Sci-Fi, Space, Aliens, AI, VR & the Future of Humanity | Neal Stephenson on Lex Fridman Podcast

Key Takeaways

  • After World War 2 (WW2) we are not allowed to have illusions about human nature
    • “Even in a supposedly enlightened civilized society, people can become monsters quite easily.”Neal Stephenson
  • Modern technology in the form of digital encyclopedias is making the world accessible at your fingertips
    • Granting people the chance to discover and explore all kinds of information is going to lead to a better world
    • Futuristic technologies like AI can be a guide in our journey to knowledge even more so than traditional search engines
  • It makes no sense to go beyond our solar system for economic reasons (no business model to do so)
    • This is because of what we need to survive in terms of atmosphere, temperature, and gravitational field
    • Neal believes the motivation for interstellar travel must come from a spiritual, non-tangible calculation
  • It’s hard to believe that the recent UFO sightings are aliens due to the difficulty of interstellar travel
    • Unless the UFO’s move extremely slowly, we would notice them decelerating into our solar system
  • SpaceX has done unbelievable things, no one was anticipating these incredible achievements when it all started
    • Colonizing Mars – the goal is easily stated, catchy, the kind of thing that can inspire people to get involved
  • We haven’t even begun reducing CO2 emissions, and we have to remove what is already in the atmosphere
    • China is planning to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060
    • Tech interventions like solar geoengineering are never going to come from Western democracies
  • Will we become more detached from physical reality in the future?
    • We are already living in a world where our whole field of view is occupied by monitors that are windows into three-dimensional spaces
  • How to be a person that makes a big impact on the future?
    • Find a thing that you love to do, and that makes you forget about time

Key Books Mentioned

Intro

  • “The world is full of things more powerful than us, but if you know how to catch a ride, you can go places.” – Neal Stephenson
  • Neal Stephenson (@nealstephenson) is an American sci-fi writer (the author of Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and new book Termination Shock), former Chief Futurist at Magic Leap (from 2014 to 2020), and former part-time advisor for Blue Origin
  • Neal and Lex talk about space exploration, UFO’s, climate change, virtual and augmented reality, and storytelling

World War II and Human Nature

  • After WW2 we are not allowed to have illusions about human nature
    • “Even in a supposedly enlightened civilized society, people can become monsters quite easily.”Neal Stephenson
    • For Lex, WW2 is also about finding beauty in life even under the most extreme conditions (Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning)
    • All of us are capable of hate, but we also have a capacity for good that is greater than evil
  • This is where technology comes in handy
    • Modern technology in the form of digital encyclopedias is making the world accessible at your fingertips
    • This is the original dream of Google
    • Granting people the chance to discover and explore all kinds of information is going to lead to a better world
    • Futuristic technologies like AI can be a guide in our journey to knowledge even more so than traditional search engines

Guidance Through the Space of Information

  • 20 years ago, if you had googled Pythagoras’ theorem, chances are it would take you directly to a page that explains the theorem
    • If you do it now, the top hits are going to be from someone with a marketing plan to sell you something like math tutoring
    • Over time, the original educational purpose of traditional search engines became less useful
  • How can we monetize Pythagoras’ theorem?
    • People want to figure out how to make money from their passion
    • The primary goal is still the love of education, but they also want to make it a full-time job with income
    • It is a better model than what we had in the ’80s and ’90s before the internet, according to Lex

Where No Man Has Gone Before (Space Exploration)

  • Why is it hard to get outside of our solar system?
    • The acceleration to get there requires a huge amount of energy
    • Halfway there you need to expend an equal amount of energy to decelerate
  • It’s a thousand-year voyage with no guarantee of finding anything
    • How to maintain an ecosystem for that long in isolation?
    • How to prevent people from going crazy?
    • What happens if they hit something while traveling?
  • The Expanse (American science fiction television series)
    • They want to build spaceships and explore other solar systems for religious reasons
    • It makes no sense to go beyond our solar system for economic reasons (no business model to do so)
    • This is because of what we need to survive in terms of atmosphere, temperature, and gravitational field
    • It makes more sense to use the resources already available in our solar system
    • Neal believes the motivation for interstellar travel must come from a spiritual, non-tangible calculation
  • Neal is working at Blue Origin on alternate propulsion systems and alternate business models
    • Jeff Bezos is not the kind of guy who required a lot of convincing to start a spaceship company
    • In 1999, they conceived the idea to do advanced scouting and explore the possibilities of space
    • Using existing aerospace technologies and models to make chemically fueled rockets for space tourism
    • Until WW2 and the Hitlers V-2 program, rockets were built on a small scale by people like Robert Goddard
    • The existence of nuclear bombs created a demand for rockets that didn’t exist before (they needed a way to deliver them)

Aliens and UFOs (is the Proof Out There?)

  • There is a spike in UFO sightings across the nation
    • It’s hard to believe it’s aliens due to the (previously explained) difficulty of interstellar travel
    • Why are they staying around aircraft carriers for no particular reason (and not trying to communicate)?
    • How does that justify their voyage?
    • Neal believes that the arrival of aliens would be something we would notice
  • Unless the UFO’s move extremely slowly, we would notice them decelerating into our solar system
    • There would be an obvious energy footprint in our atmosphere
    • Could there be a scenario of aliens visiting earth without us noticing?
    • If they got the technology to get here, they probably have the technology to conceal
    • Lex ironically suggests teenage aliens gone rogue; it makes more sense
  • What if they are not trying to conceal themselves but our cognitive capabilities are too limited to notice or understand them?
    • Maybe we are looking for “little green men”, something that operates at a human-like time scale
    • How to bridge the gap between aliens and humans in terms of language?
    • It all depends on our biological similarity
    • Advanced life has to be carbon-based for chemistry reasons
    • There is a high possibility for biological similarity
    • If they are as big as we are and move through space via physical body then there is probably a way to solve communication
  • Twitter question for Neal: Can humans have sex with aliens?
    • Sex can mean a lot of things
    • If we define sex as any gratifying physical interaction then it’s possible
    • Reproductive sex would be highly improbable
    • In Stark Trek, you had to suspend your disbelief to believe Spock was half human half Vulcan because it makes no sense DNA-wise
    • Humans had sex with neanderthals (Denisova hominins); you could think of them as aliens

SpaceX and Blue Origin

  • William Shatner went to space with Blue Origin spaceflight
    • For Shatner, the trip was worth it for the intangible reasons of exploring the unknown
    • SpaceX has done unbelievable things, no one was anticipating these incredible achievements 20 years ago when it all started
  • Elon Musk and the idea of becoming multi-planetary species
    • Colonizing Mars – the goal is easily stated, catchy, the kind of thing that can inspire people to get involved
    • There is the problem of perchlorates on the surface of Mars; another big trouble is radiation
    • It’s hard to think of a resource that can be found on Mars and not on Earth
  • Neal believes there is no business plan for Musk’s goal to colonize Mars
    • But there are plenty of people that are excited about the idea even without the business plan
  • “Trying to come up with plans that extend decades into the future is a waste of time”Neal Stephenson
    • Do it for the unexplainable love and the exploration of the unknown
    • Ellon Musk is clearly willing to tackle big, ambitious projects
  • Innovation in the digital space
    • Digital space is where a lot of the brainpower went during the last couple of generations
    • People who have been building rockets instead went into computer science and programming
    • Now we have severe problems with how social media works

Termination Shock and Climate Change

  • The question of the novel is how to improve our impact on climate change
    • We can’t solve the problem until we get the CO2 out of the atmosphere
    • We haven’t even begun reducing CO2 emissions, and we have to remove what is already in the atmosphere
    • China is planning to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060
  • Removing the CO2 from the atmosphere is a big project
    • We have to reverse what we did that created the amounts of CO2 currently in our atmosphere
    • Hopefully, we get it down to 200 parts per million (ppm) range where it used to be
  • Why not have a Texas billionaire build a large gun and shoot massive quantities of sulfur into the upper atmosphere?
    • This is what T. R. Schmidt does in Termination Shock
    • It’s called solar geoengineering, and it’s technically possible. Volcanos have been doing it forever
    • When in the stratosphere, sulfur forms little spherical droplets of sulfuric acid (after combining with water)
    • These droplets reduce the amount of solar energy in the troposphere
    • We know that it works and they go away after a couple of years. They are not permanent
  • What should we expect for climate change solutions?
    • The book is also about the political controversy and the world’s reaction to T.R’s masterplan
    • Using technology for climate change is going to have different effects on different parts of the world
    • Is the solution going to come from governments working together or from bold billionaire Texans?
    • For Neal, the kind of intervention like solar geoengineering is never going to come from Western democracies
    • Getting people to wear masks and take vaccines has turned out to be hard, even though it might save their lives
  • It would be cheap and easy to implement the solar geoengineering scheme, someone is probably going to do it once things get bad enough

Are All Big Ideas Double-Edged Swords?

  • In the mid 20th century we saw polio vaccines, antibiotics, and simple things like home refrigerators
    • There was less alertness to the downsides of new technologies
    • People went along with the idea of building nuclear reactors and DDT (insecticide used for mosquito control)
    • We are still dealing with the outcome of radioactive waste management
    • Hanford has radioactive waste held in underground tanks buried throughout the site
    • DDT killed a lot of mosquitoes but it also had the downside of negative effect on the bird population
  • The backlash is that we assume that everything is a double-edged sword now
    • We have to be sure that nothing is going to happen to us before we adopt any new technology
    • Today, people are overly sensitive and terrified of certain new technologies like artificial intelligence
  • The problem is that it’s next to impossible to predict unintended negative consequences
    • It’s popular to talk about the negative effect of social media like we immediately forgot how incredible it is to connect with people across the world
    • Social media did not make us worse, it’s just bringing our nature out to the surface

Virtual Reality

  • Neal was in Magic Leap for 5 years where he was a chief futurist
    • He had a team in Seattle, they were trying to make content for augmented reality (AR)
    • Because it was a new media, it was more of an R&D project than a creative one
  • AR is taking the real world and putting stuff on top of that real world
    • Virtual reality is creating an almost fully artificial world and putting you inside it
  • For AR, the device needs to know more. It needs to accurately detect the surroundings and reconstruct the 3D structure so you can put objects on top of it in real-time
    • This is called SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping)
    • The system also need to track your eyes so it knows what you are looking at, and how far away
    • The content has to be rendered by the optics at a sufficiently low latency so it looks real and you don’t get sick
    • And do all these functions without burning up the CPU or depleting the battery
    • These are just the basic function of the operating system
  • Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders is the world’s first long-form mixed reality action game
    • Developed by New Zealand studio Weta Workshop
    • They realized the potential of AR gaming
    • In April 2020, the company decided to switch to commercial industrial applications
    • The same is happening with robotics, a lot of companies are focused on industrial applications for financial reasons

Human Minds Create Beautiful Worlds

  • 50 years from now, what wins? Virtual, augmented, or physical reality?
    • Neal has always been a fan of AR
    • If you are wearing an AI device and put a bag over your head it becomes a VR device
    • However, with VR you are not constrained to physical reality like with AR
    • With VR, you can visit fantastical worlds but there are still problems with motion sickness
    • If your body is experiencing different things than your eye thinks it’s seeing, you will get sick
  • Will we become more detached from physical reality in the future?
    • Neal is more interested in enhancing the experience of the physical world, but he does spend a lot of time working with CAD (computer-aided design) software
    • We are already living in a world where our whole field of view is occupied by monitors that are windows into three-dimensional spaces
    • A lot of people spend a good time of their work hours in something pretty close to being in virtual reality
    • Currently, the output device happens to be a monitor instead of a VR headset, but it’s the same thing
  • Human minds can create beautiful worlds just by listening to audio (podcasts) or reading books
    • When you present less, the imagination works more
    • That is why mediums like books can create enriching experiences
    • We are attached to a lot of features in the physical world, but who says we can’t come up with the same magical experiences in the VR

Cryptonomicon and Cryptocurrency

  • Cryptonomicon is pre-Satoshi Nakamoto, pre-blockchain
    • Neal was reacting to people like the Bay Area cypherpunks
    • Their thinking was based on the idea of having a land free of government interference
    • That is not something that is attainable via mathematical means on the network
    • There needs to be a physical room with servers that government could not access
    • There was a lot of effort that went into finding these safe physical locations (Anguilla and Sealand)
    • All of that goes away with blockchain
  • The interesting thing with crypto is that the technology is on the side of the powerless
    • Neal thinks that as soon as it becomes important enough, the existing banks and people in power are going to control it

Writing, Storytelling, and Books

  • Neal has been handwriting for the past 20 years
    • Handwriting activates the brain more than keyboarding
    • He can type faster than he writes so it gives him more time to think about what he is writing
    • From his experience, that means higher first draft quality
    • Editing is faster (no cursor moving or hitting backspace multiple times)
    • It is a quick way to do an edit and it also leaves a trace of what the text was before the edit
    • Once he transfers the handwritten material on the computer, he uses Emacs for editing
  • What does it take to write a good story?
    • “The key to any storytelling is getting the readers to suspend their disbelief”Neal Stephenson
    • There are many triggers and tells that can break that, and once its broken it’s hard to get it back
  • Books that influenced Neal:
  • He got a lot of grounding in classic works of literature by reading Classics Illustrated, an American comic book series featuring adaptations of literary classics

Advice For Young Adults

  • How to be a person that makes a big impact on the future?
    • Find a thing that you love to do, and that makes you forget about time
    • If you don’t have that, it’s hard to figure out where to invest your energy
    • Losing yourself in something might not happen the first time you do it. You need to climb the learning curve
    • It’s all right to stay with one thing (one book, one video, etc.) for a longer period to fully digest it
    • Regardless of your intention or intelligence, it all comes down to how you spend your time
  • What’s the meaning of life?
    • We are unique in the universe, it has something to do with that
  • David Deutsch talks about the power of explanations in “The Beginning of Infinity”
    • Most civilizations are static, they have a set of dogmas they arrive at and they pass them on from one generation to the next, and nothing changes
    • Huge changes happen when people follow the urge to explain why things are the way they are (either via science or enlightenment)
    • This is what creates explosive changes in our way of life over the last few centuries
  • The potential transformative power is almost like a force of nature (think about the potential to colonize the universe and spread to other star systems)
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Notes By Dario

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