What Will Your Life Be Like in 2027? | Big Think's Long Take
In ten years, everything could be very different... while on the surface being as recognizable as possible.
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University's College of Engineering. He is a globally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post and author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future; The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent, which was named by The Economist as a Book of the Year of 2012; and of Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology, which documents the struggles and triumphs of women. Wadhwa has held appointments at Duke University, Stanford Law School, Harvard Law School, Emory University, and Singularity University. You can follow him on Twitter @wadhwa.
So every technology I look at is now entering this exponential curve. Ray Kurzweil says that as any technology becomes information it starts advancing exponentially. It seems that everything is being digitized now and every technology I look at seems to be entering this exponential curve. And what happens is that when technology is advancing on an exponential curve they do amazing things, but when technologies converge, when exponential technologies converge that’s when you get industry disruptions.
Behind everything is computing. This device over here by my estimate is more powerful than 40 Cray supercomputers were. Do you remember Cray supercomputers that used to cost in the tens of millions of dollars, that had expert controls on them? This is more powerful than those Cray supercomputers were.
There’s something in computing called Moore’s law. What Moore’s law stipulates is that the processing power of computers doubles every year or two. It’s actually the number of transistors, but what in fact happens is that the power increases, the cost drops, and the size becomes smaller.
So these advances in computing are making many other advances possible that this exponential curve that competing is on means that faster computer can design faster computers. With faster computers you can now design new types of sensors. With faster computers you can now build artificial intelligence. With faster computers you can now analyze data like you never could analyze before.
When you have artificial intelligence and sensors and robots coming together you get R2-D2 from Star Wars: You get these humanoid robots that can do what human beings can do.
You get the ability now to have robots that can stock your shelves, that can operate machinery, that can be receptionists in your offices. So you have multiple technologies coming together which make it possible to do things that could never be done before.
If you look at drones: what are drones? We’ve had flying machines for a long time, but these flying machines we used to build as toys—we built these toy helicopters—weren’t stable. When you added Arduino chips to them, when you added computing to them and you added a little bit of artificial intelligence to them so they could keep track of all the data around them, you had the ability to have these drones being stable, and now, ship goods! So drones are advancing almost exponentially.
And those drones are going to disrupt the entire logistics industry. Imagine now being able to have your mail being delivered to your mailbox using drones.
Imagine having packages being delivered by drones. Imagine having us being delivered by a drone! I’m not kidding! Look at Ehang and what they’re doing in Dubai. That’s really a drone on steroids that’s being used to transport human beings.
So every industry I look at I see as being ready for major disruption.
Manufacturing is going to come back into the United States, in fact it is coming back to the United States right now, because of robots that can do what human beings can do.
You have finance that’s about to be disrupted because you have robo-advisers, you have digital currencies, you now have data which analyzes stock trades and so on, all of these advances happening which are about to disrupt finance.
When you look at transportation you have electric cars, which are becoming cheaper and cheaper because of the advances in the battery technologies, you have self-driving technologies because of the advances in AI.
Imagine self-driving electric cars that cost about $15,000 or $20,000 in the year 2025. What do you think is going to happen to GM, Ford, Toyota, all of these companies? We’ll still need one or two electric companies, but more likely than not they’ll be some upstarts from Silicon Valley or from New Delhi or from São Paulo that put the right technologies together, that are inexpensive, that start disrupting the entire transportation industry.
Soon we’re going to have virtual reality that’s going to disrupt education itself. Imagine being able to put glasses on and watch this in three dimensions and converse with me.
Imagine being able to meet with people interactively on the moon or on Mars or in Tahiti. That’s going to disrupt the entire conferencing industry because we’ll be able to have meetings in exotic places and it will feel like we’re almost there.
Imagine being able to learn science by doing virtual experiments, anatomy by seeing your human body inside and out. Imagine learning mathematics by going into ancient Egypt and building pyramids. Imagine learning language by going into another country and talking to the natives in their local languages. Imagine learning Latin by going back in time and talking to people in Latin. I mean this is all becoming possible, and this is within five years we’ll have that. Imagine having digital tutors that monitor your expressions—cameras can already do that—and then monitor the child’s interest in learning. If the child likes to play games it plays games with them, if the child likes to watch videos it takes them into three-dimensional holographic worlds and lets them have experiences and learn on their own. If the child that likes reading books, it reads books to them. Soon we’re going to have virtual reality that’s going to disrupt education itself. Imagine being able to put glasses on and watch this in three dimensions and converse with me. Imagine being able to meet with people interactively on the moon or on Mars or in Tahiti. That’s going to disrupt the entire conferencing industry because we’ll be able to have meetings in exotic places and it will feel like we’re almost there. Education, imagine being able to learn science by doing virtual experiments, anatomy by seeing your human body inside and out. Imagine learning mathematics by going into ancient Egypt and building pyramids. Imagine learning language by going into another country and talking to the natives in their local languages. Imagine learning Latin by going back in time and talking to people in Latin. I mean this is all becoming possible and this is within five years we’ll have that. Imagine having digital tutors that monitor your expressions, cameras can already do that and then monitor the child’s interest in learning. If the child likes to play games it plays games with them, if the child likes to watch videos it takes them into three-dimensional holographic worlds and lets them have experiences and learn on their own. If the child that likes reading books it reads books to them. So we're talking about disrupting education itself.
Now, granted that, the Harvards, the Carnegie Mellons, the “elite” universities with brandnames—we will still value them, but the world’s masses will be able to now get into holographic worlds and learn in many new ways.
Every single industry where technology can be applied is about to be disrupted in a big way.
Let’s look at our own health. What’s happening now is that we’ve become data, and our doctors are becoming software. Let me explain.
We wear Fitbits, we wear all these devices that monitor our body’s functioning. Move forward five years and we’ll have sensors in our clothing.
Imagine that a Fruit of the Loom tag in your underwear, which is monitoring you 24/7, monitoring your activity levels, which is monitoring your EKGs—all these different symptoms that can be captured from the skin, imagine it being gathered 24/7, being uploaded to the cloud, and having an AI now analyzing the data and say, “Look you’re about to get sick, you need to get some exercise,” and then having all of these cameras and sensors which watch what we’re eating and what we’re doing and saying, “All right Vivek, you don’t need that extra piece of pie. Stop. Abort. Abort. Abort.”
This is all becoming possible, and in the next five years or so we should be able to build these technologies so we have digital doctors.
Now the second part of it: genomics. In the year 2000 there was a race between the U.S. government and a scientist, Craig Venter, to sequence the human genome. The government and affiliated labs spent $2.75 billion, Venter came up with $100 million—don’t ask how—but he took government data and he sequenced the human genome. It made front-page news worldwide.
For a long time nothing happened.
We thought genomics was a waste of money. But over the last two or three years it’s now gone at this exponential curve.
There are studies being published very frequently now; almost every week you’re seeing groundbreaking studies about discoveries in genomics, the correlations between our health and our genes. But you know something, what blows my mind the most is the microbiome.
When you went to school your biology teacher taught you that we’re made up of cells and the cells of a nucleus, and that’s where your DNA is. Do you know something? What she taught you was wrong. We’re made up of bacteria.
We have somewhere between two and ten times more bacteria in our body than we have cells. The same technology which is used to sequence the human body and that’s being used to sequence plants has been used to sequence the bacteria in our gut. And for the last few years there have been major breakthroughs in this.
Now, I have a Google alert on the word microbiome. Everyday I read new studies, new breakthroughs happening with the microbiome. It seems that the DNA is important and relevant, but we may be looking under the wrong lamp over here.
There is also a study which is showing that it's what we eat and these trillions of bacteria that we have in our body that they may be regulating our health.
For example, there was a study published in Nature magazine about a year and a half ago in which they took the feces—if I can say this on Big Think, feces means shit. They took the feces of a fat mouse and gave it to a thin mouse, and the thin mouse gained weight. They took that feces from a thin mouse and gave it to a fat mouse, and the fat mouse lost weight.
Now the Chinese also replicated some of these findings in human beings, and they determined that there’s a correlation between obesity and your microbiome.
So forget all these diets we’ve been obsessed with; could it simply be a matter of taking the feces of a thin person and giving it to a fat person and the fat person loses weight? Let’s watch this space. Over the next five years we’ll have scientific evidence of this.
And also curing disease: there have been studies that show that Crohn’s disease, which is a debilitating disease that children get, they took the feces of a healthy child and gave it to an unhealthy child, and it appears that this unhealthy child was cured.You’re curing disease by transplanting bacteria?! It doesn’t make sense.
And then antibiotics: there have been several studies would show that children who received antibiotics tend to be obese. It may well be that antibiotics are killing off entire species of bacteria in our body and they’re making us sick.
This is a crazy prediction, but I really believe this is going to happen: that within 10 or 15 years we will come to the conclusion that antibiotics were destroying our health.
It may well be that we look at antibiotics the same way we look at those leeches that used to suck out blood from patients in England, and the belief was that you could cure health by sucking out blood using leeches—that may be what antibiotics are doing to us.
They are still emerging technology. We don’t know yet. But when I read these studies everyday, that is the conclusion that I’m getting—that the entire Western medical system is about to be upended through the microbiome.
So move forward to the 2020s: we have all of these diagnostic data, we have all of this data about our genome and our microbiome, we have data on not thousands of people but hundreds of millions of people, and we have AI that analyzes all of this information. That app on your smart phone that’s monitoring you 24/7 may be the best doctor you’ve ever had. It’s your friend, it’s your advisor, it guides you on how to maintain optimal health, and it guides you on how you get healed if you do get sick. This is five, ten, maximum 15 years from now—I think closer to the five to 10 year period—that we’ll have all these amazing advances. So this is exponential, it’s incredible, it’s amazing what the future holds in health.
If you look at artificial intelligence I know when: I was young I was reading about how AI would soon be able to defeat humans at playing chess and everything else. There were all these predictions made in the 1960s about how AI would become smarter than man, and then in the 1980s and 1990s we heard about Japan and their Fifth Generation project. We sort of thought that Japan would rule the world in AI, and then what happened? Nothing happened. We basically had what was called the “AI winter,” that there was a cloud cast over AI. We thought it was a hoax, it was fraudulent and AI was dead.
But AI isn’t dead—AI is everywhere. Because here’s what happened: scientists also started speculating on a new method of doing AI.
The AI that defeated Gary Kasparov, Deep Blue, was really a decision tree. It did “If/Then” statements of every possible chess move and with super fast computers it was able to outsmart a human being. That’s really simplifying the technology, but that’s more or less the AI we had a decade or 15 years ago.
And scientists started speculating that maybe we could do a different form of AI: we could mimic the human brain.
The human brain has layers of neurons, which—the connections between the neurons are programmed based on what’s learnt. So a child sees a dog and mom says “this is a doggy, this is a cat” and the neurons adjust themselves to associate that image—of an animal with ears and a tail, and is so on—with the shape with a dog. So our brain programs itself based on what it learns.
So scientists speculated—there were papers published 30 years ago about this, that we could do AI using neural networks.
Here’s what the problem was: to do neural networks you needed massively parallel computers. We didn’t have those. Even the fastest supercomputers of their time in the 1970s and 1980s and even 1990s couldn’t do massively parallel computing.
About a decade ago Nvidia decided to develop a chip to let children play video games better, the GPU, the graphic processing unit. And they released it a few years ago it became a big success, and then scientists started looking at their GPU and realized that that’s a massively parallel computer! Why can’t we now do AI with it? So they started doing it and machine learning developed.
There are many words that we hear, but essentially we started mimicking the human brain and using these GPUs to learn the way human beings do.
That’s when you started having Elon Musk and is Stephen Hawking and a bunch of others talking about artificial general intelligence, saying “oh my God these things are going to be smarter than us” and all of these dangers. The trouble was that that was the stuff of science fiction, and this was narrow AI where you specifically taught a computer what to learn, you developed a model; and then you threw data at it and it learned from of that. So we assumed that AGI (Artificial Generalized Intelligence) was 20/30 years away.
Well, here's what happened in the last couple of weeks with narrow AI: a bunch of scientists figure out how to defeat capture by having the computer learn itself. It did experiments, it really tried every combination and figured it out. And then Google was able to have AlphaGo, which defeated these Go players—it learned on its own.
So it seems like narrow AI is learning on its own now. You can throw anything you want at it and it may be possible for the narrow AI to learn by trial and error. If you take that one step further, and you say AI can learn anything it wants to learn, you begin to see artificial general intelligence—the stuff out of science fiction—becoming possible.
So this is all happening a lot faster than anyone imagined. I mean maybe there were some people who saw it coming, but the vast majority of experts in this field didn’t think that AI would progress at the rate it’s progressed just over the last few weeks.
And it could well be that we get R2-D2—you remember Star Wars—Rosie from the Jetsons, Samantha from Her, all of these things that we saw in science fiction, that they start showing up in our apps and in these bots we have at home in the next seven to ten years.
So I won’t be surprised if I’m able to order Rosie on Amazon.com in the year 2025, 2027 and she’s droned over to my house and Rosie costs about $10,000. Because that is how AI and robotics and a whole bunch of other technologies are advancing: exponentially.
Ever since the Internet came out, we’ve started ordering things on the Internet. Some of the earliest websites were these websites—these retailing websites where you could buy oddities on the Internet, and then we could buy clothing on the Internet, and then you could buy shoes on the Internet. And now Amazon has become a dominant player because practically everything you need can be ordered on the Internet and it comes to your house often within an hour or so.
So that was retail disruption 101, but now something even more dramatic is happening: That the retail store itself is becoming digitized.
When you walk into your supermarket, when you walk into any retail store you note that there are cameras over there. In the last two years or so the ability for computers to recognize faces exceeded the ability of human beings to recognize faces. So those cameras now have the ability to know who you are, and they have the ability now to interface with the registers where you buy things—and to keep track of what you bought.
Give it five or ten years and you’ll be walking up to the counters, and you’ll have ads being served to you based on your buying habits and based on your interests. So the entire retail experience begins to change, because you have customized coupons, customized ads, all being served to you as you walk in there.
But then also the sensors I talked about, the cameras, they can also detect inventory. They can see what’s on the shelf, how much of it has been sold. Until today we’ve had human beings going and doing inventory checks; every two or three days they go and see what needs to be stacked and so on, but with these cameras they can keep track of what’s on the shelves and they can automatically order new replenishments as needed.
And then we’ll have robots that can go in and replenish the shelves. Rather than human beings going and stacking our sale boxes, imagine you had robots that can do that.
Already there are a number of robotic technologies that can go in and do this thing, but give it five or seven years and we’ll have robots replenishing shelves, we’ll have sensors and AI monitoring inventory, we’ll have customize ads being delivered to us based on our buying habits.
Move forward a couple of years, virtual reality is going to become much more powerful. Imagine wearing eyeglasses that turn dark and take you into holographic worlds. Imagine now being able to meet people wherever you want to and being able to converse with them as if you were there.
Imagine now being able to go into a “store” and now pick and choose what you want from it, being able to examine the merchandise and say “okay I’ll take it,” and imagine having it being droned over to your house.
SAVING THE WORLD:
Let me switch gears now and talk about saving the world. Because I live in Silicon Valley and frankly I get depressed at the fact that there’s tens of billions of dollars being thrown at mindless apps.
What happens is some kid comes up with some new stupid app and he gets $100 million funding, and other VCs throw another $100 million to competitors. We’re basically chasing rainbows in Silicon Valley, and not understanding the problems of the world.
I was born in India. I traveled the world. And when I go there I see poverty, I see despair, I see people living in ill health, I see hunger, I see disease, I see people getting sick because of bad water. And it’s depressing to see that.
Living in Silicon Valley, we’re blessed. Living in New York City, you’re blessed, because you have everything you need. We see poverty and we ignore it, but by and large we’re not sensitive to the needs of the world.
You drive over to the developing world and you see the dire poverty and the pain and suffering. But you know something? I believe that in the next 10 or 15 years we can solve virtually all of these problems that are hurting people so much.
The biggest problem is energy. When people in remote parts of India, Africa, South America come home, they can’t study because they don’t have light. This is something we can’t comprehend in America: that you don’t have light, you can’t study, therefore children don’t get education. But this is a common problem in the developing world.
Eighty-eight percent of the infectious disease in the developing world is caused by water born viruses.
When you went to school you learned how to distill water. What do you do? You boil it, you capture the condensation and that is distilled water. Distilled water is 100 percent pure, there’s nothing living in it.
Now, all it takes to have 100 percent clean water—to boil the oceans and have all the water we need—is energy. The trouble is that energy has been so expensive. Well guess what? That’s changing. We’re headed into an era of unlimited clean and almost free energy.
Here’s what’s happening: Solar. Wind.
Take solar as an example, the cost of solar has dropped 99 percent since 1976, and what happens is that as the price drops, the installations double. As installations double, the price drops.
We’re in a vicious cycle over here of exponential technology advances.
At the pace we’re going we’re only about six doublings away from having the capability of generating 100 percent of the earth’s energy needs through solar. This sounds crazy. And the doublings are happening less than every two years from now.
So what I’m saying is that by 2030 or so we could have unlimited clean energy on this planet from sunlight, and the cost will be a fraction of what it is today. Imagine 1/16 of what it is today, 1/30 of what it is today. In less than 15 years from now!
This seems crazy, this seems unimaginable, but all you have to do is look at the data, look at the trend: it is as clear as can be.
Now, in America we’re regressing, because you now have the U.S. government—and when I say U.S. government I mean Donald Trump—talking about bringing coal back.
He’s talking about stopping the progress of solar energy because it “disrupts U.S. unemployment.” This is complete nonsense.
I mean solar is generating more jobs than coal ever had, and this is good for America, it’s good for the world.
But regardless, leave America aside— America is not relevant anymore.
The really good news over here is that America isn’t leading the world anymore; it’s China, number one—they have committed to I think 200 gigawatts in the next five to seven years—and India, number two—they’re talking about 100 gigawatts.
We’re talking about the two largest population countries in the world now leading the path on solar.
So even if America decides to bring coal back and set up coal fire plants, it doesn’t matter. The world will simply laugh at us, the cost of solar will still advance. And the beauty of this is that every village in the world will now have light.
Now the challenge over here is that you need to store the energy, because the sun doesn’t shine when it’s not sunny, the wind doesn’t blow when it’s not windy. But the good thing is that the cost of storage is also dropping exponentially.
We used to talk about $300/$400/$500 a kilowatt-hour for storage. Elon Musk is hinting at $100 a kilowatt-hour in the next three or four years. And it can go to $70 a kilowatt-hour. When you talk about prices such as that, you’re talking about self-driving electric cars costing about $15,000/$20,000, being able to drive 200 miles by the mid-2020s.
By 2025 we could have cars that cost $15,000 and go 100, 200 miles.
We’re talking about now having enough energy storage for a village for a couple of thousand dollars, which means that you could have entire villages, entire towns all over the world which are off the grid and have unlimited clean energy.
So now we can have unlimited clean water, because we can just boil the oceans; we can now have lights that children can come home and study; and we can educate them, because they’ll also have smartphones that provide them with knowledge; we can now have diagnostic devices, which provide them with information so that they can get on their smartphone and get health.
They can have vertical farms. This is another amazing technology that we don’t talk very much about in the United States, but vertical farming is now advancing exponentially because of two or three different convergences:
First of all, LED lighting. We also have to understand that LED lighting now costs about the same as these old bulbs we had, the Edison bulbs; LED lights cost about the same right now. In the developing world they’re even cheaper.
And LED lighting, there was a Nobel Prize two years ago for LED lighting, there’s been such amazing breakthroughs in LED lighting so that you can now tune the frequencies to the growth of plants.
So you can now have inexpensive energy, LED lights, and now you can also have sensors—by which I mean sensors, cameras and other devices— which monitor crop growth, which monitor the growth of every plant, give them exactly the right nutrients.
Glass houses—we’re talking about organic food.
We will be able to grow almost unlimited food because of these advances in energy, LED lighting, AI and sensors. That’s in the next five or ten years.
So we could literally have a planet that’s abundant in energy, in food, that has perfect health, in which we can 3-D print our own clothing. All of these things are within reach!
THE DARK SIDE:
Now let me get to the dark side of all this. I talked about the advances in AI and robotics, in sensors.
Industry disruptions—despite what the optimists say, despite what Silicon Valley says, I don't see a scenario in which we’ll have enough jobs for human beings. Yes there will be new jobs created, Zumba dancers and God knows what else, all these stupid examples that tech moguls throw out about the new jobs that will be created.
The fact is that these Uber drivers, these taxi drivers in New York City, even the Uber drivers that we have here now— when their jobs get displaced there aren’t going to be new jobs for them.
The truck drivers, we’re talking about three million truck drivers just in the United States? When we have self-driving trucks, which is very likely in the next five years or so, those middle-aged truck drivers who don’t have other skills than driving are not going to be able to learn how to program robots or how to do Zumba dancing. Those truck drivers will be unemployed.
We’re talking about people whose likelihood depends on jobs, whose social stature depends on jobs.
Think about it. When we meet each other, almost the first question we ask is what do you do? We’re defined by our jobs and we take pride and creativity in our work, and our lives revolve around our work.
What happens when the work disappears? Even if you have all the energy you want, all the food you want, you have perfect health, you have all the things you need, you’re able to 3-D print your food and clothing and all that, if you have all of those things taken care of you have nothing to do. You feel depressed.
What’s the new social stature we have? What do we do with ourselves?
So Silicon Valley talks about universal basic income. That’s their excuse for saying, “It’s someone else’s problem. It will be okay, let us get filthy rich and let someone else worry about the problem. We can just give money to everyone.”
No, people don’t just want money, people want a purpose in life. They want to be contributing to society. They want to be doing good. They want to be earning their keep. They don’t want free money.
So next 10, 15 years I worry about—and maybe as soon as five years I worry about—millions of people, tens of millions of people becoming unemployed, becoming depressed, and really rebelling.
Go back to the Luddite movements who tried to stop the progress of technology because their livelihoods were being taken away. I worry about this dark scenario.
I worry about them wanting to burn down the tech companies and to stop progress at all cost because their jobs are being taken away. Just like you had strikes in Paris, taxi drivers trying to burn down Ubers—I’m exaggerating a little bit but they’re trying to stop Ubers—you may have that in New York City.
You may have peoples whose lives have been displaced. You may have people who have lost their livelihoods now getting angrier and protesting.
And then look at what’s happening in DC, we have a government that’s pandering to the extremist groups, to the anger.
I mean it was unimaginable even two years ago that we would be accusing the White House of being Nazi sympathizers! I mean this is craziness! I mean, the allegations are not founded, but the fact that we can even make those allegations shows that something is wrong over here, that the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown, not only in money, which is what we used to talk about before, but also in knowledge, in culture, in values.
People who are watching this are technology-literate—that is you get your information online, you watch a video such as this and you stay up to date with this.
The people in middle America, the truck drivers, the taxi drivers, many of them don’t watch this, and they’re not up to date. And we’re doing nothing to mitigate the gap.
That our policy makers are talking about taking things away, taking healthcare away from people, taking benefits away from people—They’re not talking about how do we know uplift all of mankind! They think we have limited resources and therefore we have to ration them, but they don’t seem to realize that we are headed into an era of abundance in which we can now distribute the prosperity we’re creating and uplift all of mankind.
A BIG DECISION:
In my book The Driver in the Driverless Car I tried to look at technology through three lenses. And the purpose of this was to figure out how we can create the amazing future of Star Trek versus the darkness of Mad Max. The three lenses are, number one, does the technology have the potential to benefit everyone equally? Can we make sure that everyone gets good healthcare from it? Can we make sure that everyone gets clean energy from it? Can we make sure that everyone benefits from the technology so that we don’t have people being left out and we don’t have anger brewing?
Go back to movies such as War of the Worlds, go back to a lot of these science fiction horror movies, in these movies the rich had access to better technology, they had health, they had all sorts of good things; the poor had nothing they were working in the mines. The outcome was always the same in all of these movies that the poor ended up killing the rich. Mad Max. That the anger started brewing and rebellion started and the focus was to destroy technology to kill the rich basically. This is what happens in all of these dark the movies, Mad Max. If we don’t now start educating and uplifting everyone we’re going to have Mad Max
The second lens is do the rewards outweigh the risks? Is this technology going to uplift us or is it going to – is this technology going to benefit us or is it going to hurt us? We have to look at every technology to make sure that the rewards outweigh the risks.
For example, gene-editing CRISPR, we now have the ability to alter life itself. In about a decade from now we will have the ability to select the features that our children have. This sounds crazy but we may be able to take pills that alter the genome of an embryo and give them new characteristics, to remove disease and to give them maybe extra IQ. This is all becoming possible. Now the question if you do that do you now create the world of Gattaca? That movie Gattaca in which you had people who were enhanced and then you had people who weren’t enhance and the people who were enhanced shared a special place in society. And guess what, the people who weren’t enhanced rebelled. Are we now creating super human beings? Are we now creating killer viruses? Are we now creating massive joblessness? Are we now creating all of these new nightmares with technologies? Do their rewards truly outweigh the risks?
And then the question is does the technology create autonomy or dependence? I mean I’m a big fan of self-driving cars. I drive a Tesla Model S and I can’t wait to get into auto drive when I get on the highway because I want the car to drive itself. Now eventually, when I say eventually probably 10/15 years from now we’re going to be deciding that we don’t want to these dangerous human beings on the road. These human beings get distracted, they text while they’re driving, they get angry, they get road rage, they rush into traffic at the same time, they crash into each other. They’re dangerous. We don’t want these dangers animals on our roads, instead we want to have smart AI and robots doing the driving. So we may throw the human beings off the road, which means that we’ve lost autonomy. We get angry. Gone are the thrills of driving.
And so on the one hand self-driving cars give us autonomy. Why autonomy? Because everyone now can get from anywhere they want to be to everywhere they want to be safely. Mothers can send their children to school knowing that they’ll safely arrived there. The blind, the people who are handicapped, the old don’t have to worry about having to drive anymore
So we have autonomy like we’ve never had before because of self-driving cars. But then we lose another autonomy, that autonomy is the right of being able to drive on our highways. So you have a trade off over here, the question is does technology lead to dependence or autonomy? In the case of self-driving cars it’s both dependence and autonomy at the same time. But we’ve got to figure this out, we’ve got to figure out what the trade offs are. So what I posit in The Driver in the Driverless Car is that we have to look at each technology through these three lenses
And what I believe, what I sincerely believe is that if we get these right that if we now benefits everyone and we do things in a sensible way we can create the amazing future of Star Trek, that we really can get to this world in which we’re now sharing prosperity, we’re seeking enlightenment and knowledge, we’re working to uplift humanity and we can do this 300 years ahead of schedule.
Between driverless cars and AI and gene modification technology, we're about to see a lot of very big changes in a short amount of time. But there's a danger of people rebelling because things moved too fast. Imagine an angry, jobless populace once driverless cars take away the transportation industry and electric cars take away the gas industry. Will politicians have to enact universal basic income? It's a sobering reminder that we are—as a country and as a species—still adapting to an every changing world. Even if it's a world that we designed. Vivek tackles this and a host of other issues (as well as some great things to look forward to) in our first long-form video. Vivek is the author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future. Intro / The Future - 0:00 to 5:26 Health - 5:26 to 11:09 Artificial Intelligence - 11:09 to 15:53 On Demand - 15:53 to 18:35 Energy - 18:35 to 25:29 Jobs - 25:29 to 29:52 Big Decisions - 29:52 to 34:38
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
It is impossible for science to arrive at ultimate truths, but functional truths are good enough.
- What is truth? This is a very tricky question, trickier than many would like to admit.
- Science does arrive at what we can call functional truth, that is, when it focuses on what something does as opposed to what something is. We know how gravity operates, but not what gravity is, a notion that has changed over time and will probably change again.
- The conclusion is that there are not absolute final truths, only functional truths that are agreed upon by consensus. The essential difference is that scientific truths are agreed upon by factual evidence, while most other truths are based on belief.
Does science tell the truth? The answer to this question is not as simple as it seems, and my 13.8 colleague Adam Frank took a look at it in his article about the complementarity of knowledge. There are many levels of complexity to what truth is or means to a person or a community. Why?
First, "truth" itself is hard to define or even to identify. How do you know for sure that someone is telling you the truth? Do you always tell the truth? In groups, what may be considered true to a culture with a given set of moral values may not be true in another. Examples are easy to come by: the death penalty, abortion rights, animal rights, environmentalism, the ethics of owning weapons, etc.
At the level of human relations, truth is very convoluted. Living in an age where fake news has taken center stage only corroborates this obvious fact. However, not knowing how to differentiate between what is true and what is not leads to fear, insecurity, and ultimately, to what could be called worldview servitude — the subservient adherence to a worldview proposed by someone in power. The results, as the history of the 20th century has shown extensively, can be catastrophic.
Proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted.
The goal of science, at least on paper, is to arrive at the truth without recourse to any belief or moral system. Science aims to go beyond the human mess so as to be value-free. The premise here is that Nature doesn't have a moral dimension, and that the goal of science is to describe Nature the best possible way, to arrive at something we could call the "absolute truth." The approach is a typical heir to the Enlightenment notion that it is possible to take human complications out of the equation and have an absolute objective view of the world. However, this is a tall order.
It is tempting to believe that science is the best pathway to truth because, to a spectacular extent, science does triumph at many levels. You trust driving your car because the laws of mechanics and thermodynamics work. NASA scientists and engineers just managed to have the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter — the first man-made device to fly over another planet — hover above the Martian surface all by itself.
We can use the laws of physics to describe the results of countless experiments to amazing levels of accuracy, from the magnetic properties of materials to the position of your car in traffic using GPS locators. In this restricted sense, science does tell the truth. It may not be the absolute truth about Nature, but it's certainly a kind of pragmatic, functional truth at which the scientific community arrives by consensus based on the shared testing of hypotheses and results.
What is truth?
Credit: Sergey Nivens / 242235342
But at a deeper level of scrutiny, the meaning of truth becomes intangible, and we must agree with the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus who declared, around 400 years BCE, that "truth is in the depths." (Incidentally, Democritus predicted the existence of the atom, something that certainly exists in the depths.)
A look at a dictionary reinforces this view. "Truth: the quality of being true." Now, that's a very circular definition. How do we know what is true? A second definition: "Truth: a fact or belief that is accepted as true." Acceptance is key here. A belief may be accepted to be true, as is the case with religious faith. There is no need for evidence to justify a belief. But note that a fact as well can be accepted as true, even if belief and facts are very different things. This illustrates how the scientific community arrives at a consensus of what is true by acceptance. Sufficient factual evidence supports that a statement is true. (Note that what defines sufficient factual evidence is also accepted by consensus.) At least until we learn more.
Take the example of gravity. We know that an object in free fall will hit the ground, and we can calculate when it does using Galileo's law of free fall (in the absence of friction). This is an example of "functional truth." If you drop one million rocks from the same height, the same law will apply every time, corroborating the factual acceptance of a functional truth, that all objects fall to the ground at the same rate irrespective of their mass (in the absence of friction).
But what if we ask, "What is gravity?" That's an ontological question about what gravity is and not what it does. And here things get trickier. To Galileo, it was an acceleration downward; to Newton a force between two or more massive bodies inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them; to Einstein the curvature of spacetime due to the presence of mass and/or energy. Does Einstein have the final word? Probably not.
Is there an ultimate scientific truth?
Final or absolute scientific truths assume that what we know of Nature can be final, that human knowledge can make absolute proclamations. But we know that this can't really work, for the very nature of scientific knowledge is that it is incomplete and contingent on the accuracy and depth with which we measure Nature with our instruments. The more accuracy and depth our measurements gain, the more they are able to expose the cracks in our current theories, as I illustrated last week with the muon magnetic moment experiments.
So, we must agree with Democritus, that truth is indeed in the depths and that proclamations of final or absolute truths, even in science, shouldn't be trusted. Fortunately, for all practical purposes — flying airplanes or spaceships, measuring the properties of a particle, the rates of chemical reactions, the efficacy of vaccines, or the blood flow in your brain — functional truths do well enough.
Using urinals, psychological collages, and animated furniture to shock us into reality.
- Dada is a provocative and surreal art movement born out of the madness of World War I.
- Tzara, a key Dada theorist, says Dada seeks "to confuse and upset, to shake and jolt" people from their comfort zones.
- Dada, as all avant-garde art, faces a key problem in how to stay true to its philosophy.
In a world gone mad, what can the few sane people left do? What can someone say when there are no words that seem up to the job? How can anyone hope to express ideas so terrible when doing so will only reduce those ideas?
These are some of the things that inspired the Dada movement, and in its absurd, surreal, and chaotic nonsense, we find the voice of the voiceless.
The origin of Dadaism
Dada was a response to the madness of World War I. Reasonable, intelligent, and sensitive people looked at the blood and mud graveyards of the trenches and wondered how any meaning or goodness could ever be found again. How can someone make sense of a world where millions of young, happy, hopeful men were scythed down in a spray of bullets? How could life go back to normal when returning soldiers, blinded and disfigured from gas, lay homeless in the streets? Out of this awful revulsion, there came one bitter voice, and it said: "Everything is nonsense."
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything.
And so, the Dada movement expressed itself in absurdity. Tzara, the closest you get to a Dadaist philosopher, put it like this: "Like everything in life, Dada is useless. Dada is without pretension, as life should be." Dada rejects all systems, all philosophy, all definite answers, and all truth. It is the living embrace of contradictions and nonsense. It seeks "to confuse and upset people, to shake and jolt". It aims to shout down the "shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners," when actually "everything happens in a completely idiotic way."
In short, Dada is a response to the world when all the usual methods have broken down. It's the recognition that dinner party conversations, Hollywood blockbusters, and Silicon Valley are not how life actually is. This is a false reality and order, like some kind of veneer.
The Dada response to life is to embrace the personal and passionate madness of it all, where "the intensity of a personality is transposed directly, clearly into the work." It's to recognize the unique position of an artist, who can convey ideas and feelings in a way that goes beyond normal understanding. Art goes straight to the soul, but the intensity of it all can be hard to "enjoy" in the strictest sense.
Where is this Dada?
For instance, Dada is seen in the poems of Hugo Ball who wrote in meaningless foreign-sounding words. It's in Hausmann, who wrote works in disconnected phonemes. It's found in Duchamp's iconoclastic "Fountain" that sought to question what art or an artist really meant. It's in Hans Richter's short film "Ghost before Breakfast," which has an incoherent montage of images, loosely connected by the theme of inanimate objects in revolt. And, it's in Kurt Schwitters' "psychological collages" which present fragments of objects, juxtaposed together.
Dada is intended to shock. It's an artistic jolt asking, or demanding, that the viewers reorient themselves in some way. It is designed to make us feel uncomfortable and does not make for easy appreciation. It's only when we're thrown so drastically outside of our comfort zone in this way that Dada asks us to question how things are. It shakes us out of a conformist stupor to look afresh at things.
The paradox of Dadaism
Of course, like all avant-garde art, Dada needs to address one major problem: how do you stay so provocative, so radical, and so anti-establishment when you also seek success? How can maverick rebels stay so as they get a mortgage and want a good school for their kids? The problem is that young, inventive, and idealistic artists are inevitably sucked into the world of profit and commodity.
As Grayson Perry, a British modern artist, wrote: "What starts as a creative revolt soon becomes co-opted as the latest way to make money," and what was once fresh and challenging "falls away to reveal a predatory capitalist robot." With Dada, how long can someone actually live in a world of nonsense and nihilistic absurdity?
But there will always be new blood to keep movements like Dada going. As the revolutionaries of yesterday become the rich mansion-owners of today, there will be hot, young things to come and take up the mantle. There will always be something to challenge and questions to be asked. So, art movements like Dada will always be in the vanguard.
Dada is the art of the nihilist. It smashes accepted wisdom, challenges norms and values, and offends, upsets, and provokes us to re-examine everything. It's an absurd art form that reflects the reality it perceives — that life is nothing more than a dissonant patchwork of egos floating in an abyss of nothing.
Unfortunately, humanity will never see it coming.
It sounds like a plot from a comic book or a sci-fi film, a theory that got a boost when one of the greatest discoveries in physics in the modern era, the discovery of the “God particle,”or the Higgs boson, the missing piece in the Standard Model of particle physics. In the preface to his book Starmus, Stephen Hawking warns that the Higgs Boson field could collapse, resulting in a chain reaction that would take in the whole universe with it.
Theoretical physicist Joseph Lykken says it would probably take billions of years before we reach that point. Lykken hails from the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. If it did happen though, you wouldn’t know it. One instant you are here, the next, you and everything else is swallowed up by an enormous vacuum bubble, traveling at light speed in every direction. Humanity would never see it coming.
Peter Higgs and colleagues first theorized the existence of the Higgs boson in 1964. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland finally discovered it in 2012. With this missing piece found, three of the four fundamental forces of nature become complete. The particle’s measured value is 126 billion electron volts. That’s 126 times a proton’s mass. This is just enough to maintain a state teetering near the edge of stability.
Everything in the universe contains a certain amount of energy. Even so, everything also adheres to the principle of stability. All substances want to become stable. To do that, one must contain as little energy as it can. When something has a high energy level, it is unstable, and moves to rid itself of excess energy, in order to achieve stability.
Part of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, where the Higgs boson was discovered.
Quantum fields imbue particles with various properties. They also want to move to a low energy state, here called a vacuum state. The Higgs Field may be the exception. It lends particles’ mass. Rather than being a vacuum, the Higgs Field contains potential energy it cannot rid itself of, making it a false vacuum and by nature unstable. This instability could spark off, if the field was able to absorb more energy. A certain point it could absorb no more, teeter over the brink and end everything in existence.
The Higgs Field is maintaining a low energy state at the moment. But some believe it is slowly transitioning to a high energy state. When it does, it will kick off what is known as “vacuum decay.” In Hawking’s book, once the Higgs Field becomes metastable, the vacuum decay bubble will emerge. Being at a high energy state, it will quickly move to consume everything at a low energy state, or everything else around it. The vacuum bubble moves along destroying atoms, turning everything it encounters into hydrogen.
Prof. Lykken believes it will take billions of years. “There's no principle that we know of that would put us right on the edge,” he said. University of Southern Denmark physicists strengthened the vacuum decay theory in a study published in the journal High Energy Physics. They found however that vacuum decay could occur at any moment.
Even so, there may be outside forces associated with the Higgs Field that influence it in unknown ways. Dark matter for example, that mysterious substance that could comprise up to 27% of the universe, may interact with the Higgs Field. Recently however, a team of prominent physicists brought into doubt whether or not dark matter actually exists. Another theory called “supersymmetry,” states that every particle has its opposite. This helps keep the universe stable. Could the Higgs boson have a twin? Would that particle keep it from vacuum decay? No one is sure.
A representation of the Higgs Field. by Gonis from es, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons.
It is believed that when vacuum decay eventually takes place, what will be left is a superheated, hard, and extremely dense sphere. Some astrophysicists believe the universe, just before the Big Bang, may have looked like this. The Higgs Field is thought to have emerged shortly after the Big Bang. So it may be the driving force which deletes the universe and forces it to start over again.
This isn’t the only conceptualization which predicts the destruction of everything everywhere. Another is the Big Crunch theory. This is the opposite of the Big Bang. With the first, a collection of super dense material exploded, heaving everything out in all directions. With the Big Crunch, it’s thought that material eventually stops moving at some point, and begins traveling in the opposite direction, coming back together again.
So even if we are able to escape the planet and become an intergalactic species before the sun engulfs the earth, the universe itself may collapse. The only way to ensure longevity is if the multiverse actually exists, and we can become a multi-universal species. Whether it is the Big Crunch of Vacuum Decay that gets us, it’s interesting to think that perhaps after that dense, hot state, it could in theory explode again, causing a second Big Bang.
If true, how many times has the cycle occurred? And does history repeat itself exactly, or is a totally new universe born? It is of course important to remember that this is all in the realm of theoretical physics. The universe may hide as of yet a treasure trove of unknown particles which could change these predictions and speculations completely.
To learn more about vacuum decay click here:
Two different studies provide further evidence of the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression.
- A phase 2 clinical trial by Imperial College London found psilocybin to be as effective at treating depression as escitalopram, a commonly prescribed antidepressant.
- A different study by the University of Maryland showed that blocking the hallucinogenic effects of magic mushrooms in mice did not reduce the antidepressant effect.
- Combined, these studies could lead to new ways of applying psychedelics to patient populations that don't want to trip.
Due to stigma, their illegal status and difficulty in finding control groups, research with psychedelics has been a challenge. But research increasingly shows that this class of drug has legitimate medicinal uses, and they may be just as good or even better than more traditional therapies.
Now, the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London reports in the New England Journal of Medicine that when pitted against escitalopram (brand name: Lexapro), psilocybin was as effective as the popular SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) in treating moderate to severe depression. Perhaps most significantly, these results were obtained when comparing 6 weeks of daily doses of escitalopram to just two administrations of psilocybin.
Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the center who has published over 100 papers on psychedelics, is confident this study represents another step forward in applying psychedelics to mental health treatment protocols while also reducing fears a lot of citizens have around these substances. In a press release, he said:
"One of the most important aspects of this work is that people can clearly see the promise of properly delivered psilocybin therapy by viewing it compared with a more familiar, established treatment in the same study. Psilocybin performed very favorably in this head-to-head."
Credit: Robin Carhart-Harris et al, NEJM, 2021.
As depicted above, the phase 2 clinical trial included 59 volunteers. The escitalopram (control) group received six weeks of daily escitalopram in addition to two tiny (1-mg) doses of psilocybin — a dose so low that it is unlikely to produce hallucinogenic effects. The psilocybin (experimental) group received two 25-mg doses of psilocybin three weeks apart with placebo given on all the other days.
At the end of the study, both groups saw a decrease in depressive symptoms, though the results were not statistically significant. (That isn't necessarily bad because if the two drugs have similar effects, then they would not produce statistically significant results. Still, a larger study is needed to confirm that psilocybin is "just as good as" escitalopram.)
Additionally, several other outcomes favored psilocybin over escitalopram. For instance, 57 percent in the psilocybin group saw a remission of symptoms compared to 28 percent in the escitalopram group. This result was significant.
Psychedelics without tripping
As psychedelics become decriminalized and potentially legalized for therapeutic use, however, a large population of people might desire the antidepressant effects without the hallucinations. For example, the psychedelic ibogaine may be useful for treating addiction, so the company Mindmed is developing an analog that works without producing the unwanted hallucinogenic side effects.
A new research article, published in the journal PNAS, investigated the antidepressant effects of psilocybin on a group of chronically stressed mice. (Under immense stress, mice develop something resembling human depression.) As with humans, depressed mice lose a sense of joy, which can be assessed by determining their preference for sugar water over tap water. Normal mice prefer sugar water, but depressed mice simply don't care.
Once the mice were no longer juicing up on the sweetened water, the team dosed them with psilocybin alongside a drug called ketanserin, a 5-HT2A serotonin receptor antagonist that eliminates psychedelic effects. Within 24 hours of receiving the dose, the mice were rushing back to the sugar water, indicating that tripping is not necessary for psilocybin to work as an antidepressant.
While the team is excited about these results, they realize it needs to be replicated in a different population.
"The possibility of combining psychedelic compounds and a 5-HT2AR antagonist offers a potential means to increase their acceptance and clinical utility and should be studied in human depression."
Photo: Cannabis_Pic / Adobe Stock
The future of psychedelic therapy
Psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD have a long track record of efficacy in clinical trials and anecdotal experiences. Almost all volunteers of the famous Marsh Chapel experiment claimed their experience on Good Friday in 1962 was one of the most significant events of their lives — and this was a quarter-century after the fact. A more recent, controlled study found that a single dose of psilocybin showed antidepressant effects six months later.
Proponents of macrodosing and ritualistic experiences sometimes argue that the full-blown mystical trip is the therapy, though this is anecdotal, not clinical research. As the Maryland team noted, a number of people are contraindicated for psychedelics, whether through a family history of schizophrenia or current antidepressant treatments.
Senior author Scott Thompson is excited for future research on this topic. As he said of his team's findings:
"The psychedelic experience is incredibly powerful and can be life-changing, but that could be too much for some people or not appropriate… These findings show that activation of the receptor causing the psychedelic effect isn't absolutely required for the antidepressant benefits, at least in mice."
Hopefully, with more research occurring in psychedelics than even in the 1950s (when studies predominantly relied on anecdotal evidence and little government support), the longstanding stigmatization of psychedelics is beginning to recede. This could open up new possibilities for both clinical research and, for those curious about the ritual effects, a continuation of introspective experiences.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."