The Technium

Making the Inevitable Obvious

Pets, Aliens, Spirits, and Slaves

There are roughly five different models we can adopt for our relationships with AIs. In the future our lives will be packed with thousands of different species of AIs, so we’ll relate in multiple ways depending on the type of AI were are using at the time.

Pets. Many, if not most, of the AIs we encounter will feel like pets or working animals to us. They will be engineered to be smart in specific, useful ways. Just like some of the animals we have selectively bred for our pets, these AIs will be optimized to respond to our emotions and gestures. They will have limited autonomy, not straying too far from their purpose. While bred to excel in certain jobs, they will lack awareness and intelligence in other dimensions outside their expertise. For example they might be really good at translation, but not navigation. This will summon our most common complaint about them: they are dumbschmarten. They are geniuses in some things, and idiots in others. We’ll swear at them, “how can you be so dumbschmarten?” MIT researcher Kate Darling has written an insightful book about this model, The New Breed. She argues that we already have a well-proven extensive framework in law and cultural norms dealing with the behavior of pets and work animals owned by humans which can be used for AIs and robots. And like the domesticated animals in our lives, these AIs will have recognizable variations and personalities. We’ll prefer one particular individual over another of the same type.

Aliens. More advanced AIs might be thought of as artificial aliens. Their smartness can be encased in degrees of self-awareness and consciousness. Like Spock or Data in Star Trek, their intelligence will be significant, but also non-human-like, or alien. This alienness is actually their chief attraction, because they think differently. Even if their cognition doesn’t wow us, the fact that they have an alien — different — approach makes them a good collaborators. These AIs need a sufficient human interface in order to keep us comfortable working with them. They will be conversational and will mirror our behavior. As we elevate the level of self-awareness and consciousness in these alien AIs, they become more difficult to work with. They can exhibit more attributes of mental dysfunction caused by self-reflection. The price of an alien AI collaborator will be their unfathomable thought process; always surprising us (good and bad) by their reactions. At the same time, some humans will find an affinity for their alienness and will develop careers as AI Whisperers. They will be comfortable working with them, and will be able to get the best from them, which other people will find magical.

Spirits. Many religions around the world perceive spirits or gods that inhabit places, buildings, and objects. This spirit animation is understood to be energetic and lively, but not necessarily highly intelligent. Many of the objects, structures, and systems we make in the future will have mild AI in them that can animate them in a lively way. They can adapt, learn, probe, respond as a living system might. Their intelligence is slow and diffuse, but persistent. It is distributed in the system, and therefore hard to eliminate or even damage. In this way, this kind of AI is like a spirit god inhabiting an old tree, or even a lamp. It has an enduring presence, and can respond to new things, adapt to injuries and assaults, and will persist for a long time, but otherwise it is obscure and vague. The primary purpose of these spirit AIs is to protect the system, and it will collaborate with us to the degree that we cooperate with it. We can imagine an AI spirit god in say the security system of the power grid, or in submarine, or even a piano. Keiichi Matsuda wrote a short essay that explores the idea of using the god metaphor for AIs.

Slaves. A well-worn model for relating to AIs will be to treat them as servants and slaves. To the extant that they are obedient and capable, they act as servants, doing the dirty, hard, unsavory jobs that need to be done. For some humans, these AIs are the perfect servant or slave because they are unambiguously not human, and therefore not deserving of our kindred compasion. They can be considered disposable, interchangeable, and without feelings. They are machines, and so we can excuse any harsh treatment of them. Whatever human-like characters they may gain — such as some levels of self-awareness — these will be cast as mechanical. No matter how much they grow or learn, they will be considered to be made not born, so will always be a machine, and a servant or slave to us. The problem with the master/slave relationship is that it is toxic to us. The AIs might not be bothered, but our human souls are corrupted when we treat sentient beings like slaves. People who mistreat animals will mistreat people, and people who mistreat AIs will also mistreat people. For this reason, we should educate and try to minimize the slave/servant mode of relating to AIs.

Overlord. In science fiction movies the sole model for powerful AI is to become our overlords. In these scenarios the AIs keep getting smarter until they exceed us in brainpower, then they take over and kill us. This mode is often called the Superhuman mode, or the Singularity. While a few prominent tech leaders believe superintelligence is a possibility, I think this mode is highly unlikely and the fear of it is totally misguided. I wrote a long essay on why superintelligent overlords won’t happen (see The Myth of Superhuman AI); the gist of the argument is that superintelligence (as defined in this context) is a distortion of what intelligence in humans actually is. The major human accomplishment of making many varieties of AI will be overcoming our ignorance of how our own minds work. We will discover that the Superhuman Overlord breaks the engineering rule that you can’t optimize everything in all directions and that any real creation — including cognition — must entail tradeoffs. But just as Superman is impossible in real life, yet the myth and archetype of a Superman endures, so even if the Superhuman AI is impossible, its mythic role will endure. There might be times when we feel we are subservient to an AI overlord, even if we aren’t, so this mode is important to recognize.

The types of relationships I don’t expect us to carry on with AIs are the classical human-to-human ones of friends, parent/child, co-workers, or lovers. I believe we’ll reserve these for other humans. I suspect the first attempts to replace humans with “friendly” humanish AIs won’t last. For instance, telephone call centers or retail stores that replace human operators with AIs that sound exactly like humans, will find that ordinary people will prefer to talk to a really intelligent alien rather than an almost-human. The small gap between real and fake feels weird in someone trying to pass as a human, while it is almost charming in an alien. Over time, designers will make AIs more alien rather than trying to fool us into thinking they are 100% human, in part because we are hard to fool this way. At the same time, as we fill the world with myriad new kinds of AIs, I can certainly imagine other models of relationships emerging beyond the five outlined here. If I have missed one that is already latent, please make a comment.

Class 1 / Class 2 Problems

There are two classes of problems caused by new technology. Class 1 problems are due to it not working perfectly. Class 2 problems are due to it working perfectly.

One example: many of the current problems with facial recognition are due to the fact that it is far from perfect. It can have difficulty recognizing dark skin tones; it can be fooled by simple disguises; it can be biased in its gendering. All these are Class 1 problems because this is still a technology in its infancy. Much of the resistance to widely implementing facial recognition stems from its imperfections. But what if it worked perfectly? What if the system was infallible in recognizing a person from just their face? A new set of problems emerge: Class 2 problems. If face recognition worked perfectly, there would be no escaping it, no way to duck out in public. You could be perfectly tracked in public, not only by the public, but by advertisers and governments. “Being in public” would come to have a different meaning than it does now. Perfect facial recognition would probably necessitate some new varieties of public commons, with different levels of disclosure. Furthermore, if someone could hack the system, it’s very trustworthiness would be detrimental. A faked ID could go far. We don’t question perfect tech; when was the last time you questioned the results of a calculator?

Another example: Self driving cars. Self-driving cars don’t self-drive very well. They are getting better, but for the next several decades their problems will be Class 1 problems of imperfect function. We will demand near perfect results from robot-drivers (a higher standard than we demand from human drivers), so all the hard problems of detecting edge cases, acts of god, and the weird behavior of human drivers will prevail. Eventually, the tech will be perfected, and then we will encounter its Class 2 problems. In the Class 2 regime, driving a car yourself may be outlawed as too dangerous. The imperfections of human drivers may be incompatible with perfect robot drivers. When the system fails (say from a solar storm) its perfection may not permit it to degrade gracefully to accommodate less-than perfect drivers. A well-functioning robot car infrastructure might lead to more intersections with pedestrians; we might become more comfortable walking alongside silent automobiles that never crashed — until they did.

Class 1 problems arise early and they are easy to imagine. Usually market forces will solve them. You could say, most Class 1 problems are solved along the way as they rush to become Class 2 problems. Class 2 problems are much harder to solve because they require more than just the invisible hand of the market to overcome them.

Take cell phones. The first versions of consumer cell phones were too big, they only worked in some places, they had frustratingly short battery life, and their rings and talking on them were disruptive. Most importantly only the rich could afford them, in a new inequality. At the time many saw these problems as inherent in the technology. Yet years of intense market forces fixed most of those problems, making smartphones that silently vibrated, and had quiet text, and became so cheap and ubiquitous every adult on the planet has one. Unlike computers, they rarely crash, are easy to operate, and are extremely reliable. They just work. The cell phone quickly jumped into Class 2 problems.

Whereas once the problem was “not everyone has this technology that doesn’t work very well” now the problem is “everyone has this technology that works very well.” We now contend with a technology that is present everywhere, all the time. Billions of people around the globe are connected 24/7, which allows all kinds of information, ideas, as well as rumors and disinformation to ricochet and touch everyone in an intimate way. The technology can suggest, recommend and “guide” us through the billion-eyed cacophony of everyone talking at once. Mob fears and beliefs can take over. Whispers are amplified and distorted as they cascade through friends of friends.

The difference between Class 1 and Class 2 problems is that Class 2 problems cannot be solved by the market alone. Entrepreneurial spirit and the profit-mode are perfectly capable of solving most Class 1 problems. But Class 2 tech has already been perfected, and is ubiquitous — it works and everyone has it. What can the market do in this case? Making it better and selling more aren’t options anymore; those are saturated. What can the market do if facial recognition works perfectly and is everywhere? If robot drivers are the default? If everyone is connected to everyone all the time? These kind of system challenges require a suite of extra-market levers, such emerging cultural norms, smart regulation, broad education, and reframing of the problem. These are soft, slower moving forces that are currently not given the attention they deserve.

To deal with ubiquitous accurate facial recognition when it comes (and it will come) requires a societal consensus on what it means to have a face that is both personal and public, to re-evaluate what public or private even means, to ensure symmetry between watchers and the watched, and to encourage expansive ideas around the very notions of identity of any type. A lot of this work is beyond the realm of dollars, and will take place in schools, courts, forums, communities, tweets, congresses, books, and late at night. When technologies reach the state that they work extremely well and become ubiquitous, their problem domain shifts from the realm of quick cycles powered by money, to the slower cycles of cultural imagination. To solve the problem of perfect facial recognition demands an expanded imagination, society wide, with new and different ideas about our face and identity.

The latest fashionable tech is crypto. While the math behind blockchain is utterly reliable the implementations so far have many Class 1 problems. Crypto is hard to use, easy to trip up, biased to early adopters, an energy hog, and of marginal utility except to make money. But all these problems will be overcome by entrepreneurs. Someday blockchain will be ubiquitous and boring. It will be perfected and its wide-spread adoption will enable many thousands of new types of organizations and relationships that we can’t even imagine today. Blockchain tech could unleash collaborations of several million members working on one project in real time, or orgs that are far more leaderless than today. When crypto succeeds that way, it will graduate to Class 2 problems. At that point, entrepreneurs alone won’t solve those. These new problems will require a social imagination to revision what orgs do and what they are for, to re-imagine what transparency in a group means, to re-evaluate the role of money, or even the meaning of money. These in turn will launch new social expectations and norms of behavior, and in turn as a consensus forms, new legislation to codify the norms.

Class 1 problems are caused by technology that is not perfect, and are solved by the marketplace. Class 2 problems are caused by technology that is perfect, and must be solved by extra-market forces such as cultural norms, regulation, and social imagination.

99 Additional Bits of Unsolicited Advice

I have another birthday, and another bunch of unsolicited advice. 


• That thing that made you weird as a kid could make you great as an adult — if you don’t lose it.

• If you have any doubt at all about being able to carry a load in one trip, do yourself a huge favor and make two trips.

• What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. At your funeral people will not recall what you did; they will only remember how you made them feel.

• Recipe for success: under-promise and over-deliver.

• It’s not an apology if it comes with an excuse. It is not a compliment if it comes with a request.

• Jesus, Superman, and Mother Teresa never made art. Only imperfect beings can make art because art begins in what is broken.

• If someone is trying to convince you it’s not a pyramid scheme, it’s a pyramid scheme.

• Learn how to tie a bowline knot. Practice in the dark. With one hand. For the rest of your life you’ll use this knot more times than you would ever believe.

• If something fails where you thought it would fail, that is not a failure.

• Be governed not by the tyranny of the urgent but by the elevation of the important.

• Leave a gate behind you the way you first found it.

• The greatest rewards come from working on something that nobody has a name for. If you possibly can, work where there are no words for what you do.

• A balcony or porch needs to be at least 6 feet (2m) deep or it won’t be used.

• Don’t create things to make money; make money so you can create things. The reward for good work is more work.

• In all things — except love — start with the exit strategy. Prepare for the ending. Almost anything is easier to get into than out of.

• Train employees well enough they could get another job, but treat them well enough so they never want to.

• Don’t aim to have others like you; aim to have them respect you.

• The foundation of maturity: Just because it’s not your fault doesn’t mean it’s not your responsibility.

• A multitude of bad ideas is necessary for one good idea.

• Being wise means having more questions than answers.

• Compliment people behind their back. It’ll come back to you.

• Most overnight successes — in fact any significant successes — take at least 5 years. Budget your life accordingly.

• You are only as young as the last time you changed your mind.

• Assume anyone asking for your account information for any reason is guilty of scamming you, unless proven innocent. The way to prove innocence is to call them back, or login to your account using numbers or a website that you provide, not them. Don’t release any identifying information while they are contacting you via phone, message or email. You must control the channel.

• Sustained outrage makes you stupid.

• Be strict with yourself and forgiving of others. The reverse is hell for everyone.

• Your best response to an insult is “You’re probably right.” Often they are.

• The worst evils in history have always been committed by those who truly believed they were combating evil. Beware of combating evil.

• If you can avoid seeking approval of others, your power is limitless.

• When a child asks an endless string of “why?” questions, the smartest reply is, “I don’t know, what do you think?”

• To be wealthy, accumulate all those things that money can’t buy.

• Be the change you wish to see.

• When brainstorming, improvising, jamming with others, you’ll go much further and deeper if you build upon each contribution with a playful “yes — and” example instead of a deflating “no — but” reply.

• Work to become, not to acquire.

• Don’t loan money to a friend unless you are ready to make it a gift.

• On the way to a grand goal, celebrate the smallest victories as if each one were the final goal. No matter where it ends you are victorious.

• Calm is contagious.

• Even a foolish person can still be right about most things. Most conventional wisdom is true.

• Always cut away from yourself.

• Show me your calendar and I will tell you your priorities. Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you where you’re going.

• When hitchhiking, look like the person you want to pick you up.

• Contemplating the weaknesses of others is easy; contemplating the weaknesses in yourself is hard, but it pays a much higher reward.

• Worth repeating: measure twice, cut once.

• Your passion in life should fit you exactly; but your purpose in life should exceed you. Work for something much larger than yourself.

• If you can’t tell what you desperately need, it’s probably sleep.

• When playing Monopoly, spend all you have to buy, barter, or trade for the Orange properties. Don’t bother with Utilities.

• If you borrow something, try to return it in better shape than you received it. Clean it, sharpen it, fill it up.

• Even in the tropics it gets colder at night than you think. Pack warmly.

• To quiet a crowd or a drunk, just whisper.

• Writing down one thing you are grateful for each day is the cheapest possible therapy ever.

• When someone tells you something is wrong, they’re usually right. When someone tells you how to fix it, they’re usually wrong.

• If you think you saw a mouse, you did. And, if there is one, there are more.

• Money is overrated. Truly new things rarely need an abundance of money. If that was so, billionaires would have a monopoly on inventing new things, and they don’t. Instead almost all breakthroughs are made by those who lack money, because they are forced to rely on their passion, persistence and ingenuity to figure out new ways. Being poor is an advantage in innovation.

• Ignore what others may be thinking of you, because they aren’t.

• Avoid hitting the snooze button. That’s just training you to oversleep.

• Always say less than necessary.

• You are given the gift of life in order to discover what your gift *in* life is. You will complete your mission when you figure out what your mission is. This is not a paradox. This is the way.

• Don’t treat people as bad as they are. Treat them as good as you are.

• It is much easier to change how you think by changing your behavior, than it is to change your behavior by changing how you think. Act out the change you seek.

• You can eat any dessert you want if you take only 3 bites.

• Each time you reach out to people, bring them a blessing; then they’ll be happy to see you when you bring them a problem.

• Bad things can happen fast, but almost all good things happen slowly.

• Don’t worry how or where you begin. As long as you keep moving, your success will be far from where you start.

• When you confront a stuck bolt or screw: righty tighty, lefty loosey.

• If you meet a jerk, overlook them. If you meet jerks everywhere everyday, look deeper into yourself.

• Dance with your hips.

• We are not bodies that temporarily have souls. We are souls that temporarily have bodies.

• You can reduce the annoyance of someone’s stupid belief by increasing your understanding of why they believe it.

• If your goal does not have a schedule, it is a dream.

• All the greatest gains in life — in wealth, relationships, or knowledge —come from the magic of compounding interest — amplifying small steady gains. All you need for abundance is to keep adding 1% more than you subtract on a regular basis.

• The greatest breakthroughs are missed because they look like hard work.

• People can’t remember more than 3 points from a speech.

• I have never met a person I admired who did not read more books than I did.

• The greatest teacher is called “doing”.

• Finite games are played to win or lose. Infinite games are played to keep the game going. Seek out infinite games because they yield infinite rewards.

• Everything is hard before it is easy. The day before something is a breakthrough, it’s a stupid idea.

• A problem that can be solved with money is not really a problem.

• When you are stuck, sleep on it. Let your subconscious work for you.

• Your work will be endless, but your time is finite. You cannot limit the work so you must limit your time. Hours are the only thing you can manage.

• To succeed, get other people to pay you; to become wealthy, help other people to succeed.

• Children totally accept — and crave — family rules. “In our family we have a rule for X” is the only excuse a parent needs for setting a family policy. In fact, “I have a rule for X” is the only excuse you need for your own personal policies.

• All guns are loaded.

• Many backward steps are made by standing still.

• This is the best time ever to make something. None of the greatest, coolest creations 20 years from now have been invented yet. You are not late.

• No rain, no rainbow.

• Every person you meet knows an amazing lot about something you know virtually nothing about. Your job is to discover what it is, and it won’t be obvious.

• You don’t marry a person, you marry a family.

• Always give credit, take blame.

• Be frugal in all things, except in your passions splurge.

• When making something, always get a few extras — extra material, extra parts, extra space, extra finishes. The extras serve as backups for mistakes, reduce stress, and fill your inventory for the future. They are the cheapest insurance.

• Something does not need to be perfect to be wonderful. Especially weddings.

• Don’t let your email inbox become your to-do list.

• The best way to untangle a knotty tangle is not to “untie” the knots, but to keep pulling the loops apart wider and wider. Just make the mess as big, loose and open as possible. As you open up the knots they will unravel themselves. Works on cords, strings, hoses, yarns, or electronic cables.

• Be a good ancestor. Do something a future generation will thank you for. A simple thing is to plant a tree.

• To combat an adversary, become their friend.

• Take one simple thing — almost anything — but take it extremely seriously, as if it was the only thing in the world, or maybe the entire world is in it — and by taking it seriously you’ll light up the sky.

• History teaches us that in 100 years from now some of the assumptions you believed will turn out to be wrong. A good question to ask yourself today is “What might I be wrong about?”

• Be nice to your children because they are going to choose your nursing home.

• Advice like these are not laws. They are like hats. If one doesn’t fit, try another.


For more see my previous 68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice.

Translation in Italian.

Concluding our 25-year Bet


Twenty five years ago I made a bet in the pages of Wired. It was a bet whether the world would collapse by the year 2020. I made the bet at the end of an interview I conducted with author Kirk Sale, who had some notoriety for smashing computers with a sledge hammer in the tradition of the Luddites. He predicted the collapse of civilization in 25 years. I asked him if he was willing to bet on his vision of global collapse. (You can read the interview and original bet here in the article Interview with the Luddite.) We agreed to bet $1,000 on the state of the world in 2020. Sale was betting on a trinity of three global disasters; I was betting on progress. At the time we agree to let our mutual book editor, Bill Patrick, hold our checks. As 2020 rolled around, what I thought was an easy win, turned out to be not so obvious, so Kirk and I agreed to let Bill Patrick made the big decision at the very end of 2020. So last night, December 31, 2020, Bill Patrick made his decision. I am posting it below.

In the run-up to the end of the year, I wrote out my defense of why I thought I should win, which I sent to Bill Patrick as he was making his decision. Also, Steven Levy spoke to me and Kirk Sale and Patrick, and wrote up the story of the bet for Wired, which you can read here.


Subject: Big Decision
Date: Thursday, 31 December 2020
From: William Patrick
To: Kirk Sale, Kevin Kelly

Thank you gentlemen for entrusting this grave decision to me.

In deciding who wins, I find myself with no choice but to be an originalist, working closely from the words on the page, and the most significant are “not even close,” and “convergence.”

To deal with the former, it seems best to try to score the contest round by round:

Global Environmental Disaster

Environmental problems have far more to do with old school, industrial technology (slowly being retired) than with information technology (which may well be the only hope for a solution). Even so, with fires, floods, and rising seas displacing populations; bugs and diseases heading north, ice caps melting and polar bears with no place to go; as well as the worst hurricane season and the warmest year on record, it’s hard to dispute that we are at least “close to” global environmental disaster.

Round goes to Kirk

Economic Collapse

Not much contest here. Even with a pandemic, unemployment is a problem, but nowhere near a crisis—at least not in the closing days of 2020. (Stay tuned.) The Dow recently hit 30,000, and the leading currencies are cruising along. (Bitcoin, an entirely new form of currency unimaginable in 1995, is soaring—nearing $20,000 when I last checked.) So, Kirk’s dire prediction was way off.

Round goes to Kevin

War between rich and poor, both within and among nations.

This is a toughie. Kirk’s apocalyptic forecast is especially problematic when you factor in huge economic gains in China and India, driven in large part by tech. On the other hand, how heavily do you weigh economic unrest as a factor in spawning the terrorism that triggered “forever wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia? And the economic dislocation among blue collar workers that allowed Trump’s faux populism to win them over? Meanwhile, anger at police abuses has led to massive protests from the left and bloody riots in the U.S. and Europe. It’s hard to say that “the poor rising up in rebellion” accurately characterizes the current state of the world (especially with that rising middle class in Asia) but it’s also hard to say, when you consider the unrest in the Islamic world and Trump supporters waving automatic weapons, that we’re “nowhere close.”

Round is a toss-up, with an edge to Kirk.

Which brings us to the exact wording—including punctuation—of the phrase that pays: I bet you US$1,000 that in the year 2020, we’re not even close to the kind of disaster you describe—a convergence of three disasters: global currency collapse, significant warfare between rich and poor, and environmental disasters of some significant size. The way this statement is constructed, Kirk must hit the trifecta to win, meaning that all three horses of his apocalypse must come through, i.e. the three must converge. Only one of his predictions was a winner; one came in neck and neck; and one was way back in the pack.

So, Kevin wins, but it’s a squeaker, and not much cause for celebration.

Let’s hope for “progress” over the next 25 years that is less equivocal.

Best for 2021.



Why I believe I won the 2020 Bet

It’s clear to any impartial observer that the world as we know it has not ended, although it might be close. But it has been close for a while, and that is the thrust of Kirk Sale’s argument. Twenty five years ago, it looked to him like the civilizational infrastructure that we humans had built up over millennia was near a breaking point, and that it could not last another 25 years. It was breaking down, Sale believed, because technological civilization was incompatible with nature. Technology and civilization operated at an unnatural scale, unnatural speed, and in a manner that destroyed living systems. But, the living system of the planet was so much larger than humans and their inventions, and both were so much more dependent on this natural world — although inventors refused to acknowledge this — that the living planet would hit back, exert its rules, and the invented world manufactured by technologists would collapse and crumble. Sale was certain this failure had already started, and he was so certain enough of its inevitable demise that he was willing to bet $1,000 that the collapse would be in full swing within 25 years.

Sale might be right that we are on the edge of that collapse today, and that in the next 25 years, by 2045, it will be in full swing. But that is a different bet. The claim we are trying to resolve in December 2020 is — as the bet states — are we in the full collapse right now?

California and Australia probably had their worst fire seasons in history and they were certainly triggered by human activity, including global warming, poor fire management, and the relentless incursion of urban sprawl. Powerful hurricanes are more common. And the arctic and Antarctica ice is melting. Those are large scale phenomena. If by some magic they never got worse, would we call the current state, this minute, “continent-wide environmental disaster” ? If we were to take a snapshot of the lives of the 7 billion people walking the Earth today, most of whom live in urban areas, and whose lives have only been mildly affected by the fires, floods and melting ice, they are not acting like they are in a collapse. If this is a disaster, it is a weird disaster that is not evident to its 7 billion inhabitants. Sale might argue that they are all sleepwalking in a disaster field and that the real impact around them is about to happen, and that could be true but that is a different bet.

The strongest case for a global environment is the tiniest one: the Covid-19 virus. This has indeed affected almost everyone on the planet, and it has affected their behavior in significant ways. You could make a more than poetic argument that the virus pandemic is a response by the living natural world to the unnatural densities of modern human cities. You could say that such contagious diseases are nature pushing back, and that the lockdowns, curfews, border closings, not to mention millions of deaths due to the virus, are an evident and actual environmental disaster. In many senses, I agree. It is fair to take a broad view of the environment to include the viral world, and this virus has indeed made a global negative impact.

It has even had a global financial impact, putting a pause on local enterprises, eliminating millions of jobs, and disrupting global trade. But the most amazing attribute of the Covid-19 pandemic has been how little effect it has had on the world compared to what could have happened. Given both the lethality and contagiousness of this virus, and the density of urban life, it could have, and in the past, would have, caused far far more damage than it did. It did not because of the global response to it. At an unprecedented scale and speed, civilization built a response to the virus. Around the world, billions of people simultaneously changed their behavior, while continuing their work for the most part. An impressively large part of the economy can be run by fewer people than ever before. And in less than a year, scientists came up with remedies for the illness, including ones that can potentially eliminate it. Science came up with treatments to diminish its damage on those who did get it. We are not out of this woods yet, and we could have done 100 times better, but compared to the total disaster it could have been, this is a story of how well civilization is working, not of how it collapses.

Here was my 1995 on-the-fly summary of our bet: “So you have multinational global currency collapse, social friction and warfare both between the rich and the poor and within nations, and you have continent-wide environmental disasters causing death and great migrations of people. All by the year 2020, yes? … I bet you US$1,000 that in the year 2020, we’re not even close to the kind of disaster you describe—a convergence of three disasters: global currency collapse, significant warfare between rich and poor, and environmental disasters of some significant size.”

That is a bit vague, due to my attempt to encapsulate Sale’s just-shared idea on the spot. But luckily Sale spent a few minutes articulating the conditions that could be measured in detail. He was forecasting a convergence of three events, and I’d like to respond to each of three “metrics” he suggested in detail here.

Sale says: “The first [measurement] would be an economic collapse. The dollar would be worthless, the yen would be worthless, the mark would be worthless—the dislocation we saw in the Depression of 1930, magnified many times over.” Even after an unprecedented global pandemic, unemployment figures are not bad, and no where near Depression levels of 1930. The dollar is not worthless, nor the yen or mark, or Euro. In fact, in terms of the global financial market, stocks are at an all-time high. This prediction is as wrong as it could get.

Sale says: “A second would be the distention within various societies of the rich and the poor, in which the poor, who comprise, let’s say, a fifth of society, are no longer content to be bought off with alcohol and television and drugs, and rises up in rebellion. And at the same time, there would be the same kind of distention within nations, in which the poor nations are no longer content to take the crumbs from our table, and rise up in either a military or some other form against the richer societies.” Let’s take the two parts one at a time. There is a measurable divergence of rich and poor in modern societies, with a few percent rich owning more than the rest of society altogether, but for some reason this fact has not led to rebellions, revolt, or armed uprisings at any scale. The imbalance of wealth is generally true around the world (and worst in the richest nations), while the absence of uprisings by the poor is generally true around the world, too. This may be because in most of the world, the poverty of the poorest has generally been reduced, even as the rich get much richer. So while the relative gap between the rich and poor grows, the poor around the world have gotten richer in their own eyes, and so they are not “rising up in rebellion.”

The following point — predicting conflict between rich and poor nations — also has not happened, probably for similar reasons. By and large, a middle class has emerged in most developing nations, and their poor have gotten less poor. Furthermore, the economic fate of any nation is more and more connected to other nations, via imports and exports, and going to war with wealthier nations doesn’t help your citizens. So, economic isolation is rightly seen as something to be avoided, and therefore there has been a refreshing diminishing of war between nations. It is clear Sale’s second metric failed to happen.

Sale says: “The third is accumulating environmental problems, such that Australia, for example, becomes unlivable because of the ozone hole there, and Africa, from the Sahara to South Africa, becomes unlivable because of new diseases that have been uncovered through deforestation. At any rate, environmental catastrophes on a significant scale.” Sale came close to being right with “new diseases” — Covid-19 — even though it is unlikely due to deforestation. (Covid is more likely due to Chinese propensity to gather, farm raise and sell wild animals in horrible conditions.) Yet, as I mentioned above, this could be seen as an environmental failure due to the pressures of urban life on the natural world. However, despite a bad fire season, Australia is not unlivable (at least according to the 23 million living there in 2020) and ditto for Africa. Both continents have experienced Covid-19 and neither are unlivable because of this new disease. Sales’ last phrase is harder to judge: are there “environmental catastrophes on a significant scale”? We could talk about over-fishing in the ocean, and I’d agree that it is an environmental problem on a significant scale. Ice melting in the arctic regions is another. Whether these are recoverable problems or outright catastrophes — Australia unlivable — right now is something I’d debate. Being generous I’d agree that this prediction is half-true.

However the bet was the convergence of all three catastrophes, a trifecta of collapse, a multi-dimensional apocalypse. This did not happen. Sale might argue that it is all about to happen, and indeed it might. But that is a different bet. That is another 25-year bet. That bet would say that in the year 2045, the three collapses he outlined — financial collapse, war between rich and poor, and an unlivable world due environmental catastrophes — would be in full swing.

In my boldness at that moment, I said that none of Sale’s predictions would be close to what happens. “Close” is a poor choice of words for a bet. It is 100% arbitrary. If we had written out the bet I would not allowed its use. I felt we were betting on Sale’s description of the convergent apocalypse and by “not close to it” I meant that no one would be confused or be perplexed by what they saw.

I don’t think most people today would say we are close to the convergence of the three apocalypse. We may be closer (or at least further along) on the environmental axis, but I believe if you asked the average citizen on this planet about whether we are close to the three apocalypse today, this minute, they would say no. If you read them Sale’s description and asked them to look around and judge whether that is what they saw, it does not look anything like the disasters that Sale specified. I would say it does look close to what he describes.

My optimism that we are not close to global disaster is not based on thinking we have fewer problems than we do. I see real harms in our world today, real big problems, especially global-scale problems. Rather, my optimism is based on our improving ability to devise solutions to them. The list of troubles in the future will certainly increase in the next 25 years — and most of those troubles will be triggered by the technological solutions we make today — but we are rapidly inventing and improving the tools and the means for seven billion humans to create a million ways to overcome them. That is what I am betting on. Kirk Sale lost the bet not because he misjudged our problems, but because he misjudged our capacity to deal with them.

I am so certain of our capacity to keep improving that I offer Kirk Sale a double-or-nothing bet. He may believe the problems he clearly sees will surely soon spin out of control. If they have not brought collapse in the last 25 years they certainly will in the next 25 years. I, on the other hand, believe we won’t be anywhere near collapse in 25 years. I am willing to bet $2,000 on that. I believe that we are in fact on the eve of a 25-year period of global progress and prosperity, the likes of which we have not seen before on this planet. In 25 years, poverty will be rare, and middle class lifestyle the norm. War between nations will also be rare. A bulk of our energy will be renewables, slowing down climate warming. Lifespans continue to lengthen. I’ll bet on it.


Kirk Sale did not take me up on the double or nothing offer.

The Essential Workshop Tool Kit

My young adult son needs a tool kit. He needs a small set of versatile tools to make and repair things. Projects could be making simple furniture, doing home repairs, creating his art projects, building sets for his photography, making gifts, crafting Halloween costumes, inventing equipment for his adventures, etc. I have assembled what I consider to be an essential set of modern tools that would enable him, or anyone, to make 90% of whatever they imagined. For the most part, I tend toward cheap tools, because I believe in starting cheap and earning better tools through experience, so you know what you want. The core of a modern tool kit is a set of cordless power tools. With basic cordless power tools you can go quite far. I went with a combo set, because it is hard to beat the price, especially when they are on sale. (Check The total cost of all these is $1200. This may seem to be a lot, but considering that you get a full workshop of tools and some of them will last a lifetime, it is quite a bargain. Anyone who knows tools will look at my list and see an essential tool that is missing. That’s the nature of a list like this. I’ll leave the joy of adding to the collection to my son.

The tools in this list link to Amazon, where you can see more details about the tools. (The affiliate link is my son’s. As an Amazon Affiliate he earns from qualifying purchases.)

The tools:

Cutting mat — Perfect surface for cutting with blades, also soft mat for working on delicate projects, also protects bench surface. 24″ x 36″.

Long metal straight edge — used for drawing lines and cutting materials.

Retractable utility blade — Big exacto knife. Main thing is replaceable break-off blade. Olfa retractable.

Staple gun — Basic for stapling fabric, mesh, sheets.

Spring clamps x 4 — Used for holding wood, paper, dowels, pipes, anything thinner than an inch.

Bar clamps x 2 — Used for wider pieces. 12 inches.

16 foot tape measure — Big enough for rooms, small enough for projects. Komelon Gripper.

Small level — All that is needed.

Step drill set x 3 — For drilling thin materials like plastic or sheet metal.

Vise grips x 3 — Small and large and long.

Speed square — For right angles.

CA glue + Accelerator — Accelerator turns super glue instant.

5 minute Epoxy — Two part bottles will last a long time.

Wire stripper — Makes electronics so much easier. Irwin vise grip stripper.

Solder gun — Basic kit with solder and solder remover.

Electrical twist connections — Assortment for connecting wires.

Silicone Wire rolls — 22 gauge for easier electronic projects.

Multimeter — For electronic projects and troubleshooting.

Masking tape — Used for masking and more. 2 inch wide.

White out — For labeling everything.

Digital calipers — For measuring small things.

Center punch x 2 — For making starter holes.

Set of drill bits — Basic, titanium, Dewalt.

Japanese hand saw — Basic saw.

Pliers x 5 — Assorted set of channel locks, needlenose, nippers.

Basic hammer — Standard 16 ounce.

Snips — Straight cut for cutting metal.

Pipe wrench — For plumbing.

Pipe cutter — For cutting copper pipe, conduit, and other lightweight pipes

PVC pipe cutter — For cutting plastic pipe

Vise — Basic workshop vise.

Cordless tool combo set — Makita 7-piece cordless tools: drill, impact driver, circular saw, recipo saw, grinder, blower.

Cordless jig saw — Makita jig saw.

68 Bits of Unsolicited Advice

It’s my birthday. I’m 68. I feel like pulling up a rocking chair and dispensing advice to the young ‘uns. Here are 68 pithy bits of unsolicited advice which I offer as my birthday present to all of you.
(For my 69th birthday I made another batch.)

• Learn how to learn from those you disagree with, or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.

• Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.

• Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.

• Don’t be afraid to ask a question that may sound stupid because 99% of the time everyone else is thinking of the same question and is too embarrassed to ask it.

• Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?”, until there is no more.

• A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.

• Gratitude will unlock all other virtues and is something you can get better at.

• Treating a person to a meal never fails, and is so easy to do. It’s powerful with old friends and a great way to make new friends.

• Don’t trust all-purpose glue.

• Reading to your children regularly will bond you together and kickstart their imaginations.

• Never use a credit card for credit. The only kind of credit, or debt, that is acceptable is debt to acquire something whose exchange value is extremely likely to increase, like in a home. The exchange value of most things diminishes or vanishes the moment you purchase them. Don’t be in debt to losers.

• Pros are just amateurs who know how to gracefully recover from their mistakes.

• Extraordinary claims should require extraordinary evidence to be believed.

• Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Hangout with, and learn from, people smarter than yourself. Even better, find smart people who will disagree with you.

• Rule of 3 in conversation. To get to the real reason, ask a person to go deeper than what they just said. Then again, and once more. The third time’s answer is close to the truth.

• Don’t be the best. Be the only.

• Everyone is shy. Other people are waiting for you to introduce yourself to them, they are waiting for you to send them an email, they are waiting for you to ask them on a date. Go ahead.

• Don’t take it personally when someone turns you down. Assume they are like you: busy, occupied, distracted. Try again later. It’s amazing how often a second try works.

• The purpose of a habit is to remove that action from self-negotiation. You no longer expend energy deciding whether to do it. You just do it. Good habits can range from telling the truth, to flossing.

• Promptness is a sign of respect.

• When you are young spend at least 6 months to one year living as poor as you can, owning as little as you possibly can, eating beans and rice in a tiny room or tent, to experience what your “worst” lifestyle might be. That way any time you have to risk something in the future you won’t be afraid of the worst case scenario.

• Trust me: There is no “them”.

• The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.

• Optimize your generosity. No one on their deathbed has ever regretted giving too much away.

• To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.

• The Golden Rule will never fail you. It is the foundation of all other virtues.

• If you are looking for something in your house, and you finally find it, when you’re done with it, don’t put it back where you found it. Put it back where you first looked for it.

• Saving money and investing money are both good habits. Small amounts of money invested regularly for many decades without deliberation is one path to wealth.

• To make mistakes is human. To own your mistakes is divine. Nothing elevates a person higher than quickly admitting and taking personal responsibility for the mistakes you make and then fixing them fairly. If you mess up, fess up. It’s astounding how powerful this ownership is.

• Never get involved in a land war in Asia.

• You can obsess about serving your customers/audience/clients, or you can obsess about beating the competition. Both work, but of the two, obsessing about your customers will take you further.

• Show up. Keep showing up. Somebody successful said: 99% of success is just showing up.

• Separate the processes of creation from improving. You can’t write and edit, or sculpt and polish, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you invent, don’t select. While you sketch, don’t inspect. While you write the first draft, don’t reflect. At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgement.

• If you are not falling down occasionally, you are just coasting.

• Perhaps the most counter-intuitive truth of the universe is that the more you give to others, the more you’ll get. Understanding this is the beginning of wisdom.

• Friends are better than money. Almost anything money can do, friends can do better. In so many ways a friend with a boat is better than owning a boat.

• This is true: It’s hard to cheat an honest man.

• When an object is lost, 95% of the time it is hiding within arm’s reach of where it was last seen. Search in all possible locations in that radius and you’ll find it.

• You are what you do. Not what you say, not what you believe, not how you vote, but what you spend your time on.

• If you lose or forget to bring a cable, adapter or charger, check with your hotel. Most hotels now have a drawer full of cables, adapters and chargers others have left behind, and probably have the one you are missing. You can often claim it after borrowing it.

• Hatred is a curse that does not affect the hated. It only poisons the hater. Release a grudge as if it was a poison.

• There is no limit on better. Talent is distributed unfairly, but there is no limit on how much we can improve what we start with.

• Be prepared: When you are 90% done any large project (a house, a film, an event, an app) the rest of the myriad details will take a second 90% to complete.

• When you die you take absolutely nothing with you except your reputation.

• Before you are old, attend as many funerals as you can bear, and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.

• For every dollar you spend purchasing something substantial, expect to pay a dollar in repairs, maintenance, or disposal by the end of its life.

•Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.

• When crisis and disaster strike, don’t waste them. No problems, no progress.

• On vacation go to the most remote place on your itinerary first, bypassing the cities. You’ll maximize the shock of otherness in the remote, and then later you’ll welcome the familiar comforts of a city on the way back.

• When you get an invitation to do something in the future, ask yourself: would you accept this if it was scheduled for tomorrow? Not too many promises will pass that immediacy filter.

• Don’t say anything about someone in email you would not be comfortable saying to them directly, because eventually they will read it.

• If you desperately need a job, you are just another problem for a boss; if you can solve many of the problems the boss has right now, you are hired. To be hired, think like your boss.

• Art is in what you leave out.

• Acquiring things will rarely bring you deep satisfaction. But acquiring experiences will.

• Rule of 7 in research. You can find out anything if you are willing to go seven levels. If the first source you ask doesn’t know, ask them who you should ask next, and so on down the line. If you are willing to go to the 7th source, you’ll almost always get your answer.

• How to apologize: Quickly, specifically, sincerely.

• Don’t ever respond to a solicitation or a proposal on the phone. The urgency is a disguise.

• When someone is nasty, rude, hateful, or mean with you, pretend they have a disease. That makes it easier to have empathy toward them which can soften the conflict.

• Eliminating clutter makes room for your true treasures.

• You really don’t want to be famous. Read the biography of any famous person.

• Experience is overrated. When hiring, hire for aptitude, train for skills. Most really amazing or great things are done by people doing them for the first time.

• A vacation + a disaster = an adventure.

• Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.

• Learn how to take a 20-minute power nap without embarrassment.

• Following your bliss is a recipe for paralysis if you don’t know what you are passionate about. A better motto for most youth is “master something, anything”. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy, and eventually discover where your bliss is.

• I’m positive that in 100 years much of what I take to be true today will be proved to be wrong, maybe even embarrassingly wrong, and I try really hard to identify what it is that I am wrong about today.

• Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.

• The universe is conspiring behind your back to make you a success. This will be much easier to do if you embrace this pronoia.


For my 69th birthday I made another batch of additional unsolicited advice.

I made a video recording of me reciting these 68 bits of advice from a rocking chair, here.

[You can follow me @kevin2kelly. Join my newsletter Recomendo for 6 recommendations per week.]

Translation in French. Portuguese. German. Arabic. RussianItalianSpanish 1. Spanish 2. Greek. Finnish. Korean. Vietnamese. Chinese. Lithuanian. Danish. Indonesian. Hebrew. Other translations welcomed. Improved translations also welcomed.

Second Order Risk

There are two orders of risk: First Order and Second Order.

We see car accidents and we read about plane accidents yet we use both cars and planes. We wear a seat belt, and we fly on planes, because we know the risk profile of automobiles and planes — high risk for cars, low risk for planes. The risks of flu, Ebola, lightning, vaccinations, skydiving, of most things are known statistically. Since we know the risk profile we can calculate our response, and how much risk we want to accept. This known risk profile is First Order Risk. We can research the risk and then evaluate our response.

The issue with the novel covid-19 is that its risk profile is completely unknown. It is what we can call a Second Order Risk. We don’t know how contagious it is; we don’t know how lethal it is; we don’t know the age, condition, type of person it favors. And we probably won’t know with any certainty for several years. So we can’t calculate our response. It’s a known unknown. (The unknown unknown is a Third Order Risk.)

Therefore this great uncertainty about the covid-19 virus creates a Second Order Risk profile, and that profile with its huge range of limits suggests extraordinary caution is warranted — even if it laters proves to be a low First Order Risk.

Virus Scenarios

[Written 28/02/2020. Updated 05/03/2020. Updated 15/05/2020.]

My guess is that we’ll be wrong about our assumptions and first impressions about the Covid-19 virus. I just don’t know how we’ll be wrong. In an attempt to not be wrong myself, I am trying to open myself it unexpected scenarios, since whatever does eventually happen will probably be unexpected.

There are a lot of expected scenarios for the virus. One expected scenario that it will be a massive truly global pandemic that kills hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. It started in China, then hops around the world, constantly escaping the noose of containment, until every country is eventually affected. That scenario is entirely possible; no one would be surprised if it happened, including me. After all, the flu virus kills hundreds of thousands of people even year, so this virus needs to be “only” as mortal as flu.

Another expected scenario is that this is a deadly disease that needs drastic efforts like massive quarantines, and that through great effort like these measures, the disease is stamped out early without huge loses. And with enough global cooperation, Covid-19 could be eradicated like SARS was. Also possible.

Another scenario being articulated in recent days is that this coronovirus will sort of be controlled in the coming months, that it may diminish as summer comes, but not be eradicated, and will show up next winter as fierce or even fiercer. It might even become like flu, a perennial plague. Very possible.

But I don’t think these are unexpected enough. So I am working on more unusual ones. One unlikely but possible scenario is that this “novel” virus is not really novel. Because its symptoms are generally mild and very similar to other symptoms from flu and other viruses, it may have been circulating around the globe for a while, without a name. It can be transmitted by people who have no symptoms at the time or even while they have the virus. If the majority of people infected don’t ever get sick, but easily pass it on, then it can spread widely unseen. Evidence for this is new virus DNA sequencing which suggests the first cases of Covid-19 in Washington state may have been there 6 weeks earlier, but was completely undetected. So for six weeks the virus is spreading with little damage. But once people begin to look, and devise a test, the next person to get sick is tested, and it seems as if the virus just appeared, when it has been there a while.

But a few are susceptible to it and die. Because the symptoms are not unique to it,  this illness is assumed to be flu or something else. Then something happened in China to produce notice — maybe someone created a test for it — and then as people died, the new test found many people positive. So the test was spread around and with that we suddenly find many positive results. Then when a few people later get sick in distant countries like Iran, the test shows positive results because the virus was already there, maybe even years earlier.

In this scenario, cases will start to pile up very quickly, not because the virus is spreading, but because testing is spreading.  One way to check the real rate of infection is to begin to test random asymptomatic people to see what percent are infected. It could very well be at least 2% of the random population right now.

If this scenario is true then at some point in the future there’ll be evidence found for the virus in samples way before the “first” known case in Wuhan in fall of 2019. Perhaps the virus underwent a mutation in Wuhan, a mutation that current tests don’t distinguish from earlier forms.

Yet another alternative scenario: Perhaps today there are already more than one variant of Covid-19, and these mutations are not equally detected by current tests. A recent study says there may be two variants with different levels of potency, which could explain why some clusters are more deadly than others. There could be multiple variants in the wild with different rates of contagion. It’s possible the current test may be unreliable in detecting all the variants, either way, over-reporting and under-reporting different strands.

Another scenario is that there is more than one variant of the virus and each of these variants have different lethality and infection rates. So the virus that is raging through Italy and causing a lot of damage may not be the same virus that is creeping through the US. There is some suggestions that the virus in the US is related to the one from Wuhan, but the actual details of difference may matter greatly. As far as I can tell the tests the US is using to identify the virus is not the same test that is being used in Italy or Iran. So it is possible that different tests are masking the different viruses, which may be creating different symptoms.  An extension of this same scenario is that there may be more than two variants of the disease with different behaviors circulating in the same population, and that the current tests are not detecting this difference.

In the same vein, another scenario is that the virus is being over-reported because it is being over-diagnosed. Perhaps the tests that are being used in places like Iran, Italy or Korea are not all testing the same thing. How did all these stations get the same test so fast? How was Korea able to test 10,000 people per day, as they claim. What exactly are they testing. Who made these tests? What equipment are they using? Because I was curious I found two firms making Covid-19 test kits. PrimerDesign is UK-based and claims to be shipping kits to the US. No price is given on their website. The other is Chinese firm Sansure, which seems to have a device or system, rather than a kit. There seems to be a suggestion that either/both of these are selling their systems to public health departments round the world and this is what is being used to test for the virus, but it is not clear to me they are. If not them, what is the test they are using in the hundreds to test for this virus?

From recent New York Times news reports from Italy (Feb 28, 2020) it seems that if you use one kind of test and test people who have no symptoms, many will test positive for Covid-19. What’s odd is that the positive tested have no contact with anyone with symptoms either. Likewise, as reported, in Germany, officials spent great effort to determine the chain of infection for a German man who tested positive for Covid-19 but were unable to link him to anyone infected. The virus might be especially transmittable with zero symptoms, or the tests are inaccurate.

It’s possible this virus will join the flu virus as a perennial plague, one that we never get rid of, that continues to mutate and returns every year. It could be another flu that we try to deal with vaccines but will still prey on the old and infirmed.  It might be that there will not be some moment, so week when the epidemic is declared over. Instead, there’s just a background level of outbreaks as it migrates around the world.

Some conspiracists offer the scenario that the virus is man-made and escaped from China’s first level 4 biohazard research lab which was built recently in Wuhan. A deliberate release of a pathogen seems very unlikely given how much it hurt China. It is possible some research experiment could have escaped but since the Level 4 facility is designed against this, I’d call this unlikely, but possible.

Another radical scenario that is also in the conspiratorial camp is that there have been massive numbers of cases and deaths in China, maybe hundreds of times more than they are reporting, which suggests that the virus is extremely potent and contagious, far more than current data suggests. The top-level secrecy and censoring in China make this scenario believable but it’s also unlikely given the virus’s behavior in other countries outside of China. And the scale of the cover-up needed seems very unlikely given my own experience in China: they would be the first to report it to each other.

If my scenario about Covid-19 being older and already global, here are some predictions that would be testable: 1) We would find retro samples of symptom-free blood more than a year old will test positive. 2) Consensus that in 2019 and in early 2020 multiple mutants and variants of Covid-19 were on the loose. 3) Because of its asymptomatic transmission it will still be found in the wild a year from now.

There are probably more scenarios that I have not considered, but should. Please leave a comment if you have one.

Recent Readings 14

The emergence of YouTube sites that provide virtual friendship, companionship, and cater to loneliness. Link.

The Economist interviewed an AI to ask it about the future of AI. It gave coherent answers. But they weren’t what the AI thought. The answers it gave were what the AI thought the internet thought. Still, impressive. Link

Science has not destroyed religion. Link.

Important uncertainty: the untested legality of streaming video games, particularly for profit (see Twitch). Link.

Innovation and discoveries are becoming more expensive because the easy ones have already been found. Future innovations will cost more. Link

Pure Gibsonian future: Red state American farmers hacking their tractors with Ukrainian pirateware. Link

Universal translation by AI will increase global prosperity. When eBay improved its translation functions it increased their commerce by 11 percent. Imagine what prosperity will come from earbuds that give instant, free, real time language translation to all workers. Link.

Bill Gibson had some interesting things to say in this interview about his new book Agency.

“I have a nagging suspicion that evolution (a wholly random process, though too few of us understand that) has left most of us unable to grasp the idea of an actual apocalypse being possibly of several centuries’ duration. The jackpot began one or two hundred years ago, it seems to me. I myself can dimly recall a world before utterly ubiquitous injection-molded plastics. Toys were of metal, wood, rubber. Styrene was as exotic as Gore-tex, briefly. I’m yet to discover any record of a culture whose imagined apocalypse was a matter of centuries. I doubt anyone has ever stood out on a street corner wearing a sandwich board reading, “THE WORLD IS COMING TO AN END IN A FEW HUNDRED YEARS.” Even before we became as aware as some of us now are of climate change, and of the fact that our species has inadvertently caused it, we seemed to be losing our sense of a capital-F Future. Few phrases were as common throughout the 20th century as “the 21st century,” yet how often do we see “the 22nd century”? Effectively, never.”

Recent Readings, 13


One of the best future scenarios of the next decade — 2020s —  by @fredwilson. It is hard to be not obvious and not implausible at the same time, but Fred is neither. It helps he is optimistic. What Will Happen In The 2020s.”

This is true: “To a degree still difficult for outsiders to absorb, China is preparing to shape the twenty-first century, much as the U.S. shaped the twentieth.” From the must read article:

The question “why do the Chinese people like their current government?” is answered here with great intelligence, insight and empathy. I think this article is 100% correct from my personal experience of my extensive time in China. Link.

Deep fakes are getting better each day. Here is a holiday melody of one actor doing a series of impressions speaking, while the AI does an impression visually. Link.

It is a thing: Mukbang (mook bong) are live streaming videos of the host eating, often over-eating huge meals. It started in Korea and is now a sizable global phenom. Link.

Quibi is a $1 billion experiment in video streaming. Some if its ideas will work, many won’t. We won’t know which until it launches. Link. 

New trend: naming boys with action-words, like Charger, Trooper, Stryker. Great article about new styles in naming children. Link.

The case for a 100-year bond. Link.

Using state-of-the-art technology to add a glowing trace of a hockey puck on TV was a brilliant innovation that did not stick. Perhaps it was too early to be accepted, but it did change sports viewing. And perhaps the time is right to bring it, or something like it, back. The history of the glowing puck:

In response to highly overworked urban lives, some young Chinese are dropping out, almost becoming Chinese hippies. Here is a short video on early hippy pioneers.

Major change brewing: “Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life.” Good summary anticipation. Link.