- Elon Musk – For being one of the few people in Silicon Valley, or in all of the US really, to think big enough. He earns the top spot just for saying that he hopes to die on Mars.
- Thomas Piketty – For providing this data-eager media climate a much-needed data infusion showing how the post-WWII period was a blip, and we have reverted to historical levels of inequality.
- Lawrence Lessig – For trying to tackle campaign finance reform through the Mayday Super PAC.
- Maria Popova – For her untiring work compiling the most interesting articles and links of the week in her Brain Pickings newsletter.
- Tim Ferriss – For being the guinea pig of experiments in self-improvement and bio-hacking, so that the rest of us don’t have to test everything on ourselves, but can just follow his shining example instead.
- Nick Bostrom – For starting the debate on how we should build an AI that will not destroy humankind in his brilliant book Superintelligence.
- Yuval Harari Noah – For eloquently and innovatively summarizing the rise of humans in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
- Peter Thiel – For investing in business that can create 10x improvements instead of incremental change, and for supporting potentially society-changing ideas such as Seasteading.
- Richard Linklater – For one of the most innovative movies of the last years in Boyhood.
- Max Tegmark – For his work on multiverses, for example in this year’s book Our Mathematical Universe.
- The onset of World War I, given its hundred-year anniversary this year, and the many apt comparisons that can be made between the declining empire of the time (Britain) and now (the US), and the path of the rising power then (Germany) and now (China).
- The French Revolution, given the rising levels of inequality in the world and the many unfinished or unstarted revolutions that we are seeing.
- The Westphalian peace of 1648, given the annexation of Ukraine and the feeling among many that this spells the end of the Westphalian system, and the decline of the nation state.
- The dawn of the space age in the 60’s, as the debate over the value of space missions heats up again, new space powers are created in India and China, and Elon Musk stresses the necessity of taking the human race to Mars (and saying he wants to do die there)
- The fall of the Berlin Wall, given its 25 year anniversary this year, and with the sensation in Europe of a new Cold War brewing, and new kinds of walls being created
- Tiananmen Square, given its 25 year anniversary this year and the fear held for a while that Hong Kong protests might face a similarly tragical ending.
- The Victorian Era, given that it was the time of the second industrial revolution, the last time that history was speeding up to the same extent that we are seeing now, with exponential growth in the dawn of the third industrial revolution.
- Pre-World Wars era of rising wealth concentration, as per Piketty’s analysis of how 1930-1975 was an aberration in terms of falling inequality and wealth-wage gap.
- Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – the time when colonial powers drew up random borders in the Middle East, borders that are now crumbling as ISIS wreaks havoc and captures territory based on sectarian belonging rather than national.
- Selma 1965 – With Ferguson burning, we looked back at Selma and mourned the slow pace of change.
- Artificial Intelligence and superhuman machine intelligence – A trio of impressive people have this year highlighted the threat of “too smart” AI in the long run. Elon Musk said that we are summoning the demon by developing AI, Stephen Hawking cautioned against its unrestrained development, and Nick Bostrom, in his outstanding book Superintelligence, laid out the case why most scenarios for AI all lead to human extinction because of the ways the intelligence will think.
- Killer Asteroids – Several projects have been started to scan for killer asteroids that might wipe humanity out before AI gets to do it
- Climate Change inaction – If 1 and 2 don’t do humanity in, we can always rely on climate change to deliver. Stunning scenarios were delivered this year of how the world will look as we blow part 2 degree warming. In some ways, it feels like this was the year when we finally started to see a sea (pun intented) change in public sentiment. But the political constraints will ensure that doesn’t mean any meaningful action, at least for now.
- Rise of Nonlinear Terrorism – ISIS has clearly showed this year how unpredictable non-state actors can be, and how impactful and lethal.
- EU Deflation – The EU continues to balance on the knife’s edge of falling into deflation, further cementing its decline in importance as a region
- The Chinese debt crisis – This continues to be the dark horse, the elephant in the room, that is only mentioned in whispers. May or may not cause a rerun of the financial crisis.
- A Thirty-Year Middle East Sunni-Shia conflict – A real danger is that ISIS is just the most visible piece of a the century-long brewing Sunni-Shia conflict, and that we’ll eventually see a Saudi-Iran conflict.
- Oil at $50 (mostly if you’re Russia/Venezuela/Iraq) – Most of the world is cheering the falling oil prices, but it also has negative effects, and not just for the world’s petrodictatorships. If US shale producers get squeezed out, the Gulf states regain their power to dictate the terms of the world economy.
- South China Sea – The rise of a Sino-centric Asia continues to be most prominently reflected in the fears of a conflict starting from an incident in the South China Sea, given the multitude of interested parties and the unregulated waters.
- Climate conflicts – As we wait longer in tackling climate change, the danger grows of climate-driven conflicts, over water, food, arable land, and other commodities that will become scarce in the decades to come.
Technology is not the solution, Bill Gates said in the FT last year. It’s a surprising statement coming from a man who has made his billions pushing Clippy on people, but in the world Gates inhabits now, in terms of the big challenges facing the world, he’s right that technology can only get us so far.
Similarly, Peter Thiel’s VC firm, Founders Fund, famously has as its motto that “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”. It’s become a truism to say that most new applications that we get in the world are solving first-world problems, or really a subset of first-world problems, the problems of 20-year males in big cities. Hence, this is why we get new apps like Washio – Uber for laundry.
As much as these apps are easy to make fun of, if we look further ahead in the future, the problem seems set to just become worse. Almost all technological progress we make is creating competition in places where there earlier wasn’t any, is driving returns to capital and is commoditizing what earlier was precious and had value.
The sharing economy is a good example of the latter – commoditizing. On one hand, it seems like a good thing that we are creating value out of earlier unmonetized assets – empty apartments, idle cars, unemployed people. However, given the endless supply of these, the economics are terrible both for the suppliers of the new good and the old one. Looking at e.g. Uber, the supplier of the old good – the taxi driver – gets put out of work due to the cheaper competition that he can’t compete with, and the supplier of the new good – the Uber driver – gets paid very little for his efforts. The only one making additional income is the company, Uber in this case. You therefore end up with a net loss to the economy. For Airbnb, the same logic applies.
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is a more egregious example. By breaking a task up into tiny pieces, the value put on people’s time can be set extremely low, such as 10 cents/task, regardless of how long it takes.
The other factor of technology is how it creates competition where there was earlier less. Again, this is good in small doses – when breaking up a monopoly, for example. Good examples are Aereo tackling cable companies or Solar City taking on utilities. Certain industries need to be shaken up. But since technology drives returns to capital, and to scale, there is no such thing as a small dose. Globalization, for example, driven by improved communications technology, doesn’t stop until all countries compete for the same resources. Likewise, automation doesn’t stop with blue-collar workers, it is now the white collar workers who face a slow extinction.
I remain an optimist regarding technology futures overall (at least compared to Elon Musk, who now believes we might be summoning the demon with AI), but it’s becoming harder and harder to see how the combination of a growing population, a new economy with less, and less well-paid work, increased competition between and within countries, and governments with unsustainable debts, will work out.
In his speech at Rice in 1962, President Kennedy said: We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon[…], not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. It set off a dream of space exploration that spurred on American science and technology innovation for almost 50 years.
This week, India sent off its first mission to Mars. This was also the first Mars mission from a developing country. Like the efforts of the US, in the middle of its Cold War with the Soviet Union, this is one of the starting shots in a space and technology war between India and China. But despite the political justifications, it is likely to have hugely beneficial effects for the country.
Many commentators, in and outside of India said that this is money that could be better spent on the many Indian poor. Even if India’s space program operates on a budget that would fund one day of NASA’s, it can course sometimes be hard to see how you can justify space exploration trips, lasting many years and with uncertain payoffs, when you have people starving in the country’s here and now.
But it is likely to be money well-spent. In the West, all the “dreaming” budgets, of space exploration, and of large-scale science fiction-style projects are largely being slashed and being put on the back burner. Stian Westlake argued in the FT recently that we need Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, and large, dream-like projects like it to spur on our collective imagination. With a few exceptions, such as the Hyperloop, a few space Kickstarter and Indiegogo projects, the US has stopped dreaming, which is having huge ramifications on the level of science and technology being developed. I wrote earlier here about how Google is one of the few institutions that have the imperative (and resources) to push for moonshot projects.
Judith Shulevitz, in the New Republic, argued recently that the classic American liberal arts has driven many of the scientific advances. For example, the tablet computer was envisioned in Star Trek, and cyberspace was first suggested by C W. That is another one of the “dreaming” budgets being cut, as money is spent on educating engineers who will make only incremental innovations rather than revolutionary ones. She argues that the current decline of liberal arts education means that we will face decades of less innovation.
There is clearly a case to be made for these kind of dreaming projects. I am happy to see India take the step to dream, despite all of its day-to-day issues. Like Indian economist Amartya Sen said, development is freedom. And space exploration is a huge driver for development, by letting a generation of Indians dream.
Image from NASA Earth Observatory
I have to say that I’m really excited about Project Loon, Google’s latest project to come out of their X lab. It is yet another example of the moonshots that Google is taking. In our age of short-term shareholderism, almost no other companies are doing these kinds of broad, ambitious moves. Sure, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have set up their own space exploration endeavors, but they’re not under the banners of PayPal and Amazon.
Loon is so over the top ambitious that I can’t think of any other company that would even go ahead with it. I don’t think they’ll be able to overcome the political obstacles – the world is probably not ready for a cross-border/from-the-sky internet provider – but I can’t not applaud the effort. It’s almost up there in its utopian optimism with Matternet.
Neal Stephenson was saying recently, in regards to his Hieroglyph project, that we need to move back to a more utopian view of the future. The dystopias being produced over the last decades might be more appealing to consumers, but I agree with him that they are not inspiring. As many breakthroughs as science have done in the last decades (human genome, nanotechnology, Internet), they still feel less revolutionary than the advances in medicine, aviation and space that we saw during most of the 20th century. It reminds me of Douglas Coupland’s feeling of nostalgia for the future from Generation X.
Like this FT article said recently, Google is our new GE for this century. And like GE was a largely benevolent force for consumers back then, so Google is now one of the few companies that are really moving us forward on a grander scale. Some might balk at the idea of Google as a non-state actor doing projects on this scale, but with most domestic politics mired in petty politicking, maybe corporate, non-state actors are necessary.
Google Reader or no Google Reader, I’d rather take self-driving cars, Google Glass and internet balloons any day. Altavista also died today, which feels appropriate as its demise helps Google finance its quest to improve our lives.