Sean Illing

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Smarter, stronger and healthier are just a few of the advantages bioengineering and informatic machines will deliver to us, likely sometime this century. By then, our hands will have taken control of evolution, and our heads will be in the cloud. These miracle tools will also be attended by a raft of ethical issues and unintended consequences.

In an excellent Vox Q&A conducted by Sean Illing, Michael Bess, author of Our Grandchildren Redesignedbelieves the ETA for this brave new world is 2050 or so. He fears the possibility of a whole new different level of wealth inequality, but he doesn’t think we should be overly deterministic about the effects of these technologies, arguing we can consciously direct their course despite not really having the time to get ahead of the onrushing problems.

In a perfectly flat world, sure. In a globe filled with competing states and corporations and groups and individuals, however, there will be no consensus. Some actors will push the envelope, hoping for an edge, and others may react in kind. This dynamic will be especially true since the machinery and materials won’t be rare, expensive and closely held, like in the case of nuclear weaponry. As Freeman Dyson has written: “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.”

An excerpt:

Sean Illing:

And this revolution in biotechnology, in the ability to tinker with the human genome and alter our own biology, is coming whether we want it to or not, right?

Michael Bess:

It is, but I’m always careful about saying that, because I don’t want to fall into technological determinism. Some of the writers like Ray Kurzweil, the American inventor and futurist, have tended to do that. They say it’s coming whether we like it or not, and we need to adapt ourselves to it.

But I don’t see technology that way, and I think most historians of technology don’t see it that way either. They see technology and society as co-constructing each other over time, which gives human beings a much greater space for having a say in which technologies will be pursued and what direction we will take, and how much we choose to have them come into our lives and in what ways.

And I think that is important to emphasize — that we still have agency. We may not be able to stop the river from flowing, but we can channel it down pathways that are more or less aligned with our values. I think that’s a very important point to make when we talk about this.

What’s happening is bigger than any one of us, but as we communicate with each other, we can assert our values and shape it as it unfolds over time, and channel it on a course that we’d prefer.

Sean Illing:

Whatever shape it does take, we’re not talking about some distant future here — we’re talking about the middle years of this century, right?

Michael Bess:

Absolutely.

Sean Illing:

How will human life improve as a result of this revolution?

Michael Bess:

I think it’s going to improve in countless ways. These are going to be technologies that are hard to resist because they’re going to be so awesome. They’re going to make us live longer, healthier lives, and they’re going to make us feel younger.

So some of the scientists and doctors are talking about rejuvenation technologies so that people can live — have a longer, not only life span, but health span — which would mean that you could be 100 years old but feel like a 45-year-old, and your mind and body would still be young and vigorous and clear. So one aspect has to do with just quality of basic health and having that for a longer period of time.

Some of these chemicals — maybe some of the new bioelectronic devices — will allow us to improve our cognitive capacities. So we’ll be able to have probably augmented memory, maybe greater insight, maybe we’ll be able to boost some of the analytical functions that we have with our minds. And, in other words, sort of in a broad-spectrum way, make ourselves smarter than we have tended to be.

There will also be a tendency for us to merge our daily lives, our daily activities, ever more seamlessly with informatic machines. It’s science fiction now to talk about Google being accessible by thought, but that’s not as farfetched as many people think. In 30 or 40 years, it’s possible to envision brain-machine interfaces that you can wear, maybe fitted to the outside of your skull in a sort of nonintrusive way, that’ll allow you to connect directly with all kinds of machines and control them at a distance, so your sphere of power over the world around you could be greatly expanded.

And then there’s genetic technologies. I imagine that some of them will be a resistance to cancer — or perhaps to certain forms of cancer — that could be engineered into our DNA at the time of conception. What’s more exciting to me is going beyond the whole concept of designer babies and this whole new field of epigenetics that is coming out.

What I see there as a possibility is that you’ll be able to tinker with the genetic component of what makes us who we are at any point in your life. One of the most awful aspects of designer babies is somebody’s shaping you before you’re born — there’s a loss of autonomy that’s deeply morally troubling to many people. But if you’re 21 years old and you decide, okay, now I’m going to inform myself and make these choices very thoughtfully, and I’m going to shape the genetic component of my being in precise, targeted ways.

The way it’s looking with epigenetics is we’re going to have tools that allow us to modify our character, the way our body works, the way our mental processes work, in very profound ways at any point in our lives, so we become a genetic work in progress.

Sean Illing:

What you’re describing is utterly transformative, and in many ways terrifying.•

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“No one wants to admit that our half-measures aren’t working and won’t work” is something that needed to be said by the Presidential candidates this election season in regards to the dying of the Industrial Age, the irreversible decline of manufacturing jobs and the potential attenuation of many other types of employment. No such discussion was had, however, as a vulgar Mussolini-Lampanelli clown shouted and taunted and danced. The future will likely arrive most ferociously for those very working-class people most drawn to his spectacle.

Those quote was actually delivered to Sean Illing of Vox, in an interview with Andy Stern, former union president and current Universal Basic Income advocate who fears a Hunger Games future for most of America if policy doesn’t address the challenges that will attend widespread automation. The Raising the Floor author also addresses another perplexing topic: What if we get UBI and most people aren’t working? What would we do with all that free time? I almost shudder. Lots of people who have a life-or-death need for Medicare, Social Security and the Affordable Care Act just voted for a party desperate to be rid of those things. Imagine the trouble we could get into if food and shelter were assured.

An excerpt:

Question:

Let’s pivot from unions to universal basic income, which is a cardinal issue for you these days. In your book, Raising the Floor, you conclude that a UBI will eventually be necessary. Can you say, first, what UBI means and, second, why you think we need it?

Andy Stern:

A universal basic income is essentially giving every single working-age American a check every month, much like we do with social security for elderly people. It’s an unconditional stipend, as it were.

The reason it’s necessary is we’re now learning through lots of reputable research that technological change is accelerating, and that this process will continue to displace workers and terminate careers. A significant number of tasks now performed by humans will be performed by machines and artificial intelligence. We could very well see 5 million jobs eliminated by the end of the decade because of technology.

We’ve already seen Uber-deployed driverless cars in Pittsburgh, and driverless trucks will be deployed in the next five to six years — we’ve already seen them across Europe. The largest job in 29 states is driving a truck. There are 3 and a half million people who operate trucks and 5 million more who support them in various ways.

So there’s a tsunami of change on its way, and the question is twofold. One is how does America go through a transition to what will be I think an economy with far fewer jobs — particularly middle-class jobs? What policies will guide us through this transition? And second, what do we want this to look like on the other end?

I believe a UBI is a way to ease the transition, and it’s also a way to provide a floor for people — not necessarily a substitute for work, but a supplement to work that allows them to have a sense of economic security, have consumer buying power. We want to allow people to be entrepreneurs, to take risks and raise kids and do other things without turning the world into the Hunger Games.

Question:

Obviously you’re an advocate for a UBI, but I’d like to hear what you think is the most compelling counterargument against UBI.

Andy Stern:

Certainly our concept of work is problematic. This is a country in which people have not figured out what to do if they don’t work for money. I think there are many other ways that people potentially can work but, psychologically, the Protestant work ethic is embedded in the psyche of our country. The idea that someone would get something for nothing is anathema here. People that work feel like those who don’t shouldn’t be rewarded. It’s just an alien concept.•

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Really wonderful conversation between Sean Illing of Vox and the economist Tyler Cowen, whose thinking I always admire even when I disagree with him. The two discuss, among other topics, the Internet, biotech, politics, war, Kanye West and the “most dangerous idea in history.” An excerpt:

Question:

How do you view the internet and its impact on human life?

Tyler Cowen:

The internet is great for weirdos. The pre-internet era was not very good for weirdos. I think in some ways we’re still overrating the internet as a whole. It’s wonderful for manipulating information, which appeals to the weirdos. Now it’s going to start changing our physical reality in a way that will be another productivity boom. So I’m very pro-internet.

Question:

What do you think will be the next major technological breakthrough?

Tyler Cowen:

If you mean a single thing that you could put in a single headline, I would say self-driving vehicles. But I think a deeper and more important thing will be a subtle integration of software and hardware in way that will change everything and won’t have a single name.

Question:

Are you thinking here of the singularity or of something less radical?

Tyler Cowen:

No, nothing like the singularity. But software embedded in devices that will get better and smarter and more interactive and thoughtful, and we’ll be able to do things that we’ll eventually take for granted and we won’t even call them anything.

Question:

Do you think technology is outpacing our politics in dangerous, unpredictable ways?

Tyler Cowen:

Of course it is. And the last time technology outpaced politics, it ended in a very ugly manner, with two world wars. So I worry about that. You get new technologies. People try to use them for conquest and extortion. I’ve no predictions as to how that will play out, but I think there’s at least a good chance that we will look back on this era of relative technological stagnancy and say, “Wasn’t that wonderful?”•

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