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Kevin Kelly is one of the great tech thinkers of our time. He was the founding executive editor of Wired and the author of the hit book The Inevitable. Whatever the future holds, he may be able to tell us.
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Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable Man
Welcome back, listeners. We have the incredible Kevin. Kevin, please tell the listeners who you are.
I’m Kevin Kelly. I’m currently the Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine. Wired magazine was a magazine that I co-founded with a crew of other people including Louis Rossetto, Jane Metcalfe, John Battelle and Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing. I write books these days. My latest book is called The Inevitable. The book before that was called What Technology Wants. I’m maybe a techno-philosopher, maybe that’s the best way to think about it. My passion is in packaging ideas, presenting them in a way that helps people navigate. My particular mission these days is to try and describe a future that we want to live in. To give us a picture of a future that’s filled with things like artificial intelligence and virtual reality and total tracking where we’re going to be happy, because almost every image of the future these days is dystopian. It’s very hard to arrive somewhere positive unless you have a positive image to aim for.
When people discover what you’ve accomplished, what’s the most common question?
“How did you engineer that? It seems like an ideal job. It seems like a dream job. I want one of those too. How did you do that?” The answer is that this was not engineered. I was very lucky in the timing and I am completely unqualified to be doing what I’m doing.
I would terribly disagree that you’re unqualified considering you’ve done it.
Esther Dyson, a friend, another internet maven who has been around a long time, she says, “Never accept a job that you’re qualified for because you won’t learn, you won’t grow.” I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.
With the technology that you probably have access to, that mean that you’re going to be around for another 400 or 500 hundred years. There’s a lot of growing up to do.
I think it takes your whole life to figure out what your life is for. That means in a certain sense that your sole mission in life is to figure out what your mission in life is. It’s a curse in that weird sense. It just takes a long time to figure out what you’re really good at that no one else can do. That to me is the Holy Grail, is to spend your day doing things that only you can do. It’s a very high bar and you don’t get there immediately. If you’re lucky, that’s where you end up.
In light of everything going on in this dystopian vision of the future that we are battling, what is it that you’re actually most excited about?
My general excitement is on the prospect of increasing the technology so that every person will have at least the opportunity to share their genius. I used a little story to explain that. Imagine if Beethoven had been born 1,000 years before we invented pianos or the symphony? He was a potato farmer somewhere. What a loss to the world and to Beethoven that would have been because there would be no opportunity for his musical genius to shine. He would just be hoeing potatoes. The same thing could be said if van Gogh had been born 1,000 years before we invented oil paints. Just imagine that, it would have been lost, or Lucas with cinematography technology. What that means is that somewhere in the world is a young child who is waiting for us to invent the technology so that her genius can be shared to the world. We have a moral obligation to actually increase the amount of technology in the world so that we can fill it with more and more tools that will enable more and more people to have these hidden gems of talent that we didn’t know we wanted and we didn’t know even existed. Part of my excitement is to be involved in some way with filling the worlds with those possibilities. I think that even the most cynical person working in a big tech company who maybe is a little concerned that the stuff they’re making is just junk, it’s ephemeral, it’s going to disappear. In fact, they actually are participating something big, which is expanding the possibilities space for all people. That on a larger sense is what excites me about technology. We’re increasing the choices and possibilities and the degrees of freedom. Hopefully at the same time making sure that everybody in the planet has access to those possibilities in order to let the next Shakespeare find their technology like printing was for Shakespeare that can share their genius. That’s at the large level what I am excited by.
In particular, I think the technology that is the most promise to disrupt or touch and expand, all of our lives is artificial intelligence. I think it’s on the level of industrial revolution or electricity or even language. It’s huge in its ability to make problems as well as solutions but just big. I’m trying to wrap my head around what it means. My interest is always what technology means. I think it’s going to be a 50, 100 year or more long process. This not just a fad. It’s going to be here and more every year. It’s trying to anticipate the Industrial Revolution. It’s like you’re in 1700’s, “Industrial Revolution is coming, what does that mean? Where do I start?” That’s where I am. This is big. It’s not Terminator taking over. It’s much more complicated and subtle and positive than the Hollywood version.
The overwhelming majority of artificial intelligence has absolutely no interest in military programs but an interest in figuring out how to understand the schedule an appointment properly for you.
Make no mistake, it will be weaponized. There is not a single technology we’ve ever invented that can’t be weaponized. AI is already being weaponized. They will affect the military. We will have to deal with these things and we hopefully will have consensus and treaties on things that we’re not going to do with it and have agreement about that. That’s going to be very important. There will be certainly other things that we’re going to use it for that aren’t happy because that’s reality and there will be huge problems. Brand new, difficult, gut-wrenching problems created by AI for sure. All the problems we’re having were invented by previous technologies and the problem of tomorrow are going to come from today’s technologies. I think problems propel progress. Progress comes from having problems. We just have to understand how to make use of problems.
Are you of the belief that we’re going to be augmenting our brains with technology?
Yes. In fact, I saw something recently that really changed my mind about that. I was very skeptical of the brain machine interface. I’m not going to sign up for an implant. There was a technology that’s come around recently that uses something that first seems like impossible. Apparently our skulls are transparent to near infrared light. Imagine a skull cap of LEDs that are making near infrared light, that they are shining into your brain and can focus so to speak at the level of neuron and they are sensors. You can read and probably write at the level of neurons. It’s just a skull cap, it’s non-invasive. That promises a brain machine interface that’s non-invasive, that has a high-resolution than MRI. We don’t know what the side effects are going to be yet. Let’s assume that we can manage the side effects. That’s a very powerful way to basically jack in. I thought that would be 100 years away from now, but now I’m thinking that’s only 25.
It’s pretty incredible because the way that our brain currently functions is we don’t consciously do almost anything. We outsource tasks to different areas of our brain. I don’t consciously think about walking, that’s just something that my motor cortex manages for me. I don’t know if I’d have an issue with outsourcing my math skills to a processor that sits there that specializes in that.If self-driving cars weren’t around, I don’t think I’d have an issue with the processor that managed my driving and did it more effectively.
I do that when I’m listening to books on tape or audible books and I’m driving home, and it’s like someone else drove home. I was present in that book and it was like I would outsource that to someone else sitting inside my head to drive home. We outsource our memory to pen and paper. We write things down. We are already so dependent on technologies for our survival. We don’t realize how dependent we are. If you removed every single bit of technology in the world even including the control fire which took all the steel away, we wouldn’t last more than six months. Every human would basically die. The animals will eat us. We would be gone. That point at which we are wholly dependent on technology for survival, we passed tens of thousands of years ago. We’re binding our self, we’re co-evolving with our machines and we are long past that. We’ve already altered our genes through our inventions of cooking, through herding and domestication, which allowed us to develop lactose-tolerant genes. These are all in very recent history. We’re already altering our bodies in a co-evolution stance with technology.
I was reading Sapiens. One of the things he actually spoke about was that from a hierarchy of species standpoint, human beings aren’t the natural king of the animal kingdom. On a scale of one to five, we fall somewhere on the twos. It’s simply because of our technology that we’ve been able to get on top.
I say our first invention as a species was ourselves. We are the first animals that we domesticated. We’ve invented our humanity; it’s our first invention and we’re not done yet. One of the exciting things that’s happening right now, both with AI and genetic technologies, is that we are altering ourselves again. One of the byproducts that people don’t realize is that they’re basically the new microscope. Making artificial intelligence going to be the primary way that we study our own minds. By making all these variations and all these artificial minds, we will come to understand our own minds. It’s the microscope into our brains that we don’t have. Two things are happening. One is we are discovering who we are through this technology and then at the same time, we’re altering it. We’re changing who we are as we discover who we are. For me, the really huge question that’s before us is basically, what do we want humans to be? It’s like growing up. It’s what Arthur C. Clarke called Childhood’s End. It’s what we were doing individually. It’s trying to find out what it is that we do that nobody else is doing. Part of that question what do we as humans want to be doing that the machines can’t do? The answer is right now is we don’t really know but we’re in this process of finding out.
One of the things you were pointing to is that it’s the problems that we have that define where we innovate or where we’re creative or what drives us. One of the things I think is really interesting is that it’s also the questions that we ask that define our thinking. I’m curious what you think are the questions that we should be asking right now?
Let me just say something about questions right now. Every day Google answers two billion questions. What’s interesting, and this is something that Hal Varian, the economists, pointed out is that 40 years ago, when I was growing up, those questions weren’t answered because nobody asked and no one would even think of asking all those questions because there was no way to answer them. Forty years ago, nobody would have ever guessed that there would be a business in answering these kinds of questions because no one would even believe that people had that many questions to ask. The only reason why people ask the questions is because we have answers. What’s happened is answers have become cheap, even if not free. I think in the future if you want an answer, you’re going to ask a machine. If you want a question, you’re going to hire a human. As answers become free and ubiquitous, what becomes valuable are asking good questions. All the kinds of things that we most cherish, innovation discoveries were all basically forms of questions of, “What if? What if that happens?”
A good question has certain parameters. I talked about this a little bit my book, The Inevitable, about what makes good questions. It’s not just that they have answers, but often that they provoke other questions beyond them. That they’re productive in a sense of unleashing a whole train of thought. They allow you to shift your point of view. They can transfer you to another part of the possibility space that we haven’t been into. There are lots of ways to structure good questions but I think what a mark of a well-educated person will be in 50 years from now would be basically people who can ask good questions. That’s going to be one of the primary things that humans are good for because it’s a contextual thing. It’s going to take a long time for machines to do that. Even when they do it, they aren’t going to do it like us.
This is one of my points about AI is that they will be creative. We can make AIs creative. They are right now. The 37th move in the 3rd game of Lee Sedol’s Go championship was declared a brilliant move by everybody including all the experts. It was a total creative genius move. That was done by a machine. The thing is that was an inhuman and un-human move. Their creativity is going to be present but it’s not going to be like human creativity. It’s like humor. They’ll tell a joke but it won’t be human funny. That’s actually the benefit that they have rather than a bug. It’s the fact that they’re thinking different and thinking different is the engine of wealth and innovation in today’s economy. Thinking differently is increasingly difficult when you have 7 billion people connected to each other all the time. When you’re connected to everybody else in the world all the time, it becomes a challenge to think differently. That’s actually one of the things that the AIs are going to help us do. Because they think differently than us, we’re going to work with them to think differently. We will be able to ask questions, they’ll be able to ask questions but the questions that we ask as humans are going to be more relevant to other humans. That is our value even though we will be using machines to help us ask those questions.
When you say that they’ll be funny but they’ll be computer funny, does that mean that there’s going to be a job to be a comedian for computers?
One of the questions is how much of the world’s economy will be bot to bot, machine to machine. Most of the world’s communication right now is machine to machine. It’s not humans talking to other humans. It’s our machines talking to other machines. As people have tried to do to analyze what actually is humor, what’s actually going on, we laugh but there’s actually work happening when you are being funny in the sense of you’re taking two planes, to two spaces that aren’t ordinarily connected and you’re intersecting two things that wouldn’t ordinarily be connected.
Peter McGraw is part or the leading researcher on this. He calls it Benign Violation Theory.
I hadn’t heard that but that sounds perfectly reasonable to me. That could be happening. They may not be laughing but they may actually be doing that because it’s useful in some capacity to do that benign interference.
His theory is basically that if something is funny, when it violates the way reality should be but does it in a benign or safe way. A pun is funny theoretically. It violates the way that language should be used but it’s done in a non-threatening way. Tickling, it violates your physical space but not in a threatening way, which is why race jokes can be funny within the race but not outside.
Satire is benign at the edge because it can be slightly cunning. There must be some degrees. All these things have continuums including intelligence and consciousness through multiple variations and continuums. They’re not binary and I think humor is probably the same way.
I often have the pleasure of hanging out with my nieces and nephews who are in age between ten and eighteen. As they approach college, the question is what should they study because by the time they really enter the workforce, for some of them ten to twelve years from now, the jobs that they would have been trained for won’t exist anymore. Are there certain careers that you encourage?
I don’t because I had some experience hiring kids right out of college at Wired. We were developing the first commercial website in the world. We are hiring people to be web developers. The web had just been invented like yesterday. We realized that we couldn’t hire for the skills because it didn’t exist. All we could hire was for attitude and character and the ability to learn. They would have to acquire the skills from that. I become a believer in the idea that the thing you want to graduate from high school with, the metaskill is learning how to learn. That seems obvious but in fact, I’ve been looking for a curriculum based on just teaching you to learn how to learn. I’ve only found one course in the entire world and I’ve been about to take it just to see what it is. It’s remarkable how little there is. It’s not just that you want to learn how to learn, what you want to do is learn how you individually, you personally learn which is actually a huge thing. That’s a very high bar.
I don’t know how I learn. I have not optimized how I learn. You haven’t either. To do that requires a tremendous amount of breadth of knowledge about how learning happens among different people. It requires lots of teachers, skills, it requires lots of testing, it requires lots of discipline and practice and none of that is happening. People learn differently, some have more kinetics, some are more oral, some are more visual. I think if you could graduate knowing how you optimize your own style of learning and how you could practice that and take on things, that would be the metaskill in addition to learning how to ask questions. I think those are the two things that you want to graduate with knowing that the skills that are going to be needed to be an AI whisperer, to understand how VR works to be able to be comfortable. None of those skills exist and those are the skills that are going to be necessary. What we want to teach kids as they go through is how to customize and optimize their own way of learning so they have maximized their ability to learn and to ask questions.
On a more personal note is there a certain book besides your own obviously, that you highly recommend people read? Something that maybe influenced you a lot.
If we’re talking just about career advice there is a book that I recommend called So Good They Can’t Ignore You which is contrary to the standard advice of, “Follow your passion.” The problem is that most kids and myself included had no idea what their passion was when they were in high school. That is paralyzing because everyone’s telling you follow your passion, follow your bliss and they don’t know what is. They don’t know how to find it. His suggestion was that the way you arrive is you master something. Start anywhere, start somewhere, something specific and just become the world’s best at it; just become a master of it. Maybe not the world’s best but just master something. In that mastery, you can move to towards your passion. You discover your passion through mastery of something. Just understand that you’re not going to start where you end up and that you actually can’t start where you end up. You have to start somewhere else and move to it. That movement is your life. You are not too worried about where you start. You just want to start with mastery of something. That book, I would recommend.
Another book that was very influential to me, that really shaped me was reading Walden, Henry David Thoreau, the ultimate do-it-yourselfer. What my time as a hippie, owning very little, what it taught me was that the worst that could happen wasn’t so bad. If I risked something and I lost everything, I would be happy with a sleeping bag and eating oatmeal in a little shack that I could build myself because I did build it myself. That means that it’s much easier to try something because the worst is perfectly acceptable. In a sense I’ve done it and I knew what it was. What Thoreau got out of it was living in a minimal level. Anything above that was a bonus. I think going through the exercise of building your own shelter, living simply, paying attention, being deliberate is extremely valuable as you go on trying things. Sometimes when you’re going to have to risk everything and if you know that if it all fails, you can retreat back to this minimal mode and you’ll be happy, that gives you great power.
I often think about how when you can be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’ve traveled extensively and been caught in the rain, wet and cold and haven’t eaten in who knows how long, trying to get from one place to the other. If that’s the worst that it gets, so be it. It’s really not a big deal.
I have some friends who when they are raising their kids will often put them in these situations. When it’s raining out, it’s like, “Let’s go out in the storm and get soaking wet and we’ll make it fun,” to understand of being comfortable being uncomfortable, which is well put. I think it’s a great heuristic.
If you get an email from a random person, what do they say in that email that actually has you respond or be willing to meet them for coffee?
They have to be able to offer me something that I haven’t heard before; if I feel that they can teach me something. I’m really interested in the things that I see. I’m interested in the things that I believe that probably aren’t true but I don’t know it. I’m interested in the upside-down world that is probably out there but I’m unaware of and if somebody can shine a light into that in an intelligent brief way, I’m interested. If they can convey in a very concise way that they have access to that and they’re willing to share that, then they have my interest, my attention.
You’re probably going to end up with a lot of people trying to message you to teach you something.
I was just thinking of someone who did that. I mentioned somewhere in some podcast that one of the things I’m completely unable to do is sing. This gal wrote to me and says, “I live in Washington and I can teach you how to sing in three lessons. The next time you’re in Washington, come by and I’ll give you a free singing lesson and you will be singing by the time I leave.” I was like, “You’ve got my attention. That’s amazing.” If you’re out there and you want to do that, my email is public on my website, firstname.lastname@example.org. Just let me know.
Kevin, thank you so much for joining us. This has been an absolute pleasure. If people want to find out more about what you’re doing, obviously your book, where can they find all the stuff?
KK.org is the website where all the things I’m doing are happening. My most recent fun project that I’m doing with Mark Frauenfelder from Boing Boing and Claudia here at Cool Tools is Recomendo. It’s a weekly one-page email where we make six very brief recommendations of cool stuff. Stuff that we are reading, watching, listening, tools that we are using, places that we are going, things that you should know about. Six brief recommendations called Recomendo; one page in your mailbox. We are really having fun with that. We’ve done it for over a year right now. We’re sending email out.
Everybody can follow him on Twitter. Are you also on Instagram?
No. I am@kevin2kelly in Twitter. I occasionally tweet. I don’t do much on Facebook.
Thank you so much for coming on. This has been an absolute pleasure. Listeners, stay tuned because next we have the anonymous interview.
About Kevin Kelly
A few years ago I co-founded the All Species Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at cataloging and identifying every living species on earth. I hoped to give each organism its own web page. The genesis of this idea is described in this account. The Foundation is now defunct, but the project of giving each species their own web page lives on as the Encyclopedia of Life.
A lot of my attention is focused on the exciting work at the Long Now Foundation, where I serve on the board. Long Now Foundation is a non-profit group dedicated to fostering long-term responsibility as an antidote to the extremely short-term horizon of most contemporary organizations. Together with Stewart Brand I co-host a monthly seminar series in San Francisco featuring talks on long-term thinking. The most interesting project we have going is the 10,000-year clock that the Foundation is building, a clock conceived and designed by Danny Hillis. The first prototype has been built and the first full-size Clock is now being assembled. I have also been actively involved in the creation of a Rosetta Disk, an archival disk of 1,000 languages to put in or near the 10,000-year Clock. The Rosetta Disk has spun off a dynamic web site that serves as an all language archive, called the Rosetta Project.
I was a long-time member of Global Business Network, a small think tank and consultancy based in Emeryville, California.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, it’s an absolute pleasure to host Hunter with us. Hunter is a legend but for so many different reasons. I really hope you can figure out who he is. Hunter, thank you so much for coming on.
I loved being with you formerly and tickled now.
Let’s give the listeners some hints on who you are. Where did you grow up?
I grew up on military bases mostly outside of the United States. I’m a World War II baby.
Was there an incident or a teacher, experience that inspired you to go into medicine?
Probably my greatest single influence was my mother. I never saw her angry or unkind. She lived a life of generosity and love and interest in stimulating thinking. I was a strange, some would say a weird, nerd dweeb, dork, sissy boy. I never did sports even though I’m 6’4”. I spend a lot of time in nature and in literature, but I had a science aptitude so I won two Science Fair projects in my early teens. I think I always wanted to do care, which means for me at the time being a doctor. I didn’t know doctors. I read about Dr. Tom Dooley who did a lot of service work in the Far East.
Was there a certain accomplishment in your career you’re most proud of or something that you really care about anything?
I really care about my partner, Susan. I feel like the luckiest man in history that she loves me. I really care and really wanted to be a parent. I have two sons that I love dearly. I’ve given my life to care and I really have been leading Clown trips to other countries for 33 years. That’s a very important part of my life to go to human suffering and to relieve it through love and fun.
You also built a hospital, didn’t you?
I’m building one. In medical school, I saw everything was wrong about the way medicine was practiced. It wasn’t anything about a hospital I wanted to work in. I spent my medical school years designing a hospital that would address all the problems that I saw in healthcare. No one gave me a hospital on graduation, so I did the hippie thing; 20 adults moving into a large six-bedroom house and said we were a hospital. We did that twelve years. We never charged any money or accepted reimbursement or carry malpractice. We were each allowed to spend as much time with the patient as we wanted. I liked three or four-hour initial interviews and a visit to their house as the beginning to understand the complexity of whichever human I was caring for. All this time now for 47 years, I’ve been trying to raise funds to build a free hospital model. I’m probably the worst fundraiser in American history and I’m still trying to raise funds.
Let’s give people a sense of what you look like. We know that you’re 6’4”.
I have a very long pony tail of my hair. Half of it is grey and half of it is blue.
If somebody would play you in the movie, who would you think would do that?
If I thought about today, I know Jim Carey has changed somewhat but I think he would be my ideal choice. I thought Jeff Bridges could be another choice. Those would be primary choices. I really think I could talk Jim Carey into it.
Was there a certain momentary experience that made you feel like you have reached a certain level in public notoriety or gain public respect?
As soon as I started to care for people as a doctor, I got the respect of the patients I cared for. I was free. I gave them all of my time and welcome them in my home as guests. I’ve always been that kind of person. I’m just trying to be my mom. I was a friendly person. If I saw somebody upset at school, I would go to them. It’s my style. I’ll tell you when my life changed and that is my father died when I was sixteen. We were living seven years in a military base in Germany. He died from war and we moved back to my mother’s heritage, which were the Southern States in 1961. My life changed when I was in a public park in Virginia at a public drinking fountain and the fountain sat quite soundly. My understanding of public was that it was everybody and that it was inexcusable that sign was there. I realized my country was fake and religion was fake, and that adults could walk by such a sign and not tear it down.
My mother was not an activist. My mother was a kind of person who said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.” I was thinking a lot of not nice thoughts. My first response was flipping out. I didn’t want to live in a world of violence and injustice. I tried to kill myself. I wasn’t good at it. I was hospitalized three times in mental wards. I hated the medication and what it did to my imagination. Between the second and third, I was present at Martin Luther King’s famous, “I have a dream” speech. I realized these were hundreds of thousands of my tribe of activists who say, “I’m going to change the world,” and I changed on a dime. My mother gave me self-esteem, so I didn’t have to develop into a changed artist. I just had to decide to be one. I decided at eighteen to never have another bad day and that I would give my life to working for peace and justice and care for all people in nature.
What hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
The robin doesn’t sing while standing on the branch. He sings of caring for others in a hospital.
Listeners, you’ve got plenty to go on. If you could figure out who Hunter is between now and the next episode, you can win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers and get to hang out with extraordinary people like Hunter. Good luck.