Episode 254 - #SmarterCyborgs
Published March 15, 2016
SPECIAL GUEST: Jesse Lawler (Smart Drug Smarts/Axon Labs). In episode 176, we first talked with the host of the Smart Drug Smarts podcast, Jesse Lawler. In this episode Jesse rejoins us to talk about what's changed with SDS since we last talked with him, his new business venture Axon Labs, AI and a few mutual guests, as well as the ways in which our society is changing, from Virtual Reality to intelligence and enhancements. Recorded on 3/9/2016.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
The Smart Drug Smarts site
Smart Drug Smarts on Twitter
Jesse Lawler on Twitter
Episode 176 - Cognitively Enhanced!, our previous episode with Jesse (6/4/2015)
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #254. 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 our guest tonight is the host of the Smart Drug Smarts podcast, Jesse Lawler. Jesse, thanks for joining us.
Jesse Lawler: Hey, thanks for having me, guys.
MJ: So, we haven’t talked to you since way back, actually we recorded in May last year for our episode #176, it dropped June 4th last summer. So, what has been going on on the Smart Drug Smarts podcast?
JL: Well, let’s say. I’m happy to say I think I’ve actually put out an episode every single week since then. The podcast has been something that I’ve been taking more and more seriously, and luckily been able to devote more of my time to it over the course of the past year. It’s been sort of upgraded a bit from the hobby that it started as. So yeah, I’m really happy with a lot of the stuff that we’ve covered in the past year.
MJ: Congratulations on 118 episodes now.
JL: Yeah, going to be 119 in just a couple of days. And I know you guys are, gosh, just publishing so frequently. I’m a little bit envious, I admit.
MJ: It’s a lot of work sometimes but, as you know, a lot of fun.
JL: Definitely. Well, the fun part is just getting to talk with great people who are experts in things I just don’t have time to become an expert in myself, but there’s so much interesting stuff going on out there.
MJ: Yeah, definitely. And for any of our listeners, definitely check out Smart Drug Smarts. I’ve actually, just today, listened to a whole bunch of your episodes. One of the ones that I think might actually be interesting to our audience is episode 117 with Kara Platoni.
JL: Oh yeah! Yeah, an author of a recent book, I think she just published it around Christmas time last year, called “We Have the Technology.” She would be a great person for you guys to speak with, also. She basically did sort of an around-the-world circuit; I think she took like a year off from her job as a science writer and was interviewing biohackers near and far pretty much on all ends of that. On the medical end of the spectrum, people that are trying to help people that maybe have lost a limb or something like that, or they’ve gone blind from a congenital situation and have had things implanted in their retinas; they essentially have artificial computer retinas now that are communicating directly with their brain. All the way from that medical side, to people that are sort of the garage biohackers that don’t necessarily have anything wrong with them but just want to tweak with their bodies because we have the ability to now.
MJ: Yeah, I found your guys’ discussion fascinating, so I added her to my list of people to check out, definitely. Matt and I have been watching—I don’t know if you’ve seen, it’s on Showtime, “Dark Net.”
JL: No, I haven’t.
MJ: Matt, I don’t know if you want to explain what “Dark Net” is…
MB: [laughs] Yeah, it’s definitely a show worth checking out. I don’t know how popular it is, obviously it’s on Showtime, it’s not on a major network. But it delves into, basically every week there’s a different topic on more of the seedier side of the internet, shall we say. So they go into depth with one topic. But one of the ones was human enhancement, and they were showing this guy getting implanted with basically a computerized eye so that he could see. And actually last week’s episode was on nootropics, so. It’s definitely a great show, it’s only a half hour. There are some really cool topics that they cover, so it’s definitely worth finding it and seeing it.
JL: Cool. Yeah, I’ll see about checking that out. I haven’t heard of that one yet, but sometimes I’m not the world’s biggest television watcher, so things can elude me.
MJ: Yeah. Well, and there’s so much to keep track of now. Speaking of things to keep track of, since we talked to you last, I noticed that you had launched Axon Labs, and I guess I should say up front that I have been a customer. So for people that aren’t familiar with it, what is Axon Labs?
JL: So Axon Labs is kind of the natural progression of my taking the podcast so seriously that I kind of figured that this hobby is taking so much of my time and I’ve learned so much in the course of doing it, can I put this to use in some sort of way that I could consolidate a lot of my medicine cabinet, and I think I’ve turned ten different jars down into two jars within my own medicine cabinet by consolidating a set of supplements down into two products. And we put those out under the brand name Axon Labs, and so, yeah, we’ve got a cognitive supplement called Nexus, and a mitochondrial support supplement called Mitogen. And we put these out, I think it was July of last year when we went live, so about eight or nine months ago now, and it’s been doing really well. A lot of people have tried these out at this point, so it’s circulating around out there. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from a number of people, yourself included, and thank you so much for giving them a try.
MJ: Yeah! Well, and I guess for our listeners’ benefit, I had an information security test that I took in January, and in the lead-up on studying that, I was using both heavily. Well, heavily is probably the wrong word, but…
JL: [laughs] Right. In appropriate doses.
MJ: Yes, in appropriate doses, and actually the day I took my test. It was an open-book test, but there were eight huge books that went with it, and knowing kind of where I was going within the books, I would say that definitely helped me.
JL: Yeah. Well cool, so thankful for you giving that endorsement. And yeah, I should mention the website, which is AxonLabs.io. We couldn’t get the dot-com, the dot-com had been bought up long ago. But yeah, we got the .io subdomain.
MJ: So, I did also notice that you’ve had a recent guest that’s been on with us a couple of times, Calum Chace.
JL: Yeah, I had him on, I guess it was one of the first episodes of this year, talking about his book, “Surviving AI.”
MJ: Yeah, we had a great time talking with Calum and about both his book, “Surviving AI,” and his forthcoming one.
JL: Yeah, his forthcoming book is on technological unemployment, if I’m not mistaken.
MJ: Yeah, obviously a big topic for us. Did you actually make it through “Surviving AI” then, when you talked with him?
JL: I think it was probably around Thanksgiving that I actually read it… Relatively up to the minute with where things are at and where things are predicted to go with the reality of AI. I’m sure when you interviewed him you talked about some of the same things. Like I think it was Nick Bostrom at the Future of Humanity Institute that sort of did a straw poll among AI researchers and people that work in that field during 2014 and asking people when do they think the bell-shaped curve of likelihood that we’ll have human-level AI is. There were people on either end of the spectrum. The greatest of the optimists were thinking maybe within the next 15 to 20 years, some people, “We’re still hundreds of years off.” The fat part of the bell-shaped curve seemed like it was about 2050, if I remember correctly.
MJ: Yeah, that does seem to be where the majority of them fall. For you personally, what’s your experience been like with AI? Matt and I are always curious to know. I go back and forth on it a little bit, with some of these digital assistants, that some of it just seems like it’s pure brute forcing its way through some of these things, and as long as you stay within certain confines it’s great, but the second you wander out of them, all of a sudden you’ll end up in some really strange neighborhood sometimes.
JL: Yeah, it’s hard to know the systems that we deal with when we’re talking with phone answering machines that are automated or looking something up on Google, which I assume there’s some artificial intelligence in those algorithms. When you look something up on Google, it’s like, “Oh, 63 million results were scanned in the last .2 seconds.” You’re like, “Wait a minute, how is that even possible?” There has to be some level of an expert system or something behind scanning that many documents all in the blink of an eye. So I think it’s hard, from a normal human’s perspective, to know to what extent the technologies that we’re dealing with have an artificial intelligence component. But none of the types of AI that we’re dealing with now are that artificial general intelligence, the AGIs, the important sci-fi ones that might actually wake up and be aware of themselves and be able to learn about an arbitrary number of topics, and deal with reality in sort of the way that a human or even a dog or something like that would.
MJ: Yeah. Well, I think that brings up an interesting question. You look at things in sci-fi, or media, or movies, and this probably applies to nootropics and smart drugs as well, that a lot of times the ideas that those media have end up being wildly off base for how things go. And yet, they also have, as we’ve on this show talked about quite a bit, the famous example being the “Star Trek” communicator and how it informed the flip phone, that feedback loop. But I know for myself, from watching media anyway and the way they handle information security, it is eye-rollingly bad. And I can only assume that for you watching now nootropics or… Matt and I have been kind of following the new TV show version of “Limitless.” I’d imagine that watching things like that in media are pretty eye-rollingly bad for you.
JL: Yeah, anything that’s truly mass media… You know, if you put out a television show on a major network, you need to be appealing to probably tens of millions of people. It’s probably not quite as wide-swathed as when there were only three networks 30 years ago; they’re able to get a bit more demographically targeted, but you still need to be appealing to a huge number of people. A lot of people aren’t going to be willing to sit and have complex subjects explained to them. They want the soundbite version so they can move on to the next close-up of a girl’s cleavage or something like that, I mean that seems to be the way it works in TV a lot of the time. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t good things on TV, but not a lot of shows take the time to really, really, really explore a topic the same way that a novel on the same subject matter might.
MJ: Do you think the media portrayals are beginning to change that? I mean for myself, looking at information security, the show “Mr. Robot,” I don’t know if you saw any of that, but at least in the circles I run in, that show got a ton of praise for its handling of—and it wasn’t absolutely true to life, but it actually got most things right in a way that a show like “CSI: Cyber” or “Scorpion” just doesn’t. Do you think that more shows are starting to actually take that authenticity? Because with the internet, people are only a couple steps away from finding out that, “Oh, that’s not how that works,” if they really are so inclined.
JL: I think that there’s been a lot of good TV, on HBO and Showtime in particular. I don’t know, I’m not sure why that’s happened in the course of the last 15 years or so, that television seems to have gotten smarter in a lot of ways. I think of stuff that was on when I was growing up, like “Family Ties” or “Full House,” things like that that I feel like are really low-level intellectually compared to something like “The Sopranos” or “Deadwood,” shows like that. So, maybe people are finally proving to the television makers that they do have the stomach, the wherewithal to sit through some more complex explorations of subjects. If so, that’s great.
MB: I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have so many choices now, too. I’m assuming we’re roughly the same age. When I was a kid, you had three channels to choose from. It was ABC, NBC, or CBS, and that was basically it. If there wasn’t something good on one of those channels, then you probably just weren’t watching TV.
JL: Yeah, you’d go play outside.
MB: Yeah, exactly. Actually, when I was a kid I didn’t really watch any TV. But now, with things like Netflix or HBO where you’re actually paying more or less directly to the company, they can kind of take these risks and make some more oddball shows that don’t really have to have mass appeal. They can just have a much smaller audience, but you’re at least getting a very rabid niche group of people who are going to like it, as opposed to having to cater. When you’re talking about three channels, you’ve got to make a show that’s going to cater to literally everyone, as opposed to a smaller show where you can really get into the nitty gritty and do some stuff. Like that show we were talking about before, “Dark Net.” I don’t think that would work at all on a regular network, it just wouldn’t because I don’t think there are enough people who have interest in it. But if you do, it’s a great show.
JL: Right. Actually, this ties into the kind of stuff you guys talk about all the time, and I think one of the real benefits of all the metadata that we’re able to pull out of the internet and learn about people’s behavior is, like a show like “House of Cards” on Netflix, a lot of people love that, but the thing is is it wasn’t such a risk. As a unique of a show as it is, it wasn’t a giant risk for Netflix to make that show because they could tell by looking at their user data that their users love political shows and they love Kevin Spacey, and so they’re like, “Well, we have this data, it’s a pretty safe bet for us to make a long form political show starring Kevin Spacey.” And they did and they hit it out of the park. But that’s the kind of risk that wouldn’t have been taken probably, like you said, in the three-network era of 20 or 25 years ago. I just wanted to come back to something. Earlier we were talking about AI and Calum Chace’s book, and it being the political season now in the US with all of the lead-up to the election later this year, this is something that I thought about recently, which is how artificial intelligence, when we truly get to the point where we have systems that are starting to pass the Turing test and convincingly make us think, “Hey, this thing does know it exists,” that’s going to inevitably destroy, or at least cause us to really rethink, democracy in the way that we have it now. Because if we have a software program essentially that seems to be conscious, as far as we can tell this thing is saying it’s conscious and we sort of have to take its word for it at some level. But I could just boot that up ten times and have ten more consciousnesses, we’re kind of obliged to give these things voting rights. But if you can just spin up as many as you want, I could make a thousand hardcore republican AI systems just by pressing Copy a bunch of times. That really kind of screws up the political landscape if we don’t adjust for that.
MJ: Yeah, I think this whole political season is almost watching the process break in general. I don’t know about you, but the media, the way they cover it, they rely still so much on polls, and all I can think of every time they start quoting polls is that really they should be prefacing that by saying, “People that still answer the telephone for numbers that come up unidentified.” I don’t see how that’s informative about anything.
JL: Yeah, this is the subset of humanity that is not at DoNotCall.gov to get off those lists.
MB: Well, and I think that you’re seeing that too, because the morning of one of these state elections they’ll say, “So and so has a 35-point lead” or whatever, and then people go and vote and the other guy won or it’s a 2-point lead. I mean, they’re so completely off that I don’t even think it matters anymore. I’m with Mike, as soon as they say that, I’m like how are you getting a hold of anybody? I don’t even know anybody at this point who has a landline phone…
JL: [laughs] That’s so true. It really should kind of be the exit poll interviews that it seems like one should take seriously.
MB: Yeah. I don’t know about either of you guys, but if my phone rings and I don’t recognize the number, even if it’s a semi-local number or whatever, I don’t answer the phone. I figure if it’s that important, they’ll leave a message and I’ll call them back. But I’m not picking up, I’m not talking to somebody I don’t know.
JL: Mike, as a security guy, I would love to hear your thoughts on voting over computer, using the machine voting systems. I’m highly suspicious of that. Having been a computer programmer, I know how easy it is. If it’s not open source, basically if you have a private company that has closed source code that is writing the software for a voting machine, that just seems like it’s so open to all sorts of underhanded duplicity.
MJ: Oh, it’s a disaster. And plus those companies, they have all of the downsides of proprietary software. It’s closed, it’s secretive, it’s a black box, you don’t know what’s going on it. And they’re as bad as the smart TVs for security; or a lot of the internet of things stuff, their security is really atrocious, and I don’t know, just now getting into that area in IT, people don’t understand how exposed those systems are. Matt could tell you, one of our friends that we’ve had on as a guest a couple times almost stopped speaking to me over how I was ripping on him for his camera system at home. That’s all security concerns. It’s not that I don’t think it’s cool, the system he set up, because I hands down do, it is cool. But it’s a nightmare from a security perspective. So many people get it wrong, and even people that know how to do it and know how to do it secure get it wrong. But the voting machines in particular, I think they’re a disaster. They’re just as bad as the smart TVs. I think those are a nightmare. I’ve written a couple things about smart TVs are stupid. There’s no reason to connect a TV directly to the internet when you can get better functionality, better support, everything from a box that’s way cheaper and you just keep your TV as a dumb monitor.
JL: If we were to have voting systems that were completely open source and basically threw it out to the programmer public and said, “Look for holes in this logic, try to break this, tell us where we have security concerns,” would that be a good solution?
MJ: I think it would. Well, if I were to put on my futurist hat, I would say that eventually that’s exactly what we will have, and it’ll be some form of you’ve got to go in and register your phone to vote, and then one phone, one vote. And I think that’s a much better system. Especially, when you think about when the polls are open, I don’t know about you guys, but I have to work. There’s so many barriers to getting people to vote… Depending on what you think of the voters, that’s either a positive or a negative…
MJ: …But in terms of participating in the democratic process, I think it is a negative, though. The internet is such this great resource and we have the possibility of really redefining this stuff, and yet we only take these half measure steps. Like you said about the voting machines, they’re really inadequate. I think eventually we will get there, but I think it’s going to take a lot of local action, and Matt and I have done a lot of talking lately about internet and a little bit municipal broadband, and the big ISPs like Comcast and AT&T are some of my favorite punching bags. But I think a lot of those efforts, they really need to be local. There’s not a lot of activity at that, I think they’ve got us all conditioned still—I mean it’s changing, but we’re all conditioned to kind of wait for some national movement or wait for the mainstream media to tell us how it is.
JL: So what do you think about my earlier premise that once we have AI systems that don’t take 21 years to grow to maturity, that we have major problems? Like we can’t have one human, one vote or one consciousness, one vote at that point. We’ll need to somehow come up with a new way of doing things.
MJ: Well, I think that’s par for the course. Calum talks about that, around the economy. We need a lot of new systems. For me as a systems engineer, as a systems person, I’m fascinated by all those topics. I’m sure your show is like this; our show is definitely like this. I think that society is not having these conversations at the right levels, and we need to.
JL: Yeah. I think it’s sort of the job of science fiction authors and people like us that like to sort of geek out and think about what’s around the corner to hopefully promote these ideas to the rest of the public so it’s at least talked about before it’s right on top of us.
MJ: Yeah, I think it’s getting there. Matt, as our everyman, what do you think?
MB: [laughs] Yeah…
JL: “Speaking up for the rest of humanity…”
MB: [laughs] I agree. Apparently I need some nootropics.
MJ: You need some Nexus. So Jesse, I know you did an episode on VR, too. That’s one of Matt and I’s favorite topics lately. Last fall actually we did a demo for our local TEDx event here, and actually Matt finally got a chance to try mine, because I’ve got the Oculus Rift DK2. I didn’t actually have a chance to listen to your VR episode yet. Could you maybe summarize it really quick for our listeners of what your own experience has been with VR?
JL: Speaking with a doctor, I think he was out of the New York area, but he was doing a lot of virtual reality therapy to help people that had phobias of various things. So if you’re afraid of spiders, you start having virtual reality experiences with spiders, and things like that. And he found it to be very, very effective vs. the less realistic approaches that people typically take—putting somebody under hypnosis, just having them visualize spiders and things like that. Being able to take it to the next level and trigger their sensory systems with virtual reality to a much larger extent was a really great way of leading people into being comfortable with new things.
MJ: That kind of treatment is certainly an interesting area. Matt and I have been talking a little bit about the potential for VR to be kind of an addictive experience. Just the idea that people would opt for those virtual worlds over real life.
JL: I would love to get into that conversation. I think that’s a legitimate concern to the Nth degree. I don’t think it’s going to be something that’s going to necessarily happen in the next five years to the point where it upends society, but I could see physical reality as being like a desert 40 years from now, where most of humanity is plugged into the “pleasure dome” or whatever, and we’re getting the sensory experiences in virtual worlds and not really coming up for air that much. The opt-in version of “The Matrix.”
MB: Yeah, I think it has a potential in several ways. Plus, I think one of the things with VR is that you’ll see people, instead of going to Europe to visit something, you’ll be able to just see it through VR.
JL: Kind of have the “been there, done that,” yeah.
MB: Yeah, and I think it’ll bring a lot of those places to people who otherwise couldn’t afford to or just didn’t have the means to go to Europe, or go to wherever you want to go, or areas that are too dangerous to go to or whatever, if you want to go—obviously Egypt isn’t as dangerous right now but it has been in the near past—if you want to see some of these things. And then one of the things that Mike and I have talked about some is VR porn. Mike, you can cut this out if you want—I know you tried it just to see what it would look like…
MJ: Research. All research, man.
JL: “All in the name of science!”
MB: Yeah. But you know, because there was already talk a couple weeks ago, I think it was in Utah, about Utah, as religious of a state as it is, they have more people who watch porn in that state than any other state.
JL: No!! Are you saying that sexual repression in real life leads to weird behaviors behind closed doors?! Who would have thought!
MB: [laughs] It is shocking. But you know, it’s gotten to the point where they’re actually considering it a crisis.
MB: But taking away all the jokes and everything, that’s with regular porn. When you get into VR porn, you’re talking about extreme realism, and I think you have the potential to really get some addictive behavior going.
JL: I actually did an episode, this was four or five episodes ago, but it was about porn addiction. This was something that I hadn’t really—it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that I would normally be covering on our show. But basically it’s working on the dopamine systems and it seem brain-related enough and interesting enough that we put together an episode on it, which wound up being just fascinating. I didn’t realize what a problem this really is, particularly among young men for the most part that have been coming of age for the past ten years or so. It’s like, you know, “back in my day” porn was still mostly stuff on a printed page… But now that everybody has got ubiquitous access to high bandwidth, multiple streaming videos at once, it’s like the rat hitting the lever for getting the cocaine pellets as much as you want. It’s as much stimulation as any 12 or 13-year-old boy could want all at once. It’s really rewiring people’s brains at a young age before they have a chance to kind of wire their brains up the way that one typically would with, like, you know, a first girlfriend clumsily pawing around and things like that.
MB: The other thing too is the fact that it’s so easy to access. Before the internet, you either found either your dad’s or your friend’s dad’s “Playboy” collection, or if you were old enough you went to some seedy video store with a back room. Now you don’t even have to leave the house and there’s literally unlimited amounts of porn at your fingertips.
JL: Yeah, I had a friend of mine who’d claimed he’d seen all the porn on the internet, but I think he was lying.
MJ: [laughs] I would think that just VR in general, that whole access to what you can’t get in real life, whether it be a trip to Europe or going into, say, they digitize the pyramids for example and take you into the places you just can’t go in real life, or whether they even hook these systems up to a robot body that you can take control of. I know you travel a lot, Jesse. The idea of being able to, instead of getting on the plane and sitting there and going through TSA and all that bullshit, just hopping in a chair, putting on a VR headset, and being able to control a body somewhere that you have a meeting. A guy I know works for Cisco and they use a lot of those, I don’t know if you’ve seen them, they’re little robots on wheels and it’s like an iPad for a screen. He was telling me that in the office there these things would be whipping around and it’s because everybody works from home. And the office, they have like 15 or 20 of these things that just run all over the office, and it’s for the people that are working from home.
JL: [laughs] We’re going to need to force ourselves to use our physical bodies as much as we can. Because honestly, you get a lot of physical wear and tear if you don’t move your body around. I just actually spoke with a guy that made an important discovery about the brain and the lymphatic system this past year. It’s one of these weird things that I didn’t know, just came across it during the course of doing an episode. But our lymphatic system, which is kind of like the sewage pipes of your body, as opposed to like the circulatory system where we have a heart that pumps blood and forces the stuff to move, our lymphatic system, basically there’s no equivalent of a heart, and so these sewage pipes only move because you have contractions of the muscles and your body moving around kind of keep things flowing just by walking around and hopefully getting some exercise over the course of the day. That’s what moves the fluid within these vessels, and if you’re sitting in a chair all the time, the sewage is sitting there backed up essentially. These are just sort of the dangers that we get ourselves in as we make so many labor-saving conveniences, that all of a sudden we don’t need to use our physical bodies the way that they were designed for.
MB: So kind of like “WALL-E.”
JL: “WALL-E” is a dangerously prescient movie.
MJ: Yeah, definitely.
JL: It goes to show that I think there’s a lot of people that are working in sci-fi, whether it’s something like “WALL-E,” something like “The Matrix,” people are doing good work out there. And I think the people that are working in these sci-fi realms and kind of saying, “Hey, here’s what happens if we press this lever, here’s what happens if we press these two levers at once,” that is super valuable. I think the service that folks like that are doing for society in general can really not be overstated.
MJ: Definitely. I think we would definitely agree on that. Jesse, where can people find you if they want to find out more about Smart Drug Smarts or Axon Labs?
JL: You just gave two very good clues actually right in that question. SmartDrugSmarts.com is where they can find most of my stuff. The podcast comes out weekly on Fridays. And yeah, those couple of supplements that we talked about are at AxonLabs.io, and not surprisingly we link to the Axon Labs shopping site from the Smart Drug Smarts podcast site.
MJ: Well, once again, thanks for joining us tonight.
JL: Thanks for having me on.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. For even more society-changing goodness, visit our website at RobotOverlordz.fm. You can also review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We’ll see you again soon, in the future.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.