I’ve spent the last year being assailed by new ideas and ways of seeing the world at an unprecedented (for me) rate. The coming revolution in personal genomics, the project to create artificial life, the Transhumanists’ journey to ‘transcend our biology’, robots that get mood swings, machines that demonstrate curiosity, a post-scarcity world promised by atomically precise manufacture, holidays in space and our continued entanglement with the world’s biggest machine (the Internet). All of these are to one degree and another coming down the line, as long as the Maldives (and the rest of us) can stay above water, using our technologies and ingenuity to remove carbon-dioxide from our atmosphere (while simultaneously ushering in an energy revolution). I’ve met scientists, philosophers, gone diving with a president and invented a cocktail on the way. Now as I approach the end of my journey I’m looking for people who can help me make sense of it, to somehow pull all these strands together into a coherent view.
In his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology Eric Drexler approaches the future by asking three questions – what is possible? what is achievable? and what is desirable? The question of what is possible seems easy to answer. As we learn to control the very atoms of matter, the mechanisms of biology and the power of computation there is, in fact, very little that we can’t do, in a physical (and indeed virtual sense). Solutions to climate change? Already developed. An end to the energy crisis? No sweat, sign on the line. Holiday in space? Why not, join our frequent flyer progamme. World peace even? Seems only reasonable.
But when we ask what is achievable, well that’s a different story. Because what we achieve will largely be determined by what we collectively decide is desirable. As George Church told me all those months ago at Harvard Medical School as we discussed personal genomics, “The only thing that puts this kind of medicine far away is really will, right? The question is, how motivated are we?” Do we, as a planet, have the will to take the bounty on offer while mitigating the risks? To get the medicine but not the weapons? To enjoy abundant clean energy while dealing with climate change? To use our technologies to bring us closer together, rather than isolate us?
It’s to ponder questions like these that I’ve come to meet Chris Anderson, the CEO of the TED Talks, the pre-eminent meeting of, as Chris puts it, “people who can offer a lens through which to see the world in a different way.” Every year Chris and his team gather together the world’s leading thinkers from every discipline and give them 18 minutes to tell the rest of the world how they see things. The results can be found on TED.com. Here you can see Ray Kurzweil summarise his law of accelerating returns, or Kevin Kelly talk about his idea of ‘The One Machine’ that the internet will become, or Hod Lipson demonstrate his robots (along with a host of other mind-shifting presentations that make you see things from a different angle). TED tells a different story of our world than the one we’re used to seeing, and it’s the same story I’ve seen on my travels. There is no shortage of fresh ways to see our future. It turns out we’re not necessarily looking at a damage limitation exercise, but a possible renaissance. But first we have to see it. Only then can we have to make it happen.
Seeing it is a revelation. We’re so used to being told that everything is getting worse, that the planet is doomed or that the next pandemic to finish you off is just around the corner, or that technology will subjugate us. It’s a world where a book called Is it me or is everything a bit shit? becomes a best seller. And it’s not true. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. Klaus Lackner has a machine, that works now, that takes CO2 out the air. George Church has co-developed a process that can take that CO2, mix is with sunlight for pity’s sake! and create gasoline. Thin film solar technologies will soon take power to where there is no grid, while at the same time mobile devices will continue to take the world’s knowledge (accessed on billions of mobile devices) to every corner of the globe. Solar power continues to show exponential rises in efficiency while nanotechnology is already changing the face of manufacturing and will continue to do so. Medicine may soon see an end to a host of the things that kill us. This story is not being told, which is perhaps the biggest threat to our future. Not that it couldn’t be better, but that because we can’t see it, we don’t know it’s an option.
“The history of ideas is a really thrilling history,” says Chris, “and ultimately that is what will drive all of our futures. There’s a very boring view of the world which is that ‘things happen’ and you can’t really do much about it.” It’s something he’s experienced himself. “After I left university I became a journalist, then I started a company… and then fifteen years were taken over by all the stress of working. I didn’t have much spare time to think. When the whole ‘dot com’ bust happened the huge gift I got was discovering, holy crap, there’s so much amazing new thinking out there.” I know what he means. Before I decided I actually wanted to answer the question “what next?” I was on the same treadmill, too busy to look up to realise that the story we’re told wasn’t necessarily the only game in town. This book didn’t start off with the word ‘Optimist’ in the title. It was my agent Charlie, who when I told him the sort of thing I was finding out, remarked on how uplifting some of it was and suggested the change.
We communicate through stories. It is stories that grab us the most and it stories we identify with. Hollywood knows this, political spin doctors know this, newspaper editors know this. “What the story?!” ask editors pointedly when young journalists bring well written pieces that lack a narrative. My own editors were keen to make sure this book had a personal story, and encouraged me to make sure it wasn’t lost in the rush of facts. Chris is very interested in stories, and how the Internet, as it continues its prodigious growth across the globe, can help us, for the first time, tell a story that includes everyone.
The most memorable thing for Chris about the 2009 TED conference was a dance troupe called The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. “This troop could not have existed ten years ago. They exist because kids who used to just dance down on the street corner started filming themselves, putting it up on YouTube and suddenly the community that they’re comparing themselves to is a global community. This kid in Tokyo sees a move from Detroit and innovates within hours, puts it online and so on, so the pace of innovation is dramatically increased.” John Chu, who created the troupe from finding the most popular of those YouTube clips says, “Dance has never had a better friend than technology. Online videos and social networking have created a whole global laboratory online for dance.” It’s not just in dance. “This is happening in hundreds of areas of human endeavour,” says Chris. “I’ve started to call it ‘crowd accelerated innovation’ and I find it incredibly exciting.”
Chris thinks rather than letting go of our humanity, we are re-discovering it. What could be more human than the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers? Kids from diverse backgrounds from across the world, innovating and collaborating to bring a new dimension to an art form as old as society, using technology to help them express themselves and innovate physically with their bodies, to meet, to collaborate, to just dance – and then show the world. Look what we did. Here is something of the exponential growth in wisdom, community, understanding I was looking for to go with Ray Kurzweil’s accelerating technologies.
“The acceleration of knowledge and ideas made possible by the fact that humanity is connected for the first time is vast,” says Chris. “The re-discovery of the spoken word as a tool for communicating is a big deal. If you think about it we evolved as human-to-human communicators. It was the village camp fire, the elder standing there with his painted face on a starry night, fire crackling, drums beating and telling a story and every eye locked on his and all those mirror-neurons in all those brains syncing up with what he was saying. By the end of this story his whole village would go to war against another village or make peace.”
“So TED is one of the new storytellers?” I ask
“It’s one of them. That mode of communication kind of got lost in the print age because it didn’t scale, it was a village-sized technology at best. To me it’s thrilling that it now scales and so one great teacher can inspire many people. One of the things that we see as our role is to try and help nurture that process of re-discovering how to do that, because I think we got to a place where lessons became a person in suit mumbling behind a lectern reading their notes for an hour while a class of people snoozed.” Suddenly, horrifying images of my ‘O’ level economics class come pouring into my brain. I shudder. “It shouldn’t be like that,” says Chris. “So, one of things we see, and this was a big kick for me, is TED speakers competing. An unexpected consequence of putting this stuff online is speakers are looking at what other speakers are doing and are putting in far more preparation time than they ever used to.”
Just as YouTube became a laboratory for dance, TED is becoming a laboratory for the art of oration. Here you will see a statistician blow your mind and end his talk with some sword swallowing. Here you will find Steven Pinker explain that the world is getting safer, and Robert Wright mix philosophy, sociology and stand-up comedy to give one explanation as to why – a theory he calls ‘the non-zero sum game’. I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of lesson I can get on board with.
“We’ve actually got to bring back real creativity and find a way of nurturing that in the education process,” says Chris. “In the age of Google the notion of having to cram all these little brains with facts is bonkers. What’s needed is to build skills like how do you stimulate people to ask the right questions? how do you stimulate people to have a meaningful conversation? to think critically? What are lenses you give people to think about the world? I mean, if I’d have been taught Robert Wright’s non-zero view of history that would have had tremendously more value to me than endless facts about French kings.” It seems that the two things Artificial Intelligence needs the most if it’s ever to stop playing chess and start playing Madlibs, are the two things we need the most too: curiosity and creativity.
What is our collective story today and who tells it? The storytellers of our day-to-day lives used to be the press and our politicians. Like all good storytellers they used emotion to hook us into one of two, on the face of it, very uninspiring, dull stories. Story one: life happens to you, the future is not going to be very good (especially if you vote for that guy), it was better in the old days, you’ve got to look after yourself, the world is violent and unsafe, your job is at risk, the generation below you are feral and dangerous, things are changing too fast and you can’t trust those immigrants/ scientists/ left-wingers/ right-wingers/ nerds/ geeks/ religious people/ atheists/ football fans/ the rich/ the poor/ what you eat/ your neighbour. You are alone. Make the best of it. Vote for me. Buy my paper. I understand. (Story two is, in summary: ‘Shock! People have sex.’)
It’s hardly inspiring is it?
But the story is beginning to be told by other people now, by the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, by speakers at TED talks, by Mohamed Nasheed who battled dictatorship to the brink of his own death and then got on with battling climate change, by Cynthia Breazeal who wants to build robots that help children learn, by Vicki Buck who quit government to create jobs to take on global warming, by George Church who wants you to stay healthy longer, by Eric Drexler who wants to usher in a post-scarcity world using technology on the nanoscale, by the good people at Konarka who take electricity out the sky and give to the developing world. A story being told by the curious and the smart, that inspires the curious and the smart in all of us, by people who wonder and ask the kind of questions that haven’t been asked before. Crucially, none of them wait for permission to ask those questions, or then to find the answers. It is being told through writers who find themselves traveling across America and readers of blogs who might say in the pub, “did you know the technology exists to make petrol out of the air?” It is being told by the cult of the possible, who seek to achieve, to bring us what we desire. Peace. Understanding. Space to love each other. People who encourage us to evolve.
Eric Drexler has written, “As the Web becomes more comprehensive and searchable, it helps us see what’s missing in the world. The emergence of more effective ways to detect the absence of a piece of knowledge is a subtle and slowly emerging contribution of the Web, yet important to the growth of human knowledge.”
I think we’re beginning to see, collectively, what’s missing, and crucially we’re now able to do something about it. Technology doesn’t give you permission like your teachers did. It gives you agency – to ask, to learn, to connect, to do. It says, “go on then, show me what you’ve got”.
“I don’t know that the future’s going to be better,” says Chris. “But I think there’s a very good chance that it will be and I think that’s something that everyone can do to further increase that chance. There are several quite profound and inspiring ways of thinking about the world that suggest there are these trends that have the potential to drive a better future and I think there is such a thing as moral progress, driven not by any difference in the DNA kids are born with, but just driven by what they see, and seeing more of humanity just naturally flicks on certain switches that make people more empathetic. Of course, the future might well be truly horrible. I think it’s all to play for and I think everyone of sound mind and conscience should be in the game, trying to shape it in the right way. It’s a very false and shallow view of history to say that it’s just one thing after another. Ultimately though our history is the history of ideas. It’s a really thrilling history and ultimately that is what will drive all of our futures.”
Ideas, creativity, curiosity – and dancing. Now there’s a mix.
More of my talk with Chris, will of course, make it into the book…