Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

21 OCTOBER, 2014

Craigslist Founder Craig Newmark on Trust, Integrity, Human Nature, and Why a Steady Moral Compass Is the Best Investment

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“What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good.”

In 2007, Y Combinator founding partner Jessica Livingston set out “to establish a fund of experience that everyone can learn from” by interviewing some of the most successful entrepreneurs at the time — the founders and first employees of such celebrated companies as Apple, PayPal, Flickr, Adobe, and Firefox. The resulting conversations were published in the now-classic volume Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days (public library), titled after the Paris Review’s iconic Writers at Work.

Today, in a culture that talks a great deal about “creating value” but seems to care very little about upholding values, and writes history with the same bias, I keep coming back to the most heartening interview in the volume — Livingston’s conversation with craigslist founder Craig Newmark, whose beloved lo-fi website began in 1994 as a hunch, became a humble side-project email list in 1995 highlighting interesting events in the San Francisco area, and turned into Newmark’s full-time labor-of-love business in 1999. In 2004, eBay purchased a 25% stake in the company from a former employee, but craigslist remains independent and privately owned, helping millions of people in several hundred cities around the world find everything from used couches to true love. Underpinning the site’s success is Newmark’s own idealism, his adamant refusal to surrender to cynicism or succumb to commercialism, and his unflinching faith in the human spirit.

Newmark’s most powerful tool as an entrepreneur and a human being is the very thing Kurt Vonnegut believed was the key to happiness — the knowledge that one has enough. Recounting a pivotal point at which advertisers began approaching him about running banner ads on his free site, Newmark gets to the heart of the values question:

I thought about my own values and I was thinking, “Hey, how much money do I need?” … So I figured I would just not do that.

At that point, I got the first inkling of what I now call my “moral compass.” I better understood it later—particularly since the presidential elections, because then I realized that people were claiming a moral high ground who actually didn’t practice what they preached, and it’s about time for people of goodwill to reassert their idea of what’s right and what’s wrong.

Newmark was able to stay true to his own values by making very deliberate choices about not letting outside interests interfere with his vision — specifically investors, who invariably bring their own financial interests and thus begin to warp values in favor of narrowly defined “value.” Newmark tells Livingston:

I’ve stepped away from a huge amount of money, and I’m following through.

[…]

I coasted on savings for several months… I funded it with my own time. In no form did we ever take investment money… For the most part, for the first few years, it was just putting my own time and energy into it. If I was billing for my own hours, it would have been a great deal of money.

And that energy was considerable — when Livingston asks whether craigslist garnered “a positive response pretty quickly,” Newmark speaking to the idea that one should “expect anything worthwhile to take a long time” and responds:

Our traffic has always been slow but sure. We’re the tortoise, not the hare. Now and then we’ll get a surge of growth, but it’s been slow but steady.

At this intersection of firm values and steadfast dedication lies Newmark’s most essential insight. While “follow your gut” is a common platitude often dismissed with a scoff, especially in our culture of great impatience for any semblance of earnestness, there is something to be said for the difference between a throwaway aphorism and an ideal enacted in one’s own life as a “quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer.” Newmark’s greatest learning is very much the latter:

The biggest entrepreneurial lesson I’ve learned has been that you really do need to follow your instincts.

[…]

Trust your instincts and your moral compass… The deal is: we’re not pious about this. We try hard not to be sanctimonious. This is the way people really live; we just don’t talk about it. I’d prefer to be cynical and not talk about it, and yet, that’s real life.

Therein lies his most heartening conviction — the same one Isaac Asimov shared in his spectacular short meditation on cynicism and the human spirit. Newmark, like Asimov, speaks from a place of resolute humanism, echoing legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser’s memorable perspective on the universe. He tells Livingston:

What surprises me, in a way, is how almost universally people are trustworthy and good. There are problems, and sometimes people bicker, which is a pain in the ass, but people are good. No matter what your religious background, we share pretty much the same values. There are some minor differences that we disagree on, but the differences are at the 5 percent level. That’s pretty good.

Artwork from Sophie Blackall's illustrated craigslist missed connections. Click image for more.

After noting that the two most important factors in his company culture were an atmosphere of trust and a keen moral compass, Newmark considers how that reverberates throughout the craigslist community itself. When Livingston asks whether he ever worried about spammers and other ill-willed people trying to take advantage of the site, he answers:

We have a really good culture of trust on the site — of goodwill. You know, we’re finding that pretty much everyone out there shares, more or less, the same moral compass as we do and as my personal one. People are good. There are some bad guys out there, but they are a very tiny minority and our community is self-policing. People want other people to play fair, and that works… It works great in all sorts of ways, and it’s also an expression of our values. Mutual trust. This is kind of democracy in real life. Everyone wins, except for the bad guys.

Founders at Work is a trove of wisdom in its entirety, from Paul Graham’s characteristically contrarian and inspiring introduction to the remaining interviews with legendary entrepreneurs like Steve Wozniak, Caterina Fake, and Brewster Kahle.

Complement this particular excerpt with the question posed by Alan Watts — what would you do if money was no object? — which should underpin every entrepreneurial pursuit, then revisit this field guide to finding your purpose.

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20 OCTOBER, 2014

The Hummingbird Effect: How Galileo Invented Time and Gave Rise to the Modern Tyranny of the Clock

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How the invisible hand of the clock powered the Industrial Revolution and sparked the Information Age.

While we appreciate it in the abstract, few of us pause to grasp the miracles of modern life, from artificial light to air conditioning, as Steven Johnson puts it in the excellent How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (public library), “how amazing it is that we drink water from a tap and never once worry about dying forty-eight hours later from cholera.” Understanding how these everyday marvels first came to be, then came to be taken for granted, not only allows us to see our familiar world with new eyes — something we are wired not to do — but also lets us appreciate the remarkable creative lineage behind even the most mundane of technologies underpinning modern life. Johnson writes in the introduction:

Our lives are surrounded and supported by a whole class of objects that are enchanted with the ideas and creativity of thousands of people who came before us: inventors and hobbyists and reformers who steadily hacked away at the problem of making artificial light or clean drinking water so that we can enjoy those luxuries today without a second thought, without even thinking of them as luxuries in the first place… We are indebted to those people every bit as much as, if not more than, we are to the kings and conquerors and magnates of traditional history.

Johnson points out that, much like the evolution of bees gave flowers their colors and the evolution of pollen altered the design of the hummingbird’s wings, the most remarkable thing about innovations is the way they precipitate unanticipated changes that reverberate far and wide beyond the field or discipline or problem at the epicenter of the particular innovation. Pointing to the Gutenberg press — itself already an example of the combinatorial nature of creative breakthroughs — Johnson writes:

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens.

Johnson terms these complex chains of influences the “hummingbird effect,” named after the famous “butterfly effect” concept from chaos theory — Edward Lorenz’s famous metaphor for the idea that a change as imperceptible as the flap of a butterfly’s wings can result in an effect as grand as a hurricane far away several weeks later — but different in a fundamental way:

The extraordinary (and unsettling) property of the butterfly effect is that it involves a virtually unknowable chain of causality; you can’t map the link between the air molecules bouncing around the butterfly and the storm system brewing in the Atlantic. They may be connected, because everything is connected on some level, but it is beyond our capacity to parse those connections or, even harder, to predict them in advance. But something very different is at work with the flower and the hummingbird: while they are very different organisms, with very different needs and aptitudes, not to mention basic biological systems, the flower clearly influences the hummingbird’s physiognomy in direct, intelligible ways.

Under the “hummingbird effect,” an innovation in one field can trigger unexpected breakthroughs in wholly different domains, but the traces of those original influences often remain obscured. Illuminating them allows us to grasp the many dimensions of change, its complex and often unintended consequences, the multiple scales of experience that have always defined human history and, perhaps above all, to lend much-needed dimension to the flat myth of genius. Playing off the sentiment at the heart of Richard Feynman’s famous ode to a flower, Johnson writes:

History happens on the level of atoms, the level of planetary climate change, and all the levels in between. If we are trying to get the story right, we need an interpretative approach that can do justice to all those different levels.

[…]

There is something undeniably appealing about the story of a great inventor or scientist — Galileo and his telescope, for instance — working his or her way toward a transformative idea. But there is another, deeper story that can be told as well: how the ability to make lenses also depended on the unique quantum mechanical properties of silicon dioxide and on the fall of Constantinople. Telling the story from that long-zoom perspective doesn’t subtract from the traditional account focused on Galileo’s genius. It only adds.

Nundinal calendar, Rome. The ancient Etruscans developed an eight-day market week, known as the nundinal cycle, around the eighth or seventh century BC.

In fact, of the six such widely reverberating innovations that Johnson highlights, the one sparked by Galileo is the most fascinating because it captures so many dimensions of our eternal and eternally bedeviled relationship with time — our astoundingly elastic perception of it, the way it dictates our internal rhythms and our creative routines, its role in free will, and much more. Johnson tells an absorbing origin story the way only he can:

Legend has it that in 1583, a nineteen-year-old student at the University of Pisa attended prayers at the cathedral and, while daydreaming in the pews, noticed one of the altar lamps swaying back and forth. While his companions dutifully recited the Nicene Creed around him, the student became almost hypnotized by the lamp’s regular motion. No matter how large the arc, the lamp appeared to take the same amount of time to swing back and forth. As the arc decreased in length, the speed of the lamp decreased as well. To confirm his observations, the student measured the lamp’s swing against the only reliable clock he could find: his own pulse.

The swinging altar lamp inside Duomo of Pisa

That teenager, of course, was Galileo. Johnson explains the significance of that mythic moment:

That Galileo was daydreaming about time and rhythm shouldn’t surprise us: his father was a music theorist and played the lute. In the middle of the sixteenth century, playing music would have been one of the most temporally precise activities in everyday culture. (The musical term “tempo” comes from the Italian word for time.) But machines that could keep a reliable beat didn’t exist in Galileo’s age; the metronome wouldn’t be invented for another few centuries. So watching the altar lamp sway back and forth with such regularity planted the seed of an idea in Galileo’s young mind. As is so often the case, however, it would take decades before the seed would blossom into something useful.

'Portrait of Galileo Galilei' by Justus Sustermans, 1636

Indeed, Galileo’s mass experience stands as a spectacular testament to the usefulness of useless knowledge. Over the next two decades, he busied himself with becoming a professor of mathematics, tinkering with telescopes, and, as Johnson aptly puts it, “more or less inventing modern science” (and withstanding the pushback). And yet he kept the image of that swinging altar lamp on the back-burner of his mind. Eventually, as he grew increasingly enchanted with motion and dynamics, he decided to build a pendulum that would simulate what he had observed that distant day at the cathedral. His discovery confirmed his intuition — what determined the time it took the pendulum to swing wasn’t the size of the arc or the weight of the object, but merely the length of the string. Johnson cites Galileo’s excited letter to his peer Giovanni Battista Baliani:

The marvelous property of the pendulum is that it makes all its vibrations, large or small, in equal times.

Galileo's sketches for the pendulum clock

In our present age of productivity, when our entire lives depend on accurate timekeeping — from our daily routines to our conference calls to financial markets and flights — it’s hard to imagine just how groundbreaking and downright miraculous the concept of measuring time accurately was in 16th-century Italy. And yet that’s precisely what it was — Italian towns then, Johnson points out, had clunky mechanical clocks that reflected a loose estimation of time, often losing twenty minutes a day, and had to be constantly corrected by sundial readings. Johnson writes:

The state of the art in timekeeping technology was challenged by just staying accurate on the scale of days. The idea of a timepiece that might be accurate to the second was preposterous.

Preposterous, and seemingly unnecessary. Just like Frederic Tudor’s ice trade, it was an innovation that had no natural market. You couldn’t keep accurate time in the middle of the sixteenth century, but no one really noticed, because there was no need for split-second accuracy. There were no buses to catch, or TV shows to watch, or conference calls to join. If you knew roughly what hour of the day it was, you could get by just fine.

Discus chronologicus, early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time. (Click image for details)

This is where the wings of the hummingbird begin to flutter: The real tipping point in accuracy, Johnson points out in a twist, “would emerge not from the calendar but from the map” — which makes sense given our long history of using cartography to measure time. He explains:

This was the first great age of global navigation, after all. Inspired by Columbus, ships were sailing to the Far East and the newly discovered Americas, with vast fortunes awaiting those who navigated the oceans successfully. (And almost certain death awaiting those who got lost.) But sailors lacked any way to determine longitude at sea. Latitude you could gauge just by looking up at the sky. But before modern navigation technology, the only way to figure out a ship’s longitude involved two clocks. One clock was set to the exact time of your origin point (assuming you knew the longitude of that location). The other clock recorded the current time at your location at sea. The difference between the two times told you your longitudinal position: every four minutes of difference translated to one degree of longitude, or sixty-eight miles at the equator.

In clear weather, you could easily reset the ship clock through accurate readings of the sun’s position. The problem was the home-port clock. With timekeeping technology losing or gaining up to twenty minutes a day, it was practically useless on day two of the journey.

This was an era when European royalty offered handsome bounties for specific innovations — the then-version of venture capital — incentivizing such scientific breakthroughs as Maria Mitchell’s comet discoveries and Johannes Hevelius’s star catalog. As the need to solve the navigation problem grew in urgency, the rewards offered for a solution grew in magnitude — and this was what resurfaced Galileo’s teenage vision for “equal time” all those years later. Johnson describes Galileo’s journey as a superb example of the “slow churn” of creativity, the value of cross-pollinating disciplines, and the importance of playing “the long game”:

[Galileo’s] astronomical observations had suggested that the regular eclipses of Jupiter’s moons might be useful for navigators keeping time at sea, but the method he devised was too complicated (and not as accurate as he had hoped). And so he returned, one last time, to the pendulum.

Fifty-eight years in the making, his slow hunch about the pendulum’s “magical property” had finally begun to take shape. The idea lay at the intersection point of multiple disciplines and interests: Galileo’s memory of the altar lamp, his studies of motion and the moons of Jupiter, the rise of a global shipping industry, and its new demand for clocks that would be accurate to the second. Physics, astronomy, maritime navigation, and the daydreams of a college student: all these different strains converged in Galileo’s mind. Aided by his son, he began drawing up plans for the first pendulum clock.

There is something so poetic about Galileo inventing split-second time for the public on a private scale of decades.

Over the century that followed, the pendulum clock, a hundred times more accurate than any preceding technology, became a staple of European life and forever changed our relationship with time. But the hummingbird’s wings continued to flap — accurate timekeeping became the imperceptible heartbeat beneath all technology of the Industrial Revolution, from scheduling the division of labor in factories to keeping steam-powered locomotives running on time. It was the invisible hand of the clock that first moved the market — a move toward unanticipated innovations in other fields. Without clocks, Johnson argues, the Industrial Revolution may have never taken off — or “at the very least, have taken much longer to reach escape velocity.” He explains:

Accurate clocks, thanks to their unrivaled ability to determine longitude at sea, greatly reduced the risks of global shipping networks, which gave the first industrialists a constant supply of raw materials and access to overseas markets. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, the most reliable watches in the world were manufactured in England, which created a pool of expertise with fine-tool manufacture that would prove to be incredibly handy when the demands of industrial innovation arrived, just as the glassmaking expertise producing spectacles opened the door for telescopes and microscopes. The watchmakers were the advance guard of what would become industrial engineering.

But the most radical innovation of clock time was the emergence of the new working day. Up until that point, people divided their days not into modular abstract units — after all, what is an hour? — but into a fluid series of activities:

Instead of fifteen minutes, time was described as how long it would take to milk the cow or nail soles to a new pair of shoes. Instead of being paid by the hour, craftsmen were conventionally paid by the piece produced — what was commonly called “taken-work” — and their daily schedules were almost comically unregulated.

Rather, they were self-regulated by shifting factors like the worker’s health or mood, the weather, and the available daylight during that particular season. The emergence of factories demanded a reliable, predictable industrial workforce, which in turn called for fundamentally reframing the human perception of time. In one particularly pause-giving parenthetical aside, Johnson writes:

The lovely double entendre of “punching the clock” would have been meaningless to anyone born before 1700.

Workers punching the time clock at the Rouge Plant of the Ford Motor Company

And yet, as with most innovations, the industrialization of time came with a dark side — one Bertrand Russell so eloquently lamented in the 1920s when he asked: “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?” Johnson writes:

The natural rhythms of tasks and leisure had to be forcibly replaced with an abstract grid. When you spend your whole life inside that grid, it seems like second nature, but when you are experiencing it for the first time, as the laborers of industrial England did in the second half of the eighteenth century, it arrives as a shock to the system. Timepieces were not just tools to help you coordinate the day’s events, but something more ominous: the “deadly statistical clock,” in Dickens’s Hard Times, “which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.”

[…]

To be a Romantic at the turn of the nineteenth century was in part to break from the growing tyranny of clock time: to sleep late, ramble aimlessly through the city, refuse to live by the “statistical clocks” that governed economic life… The time discipline of the pendulum clock took the informal flow of experience and nailed it to a mathematical grid. If time is a river, the pendulum clock turned it into a canal of evenly spaced locks, engineered for the rhythms of industry.

Johnson goes on to trace the hummingbird flutterings to the emergence of pocket watches, the democratization of time through the implementation of Standard Time, and the invention of the first quartz clock in 1928, which boasted the unprecedented accuracy of losing or gaining only one thousandth of a second per day. He observes the most notable feature of these leaps and bounds:

One of the strangest properties of the measurement of time is that it doesn’t belong neatly to a single scientific discipline. In fact, each leap forward in our ability to measure time has involved a handoff from one discipline to another. The shift from sundials to pendulum clocks relied on a shift from astronomy to dynamics, the physics of motion. The next revolution in time would depend on electromechanics. With each revolution, though, the general pattern remained the same: scientists discover some natural phenomenon that displays the propensity for keeping “equal time” that Galileo had observed in the altar lamps, and before long a wave of inventors and engineers begin using that new tempo to synchronize their devices.

But the most groundbreaking effect of the quartz clock — the most unpredictable manifestation of the hummingbird effect in the story of time — was that it gave rise to modern computing and the Information Age. Johnson writes:

Computer chips are masters of time discipline… Instead of thousands of operations per minute, the microprocessor is executing billions of calculations per second, while shuffling information in and out of other microchips on the circuit board. Those operations are all coordinated by a master clock, now almost without exception made of quartz… A modern computer is the assemblage of many different technologies and modes of knowledge: the symbolic logic of programming languages, the electrical engineering of the circuit board, the visual language of interface design. But without the microsecond accuracy of a quartz clock, modern computers would be useless.

Theodor Nelson's pioneering 1974 book 'Computer Lib | Dream Machines,' an exploration of the creative potential of computer networks, from '100 Ideas that Changed the Web' (Click image for more)

But as is often the case given the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” by which science progresses, new frontiers of knowledge only exposed what is yet to be reached. With the invention of the quartz clock also came the realization that the length of the day wasn’t as reliable as previously thought and the earth’s rotation wasn’t the most accurate tool for reaching Galileo’s measurement ideal of “equal time.” As Johnson puts it, “quartz let us ‘see’ that the seemingly equal times of a solar day weren’t nearly as equal as we had assumed” — the fact that a block of vibrating sand did a better job of keeping time than the sun and the earth, celebrated for centuries as the ultimate timekeepers, became the ultimate “deathblow to the pre-Copernican universe.”

What accurate timekeeping needed, ever since Galileo’s contemplation of the pendulum, was something that oscillated in the most consistent rhythm possible — and that’s what Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s discovery of the atom in the beginning of the twentieth century finally provided. With its rhythmically spinning electrons, the smallest chemical unit became the greatest and most consistent oscillator ever known. When the first atomic clocks were built in the 1950s, they introduced a groundbreaking standard of accuracy, measuring time down to the nanosecond, thousandfold better than the quartz clock’s microseconds.

Half a century later, this unprecedented precision is something we’ve come to take for granted — and yet it continues to underpin our lives with a layer of imperceptible magic. In one example, Johnson brings us full-circle to the relationship between timekeeping and map navigation where Galileo began:

Every time you glance down at your smartphone to check your location, you are unwittingly consulting a network of twenty-four atomic clocks housed in satellites in low-earth orbit above you. Those satellites are sending out the most elemental of signals, again and again, in perpetuity: the time is 11:48:25.084738 . . . the time is 11:48:25.084739. . . . When your phone tries to figure out its location, it pulls down at least three of these time stamps from satellites, each reporting a slightly different time thanks to the duration it takes the signal to travel from satellite to the GPS receiver in your hand. A satellite reporting a later time is closer than one reporting an earlier time. Since the satellites have perfectly predictable locations, the phone can calculate its exact position by triangulating among the three different time stamps. Like the naval navigators of the eighteenth century, GPS determines your location by comparing clocks. This is in fact one of the recurring stories of the history of the clock: each new advance in timekeeping enables a corresponding advance in our mastery of geography — from ships, to railroads, to air traffic, to GPS. It’s an idea that Einstein would have appreciated: measuring time turns out to be key to measuring space.

Therein lies the remarkable power and reach of the hummingbird effect, which Johnson condenses into an elegant concluding reflection:

Embedded in your ability to tell the time is the understanding of how electrons circulate within cesium atoms; the knowledge of how to send microwave signals from satellites and how to measure the exact speed with which they travel; the ability to position satellites in reliable orbits above the earth, and of course the actual rocket science needed to get them off the ground; the ability to trigger steady vibrations in a block of silicon dioxide — not to mention all the advances in computation and microelectronics and network science necessary to process and represent that information on your phone. You don’t need to know any of these things to tell the time now, but that’s the way progress works: the more we build up these vast repositories of scientific and technological understanding, the more we conceal them. Your mind is silently assisted by all that knowledge each time you check your phone to see what time it is, but the knowledge itself is hidden from view. That is a great convenience, of course, but it can obscure just how far we’ve come since Galileo’s altar-lamp daydreams in the Duomo of Pisa.

But perhaps the strangest thing about time is how each leap of innovation further polarized the scales on which it played out. As in the case of Galileo, who took six decades to master the minute, the same breakthroughs that gave atomic time its trailblazing accuracy also gave us radiation and radiometric dating, which was essential in debunking the biblical myth and proving that earth’s age was in the billions, not thousands, of years.

5,068-year-old bristlecone pine from Rachel Sussman's 'The Oldest Living Things in the World' (Click image for more)

Pointing to the Long Now Foundation’s quest to bury a clock that ticks once every 10,000 years beneath some of the oldest living pines in the world — an effort to extract us from the toxic grip of short-termism and, in the words of Long Now founder Kevin Kelly, nudge us to think about “generational-scale questions and projects” — Johnson ends with a wonderfully poetic reflection:

This is the strange paradox of time in the atomic age: we live in ever shorter increments, guided by clocks that tick invisibly with immaculate precision; we have short attention spans and have surrendered our natural rhythms to the abstract grid of clock time. And yet simultaneously, we have the capacity to imagine and record histories that are thousands or millions of years old, to trace chains of cause and effect that span dozens of generations. We can wonder what time it is and glance down at our phone and get an answer that is accurate to the split-second, but we can also appreciate that the answer was, in a sense, five hundred years in the making: from Galileo’s altar lamp to Niels Bohr’s cesium, from the chronometer to Sputnik. Compared to an ordinary human being from Galileo’s age, our time horizons have expanded in both directions: from the microsecond to the millennium.

In the remainder of How We Got to Now, a remarkable and perspective-shifting masterwork in its entirety, Johnson goes on to examine with equal dimension and rigor the workings of the hummingbird effect through the invention and evolution of such concepts as sound, light, glass, sanitation, and cooling.

For more on the mysteries of time, see these seven revelatory perspectives for a variety of fields, then revisit the curious psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid, speeds up as you age, and gets warped while you’re on vacation.

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06 OCTOBER, 2014

What the Future of Robots Reveals About the Human Condition

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“I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human.”

In the most memorable scene from the cinematic adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, Jodi Foster’s character — modeled after real-life astronomer and alien hunter Jill Tarter — beholds the uncontainable wonder of the cosmos, which she has been tasked with conveying to humanity, and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”

To tell humanity its own story is a task no less herculean, and at last we have a poet — Sagan’s favorite poet, no less — to marry science and wonder. Science storyteller and historian Diane Ackerman, of course, isn’t only a poet — though Sagan did send her spectacular scientifically accurate verses for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison. For the past four decades, she has been bridging science and the humanities in extraordinary explorations of everything from the science of the senses to the natural history of love. In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library | IndieBound), Ackerman traces how we got to where we are — a perpetually forward-leaning species living in a remarkable era full of technological wonders most of which didn’t exist a mere two centuries ago — when “only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna.”

With bewitchingly lyrical language, Ackerman paints the backdrop of our explosive evolution and its yin-yang of achievement and annihilation:

Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamt up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface — preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.

But Ackerman is a techno-utopian at heart. Noting that we’ve altered our relationship with the natural world “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad,” she adds:

Our relationship with nature is evolving, rapidly but incrementally, and at times so subtly that we don’t perceive the sonic booms, literally or metaphorically. As we’re redefining our perception of the world surrounding us, and the world inside of us, we’re revising our fundamental ideas about exactly what it means to be human, and also what we deem “natural.”

Nowhere does this revolutionary reframing come more alive than in a chapter poetically titled “When Robots Weep, Who Will Comfort Them?” Ackerman’s exploration of the implications of artificial intelligence is at first necessarily discomfiting, then productively perplexing, then assuringly optimistic. She writes:

It’s an Anthropocene magic trick, this extension of our digital selves over the Internet, far enough to reach other people, animals, plants, interplanetary crews, extraterrestrial visitors, the planet’s Google-mapped landscapes, and our habitats and possessions. If we can revive extinct life forms, create analog worlds, and weave new webs of communication — what about new webs of life? Why not synthetic life forms that can sense, feel, remember, and go through Darwinian evolution?

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

To probe the furthest fringes of this question, Ackerman visits the pioneering Cornell University roboticist Hod Lipson, whose lab is working on the development of a new self-aware species, Robot sapiens. Ackerman explains the implications, nothing short of existential:

Our own lineage branched off many times from our apelike ancestors, and so will the flowering, subdividing lineage of robots, which perhaps needs its own Linnaean classification system. The first branch in robot evolution could split between AI and AL — artificial intelligence and artificial life. Lipson stands right at that fork in that road, whose path he’s famous for helping to divine and explore in one of the great digital adventures of our age. It’s the ultimate challenge, in terms of engineering, in terms of creation.

If this sounds a little sci-fi, Ackerman points out that the very notion of Robot sapiens is predicated on one of the most undeniable forces Earth has ever known, that of evolution — Lipson’s work, then, is doing little more than “asking a primordial soup of robotic bits and pieces to zing through millions of generations of fluky mutations, goaded by natural selection.” Reflecting on these new creatures, Lipson shares with Ackerman a vision at once utterly mind-bending and utterly sensical:

They will have deep emotions… But they won’t necessarily be human emotions.

The kernel of this capacity, Lipson believes, lies in “the unspoken Holy Grail of a lot of roboticists” — the aspiration to create self-aware consciousness. (A goal undoubtedly quite far away, as we still struggle to understand human consciousness.) He tells Ackerman:

When a machine learns from experience, there are few guarantees about whether or not it will learn what you want… And it might learn something that you didn’t want it to learn, and yet it can’t forget. This is just the beginning.

To demystify the proposition, Ackerman points to our age-long refusal to acknowledge animal consciousness, something on which scientists now uniformly agree, much thanks to the work of Jane Goodall. Ackerman considers the criteria we presently use for conscious beings and parlays those into the question of what makes us human:

[Animals] possess a theory of mind, and can intuit what a rival might do in a given situation and act accordingly. They exhibit deceit, compassion, the ability to see themselves through another’s eyes…

I don’t think they fret and reason endlessly about mental states, as we do. They simply dream a different dream, probably much like the one we used to dream, before we crocheted into our neural circuitry the ability to have ideas about everything. Other animals may know you know something, but they don’t know you know they know. Other mammals may think, but we think about having thoughts. Linnaeus categorized us in the subspecies of Homo sapiens sapiens, adding the extra sapiens because we don’t just know, we know that we know.

This meta-knowledge is what E.F. Schumacher explored in his beautiful 1977 contemplation of the art of adequatio and how we know what we know, and it is also at the crux of what is at stake in the quest for self-aware artificial intelligence. Ackerman writes:

When people talk about robots being conscious and self-aware, they mean a range of knowing.

[…]

Lipson wants his robots to make assumptions and deductions based on past experiences, a skill underlying our much-prized autobiographical memory, and an essential component of learning. Robots will learn through experience not to burn a hand on a hot stove, and to look both ways when crossing the street.

But, like a true humanist, Ackerman wonders whether such faculties will ever penetrate the essential mystery — perhaps a “permanent mystery,” to use John Updike’s term for existence — of the human spirit:

Yet however many senses robots may come to possess—and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have many more than we, including sharper eyesight and the ability to see in the dark — they’ll never be embodied exactly like us, with a thick imperfect sediment of memories, and maybe a handful of diaphanous dreams. Who can say what unconscious obbligato prompts a composer to choose this rhythm or that — an irregular pounding heart, tinnitus in the ears, a lover who speaks a foreign language, fond memories evoked by the crackle of ice in winter, or an all too human twist of fate? There would be no Speak, Memory from Nabokov, or The Gulag Archipelago from Solzhenitsyn, without the sentimental longings of exile. I don’t know if robots will be able to do the sort of elaborate thought experiments that led Einstein to discoveries and Dostoevsky to fiction.

Yet robots may well create art, from who knows what motive, and enjoy it based on their own brand of aesthetics, satire (if they enjoy satire), or humor. We might enjoy it, too, especially if it’s evocative of work by human artists, if it appeals to our senses. Would we judge it differently?

The iCub humanoid robot (Photograph: Sharingame CC-BY-NC-ND)

On a visit to the 2013 Living Machines Conference, Ackerman encounters iCub — a three-foot robot that has “naturally evolved theory of mind,” that developmental milestone human children reach around age three or four when they begin to understand that others have experiences, thoughts, intentions, and desires different from their own. Ackerman considers how this childlike robot attains its knowledge of self and other in relation to the world:

Through countless interactions between body and world it codifies knowledge about both. None of that is new. Nor is being able to distinguish between self and other, and intuit the other’s mental state. Engineers like Lipson have programmed that discernment into robots before. But this was the first time a robot evolved the ability all by itself. iCub is just teething on consciousness, to be sure, but it’s intriguing that the bedrock of empathy, deception, and other traits that we regard as conscious can accidentally emerge during a robot’s self-propelled Darwinian evolution. It happened like this. iCub was created with a double sense of self. If he wanted to lift a cup, his first self told his arm what to do, while predicting the outcome and adjusting his knowledge based on whatever happened. His second—we can call it “interior” — self received exactly the same feedback, but, instead of acting on the instructions, it could only try to predict what would happen in the future. If the real outcome differed from a prediction, the interior self updated its cavernous memory. That gave iCub two versions of itself, an active one and an interior “mental” one. When the researchers exposed iCub’s mental self to another robot’s actions, iCub began intuiting what the other robot might do, based on personal experience. It saw the world through another’s eyes.

There is one implication I find particularly curious — despite all that has been written about the self illusion and how it limits our true human potential, it seems nonetheless a necessary one. Without the ability to distinguish the boundaries of one’s own self against those of others, amid the amorphous jelly of the world, there would be no theory of mind and no sense of self. Consciousness, after all — at least in the empirical sense — requires self-awareness.

Robots, Ackerman argues, can also help us make sense of the world now that our own sensemaking capacity is being drowned out by an information ecosystem of exponentially swelling amounts of data. She recounts that in 1972, when she was making her writing debut with a suite of poems for the planets, Carl Sagan, who was on her doctoral committee at Cornell, gave her access to NASA photographs and reports. It was possible then, Ackerman argues, “for an amateur to learn everything humans knew about the planets.” This is no longer the case — “the Alps of raw data would take more than one lifetime to summit, passing countless PhD dissertations at campsites along the trail.” So there is incredible allure in the notion of intelligent robots that can help us trek across those Alps and make new discoveries.

How extraordinary that we’ve created peripheral brains to discover the truths about nature that we seek. We’re teaching them how to work together calmly as a society, share data at lightning speed, and cooperate so much better than we do, rubbing brains together in the invisible drawing room we sometimes call the “cloud.” Undaunted, despite our physical and mental limitations, we design robots to continue the quest we began long ago: making sense of nature. Some call it Science, but it’s so much larger than one discipline, method, or perspective.

Illustration from 'Alice in Quantumland' by Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

This, Ackerman argues, is cause for celebration rather than lamentation. Echoing Paola Antonelli’s assertion that technology humanizes objects rather than dehumanizing people, she writes:

I find it touchingly poetic to think that as our technology grows more advanced, we may grow more human. When labor, science, manufacturing, sales, transportation, and powerful new technologies are mainly handled by savvy machines, humans really won’t be able to compete in those sectors of the economy. Instead we may dominate an economy of interpersonal or imaginative services, in which our human skills shine.

She returns to Lipson’s robots and their broader implications:

One of Lipson’s robots knows the difference between self and other, the shape of its physique, and whether it can fit into odd spaces. If it loses a limb, it revises its self-image. It senses, recollects, keeps updating its data, just as we do, so that it can predict future scenarios. That’s a simple form of self-awareness. He’s also created a machine that can picture itself in various situations — very basic thought experiments—and plan what to do next. It’s starting to think about thinking.

[…]

And with this will come emotions, because emotions, at the end of the day, have to do with the ability to project yourself into different situations — fear, various needs — and anticipate the rewards and pain in many future dramas.

And yet given how woefully flawed we humans are at making projections about our own future selves, one can’t help but wonder whether artificial intelligence, however self-correcting it may be, would succumb to the same system bugs as the very minds that created it. Even Ackerman, optimistic though she may be about the humanizing potential of robotics, remains profoundly human in her lament, rooted in our essential and rather fragile sense of the personal I:

A powerful source of existential grief comes from accepting that I won’t live long enough to find out.

But Ackerman’s wistfulness rests into a larger optimism of foresight that peers into the quintessential do-androids-dream-of-electric-sheep question as she considers the unimaginable evolution of Robot sapiens:

Will they grow attached to others, play games, feel empathy, crave mental rest, evolve an aesthetics, value fairness, seek diversion, have fickle palates and restless minds? We humans are so far beyond the Greek myth of Icarus, and its warning about overambition (father-and-son inventors and wax wings suddenly melting in the sun). We’re now strangers in a strange world of our own devising, where becoming a creator, even the Creator, of other species is the ultimate intellectual challenge. Will our future robots also design new species, bionts whose form and mental outlook we can’t yet imagine?

Way back in our own evolution, we came from fish that left the ocean and flopped from one puddle to another. In time they evolved legs, a much better way to get around on land. When Lipson’s team asked a computer to invent something that could get from point A to point B—without programming it how to walk—at first it created robots reminiscent of that fish, with multihinged legs, flopping forward awkwardly.

[…]

It’s a touching goal. Surpassing human limits is so human a quest, maybe the most ancient one of all, from an age when dreams were omens dipped in moonlight, and godlike voices raged inside one’s head. A time of potent magic in the landscape. Mountains attracted rain clouds and hid sacred herbs, malevolent spirits spat earthquakes or drought, tyrants ruled certain trees or brooks, offended waterholes could ankle off in the night, and most animals parleyed with at least one god or demon. What was human agency compared to that?

Illustration from 'The Book of Miracles,' 1552. Click image for more.

To be sure, this question of where robots are headed isn’t a negation of human agency or human potential but, rather, a celebration of it. Reflecting on our “extraordinary powers of invention, subtlety, and know-how,” on “the small unremarkable acts of mercy and heroism parents and lovers perform each day,” Ackerman concludes by reconsidering our human journey in relation to nature, the inescapable backdrop against which — to borrow Carl Sagan’s beautiful language — “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” She ends with an invocation at once gentle and urgent:

We can survive our rude infancy and grow into responsible, caring adults — without losing our innocence, playfulness, or sense of wonder. But first we need to see ourselves from different angles, in many mirrors, as a very young species, both blessed and cursed by our prowess. Instead of ignoring or plundering nature, we need to refine our natural place in it.

Nature is still our mother, but she’s grown older and less independent… As we’re becoming acutely aware of just how vulnerable she truly is, we’re beginning to see her limits as well as her bounty, and we’re trying to grow into the role of loving caregivers…

We are dreamsmiths and wonder-workers. What a marvel we’ve become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts. That’s a feat to recognize and celebrate. It should fill us with pride and astonishment. The name also tells us we are acting on a long, long geological scale. I hope that awareness prompts us to think carefully about our history, our future, the fleeting time we spend on Earth, what we may leave in trust to our children (a full pantry, fresh drinking water, clean air), and how we wish to be remembered. Perhaps we also need to think about the beings we wish to become. What sort of world do we wish to live in, and how do we design that human-made sphere? …

We still have time and talent, and we have a great many choices… Our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable.

The Human Age is a spectacular read in its entirety, pointing the poetics of science to the heart of such ensnaring open questions as what an imaginary future geologist might deduce about our civilization based on our human-made landscapes, why there might be more to the weather than we realize, and how 3-D printing will reshape the notion of the body.

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