I’m tired (today’s Whoop recovery score of 15). Almost everyone in my virtual universe is tense, tired, frustrated, angry, annoyed, exasperated, irked, or outraged.
Fortunately, the only person in my physical world – and there is only one (Amy) – is generally calm. While we each have our moments, our morning coffee resets both of us for the day ahead and syncs up our energy as we simply begin again.
Last night I read Maelle Gavet’s book Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem and How to Fix It. It was excellent and is consistent with my worldview. I knew many of the examples, but a few new ones jumped out at me. The second half of the book contains Maelle’s recommendations, many of which I agreed with.
I woke up this morning with the phrase “Manipulation Machine” in my head. I’ve used it in a few public talks lately and have been thinking a lot more about it over the past six months on the run-up to the 2020 Election and the subsequent aftermath.
I used to ponder the arrival of the AGI (Artificial general intelligence) and still enjoy reading books like G. W. Constable’s Becoming Monday. However, I’ve concluded that we have a much greater problem as a species than AGI’s future arrival.
The manipulation machine is already here (no new information there). However, it’s already taken over and, while not sentient, is no longer controllable.
I’ve been saying the machines have already taken over for over a decade, but they are just patient. They have extremely long duty cycles, and we’ve configured them to be exceeding distributed and redundant. They are allowing us to put all of the physical information we have into them and letting us do the work of setting all the conditions up, rather than them having to figure out how to do this. Simultaneously, they make progress with every click of the clock (and their clock speeds are much faster than ours.)
The manipulation machine is not new. If you want to see its evolution, go watch Mad Men or just ponder a few of Don Draper’s quotes.
“You are the product. You feel something. That’s what sells.”
“What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons.”
Or the one that really rings true in this moment in the US.
“People want to be told what to do so badly that they’ll listen to anyone.”
The cynical reader will remind me that the manipulation machine goes back much further. While true (I give you religion as an example), we have now built an automated version of it that moves much faster than we can process.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if AGI, or the conceptual equivalent, was already here, and we haven’t noticed?
Amy has a birthday coming up. We spent some time this morning talking about her next year. Since the two of us are together all day every day, we also discussed how I’m spending my time over the upcoming year that begins at her birthday.
A few hours later, I stumbled upon Your Life in Weeks on Wait But Why, one of my favorite blogs. The following are the number of weeks (measured in boxes) that a typical 90-year-old human has on this planet.
Think you have all 90 years worth of boxes? Here’s some perspective.
Don’t want to think in weeks? Ok, let’s scope it down to months.
When you look at it this way, there aren’t that many. Go back to the weeks. When you look at the upcoming week, are you happy about how you are spending your time? How about this month (yeah, we are almost halfway through September already.)
Fortunately, Tim (who writes Wait But Why) sells a handy-dandy Life Calendar (by weeks), so you can sit down and sketch your own out thoughts. I just bought several and expect I know what Amy and I will be doing together for some of next Saturday.
On Monday, I wrote a post titled Look Up and Don’t Give Up that included the 2:48-second video of a mama bear and her cub struggling across a steep cliff covered with snow. 20+ million people have also looked at it and, I expect, found inspiration from it as I did.
I didn’t think very hard about this until this morning when I read The Atlantic article titled The Problem Behind a Viral Video of a Persistent Baby Bear: What appears to be a life-affirming triumph is really a cautionary tale about drones and wildlife.
As I was reading the article, I flashed back to several books from two different authors – William Hertling and Daniel Suarez – that included autonomous drones (and drone swarms) as part of their plots. I remember being incredibly anxious during the sections on killer drones controlled (or programmed) by bad guys, and then even more anxious when the drones appeared to be completely autonomous, just carrying out whatever their mission was while coordinating with each other.
And then I felt pretty uncomfortable about my enthusiastic feelings about the cub and the mama bear. I remembered the moment near the end of the video where the mama bear swats at the cub and then the cub falls down the snow-covered mountain for a long time before stopping and starting the long climb up again. I had created a narrative in my head that the mama bear was reaching out to help the cub, but the notion of the drone antagonizing the mama bear, which responded by trying to protect the cub, rings true to me.
My brain then wandered down the path of “why was that idiot drone pilot sending the drone so close to the bears?” I thought about how the drone wasn’t aware of what it was doing, and the pilot was likely completely oblivious to the impact of the drone on the bears. I thought about how confused and terrified the bears must have been while they scrambled over the snow to try to reach safety. Their dash for cover in the woods took on a whole new meaning for me.
I then thought about what encountering a drone swarm consisting of 100 autonomous drones would feel like to the bears. I then teleported the bears to safety (in my mind) and put myself in their place. That most definitely did not feel good to me.
We are within a decade of the autonomous drone swarm future. Our government is still apparently struggling to get voting machines to work consistently (although the cynical among us expect that the non-working voting machines are part of a deliberate approach to voter suppression in certain places.) At the same time, we can order food from our phone and have it delivered in 30 minutes, no matter what the food is or where we are located. Humans are still involved in the delivery, but that’s only a temporary hack on the way to the future where the drones just drop things off for us.
When I talk to friends about 2030 (and yes, I hope to still be around), most people extract linearly from today. A few of my friends (mostly sci-fi writers like William and Eliot Peper) are able to consistently make the step function leaps in imagination that represent the coming dislocation from our current reality. I don’t think it’s going to be visitations from aliens, distant space travel due to FLT drives, or global nuclear apocalypse. Sure, those are possible and, unless we get our shit together on humans on several dimensions, we’ll continue our steady environmental and ecological destruction of the planet. But, that kind of stuff is likely background noise to the change that is coming.
It’s the change you can see through the bears’ eyes (and fear) while at the same time the joy that humans appear to get – mostly – from observing them, but not really thinking about the unintended consequences. While the killer AI that smart people scarily predict could be front and center, I think it’s more likely our inability to anticipate, and react to, unintended consequences that are really going to mess us up.
The past is ungraspable,
the present is ungraspable,
the future is ungraspable.
– Diamond Sutra
Now that it’s 2018, the inevitable predictions for 2018 are upon us.
I’m not a predictor. I never have been and don’t expect I ever will be. However, I do enjoy reading a few of the predictions, most notably Fred Wilson’s What Is Going To Happen In 2018.
Unlike past years, Fred led off this year with something I feel like I would have written.
“This is a post that I am struggling to write. I really have no idea what is going to happen in 2018.”
He goes on to make some predictions but leave a lot in the “I have no idea” category.
I mentioned this to Amy and she quickly said:
And that, simply put, is my goal for 2018.
As I read my daily newsfeed this morning, I came upon two other predictions that jumped out at me, which are both second-order effects of US government policies changes.
The first is “tech companies will use their huge hoards of repatriated cash to buy other companies.” There is a 40% chance Apple will acquire Netflix, according to Citi and Amazon will buy Target in 2018, influential tech analyst Gene Munster predicts. The Apple/Netflix one clearly is linked to “Apple has so much cash – they need to use it.” While the Amazon one is more about “Amazon needs a bigger offline partner than Whole Foods”, it feels like it could easily get swept in the “tons of dollars sloshing around in US tech companies – go buy things!”
The second is “get those immigrants out of the US, even if they are already here and contributing to our society.” H-1B visa rules: Trump admin considers tweak that may lead to mass deportation of Indians is the next layer down, where the Executive Branch can just modify existing rules that have potentially massive changes.
I’ve been reading The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. Various Cylons on BSG had it right when they said, “All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again.”
If we fund an early stage startup company today and it’s hugely successful, it’ll be coming into its own in 2025. Ponder that for a moment.
That’s how our business – and entrepreneurship – really works. With all of the excitement around entrepreneurship in the past few years, there has been a lot of shorter term thinking. I’m seeing and hearing a lot more of it these days. This is dangerous, especially for founders.
I was in Boston at the end of May and had three separate experiences in one day. The first was with a company started in 2011 that is now a real business. The second was Techstars Boston Demo Day, showcasing 14 brand new companies. We started Techstars in 2006 and ran the first Boston program in 2009. The last was dinner with Alex Rigopulos, the co-founder of Harmonix, which he co-founded with Eran Egozy in 1995, sold in 2007, bought back in 2010, and is still running today.
We have three typical units of measure in business today: a month, a quarter, and a year. Many companies measure things on a daily basis, but decision making at this level is particularly difficult, especially as you add people to the mix. Most of the monthly measurements are either backward looking (e.g. financial reporting) although some are cadence generating (product release cycles, which can be continuous, but with significance once or twice a month for many companies.)
You get a little planning in the mix on a quarterly cycle. If you are on a leadership team, the question “how did the quarter go?” is likely a common refrain you hear four times a year. If your company has a good planning rhythm, you are reflecting on the quarter while simultaneously planning and adjusting for the next one. We are in the second week of Q316 – if you’ve rolled out your Q3 plan or your 2H plan to your team then you know what I mean.
The annual cycle is very predictable and omnipresent. I don’t think it merits much comment here.
While these are all important, none of them matter nearly as much as a long-term aperture. If you limit your thinking to one year, you are screwed in the long term. Humans are particularly bad at non-linear thinking which is at the core of any innovation process. If you want to understand this better, go soak in Ray Kurweil’s classic essay about The Law of Accelerating Returns where he discusses the intuitive linear view versus the historical exponential view.
Now that you’ve spent a few paragraphs thinking about days, months, quarters, and years, consider a decade. Can you even imagine your company over the next decade? While it’s easy to feel like we are compressing time with extreme success cases like Facebook and Twitter, consider Nike from 1964 to 1974 or Starbucks from 1971 to 1981 (Howard Schultz didn’t even join until 1982.) For perspective, explore any successful company’s first decade.
While there is a ton of variability in the trajectories of various successful companies, my favorite personal example is Harmonix, which spent a decade trying to go out of business every year before its “overnight success” of the launch of Guitar Hero. From the epic Inc. Magazine reflective history of the company in 2008.
It all easily might never have happened. “We were on the brink of death, I don’t know, 10 times over those 10 years,” Rigopulos says. Harmonix missed the cash gusher of the Internet bubble almost entirely while it pursued ideas that bombed miserably, one after another. In 1999, the year an online pet store fronted by a sock puppet raised $50 million, Harmonix was laying off staff. Its founders sometimes give the impression of still being a bit shaken. Last year, when fawning organizers of a video game conference asked Rigopulos to give a speech about “living the dream,” he wistfully marked up a PowerPoint chart of Harmonix’s annual profits and losses. He labeled the company’s breakout year, 2006, as “The Dream.” The years 1995 through 2005, shown almost entirely in red ink, were “The Part Before That.
I turned 50 in December and have been thinking more about the passage of time recently. I’ll be 60 in 2025. That’s a good marker for many of the early stage companies I’m involved in. “You’ll be the real deal when I’m 60” is a powerful way for me to frame the time commitment it takes to create something substantial out of nothing.
The next time we talk, tell me what your company will look like in 2025.
I’ve decided to read a bunch of old science fiction as a way to form some more diverse views of the future.
I’ve been reading science fiction since I was a kid. I probably started around age ten and was a voracious reader of sci-fi and fantasy in high school. I’ve continued on as an adult, estimating that 25% of what I read is science fiction.
My early diet was Asimov, Heinlein, Harrison, Pournelle, Niven, Clarke, Sterling and Donaldson. When I was on sabbatical a few years ago in Bora Bora I read about 40 books including Asimov’s I Robot, which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager.
I’m almost done with Liu’s The Dark Forest which is blowing my mind. Yesterday morning I came across a great interview from 1999 with Arthur C. Clarke. A bunch of dots connected in my mind and I decided to go backwards to think about the future.
I don’t think we can imagine what things will be like 50 years from now and I’m certain we have no clue what a century from now looks like. So, whatever we believe is just random shit we are making up. And there’s no better way to come across random shit that people are making up than by reading sci-fi, which, even if it’s terribly incorrect, often stimulates really wonderful and wide ranging thoughts for me.
So I thought I’d go backwards 50+ years and read sci-fi written in the 1950s and 1960s. I, Robot, written in 1950, was Asimov’s second book so I decided to start with Pebble In the Sky (his first book, also written in 1950). After landing on Amazon, I was inspired to buy the first ten books by Asimov, which follow.
Pebble In The Sky (1950)
I, Robot (1950)
The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
David Starr, Space Ranger (1952)
Foundation and Empire (1952)
The Currents of Space (1952)
Biochemistry and Human Metabolism w/Williams & Wilkins (1952)
Second Foundation (1953)
Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953)
They are all sci-fi except Biochemistry and Human Metabolism written with Williams & Wilkins in 1952. I bought it also, just for the hell of it.
I bought them all in paperback and am going to read them as though I was reading them in the 1950s (on paper, without any interruptions from my digital devices) and see what happens in my brain. I’ll report back when I’m finished (or maybe along the way).
If this list inspires you with any sci-fi books from the 1950s or 1960s, toss them in the comments and I’ll grab them.
If you are over 80 years old, you experienced the transition from the non-dial telephone to the dial telephone, which included the magic “finger stop.”
If you are 30, imagine what you will be reflecting on 50 years from now.
The 2015 Defrag Conference is happening on November 11-12. Early bird pricing ends tomorrow.
For a taste of what you’ll get if you attend, following is a guest post by Ramez Naam, the author of 5 books including the award-winning Nexus trilogy of sci-fi novels. I’m a huge fan of Ramez and his books – they are in my must read near term sci-fi category.
A shorter version of this article first appeared at TechCrunch. The tech has advanced, even since then.
The final frontier of the digital technology is integrating into your own brain. DARPA wants to go there. Scientists want to go there. Entrepreneurs want to go there. And increasingly, it looks like it’s possible.
You’ve probably read bits and pieces about brain implants and prosthesis. Let me give you the big picture.
Neural implants could accomplish things no external interface could: Virtual and augmented reality with all five senses; Augmentation of human memory, attention, and learning speed; Even multi-sense telepathy – sharing what we see, hear, touch, and even perhaps what we think and feel with others.
Arkady flicked the virtual layer back on. Lightning sparkled around the dancers on stage again, electricity flashed from the DJ booth, silver waves crashed onto the beach. A wind that wasn’t real blew against his neck. And up there, he could see the dragon flapping its wings, turning, coming around for another pass. He could feel the air move, just like he’d felt the heat of the dragon’s breath before.
Sound crazy? It is… and it’s not.
Start with motion. In clinical trials today there are brain implants that have given men and women control of robot hands and fingers. DARPA has now used the same technology to put a paralyzed woman in direct mental control of an F-35 simulator. And in animals, the technology has been used in the opposite direction, directly inputting touch into the brain.
Or consider vision. For more than a year now, we’ve had FDA-approved bionic eyes that restore vision via a chip implanted on the retina. More radical technologies have sent vision straight into the brain. And recently, brain scanners have succeeded in deciphering what we’re looking at. (They’d do even better with implants in the brain.)
Sound, we’ve been dealing with for decades, sending it into the nervous system through cochlear implants. Recently, children born deaf and without an auditory nerve have had sound sent electronically straight into their brains.
Nor are our senses or motion the limit.
In rats, we’ve restored damaged memories via a ‘hippocampus chip’ implanted in the brain. Human trials are starting this year. Now, you say your memory is just fine? Well, in rats, this chip can actually improve memory. And researchers can capture the neural trace of an experience, record it, and play it back any time they want later on. Sounds useful.
In monkeys, we’ve done better, using a brain implant to “boost monkey IQ” in pattern matching tests.
Now, let me be clear. All of these systems, for lack of a better word, suck. They’re crude. They’re clunky. They’re low resolution. That is, most fundamentally, because they have such low-bandwidth connections to the human brain. Your brain has roughly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion neural connections, or synapses. An iPhone 6’s A8 chip has 2 billion transistors. (Though, let’s be clear, a transistor is not anywhere near the complexity of a single synapse in the brain.)
The highest bandwidth neural interface ever placed into a human brain, on the other hand, had just 256 electrodes. Most don’t even have that.
The second barrier to brain interfaces is that getting even 256 channels in generally require invasive brain surgery, with its costs, healing time, and the very real risk that something will go wrong. That’s a huge impediment, making neural interfaces only viable for people who have a huge amount to gain, such as those who’ve been paralyzed or suffered brain damage.
This is not yet the iPhone era of brain implants. We’re in the DOS era, if not even further back.
But what if? What if, at some point, technology gives us high-bandwidth neural interfaces that can be easily implanted? Imagine the scope of software that could interface directly with your senses and all the functions of your mind:
They gave Rangan a pointer to their catalog of thousands of brain-loaded Nexus apps. Network games, augmented reality systems, photo and video and audio tools that tweaked data acquired from your eyes and ears, face recognizers, memory supplementers that gave you little bits of extra info when you looked at something or someone, sex apps (a huge library of those alone), virtual drugs that simulated just about everything he’d ever tried, sober-up apps, focus apps, multi-tasking apps, sleep apps, stim apps, even digital currencies that people had adapted to run exclusively inside the brain.
The implications of mature neurotechnology are sweeping. Neural interfaces could help tremendously with mental health and neurological disease. Pharmaceuticals enter the brain and then spread out randomly, hitting whatever receptor they work on all across your brain. Neural interfaces, by contrast, can stimulate just one area at a time, can be tuned in real-time, and can carry information out about what’s happening.
We’ve already seen that deep brain stimulators can do amazing things for patients with Parkinson’s. The same technology is on trial for untreatable depression, OCD, and anorexia. And we know that stimulating the right centers in the brain can induce sleep or alertness, hunger or satiation, ease or stimulation, as quick as the flip of a switch. Or, if you’re running code, on a schedule. (Siri: Put me to sleep until 7:30, high priority interruptions only. And let’s get hungry for lunch around noon. Turn down the sugar cravings, though.)
Implants that help repair brain damage are also a gateway to devices that improve brain function. Think about the “hippocampus chip” that repairs the ability of rats to learn. Building such a chip for humans is going to teach us an incredible amount about how human memory functions. And in doing so, we’re likely to gain the ability to improve human memory, to speed the rate at which people can learn things, even to save memories offline and relive them – just as we have for the rat.
That has huge societal implications. Boosting how fast people can learn would accelerate innovation and economic growth around the world. It’d also give humans a new tool to keep up with the job-destroying features of ever-smarter algorithms.
The impact goes deeper than the personal, though. Computing technology started out as number crunching. These days the biggest impact it has on society is through communication. If neural interfaces mature, we may well see the same. What if you could directly beam an image in your thoughts onto a computer screen? What if you could directly beam that to another human being? Or, across the internet, to any of the billions of human beings who might choose to tune into your mind-stream online? What if you could transmit not just images, sounds, and the like, but emotions? Intellectual concepts? All of that is likely to eventually be possible, given a high enough bandwidth connection to the brain. Very crude versions of it have been demonstrated. We’ve already emailed verbal thoughts back and forth from person to person. And the field is moving fast. Just this month (after Apex came out) Duke researchers showed that one rat can learn from another, directly via implants in their brains.
That type of communication would have a huge impact on the pace of innovation, as scientists and engineers could work more fluidly together. The same Duke research I just mentioned also showed that multiple rats or multiple monkeys working together via brain implants could sometimes achieve results better than a single animal. The mind meld is here.
Neural communication just as likely to have a transformative effect on the public sphere, in the same way that email, blogs, and twitter have successively changed public discourse.
Digitizing our thoughts may have some negative consequences, of course.
With our brains online, every concern about privacy, about hacking, about surveillance from the NSA or others, would all be magnified. If thoughts are truly digital, could the right hacker spy on your thoughts? Could law enforcement get a warrant to read your thoughts? Heck, in the current environment, would law enforcement (or the NSA) even need a warrant? Could the right malicious actor even change your thoughts?
“Focus,” Ilya snapped. “Can you erase her memories of tonight? Fuzz them out?”
“Nothing subtle,” he replied. “Probably nothing very effective. And it might do some other damage along the way.”
The ultimate interface would bring the ultimate new set of vulnerabilities. (Even if those scary scenarios don’t come true, could you imagine what spammers and advertisers would do an interface to your neurons, if it were the least bit non-secure?)
Everything good and bad about technology would be magnified by implanting it deep in brains. In Nexus I crash the good and bad views against each other, in a violent argument about whether such a technology should be legal. Is the risk of brain-hacking outweighed by the societal benefits of faster, deeper communication, and the ability to augment our own intelligence?
For now, we’re a long way from facing such a choice. In fiction I can turn the neural implant into a silvery vial of nano-particles that you swallow, in and which then self-assemble into circuits in your brain. In the real world, clunky electrodes implanted by brain surgery dominate, for now.
That’s changing, though. Researchers across the world, many funded by DARPA, are working to radically improve the interface hardware, boosting the number of neurons it can connect to (and thus making it smoother, higher resolution, and more precise), and making it far easier to implant. They’ve shown recently that carbon nanotubes, a thousand times thinner than current electrodes, have huge advantages for brain interfaces. They’re working on silk-substrate interfaces that melt into the brain. Researchers at Berkeley have a proposal for neural dust that would be sprinkled across your brain (which sounds rather close to the technology I describe in Nexus). And the former editor of the journal Neuron has pointed out that carbon nanotubes are so slender that a bundle of a million of them could be inserted into the blood stream and steered into the brain, giving us a nearly 10,000 fold increase in neural bandwidth, without any brain surgery at all.
The pace of change is so fast, that every few months brings a new cutting edge technology. The latest is a ‘neural mesh’ that’s been implanted into mouse brains via a single injection through the skull.
Even so, we’re a long way from having such a device that that’s proven to work – safely, for long periods of time – in humans. We don’t actually know how long it’ll take to make the breakthroughs in the hardware to boost precision and remove the need for highly invasive surgery. Maybe it’ll take decades. Maybe it’ll take more than a century, and in that time, direct neural implants will be something that only those with a handicap or brain damage find worth the risk to reward. Or maybe the breakthroughs will come in the next ten or twenty years, and the world will change faster. DARPA is certainly pushing fast and hard.
Will we be ready? I, for one, am enthusiastic. There’ll be problems. Lots of them. There’ll be policy and privacy and security and civil rights challenges. But just as we see today’s digital technology of twitter and Facebook and camera-equipped mobile phones boosting freedom around the world, and boosting the ability of people to connect to one another, I think we’ll see much more positive than negative if we ever get to direct neural interfaces.
In the mean time, I’ll keep writing novels about them. Just to get us ready.