Summer reading 2016: Obsessed with the future

There is a common thread in all the books I’ve read in the first stretch of this summer: the future. I know that the past offers rich rewards – history, biography and historical fiction produce many of the pleasures of reading. But this season I’m obsessed with the future.


My non-fiction pick for the summer is The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. Most financial planning guides to a long life focus on the narrow view of how much you need to have in your nest egg before you retire. This book does cover that in some detail (and it is indeed a grim picture for most of us), but takes a much broader perspective. Gratton and Scott prompt you not just to plan in terms of tangible assets, but to pay attention to three categories of intangible assets: 

  • Productive assets: education, knowledge, skills, professional social capital, reputation.
  • Vitality assets: health, well-being, friendships, family relationships and partnerships.
  • Transformational assets: self-knowledge, capacity to reach out into diverse networks, openness to new experiences.

In a fascinating exercise, the authors lay out the career paths of their fictional characters – Jack (born in 1945), Jimmy (1971) and Jane (1998) – and look at how their productive, vitality and transformational assets grow and are depleted through the stages of their lives. And Jane, of course, goes through many more stages than we know today: periods of exploration, reinvention, small-scale entrepreneurship (as an “independent producer”), full-time work, transitions (including going back to school, online or otherwise), and part-time and advisory roles. Jane does not, indeed, fully “retire” until 2083, when she is 85 years old. Even if you have a pretty good sense of how your life is going to play out (but who really does, these days?), this book is worth reading for the insight it can give you into what your children’s lives might well look like.

The fiction shelf – which, again, reflects my quirks and narrative passions – holds several gems this summer:

  • The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, by Lionel Shriver (I trust you have already read We Need To Talk About Kevin. If not, go do it.) In The Mandibles, the world is barely recovering from the global Internet blackout of 2024, but things start getting worse again. In 2029, the dollar is no longer the world’s reserve currency, replaced by another currency devised by the IMF. Congress bans American citizens from holding the new currency and imposes capital controls to prevent dollars from leaving the country. The US President obtains emergency powers, all gold in private hands is confiscated by the Treasury, and the US declares default on its debt. The story of the Mandible family unfolds through this crisis and provides the narrative glue that holds together a dystopia of increasing grimness. As we read this novel in 2016, we are in a peculiar election year, a fact that cannot have been far from the author’s mind, with the result that Shriver’s dark satire never degenerates into farce and never feels wholly implausible. (Yes, Nevada does secede). A must-read.
  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu. Ken Liu is best known for being the English translator of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, a somewhat frigid cornerstone of contemporary Chinese science fiction that has lately gained attention in Silicon Valley circles. But he is a talented narrator in his own right, and this collection of short stories is delightful. The stories span science fiction, little-known folds of American and Chinese history, alternate history, fantasy, sometimes in tones halfway between Borges and Lovecraft, some other times with a distinctly steampunk sensitivity (here’s just one of the sentences I underlined: “Once the automata were finished, we connected them to the latest analytic engines shipped from Britain and fed them with tape punched with dense holes in Babbage-Lovelace code”). It takes a special imagination to write a story (“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel”) about Emperor Hirohito’s initiative during the Great Depression, in collaboration with President Herbert Hoover, to dig a tunnel allowing people to travel from Shanghai via Tokyo to Seattle in little less than two days in a capsule under the ocean; this feat of politics and engineering in the 1930s makes the Great War the last global war of the twentieth century.
  • The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker. I have written before about end-of-civilization stories and how they never fail to enthrall us. The peculiar charm of this one is that it puts at its center a rather unlikeable character, trying to get to Cornwall from Scotland in the hope of reaching one of the last few evacuation ships sent by a hospitable nation of the Southern hemisphere after the Northern one has been pretty much wiped out by asteroids. The story of a few of the survivors in the months after the event is told with restraint and without fear.
  • Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, by Marshall Brain. This short fiction, first published in 2003, is a technology-driven dystopia (happening, of course, in America) and utopia (in Australia) together. Its vaguely Singularitarian thesis is that we can use robots either to make our own lives hell, or to create a paradise-like world in which everybody has the means to fulfill their talents and to create the life they truly want. It is a quick read (one would want, in particular, to read more about how technology will simply eliminate the need for markets) but it will linger in your mind for a long time. (Note that Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, a non-fiction potentially underpinning to Brain’s tale, wasn’t published until 2012).

Hope these books make you think, laugh, and cry. As usual, let me know your best of the season – particularly if they’re about the future.

Recent Science Fiction. With Women

The_Martian_2014Two books I read in the last few months had me thinking not just about how science fiction is changing as a genre, but also how we as a society must be making some sort of improvement after all, if even male science fiction writers recognize their fellow geeks who happen to be women to the point of giving them lead roles in their stories.

The Martian by Andy Weir is a gripping survival story set on Mars, where astronaut Mark Watney has been stranded after a sandstorm has forced the rest of his mission to leave the planet without him. Mars, as you know, is a pretty cold and unhospitable place; Watney is there alone, with limited supplies and no communication system, and needs to hack what little he has in order to breathe, eat, and let the rest of the world know he is alive. At times most of the book is taken up with his calculations about oxygen, fuel, caloric intake needs and data transmission rates: math matters, and making a simple mistake could mean the difference between life and death. If you’re into such things as telecom engineering, extraterrestrial botanics, or space archaeology, you will enjoy this a lot.

So, Watney is a man; but the mission commander who decides to ignore higher orders and use her authority to go and rescue him, Melissa Lewis, is a woman. Originally a self-published work, the book was picked up by a publisher and is being adapted into a movie starring Matt Damon as Watney and Jessica Chastain as Lewis. I’ll be first in line for the ticket. (In the meantime, did I tell you how cool Sandra Bullock was in Gravity? no? did you miss it? go watch it).
Seveneves_Book_CoverNeal Stephenson‘s Seveneves is more than science fiction – it plots a future for humans in space after a cosmic catastrophe that spells the end of life on Earth. You already know I am a fan of what I call the end-of-civilization genre; I also was a fan of Stephenson’s after reading Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, two brilliant books ahead of their time, but I lost patience with Quicksilver and I found Anathem a bit of a dud. With Seveneves, Stephenson fully returns in my good graces. Other than chronicling rocket launches, the plot does not spend a lot of time spelling out the mayhem that happens on Earth in the two short years between the initial, inexplicable disaster – an explosion of the moon – and the meteorite shower that makes the Earth inhabitable for the next five thousand years, give or take. Most of Stephenson’s action takes place on the safest outpost in those circumstances: the International Space Station, suddenly loaded with as many people as it can drag along with itself in space, as well as with tools, microchips, spare parts for robots, genetic code records, and anything else that can be shipped there to help those humans survive and figure out how to rebuild a self-sustaining civilization. In the early days the commander of the ISS, Ivy Xiao, is a woman, although political maneuvers on Earth quickly replace her with a man; her second-in-command, roboticist Dinah MacQuarie, is another woman. Women’s resilience, strength, and adaptability is indeed key to survival, when everything seems to go wrong and the last few men in the human race, instead of cooperating, focus on killing each other. Two of the bad guys in the story, US President Julia Bliss Flaherty and Italian rebel leader Aida Ferrari, are women, too. The rebuilt civilization will indeed include men; but the descendants of the survivors, five thousand years later, will all be shaped by the personalities and skills of the women who were there at that decisive time. This book is for you if you like orbital mechanics, meteorites, comets, robots, and grand plans for staying away five years but eventually returning home.

Effective altruism: Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do

SingerI like philosophy that engages with the world it lives in, and that has impact not just on academia but on institutions, corporations and public discourse. Philosophers such as Luciano Floridi (an information theorist and ethicist, who has served in an advisory council to Google) and Nick Bostrom (who also earned a PhD in Economics, and whose book Superintelligence was a New York Times bestseller) are redefining what it means to practice philosophy outside the ivory tower.

Lat week I finished reading The Most Good You Can Do, a book by Peter Singer that supports the “effective altruism” movement, a highly utilitarian approach to maximizing the total amount of good in the world and minimizing needless suffering and deaths by sentient beings. In a nutshell, the book argues that if you have a choice between (1) becoming a charity worker and going to a poor and war-torn country to save lives, and (2) becoming an investment banker, saving a substantial part of your income, and giving it to a charity that will use it to send many people to poor and war-torn countries to save lives, then it is the ethical thing to choose the latter, because it is the choice that maximizes total good. The book also highlights a number of resources in the field of charity evaluation, including the Centre for Effective Altruism, an umbrella organization for an evidence-based, analytical approach to philanthropic giving. You have read me quoting Singer before in the context of vegetarianism, or at least decreased meat consumption, to reduce animal suffering (here and here); the scope of this book, however, is much broader and I believe it will appeal to the many more people – hopefully – who care about human suffering. It will also challenge those of us who are proud of their support for museums, for the performing arts, and for other institutions whose funding issues can be called “first-world problems”: a new wing in a museum is extremely poor value, in the effective altruism framework, compared to an intervention that uses the same money to prevent malaria or cure trachoma.

The book gets even more intellectually challenging in the final chapter, “Preventing Human Extinction”, which calculates that – considering not just present lives on Earth, but all future lives that would be annihilated by an asteroid collision with Earth – we as a society should find it very good value to give NASA or some other organization funding ranging anywhere between $100 billion and $100 trillion to be spent on a system able to prevent a catastrophic hit by an extinction-sized asteroid. Here, Singer quotes Bostrom’s definition of existential risk, a situation in which “an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” There are many existential risks, such as nuclear war, pandemics, global warming, and malevolent artificial superintelligence. Singer’s somewhat surprising conclusion is that “it seems that reducing existential risk should take precedence over doing other good things”, including helping people in extreme poverty today, but he argues that causes such as reducing extreme poverty are more likely to attract people to effective altruism than the more abstract cause of reducing existential risk.

The book ends with a counterintuitive – but surprisingly optimistic – point of view on artificial intelligence and its perceived dangers:

Some effective altruists have shown special interest in the dangers inherent in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). They see the problem as one of ensuring that AI will be friendly, by which they mean, friendly to humans […] The replacement of our species by some other form of conscious intelligence life is not in itself, impartially considered, catastrophic […] The risk posed by the development of AI […] is not so much whether it is friendly to us, but whether it is friendly to the idea of promoting well-being in general for all sentient beings it encounters, itself included […] There is some reason to believe that, even without any special effort on our part, superintelligent beings, whether biological or mechanical, will do the most good they possibly can.

Artificial superintelligence without the body


It has not been the case before in the history of humanity that we have stood on the brink, scientists say, of creating artificial intelligence that, by working on itself, can become vastly superior to the intelligence that designed it, meaning ours. If we are on that brink today, as some say (for reference in non-technical language: Part 1, Part 2), it is certainly time for humanity to take stock of the immense opportunities and threats for the human race that our choices will determine – or maybe, cynics will say, is it not too late already to have the debate once the danger makes it to Newsweek?

Anyway, that’s not my topic today. My topic is the decoupling of intelligence from the body. So far, living beings have always developed an intelligence that was rooted in the body: predator or prey, fight or flight, the amygdala a barely differentiated lump of tissue; then the neocortex, tools, language, agriculture, architecture, civilization, Mozart, Tolstoy, Lost. Our intelligence grows out of the senses in our body. We feel hunger, recognize the smell of a loved one’s skin, sink our feet in the sand, rejoice in a dance step. Sensory deprivation results in cognitive impairments. Also, biology has endowed us with wetware that runs efficiently, consumes very little energy, is capable of amazing feats and cannot be replicated other than by making babies. On the hypothesis that the brain learns through the body, we have built AI robots endowed with senses, proprioception, and the ability to learn from their environment: and yet, the intellectual abilities of our best humanoids today lie somewhere between those of a very smart fly and those of a rather dumb rat. So, this avenue may teach us a lot about certain things such as rehabilitative medicine, or preventing loneliness in old people, but it is not designed to move us closer to Singularity-type intelligence.

That intelligence, or Superintelligence, will be different and alien. It won’t miss the body, its pleasures and constraints, because it will only have a functional notion of what it means to have a body, and will make for itself as many types of bodies as needed, most likely single-purpose ones: a swarm of dust to survey the Earth, machines to mine it, fabs to print out hardware, A/C systems to cool down the circuits, nanomachines to swim in our blood (assuming we’re still around). There won’t be a need for a general-purpose body, and maybe even for what we call personal identity. Just like a jellyfish cannot comprehend the human experience, we will not be able to comprehend the Superintelligence experience. Because we have a body, and bodies will be out of fashion, a happy evolutionary detour but not a final destination. Whether this means human immortality or human extinction, I do not know, but I lean towards calling it extinction: just like we have no memory of our jellyfish days, the Superintelligence may well no longer need to remember its human roots, and may discard the very memory of humanity on the way to its own realization, and perhaps demise. Bodies, life, intelligence itself might be over and done with well before the heat death of the universe, or any other ultimate fate.

So enjoy your body, because you’d be far less intelligent without it. Nourish it, keep it healthy, listen to it, forgive it. Whatever comes after us, and however we may fail, biological bodies will have been our own special learning tool, our delight, our strength. Whoever comes next, they can’t take that away from us.

Image credits: At the Mountain of Madness 2, Howard Lovecraft, by ivany86 over at deviantart.

On Snowpiercer, post-apocalyptic tales, and cult movies

SnowpiercerAs a poet and politician named Dante Alighieri descends through the circles of Hell, ascends Purgatory and reaches the highest sphere of Heaven, so a rebel leader named Curtis Everett moves from the tail of the Train hosting the planet’s only human survivors to the Holy Locomotive that drives it in a looping route around a frozen Earth.

Dante starts out lost in his dark wood, hungry for knowledge and salvation, meets a large set of characters placed in the afterlife according to their actions and sins in life, and ends his journey with a vision of “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars”. Curtis starts out in the filthy windowless final carriage of the train where he has spent half his life, driven by hatred and revenge, and ends his journey in a luminous perpetual-motion engine meeting Wilford, the creator of the train and the dystopian society it hosts, a microcosm where everybody has their own place based on the price they were able to afford to pay to board the train and escape death.

snowpiercer-poster-chris-evansSnowpiercer is a 2013 South Korean movie directed by Bong Joon-ho, based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, written in the early 1980s by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. Oppression, violence, food and water, addiction, clairvoyance, self-mutilation, class war, revolt: just when you think the story cannot cram one more ingredient into its plot, a new twist takes place – say, child abduction or cannibalism – and glues you to the screen.

You know I am a fan of end-of-civilization tales, but Snowpiercer stunned me. It has the guts to take a few hundred survivors of a man-made climactic catastrophe and to truly, really do away with them in a spectacular final train wreck. (And perhaps that is all good: who would want to live in what looks like Panem from the Hunger Games, sequentially crammed onto a high-speed train?) We are drawn to post-apocalyptic stories because they force our imagination to answer uncomfortable questions. What would I do in such extreme straits? Would I survive, maintain my dignity? Would I be able to defend my family, my friends? Would I rise to be a leader for them?

Cinematically and visually, this movie’s claustrophobic appeal recalls such classics as Brazil (1985), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989), and Strange Days (1995). It rarely happens anymore, but after two hours in the movie theater, I came out feeling I wanted to watch it all over again. Snowpiercer is scheduled to be released in the United States on June 27, 2014. It will become a cult movie. Don’t miss it.

The Hunger Games, from dystopian novel to Hollywood movie

I have a friend who is seriously into the fantasy book genre, and I usually take her book recommendations with a pinch of salt. But I am seriously into what I call the end-of-civilization genre, and critics refer to as the “post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian” novel. So, when my friend recommended the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins – supposedly, a “young adult” work, no matter how bleak -, I read it and enjoyed it as shamelessly as Harry Potter fans have enjoyed the J. K. Rowling series.

I learned today that the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy is now a movie. And the actress in the lead role, Jennifer Lawrence, comes with serious credentials as teenage heroine from the gritty, dark Winter’s Bone, which led her to an Academy Award nomination for Best leading actress (who won that year? Oh yeah. Natalie Portman won), and which you should watch by all means if you haven’t yet. District 12 is, after all, a fictional version of the Ozarks. Enjoy.

Stewart Brand and Bruce Sterling in Milan: The Long Now

For several years I have followed the Long Now Foundation‘s effort to built an artifact that would be in operation for the next 10,000 years, regardless of human intervention. I had a chance to hear an update last Friday, live from one of its founders, Stewart Brand, speaking at a rather intimate event organized in Milan by Matteo Penzo and Leandro Agrò and called a a Frontiers “Concert”.

Stewart spoke briefly and thoughtfully. I enjoyed hearing him talk about discussions with his friends Danny (Hillis), Brian (Eno), and others participating in the Foundation’s plan. My (only slightly edited) notes from his talk:

  • Most of the ways we had to think about the long term (religion, for one) are struggling to catch up with the speeding up of everything.
  • We are in the middle of the long now – assume for the long now a span of 20,000 years. We don’t know how to think of ourselves as a civilization. We do know how to think as communities, nations, and so on. But, as a civilization, we don’t have plans for the next 10,000 years.
  • “The Long Now” came from Brian EnoDanny Hillis noticed in 1992-93 that “year 2000” had been the future for years, and as such it had been getting shorter and shorter. Danny came up with the idea of the Long Now Clock.
  • Today’s media are ephemeral – you can hardly read something saved on a disk 10 years ago. With the Rosetta project, we decided to collect all the world’s languages on a disk that would be readable with a technology no more sophisticated than an 18th-century optical microscope. Nobody had tried to collect all the languages in the world. We concentrated 30,000 pages in 4,000 languages in an accessible form on a disk. (Note: the Rosetta Disk page talks about 13,000 pages in 1,500 languages). Of course Wikipedia is our Rosetta disk right now, but it goes down if the Internet goes down. We made a physical, permanent Rosetta disk.
  • For the Clock, there is a working prototype in the Science Museum in London. But it’s a dollhouse model. The real one will be underneath a mountain somewhere. Ideal mountains are out in the desert. Nevada. West Texas near Mexico. Last week we did the first blast of a tunnel in Texas.
  • Brian has designed a chime system. 10-bell set of chimes. Every day the clock will play a different combination. The pendulum is a new design, but nothing that couldn’t have been designed a couple of centuries ago, and it is driven by thermal change.
  • The clock won’t display the time all the time, because the energy required for displaying the time is greater than the energy needed for computing the time. Rather, it will tell you the time it was when the last person visited. You’ll turn a handle to impart some energy to the clock and find out what time it is now. The clock will handle neglect, but it will reward love.
  • It’s a long way to visit the clock. Look out over the desert, the view has been there for a long time. Bristlecone pines in Nevada have lived 5,000 years.
  • The clock will be like a telescope through time. The world’s slowest computer. It serves no useful purpose, unless you think that taking a long view is the responsible thing to do for us as a civilization, ore even merely intellectually engaging, or pleasant.
Bruce Sterling came into town from Turin, where he spends quite a lot of his time these days, to speak after and in homage to Steward Brand, “a gurus’ guru”: “to meet a guru whose disciples are gurus (e.g., Kevin Kelly, the author of What Technology Wants, is a disciple of Stewart’s) is rare.” Here are my notes from Bruce’s talk.
  • Stewart has hundreds of ideas. The Long Now Clock seems whimsical, but the Foundation has been working for 25 years now. I kept thinking they would get bored. Brian bores easily. Danny bores easily. Stewart is a polymath. But they won’t stop. They will find successors. They will build it.
  • Twelve years ago, I was at an event with the Long Now Cabal and told them that, when the Long Now Clock was built, someone would build a bigger one. Who would want to build a bigger one? (1) the Mormon Church. If you know about the Mormons, you also know that they have the world’s vastest trove of genealogical records buried in the desert; (2) Scientology. Scientologists have a ludicrous theology, one that would look silly in a B-movie; they are wealthy but narrow-minded people. (3) The Piedmontese. People in Piedmont like digging tunnels through rocks and are good at it. There’s even a cult that dug a private temple underground in the 1970s, the size of the Duomo.
  • Stewart recently wrote a book about saving our civilization from decline. Genetic modification is necessary. So is nuclear power. I’m willing to argue against it, but it’s worth reading Stewart’s ideas. We’re not in the 1960s or 1980s anymore. There were few moral ways in the 1960s that you could support nuclear. In the 1980s, people in Europe realized they were pawns in the end of the Cold War, Europe was gaining nothing. We have an echo now that affects our attitude towards nuclear power. But let me make at least a weak argument in favor of nuclear: coal is more dangerous than Chernobyl, in a drawn-out way. It is obvious that European weather is destabilizing. Nuclear is the mildest form of geoengineering. Climatologists have given up on public policy and are working on geoengineering. Some schemes are insane and dangerous. Desperate people will do desperate things, and nuclear power is just about the least scary technical intervention. The second least is genocide: kill about 50 per cent of people – genocide is really cheap and Europeans know very well how to do it – and you’ve solved the climate change problem, at least for a while. Compared to that, nuclear power is actually quite appealing. It takes 20 years to build nuclear plants; uranium reserves will last about 60 years, then there will be some thorium, so that’s not a permanent solution either. When the uranium and thorium have run out, we’ll be back to where we are now.
  • If I were Italian, would I trade dependance on oil for dependance on uranium? I’d probably want to go into cellulosic ethanol. Nobody knows how to make it cheaply. You need to have genetically modified bacteria. If you can figure out how to do it, you’d be a nice regional power, like Brazil.
  • These are not happy times. We don’ t have good political news in Texas and California, no answers to offer the rest of the world. It’s in the hands of Brazilians, Indians, Chinese.
  • I hope Italians will not fold their hands. You ought to behave as a wiser society.

We do, indeed, live in a very short now. Every day, yesterday’s political debate is flooded out by today’s scandal. And politicians’ mental horizon – as climate change economist Valentina Bosetti pointed out yesterday in her talk at TEDx Lake Como – is at most the next few years, until they stand for reelection. Who can take the long view and think about the next decades and centuries? It’s up to us: as members of this civilization, as parents and grandparents, as consumers, as citizens. So we ought to listen to folks like Stewart Brand and his disciples. Thanks to Frontiers of Interaction for bringing him to Milan.