Future Thinkers Podcast guest Ramez Naam, computer scientist, futurist and author of five books, including The Nexus trilogy and The Infinite Resource, discusses with Mike Gilliland and Euvie Ivanova intersections between blockchain, energy and transport, taking responsibility for the use of technology, and creating a positive future.
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Mike: Yeah, I’d like to know why are you such an [00:01:30] optimist about the future?

Ramez: Oh my gosh, there’s multiple reasons. I think one is looking at the past. If we look at the history of humanity, especially the last almost 50 years now, since 1970, we just see that almost every trend for humans is improving: people in poverty, people in hunger going down, the number of people who can read, internet access, democracy in the long view getting better. I think if you step back [00:02:00] from the news and all the bad news that sells us to get our eyeballs and get our attention and you look at the numbers, that’s what you see. Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “If you want to understand the universe, you have to speak mathematics.” It’s not complicated mathematics that the state of humanity is improving, but it does mean pulling back from the horror stories and looking at the actual numbers.

Euvie: I think that’s something that people don’t really notice because they look at the things that [00:02:30] resonate to them on a human level – that there’s a terrorist attack here, or there’s pollution there – and they don’t actually look at the overall trend.

Ramez: Yeah, I think that’s totally right. We evolved before media, so in our evolutionary period – until 100 years ago, even before that, before newspaper existed, before 500 years ago – if you saw a murder that meant that it happened right in front of you. If somebody told you about a murder, then it must have happened to one of the 70 people that [00:03:00] you knew. Now, a murder can happen halfway around the world and a billion people see it and our instincts, the way that we process that information tells us emotionally that it happened near us. We’re not prepared for that.

Mike: That’s so true. Because we have a media background, we’ve studied the broadcast era in media and how that has changed culture and society over the period of starting I guess around the 1970s and then just getting worse and worse. [00:03:30] It’s interesting that you’ve latched onto that one, too, is broadcast being one of the I would say most effective way to get people to be afraid about the future.

Ramez: Yeah and it doesn’t have to be that way but we’re asymmetric as human beings about our views of good news versus bad news. We quantifiably inside experiments we respond more sharply to a loss than we do to a gain of the same size. Bit by bit [00:04:00] media environment where clicks or eyeballs or attention get monetized capitalizes on that and then amplifies it.

Mike: It seems like in a lot of your talks you’re focusing on the numbers, on convincing people that, “Look, it’s not so bad as you think it is.” What are some of the straight facts that you’ve uncovered in the last few years? What is actually giving you optimism?

Ramez: I’d say first we have to understand that the base, the default state of humanity is abject poverty, [00:04:30] that’s how we existed for a hundred thousand years. Poverty has plunged since 1970. A number of people living on a dollar a day has dropped by a factor of 5 or 10, in effect. You look at literacy rates are at an all time high. The number of people who are hungry – in 1970 almost 40 percent of the world lived in hand to mouth food scarcity and now it’s less than 10 percent. That’s [00:05:00] dropped by 75 percent. Warfare is down, Stephen [inaudible [0:00][5:05].

Violence is down. In the US, violent crime is back to levels of the 1950s. It peaked around 1970. Our life expectancy was 30 years, 33 years in 1900. A century after that it was 66 years. Infectious disease is dropping. The number of people who live in a democracy is [00:05:30] at an all time high more or less. Those are some of the things that I look at and say, “Wow, it’s clearly the best time ever to be born on planet earth today.” And if the trends continue, and they have been, it’ll be an even better time 10 years from now.

Mike: A lot of people talk about job loss being a big factor. Actually, on our last episode we had Guy Standing talk to us about basic income. What’s your view on job loss and basic income being a potential solution?

Ramez: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I think [00:06:00] that this idea that technology and automation, everything from chat bots to expert systems to robots, are going to remove human jobs is intuitively very appealing. Definitely, some jobs will be destroyed: taxi drivers, grocery store check out people. Those are jobs that are going to come under pressure. Will total human employment go down? I’m way less convinced of that. I’m less convinced of that because [00:06:30] this alarm has been sounded so many times.

It was sounded in the 1970s and what we found was that as automation destroyed some human jobs or automated those human jobs, it lowered the cost of living, it lowered the cost of those goods, it increased demand for them, and it created more job niches than it destroyed. Will this time be different? It might. It’s never happened this fast before. [00:07:00] The pace of technological advancement is faster than ever before. The rate at which jobs could be destroyed is potentially higher than ever before. I don’t think it’s a certainty. If it does happen, I think society should be ready, we should be experimenting with things.

I think there’s a number of things that we should be looking at. One is how do we improve education and job training throughout life? If AI is revolutionizing how lawyers work, or doctors work, or [00:07:30] what it means to be a driver, or if in general software networks have totally changed how we deliver video, how we deliver books, how we deliver games, movies, TVs, why can’t those technologies revolutionize teaching? Why couldn’t you have an AI tutor on a cheap tablet or on your phone that was teaching you more effectively than most humans could, that knew you intimately what you were getting and what you weren’t? They could rely on [00:08:00] randomized controlled studies of what worked, that sort of thing.

I think that’s just as important as basic income, because when I look at the future, the most likely outcome is not that total number of jobs will be destroyed but that some jobs will be destroyed and new job niches will be created but they’ll be job niches that the truck drivers losing their jobs won’t have the skills for. Can we help them move into it? Yeah, I think so, I hope so. I do think [00:08:30] we should look at the social safety net and I think some variant of basic income sure seems to be the most efficient way to deliver the social safety net to people to give them the control of how those funds are spent, they need to spend it on housing or education or food or whatnot. I think it’s worth experimenting with that.

We’ve seen experiments in the developing world. They’ve gone extremely well [00:09:00] in sub-Saharan Africa and in parts of India. There’s a little bit of experimentation happening in Scandinavia now. We have a lot less data about how well it works in a fairly rich country like the US or in European countries than we do about how it works in the developing world and we got to be doing those studies now, post haste, to have that tool or whatever optimized we come up with in our toolbelt.

Euvie: You also talk quite a lot about energy as something [00:09:30] that makes you really optimistic about the future and how renewable energy is becoming cheaper and cheaper, it’s actually becoming a better choice for a lot of countries to invest in.

Ramez: That’s right, I am someone who’s concerned about climate change, I’m a bit of a climate activist but being someone with a tech background, who believes in innovation, I gravitated to this data that showed me that the price of solar power is falling exponentially. The watt of solar panel material used to cost [00:10:00] $100 when I was one, roughly, in the mid-1970s, and now it costs about 30 cents. Similar things are happening with wind power and with the price of batteries. The price of electric vehicles, the performance of electric vehicles – five years ago if you had told somebody, “You want to get an electric vehicle?” They would have thought, “What, slow, clunky, boxy, boring car.”

Now, you’ve got a Tesla model S that accelerates faster than a Lamborghini and has self-driving features. The pace [00:10:30] of technological advancement in energy and transportation gives me real hope that we can decarbonize society and stave of the worst of climate change.

Mike: I think I saw a picture from one of your presentations, what the mechanics look like of an electric car compared with a traditional car. It’s amazing how much less moving parts and materials you actually need.

Ramez: It’s really mind blowing. I show this picture, it looks like just a rectangle of metal with four wheels and a couple small modules and [00:11:00] that’s the entire engine and drive train of an electric vehicle. Yeah, the internal combustion car is scattering of hundreds of parts, so one [inaudible [0:11][0:08] the moving parts, it looks like already today in many parts of the world it’s cheaper to own and drive an electric car over a four-year period, say, than it is a gas car. An electric car costs a little bit more upfront but the energy cost per mile is about one quarter of what it is in gasoline and the [00:11:30] maintenance cost per mile, because it doesn’t have so many moving parts, it’s about one fifth of what it is with a gasoline car.

That gap’s just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger. Electric cars are going to drop in price in a way similar to what’s happened with solar and wind, as batteries keep getting cheaper as we make them at higher scale. They’re ultimately going to be cheaper to buy upfront than internal combustion cars.

Euvie: I think with a lot of these new technologies, especially as they become cheaper in developing countries, sometimes they just leap frog old technologies [00:12:00] where people who’ve never even owned a car they never end up owning a traditional car but they end up owning an electric car, because it’s just cheaper. Like cell phones leap frogged wired phones in Africa. I think we’ll see this more and more with these new technologies, so the rate of adoption might actually be very fast in some parts of the world.

Ramez: I’m totally with you Euvie, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Maybe even skipping past car ownership [00:12:30] at all. If self-driving arrives at the pace it looks like it might and we can all hail basically a self-driving Lift or a self-driving Uber that maybe costs half or a quarter of what an Uber does today, it starts to look pretty appealing if you’re in a city and you have density to not even own a car at all.

Mike: We talk quite a lot about cryptocurrency and blockchains and we actually just started a new podcast about the subject, just because we’re doing it so much on Future Thinkers. My basic point [00:13:00] is that when blockchain interfaces with some of these traditional technologies, it’s interesting because it removes the incentive monopolization and defence of platform borders. For example, Apple and planned obsolescence. There’d be no incentive for having planned obsolescence if the platform itself is owned by the people and the development in everything and the cost are maintained by the people instead of by a company. I’m interested to see your answer when you see technologies like blockchain interfacing with self-driving cars.

Ramez: Yeah, [00:13:30] I think that’s a remarkable Observation. You put it very clearly in a way that I haven’t heard before. With the blockchain you can have all the benefits of a network effect as Uber would have or as Facebook would have, without a monopoly owner that’s able to extract [inaudible [0:13:46]. I think that is remarkable. Will it play out that way? I think there are certain pros and cons to that, as well. How quickly can you innovate or evolve the platform? What’s decision making like? I think these are all legit questions. [00:14:00] I do see places where blockchain and energy and blockchain and transport can really intersect.

Those are actually though, for me, not the number one places that I really see blockchain having a transformative impact. If I think about it, the transparency afforded by blockchain and the way that it can help the people on blockchain route around censorship of various sorts, whether it’s money routing around censorship. Venezuela would [00:14:30] love to have better control of its currency right now, but the people would like to get their currency out in some cases. China, I think one of the reasons China’s been a little bit cracking down on crypto is a desire to constrain the ways that its citizens can use that currency or corruption. A lot of developing countries, even up to and including India, which is a multi-billion-dollar country, more than [00:15:00] a billion-person country, and one of the fastest growing economically are rife with corruption.

If you can put a whole lot of your interaction with the government – licensing, approvals, applications, interviews – in the blockchain where anyone can see, I think you have a real ability to add transparency to those places, reduce corruption, and, by doing so, speed up economic growth, speed up the pooling of people out of poverty, empower and [00:15:30] free those people.

Mike: It would be interesting to see what would happen with a rising billion or several billion coming up, getting education, getting access to the same kind of amenities, information, and technologies that we have and to see how much faster innovation would pick up.

Ramez: Yeah, I think we would see a real speed up in innovation in those situations.

Mike: You’ve talked about this before in one of your books, haven’t you?

Ramez: I have, in the infinite resource, which was mostly a climate and energy, food, water, solving [00:16:00] natural resource issues book. There was a huge emphasis on innovation as the way we do that. If you talk innovation, in my mind you’re talking about human capital. You’re talking about empowering people, educating people of course, but also empowering them. How do you enable people to come up with new ideas the fastest? That requires freeing people, people have to be free to make mistakes, they have to be free to try new things. We talked about permissionless innovation, right?

That’s not a [00:16:30] euphemism. It really is if you have to ask for permission before you try a new thing, the number of new things that are tried is going to plunge. You have to enable people to operate with less friction and with more freedom to try things and get things wrong. That’s been the brilliance of the western system. The American system in particular, America is flawed in a lot of deep ways, we don’t have a really functioning safety net, we maybe have more tribalism than other rich [00:17:00] economies. But we have the least constraints of any large country on people trying new things, coming up with new ideas, and that I think has helped foster that pace of innovation.

Euvie: This is actually something that we talked about in out episode with Guy Standing, where that was one of the biggest effects that he noticed of giving people a basic income in the developing world is that innovation and entrepreneurship went up something like [00:17:30] 300 percent, particularly in women. When people felt like they could actually try things and fail, that they wouldn’t be punished by not having enough money to eat then they tried so many more things.

Ramez: Yeah. I think that’s an amazing result. It’s funny, it’s exactly what I was talking about but it’s also the flip side of what I was talking about, that if you have a safety net and abject poverty and starvation are not a risk, you also feel a lot more free [00:18:00] to try new things, to launch a business in some way. I think we could do far better in the US, whether it’s basic income or something else, to just let people have that sense of security that they can take a chance and it’s not going to mean that they can’t pay their rent if this venture fails and they’re going to get kicked out onto the street and be homeless. I think if we had that, we’d see even more rapid innovation happening.

Euvie: I wanted to [00:18:30] flip us back though. We’ve talked about all these positive things that are happening. That’s not to say that we’re ignoring the bad things that are happening. How do you see some of these new technologies fixing some of the legitimate bad things that are happening in the world?

Ramez: That’s a good question. My view is every technology we’ve ever invented has had negative consequences as well as positive and, overall, the positives have won out but we can’t ignore the negatives. [00:19:00] There’s certainly negatives in my mind that I’m not sure how we’re going to fix. The internet overall I think has led to more understanding, more communication, more empathy – that’s an unpopular opinion these days but if you look in the US at legalisation of marriage equality, legalisation of marijuana, I think those stem directly from the enhanced ability to communicate.

But we didn’t see – I didn’t [00:19:30] see anyway – that the internet would also be used for the spread of hate and vitriol. I’m not sure I have a good answer for that. I think we get a little obsessed with that and miss the positive things coming from this communication, as well. But we have this rampant polarization happening. Can technology help solve that? I think maybe, but I think we have to experiment an awful lot with different tools to figure out how to override [00:20:00] some of those basic tribal instincts of humanity that counterintuitively the internet and social media are enabling people to more readily express in negative ways.

Euvie: We talked with Jordan Greenhall in a recent episode and he talked about the need for more personal responsibility for everyone. That’s something that’s difficult to change externally, [00:20:30] people have to want to do it themselves. He talked about this necessity because we have these technologies that give us the power of Gods sometimes, but we still have our monkey brains, so when you amplify them with this technology sometimes the outcomes can be amazing or really dire.

Ramez: Monkeys with the power of Gods does not sound like a happy ending, right? Yeah, I’m with you.

Euvie: I wonder if you have something to say on that subject or if it’s just that, if it’s just about people [00:21:00] taking more responsibility?

Ramez: I do have things to say and I think some of it comes to more personal responsibility. For instance, I think self-righteousness and outrage are actually very comforting feelings and they’re a little bit addictive. David Brin raised that possibility in his most recent book Existence, that outrage was itself addictive. I poo pooed it when I read it, I’m like, “David, what are you saying?” But now that I look at politics [00:21:30] in the Trump era, in both the left and the right I think people like feeling outraged. I think it’s a short-term high but it makes them feel like part of an in group, it makes them feel more powerful, lets them point the finger at somebody else. Outrage is sometimes helpful but, overall, it’s a destructive emotion.

I personally feel like I have a personal responsibility to try to understand the views of people who think differently than me. [00:22:00] That’s not a popular sentiment right now. Also, I’m a liberal, I feel that I have a personal responsibility to call out when I see fellow liberals saying something that’s not true or exaggerated or whatnot. That’s also not a very popular attitude, can certainly lead to people not being super excited about talking to you at times, or at least some people.

Mike: It’s interesting what travel has done for us [00:22:30] in the observation of different cultures that take a lot more personal responsibility than we generally do in the west for our lives. In Vietnam, for example, there’s not a lot of traffic rules, traffic is more akin to a school of fish than it is to anything orderly like it is in the west. Yet, I see that as a way that people take more responsibility and that bleeds into the rest of their lives. This society in Vietnam is a lot more entrepreneurial on average, people have to be entrepreneurial to live, because there is no safety net. [00:23:00] I see that in the west and I see people, especially young people, complaining about the way things are when things are actually quite good, they just haven’t had it so bad that they have context for it.

David Brin you mentioned – in a conversation with us I think I may have been taking liberal complainer perspective and he called me out on it. He said, “You should be more thankful for actually what you have, you should realize that you could live such a worse life.” [00:23:30] I agreed with him on that. People just don’t have a very high degree of resilience especially with young people in the west.

Ramez: They also don’t have a high degree of perspective about what the world is like in other places or in other times. If I think about how technology could help us with some of those societal problems, I think about the possibility for media and digital tech to expose [00:24:00] us more to others. One of the first virtual reality experiences I ever had was at a conference where they had a simple VR app that was a tour through a Syrian refugee camp. It was immensely powerful. I had seen documentaries, I had seen stuff on TV, I’d read articles, but when you are immersed in that environment and you were talking to a small child, in some cases, who was being translated for you, that was just overwhelmingly [00:24:30] situation of empathy, a tool for creating empathy.

Similarly, I think about now we’re really on the threshold of real time speech translation from major language pairs. I was born in Egypt but I have broken Arabic, I came to the US at age three. I can find the bathroom and order a few things at a restaurant, but not much more. When I watch the news reports, it has people chanting in Arabic or a crowd or whatever, I actually find it [00:25:00] alien. What would happen for any America watching that news report, what was being said was being translated in real time into English? Or they could correspond in real time or on Facebook or on Twitter or watch a news report, and instead of these people feeling like aliens they were talking in a language that you understood? Would that increase empathy between people?

I’m sure someone would find a way to abuse it and use it to drive more hate, for sure, [00:25:30] but I think on the whole increasing that ability for people to understand each other allows you to take people that are not currently in your conception of the in group, not in your conception of the tribe that you’re evolved to protect, and let you pull them into the tribe and emotionally attach to them as being human and not alien, not other and being on your side. That’s my naïve tech hippy optimism about how tech [00:26:00] could help us bridge some of those societal and political divides.

Mike: I completely agree. I spent the beginning of last year in Turkey and there were so many times where there’d be some big public demonstration it looked like to me, and I look around and realize everyone’s wearing football jerseys or scarfs and they actually cheer with so much energy it almost looks like a violent protest is about to erupt, but they’re actually just cheering for a football game.

Ramez: That’s amazing, isn’t it?

Mike: Taken out of context, if you’re not there on the ground [00:26:30] seeing that, you could take footage of that and reuse it any way you please.

Euvie: I wonder though, because in the States right now there’s so much divide between the political extremes and people do speak the same language. Sometimes they even come from the same background in terms of their upbringing, yet they end up being so polarized. I wonder what we can do about that, if there’s any way to [00:27:00] bring people together in a meaningful way.

Ramez: I think, believe it or not, that it is happening. There’s this survey in the US called the GSS, the general social survey, and they’ve been running it since the late 1960s or early 1970s. They ask people, “Would you vote for someone like this for president if you agreed with all of your positions and they were in your party? [00:27:30] Would you have someone like this over for dinner? Would you be okay if someone like this moved in next door? Would you be okay if your child dated someone like this?” The ‘someone like this’, those categories are black, female, gay, Muslim, atheist, Mormon, Jewish, liberal. On almost all of those axes – except, actually, political party – but on race, colour, sexual orientation, gender, religion, [00:28:00] Americans have gotten palpably more tolerant.

Underneath the covers, we are actually moving towards more tolerance. It has happened, about half of that has been because people have died and the younger generations are more tolerant, but about half of it is people over the course of their life, on average, become more tolerant. That’s a shocking finding, right? [00:28:30] We think of the old as being more conservative, more intolerant and that’s because they’re from a previous generation. What’s happened is over the course of their lives, somebody who was born in the 1950s was at their peak of intolerance in 1970, on average, and has gotten more and more and more tolerant and more okay with blacks or Jews or gays or a woman president or whatever over that time.

While the hatred is there and the polarization, specifically on the issue [00:29:00] of party, is at an all time high, in every other way in the US that empathy has gone up. That gives me hope that we can find some ways to bridge that conservative versus liberal divide, as well.

Mike: Wow, that’s a hell of an insight.

Euvie: Yeah, I had no idea.

Ramez: A lot of people don’t know about it and they don’t want to know about it, to be honest.

Mike: It kind of brings me back to the broadcaster thing we were talking about earlier, it just amplifies what people are afraid of, what they don’t want to see, it amplifies [00:29:30] the division, but it’s so nice to hear. You are one of the few people who were actually able to give the numbers when we’re talking about subjects like this. It’s interesting to hear that it’s actually still on the rise…

Euvie: Acceptance.

Mike: Acceptance, yeah.

Ramez: The one thing I’ll say that is a danger to my thesis is basically tolerance has gone up on all of these axes except political party unification. Where white Americans [00:30:00] once feared blacks, now race is fine with them – black or whites, relatively okay – but if they’re a republican, democrat is far less okay. It might be that we’re tribal creatures – and you were talking about a football match in Turkey – in the same way that people attach their emotions to their team and get riled up on is their team going to win or not and the losing team in a match sees [00:30:30] their testosterone levels drop for several days, it attaches to this built in tribal package in our cognition when we evolved.

I think people do that with their political party affiliation, too. We might need to rethink what it means, what a political party is, how we do votes, how we do sides, in order to break out of the hold that our tribal brain has over politics now.

Euvie: [00:31:00] That gave me a very funny thought. I was thinking about consciousness hacking and how we can take these monkey urges and redirect them to something more useful. If we have to be against something, then can we invest maybe even a non-existing enemy for humanity to be against or some sort of force that is nonhuman but we could personify, anthropomorphise [00:31:30] it to make people feel like it’s an actual opponent, just to redirect that energy somewhere else so that we’re not pointing it at each other.

Mike: You notice how every new movie out that talks about or deals with the subject of artificial intelligence is generally about the big bad AI that takes over. I wonder if that does have any kind of effect on people to be a little more aware, a little more cautious, that sort of thing. Because that is necessary, to be cautious of AI.

Ramez: Maybe. I think that’s a really cool idea, Euvie. It makes me think of Watchmen [00:32:00] where, in Allen Moore’s comic book – have you guys read Watchmen?

Euvie: No. Seen the movie but haven’t read the comic book.

Ramez: The movie has the same thing, which is that Ozymandias, one of the main characters, basically invents this fake plot of an enemy that doesn’t really exist in order to soothe the tensions in the US and USSR in the 80s, and to bring humanity together to [00:32:30] face this other threat which is fictional. But he tries to convince people that it exists as a way to get them to come together. I think there’s something there and I hope it’s no AI actually, I hope that that’s not what we pick. Maybe we need almost like a humanist religion where we anthropomorphise entropy or hatred or poverty as the enemy that we’re fighting against. I think that bares some thought.

Euvie: It’s interesting that you bring up religion actually, because it seems that it’s one of the things [00:33:00] that unites people the most, with all of its downsides obviously. But in Christianity, for example, there’s a very clear, “You’re pro-God and anti-devil,” and it unites people. I wonder if we could have some sort of fake alien race or something that doesn’t actually exist.

Mike: All of a sudden, you’re like a propaganda ministry over here, Euvie. How quickly the tides turn. You’re like, “We need to trick all the people.”

Ramez: I really wonder, you got me thinking Euvie. [00:33:30] Maybe we don’t have to trick people, but can we tap into that package, that us versus them package, right. We evolved on the Savannah and you knew 70 people and they were all ‘us’ and everybody else was ‘them’. Can we, without lying, while being fully honest – like, sports doesn’t lie to you, they don’t tell you that the other team is actually evil. But while you know that it’s entertainment, people still spend huge amounts of emotional energy [00:34:00] cheering on their team. Maybe there’s some way to be utterly upfront and honest and get still tap in to that tribal instinct, even the instincts in something greater, that connection to the spiritual, in a way that unites us. I don’t know. That’s a really, really robust area to think about I think.

Mike: I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years studying Joseph Campbell and storytelling. I think that has accomplished quite [00:34:30] well in the hero’s journey. The problem is, I’ll use the new Star Wars movie for example, there’s a reason that these patterns of the hero’s journey actually work and that we really like them. There’s not a lot of following of that, I find, in big Hollywood blockbusters anymore. It’s kind of like… Do you know the concept of a Mary Sue?

Ramez: Yup.

Mike: Yeah, exactly. Ray in the new Star Wars had to work very little at anything, was just kind of an expert at everything, and the conflicts [00:35:00] in that movie felt very artificial, there was no reward as a result. I can see that manifesting in the way people are in the world, as well, especially in the west. There’s not a lot of expected effort to get your reward. I think that narrative actually helps us. We talk about this stuff, like the propaganda that you’re proposing Euvie, it would be in storytelling and it would be in movies but the movies have to have the right kind of narrative that actually capture what the state we’re in and how we have to evolve [00:35:30] and go through the belly of the beast, transform, and earn the reward in a way that we actually deserve it.

Euvie: Yeah, I meant it more like reframing, obviously, not tricking into something that doesn’t exist but more reframing. Game of Thrones, for example, as a really good metaphor with White Walkers being like climate change. They are death personified. They look kind of human but not really and it makes us really connect to that us versus them thing. I think the metaphor is pretty clear [00:36:00] that they are a symbol of climate change. Something like climate change for us is difficult to wrap our heads around and is difficult for us to think of why it’s important and how we can try to change it, but when it’s personified as something that looks human it connects for us.

Ramez: Yeah, I think it does connect. The tribalism is one part, the enemy is one part. I think that notion of the spiritual is another part. There’s a lot of hypotheses about we evolved to have a sense of [00:36:30] the other, not the other as an enemy but of a nonhuman presence, a non-material presence around us. Maybe we coevolve, maybe a religion the human brain coevolved as a unit of social cohesion. Religion might have been beneficial to the tribe by bringing people together and increasing their willingness to cooperate. Is there a way to, again, tap into that, not by lying to people but use symbols and [00:37:00] concepts and aspirations that tap into that human urge for something beyond the physical as a way to bring people together? I think that’s a big open question. You’re giving me ideas for my next science fiction right here, actually.

Mike: Nice.

Euvie: Nice. As much criticism as the new age movement gets, I think that it’s actually a really good thing because it is exposing people to these spiritual practices and [00:37:30] concepts without necessarily the strict religious rules that came in the past.

Ramez: Yeah.

Euvie: Yeah. Even if it’s not perfect now and people are still quite self-absorbed in it, perhaps something better will evolve out of it in the future.

Mike: I’m interested to hear more about your entrepreneurial background.

Ramez: I’ve got a degree in computer science, I studied at the University of Illinois, and I got hired by Microsoft straight out of college. I’ve worked there twice, I spent 13 years there. In the middle [00:38:00] I left, I founded a start up doing software for nanotech, then the dot com bubble burst. Then I switched to writing my first book, More Than Human, about augmenting human abilities through technology. Then I went back for my second stint at Microsoft. I’ve had a number of careers, really. I’ve had a computer scientist, I’ve had a non-fiction author, clean energy work is really what I do right now. [00:38:30] I’m a paid speaker for clean energy, educating people on what’s happening in solar and wind. Science fiction author. To me, the common thread is that they’re all about the future. They’re building the future or pointing the way towards the future in one way or another.

Mike: What excites you, on that note – this is always our last question – what excites you most about the future and how do you feel that young people can get involved, get their hands dirty? What do you think they should learn if they want to?

Ramez: What excites me most [00:39:00] about the future is bring billions of people not just out of poverty but out of disconnection. Ray [inaudible [0:39:08] talks about the singularity and I don’t really buy it. I know Ray, he’s a friend, he’s a colleague. What I do see is what I’d call the sinkularity, which is the point at which nearly everyone on earth has ubiquitous high bandwidth connectivity and a smart device, and we’re [00:39:30] 15 years away from that, something like that. At that point, again it comes back to human capital, at that point when you have not a billion people fully online but you have seven billion adults fully online able to learn, able to access almost all of the world’s information with real time translation, able to access AI tutors and tools that can teach them videos on how to do almost anything, then we’re unlocking [00:40:00] the power in all of those minds and we’re enabling so many more people to be creators and innovators.

We’re pulling them out of poverty, we’re giving them tools to create transparency and push through corruption in their own governments. We’re arming them with a pocket expert on every domain of science or engineering or agriculture. Farmers will have tools to better understand their crops and the weather [00:40:30] and make better decisions on what to plant when. That, I find, is incredibly, incredibly exciting. If I was going to talk to a kid of today and say what you want to do or what should you do to prepare for that future, first and foremost it’s get immersed in that technology, learn to code, learn to design, become and expert in using this technology, in putting different pieces of technology together one way or another, because [00:41:00] that really is the universal solvent right now is code.

It’s the universal ability to put pieces together in a way that makes the universe around us richer or that dissolves time or space or distance or need for physical resources, or even need for capital, that’s still today the biggest thing happening. If I gave them a second piece of advice, it would be learn to learn. Learn to be an autodidact, [00:41:30] learn to teach yourself, don’t expect the world to teach you. The tools are out there, the knowledge is out there, the world is going to change so much over your lifetime, the most valuable investment is for you to have the skills and the confidence and the courage to teach yourself new things throughout your life, because you’re going to need to know them for whatever the world is like 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now.

Mike: Wow, such solid advice.

Euvie: Awesome.

Mike: That’s awesome. [00:42:00] That’s an excellent way to wrap it up here.

Euvie: Yeah, thank you so much for joining us today, I think it’s been very inspirational and covered a lot of ground.

Ramez: Awesome. Euvie, Mike, thank you. It was really a pleasure and an honour.

Mike: Cool, cool.

Euvie: We’d love to have you on again some time to expand on some of these subjects, I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about.

Ramez: Alright, have a good day you guys.

Mike: Take care.

Euvie: You too, bye-bye.

Ramez Naam

Our guest in this episode is Ramez Naam, computer scientist, futurist and author of five books, including The Nexus trilogy and The Infinite Resource. We discuss intersections between blockchain, energy and transport, taking responsibility for the use of technology, and creating a positive future.

Reasons to Be Optimistic About the Future

We often hear the sentiment that things are getting worse in the world. Yet, if we look at the data, we are living in the best time in human history. The world has become significantly better when it comes to factors like poverty, hunger, literacy, warfare, violence, democracy, and life expectancy. Although people are typically more responsive to bad news, Ramez argues that the numbers tell a different story.

One of the most common fears regarding the future is that technology and innovation would destroy human jobs. While some jobs will definitely go away, Ramez is not convinced that total employment will go down. He argues that society should prepare and experiment with different things, such as improving education and job training or developing a proper social safety net such as a basic income.

Learn to learn. Learn to teach yourself. Don't expect the world to teach you. - @ramez Click To Tweet

The Innovation and the Human Capital

As renewable energy is becoming cheaper, it is becoming more accessible. The pace of technological advancements in energy and transportation gives a real hope that we can de-carbonize energy production and stave off the worst of climate change.

Another technology that Ramez is hopeful about is blockchain. One of its most important transformative benefits is transparency. This can help prevent censorship and reduce corruption.

Ramez emphasizes that the pace of innovation relies on the human capital. It comes from educating and empowering people, enabling them to come up with new ideas.

Bringing People Together

Every technology ever invented has as many negative effects as positive ones. Ramez argues that we have to experiment with a lot of tools in order to override some of the basic tribal instincts of humanity. Technology can help us connect to other groups of people, and increase our ability to understand them.

While the polarization on the issue of political party identification is an all time high in the U.S., Ramez states that the tolerance and empathy has significantly gone up on all the other axis (when it comes to ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc).

What excites Ramez most about the future is bringing billions of people out of disconnection through technology. He encourages people to get immersed in technology and master it. He also emphasizes the importance self education for the future of our society. 

It's clearly the best time ever to be born on Planet Earth today, and if trends continue, it will even be a better time 10 years from now. - @ramez Click To Tweet

In This Episode of Future Thinkers:

  • Why now is the best time to be alive on planet Earth
  • Why we should not fear automation
  • Human empowerment through technology
  • Technology helping to bridge social divides
  • Can we override tribalism?
  • Raising empathy and bringing people together in a meaningful way
  • Learning how to learn 

Mentions and Resources:

Book Recommendations:

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