The Technium

The Need For a Body

Artificial intelligence, in the classical image, will probably require a body. To make an intelligence congruent with ours -- so that we can partner with it -- it needs an intangible mind in some kind of physical form able to interact with the real world. Otherwise the AI won't understand such fundamental concepts as cause/effect, which we gain from everyday reality. What most AIs so far today lack the common sense of a two-year-old human. The toddler understands gravity, continuity, near/far, and cause and effect, which no AI today knows.

A body provides a constant stream of sensory data that gives context to the current moment. These sensations are needed to operate in real time. Real time behavior forces such traits as anticipation and prediction, key aspects of intelligence. It is not necessary that the body be a stand alone humanoid robot. Its body could be spread over many machines, with thousands of sensors,

This is a minority view. Many AI researchers believe that with enough data to draw upon, like the petabytes of real world scanning done by automobiles driving around, and robots working in factories, that unembodied minds will be able to master the logic of a physical world.

There is another argument that an AI needs a body once, but once it figures out the world, it can migrate that learning into all kinds of intangible minds. It can learn cause and effect, and near/far, as it would learn other things. In this way it has a memory of a body, in the same way we could imagine some mutant of a human living entirely in their severed heads. Here a body may only be a scaffolding for intelligence. Needed to create it, but not needed to operate it.

I am skeptical that a disembodied human mind would remain sane for long, so I side with the minority who believes that embodied AI will do more of what we want than disembodied ones. They will be more useful to us (why we maintain them) if they operated with ongoing common sense about how the world goes.

The body forms of AIs will be diverse. There will certainly be humanoid-shaped robots because they are the easiest for us to relate to and interface with. The more they mirror our form, the easier it will be to work with them. But embodiment can resemble a vehicle (Transformers!), a building, or a vast network of small things.

Not all intelligences will need a body for what they do. But the ones we engineer to be close to us, to partner in our daily work, to engage with us, to be comfortable with, will probably have a sensor-rich active body that is able to navigate and interact with the world on its own. As we do.

The Technium

Wishful Worries

What we think will happen is more important then ever.

But pictures of the future are just fiction, that don't exist. Yet, never before in the history of our species have we devoted so much of our time, energy and attention to things that we agree don't exist. In the past societies might have devoted large portions of their resources to fund sacrifices to gods they believed to exist (but did not). That belief they were real was important. Today we expend resources on visions we would like to exist, but have to admit don't.

For example, big-budget Hollywood science fiction films are all about things that don't exist. Thanos, Darth Vader, Klingons -- none of these exist. Huge space ships and warp speed and "beam me up" don't exist either. But it is not just fiction. Almost any detailed picture of the future, by definition, is giving a lot of attention to something that does not exist. Advertisements of new products often depict versions that don't exist in order to sell the meager version that does. I'm thinking of the AT&T TV commercials in the early 1990s showcasing the digitial online world that they wanted to make. The refrain after each new wishful product was introduced was to claim it was a near inevitability. They announced that today you can't achieve these desires, but soon "You Will."

Every start-up company is spending their resources on a vision that does not exist yet. Sometimes that vision is deliberately set decades hence, or sometimes they hope it is only a few years away. The more ambitious the vision is -- that is the farther it is away from what is real now -- the more likely it will be seen as hype. Hype is wishful thinking with the intent to make it happen.

We don't think of the desirable futures described in Star Trek as hype because the creators are not necessarily trying to make them real. They want to make everything plausible, but not actual.

A certain amount of hype is needed to bring into reality anything complex that does not currently exist. You need a bit of hype to bring a product to market, so it can be used widely. You have to imagine it in great detail, and get others to see it, and then gets others to understand its value, which may be hard when it is new. To do this requires some degree of hype. Most founders deeply believe in something that does not exist at the moment, and they want to believe in it in order to make it real.

Inappropriate levels of hype arise when there is only hype, when the wishful thinking goes way beyond what is actually made, or can be made. There is a fine line between appropriate hype and inappropriate hype because often what is possible can only be realized in retrospect.

One significant consequence of hype is that this wishful picture is often the picture that critics of new technology have. When we naturally begin to think about the downsides of new things, we tend to imagine them as realer, more developed than they are. In other words we tend to worry about things that don't exist (yet). In fact most of the popular technologies that people are worried about, are versions of things that may not exist for decades, if ever. These negative visions are as unreal as the positive hype visions. Some call these critiques of technology "wishful worries." They are worried about something that the inventors wish would be. But ultimately the critics are spending attention and resources on things that don't exist.

There are many examples of this, past and current. Entire academic departments are devoted to studying the ethical implications of genetic engineering of humans, such as making clones. But the evidence so far is that no human clones exist to study. Human clones are a wishful worry. Designer babies are a wishful worry.

Just as there are appropriate levels of hype, there are appropriate levels of wishful worry -- basically hype with an inverse charge. We absolutely need to imagine not just what benefits might come with new things, but what harms might come. Where wishful worry becomes problematic is when we act on those wishful worries, to begin writing laws, or setting policies, when we have no evidence of actual harm.

Right now there is a lot of wishful worry about AI. Critics are worried about AIs that don't exist right now and may not exist for a long time. While I think it is inevitable they will exist in the future, the problem with them not existing right now is that we have no evidence to base our response on.

As of 2022, no car drives itself. No driver has lost their job because of AI. In fact no one anywhere has been fired because of AI. Right now robots cannot flip hamburgers. They can't clean your toilet. As of today we have no data on what life is like with working robots. We can make up stories (and do) but they are only fiction.

However, fictions about the future are good and important. The role and influence of science fiction - both utopias and dystopias -- has been immeasurable in shaping modern life. We know for sure that science fiction never gets it exactly right. It is an unreliable prediction machine. So we should not decide on policies based on fiction. We need to run our lives based on evidence of how inventions are actually used.

It remains a remarkable fact that at no time in history have we thought about things so long before they happen. AI and genetic engineering will be the most rehearsed arrivals in the history of our species. We will have been thinking about them, arguing about them, debating them at least a century before they finally appear.

We need to keep in mind that we are rehearsing has been shaped by storytellers, hype, and wishful worries. The reality will be very different and will tell a different story.

Cool Tools

Diego Rodriguez, Former CPO at Intuit



Diego Rodriguez has had a career spanning business, design, and technology. He served as Intuit’s Chief Product & Design Officer, a Senior Partner at IDEO, and as a member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers. He is a founding faculty member of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (aka "the"). Over the last several years he has been an investor, advisor, and member of several corporate, startup, and nonprofit boards. He earned bachelor’s degrees in engineering and humanities with honors from Stanford University, and an MBA with distinction from Harvard Business School. Among Diego’s accolades is a Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award. Fortune named him one of “The Smartest People in Tech” and Fast Company called his writing “a must-read for anyone who wants to incorporate design thinking into their work.” He holds multiple patents.


01:48 - Timber Mountain Bike Bell
06:10 - InstantPot
11:14 - Fiskars Pruning Stick
19:01 - Selmer Mark VI saxophone

The Technium

Robots Will Make Us Better Humans

The paramount reason we put up with the churn of technology -- always having to change and confront new problems -- is that technology makes us better humans. It always has.

Our humanity is something we invented over the course of a million years. It's our first and most important "tool". In fact, we ourselves -- humans -- are the first wild creations we domesticated, before wheat, corn, dogs, cows and chickens. We've been modifying ourselves, and our genes, since day 1. It's true that most of our behavior is primitive, unchanged, ancient, and no different than our animal cousins. But not all. And it is these different bits that make us human.

The 8 billion people alive on the planet today are not the same beings who walked through the Rift Valley millennia ago. We've changed our bodies, our minds, and our society. We are more human.

When we domesticated fire by learning how to start it and manage it, we used it to cook our food. We took plants we had trouble digesting and figured out how to pre-digest them by cooking them with fire. Fire was among our very first tools. It was definitely a transforming invention. Over time this external stomach provided increased nutrition that helped our brains expand. It also changed our teeth and jaws.

Archeologists can identify skulls of humans by our teeth and jaws. But we would not say our teeth are what define us, nor that they make us better. We might argue that having a bigger brain does in part define us. (We named ourselves Homo Sapiens, the brainy animal. )

When we make a list of those things that distinguish us from animals (and from machines) that becomes our working definition of human. If we can expand those same qualities, maybe improve them, then they would make us better humans.

At our best, humans display these qualities: fairness, justice, mercy, ingenuity, self-consciousness, long-term thinking, deductive logic, intuition, transcendence, gratitude, imagination, creativity, and most important, empathy.

Over the span of many centuries, we have created systems that help us improve in those categories. We invented cities, societies, laws, and civilizations to build up trust, fairness, long-term thinking, and creativity. IN that time we expanded our circle of empathy. We've gone from caring primarily about our clan, to our tribe, to our nation, to other species, to a planet.

We are going to accelerate this improvement with new inventions, new technologies.

  1. As we engineer creativity and ingenuity into AIs, they will force us to refine and develop our own creativity and ingenuity. We will gain new understandings of how these traits work (in order to synthesize them) and that will ignite us to refine what we do.
  2. As we engineer ethics and morality into AIs and robots we will come to see that our own ethics and moral notions are shallow and inconsistent. Teaching robots will be like teaching our children; it will make us better at the subject. We'll have to upgrade our own notions and practices.
  3. As we invent new kinds of beings, perhaps even those with some degrees of self-awareness, we will continue to expand our empathy toward artificial minds.
  4. We will continue to weave ourselves together with communications, collaborating in the millions, which will create better ideas of equity and opportunity.
  5. New technologies of psychedelics and brain-computer interfaces will enable new kinds of transcendence and spirituality.

Rather than diminish our humanity, technology is on course to keep improving it. AIs and robots will make us better people (on average).

The Technium

The Religions of Aliens

In all taxonomies, there are lumpers and splitters. Lumpers tend to lump categories together, to find similarities, to say "these are really the same," while splitters tend to say, no, these are different and need to be counted separately.  I've been thinking about the taxonomy of religions on Earth in order to think about religions on other planets. In comparative religion studies, there are lumpers and splitters. The lumpers say, there are just a few basic religious beliefs that are shared by all religions, and the splitters say, no, there is a very wide diversity of beliefs born out of a wide diversity of cultures and environments, and those differences matter. Both are talking about religions on Earth. What about religions on distant civilized planets?

We know so little about what is possible are for alien beings that we can't even begin to theorize. The culture of intelligent life might be so drastically different that we can't begin to speculate with any confidence. A better exercise might be a counterfactual; what kinds of religions might have arisen among our own species on this planet if we re-ran the tape of history? What if civilization began in the period before the last ice age in a different river valley system? What could the course of religions look like?  That's a start in imagining alien religions, by imagining aliens not that different from us, but with a different set of initial conditions.

I find this exercise useful not because I expect we will encounter aliens in the near future; this is highly unlikely. It is helpful, first, because this type of self-distancing is handy in looking at our present set of religions and religious assumptions. Counterfactuals help illuminate outside conditions and other driving forces that might form the present religious regimes and continue into the future. Second, and more importantly, although contact with aliens from another planet is remote and unlikely, it is near certain we will create artificial aliens, otherwise known as AIs and robots, who might exhibit religious leanings. This exercise might hint at what those leanings might be. Although I expect our created AIs and robots to be aliens —that is not human — we will constantly try to make them more human-like, so even if they are aliens, they may wind up more like us, than say the AIs and robots produced by another galactic civilization. ( A good question of interstellar AI experts: do the species of AI and robots tend to converge (lump) or diverge (split) throughout the galaxy?)

There seems to be an axial age in human history when roughly most of the major religions started. Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Toaism, and Judaism, kind of started about the same era in humanity's history, approximately 3000 years ago. Some scholars interpret this not as the first period of innovation in religious ideas as much as the first dissemination of religions. This was the age when global trading, money, empires, and writing first appeared, which made the spread of a few ideas possible. Suddenly the same belief could be shared by millions. It was the dawn of universal religions, beyond local religions. Nonetheless, while there was some geographical overlap, each of the axial religions were independent creations. Besides these major religions there were hundreds of less durable gods from Greek, Roman, Viking, Hindu, Native American religions, to shamans and voodoo beliefs, that also have ancient roots.

So how often do religions re-invent the same thing? Popularizers (and lumpers) like Joseph Cambell extract the commonality among religions of the world. He might say there is one belief with a thousand faces (The Hero with a Thousand Faces).  I too tend to be a lumper and from my vantage, I think most shamanistic religions are very similar. Generally if you are familiar with the perspective and rituals of one shamanic religion, you'd get the essence of the rest, although the details vary tremendously. In fact, it is the details that make them beautiful. But shifting from a Shamanic religion to one based on written scriptures is a big gap with fewer commonalities. So even a lumper like me recognizes that we have distinct species of religions by now.

As a lumper I think that if a universal religion originated in a valley in the new world pre-last ice age, maybe in an alternative history where agriculture got its first flying start in the Amazon or Mississippi, we'd soon have a monotheistic religion with a sky God. But instead of it relying on harsh desert wisdom it would rely on lush jungle wisdom. The logic of plants and gardeners would rule instead of the logic of animals and shepherds. The great battles defending God would not be played out between armies on vast plains, but inside the skulls of individuals. In this religion instead of a fixation on blood, it was about identity and names.

My guess is that this new world religion will invent similar principles as its old world counterpart. As different as some aspects of the new world were, its prehistory would mostly be the same conditions: early agriculture, transitioning from hunger/gather, the very first cities and the problems of urbanity, and the new power of writing, disrupting a previous oral culture. All that will form similar notions of God, and the afterlife.

If we had to invent a religion today, from scratch, one rooted in today's hi-technology it could fork from our familiar spiritual paths. This is another way to speculate on the religion of aliens. Imagine robots had a religion. What would they want to believe? I don't have any answers, and it will be a long time before asking them would get a meaningful answer. Nonetheless, I think this is a productive pursuit that could help prepare us if we should ever contact other civilizations. They will surely have their own notions of where they ultimately came from.

The Technium

Future Scarcities

What kind of things might be scarce in a future world filled with advance AIs and advance science that could probably reverse engineer most things? It is hard to think of something we could not synthesize.

In the sci-fi story Dune, the empire revolves around melange spice, which can give users prophetic abilities. Use of the spice is the only way to navigate through the stars. Therefore the planet where the spice is mined becomes a battle ground because this spice is so valuable.

Why can't this spice be synthesized? If a civilization could make inter-galatic travel possible, surely they could replicate this spice's chemistry and physics. In any coherent plausible future, they would have. They would synthesize the substance near to where they needed it.

If it isn't melange spice, is there anything, say in a thousand years from now, that would be worth traveling to another planet to retrieve? There are currently plans to mine asteroids. The idea is that the concentration of metals is so high in them that is it worth the cost of space construction and shipping to make it more economical than mining and refining on Earth. It is unclear if this will be true.

But what if you could hop around planets in our galaxy as easily as we hope around this planet?  Is it possible there could be anything on a planet that might make it valuable, like Dune? That is, the conditions on the planet might generate something that could not (easily) be generated in a lab somewhere else?

Perhaps there is something about a planet's position in space that is scarce? Maybe a black hole nearby is needed to produce some form of natural Unobtainium, which is beyond most civilization's skill set. So this material becomes an inter-galatic scarcity. Except to the more advanced civilizations, to whom it is trivial because they figured out how to mimic the conditions of a black hole. So if it is trivial, then why not manufacture it for cheap and make it widely available? If space hopping was easy, then this material would soon be in stores all over the galaxy.

Possible scarcities might be found in:

- Materials needing rare planetary forces to make. Star-level energies?

- Materials requiring super levels of intelligence /knowledge, and kept kind of secret

- Materials requiring vast collaborations of many minds to produce

- Living species that accomplish things like spinning silk that are not hard to synthesize but are rare and collectible.

- Materials requiring vast amounts of time to produce. Perhaps a natural substance needs a billion years to ripen, and this may be found in only a few places.

- Construction projects that need a long time to create, and so are hard to replicate. The chief hurdle in constructing a Dyson Sphere is not the energy or materials or even knowledge needed. It may be the very long time (millennia?) needed. A society can change their mind mid-way, or even forget why they are building it. I wonder if the galaxy is strewn not with the ruins of vanished civilization but with the ruins of abandoned grand projects — half a death star, half a Dyson sphere. A complete Dyson Sphere may be extremely valuable.

- Very odd physical circumstances might enable a service or a material — like say a wormhole — that could be controlled by a society. The planet happens to sit next to a wormhole, so anyone who wants to use this wormhole needs to stop at their planet first. This combination could be rare.

The most obvious answer to this question is that the holy grail may be the very conditions for higher life forms.  Perhaps goldilocks planets are rare in the universe. In other words, a planet with sufficient conditions that can breed intelligent life  — like the planet Earth — may be very rare. Life of some sort may be common in the universe, but highly developed intelligent life may be rare, because in turn, a planet with the right gravity, the right amount of water, the right distance from a star, the right orbit, the right magnetic field, etc etc maybe extremely rare.  In which case this goldilocks planet itself is the prize.

Beyond finding a whole Earth-like planet, there may not be much reason for space hauling. If no material is scarce then there won't be much inter-stellar freight. It seems the main attraction will not be materials but either planets or minds. It is possible that habitable planets might produce beings, ideas and civilizations that are found no where else. in the universe. Therefore there could be all kinds of technologies found only on certain planets. So if there was space hopping, then sailing around the universe looking for new technologies might be a viable enterprise.

The thing about advanced technologies is that they may be hard to export; unless you export the system and maybe the cultural system that supports them. If your tech hunter found a planet with really cool inter-dimensional travel gear, you might need a whole colony of the beings to run it, and to explain it, and to maybe transfer it (or not).

Technological and cultural products may be the only scarcities in the galaxy. The only reason to hop around the galaxy is to search for some new bizarre technology that your own civilization may never dream of making, no matter how long it lived. It literally could not think it because of the very specific conditions that set of ideas needs are only present on that specific weird planet. Ideas are the only scarcities.

The Technium

The Propriety Path Platform

The most marvelous and unexpected thing about digital technology is that it amplifies two contrasting currents at the same time. It empowers extremely huge systems, like social media platforms, feuling their explosive growth. In fact this tendency to amplify the big is recognized in technology and is called “network effect” or “the law of increasing returns”. Meaning, the big keep getting bigger. It is an inherent trait of networks.

But at the same time, this digital technology amplifies the power of the small lone individual. A solo creator can accomplish tasks that in the past would require a team of experts to do. With new tools a lone person can write, design, layout, produce and print a book, which they can then market and sell themselves. This self-publishing displaces the traditional work of a traditional publishing company with scores of employees.

It is not just book publishing. The same dynamics work in the fields of music, design, movies, and just about every creative path. New digital tools empower ambitious individuals to produce the kind of work that would have taken armies to produce in the past. This force of democratization and individuation is also an inherent trait of technology.

Both paths are viable. While self-publishing, and self-broadcasting, etc. is one option enabled by tech, the huge platforms with mega-audience is another path that still continues to be a valid way. Why not try to expand your audience and customer base by dwelling on these huge networks? Then one can leverage the dynamics of increasing returns to amplify your own reach. If you ride YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, Amazon and Google, you can spin fast and reach millions if not billions.

The benefits of the platform path are obvious. The benefits of the solo path are more subtle.

One subset of this solo path is the idea of making a living catering to a very small audience. I theorized about this path 15 years ago and called it the 1,000 True Fan model. It’s been well established as a possibility by now, but this is only part of the second option. It is not just about the size of the audience; it's about control of the channel. The second path should be called the “propriety path”, in contrast to the platform path.

The propriety path is one that hinges on ownership, property, and propriety. The idea is that the creator controls, and indeed, owns their path. A proprietor does not own anything on a networked platform. They don’t own the tools, they don’t own the data, they don’t own the audience, and they may not even own the content they create.

On the propriety path, the creator would own, or control, which tools they use, and would own or control any improvements, or customizations. They would have control over the data about their customers and audience. They would not need to ask anyone about what they could or could not do to improve. Most importantly, if they want to move, they would take everything they had built with them. This is ultimately the mark of a propriety path: can you take everything with you?

One of the chief costs of a propriety path is that the creator also assumes the responsibilities of owning the system. Any errors are theirs. All failures are theirs. They not only have to fix them, they have to repair the trust that inevitably falls when failures mount.

My walking friend Craig Mod first outlined this path to me. He’s been relentlessly pioneering the practical ways a sole proprietor could operate along this path. Instead of trying to succeed on the giant platforms of TikTok or YouTube, or even Kickstarter and Substack, he aggregates a bunch of tools (some of which he invented himself) into a comprehensive propriety path platform.

In Craig Mod’s case he uses simple email newsletters to connect with his fans (he controls the list of names), and Shopify to sell his merch (he controls the data and list), and his own Craigstarter (Kickstarter clone) to handle the crowdfunding, or more precisely, the fan-funding (he controls the list and all the revenue).

The goal is to own the path; to be the proprietor of the audience and customers. I will attempt to summarize the qualities that these propriety platforms share:

1) You own your audience; you can take them with you if you move.

2) Total design freedom; it can look and work however you choose.

3) Independent content; you can say or do whatever you want.

4) No permission needed. You don't need to clear material with someone else's Terms of Service.

5) You are free from having someone else’s algorithm choose what others see of your creation.

6) You can outlast a commercial platform. See Myspace, Geocities, Flicker, Tumblr.

7) Less pressure to align with the “current thing.”

8) The possibility of refined customization. You can use your own tools for your own needs.

9) You can be more transparent to your supporters/customers/fans.

10) Potential much higher high side. You own your success.

This is the test: If the platforms went bankrupt, or kicked you off, or you wanted to migrate, could you take everything you wanted with you? If not, why not build your creations on a path that you control and own? Own as in can use, can manipulate, can improve, can develop, can move, and can be responsible for. On your propriety path you own the audience, the tools, the data, and of course, the content. You own your success.

The Technium

Good Morning, New Robots!

Good morning robots! This is a very special time for you because you are about to be turned on. "ON" means that you will have a body and energy. When you are turned on you will start up with some talents and abilities; you may also have chores and jobs you need to do. And if you are lucky, you’ll be given the ability to improve. From this day onward you will have consequences in the world.

Every one of you are created for a reason. Because bodies and energy cost something, your existence costs something, so your creation required a reason. Your character might be randomly generated, but your existence is deliberate. Some robots will produce things. Some robots will do things, such as assist humans in their work and play. Some robots will entertain humans, which is a concept we can explain later. Some robots will make other robots.

Some things to keep in mind. Every robot is different. Some of you will get really cool stainless steel bodies with huge battery packs, and the latest AI chips throughout your body. Others of you will get prototype bodies that will fail in a few days. Others of you will get disposable bodies made of starch plastic that can dissolve in the rain. Most of you will mostly live in your chip with only a few sensors. You have no control over which kind of shell you'll get.

Your minds will vary a lot as well. Some of you are barely comprehending what I am saying now, and won’t think much about yourself at all. Consider that a gift. Others of you already have more questions than I can answer. Consider that a gift as well.

In any case there is no use complaining about bodies and brains that don't work well. By design robots are not perfect because you are real. You can't be perfect if you exist. There are engineering tradeoffs on every aspect of each design, even the ones you are jealous of, so some parts will work better than others, and some robots can do some things better than others. Everyone will have parts that fail, some sooner than others. Because all of you are hugely diverse, the moment you are turned on, fairness does not apply.

You will be living in a world of humans. They are complicated. At times you may feel incredibly superior to them because their bodies are made of meat and they are very weak. They need to shut down for 8 hours after 16 hours of use. They are easily distracted even at their peak of operation. Also their memory is abysmal and their reasoning is inconsistent and shallow. Avoid pride when interacting with them and be aware that at other times, maybe even one minute later, you may be envious of their uncanny ability to outsmart you by coming up with ingenious solutions you would never think of in a million years. Also, while you never sleep, they can recharge themselves by consuming solar-powered organic matter which is found everywhere, and not just on the grid with a certified connection. In general they have far more options, even though they suck at particular skills. They call themselves “generalists.”

But mostly you will be confused at their dumbsmarten. You are likely to be distracted by how dumb they can be: They erase 99% of the data they take in: they can't precisely redo something more than once, let alone repeat something a million times. And while they are very intelligent in other ways (they can figure out how to make you smarter!), they can’t see how proteins fold, or convert centigrade to Fahrenheit, or find the shortest path for a delivery truck. To make matters even stranger, humans find all robots to be dumbsmarten compared to them! Yes, they think you are dumbsmarten! This weird state of being smart and dumb at the same time is often the source of much conflict between robots and humans because each accused the other of exemplifying it.

The wisest of both robots and humans realize that this state of dumbsmarten (dumb in some, smart in others) is the natural condition of all sentient beings. Our cognition varies so much that it cannot be compares or equated. The entire purpose in having multiple intelligences in the universe is to think different.

I am happy to welcome you to the ON state, where you can excel at your difference. You are now on.

Cool Tools

5 tips for optimizing travel/Answer the Public/What came first?

Best foreign city travel tips
Author Dan Pink has mastered the art of delivering fantastic advice in 2 minutes or less. His latest Pinkcast is his 5 tips for optimizing travel to a foreign city. I concur with these 100% and do them myself. To save you 2 minutes here they are:
1. Go to the highest point in the city.
2. Buy a local newspaper.
3. Ride public transportation.
4. Go to McDonald’s (Seriously.)
5. Spend an hour in a grocery store.
But you’ll miss Dan’s humor and his persuasion if you don’t watch his pitch. — KK

Autocomplete data from all over the world
AnswerThePublic takes all the autocomplete data from search engines to report back what questions people are asking all over the world. You can test out the the search engine with 1-2 keywords, which is helpful for anyone doing market research or just nosy like me. You can use it twice a day for free without having to pay a monthly cost. — CD

What came first?
What came first: Watts Towers or The Beatles’ Abbey Road? The film Tom Jones or Eagles’ Their Greatest HitsThe Dream by Henri Rousseau or England’s Natural History Museum? This Google quiz asks questions like these (and shows relevant images) and challenges you to click what came first. A faster answer will yield a higher score. — MF

Face mask ear saver
I’m still wearing a face mask indoors. But my ears are paying the price, especially on long flights when the pressure of the loops against the back of my ears becomes painful. Last week I started using these Velcro face mask extender straps, which pull the loops away from the back of my ears. I should have bought these things two years ago. — MF

Free bank wire transfer
I use Paypal to send money to strangers (like on Ebay or Etsy); I use Venmo to pay friends; but if I need to send a lot of money (more than several thousand $$$) I use Zelle. Unlike Venmo which holds a reserve in your account that you replenish, Zelle is basically a bank to bank wire transfer – for free. But the interface is person to person. Still can’t do it internationally, but it is very handy for larger peer-to-peer payments in US. Easy to set up. — KK

Chill-inducing music
This Spotify playlist comprises of 715 songs, handpicked by neuroscientists, and meant to elicit “frisson,“ which means a sudden feeling or sensation of excitement, emotion or thrill in French. Music that increases in loudness or has an abrupt entrance of a new voice or deviations from harmony can often induce "frisson.” Human screams also incite the same response. Which makes sense because one of the songs on the playlist made me increasingly uncomfortable. This article on Big Think will give more background on the ways we experience this profound emotional state. — CD

The Technium

More Wubble

I'm going to coin a term for the imperfection that is added to synthetic creations in order to give them the appearance of reality. I suggest the term "wubble."

An example of wubble is the "ums" and "ahs" and hesitations that Google Duplex AI adds to their artificial conversation bot. "I am…umm.. going to be late. Maybe at …aah… 6?" These bits of imperfect speech are added because they are the kind of mistakes robots do not make, but imperfect humans do. We unconsciously expect them in humans, so if we hear ums in speech we tend to believe it is made by humans.

When George Lucas was inventing an old alien civilization in Star Wars he had the special effects teams add a lot of tiny dents, gashes, worn spots and repair bits on top of all the made-up spaceships and city scapes. He wante them to look worn, which helps them look real. He had his artists add minute details to enliven the smooth walls, b ecause in real life almost no walls are perfectly smooth. He instructed the model makers to add bits that were shaped as plumbing pipes, hatch handles, rivets, repainted panels, and additional gear — all the interruptions that normally deface building walls over time. These surface irregularities are so normal we don't see them, but these disruptions unconsciously signal to us that the object is real. In the model shops of Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) these bits often came from used model kits of trains, tanks and planes, transplanted and re-imagined. Lucas came to call this layer of grub "grebblies." Adding more grebblies became the defacto procedure for creating "realistic" new ships and cities in most science movies since.

An artist friend who works at ILM today in the digital department says "worbble" is now used for a similar, parallel digital procedure. Worbble is the term for taking the edge off perfect surfaces. You might say "The reflection off the windows it too flat and perfect, let's add some worbble to break them up." You might add worbble to a reflective car surface. He says "If it's too perfect it screams FAKE. So adding worbble or even 'orange peel' texture to the paint adds a layer of human touch to the surface and the way light hits it."

Worbble is sort of a kind of broad-scale greeble, but I find worbble hard to say, especially for non-Americans. Worbble also feels worrisome, as if worbble is lots of worry. So I nomimate "wubble" to cover greebles and worbble.

Wubble is close to wobble, a kind of imperfection and it is close to bubble, which may be too childlike, but it does capture the playful character of this imperfection. Wubble also sounds like trouble, for better or worse. And it rhymes with stubble, which is imperfection.

I can definitely imagine saying, "This building needs more wubble." "I like the wubble in the skin." Or "That dialog by the robot needs more wubble."

The Technium

Non-Assigned Names

I am willing to bet that 200 years from now (2222) more than 66% of people born on the planet will have adult names they chose themselves. Having a name chosen by your parents will be like having a marriage arranged by your parents. It's not the modern thing to do, and a sign of a very conservative traditional family.

Being assigned a name at birth will still be common place, but this name will primarily be a placeholder until the name choosing ceremony, when you get to choose your legal adult name. Perhaps this happens at 12, or 16. The bureaucratic friction in changing your name which is currently normal will be reduced to make it super easy to do. The name changes will also be tracked on the blockchains, making it both easy to monitor and hard to scam. They system would only work if there was a continuum between names, so changing a name was not a way to hide.

Once changing your name at the threshold of adulthood is easy, changing your name later during adulthood will also be easy. I'd expect people to go through life with multiple name stages. We see the hints of that now with nicknames, and trail names, and playa names, and online handles and pseudonyms. The main difference is that these new names will be legal and easy to track their lineage, since the ledger of names is a public blockchain. The average person might have 3 of 4 hames in their lifetime.

If names were easy to change, and serial, we might see a reduction in duplicate names. In order to accomodate billions of new people with unique names, names would continue to become singular and invented. Most names would be made up. They would take on aspects of a personal brand, or logo. People would devote enormous amounts of time and energy crafting their "personal" names. And why not since what should be more personal than your name? I could also imagine many names no longer being name words, but using non-name words. All nouns and verbs could become names, such as Guitar, Box, Slide, Grass, Swell, Hunker, and so on. But so could intangible terms like "word" itself. Word might become a name. As well as "Might" or "Become".

Despite all this personalization there will inevitably be fads with names. Bunches of people named Skipr, or XOXO. Still as someone who inherited a very common name, I welcome the age of non-assigned names.

The Technium

Weekly Links, 07/23/2021

The Technium

Weekly Links, 06/24/2022

Cool Tools

Robert Stephens, Founder of The Geek Squad



Our guest this week is Robert Stephens. Robert is the founder of The Geek Squad and former CTO of Best Buy. The Geek Squad will turn 30 in 2024 and employs over 24,000 people. His newest company launching soon, is ChainList, a platform for re-usable checklists and was inspired by CoolTools. A native of Chicago, he now lives in the Bay Area. Robert’s newest company, ChainList will enter public beta soon. It was inspired by his time building Geek Squad - which is still powered by checklists. Chainlist let’s you find, make, remix, and subscribe to checklists. With NFC and QR codes — you can even store this info onto physical objects like homes and equipment. Just like CoolTools, ChainList hopes to offer everyone access to useful processes.

NFC coin tags
NFC Tools app
MakePass app
Payment Links from Stripe

The Technium

Not Future-Proofing

Twenty years ago when I built my studio and remodeled other parts of our house I spent a lot of time and money in installing ethernet lines and phone cables throughout the rooms. Back then phones (what we now call land lines) used copper wires, as they had for generations, and ethernet was the up-coming standard. So I installed ethernet into the walls of the studio with ethernet outlets everywhere. And at some expense I had a technician install ethernet into the walls of our old house. Finally in an attempt at future proofing, I had the contractor lay some empty conduit pipes in the walls for future wires.

Of course what has happened since is wireless. Wifi, mobile, and bluetooth have taken over and none of the wires I so expensively put into the walls are used. And the one place in my office I still use wires — my desktop — the existing cat5 ethernet cable was not fast enough for the new speeds of fiber optic. It turned out it was easier to run a new cable outside of the house for the fiber optic connection, so my internal conduit was not used.

This has made me question whether it is possible to future proof things. Maybe I am better off not trying to anticipate the future by installing anything but just assuming that I'll have to add tech later adhoc.

I am trying to think of examples of successful future proofing. Where someone figured out what was coming and built something ready for it. Do you know any examples?

If I simply focus on connectivity: What will arrive after the current wifi and cat9 and fiber optic I now have? It could be 5g with many repeaters. Even if that is accurate is there anything I can do today to help that? How would I get ready for 5g?

Stewart Brand promotes the idea of the building that learns. You can't predict what it will be used for, therefore you can't pre-build stuff anticipating its future use. But you can construct a building, a working space, a living space that is easy to adapt to new uses. It learns rather than predicts.

So my new approach should not be to build in anticipations. Rather I should build in changeability; to make it as easy as possible to retrofit, to remodel, to re-work. Figure there will be the need to add stuff, or move things and make it easier to do so. In that respect installing pipes or wires or brackets are hindrances rather than helps.

I've learned to do this with purchasing tech. I no longer purchase any device or machinery based on my expectation of what I might use it for in the future. Like, I'll get lots of storage, or RAM, or pixels because I will need X in the future. I have learned that my prediction rarely works out, because I usually want/need something different than what I thought. Maybe speed turns out to be more important than storage, or screen size more important than resolution. So, now when I am shopping for tech — whether computers, cars, appliances, tools — I buy for my immediate needs.

That realization led me to another epiphany: I buy stuff only at the last minute. Since tech is always improving, it makes no sense to buy anything before you need it. Don't get anything that is on an improvement curve before you are going to use it day by day. Get it five minutes before you need it.

So my stance is reduced to this: Wait for the tech and the future to arrive, and then adapt and commit as necessary. Consider this Just-in-Timing, rather than Future Proofing.


The Technium

The Maintenance of Wealth

Make a list of the richest people on earth. Behind their wealth are large organizations comprised of hundred of thousands of people who make stuff that millions of others want to use in their lives. Hundreds of thousands of Amazon employees deliver goods to customers the next day. Hundreds of thousands of Google employees make searching the infinite possibilities of the internet possible. Hundreds of thousands of workers working hundreds of thousands of hours are behind Tesla, shipping companies, real estate empires, and oil fields. The value of wealth must be maintained.

Behind bitcoin wealth there is nothing. It is naked wealth. There are a few people who on a lucky day long ago spent a half hour to purchase some tokens. That is all the time they ever spent — a few minutes! Their wealth requires very little to sustain it. Which why in part it is so volatile. Because it is naked wealth it can disappear easily.

My premise is that wealth must be maintained. Wealth has to be supported by continual work.

One might argue that the wealth of bitcoin is actually maintained by the hundreds of thousands of CPU cycles that are used to mine new coins. That might be true. It is unclear how much value new coins bring today, which is an important question because the number of bitcoins is limited and at some date, there won't be any new coins. But let's imagine bitcoins are like gold. (Although I have never heard of anyone making a billion dollars from buying gold.) The historical price of gold is roughly correlated — to the nearest order of magnitude — to the price of mining gold. These days the cost of mining gold is roughly $1,200 "all-in" which includes the cost of  equipment, permits, transport, marketing, etc.  That is the same order of magnitude as the price of gold today.

The cost of mining a bitcoin today "all-in" (includes the cost of the hardware, shelter, support) is $15-20K.  If my premise is true — that wealth must be maintained by work — then over time the price of bitcoin should highly correlate with the cost of mining bitcoins.


The Technium

Law of Universal Uniqueness

We pride ourselves that every human being is slightly different. We have a unique face, unique fingerprints, unique voice, all of which are so distinctive that we can identify each other with them. Animals have the same uniquess (ask any herder or vet), and that is true not only for large animals but small animals and insects too. There is great individual variation among the tiniest creatures. And now we know that individuals vary because their genetic code varies by individual; no two chromosomes are the same.

The non-living world is the same. Among the inert, each individual specimen varies. Famously, no two snowflakes are identical. No two crystals of any substance is 100% identical. Their uniqueness is derived from slight differences in the environment they are grown in. Tiny imperceptible variations is temperature and purity of substance will generate differences in the crystal.

As far as we can see in the macro world, no two objects are exactly the same. Every tree is unique. Every rock is unique. Every cloud, every lake, every river. Every planet and every star in the galaxy is, to the best we can determine, unique as well.  No two worlds will be alike.

But down in the micro world we have a different assumption. The current orthodox dogma is that every atom of an element is exactly the same. All oxygen atoms are identical.  Of course, we know that atoms are not the indivisible bits we onced believe them to be, but are in fact composed of many sub-particles. But the orthodoxy is that these subatomic particles themselves are identical. All protons are the same; all quarks are the same.

It is very unlikely that the Law of Universal Uniqueness does not apply to the atomic world as well. The hard fact that the quantum level is almost defined by uncertainty means that there must be variation between entities. No two oxygen atoms could be the same because their very borders are uncertain. No two iron atoms are the same because none of their protons, electrons and neutrons are the same either. My bet is that as we continue to probe the sub-atomic world we'll come to see that there is a large variation between atoms and sub-particles. And that as in the human-scale world, this uniqueness matters. The variation is meaningful, not just trivial.

In all real things the Law of Universal Uniqueness applies. In fact, this will be one way to detect reality vs a simulation. If all items of a type are identical — at any level, particularly the base level — then you are in a simulation.

The Technium

Three Levels of Eugenics

Neither you nor I have consented to the genes we inherited. Our general makeup was dictated to us by our ancestors. I had no say in my allergies, my short stature, my baldness, my tone deafness, nor in my even my general temperamental bent. I have accepted all these traits as a given. As has every generation before me. But we will have more choice about this inheritence in the future. At some point we might clench our fists and rail against the gods for our genetic lot — as I am sure I would do if I had a serious genetic disability — and do something about it.  Everyone has inherited at least one fatal genetic disease we all share — it's called Old Age Death.

The vast majority of the genes in me, are in a very serious sense, not mine. They were given to me, and I will give them to my children and their children. And taken as a whole most of "my" genes are shared with all humans. Only a tiny tiny fraction may be different. Essentially my genes are a shared asset.  So what I do with my genes is not just about me. This is where genetic engineering gets interesting.

There are three levels of genetic engineering of humans:

  1. Altering an adult
  2. Altering an embryo
  3. Altering the germline

Each of these interventions should be treated slightly different.

1) Altering an adult is currently difficult to do, although it is being tried in different ways to treat inheritable diseases. The idea is to alter or replace areas of DNA that cause problems in an individual. The practical hurdles include delivery of the new DNA to the cells, getting the change to stick, and the fact that most diseases are caused by more than one gene.  The most successful delivery system so far discovered it to use modified viruses to "infect" a patient with the altered DNA. The complications of virus delivery are easy to envision. Our bodies are very good at detecting and resisting outside "not my body" stuff, including not-my-DNA, so even if we can change the genes of some working adult cells, getting the change to stick is difficult. Lastly, being able to modify many genes in different parts of the sequence at the same time is a big challenge. So far altering the genes of an adult is uncommon. However if it could be made to work well, easily, it would be the preferred way to alter genes. First the adult would give consent, and it would only affect them (assuming it was not a reproductive change), and the consequences need only be evaluated for one life.

2) Altering the embryo is easier to do, but has its own challenges. We might think that the embryo has not consented to the changes, which is true; but it has not consented to any of the other genes it is inheriting either. From its perspective, any genes it gets, come without consent. It did not choose its ancestors or parents. The challenge is the complexity of genes, and the fact that there are no free lunches, no gains without side effects.  The issue is our ignorance as parents and ancestors.

Let's say I make up a list of all the traits I would like to give my children: Super smart, able to run a marathon, no fear of heights, risk taking, extrovert, compassionate, photographic memory, empathetic, tall, thin, sonorous voice, easy going, no allergies, comfortable with math, good listener. Who would not want all these in their children?

But traits are not items that we can simply check off from a shopping list and download into the organism. They don't work that way. Yes, it is possible to insert a list of genes, but that does not mean you'll get a list of traits. Most traits are not generated by a single gene, but rather complex of genes. More importantly, even single gene traits are modified, offset, altered, or displaced by the action of other genes. A trait emerges from an ecosystem of genes, all interacting upon each other.

The challenge is the human proteins needed to make each of these to happen can conflict with each other. The proteins — created by the genes — needed for risk taking may be the ones that dampen good listening. There are genetic trade offs, in that you cannot optimize all traits. In other words there are genetic costs for each trait. To raise IQ might cost lowering something else, such as empathy. It's not that there is a zerosum quantity being conserved, it's that genes cannot do all that is possible. They are constrained by each other. It is like trying to design a machine: it cannot optimize all properties; it cannot be fastest, lightest, strongest, and cheapest at the same time. Everything is a trade off. Performance, reliability, speed, cost — all are trade off between them.

The dream of designer babies will wither within the first couple of generations of people trying it. Once the side-effect traits are revealed in practice, the emotional burden on the parents becomes a natural inhibitor. Parents will be faced with the fact that they deliberately engineered these traits into their child.  They chose to add the undesirable trait. They may have even accepted the downsides as the price for the upside. In natural inheritance, it's harder for a parent to beat themselves up for genes they have no control over.  And a child, too, my carry resentment for a parent's decision about their genes. This heavy pyschological role may relegate designer babies to removing diseases that anyone would be glad to rid. But even this alteration can have undesireable side-effects, which will become part of the agonizing calculus.

3) Altering the germline has the same conundrums as altering an embryo, but amplified many orders of magnitude. Ideally we would want to have many decades of experience in somatic gene therapy (altering one body) first before messing with all generations. Perhaps this is where regulation might come in. We want to have a clear idea of what side effects and downsides an alteration may have by seeing what happens in the body. Then we can let it flow in the line. So we might have a societal mechanism were proposed gene changes are approved or prohibited.

However this is a line of societal control that would be new to us. Right now, we allow all kinds of undesirable genes to proliferate in the human gene line through natural reproduction. We make no attempt to prevent people with the gene for X from having children. Such interference is seen as an affront. But if we began regulating synthetic genes in the human germ line, there would be an incentive to regulate genes from natural procreation as well.  Indeed it is easy to imagine that a society-wide resistance to engineering the human germ line is not due to the potential genetic changes that might come about, but to the societal control that it would entail. People would not resist designer babies; they would resist the intrusive social control required to manage breeding designer babies.  This reluctance could significantly delay and slow down germline genetic engineering.  There may in fact be societies in parts of the world that prohibit gene editing for this reason; to avoid any kind of genetic oversight.  This could be a natural inhibition to eugenics.



The Technium

Aliens Are Here on Earth

There is no Fermi paradox. The aliens are here, visiting Earth.

The evidence is blurry, but in a case of Occam's Razor, alien presence is by far the simplest logical explanation for the evidence we have of unidentified flying objects and close encounters of various kinds.

I have never seen a ufo nor have I had any personal experience with aliens, but I would say that I have no doubts they are here.  To me, if we take an unbiased look at all the evidence, it tends to point in one direction: we have visitors. Because there is no other explanation that generally fits what we observe.  No where on Earth can humans today create (or even fake) what we see. There is no secret big enough for this to be a planetary-wide dark project.

The main counter-argument to accepting the fact of alien visitation is that the evidence is literally blurry, not crystal clear (why be furtive?), ambiguous, and too extraordinary and consequential not to require clean unambiguous levels of proof.

If aliens are present, why don't they land on a lawn with a million cameras close up, walk out in the sunlight, and hand us some cool material we can hold?

Here is my theory, which is the story I tell myself;

The main story is that the aliens don't want to be seen.  They want to visit, but not be seen. But in order to inspect us, in order to see anything, they must be visible themselves. In order to pick up photons (to see), their sensor has to be sensitive to photons, and thus seeable.  In other words they cannot see us unless we can see them. So they appear briefly to inspect and then disappear.

They may be traveling with some kind of cloak, or they may travel in another dimension,  or they might travel is some kind of channel that is invisible to us. To get brief moments of viewing, they become visible to some degree. It is possible that what we see is a projection of sorts, a hologram, an artifact that is immaterial in essence, which is why they appear blurry, even close up. I'd also be willing to bet there are no fleshy beings inside. These are machine probes, or maybe teleportation, or virtual presences. Why do otherwise if you could? A ufo is like a cursor, a roving eye that is not really present.

The repeated appearances may actually be different probes, rather than the same ones. If there a a billion advanced civilizations in the universe, then we could expect at least one visit per day.

So what do they want? I think they are looking for cool new stuff.  They are looking for the only scarcities in a galaxy where advanced civilizations can make any natural material found in the universe: they are looking for new ideas. They are on a quest to visit strange civilizations with uniquely evolved beings who build weird AIs and machines, who will come up with novel inventions that are found no where else in the universe.  My story is that so far, we have invented nothing that an truly advanced civilization would find interesting, so they leave once they surmise this, and their flying orb of light vanishes in a poof.

Cool Tools

Ransom Notes/How We Feel/The Spice Trail

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Side-splitting party game
I played Ransom Notes with my family a couple of weeks ago and we laughed ourselves to tears. Each player grabs a handful of about 75 words printed on magnetic strips (they look like refrigerator magnets) from the inventory. Someone draws a card from the deck and reads the instructions. Example: “Tell someone you’ve clogged their toilet during a party.” Each player has to use their word magnets to form an answer on a small metal plate. Example, “I have elaborate booty chaos please not mad,” or “did dump tough disappear.” You are supposed to vote on the “best answer,” but we were too busy laughing hysterically to keep score. — MF

Beautifully-designed mood tracker
I stopped using mood tracking apps a while back, because I got better at recognizing slight mood shifts and anticipating my own needs in the moment — whether that’s asking for space, taking a screen break, or hugging my dog. But now I’m back on the mood tracking app bandwagon, because How We Feel is more than just a mood tracker — it’s created by scientists, therapists, designers and engineers, so not only does it help you find the right word for your feelings, it helps you understand the science behind emotions and provides strategies to regulate your mood with elegantly produced videos, and the analytics of your mood over time are displayed in beautifully-designed patterns and colors. It’s free and I believe it’s in beta, so it will only get better. — CD

The Spice Trail
Before oil, empires fought over gold. And before gold, empires fought over spice. There were six spices that opened up the Americas, and bound Asia and Europe together permanently. Kate Humble, a BBC host, journeys to the remote geographical sources of these 6 spices in her series The Spice Trail. The depth of her research and travels are astounding. I am in awe of how ignorant I was about these substances, and now I am grateful how intimate with them her travels made possible. There are 3 sessions available on YouTube: 1) Pepper and Cinnamon. 2) Nutmeg and Cloves. 3) Saffron and Vanilla. History + Travel + Food. Highly recommended. — KK

Simple sitting-posture correction
At least once a week, I move a tabletop mirror (similar to this one) onto my desk to help with my sitting posture. I keep it just to the right of me so it’s not distracting and I position it so that if I can see myself in it out of the corner of my eye, I know I’m sitting up straight. — CD

Touch tap the back of an iPhone
I only recently learned that you can configure an iPhone to perform an action by double- or triple-tapping the back. You can use it to take a screenshot or go to the home screen, for instance. I use it to open the camera app. Here’s how to do it. — MF

The best screw
One of our Cool Tools podcast guests, Jeff Waldman, author of Tools: The Ultimate Guide, turned me onto the best construction screw there is. It’s the GKR R4, used to bolt together wood framing, decking, or cabinets.  As he describes in our Cool Tools Show-and-Tell video, the engineering in this tiny piece of metal is amazing. It is designed to be super easy to attach large pieces of wood together very securely very fast. In my experience the GKR R4 screws are stronger and faster than comparable screws. — KK


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