Episode 190 - Contrary Space
Published July 23, 2015
SPECIAL GUEST: David Brin. New Horizons. SETI/METI. The Singularity and Transhumanism. The Internet. On this episode we're joined by sci-fi author and scientist David Brin, to take a look at the technologies and social changes that are transforming the world before our very eyes. While pessimism may be fashionable, when you really stand back and look at it, we are part of an amazing civilization. Take a contrary trip into the future with David and the guys. Recorded 7/19/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
David's blog, Contrary Brin
David on Twitter
David on self-righteousness
Our favorite cliché: A World Filled With Idiots, by David Brin
The Future Is Here, with David Brin
Slideshare for The Future Is Here
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #190. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is science fiction author David Brin. David, thanks for joining us.
David Brin: Oh, well that’s fine, Mike and Matt. You have a nifty exploratory community going.
MJ: So David, for people who aren’t familiar with your background, how would you describe your background beside just science fiction author?
DB: “Just” science fiction author!
MJ: [laughs] Not to diminish that at all. I mean, that is one of the big reasons we wanted you.
DB: That subsumes all of space and time! We’re the ones who are unconstrained by even the plausible, although I believe that the best of science fiction is science fiction that does feel some degree of loyalty to what might be plausible. Oh, I’m also an astrophysicist, I worked on the SETI program. As a matter of fact, there’s some big tussles and fights going on there. And my doctoral dissertation predicted the model of comets that most people use now, what they’re made of and how they work when they plunge close to the sun. The Europeans very kindly verified my theory with the recent landing on a comet. Let’s see, what else? Oh, I’m a guerrilla raider; I raid all sorts of hills, from psychology to evolution, I have papers on all that stuff. And I do a lot of tech punditry. A lot of companies and government agencies ask me what’s coming next, to which the answer is, of course, “I don’t know!” But I have a pretty strong speculative bone. Now, where is this speculative bone to be found? Well, actually, it’s the prefrontal lobes, these little nubs just above our eyes, the only tissue that we have that no other mammals have. The Bible refers to it, I believe, when they talk about how Moses had “lamps on his brow.” What else could they be talking about? These are the organs that let us do what Einstein called the Gedankenexperiment, or thought experiment, imagining ourselves in the future. This is the hypertrophied organ that grows too large in science fiction authors, but also in podcasters about the future and their brilliant audience.
MJ: [laughs] So, I guess when you look at society today, what are some of the big trends that stick out to you? I know you’ve got a pretty good record of predictions yourself. What are some of the trends or drivers that stick out to you as things that are really going to transform society?
DB: Well, first off, science fiction authors, we always proclaim that our job is not to predict, and when we do predict, it’s usually the social consequences. For instance, Isaac Asimov said it wasn’t the prediction of the car that was done by science fiction but the traffic jam. So, the notion that computers might connect to each other was a glimmer in some sci-fi, but the notion that you might have the equivalent of viruses, that you might have criminality on the internet—that was thoroughly explored by science fiction. Now, my fans keep a wiki of predictions just from my one novel, “Earth,” which had webpages in it three or four years before there was a web, and a lot of other things, and they also track other novels. Sometimes they’re very harsh with me because there’s some things—I never imagined that the people of the United States would allow their political system to be destroyed so that we don’t have politics in the United States anymore, or that they would put up with the reignition of the American Civil War and not even notice it. This, I did not expect. It’s like like living in some kind of very, very cheap sci-fi novel, because I’m usually very critical of stories that assume that the average citizen is stupid, because usually they’re not. But in this case our inability to recognize that… But that’s a completely separate topic. You asked about prediction. Well, you know, it’s not our job to predict, it’s our job to explore possibilities or plausibilities. But I’ll tell you one thing, and this is coming from a man in his 60s who can be expected to be a grouchy curmudgeon, and that is that kids these days, how could they possibly fall into this insane technological trap of liking small screens? What in the world?! I mean, everything has to get smaller and smaller so that it fits on this bulky micro-tablet in your pocket, your phone? Who would want that? One prediction I’ll make is that there will be technological advances that will make us say, “What the heck were we thinking?!” Like foldout screens, un-scrollable screens, the screens that you’ll have inside your Google Glass descendants, which I portrayed in “Earth,” back in 1989, called augmented reality—I just spoke at the Augmented Reality Conference—and that I portray somewhat vividly, I’m told, in my latest novel, “Existence,” how augmented reality will be used in 20 years as you’re walking down the street. But this whole small screen thing is just… Stop and think about it! It is insane! Why would anybody want that? Another is 3D manufacturing. Sure, it’s exciting that it’s taking off and you can now 3D manufacture a new esophagus scaffold, put in stem cells and put it into a cancer patient. This is all wonderful stuff that I’ve put in science fiction stories for at least the last ten years, but, in fact, what people call 3D printing is 2D layering, additive manufacturing. It’s a really crappy method to do 3D. It’s not 3D, and I predict that this will be replaced within the next 10-15 years. You’ll notice that in both of these cases my criticism was not to oppose a new trend from the perspective of “Oh, I hate technology,” but to rather pooh-pooh it from the point of view of saying, “Why are you all being so pre-old fashioned?” So, I don’t think I’m acting like a 64-year-old, saying “Get off my lawn, you darn kids and your newfangled stuff!” I’m a permanent teenage and I’m complaining that “you’re not newfangled enough.”
MJ: [laughs] You mentioned that sci-fi doesn’t really predict the future. Do you think that it inspires it somewhat, though? That there’s that tension between the kinds of things that science fiction authors such as yourself write, or that Hollywood shows us, that actually shapes how the future actually plays out?
DB: Well, absolutely. But, of course, that’s discussed all the time. There are TV shows and all that about how sci-fi inspired people to become engineers, inspired people to become doctors and space people. You can see all the very happy people with the Pluto mission, which I’m completely jazzed about that. We actually went to freaking Pluto, and the only thing more amazing than the fact that the whole darn thing worked so well is the fact that they managed to make it boring. The one channel on TV where the most exciting actual stuff is happening is also by far the most boring station that you can channel-flip to: the NASA channel. This is, I think, one of the most amazing, you know, “We didn’t predict the car, we predicted the traffic jam.” Nobody predicted that this would be the case, and I fault the people for this. I think we’ve been talked into a level of cynicism, both on the left and the right, that is completely unjustifiable and if people go to my website, or just google my name, “David Brin,” and “self-righteousness,” there’s a Youtube about why we’re all so mad as hell. The theme of my generation, the baby boomers, was from the wonderful movie, Network. You’ve got to watch it if you never have, and you’ll recognize the one theme where the crazy newscaster asks everybody to get up and go to the window and scream. And then what does he ask them to scream, Mike and Matt?
MJ: “I’m madder than hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” I think. Isn’t that it?
DB: “…Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” That meme might’ve been cute in its day, but it is so tired now. When you have something happen like this last year—2015 was the best year for humans going into space since 1972. It was incredible: Mercury, Venus, Earth-sensing, comets, Mars, a comet going past Mars; Saturn and Titan, and plans for a Europa mission, and now this, Pluto. Why isn’t anybody going to the window and screaming, “I’m as proud as hell! I’m a member of a civilization that does shit like this! And each of these missions cost me $2! Two bucks!” Curiosity cost each American maybe $3. Anyway, so what did I just do? Always look at the meta. I just self-righteously ranted about an excess in self-righteous ranting.
MJ: [laughs] Do you think part of what you’re talking about there is NASA’s fault? Both Matt and I grew up around the space shuttle hitting, and I remember the first space shuttle launch being super exciting. And yet, after the first one, they very quickly managed to make it basically UPS for space, where it would go up, drop something off, come back down.
DB: There’s all sorts of blame to go around. But when you get right down to it, you’re asking geeks to be entertainers. Their job every single day is to minimize the drama. I mean, look at most of the Michael Crichton stories or any of the cheap dramas we have in sci-fi as opposed to “elegant, wonderful, advanced, and mature science fiction.” That, by the way, is sarcasm, sardonicism. An emoji has been put there. There’s always what’s call the “idiot plot.” As a matter of fact, google “David Brin” and “idiot plot.” You’ll see my essay where I explain why it is that in dramas, especially cheap Hollywood sci-fi, there are always the assumptions that our institutions are always corrupt and incompetent, our neighbors are all sheep, and that heroes have to do it all alone because that makes for great drama. And, of course, in every Michael Crichton story the mad scientist does it in secret so that he won’t get the criticism that would enable him to avoid mistakes. How about, “Hey, Jurassic Park dude, I’ve got an idea. How about you just make herbivores first?” A billion people will come to your amusement park. That will give you plenty of time and money to develop your security systems. Then make just one t-rex. No velociraptors, just one t-rex, and a billion people will come back to your park. So, you see, the idiot plot is exactly what NASA nerds try to kill by being fetishistically responsible. And so in an adolescent culture, they are going to, ironically, kill interest in the thing that is the most exciting that’s going on. But you’ll notice what I’ve asked of you is to step back. When I said, “Notice here’s a guy preaching a self-righteous rant against self-righteousness,” or when I tried to point out to you the irony that the people doing the most interesting stuff are trying to avoid the drama that makes things interesting, what is the subtext here? The subtext is have the habit of questioning your own reflexes. And if we did that, we wouldn’t be stuck in this stupid, insane, lobotomizing, so-called left/right political axis, a metaphor for politics that is constraining, oversimplifying, stupid, and French! And that’s the best reason to stop using it: it’s French!
DB: If we were to step back and say, “I’m not going to get trapped in the reflexes. I’m going to be the kind of independent person who reads high-end science fiction because I want the ideas, I just don’t want the same damn thing over and over and over again,” well then you’re going to be the kind of person who everybody hates. Because when you’re around your pals and they’re ranting their reflex political rant, you’ll say, “You know, I agree with you about 90%. But, you know, there’s 10% where our side might be mistaken.” Oh, that’s going to improve your popularity a lot. [laughs] Now you know why I have no friends.
MB: [laughs] You’re talking about the Pluto mission and stuff. Are you ever surprised by how much we actually—it always seems like, especially in science class in school and things—it seems like we already know everything that we need to know about our universe. Then when you do this mission to Pluto, it’s like we’re learning all of this new stuff for the first time. Are you ever surprised at how much we didn’t know when these things happen?
DB: I’m a trained scientist, I know damn well that as you expand the circle of what we know, all that does is increase the circumference of the horizon of what we don’t know. It’s the most unusual religion human beings have ever had, and it has my absolute loyalty. We push it outward, and if God is out there, he’s giggling and hiding from us because we keep chasing him down. I guess that’s probably what we’re supposed to do. If you look up David Brin theology and singularity, you’ll see a talk I gave at the Singularity Conference in New York a few years ago where I regaled them with Bible stories. And that sure shocked them, because this is not their favorite literature, and yet I pointed out if they were to actually read this foundation, an epic of Western civilization, they would find plenty of justification for the illogical conclusion that we were meant to be co-creators, and therefore science is sacred. Now, there’s a judo move to pull on the fundies out there, and it’s a heck of a lot more valuable to use judo on your opponents than sumo. Fox News wants us all to be engaged in sumo, grunting and shoving against each other because that kills politics, so the oligarchs in America can take over. But if you do judo, then it’s lively, then you can get around the stupid left/right axis. Now, you can confuse and jar rigid opinions, and I confused and jarred a lot of the singularity and transhumanist guys by pointing out that there’s incredible sections of the Bible, especially the Tower of Babel, that seem to testify the notion that if there is a God, that our purpose in being invented or being created was to become scientists, to become co-creators, not to be servile little wimps moaning, “Oh, please don’t crush us.” Now that was a provocative statement. I seem to specialize in those. As I said, I have no friends.
MJ: David, you mentioned the singularity, and I know you’ve written about it a little bit, that it seems like there a lot of criticisms as that kind of being the “rapture of the geeks” or the “religion of the geeks,” somewhat. What is your take on the singularity?
DB: Well, as you can tell, I am a contrarian, and hence when I am around the singularity guys, I poke at them as I did in that video. But when I’m around people who take the diametric opposite perspective, and the most diametric opposite is not just religious people, because there are religious people who are friendly to the notion of progress and even science and who are responsive when I point out that there’s a possibility of being co-creators… It’s not religion per se. I know a lot of the aggressive new atheists and I think they are just illogical, for one thing. You know, all we can do is corner God and rip away all the things that he’s not. We cannot disprove him. But when I’m around the worst, and these are the people who have turned modern American protestantism into fetishism on one book in the New Testament, and by far the most repulsive, and that is the Book of Revelation, which was voted into the Christian canon by one vote back around the year 400, against the vociferous objections of the best churchmen of the day, and a book that Martin Luther himself despised and that is clearly a schizophrenic rant, deeply demonic and viciouss. When I’m around people like that, I take great pleasure in demonstrating all of the things that Ray Kurzweil talks about for the singularity. Because the notion that we might personally become gods? Well, you know, it could happen. It could. I just don’t think it’s going to be anywhere near as easy as Ray and some his pals think. And I was very contrary about one of their favorite topics, which was achieving human immortality. Now, in my view, I wish they were right and I was wrong. But I have a piece out there, you can find it, “David Brin, immortality,” about what’s wrong with this notion. If we find that starving bacteria or fruit flies or mice causes them to live double their lifespan, “Oh boy, we’re all going to live to 200.” It ain’t necessarily so. As a matter of fact, almost none of the longevity-related scientific results that apply to fruit flies and mice has ever been replicated in humans, and there’s some very simple reasons for that, the biggest being that we are already the methuselahs of mammals. Other mammals—mice and elephants—get about a billion heartbeats. We get about three and a half billion heartbeats, and the reason is because a million years ago we had to start becoming a species that has grandparents, because our children were so neotonous and helpless because they had to be programmed by life rather than pre-programmed by instinct. So, our babies come out basically fetuses. I mean, they’re completely useless little lumps. I keep waiting for my teenagers to stop being useless—never mind.
DB: The point is that that’s so they can be reprogrammed by life, and this is, of course, the only process that has ever made intelligent beings that we know of. And I study questions of artificial intelligence and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the implications of this fact are amazing. But one of the implications was that we had to expand our lifespan tremendously, and so we became the methuselahs of mammals, and we did it by grabbing all the low-hanging fruit, by flicking all the easy switches. So, any further expansions of our lifespan are going to be more difficult than simply not eating. I don’t know if I directly answered your question. I just went off into “How contrary can Brin be?” and “How many people can he offend?”
MJ: Well, I guess speaking of being contrarian, AI is one of the hot topics at the moment and Matt and I have talked a lot with various people, and just ourselves as well, about this idea of technological unemployment and that at some point automation and robotics might get rid of maybe not all jobs but enough that it would have a significant impact on how things go. What’s your take on that idea of technological unemployment?
DB: I don’t care.
DB: I’ll tell you what, if we have technological unemployment, it’ll mean that Peter Diamandis is right in his book, “Abundance,” which I highly recommend, and that production of the things that human beings need will be automated to a degree that we will simply all get all human needs basically met very inexpensively even while we achieve greater sustainability and do it all so efficiently that we can start saving the Earth. There’s so many factors involved in this—energy efficiency, research, for instance—that the Republican party has been deliberately blocking for 20 years. Mining asteroids—I’m involved on the board of advisors for some of the asteroid mining companies and I wrote papers about it back in the 1980s. These are all methods that we could develop that could develop wealth to a spectacular degree and continue the current trend of eliminating poverty worldwide while developing enough technology that we can become more efficient and save the planet, both of which are themes in my novel, “Earth,” which had webpages three years before the web! Anyway, the point is that if this happens, then the thing that I care about is less whether or not people have jobs, because if they are free, people will find things to do for each other, services, in order to keep busy. What I am concerned about is freedom. I’m concerned about power. If the factories that are making all this cool stuff are owned by 3,000 close-buddy crony oligarchs in a CEO cast, if we were to return to feudalism, but a very, very rich feudalism, then the oligarchy will control those factories and be able to dole out that wealth to us in ways that are neither socialist nor capitalist. Capitalism’s biggest enemy throughout the last 6,000 years wasn’t socialists. Capitalism’s greatest enemy—creative, flat, open, fair capitalism—its greatest enemy was always feudal oligarchs. Try reading Adam Smith. If this happens, then the wealth from all these factories will be dangled in front of us as a means of control and we won’t get as much of it as we have coming, or as we’ve earned, and we’ll have to bow and do sex acts and anything that they want in order to get some of the cornucopia. That is what I fear because it’s what happened across 6,000 years in 99% of human civilizations, the pyramidal social structure. But if we all share the ability to generate all this wealth with really advanced 3D manufacturing, for example, and maker movements where craftsmanship becomes how we spend some of our time by making things by hand because we’re so wealthy we don’t have to have a job in a factory—if that happens and we’re free and we develop our minds, I’m not too concerned about the obsolescence of labor. Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, economists predicted that we’d have a 20-hour work week by now because they foresaw a vast increase in productivity. What they didn’t realize was that we wanted so much more stuff that we would keep people busy. Well, you know, maybe the 20-hour work week will finally arrive. Or, maybe we’ll just keep wanting more stuff, and I hope we’ll be environmentalist enough to want it to be really efficient.
MB: Going back to the space travel thing, are you surprised at all that we’ve never found any form of life literally outside of basically the planet Earth?
DB: Well, you’re talking about, to some extent, the Fermi Paradox.
DB: Actually, the stuff from Pluto really has some bearing on this because more and more we’re finding evidence that there are heat sources other than the sun in the solar system. Pluto clearly has been reworked because of heat sources from within. You don’t need a nearby major planet like Jupiter hugging on Io and Europa in order to generate heat inside and cause oceans. When the solar system first formed from a recent supernova, there was a lot of aluminum 26 around and that heated the interiors of probably a trillion comets. You probably had about a trillion micro Europas out there with little mini oceans inside them, cooking organic compounds. Wow, well that certainly suggests that, if not life, then you’re going to find an awful lot of pre-organic or pre-life, pre-biological organic chemistry throughout the universe. And also holes inside comets, which, by the way, I sort of predicted and apparently the Rosetta probe, Comet 67P, apparently has found sinkholes that suggest that there may be these vacuole holes under the surfaces of comets. But all of this suggests that the potential for life in the universe should be fantastic. Now, we haven’t taken this potential all the way through actually replicating the creation of life it attests to. But every year we chip away at this. So, this is one of the factors in the so-called Drake equation, fs of L, the fraction of planets that might develop life. And then there’s the number of planets, that’s a factor in the Drake equation. Well, that’s changed just in the last 5-10 years. Twenty years ago, we knew of no planets outside of our solar system. Now we know of several thousand. So, as you see, the components of the Drake equation keep getting chipped away at, and every time we add new information about a factor in the Drake equation, it seems to increase its probability. Except fs of I, the fraction of lifeforms that develop intelligence. Now, you might say that that has increased also because now we know that some basic semantic ability, ability to use language, is not just dolphins and apes but also parrots and crows and felines, and even prairie dogs—they all seem to crowd against a glass ceiling of linguistic ability, but highly limited linguistic ability. You can interpret this either of two ways: hey, nature creates a lot of smart animals out there; or you could answer “Yeah, and none of them get out of that glass ceiling.” Only one, that we know of, ever did, and that’s us. And boy, did we crash through. I mean, we crashed through that ceiling hard and got a lot more brains than we needed in order to become safe hunter-gatherers, safe from wolves. Something weird happened. I don’t know that that answers your question. You know, I’m involved at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, I have been most of my adult life, and right now there’s a big fight going on over the question of whether we should be sending messages to extraterrestrials. The search for extraterrestrials: fine, I’m all in favor of it, I’m a big supporter. But the notion of shouting “Yoohoo”? Well, if folks are interested, I have some articles if you use my name, David Brin, and “METI,” that’s Message to Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” So anyway, the question of whether or not we should be shouting into the cosmos, the people who want to do this think that it indicates that they are highly imaginative and bold thinkers. In fact, it shows that they’ve got no imagination whatsoever, because if they did and they explored the ideas, they would decide that maybe we should wait a little bit.
MB: How much information do you think we’re going to get? Obviously the probe that just passed Pluto is going to keep going. How much information do you think we’re going to keep getting from that, if you were to guess?
DB: The probe streaked through the Pluto system and was extremely busy for about three hours, and fairly busy for about a day and a half. During that time, we couldn’t control it. It takes four hours for a message to get up there and four hours for it to get back, and it didn’t even aim its antennae at the Earth during its time because it was too busy. So, it had to be programmed to gather a lot of data and then it’s going to be beaming it back to us gradually because it’s got a very weak radio, and we’re going to have to be aiming our best antennas at it to pick up a very low bit rate for the next 16 months. That’s how long it’s going to take to empty all the data that it gathered in a day and a half.
DB: Now, it’s been prioritized so the two scans that they’ve released so far of the probe swooping over the Norgay Montes, which is a mountain range named after Tenzing Norgay, who was the first person to stand on Mount Everest, and the other was Tombaugh Regio, a region named after Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, who I met as a kid. These images are so incredible. Absolutely stunning, especially if while you’re looking at them you say, “It’s freaking Pluto! It’s freaking Pluto! It’s freaking Pluto!” while you’re watching it. It just adds to the pleasure of looking at them. So, we’ve already gotten downloaded some super cool stuff. But they’re going to be downloading things over the next 16 months. After that, two things will happen. First off, I have no doubt that Congress will give barely enough money, because Congress hates science, at least the current political party running Congress hates science, but they’ll give enough for this harmless science that doesn’t threaten the power of their oligarch overlords, and so the New Horizons probe will continue and it will be retargeted. They have enough fuel that they’re going to aim it to pass by another Kuiper Belt object, another billion miles farther out. How cool is that? Then what’s going to happen is some of the memory that is aboard the capsule will be loaded with a message from the Earth, representing notions and images provided by schoolchildren. You may say, “Hey Brin, hypocrite, how come you like that but you don’t like beaming radio messages?” Because if New Horizons is ever grabbed by intelligent life, it’ll probably be us. It’s not going to endanger us. But in any event, it’s interesting that 15 years ago when they settled on the technology for this spacecraft, it was 21st century so they had more than enough memory to do things this way. So, New Horizons is filled with flash memory that’s able to store up all these gigabytes that it’s now going to dole back to us over 16 months. So always step back and look at the implications of what you’re seeing, because space probes didn’t used to have that kind of memory for it, but it was a luxury that this space prob had. And now I’m going to have to ask for permission to take my leave of your census. That’s a joke none of your listeners get because it’s a take off on a phrase that my parent’s generation used to say. But we didn’t; boomers didn’t use the expression but at least we understood it because we heard our parents say it, and that is when they thought someone was crazy, they’d say, “He’s taken a leave of his senses.” When I did this joke originally years ago when there were still some “greatest generation” people around, they would laugh. Now I still have the habit of saying it despite the fact that nobody gets the joke. That, in my opinion, is proof at last that I truly am an old fart.
DB: Despite the fact that my prefrontal lobes are more agile than anybody you’ll meet and that I act like I’m still somewhat of a teenager. Nevertheless, this calcification of jokes is an early sign of, shall we say, fartdom. I’m just going to have to get used to the fact that that’s what I am now!
MJ: [laughs] Thanks so much for joining us today.
MB: Yeah, thank you.
DB: You guys have lots of fun. All you guys listening to this, try to avoid the cliches, okay? C’mon man, you can do it. Alright, good luck, guys.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.
Image Credit: Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute, via NASA.gov