Would You Buy a Car That’s Programmed to Kill You? You Just Might.
Author and entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan offers an interesting crash course on computational ethics, the idea that robots and machines will require programming to make them cognizant of morals, decorum, manners, and various other social nuances.
Jerry Kaplan is widely known in the computer industry as a serial entrepreneur, inventor, scientist, and author. He is currently a Fellow at The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics. He also teaches Philosophy, Ethics, and Impact of Artificial Intelligence in the Computer Science Department, Stanford University.
Kaplan co-founded several ventures including Winster.com (social games); Onsale.com (online auctions); GO Corporation (tablet computers); and Teknowledge (expert systems). He wrote a best-selling non-fiction novel entitled “Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure”, selected by Business Week as one of the top ten business books of the year, and optioned to Sony Pictures, with translations available in Japanese, Chinese, and Portuguese. His latest book is titled Humans Need Not Apply.
Kaplan co-invented numerous products including the Synergy (first all-digital keyboard instrument, used for the soundtrack of the movie TRON); Lotus Agenda (first personal Information manager); PenPoint (tablet operating system used in the first smartphone, AT&T's EO 440); the GO computer (first tablet computer) and Straight Talk (Symantec Corporation's first natural language query system). He is also co-inventor of the online auction (patents now owned by eBay) and is named on 12 U.S. patents.
He has published papers in refereed journals including Artificial Intelligence, Communications of the ACM, Computer Music Journal, The American Journal of Computational Linguistics, and ACM Transactions on Database Systems.
Kaplan was awarded the 1998 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Northern California; served on the Governor’s Electronic Commerce Advisory Council Member under Pete Wilson, Governor of California (1999); and received an Honorary Doctorate of Business Administration from California International Business University, San Diego, California (2004).
He has been profiled in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, Red Herring, and Upside, and is a frequent public speaker.
Jerry Kaplan: As machines become increasingly autonomous, by which I mean they can sense their environment and they can make decisions about what to do or what not to do. Of course it’s based on the programming and their experience. But we don’t have as direct control over what they do as we do today with the kinds of technology that we have. Now there’s a couple of very interesting consequences of that. One of them is that they’re going to be faced with having to make ethical decisions. I’ll call it ethics junior is just making socially appropriate decisions. So we’re taking machines and we’re putting them in situations where they’re around people. And something that we take for granted and it seems so natural that machines do not take for granted and do not find natural is the normal kinds of social courtesies and conventions that we operate by in dealing with other people. You don’t want to have a robot that’s making a delivery run down the sidewalk and everybody’s got to get out of the way. It has to be able to walk in a crowd in a socially appropriate way. Your autonomous car, right. There are lots of very interesting ethical conundrums that come up, but a lot of them are just social. Okay it pulls up to the crosswalk. Should you cross? Wait? How’s it going to signal you? It’s right now the social conventions should make eye contact with the driver and they tell you whether to cross.
Now I can’t make eye contact with an autonomous car, so there are lots of these sort of rough edges around how machines ought to be able to behave. And the situations are highly variable. You can’t just make a list of them and say do this and do that. We need to program into these devices some fairly general principles. You can call it ethical if you like, which will allow them to guide their own behavior in ways and in directions that are consistent with the expectations that we have in society.
Now I’m teaching at Stanford and I can tell you I haven’t seen anything about this in the engineering curriculum. There’s how to be an ethical engineer, but there isn’t how do you build a device to be ethical. This is a completely new area. It’s sometimes goes by the name of moral programming, computational ethics. There’s some excellent books on this subject. But unfortunately if you read those books, which I have to do because that’s my job, they’re mostly pointing out the problems. Nobody has a really good scheme for how to go about doing this. So we need to develop an engineering discipline of computational ethics and we need to have course sequences in our engineering schools that teach how to get machines to behave appropriately in a wide variety of new circumstances.
Let me point out some of the more serious kinds of conundrums just to give you a feel for it and then others that are just inconveniences, okay. On the very serious side there’s a classic philosophical debate that goes on over what’s called the trolley problem. And the trolley problem is basically you’re in a trolley and there’s a track that splits. If you take no action the trolley is going to go to the right and there are four people on the track and it’s going to kill those people. You can flip a switch and it’ll go down the left track and there’s only one person on that track. The ethical question is: Is it ethical to flip that switch? It is true that the loss of life would be minimized, but it is also true that you now had taken an action to kill somebody. And if you’re that person, you may not think that’s the right thing to do. So philosophers have been studying this and many variations and there’s a lot of very subtle and interesting work that goes on in this. But this is about to become very real because autonomous cars will face exactly these kinds of decisions. So I’m going to buy an autonomous car and I’m in the car. I’m the one guy. And there may be circumstances in which there are four lives, four people, in front of the car in some way. And to save their lives my car has to drive off the edge of the bridge.
There’s a philosophical theory called utilitarianism, which has been around for a couple of centuries at least that would say that maximizing the good for society is my car should kill me. But I’m not buying that car. And so we have a conundrum here. I don’t want to see people buy a Ford instead of a Chevy because the Ford is more likely to save my life no matter what and the Chevy is going to be a little more forgiving of that. And it might kill me to save the lives of other people. I don’t want that to be a selling point in cars. So we need to have a societal discussion over how does this work. To demonstrate why that is so interesting I’ll just give you a little twist on what I said. Right now we’re talking about me buying an autonomous car. But let’s suppose I’m signed up for the great Uber network in the sky of the future and cars are coming and whatever. And I don’t own that car. Now I feel a little bit differently about it because it’s not my car. I’m just like I’m getting on a train. You would never allow a train to — the people on the train to vote, you know, like a gal on my car killed and to kill me and not that one.
There are certain — then it makes more sense for the societal average interests to be operational. So when I think about this issue, even the fact of who owns the car changes my own moral judgment about this particular kind of an issue. Well we need to be able to take these kinds of principles, talk about them, vet them, and put them into cars. So autonomous driving cars has got a number of different issues that are very, very important. Now so far I’ve just talked about life and death. But there’s lots of shades of gray in between that are really quite different. In fact I’m going to make an argument to you today that we’re already down this path and we haven’t even recognized yet for a very interesting reason. Because in order to avoid pointing out this problem the car manufacturers do not talk about this as artificial intelligence. Let me give you an example. A common function in cars is ABS — adaptive braking systems I think is what that stands for. And what that will do is if it can detect, which it can, that you’re about to skid it’s going to pump the brakes and do various things to maintain control of the car and keep it going in a particular direction.
Okay now what you might not know is that ABS in many cases on certain surfaces has a longer stopping distance than if you just jammed on the brakes, locked them and the car spun around. So imagine you’re driving your car and oh my god, there’s a kid in the middle of the road. And you just want that car to stop as quickly as it can and you slam on the brakes. Well the car is going to prioritize keeping going straight over running over that kid in today’s technology. There were circumstances in which that decision, which an engineer made a while back in designing that system, — we want to keep the car stable. You no longer have the freedom to make the decision. I don’t mind if the car spins out of control as long as I miss that kid. So now imagine that the ABS function had been described as we’re simulating the actions of a professional driver. Now we’re taking that judgment and we’re programming it to a machine using these advanced artificial intelligence techniques so that the car can keep under control the say way a professional driver might. Well we might have felt a little bit differently about that if I presented you with that example and we were talking about in as an AI technology. But by saying it’s simply a function of the car and it’s like every other function, you know, it’s like the turn signals and everything else. This issue never really got raised. It never really got vetted. But as we look to the future autonomous driving it’s going to be a problem.
Let me move on through to less severe situations. You’re in your autonomous car and it pulls, you’re on a two-lane street and this happens all the time. There’s a UPS truck right in front of you just come to a stop. The guy jumps out, he opens up the back, grabs the package, and starts heading off. Now you as a driver are permitted a certain amount of latitude in how you behave. And what would you do? You look around it; you go across the double yellow line; and you pass that UPS truck. It’s perfectly acceptable behavior. May I point out your breaking a rule. You’re crossing a double yellow line. If we were to program our cars simply to say you’re never supposed to cross a double yellow line. That car is going to sit there until the guy is done which might be a very long time if he’s gone to his lunch. So the kinds of latitude that we permit people in their behavior in a lot of these circumstances to be able to break rules or bend rules in a very appropriate way — we need to talk about whether it’s okay for a car to engage in that kind of behavior.
Let me give you another one. What would you feel if you went down to the movie theater and there are scarce tickets available and all of a sudden you find there’s 16 robots in line in front of you and you’re at the back of the line. You might actually be like wait a minute, that’s not fair. Why do we have 16 robots and they’re going to pick up tickets for whoever owns the robots. I’m here, you know. We should prioritize me over those robots. I think when that begins to happen in practice people will be up in arms because they can see what is actually happening. But that same situation is already happening today. If you try to get a ticket to Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden and scalpers run programs that snap up all of those tickets in a matter of seconds leaving all the humans who are sitting there trying to press the return button and god forbid fill out the little CAPTCHA. They don’t get stuff. So it’s exactly the same situation. The robots are owned and working for somebody else are grabbing an asset before you have an opportunity or a fair chance to acquire that asset to get that particular ticket, you know. And if you could see that people, would be really made today but it’s invisible because all this stuff is in the cloud. So we’re already facing a lot of these same ethical and social issues, but they’re not as visible as they need to be for us to have a meaningful public discussion about these particular topics.
How will the computer controlling your automated car interact with pedestrians? Who will teach robots what's socially acceptable behavior and what is not? These are the sorts of questions on the minds of people like Jerry Kaplan, who in this video offers an interesting crash course on computational ethics. Robots and machines are going to need programming that makes them cognizant of decorum, manners, and various other social nuances. And as Kaplan notes, no one is really quite certain how it's all going to be done. This is because any technology that takes accountability and decision-making away from human "operators" is innately going to be drenched in uncomfortable, uncertain philosophical dilemmas. These are big issues that require a thorough social discussion. What are we willing to accept? Where do we draw the line? There might come a day when artificial intelligence is able to answer these questions by itself. Until then, we're responsible for shaping A.I. to suit our still-to-be-determined values.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.