god to an ant that somehow comprehended man’s existence. They would possess the twin attributes of all deities—omniscience and omnipotence. These entities might be in telepathic communication throughout the cosmos and thus be aware of everything that occurs, tapping every intelligent mind as effortlessly as we switch on the radio; they might not be limited by the speed of light and their presence could penetrate to the farthest corners of the universe; they might possess complete mastery over matter and energy; and in their final evolutionary stage, they might develop into an integrated collective immortal consciousness. They would be incomprehensible to us except as gods; and if the tendrils of their consciousness ever brushed men’s minds, it is only the hand of God we could grasp as an explanation.
If such creatures do exist, why should they be interested in man?
They may not be. But why should man be interested in microbes? The motives of such beings would be as alien to us as their intelligence.
In 2001, such incorporeal creatures seem to manipulate our destinies and control our evolution, though whether for good or evil—or both, or neither—remains unclear. Do you really believe it’s possible that man is a cosmic plaything of such entities?
I don’t really believe anything about them; how can I? Mere speculation on the possibility of their existence is sufficiently overwhelming, without attempting to decipher the motives. The important point is that all the standard attributes assigned to God in our history could equally well be the characteristics of biological entities who billions of years ago were at a stage of development similar to man’s own and evolved into something as remote from man as man is remote from the primordial ooze from which he first emerged.
In this cosmic phylogeny you’ve described, isn’t it possible that there might be forms of intelligent life on an even higher scale than these entities of pure energy—perhaps as far removed from them as they are from us?
Of course there could be; in an infinite, eternal universe, the point is that anything is possible, and it’s unlikely that we can even begin to scratch the surface of the full range of possibilities. But at a time when man is preparing to set foot on the Moon, I think it’s necessary to open up our Earth bound minds to such speculation. No one knows what’s waiting for us in our universe. I think it was a prominent astronomer who wrote recently, “Sometimes I think we are alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”
You said that there must be billions of planets sustaining life that is considerably more advanced than man but has not yet evolved into non- or suprabiological forms. What do you believe would be the effect on humanity if the Earth were contacted by a race of such ungodlike but technologically superior beings?
There’s a considerable difference of opinion on this subject among scientists and philosophers. Some contend that encountering a highly advanced civilization—even one whose technology is essentially comprehensible to us—would produce a traumatic cultural shock effect on man by divesting him of his smug ethnocentrism and shattering the delusion that he is the center of the universe. Carl Jung summed up this position when he wrote of contact with advanced extraterrestrial life that “reins would be torn from our hands and we would, as a tearful old medicine man once said to me, find ourselves ‘without dreams’ … we would find our intellectual and spiritual aspirations so outmoded as to leave us completely paralyzed.” I personally don’t accept this position, but it’s one that’s widely held and can’t be summarily dismissed.
In 1960, for example, the Committee for Long Range Studies of the Brookings Institution prepared a report for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration warning that even indirect contact—i.e., alien artifacts that might possibly be discovered through our space activities on the Moon, Mars, or Venus or via radio contact with an interstellar civilization—could cause severe psychological dislocations. The study cautioned that “Anthropological files contain many examples of societies, sure of their place in the universe, which have disintegrated when they have had to associate with previously unfamiliar societies espousing different ideas and different life ways; others that survived such an experience usually did so by paying the price of changes in values and attitudes and behaviour.” It concluded that since the consequences of any such discovery are “presently unpredictable,” it was advisable that the government initiate continuing studies on the psychological and intellectual impact of confrontation with extra-terrestrial life. What action was taken on this report I don’t know, but I assume that such studies are now under way. However, while not discounting the possible adverse emotional impact on some people, I would personally tend to view such contact with a tremendous amount of excitement and enthusiasm. Rather than shattering our society, I think it could immeasurably enrich it.
Another positive point is that it’s a virtual certainty that all intelligent life at one stage in its technological development must have discovered nuclear energy. This is obviously the watershed of any civilization; does it find a way to use nuclear power without destruction and harness it for peaceful purposes, or does it annihilate itself? I would guess that any civilization that has existed for a few thousand years after its discovery of atomic energy has devised a means of accommodating itself to the bomb, and this could prove tremendously reassuring to us—as well as give us specific guidelines for our own survival. In any case, as far as cultural shock is concerned, my impression is that the attention span of most people is quite brief; after a week or two of great excitement and over-saturation in the newspapers and on television, the public’s interest would drop off and the United Nations, or whatever world body we had then, would settle down to discussions with the aliens.
You’re assuming that extraterrestrials would be benevolent. Why?
Why should a vastly superior race bother to harm or destroy us? If an intelligent ant suddenly traced a message in the sand at my feet reading, “I am sentient; let’s talk things over,” I doubt very much that I would rush to grind him under my heel. Even if they weren’t superintelligent, though, but merely more advanced than mankind, I would tend to lean more toward the benevolence, or at least indifference, theory. Since it’s most unlikely that we would be visited from within our own solar system, any society capable of traversing light-years of space would have to have an extremely high degree of control over matter and energy. Therefore, what possible motivation for hostility would they have? To steal our gold or oil or coal? It’s hard to think of any nasty intention that would justify the long and arduous journey from another star.•
Introduced byVernon Myers, the publisher of Look, the 1966 short film, “A Look Behind the Future,” focuses on the magazine’s former photographer Kubrick, who was then in the process of making 2001: A Space Odyssey at London’s MGM studios. It’s a nice companion piece to Jeremy Bernstein’s two great New Yorker articles about the movie during its long gestation (hereandhere).
Mentioned or seen in this video: Mobile phones, laptop computers,Wernher Von Braun, memory helmets, a 38-ton centrifuge, Arthur C. Clarke at the Long Island warehouse where the NASA L.E.M. (Lunar Excursion Module) was being constructed, Keir Dullea meeting the press, etc.
I would think I’m in the small minority of Don DeLillo readers who feel that his best novel is White Noise, a book about an airborne toxic event and other looming threats. From Nathaniel Rich’s just-published Daily Beast piece:
How did the novel that Don DeLillo originally titled Panasonic become the phenomenon that was, and still is, White Noise? Canonized at birth by rhapsodic critics and instantly ubiquitous on college syllabi, the novel won the National Book Award and journalists hailed its publicity-shy author as a prophet.
But White Noise was not different in kind from Don DeLillo’s previous seven novels. He had been writing about the same paranoiac themes for 15 years: nuclear age anomie, the tyranny and mind control of American commercial excess, the dread of mass terror and the perverse longing for it, the aphasic cacophony of mass information, and even Hitler obsession. In those earlier novels DeLillo had written in the same clipped, oracular prose, borrowing sardonically from bureaucratic officialese, scientific jargon, and tabloid headlines. Some of White Noise’s main insights—“All plots tend to move deathward,” declares the narrator, Jack Gladney—were recycled from the earlier novels, too. White Noise was more conventionally plotted than End Zone, Great Jones Street, or Players, and the characters more conflicted, more human. But something else had changed.
“The greater the scientific advance,” says Jack Gladney, “the more primitive the fear.” White Noise is bathed in the glare and hum of personal computers and refrigerators and color televisions. Like bulletins from the subconscious, the text is intermittently interrupted by litanies of brand names designed to be pronounceable in a hundred languages: Tegrin, Denorex, Selsun Blue. At one point Jack observes his daughter talking in her sleep, uttering the words Toyota Celica. “It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered.”
Something is hovering all right.•
The 1991 BBC program, Don DeLillo: The Word, The Image, and The Gun, was originally aired the same year the author published that strange thing Mao II, a novel with wooden characters and plotting, but one so eerily correct about the coming escalation of terrorism, how guns would become bombs and airplanes would not just be redirected but repurposed. It’s like DeLillo tried to alert us to targets drawn in chalk on all sides of the Twin Towers, but we never really fully noticed. This program is a great portrait of DeLillo and his “dangerous secrets” about technology, surveillance, film, news, the novel, art and the apocalypse.
The 1980 killing of Scarsdale Diet creator, Dr. Henry Tarnower, by his longtime companion,Jean Harris, was a slaying that awakened all sorts of emotions about the dynamics between men and women. From “Murder with Intent to Love,” a 1981 Time article by Walter Isaacson and James Wilde about the sensational trial:
Prosecutor George Bolen, 34, was cold and indignant in his summation, insisting that jealousy over Tarnower‘s affair with his lab assistant, Lynne Tryforos, 38, was the motivating factor for murder. Argued Bolen: ‘There was dual intent, to take her own life, but also an intent to do something else . . . to punish Herman Tarnower . . . to kill him and keep him from Lynne Tryforos.’ Bolen ridiculed the notion that Harris fired her .32-cal. revolver by accident. He urged the jury to examine the gun while deliberating. Said he: ‘Try pulling the trigger. It has 14 pounds of pull. Just see how difficult it would be to pull, double action, four times by accident.’ Bolen, who was thought by his superiors to be too gentle when he cross-examined Harris earlier in the trial, showed little mercy as he painted a vivid picture of what he claims happened that night. He dramatically raised his hand in the defensive stance he says Tarnower used when Harris pointed the gun at him. When the judge sustained an objection by Aurnou that Bolen‘s version went beyond the evidence presented, the taut Harris applauded until her body shook.•
In 1991, the year before her sentence was commuted, Harris sat for a jailhouse interview with Jane Pauley, who has somehow managed to not murder Garry Trudeau.
One thing I know for sure about the future is that it won’t be a utopia–we’ll see to that. Tomorrow will be only as good as humans are, and we tend to stink up the joint.
However, major changes will come to life, especially city life, in the short run, because we’re on the precipice of game-changing technological innovations. If driverless, for instance, is really perfected in the next 25 years or so, the nature of urban life is remade, and car ownership will become ever-more optional. Our world will be a greener and more convenient thing, but I’m willing to bet it won’t all be electric bicycles and vertical gardens.
So what could a successfully networked city of the transportation near-future look like? Picture this.
You wake up and open an app that tells you how to leverage the city’s various transit options to get to your appointment. Maybe it’s a walk to a bicycle, which you pedal to a bus. Or an autonomous taxi to the downtown perimeter to hail a ride-hailing service, driven by a human. Or borrowing a car that belongs to your apartment building’s small fleet.
Once outside, you’ll notice community gardens and playgrounds where parking lots once stood. The air will be cleaner and you might hear birds chirp, both due to the preponderance of electric vehicles. Emergency vehicle sirens are less common as automotive accidents decline thanks to on-board car sensors that track moving objects and humans. Trucks don’t crowd the streets because deliveries are made at night by self-driving vehicles.
“In many ways, we’ll be moving back toward the city of the past, and much like in the 18th century we’ll be designing around people who are walking, biking and even growing their own food,” says Gabe Klein, author of Start-Up City: Inspiring Public and Private Entrepreneurship, Getting Projects Done, and Having Fun.
In less than two decades, researchers say cities could become safer for pedestrians and cyclists and what cars do exist will be small, electric and largely driverless. Under this optimistic forecast, public transit will be efficient, and smart traffic signals will keep the system moving along.
Not that this vision is either guaranteed or without potentially damaging potholes.•
In an excellent Five Books interview, writer Calum Chace suggests a quintet of titles on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, four of which I’ve read. In recommending The Singularity Is Near, he defends the author Ray Kurzweil against charges of techno-quackery, though the futurist’s predictions have grown more desperate and fantastic as he’s aged. It’s not that what he predicts can’t ever be be done, but his timelines seem to me way too aggressive.
Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, another choice, is a very academic work, though an important one. Interesting that Bostrom thinks advanced AI is a greater existential threat to humans than even climate change. (I hope I’ve understood the philosopher correctly in that interpretation.) The next book is Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, which I enjoyed, but I prefer Chace’s fourth choice, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, which covers the same terrain of technological unemployment with, I think, greater rigor and insight. The final suggestion is one I haven’t read, Greg Egan’s sci-fi novel Permutation City, which concerns intelligence uploading and wealth inequality.
An excerpt about Kurzweil:
Let’s talk more about some of these themes as we go through the books you’ve chosen. The first one on your list is The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil. He thinks things are moving along pretty quickly, and that a superintelligence might be here soon.
He does. He’s fantastically optimistic. He thinks that in 2029 we will have AGI. And he’s thought that for a long time, he’s been saying it for years. He then thinks we’ll have an intelligence explosion and achieve uploading by 2045. I’ve never been entirely clear what he thinks will happen in the 16 years in between. He probably does have quite detailed ideas, but I don’t think he’s put them to paper. Kurzweil is important because he, more than anybody else, has made people think about these things. He has amazing ideas in his books—like many of the ideas in everybody’s books they’re not completely original to him—but he has been clearly and loudly propounding the idea that we will have AGI soon and that it will create something like utopia. I came across him in 1999 when I read his book, Are We Spiritual Machines? The book I’m suggesting here is The Singularity is Near, published in 2005. The reason why I point people to it is that it’s very rigorous. A lot of people think Kurzweil is a snake-oil salesman or somebody selling a religious dream. I don’t agree. I don’t agree with everything he says and he is very controversial. But his book is very rigorous in setting out a lot of the objections to his ideas and then tackling them. He’s brave, in a way, in tackling everything head-on, he has answers for everything.
Can you tell me a bit more about what ‘the singularity’ is and why it’s near?
The singularity is borrowed from the world of physics and math where it means an event at which the normal rules break down. The classic example is a black hole. There’s a bit of radiation leakage but basically, if you cross it, you can’t get back out and the laws of physics break down. Applied to human affairs, the singularity is the idea that we will achieve some technological breakthrough. The usual one is AGI. The machine becomes as smart as humans and continues to improve and quickly becomes hundreds, thousands, millions of times smarter than the smartest human. That’s the intelligence explosion. When you have an entity of that level of genius around, things that were previously impossible become possible. We get to an event horizon beyond which the normal rules no longer apply.
I’ve also started using it to refer to a prior event, which is the ‘economic singularity.’ There’s been a lot of talk, in the last few months, about the possibility of technological unemployment. Again, it’s something we don’t know for sure will happen, and we certainly don’t know when. But it may be that AIs—and to some extent their peripherals, robots—will become better at doing any job than a human. Better, and cheaper. When that happens, many or perhaps most of us can no longer work, through no fault of our own. We will need a new type of economy. It’s really very early days in terms of working out what that means and how to get there. That’s another event that’s like a singularity — in that it’s really hard to see how things will operate at the other side.•
Long before everyone was a brand, James Michener was one. His name connected to a huge pile of words on pretty much any topic guaranteed a large advance and sales. He was far from a graceful writer, though that never impeded his success, which was propelled by an indefatigable zest for research. With his production methods and prolificity, he was almost a one-man corporation.
In 1983, as he did fieldwork for his proposed novel about Texas (which ended up, in Michener-esque fashion, being titled Texas), Andrea Chambers of Peoplepenned a profile of the septuagenarian scribe. The opening:
A sultry heat shrouded the groves of live oaks and the goat pastures on the edge of the Texas hill country as a state trooper drove down Interstate 35 from Austin to San Antonio. “This is the most dangerous highway in America,” he told his passenger, James Michener. “Going south is dangerous because there are stolen cars on the road to Mexico; heading north is even more dangerous because of the cocaine and marijuana smugglers coming up from Mexico.” Michener made a mental note of this statement, just as he had carefully considered the story, told him by a Texas banker, about a man who had deposited $1.25 million in his checking account. It seems that the man’s wife was going to New York City to shop, and he wanted her to be able to write all the checks she wanted. “This state has possibilities,” concluded the author. “How can I lose?”
How indeed. The 31 books of James Albert Michener have been translated into more than 50 languages, nine movies, four television shows and one musical, South Pacific. His novels, such as Chesapeake, Centennial and The Covenant, generally hit the top of best-seller lists within a week or so of their official publication date. Michener’s latest, Space, has held the No. 1 spot for six months and is tentatively scheduled to appear as a 10-part CBS miniseries next year. By that time Michener fans will have been presented with his opus on Poland, a multi-generational historical novel he finished researching and writing nearly a year ago.
And then there is Texas, where the Wild West still lives and money spills off in rolls, like paper towels. Michener is now one and a half years deep into researching his saga of the state, beginning in 1527, when the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca set off to explore the New World, and ending in 1984. “Have you ever met anyone who was inordinately, spiritually proud of being from New Hampshire?” he asks. “Here people love this state. They have a passion for Texas.” So has the Pennsylvania-raised Michener. Sporting a string tie and Stetson, he crisscrosses Texas, using as a base a rented Austin ranch house he shares with his wife, Mari. “I went to a dance hall outside Kerrville where there were 2,000 cowboys and their ladies,” the author recalls. “I saw fellas dancing with their hats on and gals in gingham. There it was, a little world nobody in Pittsburgh would ever have imagined. I was there very happily. I fit in rather easily.”
He felt right at home, too, spending four days on duty with a Texas Ranger in Big Bend country and following every foot of the Natchez Trace to trek the course of the early emigrants toward Texas. Quail hunting on the 823,000-acre King Ranch was especially appealing. “Seeing the shooting skill of those society women—boom, boom—was very sobering,” he says. “There is an illusion of a man’s world here. It may be a myth.” Another dubious myth is the shallow kingdom of lust and lucre displayed on the evening TV soaps. “I have to be very careful not to write a Yale University version of Dallas. I have to avoid the stereotypes.” He is also largely avoiding some of Texas’ great families—the Kings, the Hunts and, especially, the Johnsons. “I am not capable of dealing with Lyndon,” he says. “You would have to give him a disproportionate amount of space to do him even unequal justice. Besides, I am not obligated to cover everything.” What he will cover is the story of ranchers, cotton planters, oilmen and land developers, as well as the fate of the English, Spanish, Mexican, Scotch-Irish, German and other groups who settled in the state. Great historical figures, such as the Mexican general Santa Anna, Sam Houston and Cabeza de Vaca, will weave in and out of the plot.
To research the scene, Michener spends long hours reading at home or at his office at the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas in Austin, where he is a visiting scholar (he has devoured 400 books so far). “You can’t go out and just whomp it up. You have to be prepared,” he says. On his field trips, Michener may fill his senses with the smell of Texas winter wheat or the sight of grazing long-horns. He also seeks out local folk who can tell him what their jobs are like. “You don’t choose a dodo,” he explains. “If you’re going to pick a Mexican sheepherder, pick a good one.”
At 7:30 one morning just before his 76th birthday, Michener is off on yet another trip through the state. At the wheel of the car is his trusted “project editor,” John Kings, 59, a former editor of Reader’s Digest. An Englishman, Kings served as Michener’s field adviser and all-around organizer on Centennial and is doing the same for the Texas book. Mari Michener, 62, and Lisa Kaufman, 26, the novelist’s administrative assistant, are also along for the journey from Austin to San Antonio and exotic points west.
First stop is Fredericksburg (pop. 6,412) for coffee at a small café decorated with red-checkered tablecloths and a giant painted Comanche. Michener, a foundling whose early childhood was impoverished, relishes simple eateries as much as he likes a good cheap hotel and down-to-earth, salty conversation. “Aren’t you James Michener? I enjoyed your deal on Spain,” says a husky man in a hunter’s hat, referring to Michener’s 1968 non-fiction work Iberia. Jim, as his friends call him, quickly pulls up a chair and joins the man and his pals for coffee and doughnuts. Within a few minutes he has learned all about their jobs as well as a few tidbits about business practices in the area. There is something about Michener’s avuncular style that encourages people to tell him everything about themselves. The novelist absorbs it all, occasionally jotting down a number or date. For the most part, he relies on his memory to store the facts and feelings he will later pour into the novel.
His impressions of the café crowd duly recorded, Michener moves on to Comfort (pop. 1,460), home of the state’s only armadillo farm. “It’s bloody amazing,” he says. “It’s as if you had a skunk farm.” These slow-witted, shell-encased “Hoover hogs” (they were eaten like pork during the Depression) are run over on the roads by Texans, but are valuable for medical research. But to Michener, “The fact that they are so visibly ancient and that they have migrated north from Mexico becomes related to everything I’m writing about.” Promising that an armadillo will figure prominently in his novel, he strides forth to the wire coop where 26 of them are burrowing under hay. “Hello, little fella,” he clucks delightedly and swoops one up. His wife lets out a squeal of protest. “Oh, Cookie,” he says (the Micheners call each other “Cookie”), “they don’t scratch badly. I have handled wild hyenas, so I can handle this.”
Unscathed and overeducated with facts about the armadillo’s eating, reproductive and sleeping habits (they devour June bugs and dog food, breed four identical offspring from one egg, and emerge primarily at night), Michener is off again. After a stop at a restaurant for liver and onions (“I keep hoping I’ll find an edible chicken-fried steak,” he says of one prized Texas delicacy) and a visit to a Union war memorial in Comfort, he arrives at the ranch of Bob Ramsey and his wife, Willie. Michener, who likes to visit places two and three times, has already gone deer hunting near the Ramsey spread. Family and friends have gathered to welcome him back and proffer books to be signed. Michener inscribes them all. (“I only put my initials in paperbacks,” he jokes.) He is given a jar of venison jerky, a piece of hill country flint, Mrs. Ramsey’s etching, on a limestone slab, of a turkey, quail and armadillo, and a leather hatband adorned with arrowheads for his Stetson.
Visibly pleased, Michener pushes on to the nearby Frio River, a shallow waterway with such a smooth riverbed that a car can be driven down its center. Jim, naturally, tries it out, riding in the back of Bob Ramsey’s pickup. He then resumes his trip, gazing out at the cattle pastures and the windmills turning lazily against the darkening sky. “I love the expansiveness of this world,” he says. “I can hardly wait to get up in the morning and see it all. I’ve never been bored.”
In the course of his two-day trip, Michener will pace the boundaries of the Alamo so that he can better understand the battle, visit the Spanish Governor’s Palace and stroll the grounds of San Antonio’s San Juan Capistrano mission, which dates from 1731. He will also knock off some spicy Mexican meals, over which he discourses eloquently—for example, on the country with the most beautiful women (Burma) and on his literary influences (Milton, Dickens, Keats, the Bible, Wordsworth). He can describe in detail the floor plan of the Louvre or the Prado and can sing many of the world’s great operatic arias. Proud of his erudition, the Swarthmore-educated Michener quips that his epitaph will read: “Here lies James A. Michener, a man who never showed home movies or drank vin rosé.”
Back in his Austin study, he entertains himself with tapes of Bach or his new discovery, Willie Nelson, and sips pineapple juice. Then he diligently resumes work on his book, typing with two fingers. “I have never been big on the agony of writing,” he says. “I see no evidence that Tolstoy suffered from writer’s block.” Still, he frets that this novel will be his last. “I often think: ‘How will I hold all this together?’ ”
Most likely he will, and then go on to another epic.•
I’m all for incentivizing the exploration of space as long as its done with sane regulations, though it is strange that the United States has unilaterally privatized asteroids and the like, making it finders keepers for American corporations that lay claim to pieces of the final frontier.Granted, trying to get the whole world on the same page for global guidelines would be difficult, but certainly some wider agreement would be helpful since we’re not likely to be the only nation pioneering out there. Hopefully this solitary move will force a worldwide discussion that results in a broader consensus.
The United States Senate has passed theSpace Act of 2015, which includes a range of legislative changes intended to boost the US space industry.
Perhaps the most significant part are measures allowing US citizens to engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of “space resources,” with examples including includes water and minerals. The right to exploit resources covers anything in space that isn’t alive – so if a commercial exploration team discovers microbial life, they can’t exploit it for profit.
For the purposes of this bill a “citizen of the United States” is defined as “(A) an individual who is a citizen of the United States”, “(B) an entity organized or existing under the laws of the United States or a State” or “an entity organized or existing under the laws of a foreign country if the controlling interest (as defined by the Secretary of Transportation) is held by an individual or entity described in subclause (A) or (B) of this clause”.
That means not only individuals but also corporations, including those that are not wholly US owned, qualify as US citizens for the purpose of mineral exploitation in space. For example, Richard Branson is a British citizen, but he’s an investor in Planetary Resources, a self-described “asteroid mining company” that has been heavily involved in lobbying in favor of the Space Act. As a result, he’s likely to be one of the first British people to profit from US commercial asteroid mining.•
Technology won’t make us poorer, at least not in the aggregate. Distribution could be a thorny problem, but there are worse things than having to come up with political solutions to close a yawning wealth inequality in a time of plenty.
In his latest Financial Times column, Andrew McAfee focuses on a different issue concerning to him in regards to technological unemployment: the devil and idle (non-robotic) hands. He cites the alarming Case-Deaton findings of a scary spike in the mortality rate of white, middle-aged Americans, believing the collapse of industrial jobs and of communities is a matter of causation, with the former prompting the latter.
It’s difficult to know for sure if that’s so, but it’s possible McAfee is on to something. Already it seems we’ve become too much a nation anesthetized by prescription painkillers, fantasy football and smartphones, not willing to take a good look in the mirror, unless it’s the black mirror. Sure, there’s nothing new in feeling lost, but you only get to find yourself through a life lived with purpose. My best guess is that people in a less-workcentric world will eventually find new kinds of purpose, but the transition may be a bumpy one.
So what happens when the industrial-era jobs that underpinned the middle class start to go away? Voltaire offered a prescient caution when he observed that: “Work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”
Of the three of these, I’m the least worried about need. Trade and technological progress, after all, make a society wealthier in aggregate. The problem that they bring is not one of scarcity — of not enough to go around. Instead, they bring up thorny questions of allocation.
But rather than spending time on that issue here (if you’re interested, Erik Brynjolfsson and I dedicate a lot of our bookThe Second Machine Age to it), I want to focus on Voltaire’s other two evils, boredom and vice. How bad are they? How worried should we be about them?
I sometimes hear the argument that we shouldn’t be that worried at all. If we don’t need people’s labour, this logic goes, why should we care what they do with their time? Why should traditional notions of boredom and vice matter? If people want to drink, take drugs, engage in casual sex or play video games all day, where’s the harm? These are not the most conventionally respectable or productive activities, but why should we let convention continue to hold sway?•
Eugenics has always been such a horrible thing–a Nazi thing!–hardly anyone wanted to think about, let alone speak its name. But what if the technologies have changed so much that eugenics isn’t a brutal thing about death but a noble one about a better life? How can we ignore it then?
In the torrent of recent stories about the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool, it’s become clear that we’re at the dawn of new possibilities to eliminate diseases, and, yes, enhance humans who aren’t ailing in any traditional sense.
In Jennifer Kahn’s New York Times Magazine piece, a scientist says, “There’s an almost frantic feeling of discovery. Crispr has made so many experiments possible.” With those possibilities come responsibilities, of course, but part of that burden will be to throw off entrenched beliefs and see the world anew.
Some of the thorniest questions may be asked of parents, who’ll have wade into that sci-fi-ish territory known as designer babies. From Erik Parens’ Aeon article “Made to Order“:
If a technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to safely and effectively treat diseases or create what some see as improvements in future generations, we would have to face the question we didn’t need to face back in 1990 when the Human Genome Project was getting off the ground. Even if it won’t be possible to use this technology to alter the sorts of hugely complex traits – say, intelligence – that are envisioned in sci-fi movies such as Gattaca (1997), it might be possible to use it to edit out some disease traits, especially rare ones that result from mutations in single genes. More ambitiously, perhaps it could be used to edit in some enhancements such as muscles of greater strength or bones of greater length. Whatever the traits, once the fig leaves of safety and efficacy fall away and we have a technology that can alter the traits of future generations, the naked ethical question stares back at us: is eugenics, really, inherently bad?
That seemingly simple question takes us to the heart of a deep tension that decent parents have felt for a very long time, but that will become ever more intense if a technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 is in fact safe and effective. I refer here to the tension between the ethical obligation of parents to accept their children as they are, and their ethical obligation to shape them. This technology could become yet one more site of cultural polarisation – a high-tech variation on the already high-pitched debate between ‘Tiger Moms’, who are whole-heartedly committed to shaping their children, and ‘Elephant Moms’, who are equally whole-heartedly committed to letting their children unfold in their own ways. (The more accurate formulation would be between Tiger and Elephant Parents, but that isn’t the one being deployed today.) On the other hand, and far more optimistically, this technology could create the opportunity to sustain – as opposed to resolve – the enormous tension between the obligations to shaping and accepting.
Grasping the nature of this tension in the context of embryo editing forces us to revisit the question, ‘Is eugenics inherently bad?’ It forces us to see why it won’t be enough to assert, ‘You can’t do that, it’s eugenics!’ — and why we need to distinguish between good and bad eugenic practices. That will not be an easy distinction, and attempting to make it may be fraught with social danger. Nonetheless, we need to start along that path if we want to face the future with intellectual and ethical integrity.•
Positions traditionally seen as starter jobs or bridge positions have become permanent ones for many people in the post-collapse economy, which is part of the reason you see the campaign for $15 minimum wage. Unfortunately, this type of low-skill employment is most easily replaced by Weak AI, which is developing quickly. If Toyota’s just-announced $1 billion investment in AI is any indication, that process will only speed up. What then becomes of the bellhop, shelf-picker and fast-food worker?
From Heather Kelly’s CNN report about Tally, the inventory robot:
Retail stores typically have human employees who roam the floors, manually taking inventory with handled devices.
In a mid-sized store like a Walgreens, there are between 10,000 and 20,000 products for sale. Bogolea says it takes an employee 20 to 30 hours a week to audit all those items.
One Tally robot can scan 15,000 items in an hour.
Completely autonomous, Tally moves four feet at a time before pausing to take high-resolution photographs of everything on store shelves. It tags the images with metadata, like an exact location, and uploads them to the cloud. The system then matches those images against a store’s files of what exactly that shelf should look like and instantly creates reports.
If Tally sees the cereal aisle is low on Cheerios, an employee can quickly restock that shelf.•
We’re clever enough to kill ourselves en masse, that much we know, but are we adequately creative to save our species from a human-made disaster that seems more and more likely to visit devastation upon us? Can the collateral damage caused by our intelligence be undone with more intelligence?
In an Atlantic post, Ross Andersen interviews Oliver Morton, author of The Planet Remade, and wonders if we need to be more aggressively redesigning our environment. As he writes, “the geoengineers offer us a third way,” one beyond status quo as we attempt to worm our way through the Anthropocene, and immediately abandoning the fossil fuels we heavily rely upon.
Even the seemingly outré proposals bandied about by scientists and technologists don’t seem theoretically impossible, but most aren’t feasible in the near future, and they certainly will have their own unintended consequences. I would think geoengineering is certainly a piece of the answer as we move forward, but a dedicated effort to change the way we go about business better accompany it.
In your book, you argue that it would be impossible to transition away from fossil fuels quickly, because our current global-energy infrastructure simply can’t be replaced within a single generation. Can you give me a sense of the scale of that infrastructure? What would need replacing?
Well, you have to remember that over 80 percent of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels—and the world uses a lot of energy, and will be using even more energy soon. There are, after all, a large number of people who still don’t have access to modern energy services. In the beginning of the 20th century, no one lived the sort of life that well-off people in developing countries live or aspire to. Now about 1.6 to 2 billion people live that kind of life. And that’s great, but there are 5 billion people who aren’t leading that kind of life. They are going to use a lot of energy.
At the end of this century there will be 9 or 10 billion people on the face of the planet. You would kind of hope that in a century’s time, they would all have the access to energy that you and I enjoy. That would mean going from 2 billion people with access to 10 billion, a much larger increase than we saw during the 20th century.
Of course, there’s a huge amount that we can do with better energy technology over the course of the 21st century. But as the world develops, I think there’s still going to be an awful lot of fossil fuels burned. I think it’s a fundamental mistake to think that with just a bit more political will, you can suddenly go to a zero-carbon world.•