Kelly Weinersmith – Podcast Notes August 2019

Introductions

Sam: I am actually pretty excited to get you on today. I don’t speak to enough scientists, especially one doing cool stuff with parasites.  I guess before we hop in. Your parasite stuff….I am enthralled by this. I have read a little bit about, and I think it was something that crawls into the snail and it makes the snail crawl around and looks for other snails it can transfer itself into. And then there are some cat urine parasites that are travelling around too.  It’s all quite scary. But should I really be scared of all these parasites?

Kelly: First of all, thank you for having on the show I am excited to be here. As for the parasites, as a human there is not much to you need to worried about. That Cat Urine parasite you talked about, it can infect people, and there is some correlative evidence that people who are infected have slightly different personalities. It is just really hard to study parasites in people because for ethical reasons; you can’t go around infecting people and seeing how their behaviour changes. But for the most part, a lot of these manipulative parasites are problems for non-human animals. It does not keep me up at night except that it is awesome and I like thinking about it.

Sam: In your book Soonish you talk a lot about the coming of Robot overlords, if they are not robots could they be some sort of alien parasite or non-alien parasite that takes over all our brains and forces us to create the robot overlords if that is what is coming?

Kelly: That sounds like a really good story for a sci-fi book. That also would not keep me up at night because the probability that an alien parasite is well suited to infect us and know how our brains work in order to manipulate us then that might work. Maybe if it was created by some super-intelligent alien race but probably not any time soon.

Sam: The reason I wanted to get you on is that I don’t talk to enough scientists and the main question I wanted to ask is that I heard this discussion between Eric Weinstein and Peter Toole a while back. They proposed this question which really got me thinking. You covering these future events really provides some answers. The question that they asked is that if you took someone from the 1970s to today 2019 and you didn’t let them see any screens, they weren’t able to turn on any computers or see any TVs or interact with anything digital that exists on an LCD or Ebook reader or anything like that, how would they know they had been transported 50 years into the future other than design differences which could be explained. What specifics would have changed in that 50 year period between the 1970s and now?

Kelly: That’s a good question, which is one I wish I had thought about beforehand. So how would they know that it had changed if they couldn’t see any of our design changes and if they couldn’t interact with any of our advanced technologies?

Sam: Only screens. Design preferences change from year to year. I remember what I was wearing in the 1990s, and it was vastly different from what I am wearing now. So we made a lot of mistakes two decades ago in what we were wearing, but maybe we are making those same mistakes today.

Kelly: I think a lot of those same style choices are coming back, which blows my mind. I wish I had held onto some of my clothes from the ’80s. They might see that our medical advances are better; we are doing a better job of dealing with some forms of cancers. We have better drugs for a variety of diseases. They could talk to someone in a foreign country without worrying about paying those pesky long-distance call fees. I remember as a kid when I was calling my grandparents was very expensive.

Sam: I remember that too.

Kelly: I mean if they were just talking to people they might find out we have a lot more satellites in space and those satellites are used much more for military purposes so the nature of war has changed a little which is maybe a depressing thing they might not be excited to hear about. I don’t think war has ever been an uplifting topic. Yeah, that is what is coming to mind right now. Taking screens out of the equation is tough because they wouldn’t be able to see or appreciate augmented reality stuff or how great our email has gotten.  Those are the things that stick out to me first.  What do you think the answer to that question is?

Sam: I think it is a really difficult question because I actually don’t know. I think maybe there would be fewer people smoking than in the 1970s. Not much else would have changed; you would see the same products on the shelves in the store….Coke Pepsi, people would be driving Ford trucks, I don’t really know.

It is a really difficult question. It ties into a broader question: these advances we have made in the past fifty years since the birth of computer processing and applying it to the fields of science and tech, especially since the 1990s since we have had the advent and growth of the internet, not just military purposes or at the university level, but growing this global internet and global tech development, outside of that, the pace of change of traditional sciences and applied sciences like engineering has been much slower. We have seen growth in Google, Apple and many other tech companies but they’ve really just taken devices and them smaller, made them easier to see, made screens smaller and brighter, or high definition. At some point, we have to reach the end of these easy tech gains we have made. The ability to miniaturise computer parts and get people to have their food delivered whenever they want to, I think there comes a limit to the number of tech provisions that we can provide that make life easier.  And then what comes after that at that point?

We have been developing a generation of kids to teach them to go work for google and for Apple to become coders and web developers but the real… reading your book, the real progress and real developments that need to be taken are going to come through physicists, engineers and bio-scientists like yourself, and those jobs are not as desirable today. You can see that in the pay structures between the two. If we are going to be able to hit some of the targets you discuss in your book, then we are going to need huge developments in these fields. Do you agree with me there? Am I not hitting the mark correctly on this?

Kelly: Well I can’t say I am up to date on the literature looking at the rate of technological advances, but maybe I am a little bit more optimistic because I think there is a lot of good that can be done working with what we have now and expanding it out to countries who don’t have it. If we could get more satellites for developing countries and linking them together, we could notice crop pests are in an area and get ahead of killing crops, and there are a lot of sensor things we could do. It does seem there is a lot of venture capital for large transformative ideas and it’s kind of exciting to be in the US if you are doing space-related stuff and it does seem there are a lot of physicists and biologists and there are a lot of jobs for those people it does seem like at the moment the political climate is not very favourable to a lot of science stuff. I think I am a bit of an optimist. I think it’s not so bleak. I think there are a lot of ways we can still improve how humans are doing by making improvements on what we have now.

Sam: I am not trying to paint a bleak picture.  I do agree with you that a lot of what we are trying to do is push the current technology we have. It was William Gibson who said: ‘The future is already here; it is just not distributed.’   In the US, we see a lot of these technological advances but getting them distributed out to the rest of the world is a big process.

Kelly: It is a big process that we need to be a bit careful of because as we lift the developing countries up the US is very wasteful. Developing countries have the right to get up to where we are, and we just need to find a way to lift everyone up while at the same time controlling our resource usage.  But on the optimistic side, it does seem that when countries become developed birthrates go down and things settle out, so I don’t know maybe it won’t be so bad.

Sam: That’s actually a scary thing.  Do you think we will peak in population at some point?

Kelly: I do think there is reason to hope at some point we will plateau out if you look at countries as they develop they have high growth rates and then they stabilise and birthrates go down to replacement levels a couple will have two kids, maybe they have one kid. But other time birthrates seem to stabilise, and it does seem that there is a historical trend and that this might happen with all the countries, but I guess the question is when is that going to happen and what it is the stable population number going to be and is that something we can sustain and global warming is becoming quite scary now. So I guess the question is, what will things be like when we reach that point? That is not something I can say I’ve thought enough or researched enough to know the answer to.

Sam: Are there any parallels with or to animals or bacteria or parasites? What do the studies show when their populations meet the max point, at least the point where resources can not be provided to expand the population anymore?

Kelly: So we do think of the populations of animals as having a carrying capacity which is the number of individuals who can be supported by the resources in an environment. We tend to see animals fluctuating around that capacity; some years they go over, too many offspring are produced, and they did from lack of food and the next year there are less offspring.  The carrying capacity can change over time as the environment changes. One of the things that are really different for humans is that when we start to feel that we don’t have enough resources we can sometimes get clever enough to modify, we come up with genetically modified crops that feed more people. There are ways we can modify our environment in ways animals can’t which makes it hard to predict what will happen with human populations because we possess the ability to expand and change our environment to give us a little more leeway.

Sam: Do you think it is more like the rate of technological growth, you mentioned climate change. There are three camps, let’s start with two camps: There is the camp who believes that technology can outpace any of humanities problems; and then there is the other camp that believes that the issues we are causing, technology can’t keep up.  There are probably people in the happy middle. But if you look at it from a food production perspective, food production keeps hitting all-time highs, year after year.  Global wheat and corn years are massively higher than they were even 20 years ago.  It is something I was doing some research on a couple of months back. There was some really bad weather in the US, and there were some general thoughts that corn wheat and soybean plants this year were going to have lots of problems; they didn’t because farmers are very smart and know what to do and we had five years of record-breaking yields, so I don’t know. I am very much an optimist; I think I am in the technology will outpace our growth.  Where do you lie on that scale, especially after going through your research for the book?  Do you have better insight into where technology is moving and how fast?

Kelly: Well so one of the themes of Soonish is that for a lot of the big technologies in development it is hard to know when they will come to fruition, so it is hard to know are we going to come up with the solution that takes carbon out of the atmosphere quickly before things get too bad? It’s hard to know. Those kinds of advances don’t always make stepwise progress. Some advance in an unrelated field has to come on the scene, and it helps a completely different field to make advances. I guess one of the lessons from Soonish is that it is hard to predict how long these technologies will take and there are people who study if technology is keeping up with the pace of our expanding population. I can’t claim to be an expert on that stuff, and I am an optimist like you are, I am hoping we come up with the technological fixes to stay ahead of things. Climate change makes me nervous because it is really hard to predict how it’s going to change when it’s going to change and so knowing the right technological fixes to implement is difficult. Sorry, it’s not a very good answer to that question, but that is what I have got.

Sam: What was the most interesting theme or topic or technology when you were writing the book? And did it change between when you were writing the book and now? Has your interest level changed since then?

Kelly: When I get the questions, what was my favourite technology to research? It changes every day because there are so many topics that I get excited about. So, for example, I was not super excited when Zach, my co-author and husband, suggested that we cover robotic construction, but now I am really excited about robotic construction. It is a cool field; it has cool advances they are coming up with new discoveries all the time. The promise of reducing the cost of housing but still giving people personalised homes is exciting. I think that I am really excited about space stuff right now. We have a chapter on cheap space travel about things like reusable rockets like SpaceX is doing, and we also talk about dreamy technology like space elevators, but right now I am really excited about that because it seems like companies like SpaceX and RocketLab are driving down the cost of putting satellites into space. Satellites do lots of great things for lots of great people. It’s exciting to think about a day would be like without satellites. You could not go anywhere without a printed map.  Your google map app will not work; there are many ways in which our lives depend on satellites. I was talking to the CEO RocketLabs, and he was saying that they dropped the cost so much that a high school group would put a satellite up. That is exciting. I guess I am excited about cheap access to space right now and things like countries are getting excited about going back to the moon. Getting us back into space-related activities even beyond satellites and I am excited about the prospects of this.

Sam: I was reading the book in anticipation of a certain propulsion system, getting excited about getting a lot of mass into space cheaply, but I did not see it. That method is close to the giant laser method pushes everything out. The idea is you construct a city or something on a giant steel dome, and you drop a lot of nuclear bombs underneath it.  Whatever you are trying to launch into space. You are basically daisy chaining the explosions to push a massive amount of material into space. Did you cover that or did you research this when you were doing your cheap access to space chapter?

Kelly: Yes, that is Project Orion right? So we did at the end of each chapter we have a note bene on ideas that we encountered that were really fun that we wanted to share. Actually, the note bene at the end of the Chapter on Cheap Space Access was Project Orion. We were like 70 pages over on the book, so we had to cut two nota bene, and that was one of them. We cut our chapter on advanced nuclear reactors which we now have put online for anyone who wants it because we are still excited about the research we did, and it was two months of our lives. That is a fun idea, but I think it is a political non-starter. For awhile we were doing a bunch of nuclear testing, and then we found Strontium in the teeth of babies. Are you familiar with this study?

Sam: Yes, worldwide, they were finding amounts of radiation, especially around the test sites. So in the advance nuclear power chapter that didn’t make the book were you covering light thorium reactors in there?

Kelly: Yes, I think we did. I stopped thinking about that chapter three years ago. We were covering stuff like that and passive safety features, like if things were going bad and everyone has to evacuate how can you make sure the nuclear reaction gets under control even if no one is there? So we were covering stuff like that. But my memory of that chapter is less good than the other ten technologies we covered.

Sam: Do you get scientist jealousy of these other fields? When you go talk to a physicist are you like, Oh wow if I could go back to undergrad again I would definitely go back into theoretical astrophysics or are you entrenched in your belief in your own parasite studies?

Kelly: I do not regret studying parasites at all. I love creepy little creatures. And I would do it all again if I had a choice. But I do want ten different lifetimes to study all the technologies covered in the book. It would be so much fun to study bioprinting. I also think it would be fun to study space law and I wish I had so many lifetimes to study so many different things. Given that we only have one lifetime, I am fine with the fact I dedicated it to parasites and study reading about cool technology and other books on the side.

Sam: I think it ties back into the question I asked at the beginning, at this point in technological developments all the simple discoveries have already been found. In order to proceed and to discover scientific discoveries, you have to be very specialised in your field and specialisation takes away from normal development that you would do.  The scientists of even a 100 years ago were (at least the great ones) poly-maths; they studied many different disciplines, and they would be able to fuse a lot of the ideas they would have explored these different disciplines into new ideas they would come up with new theories. Maybe you can wax and wane about the days of polymaths, but the way we are today and the discoveries we are making in these highly complex fields are necessary to go off and specialise for years and years in order to make progress.

Kelly: I think specialisation is very important these days.  Collaboration is also very important. You specialise, and then you find people to collaborate with, and you become a poly-math as a group.  That’s fun. One of the things that is nice about the internet, one of the persons who specialises in something you do, but is located in India. You can now meet them and work together on your findings. And so you can come with these cool collaborative teams which are international, which I am sure you couldn’t find so easily in 1970. I am sure it still happened back there.

Kelly: Maybe my biology background biases me on this, but I still think there is weird stuff to be discovered which is not super complicated.  I remember when I started as a biology undergrad, I remember thinking I should not go to graduate school in Biology as look at this biology textbook it is full of facts there is probably not much we don’t know.  But I went to grad school anyways because I am stubborn. Recently my collaborator and I discovered this really awesome host parasitic system that was literally on the trees outside our office that nobody had seen before. So in terms of biology, there is stuff waiting to be discovered. There was some little bit of human body that is not being used to detect cancers, micro RNAs, that hadn’t really been thought about until the last two decades. And it turns out they are useful predictors for certain types of cancers. I think there is still some, calling it low hanging fruit is the wrong way to think about it because you still need to be an expert in that field to be able to discover it. But I still think there are some surprises waiting for us. And I do think people are more specialised now. There are still some people who can still make it work as poly-maths. They are pretty exceptional people, but maybe the poly-maths have always made amazing discoveries.

Sam: Did you get any responses from high schoolers wanting to pursue a career in these fields, they read the book and were inspired to study these fields?

Kelly: We did get an email from one high school student who wrote in and told us they wanted to study one of those fields. We were very excited to receive that because one of the reasons for writing the book was to get juniors or seniors in high school reading the book and excited in stuff so they could start pursuing these as a career. One questions I started asking when I was doing interviews was what is a surprising way that you can make major contributions to this field if you don’t want to become a physicist. We got some interesting answers at first. When we were doing cheap access to space, the answer that we got was being a space lawyer would be very helpful. Because the field can’t move forward until the field figures out the question of are you allowed to mine an asteroid and then sell the products. Because there is ambiguity there. The space treaty says no one has sovereignty over space objects, but the US is trying to pass laws that say it does not belong to our country, but it belongs to our entrepreneurs.

For the other chapters, the answers were what you would expect: you need to know Math, Physics, and biology, general things you would need to go into an engineering field. We hoped to get juniors and seniors excited about science. I know we got some excited, and in the next two weeks, I will be chatting with High school classes that read the book for one of their classes. I don’t know how many high schoolers we reached, but I hope we did reach them. And maybe the ones we did reach will be the one to bring these technologies into our lives if they aren’t here already.

Sam: That is a great point about space lawyers. There are huge moral issues that have to be unpacked in pretty much every one of these fields going forward. You just saw something that came out of China, and a scientist had used genetic editing to alter twins. Did you see that?

Kelly: I am also not remembering the details. It was a Chinese scientist that used CRISPR on twins. There was a scientific uproar about it. The Chinese were the first to do it, but most scientists thought this is a technology that is not ready to be rolled out into full humans yet. We are testing it and figuring out when it works and doesn’t work. They sort of jumped the gun. The international community got quite upset about that. It started off a discussion about how do you make sure these sorts of things don’t happen, that people do not get ahead of where the technology is.  I don’t know that there is a good answer on the international stage. In countries like the US and UK, you have laws talking about how you can use these technologies for different types of cells or different kinds of people. But you know there is no international laws for constraining the use of these technologies, so someone is going to get out ahead of the curve.  In this case it was a Chinese scientist who did this.

Sam: It is fascinating to me that we have the ability to modify at a growing rate the genetic material of our body to perform some very interesting experiments in the near future either working towards prolonging life or eliminate diseases. Where would you start to craft the legal aspects of that because you need live people to test on at some point? The effects of radically changing someone’s genetic code could have severe effects for them later on in the future. But in the name of science, it could be pursued.  I think it will be a very big balancing act going forward, especially with genetic modification of people.

Kelly: I think there are levels of discomfort, and I think there are levels where it makes sense to sort of draw a line. For example, more of the scientific community is comfortable with taking an adult and using CRISPR to modify genes in as many cells as possible to try to ameliorate a disease they have now. So, for example, you could figure out the mutation that is causing Cystic Fibrosis. If you can give someone CRISPR to fix the mutation that is causing it, then I think doctors and scientists are more comfortable with that rather than if  you were to modify sperm and egg cells in a way that would start passing those modifications between the generations.  So, I think people are more comfortable with changes that are going to stay with that adult than because we can study that and understand it a bit better versus making changes that are going to become part of our genetic legacy of the human species.

I think right now that is the level we are grappling with this problem but in general it’s tough when you are talking about Huntingdon's which is clearly genetic maybe you would want to make it so no one could every get Huntingdon's again and you’d be happy doing genetic modification to sperm and eggs …it becomes a bit dicer where do you go from there? Maybe you want to eradicate Huntingdon’s, or maybe you want your kids to be a little smarter, from there it gets a bit scary. Then you are talking about designer babies, and it is hard to see where the field is going to go. It is hard to design laws to try to keep all of that stuff in mind, but people are working on it. There are bioethicists who are working on this problem in particular.

Sam: Is it strange to see some of the topics you are talking about in the book become themes of episodes of Black Mirror? Because you talk about augmented reality, but it’s really diminished reality. There is one episode I forget the name of it, the point at the end of it the person becomes a persona non grata, they become a grey fuzz that no one can see or hear and this sort of diminished reality you mention it … is it strange seeing the themes you cover in dystopian thrillers?

Kelly: It is actually nice to see that because one of the themes in the book was that it seems that a lot of people work on developing the technology because they  can, and it is cool. But they don’t think about the ways it could make our society worse or the negative implications it could have. I think one of the ways that our society grapples with the possible negative implications before the technology becomes part of all of our lives, is by depicting it in things like science fiction and getting society to think about the implications ahead of time. I think these topics become part of pop culture before they rule out to the general public. I think that is a good thing; hopefully people will be keeping in mind. I am not sure I saw that episode. I think people should be keeping in mind that one of the negative implications of augmented reality is that maybe you could blank out things that you don’t want to interact with or think about, are we better people if we do that? Maybe you would be more comfortable walking around the city if you did not have to think about or see the homeless people because you are so much better position than them and you have to grapple with that.  And if you could just blank them out by using your augmented reality,  I think that is something we shouldn’t do because we should have to grapple with the uncomfortable things in our lives.  I think it is good that we have to think about the implications before people have that technology in their hands.

Sam: Right, then if you tie it to something like the Chinese Social Credit Score, if you drop below a certain amount, you are blanked from augmented reality but in real life people are alerted to your status on certain apps, and how close you are, you can’t travel on a train or a plane… if you have AR integrated with a system like that to the lowest level, or lowest credit score. All of a sudden you are gone from society. What is the Indian lowest class, the untouchable?

Kelly: I am familiar with this concept.

Sam: It creates a new caste system within society like the untouchables are. There is no way to be pulled out except by your friends and family who pay your debts or somebody else who helps you out.

Kelly: It definitely becomes uncomfortable when you collect more data on what people are doing, and that information is easier to share and easier for governments to access that information and to use that information to influence your life. There are a lot of uncomfortable privacy issues, and I don’t know too much about the Chinese social credit score system.

Sam: China has come out of poverty in the last 50 year. They have been growing at 8% GDP for the past ten years.  One of the issues they have is that they don’t have a standardised database of people like we have in the United States.  In the United States we have credit scores, social security numbers, tax records. Everything is there for the government or third party countries to come in and do background check on you, do you have criminal offences, how is your credit or financial health, are you paying your taxes, do you have any debts? What companies are you connected to?

This did not exist in China ten years ago, so there was a lot of fraud.  A lot of people would be defrauded out of money, or they would take on huge debts and default. Then they would go to a new lender and take out new loans. So what they did with the credit score is they started in major cities, and they would take everything from your life, if you have parking tickets, where you have been seen on CCTV cameras letting your dog poop on the grass, there is a huge amount of data being collected about everything.  They collected all this and came up with an arbitrary score.

Kelly: They really collected data about whether or not your dog was pooping in someone’s yard?

Sam: Yeah, I don’t know if it is that bad or not. I just made that one up. If you get a traffic ticket or if you are seen arguing with your coworkers at work, if you come across as not having a good reputation at work, your employer can dock you points, it is a different mentality over there. They developed this score so they could have third party lending over there, they could have insurance at much healthier rates than before. With the deployment of the social credit score system, everyone gets a score. When you get too low a score, there are severe restrictions that can be placed on you. You can’t open business, you can’t travel freely, so you can’t leave the country on an aeroplane or a train, you can also not get access to high-speed trains in China, and there is a bunch of other stuff. But additionally they have been allowing that data to be shared, your location can be shared with other people so that people can see if anyone around you has a bad credit score. This actually happened they made a map which showed all the people with bad credit scores and where their locations were, within 100 metres and within 200 metres just to alert you.

Kelly: Wow.

Sam: Not only that, but you could go to them and say hey Kelly, I see that your social credit score is low. You need to get your act together and get back on track because I can’t be around you or be associated with you until then.

Kelly: Yikes.  It is scary. With facial recognition software, you’d have people’s scores popping up above their heads.

Sam: It is a scary future. Thankfully in the States, we have a long history of individualism and a distrust of the government which is good and bad. When it comes to issues like this and the development of overarching dystopian social credit scores, I don’t think it will ever happen or come to the US anytime soon. What does worry me is that we give away our private information to a google or facebook, they basically have a score on us, they aren’t selling it or using it for third-party applications YET, but it is definitely a possibility in the future.

Kelly:  It will be really interesting to see what happens with that generationally. I have done some interviews where I have said the new generations think giving away from data is just a thing that you do and they don’t think anything about it. But I have some younger generation people contact me to say we are concerned about that and some of us are not on Facebook because of that. Maybe it’s just my generation that is becoming more comfortable giving away our data on facebook because you have to be on facebook. The price you have to pay to see your friends cute baby is seeing targeted advertising.  It also seems like that once in the awhile the US government gets a bit more involved in these privacy issues and what is acceptable for companies to be collecting and what they do with this information. I don’t think it’s inevitable as you do, I don’t think we are going to go down a rabbit hole where we all give our data away without thinking about it. It will be interesting to see the trajectory of privacy concerns over time and how the US deals with them.

Sam: Especially if data becomes internationalised and how internationally all the data privacy laws tie into each other with that. You have kids now, and you must look at other kids. My daughter is almost 7 months. I look at all the other babies and compare my baby to them. Not in a mean way.  But mostly I think they don’t look like my baby.

Kelly: I do a little of that. Actually, we don’t share any photos or information about our children online partly because Zach does some webcomics that touch on somewhat sensitive topics and we have had some weird threats, so we are just nervous about our kids. Partly I compare my kids online. But the other part is when you go to the doctor’s office, and they tell you your kid is behind on speech which I knew but how worried should I be? I make some comparison. But I am not sure it would be any worse than if I took my kid to the doctor and the doctor made that comparison for me. Now you made me worry about it. You definitely make some comparison.

Sam: The biggest difference between our generation, I am 34. I am sure you are somewhere around me, plus or minus 5 years. (Kelly: I am 37). You are pretty much in the same generation as me. The difference between us and any kid born after 1996… wait that’s the second step. The first set of kids that are different from us, who are markedly different from us, are those that grew up and have never known a life without the internet. I was trying to think if that existed before 2008 when the iPhone came out. I don’t think it did. I think the iPhone represents this massive generational shift from when people existed without the internet. People would do online, login in with AOL, hear that horrible modem connecting sound for two minutes versus kids who were born after 1996 who are 12 to 13 years old when the first iPhone comes out and have no recollection as an adult of the world before the internet and how things could exist in a nonconnected world. I see it now being old and crotchety, I see it a lot.  I don’t know if it is worrying, maybe it is just old guy worried about things. If I was presented with a way to integrate augmented reality into my life, let’s say we finally mastered integrating augmented reality into our lives, through brain implants where we can transfer data from outside sources into our brains directly, and present information into our brains, like some sci-fi future world… I am not sure I would want to because of the intrusion and the level of strangeness it would feel. But I am sure kids being born today would be completely normal for them by the time they grew up.

Kelly:   So one thing I like to keep in mind is I think every generation is mystified by the generations after them. I believe there were quotes when books came out like, now great we don’t have to remember anything anymore because we have books. And they were super down on books, and my generation would find that baffling.  Books are these cherished prized possessions, and we are down on the internet. I can imagine myself if brain-computer interfaces get to the point where we could be putting thimble-sized implants into our brains to help us with our memory.  I can imagine people like you and me being uncomfortable with that idea.  But I can also imagine us doing it anyway because society could get pushed in that direction.

Maybe computer-brain interfaces are just a category. Imagine you are competing for a job with someone that has one and you don’t, they can focus a lot better and is willing to give that data to their employer. Maybe you would end up doing it even if you felt uncomfortable because that was becoming the baseline and you can’t compete without it. I guess that is one of the things that is scary about these technologies.  If you said I think Letter writing is quaint and I don’t do email, I think there are a lot of jobs you wouldn’t get. But I think it is the same with brain/computer interfaces at some point. I think technology gets adopted sometimes because you fall behind if you don’t adopt it whether you feel uncomfortable or not.

Sam: That’s some strange discriminatory laws that would have to be planned out if that ever came out. Can you deny a person a place at a job just because they don’t have certain technological editions to their body to increase cognition or strength?

Kelly: With memory focus drugs now, you don’t even know the employee is taking it or not.  Maybe you don’t want your employer to know you take drugs to stay up to three am to write their papers. All you see if someone published more than you. Maybe you don’t have to ask. Maybe you can see someone is more productive it really gives them an edge and then it doesn’t seem so discriminatory because you are not asking, maybe you can just see that one person does better than the other and that is the brain/computer interface.

Sam: It really reminds me of the movie, Gattica, where pretty much everyone is genetically engineered from birth, and they have to meet these extremely high standards, no one has bad eyesight, cancer or anything. But it creates this search for non-genetically created children. One probable outcome of all this technology being brought in is that if you are able to stop someone from getting cancer or poor eyesight, you are able to make them smarter and stronger, should you outlaw natural birth so you can give the children a better life or should you allow people to have kids no matter what?

Kelly: I think these things are very hard to predict. I talked to my dad about self-driving cars.  Maybe at some point, everyone will have to ‘drive’ self-driving cars because if they are safer than humans then it would be unsafe for you to be driving. My dad is like I would never want to give up driving that is never going to happen.

And maybe it takes a couple of generations for people to change the way they feel about that or maybe there is just something that humans can’t let go of. Maybe there will always be hold outs in the human species.

Sam: Look at the cars. The threat is car’s that people drive because people make mistakes on a much greater scale than self-driving cars. So let’s say we redo all the roads so self-driving cars can perfectly read everything, we get them to level 5, not needing any human controls, just taking voice commands. For the safety of the people in the self-driving cars should we allow manually driving cars in these areas where we have self-driving cars? Especially in metropolitan areas where we will have self-driving cars.

I can see in the next thirty years, in a generation or so, that they will completely outlaw human-driven cars in these areas just for public safety.  So, this natural progression to outlaw the things that were completely normal in the past can be applied to childbirth as we said before.  I don’t know. I guess it is what makes it so fascinating reading the book is that it guides the mind to where we are going in the next decades because having that longest view in the room. I think is invaluable, because where we are going we may not be able to see it in the next two or three years, the big picture stuff you are talking about in the book is definitely coming, it is inevitable, or at least I hope so. It is just when. Is it this century? Five centuries from now? Are we still here? Have we killed ourselves by then?

Kelly: I hope not.

Sam: That is the thing about climate change, it could all be horrible, and we could roast to bits. When everything raises by 2 degrees or there is some giant Yosemite super volcano that explodes tomorrow and then the temperature drops by 5 degrees, and we go into some glacial ice age for the next thousand years.

Kelly: Those are big extremes or somewhere in between. It is hard to know what’s going to happen.

Sam: Exactly.

Kelly: Dinosaurs weren’t expecting that asteroid.

Sam: Yes, as a parent, how will you introduce these more controversial issues with your kids? When gene editing and all these things become more widely used, what if we can eradicate cancer, but at some cost because there are always side effects. I think these are extremely difficult issues to pass onto the next generation. We try to figure it out a little bit.

Kelly: My oldest is five, so we are not having a lot of these conversations yet. We have conversations about why she cannot have a phone or a facebook page yet. We talk about diseases and cancer and that we have some treatments for some but not others. I haven’t quite got the point where we are having difficult conversations. My general philosophy is that I try to explain the good and the bad and then let her go with it. It is hard to know how these things will turn out so you have to be part of the group of people who decide what is going to happen with these technologies and the way you use it might be determined by how everyone uses it in the future. But I guess at the moment I haven’t had to grapple with that because she is only five.  What do you think you are going to tell your little girl that you have who is six or seven months?

Sam: I do have a little girl. I have been thinking about all the difficult things I am going to have to explain to her over many years.  I don’t know I really don’t have any ideas. It is extremely hard to put things into right, and wrong terms or what is right to do in life, shaping that for a child is going to be infinitely harder.  I think about it and would like to introduce this to my kids, shout out that there is more than one, but I guess kids always find there way.  I think as parent it is more about setting an example and giving them books like yours to open their minds to what can be done in the future. Maybe kids don’t know about this. If you go into a high school classroom and you start discussing gene editing. How many of them have read in-depth about the subject and where the development is going? I don’t think we are there.  I think space travel is very romanticised; Elon Musk has done a lot to get his name into the paper. A lot of the topics you cover in the book don’t get a lot of coverage. The augmented reality we see in our iPhones but other topics you cover you don’t see that in too many daily stories.  We need to be better outreach in non-financial pursuits, in studying physics and studying engineering and other sciences.

Kelly: I don’t think you are alone there.

Sam: If I ever leave my company now and go do something else, I want to build better podcasting software platform.

Kelly: I think there would be an audience for that.

Sam: There is so much that can be done than just the recording. There are other services you could build in like transcription services, translation services; you could also do all the sound editing and stuff. It is a huge business to go after.

Kelly: That sounds awesome.

Sam: Have you ever gone back and thought about repackaging Soonish what you have, I keep going back to high school kids, for secondary school kids that can be taught over a day or two? The other question is speaking about all those technologies with your kids; let’s finish that point.

Kelly: I think the way to talk about technology with kids is to point out the good and the bad and that this is not the way it has to be. It is important to have a conversation about how they think it should be and why.  You should always stop and think is this the way my generation should be doing this and if the answer is no, then you can all turn the boat around, you can turn us in a different direction to make sure as technology gets rolled out it does not get used for in nefarious ways. It is just making sure that kids understand that implication and that things don’t have to be the way they are now is the most important thing that I can say to my kids when talking about new technologies.

Sam: The second question is, have you guys thought about taking what you have now and creating a series of digestible lessons that can be taught over a day or two that could be sold to teachers?

No, we originally thought about a choose your own adventure type computer game where people could say I might want to work on the space elevator problem, what are some of the things I should know ahead of time? And then you could see the path you would need to take to get there; you need to be good a math, you need to be good at material science…these are topics you should study as you go through school. But to be honest I feel like I just don’t know how to talk to kids, any kids that are younger than my daughter I don’t know how to talk to them. I learn every year she gets older how to do that year. But I am not sure I would know how to do secondary school age until she gets there.  I have not spent a lot of time around kids.

Sam: Do you remember the choose your own adventure books? You would have to go from one page to the other depending on your choices. With yours in that kind of book, every other page gets to robotic overlords. Or you have unleashed some parasite into the world with CRISPR that infects all our brains and then builds the robotic overlords.

Kelly: It would probably be more boring, like do you want to take Bio to get into Organic Chemistry. But your book sounds a lot more fun.

Sam: There are a lot of funny jokes in there. I think you got the balance right in your book.  Is there anything you want to discuss or shout out to?

Kelly: So, at the moment, I don’t have any projects that are launching soon. Zach does have a graphic novel coming out about immigration policy in October that is coming out. Open Borders which he worked on with an economist. It is favourable to immigration. They try to present the data in an easy to understand and friendly way. That is the only project that needs plugging right now. If you are interested in learning about parasites, google Weinersmith and Parasites.

Sam: I would be interested in reading the Open Borders book.

~

Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes