Why only geeks and hippies can save the world
[Here is the full text of what I practiced for my talk at Ignite Seattle last night. I didn't manage to cram it all into the 5 minute presentation, largely because the audience was reacting a bit too loudly in places. IMHO that's a good thing. You can download my slides (slightly edited from the presentation). Or you can watch it on video.]
I’m here to talk about a system of morality that’s based on the upcoming end of society as we know it. I’ll explain why only geeks and hippies can save the world. I’m serious — I’m talking about the possible destruction of everything we know and care about.
Let’s look forward to the next 1,000 years. What’s life going to be like? Are we going to be flying around in spaceships visiting other planets like in Star Trek? I don’t think so. Or will we be killing each other over the last few gallons of gasoline like in Mad Max? Maybe, and this is what I’m really scared of. Or will the machines have risen up to try to destroy us like in Terminator? Again maybe, but I’m not really worried about this, and I’ll explain why.
Now look back a billion years ago. That’s when life first showed up. And then a million years ago humans showed up. Just a thousand years ago they had printing presses, and a hundred years ago we had cars and ten years ago we had google. Progress is speeding up faster and faster exponentially and it’s not going to stop.
What’s happening is that people are getting smarter and more capable of solving complex problems both by themselves and by collaborating with others using tools like e-mail and text messaging. Our brains are slowly starting to merge with computers. Look at cell phones: who here actually remembers any phone numbers any more? And who cares? We don’t need to.
We’re heading towards what’s known as The Information Singularity. This is where human brains and computers actually merge into the same thing. When this happens technology will progress so fast that un-aided humans will be completely unable to keep up. This is where all of our technology is heading. But you know, we might never get there.
What if there was a nuclear war? How far back would that set us? 100 years? 100,000 years? Would we ever be able to get back to where we are? Maybe not. That could be the complete end to evolution as we know it. Nuclear war’s not the only way this could happen either.
Imagine that somebody got so pissed off that they bio-engineered a super-virus to kill all white people. And it accidentally killed all people. Or what if global warming got to the point where the weather is so bad that advanced society just can’t exist? The ecosystem could collapse. We could run out of energy resources. Gray goo.
I believe that in the next thousand years something is going to render our planet uninhabitable to life as we know it. And the question is, when that day comes, will we be ready for it? Will technology have advanced to the point where we don’t need life as we know it in order to preserve what we really care about?
Well what is it that we really care about? This is the critical question facing our society right now. We can’t close our eyes and hope it just goes away — it won’t. Now some will say “EARTH FIRST! People made this problem and we need to back off and let nature fix itself.” But I don’t buy that. I say we embrace the chaos and push forwards. Here’s why.
I believe that the most valuable thing in the world is complex thought, information, ideas, memes, logic, reason, discussion, art, emotion. All of these things are way more important to me than things like birds. Or plants. Or even humans. Because we don’t need bodies to listen to music. Or to tell stories. Or to fall in love.
We can achieve salvation through technology. When the upcoming robot revolution arrives, I say we let the robots win. Don’t fight them — join them! Let’s cast off these weak unreliable human bodies and transcend to a society of pure thoughts and ideas.
We can do it! We can build a network of computers powerful enough to hold all of us at once. We can upload our consciousnesses into these computers by simulating the human brain in software. It’s an incredibly hard problem — way harder than say simulating the weather. But we can do it. Computers are getting faster and faster all the time and likewise our understanding of the brain is getting better and better. Someday soon we will be able to simulate an entire brain in software down to the very last neuron and when that happens, that computer will actually have the personality of a real human being. It’ll work because there is no quantum soul. We are nothing but our neuronal structure.
Some people will miss having bodies. They’ll miss things like kayaking and eating food. But they won’t miss dying. Just like nobody misses having a warm fire to come home to in their cave.
You know, our lives are pretty darned good here and now. So I gotta ask: What are you going to do with this? Are you just going to play? Be a hedonist? Or do you want to do something that matters with your life? Do you want to work to preserve complex thought and information into the next millennium? It’s up to you.
But if you do want to help, listen to Avi. Install compact fluorescent bulbs. Shop at Madison Market and support sustainable agriculture. Get political and try to calm down the crazies who want to blow everything up. In other words, be a hippie. We might not be able to stop the fall, but we can definitely postpone it. Hopefully for long enough.
Or work from the other side to speed up technology. Talk to Bre about building robots. Write educational software to make people smarter. Work on communication tools. Research how the brain works and how to connect it directly to computers. In other words, be a geek.
Because it’s the geeks and the hippies who are going to preserve what’s really important into the next millennium. If you ask me, to not do so is to act immorally. This system of morality is based on two axiomatic assumptions:
1) We cannot keep going like this forever.
2) Complex thought and information are more valuable than nature and life.
If you’d like to read more about this, Kurzweil has written lots of good books on the singularity. My good buddy Mez has written a fabulous book on relevant technology trends. Or you can read my blog at embracingchaos.com. Thanks.