FTP010 - Shaping our own future with Nikola Danaylov from Singularity 1 on 1. Interview by Mike Gilliland and Euvie Ivanova on Future Thinkers Podcast
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Mike: Thanks for joining us on the podcast today, it’s really great to have you.

Nikola: It’s my pleasure guys. [00:01:00] I haven’t been on a podcast with two hosts at the same time so far, so it will be interesting for me too.

Mike: You’ve interviewed a lot of people about the singularity, the future, robots, AI, nanotechnology. I’m curious as to what your vision for the future is. What do you think the biggest obstacles are going to be to get in the way of your version or what most excites you about the future?

Nikola: There’s two things that standout for me after doing probably about 150 episodes with some of the ‘smartest people around the world.’ [00:01:30] First, the experts are all over the map. There’s hardly agreement on anything. For example, some people say the singularity would be the best thing that could happen for humanity, other people would say that it would be the end of the world. Each of those groups are equally smart and equally brilliant people. That’s generally the whole opinion spread or the whole spectrum on our views of humanity’s future. [00:02:00] Whether it will be the end or it will be the beginning, or whether it will be somewhere in between.

What I’ve learned from that myself is that, in my opinion as far as I can tell, the future is wide open. That means to say that it could go either way. I would say that what will make the difference is humanity. That’s the good news. For me, the good news is that anything is possible, despite the fact that [00:02:30] there are all those experts who say that the future will inevitably be this and inevitably be that. I don’t think that there’s inevitable about our future. I think it’s absolutely wide open and I think that, basically, we can be in charge. If we’re not in charge now, we can be in charge, we can steer it in the right direction, and we can bring it towards the betterment of humanity rather than the end of it.

This is actually where I see my own function or my own purpose [00:03:00] of my singularity one on one podcast, which is to say to start the conversation, to bring light to all those opinions and possibilities, and hopefully, in turn, that will create the motivation, the awareness, and start the process of learning how to steer towards a better outcome rather than the worst one.

Euvie: That’s really great, I really like that outlook. It gives the power to the people who are [00:03:30] listening to your podcast and just people who are out there trying to think, “Am I actually going to play any kind of role in the future,” and I agree with you. I think we’re all going to play a role and we can definitely take steps to make the future the way that we want it to be.

Nikola: Yeah, we shouldn’t be spectators in our own future. That’s the whole point of my podcast and basically everything that I’ve been doing for the past five years. [00:04:00] We should get up and be active participants. If we do that in an intelligent and educated way, I think we have really good chances. Of course, the outcome is never guaranteed, but it’s always better if you are proactive rather than passive.

Mike: What kind of things do you think we can do to influence on the positive side?

Nikola: There’s a number of things. The first thing is to get off our butts. The second thing is to embrace the scientific method, to stop arguing about [00:04:30] stuff that can be proven scientifically. The third is to bring in what I think is one of the most important elements anyway and that’s ethics. If we have the proactive element of us actually actively partaking into one, the discussion, and then the actions necessary to steer our future – and we do that while studying and implementing the principles of science, [00:05:00] as well as a very serious ethical consideration of the potential outcomes in ethical terms…

That’s the place where science is incomplete. That’s to say ethics. In other words, science allows us to accomplish all kinds of outcomes without necessarily giving us the tools or the awareness of whether those outcomes will be better or worse for us. This is where ethics is so important I believe. That’s why, for example, there’s a common misunderstanding that [00:05:30] my show and my podcast, or my blog Singularity web blog, is a technology blog. That’s not exactly accurate. What’s more accurate is to say that my blog is a blog about ethics and technology is just a context. You see, for me personally, while all those details are very interesting about this or that incredible technology – such as, for example, 3D printing, nanotech, artificial intelligence, genetics, synthetic biology, [00:06:00] those are all absolutely fascinating topics.

The bigger question is always, “So what?” If we forget that we are always likely to have a problem in the end of the day, we should never stop at just aiming at a certain outcome but we should continue and investigate whether that outcome would be a positive thing in itself or not. The so what question is a question we’ll never forget.

Mike: Do you think there’s a problem or do you think we run into a problem in that [00:06:30] grey territory when business people start to look at science and they see opportunities to capitalize and make businesses out of the advances the scientists are making?

Nikola: Look, business people are no different than scientists or other people. They have their own motivations, which are clear in terms of profit generating and economic advancement. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily do not or cannot care about ethics [00:07:00] and outcomes. In fact, I’ve met many business people who have taken considerable effort to consider and to implement the best possible outcome, not only economically but also ethically, on occasions, even if that has costed them in economic terms. That’s why I think, while that’s not the predominant modus operandi for the business community, I think it could be, especially when we’re talking [00:07:30] about super powerful technology that has never existed before.

Why not? Why don’t we take into consideration also the ethical implications of our business actions or transactions? I think, for example, one such example which gives me hope is how a number of the business community have embraced global warming and have decided to take actions so that [00:08:00] their businesses are either zero footprint or even positive footprint overall when it comes to their global environmental impact. That’s only one example but there are many others.

Mike: I’m curious to know what you’re most excited about with the future. What technologies or what entrepreneurs or scientists are working on projects that excite you the most?

Nikola: Okay, let me give you a couple of examples. One thing that’s very exciting is, for example, life extension technology. [00:08:30] The reason for that is twofold. If we are able to have longer lives, I believe we would be able to not only cut down on suffering but we would actually be able to make a bigger impact. There are so many amazing people… Generally, professionals and experts reach their peak around 55 or 60 years of age. That’s exactly the time when you start seriously deteriorating health wise [00:09:00] or mentally, which is even worse. Then all those people who took decades to be trained basically are taken out of circulation by the time they’re 65 or 70.

Having healthy life extension could change that equation. That’s one example where I’m very excited. Another thing that excites me the most is solar power. Solar power is coming to parity globally. There’s actually [00:09:30] a number of places in the world where solar power production is on par with fossil fuel production in terms of the cost. That’s super exciting to me, because if you are able to have access to abundant, unlimited solar power at or better prices than fossil fuels – and I believe within a decade we will be able to have much better prices for solar than anything else – then [00:10:00] you can open up so many other opportunities.

For example, if you resolve the issue with energy, then you can resolve the issue with fresh water because we are living on a blue planet and, provided that your energy is near free or if you have zero marginal cost, then it will not be such a big deal to convert sufficiently large amounts of salt water, to desalinate it, and to convert [00:10:30] it into freshwater. That, in turn, can take care of many other issues such as desertification, food production, access to clean and fresh water. Those, in turn, would take care of, let’s say, malnutrition, will take care of the spread of infectious disease, because if you have access to clean, fresh water then you’re less likely to go, first of all, to travel for miles to get access to dirty or polluted water, which then has all [00:11:00] kinds of detrimental health effects.

In other words, energy is one of those issues which if you resolve it then you have basically a chain reaction of positive loopback, which will help us resolve malnutrition, the spread of infectious disease. If you can do that, then you’ll extend healthy lifespans, then people will have more money to send their kids to education. All kinds of positive benefits, right. That’s another thing [00:11:30] that makes me super excited.

Euvie: It’s amazing how some of these technologies can just snowball and cause such a huge wave of different effects. I actually want to circle back to what you said about the life extension technologies. We just listened to your recent episode with Ball Andrews that you had. I was actually kind of amazed how little, in terms of cost, it would cost for him to test some of these life extension technologies, and how much they’re struggling to come up with funding for this. You would think [00:12:00] that there would be a lot more interest from angel investors or philanthropist billionaires to invest in this kind of technology, because we see billions of dollars getting dumped into things like WhatsApp and Tumblr and all these companies that are still pre-profit – they’re not even making a profit and they’re getting such a huge investment. I’m wondering what people can do and what scientists also can do to attract the attention of people who would definitely be interested in investing in them. Do you [00:12:30] think it’s a communication problem, they’re not able to communicate?

Nikola: Absolutely. Again, this is where my podcast and your podcast and other people’s podcasts, or blogs, or function can come about. That is to say to educate the public, because the business community is a part of the general community. They suffer from the same ignorance or blind spots that the rest of humanity suffers from. [00:13:00] The function of science is basically to make progress, to change the way things used to be for the betterment of humanity. In order for this to happen, first people have to actually embrace the belief that it’s possible in the first place, or the hope. This is where education is so vitally important, right?

This is where bringing light to some of the research, to some of the positive outcomes, let’s say, when it comes to [00:13:30] healthy life extension be it examples of the so called [inaudible [0:13:35] fruit flies or tests done two or three years ago with extending the telomeres of mice in Harvard University. All those things, the public has to be aware of. Then they would slowly, over time, being exposed to that idea that we can actually do something about this, that we can actually change this. Just like, for example, [00:14:00] the myth of Icarus and Daedalus was about 2,500 years old myth, if not 3,000 years old. People always thought flight is impossible, it’s an impossible dream that humanity has had forever but it will never be accomplished.

It’s been now, what, 110 years or so since the Wright brothers proved this wrong. Before they were able to do that, they had to believe that that’s possible to be done in the first place. [00:14:30] This is where open mind, or what Buddhists call having a beginner’s mind, is very important. The awareness that, in fact, all knowledge is provisional given the best information that we have so far, and if that information changes then the realm of possibility will also change and the context or the essence of that knowledge would also change. That’s why I think we can play a fairly important role in that process. [00:15:00] I’m not a scientist myself but I’ve been fortunate enough to speak to some of the best scientists around the world.

Many of their amazing ideas do not get enough exposure as they should. Bill Andrews is a perfect example. He only needs about 40 million dollars to make a human cell or to do the research necessary, which gives them lots of hope to believe that they can make a human cell immortal. [00:15:30] What’s 40 million dollars for that, right? 1F35 is like 120 to 150 million dollars, right? People have mentions that are a couple times more expensive than 40 million dollars. Governments waste billions of dollars on all kinds of stupid stuff. 40 million dollars in the context of things is not that much, right? What’s lacking is a concerted [00:16:00] deliberate effort… I mean, part of it is the fact that, for many thousands of years, people promising life or life extension, or what used to be referred to as the philosopher’s stone in the age of the alchemists, were basically snake oil salesmen.

We have this very long engrained resistance to the idea. That’s fine, scepticism is a very healthy point to begin with, but once science enters into the realm we can learn and we can [00:16:30] build up on knowledge. One of the problems with the alchemists is that everything that they did was done in secret. Everybody had to discover the hard way that mercury is poisonous. If one person died, nobody everybody found out about it. Then the next alchemists get to try mercury to live forever and then he ended the same way as the previous guy, because there was no sharing of information. That’s why information is so important – and [00:17:00] not only positive information, but negative information.

When you fail in an experiment, it’s also very important to share that failure so that others don’t waste their time trying the same experiment but move to other productive alternatives.

Mike: We have a lot of younger listeners who are aware of what some of the changes are that are happening now and where they could be going in the future, but they don’t really know how to contribute to them. Euvie and I are aware that you completed the program at the [00:17:30] Singularity University, I’m curious about what your experience has been there and what you studied and what you got out of that program.

Nikola: First of all, let me just say for the young people out there, they can make an impact more than it’s ever been possible before in the history of the world. Simply because we have the blessing of living in a world where it doesn’t matter where you live in India, or in Nepal, or in [00:18:00] Africa somewhere, you have access to the latest information, the latest research, and you can put stuff out there for the rest of the world to see. You can engage those ideas and you can work on them. First of all, we are starting from a position of power here, like unlimited power. That’s why technology basically provides us leverage. Secondly, the opportunities to become a scientist or to become an entrepreneur I think [00:18:30] are much greater than ever before.

That pertains pretty much to the fact that, again, access to information we can access for free all the best courses from the best universities, the best business schools, the best science courses in the world. There are some exceptions like, for example, I don’t know, if you want to be a neurosurgeon or something like that. In most cases, let’s say, 90 percent of the time, I would say that you don’t necessarily need a diploma [00:19:00] to be able to do something. As long as you have acquired the knowledge and you have the skill – and it doesn’t matter how you got there, you can do that on your own nowadays – then you can be successful in that field and in that realm.

It used to be the case that diplomas were so important. I chased diplomas for about seven or eight years of my life, have a bunch of them. Really, at the end of the day, they sit here on my wall and collect dust. It’s not what you know, it’s about what you do in life that [00:19:30] makes a difference. I want to say, Singularity University is the most amazing place I have been to. Don’t take it as a make or break option for your life. Don’t say, “Well, I didn’t get accepted to Singularity University, therefore I cannot make an impact on the world.” The reality is you can get accepted to Singularity University and that’s still not a guarantee that you will make an impact on the world.

What matters is your determination and your desire [00:20:00] to make a difference, and that cannot be given to you by a person or an institution. It can only be earned. The main point here is don’t consider Singularity University as a must for doing something with your life. Having said that, my time personally at Singularity University was pretty much some of the most incredible times that I’ve had in my life, because it’s very unique in the sense that it is located in Mountainview California [00:20:30] on NASA’s Ames campus. You get unique, very privileged access to some of the smartest people around the world, the biggest corporations, the most pioneering visionaries in a number of fields. That kind of environment can act both as an inspiration and an enormous education in a very short time.

Also, as a networking environment where you get to meet all those kinds of people and when you bring your own [00:21:00] ideas along with you, of course, then they may actually notice something in yourself and then good things can happen. Singularity University is a fantastic place to visit and it would probably accelerate your idea or your ability to make a positive impact on the world for a number of reasons, due to the knowledge you will gain a very short period of time, the people that you are going to be exposed to and meet, [00:21:30] the friendships you are going to develop there. All those things are very important but you can get those things in other ways.

In other words, online. It will take you longer time but it is still doable, as long as you have the motivation to do it. Go try and apply for Singularity University. Chances are, it will be the best place you’ve ever been to and it will absolutely change your life and the way you perceive the world and what is and what is not possible. [00:22:00] If you don’t get accepted, don’t think too much about it and just move on and change the world anyway.

Mike: Have you heard the concept of a digital nomad?

Nikola: Yeah.

Mike: It’s interesting when I hear talk about the loss of jobs due to automation, because on our side we’re just seeing the world as a world of abundance because there’s just opportunity everywhere when you take it from the entrepreneur’s side.

Euvie: Yeah, I wonder what you think about young people, [00:22:30] for example, growing up somewhere with that idea that you have to go to university, you have to get a degree, then you get a job. Then the reality is that a degree doesn’t necessarily give you a job and that a job might not even be something important or not something that matters to you – in terms of what you’re doing at that job. What do you think about that sort of new lifepath of more and more people going into entrepreneurship, more and more people skipping university and just educating themselves on their own [00:23:00] and acquiring those skills that they need to have?

Nikola: Yeah. I have the highest respect for entrepreneurship. My wife, until recently, she had two businesses and one not for profit. After three years, now finally she stepped down from the not for profit so she can actually scale down on her time commitments. I have one of my own, which has been the blog and the podcast. Again, going to what I said previously, education used to be [00:23:30] necessary – I mean formal education and diplomas, such qualifications used to be necessary. Right now, they’re not anymore. The way, actually, education works right now – and it has been working for the past couple of hundred years – is that basically education was created uniformally disciplined workers for the post-industrial revolution period. You had mass production and in order to be able to sustain that [00:24:00] mass production you needed the mass trained workforce with uniform qualifications, which were required to fill in those mass available job opportunities.

That’s not the age we live in anymore. Right now, we’re going towards more customization, we’re going towards the long tail of jobs, which is to say endless niches of opportunities. [00:24:30] The world is changing so fast that by the time people graduate from school, the job market and the job opportunities are very different from the time they’ve actually entered. Five years a long time nowadays. Again, unless you are a doctor or a couple of other very specific professions, I would not say that formal education would be the best way to go. That’s number one.

There are other benefits of education, [00:25:00] such as, for example, networking and, most of all, learning how to learn. As long as we have that explicit awareness that the most important part of learning is learning how to learn, how to do your research, how to distinguish and differentiate between good science and bad science, good outcomes and bad outcomes, in that sense, the education can be very helpful. Again, I believe you can acquire that not necessarily in formal [00:25:30] institutions. They’re not a must. Having said that, I am half and half on the possibility realm that we’re facing in the sense that, yes, as I said, we have better access to make a difference in the world than ever before.

The reality is the vast majority of humanity is hijacked by survival, trying to survive, to make do with [00:26:00] the various country sources that they have access to everyday, just to [inaudible [0:26:05] a living and to survive. Technological unemployment can be very worrisome and, for me personally, is a very worrisome prospect too. Given the right negative environment it can create such an explosive situation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’ that usually, historically speaking, ends up revolutions. If that were to happen, [00:26:30] then I’m afraid that basically it can end up destroying everything that we have accomplished for so many years.

That’s why that transitional process is a very tricky one. Also, it, again, comes back down to education because the changes in our society, in our economic system, in our abilities to find work, to make a difference, to make a living, to make profit, to create business, are going so fast [00:27:00] – and the mindset that we have developed has such a strong inertia and momentum that it’s always lagging behind the reality that we live in, at least for the vast majority of the population. If a sufficiently large part of the population finds itself unable to survive and prosper in this general system of ours due to, let’s say, technological unemployment, we know for a fact that [00:27:30] unemployed people, especially unemployed young people, are, for example, most likely to succumb to the ideology of extremism and terrorism.

If you lack a purpose or a meaning in your life, then you pay embrace extreme religion, you may embrace violent ideology, or you can just simply become a criminal. That’s why education, being able to demonstrate the variety of opportunities [00:28:00] that we have in front of us, also combined with a number of other programs such as, for example, even government support in some cases, I think is the half and half way or the best way to ease the transition from the current society – where we have very strong centralized educational institutions and very strong centralized employers, which hire, let’s say, the vast majority of the population.

[00:28:30] The vast majority of the population right now is non-entrepreneurial. They basically do their nine to five jobs. That transition from an employee to an entrepreneur takes a long time, courage, and education. I’m afraid that if we get it right it can change the world for the better, but if we don’t get it right, it can lead to violence, to bloody revolutions, and it can [00:29:00] destroy everything.

Euvie: What do you think people who have already made the jump can do for everybody else, other than just trying to inspire and show people that it’s possible? I think now we’re seeing more and more entrepreneurs of necessity. What can people who are already entrepreneurial teach people who aren’t yet entrepreneurial, to show them that it’s possible?

Nikola: Number one thing is to change our cultural attitudes towards failure. If there’s one amazing thing, [00:29:30] one lesson that you learn in Silicon Valley and in Singularity University is that failure is inevitable and that you have to embrace it. It’s part of the learning process. There can be no learning unless there is failure. You’ll never get things right from the first, second, fourth, fifth, and maybe even tenth or fifteenth time – but each of those lessons is very valuable. Success is built upon endless failures almost, in some cases. [00:30:00] Not endless maybe, but many failures.

Take me, for example. I did my Masters degree and I experienced two failures. First of all, I only applied for a single PhD program, that’s true, because I was cocky and overconfident. I was not accepted in it, which was considerable failure for me at that point in time. Also, after that – I applied for a PhD, didn’t get accepted, graduated from my MA – [00:30:30] started sending resumes, that’s about five years ago, at the peak of the recession around 2009. I stopped counting after I sent maybe 200 resumes. I kept sending them. I probably sent something like 300 or 400 resumes. I had one interview. After that process, I had not a single job offer.

What happened then was, basically, one of the applications that they sent was an application to a place [00:31:00] called Singularity Hub. They had an open call for staff writers, basically freelancing writers. I thought, “Well, the singularity is a cool concept.” I actually did a lot of research on it while I was writing my Masters thesis, so I thought, “I know the topic.” I’m also an okay writer. I thought I’d be perfect for the job but they never ever bothered to respond even to me. After waiting for a week or two, then [00:31:30] it finally occurred to me that I’m not getting a call back, despite the fact that I thought I’d be perfect for the job.

A couple days later, it occurred to me, “Look, maybe I don’t actually need those guys. Maybe I can actually do that on my own. Maybe, just maybe, I can actually start and do that entire thing entirely on my own.” Of course, I had a number of fears. First of all, I had no technical knowledge whatsoever. I have an education in political science [00:32:00] philosophy and economics, so I knew nothing about HTML, nothing about computers, nothing about web design, nothing about blogging, nothing about anything relevant or helpful in that manner. I had to start from the ground up.

Technology has gotten so ahead of its time. Mind you, that was five years ago. Now it’s even easier than ever before. You can start with an online business for a hundred or a couple hundred dollars at the most. I think I started with something [00:32:30] between $50 and $100. Failure is not very costly. As far as the knowledge and skills that you need to do that, you can actually acquire them for free online nowadays, you can learn everywhere. This is what I did. I started with the failure in multiple levels. I ended up, because of that failure, discovering my mission in life, if you will. I actually love what I do every day and [00:33:00] I get hundreds of emails of people telling me how I’ve made a difference for their life. The moral of the story for me here is that, number one, we have to embrace failure, secondly, we have to embrace fear.

Not only did fail but, as I said, I was very fearful that I didn’t possess any of the knowledge of the skills. When I started actually podcasting – or before starting podcasting – I was very afraid that I have a very strong Bulgarian accent, so I was worried, “Who in the world is going to listen to me [00:33:30] if even my English doesn’t sound right? How do you start a podcast if you don’t sound right?” I had a serious fear because I thought, “Well, people will just not even bother listening, they’ll just hear the first couple of sentences that I utter and they’ll be like, ‘This guy doesn’t even speak properly, so forget about it.’” Despite all those worries that I had and the fears and failures and stuff, basically as Gary Vaynerchuk says, you figure out [00:34:00] what you want to do and you beat it to death until it actually knocks you down in the end.

As long as you’re motivated to persist and build upon those failures, then you can get it right eventually and that’s how you start making a difference and start making progress. When you do that long enough… It takes many years to have an overnight success, but it’s possible.

Euvie: What kind of future do you think you would like to see with all these technologies and [00:34:30] with people waking up, becoming more focused on self-improvement and independence and, potentially, people learning how to communicate their ideas and getting funding for things that matters?

Nikola: The future is not some place that we’re going to, the future is something that we are creating. The future that I see is one of our own creation. The paths to it are not to be found or discovered, the paths to it are to be made. [00:35:00] The future is to be created. That’s the kind of future I see. That’s why, to me, it’s an open question. Are we going to create a great world and a great future that we all get inspired by or not? Either way, it’s up to us. That’s the future I see. It’s not the future that happens to us but it’s the future that we create.

Euvie: I love that so much.

Mike: I think that’s the perfect way to end the podcast.

The future is something that is often looked at in one of two ways. There are people who embrace it and look forward to the opportunities it presents. While there are others that wait in fear of what’s to come. To a certain extent, some of these fears are valid when we look at the negative effects that some technological advancements have brought upon society.

But there is another way to think of the future, and that is to become active participants in it. We don’t have to sit back and watch as the world changes and technology evolves around us. We have control over what the future is going to be; and can create it in a way that’s going to have a positive impact in all of us.

Nikola Danaylov on Future and Ethics

In this episode, we’re joined by Nikola Danaylov from the Singularity 1 on 1 Podcast and the Singularity Weblog. We talk about his vision for the future and how science, ethics and access to information play huge roles in it. We discuss several technologies that can have a positive snowball effect, and why they’re not getting the attention that they need – not just from investors, but from the world.

We also pick Nikola’s brain on his experience at The Singularity University, and talk about how formal education is not really a necessity in certain fields today. Finally, we talk about success and how failure is a huge component in it.

Quotes:

“If you lack a purpose or a meaning in your life, then you may embrace a extreme religion, you may embrace sort of a violent ideology, or you may just simply become a criminal.” – Nikola Danaylov

In this episode of The Future Thinkers Podcast

  • [02:30] – Becoming proactive in creating the future
  • [04:42] – Why ethics should play a role in scientific advancements and business actions
  • [09:19] – The chain effects of solving energy issues
  • [11:50] – Why many scientific projects lack investment and support
  • [17:24] – Nikola’s experiences in The Singularity University
  • [18:20] – Formal education vs. self education in the information age
  • [29:10] – The roles of failure and fear in achieving success

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