Jackson MeadTuesday,12 March 2013

The Snap:

This is the final part of my conversation with Marshall Brain. In this part we discuss some thoughts on technology and how it shapes society as well as a vision of the future where humans become “irrelevant”. His new book is called, “Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future”.

Editor’s note: Please also see Part 1 and Part 2 of Jackson Mead’s conversation with Marshall Brain.

The Download:

JM: The Snap Download is pinning part of its success on being contrarian. How do you think your viewpoints are contrarian or possibly irreverent?

MB: America’s capitalistic system is not working for many, possibly most, people right now. We could sit here and list a hundred reasons why, and several of the reasons are mentioned above. As automation eliminates more and more jobs, as the concentration of wealth increases, as corporate power in the political sphere continues rising, as police forces become more militarized, as wealth gerrymanders more political districts, etc., the problems with capitalism will amplify.

We will need to replace capitalism with a much better system (see Manna), or we will need to fundamentally alter what we think of as capitalism today (for example, eliminate the ability to accumulate significant wealth as described in Robotic Freedom). Currently these are not popular ideas. But as capitalism increases in its dysfunctionality, enough people may come around that we can effect change and create a much better society for everyone.

JM: Often, if you get your point out first it is believed no matter the evidence to the contrary. Technology seems to have magnified this problem with politicians, routinely using this to do what they think is best (for themselves and not necessarily their constituents). Many people still insist there are WMDs in Iraq and that there was an Al Qaida, for example. Has technology shaped the way politics is executed?

MB: What are you really asking? When you say, “many people still insist there are WMDs in Iraq”, perhaps the sub-question behind it is, “what do we do with uninformed voters and irrational people?” or “what do we do with voters who are unwilling or unable to look at evidence?”

This is not really a new problem. For example, many people today believe that carrots improve eyesight. That myth comes from propoganda introduced in World War II.

It is fascinating that the Obama campaign could focus its campaign on individual voters, then organize an army of volunteers, and then make a credible attempt to individually contact every potential Obama voter. Technology shaped politics in that case.

Now we need to create similarly fascinating systems so that we can raise and then solve the big problems that 300 million people face in a way that is generally equitable to all of them.

JM: How has technology and the internet shaped religious beliefs?

MB: There are so many things I could say here – I have a book I have been working on for 5 years. Perhaps when that book comes out we can have another conversation.

What the Internet is doing is allowing formerly suppressed ideas to see the light of day. In the past, newspapers, books, radio and television were all tightly controlled mediums, largely because of the cost of entry. The people who ran the companies acted as gatekeepers on ideas. The Internet, YouTube, etc. allow a level playing field, and ideas of all types can now flourish. Ideas like marijuana legalization, LGBT rights, atheism, etc. get seen by wider audiences. Religion was largely protected for many centuries. Technology allows religion’s critics to get the word out.

JM: Cynically, one of the problems I had when I was online dating was that I had no way of knowing if I was chatting up a bot or a real person for my monthly fee. How do you think technology has shaped sex and relationships and finding one’s “soulmate”?

MB: Sex, mating and reproduction are woven into the human psyche so deeply that it is difficult to have a rational perspective on it. There is a chapter on beauty in “The Day You Discard Your Body” that is kind of mind boggling.

Silly things like eye spacing, nose width and skin smoothness have a near universal effect on the human brain. That programming leads to lust. Then there is porn layered on top of that, made nearly ubiquitous by the Internet. Then the psychological differences between men and women. Then the brain chemistry (e.g. Oxytocin) behind love. The human emotions – love, anger, jealousy, kindness, etc. that drive relationships. The biological clock. And then all of the human preferences and differences. For example, I don’t understand sports (see part II of interview). Many other people cannot live without sports. Humans can have strong differences like that across hundreds of parameters. All of this stuff happens whether we have “technology” or not.

How many people could any of us make a life with? There are 7 billion people – there are probably thousands that any given person could be compatible with. A lot has to do with how mature, kind, flexible, polite and empathetic the other person is. So the idea of a “soulmate” – a unique pairing that is “meant to be” is pretty ridiculous. But it is a persistent myth. That idea, plus ubiquitous porn, plus a million ads, movies and shows that push the beauty idea, plus romance novels, plus selfishness… all of those things work together to raise expectations. They probably raise the expectations to a level where, for many people, there is no way for a “normal” human being to meet all the expectations.

All of this stuff and more wraps together in the question you are asking.

Perhaps the thing to do with all of this technology is to educate people – help people to be more mature and effective in relationships. Help them to have reasonable expectations. Help them understand how to make relationships work. Help them to understand how to deal with stress, pressure, financial problems, disagreements, anger, etc. in appropriate ways within a relationship. Help them to realize that two people, even though not perfect, and not perfectly matched, can build lives together that are much greater than the sum of the parts.

Imagine a website that could accomplish all of this. Perhaps it has tools that help couples get through rough spots and reach their maximum potential together. That might be a good use of technology.

JM: Guns (firing projectiles to inflict devastating damage on an individual) will be replaced by the next big thing – what is it and when? That is, what is the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” clause going to be protecting 50 or 100 years from now when guns become obsolete?

MB: The “firing projectiles with gunpowder” paradigm is pretty robust. Bullets that you load into a gun are cheap, small, have a very high energy density, are stable for long periods of time, have high firing rates (several per second) and are very reliable. Putting large holes in people is an effective way to slow them down or kill them. No battery today can match the energy density, stability, firing rate or reliability of gunpowder. A battery breakthrough might make a rail-gun possible, but it is still projectile based.

So if we are going to think of a new type of weapon, we would have to imagine something that can disrupt a human being from a distance that is small like a gun. A pain beam maybe (the army has several variants)? A blaster (same effect as a bullet without the projectile)? Something that temporarily shuts down the nervous system (which the taser does, but it has some problems)? Something that blanks the brain for 10 minutes or inhibits the circuits that power evil? That last one is what the “refs” are doing in Manna by the way.

One thing that humans could do as a species would be to completely eliminate “arms” – everything from handguns to nuclear bombs. And then figure out a way to eliminate evil. But that is not currently possible, so we find ourselves in our current situation.

JM: You have 4 children — what is your biggest concern for them as a father as they grow into adulthood and start families of their own?

MB: Today – just today – I hope that my kids can avoid getting sick or injured, I hope they travel safely, I hope they are safe at school, in the neighborhood and at home, I hope that they don’t make any stupid mistakes involving drugs, sex, naked photos of themselves or others, breaking rules/laws, pissing people off, crossing the street, stepping into harm’s way, etc. And I hope I get to spend some time with them loving them today. If I can keep all of that together, just today, it is a good day.

That ignores the existential threats at a larger scale – a terrorist’s tactical nuke, asteroid strike, plague, power grid collapse, freak tornado, home invasion, kidnapping, unpredicted volcanic eruption in the southeast, etc. When I think beyond today into the future, I hope I can help my kids start businesses, or get them through college, so they can make a decent living in a rapidly evolving and increasingly unfair economy.

And at the largest scale, I would like to help change society so that the economy is fair and the wealth created by automation flows to everyone rather than a few.

JM: My cousin was murdered by her spouse leaving behind her children and family along with an “active” Facebook page- with people leaving her posts periodically. Has the Internet given everyone immortality, if not fame?

MB: I don’t think the internet gives us immortality. It gives us a more elaborate tombstone, and in that sense your cousin is fortunate to have a Facebook tombstone. On a typical tombstone we carve the name, two dates and maybe an epitaph or phrase. A left-over facebook account adds pictures to that, some posts, but it really isn’t that much more.

A person is a highly complex organism. A few photos and posts on FB are nothing compared to a living, interacting human being. My father died when I was 15. What I have left is a few photos, some artifacts he owned or built, and some fading memories. My wife’s father is still alive, and I have a great relationship with him. There is absolutely no comparison.

JM: One hundred years from now will your website’s pages still be active and will a robotic avatar have access to all of that information and possibly our consciousness? Will our avatars be able to have an exchange similar to this one, then?

MB: In 100 years, human beings will likely be irrelevant, in the same way that we see chimps, birds or grasshoppers as irrelevant today.

Let’s say that, through environmental degradation, habitat loss and poaching, chimps go extinct. Would it matter to us? Would humans really care? Not really, because chimps are irrelevant. They are animals, and we can take them or leave them. Chimpanzees are currently declining in the wild at a rate of almost 5% per year.

So what will happen to humans with the rise of robotic intelligence? Probably the same kind of irrelevance. In 100 years, we will have successfully developed the second intelligent species on the planet. Right now, humans are the only intelligent species, but 50 years from now (possibly less) we will have robotic intelligence that matches that of a human adult. From there, robotic intelligence will keep improving and increasing (doubling every few years probably). Eventually, robotic intelligence will so far exceed human intelligence that humans will be irrelevant to them. That seems like the most probable path.

But let’s say that that robots allow humans to continue to exist in the same way that humans allow birds to exist today (nearby, interesting but irrelevant). Will anyone visit One thing the kids and I have created to try to keep relevant 100 years from now is a feature called The Time Capsule Video Project. The idea is to create videos that show what life is like today, so future generations can see for themselves (and probably laugh at how primitive we are today). 100 years from now, that project might have an audience. People will also be able to look back at what I wrote about the future and see how accurate or inaccurate I was.

Either way, it will be fun to see what happens.

JM: Thanks again for your time any last thoughts for today?

MB: I appreciate your asking all these questions. They have made me think, which is always good. I hope that the answers have prompted some interesting thoughts in your own head.


Hat Tips:

Marshall Brain, Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, Robotic Freedom, Carrots, The Day You Discard Your Body, Bye-bye Chimpy, The Time Capsule Video Project, Image Credit: Flickr, A Conversation with Marshall Brain – Part 1, A Conversation with Marshall Brain – Part 2

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  1. […] note: Please also see Part 2 and Part 3 of Jackson Mead’s conversation with Marshall […]

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