A Connected Planet, Digital Telepathy And Other Passions Of Ramez Naam

Editor’s note: Dan Kaplan helps startups tell their stories. He’s done marketing for Twilio, Asana, and Salesforce, and is preparing to launch Dispatches From The Future, a podcast about the future of humanity.

Ramez Naam started his career in technology at Microsoft in 1995, where for six years, he  worked on early versions of Internet Explorer and Outlook before launching a nanotechnology company in 2001.

Those were the early days for nanotechnology — before everyone realized that its real commercial applications were at least a couple of decades away.

Though ahead of its time, Naam’s startup idea was sound: to create software that made modeling nanodevices easy, fast and relatively cheap. It was “AutoCAD for nanobots,” even though no one would have called it that back then.

But, of course, no one needed Autocad for nanobots in 2001, so that was that. With the last nail hammered into the coffin of Naam’s nanotech startup, he headed back to Microsoft and began working on Bing.

“We made those guys at Google work hard,” he says of Microsoft’s Quixotic, multi-billion-dollar battle for a meaningful position in web search.

Although he enjoyed managing search engineers and competing with Google for the defining battleground of the present, Naam’s heart and mind lived for the future.

It’s where they belonged.

In 2010, he again left Microsoft to stake his own claim. He had no idea he’d eventually write novels, but he knew he wanted to write. He started by publishing two non-fiction books about the fate of humanity.

The first, More Than Human is about what happens if we manage to navigate the epic challenges of the next 20 years intact. Over the next few decades, Naam hypothesizes, nanotech, cybernetics, genetic engineering, and brain-computer interfaces will converge, and the human species will evolve. The second, The Infinite Resource, is about the power of human ingenuity and the critical importance of social and technological innovation in ensuring civilization doesn’t end with a fiery bang.

We’re approaching this point where the majority of the planet is connected, and that is gigantic. It’s gigantic for our collective brain power; it’s gigantic for our ability to access information; and for spreading literacy and education.

The Singularity: more telepathy, less conscious AI

While Naam’s vision of post-human evolution has parallels with the technological Singularity envisioned by Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, it branches off in a few key ways. Unlike Vinge and Kurzweil, Naam doesn’t picture a super-intelligent artificial intelligence improving itself with singular aplomb.

Instead, he sees a nexus of the human brain and the Internet, where a set of insanely-unbelievable-yet-entirely-plausible, sci-fi-worthy technologies converge to create telepathic human beings.

Unlike the humans we know today, who rely on verbal and written language to communicate their feelings and ideas, these telepathic humans will have the ability to communicate wordlessly, mind-to-mind.

In the wake of our minds developing a literal connection, the eons-long distinctions between “self” and “other” will get fuzzy. In some cases, they will fade away. The collective consciousness that emerges would be something radically new — a bit ineffable, totally profound.

After writing his two non-fiction books, Naam took to speculative fiction to articulate his vision. In a trilogy of novels, Nexus, Crux and Apex, the futurist outlines his thesis on how digital telepathy will shape the world.

The final installment in the trilogy, Apex, is due out in May. I took the opportunity to sit down with the author to talk about what’s happening now and what’s coming next.

Mobile Internet access going global

DK: What is the most exciting technological development right now?

Ramez: Hands down, it’s the combination of Internet and mobile bringing the entire world online. We’re approaching this point where the majority of the planet is connected, and that is gigantic. It’s gigantic for our collective brain power; it’s gigantic for our ability to access information; and for spreading literacy and education.

Maybe 10, 15, 20 years ago, we talked about the digital divide. We were afraid that only rich people would have digital tech and the poor people would be left behind. While there’s a little bit of that, the price has just come down so fast. It has really been a huge equalizing force for the world.

DK: Tell me more about this equalizing force.

RN: We’ve seen over time that countries that have the best economic growth are those that have good governance, and good governance comes from freedom of communication.

It comes from ending corruption. It comes from a populace that can go online and say, “This politician is corrupt, this administrator, or this public official is corrupt.” Those things become possible when everyone has a smartphone.

VR is awesome, but it’s got nothing on an Internet-connected contact lens

DK: What else in tech excites you right now?

RN: Virtual reality and augmented reality will be huge. I’ve tried Oculus Rift; I’ve played with the Steam VR rig. Both are mind-blowing. In a traditional video game setting, in a first-person shooter, you can see a tower in the distance. You can walk up to that tower and use your controller to look up.

In a VR setting, you tilt your head up, and you really have the vertigo and the sense that it goes up to infinity, and it’s like you’re in New York City or Dubai, and you’re looking up at a giant skyscraper.

You have a sense of awe. But I am even more excited about augmented reality, because it’s about enriching more than the 10 percent of our daily life that we spend watching movies or playing games. Augmented reality is about enriching the real world.

DK: Augmented reality has always sounded amazing, but really, really hard to get right.

RN: That is true. The ideal AR device is something like a contact lens, but it comes with power and battery issues, interface issues, distraction issues, contrast and brightness issues. But if we can solve that, I think augmented reality is huge: It’s taking the Internet and bringing it to life — all of the time.

You sprinkle this neural dust throughout the brain and it communicates ultrasonically with sound waves to pedestals that are like base stations.

Water shortages, food crises, and rapid political changes

DK: Let’s talk big-picture stuff…the challenges humanity is facing in the next five, 10 and 20 years. What challenges do you see on the horizon both near- and medium-term that are critical to figure out?

RN: There are a lot: climate change, which most of us accept. Fresh water shortages, which are growing in frequency and severity. The need for more food to feed a growing population. Land to grow that food: Agriculture is the No. 1 driver of deforestation, which is a hard problem to deal with. So these big environmental challenges are a big slice of it.

But there’s another set of challenges that arise from the collision of old societies, old forms of governance, and these new ways of doing things on the Internet. We saw it some in the Arab spring. We see it some in what happened in Hong Kong with the recent protest there.

DK: Yeah. This seems to be what happens when top-down states run into this world where their citizens can communicate freely and aren’t really happy with what’s going on.

RN: Exactly. I think it’s going to lead to more turmoil.

If you look at the evolution of democracy in the West, in Europe or in the U.S., it was a long, messy process. It took decades, even centuries to build up the necessary institutions and knowledge. Take the French Revolution. It was a 30-year process, and it was very, very messy.

The new technologies force things open and bring rapid change to places that don’t have the social history around it. The governments in these places certainly aren’t thinking that they’re about open everything up in the next couple years.

Sometimes countries will crack down hard. Turkey has banned Twitter because people were mocking the prime minister and pointing to these audio tapes that showed clearly that he was trying to hide billions of euros in cash.

And he’s like: “This is a Western conspiracy. Twitter is an arm of the CIA. We’re going to ban it.”

That’s a collision that, I think, mostly is good. It’s a democratizing force. But it can lead to some very messy things, as well.

DK: How do we navigate those challenges and make them less traumatic?

RN: More openness, more contact, and more sharing of professional expertise with everyone. I’m not a foreign policy expert, but we tend to go to things like sanctions as a way to impose a stick on governments who do things we don’t like.

But if you look at a map that shows all the hot spots in the world — places where the risks of state failures and terrorism are highest — these places are the most disconnected in the world. Sealing a place off is a recipe for it collapsing in some way and causing you more problems.

But no matter what, it’s a messy process.

Neural dust, DARPA’s cortical modem, and the state of the art in brain-computer interfaces

DK: Let’s talk about the future of the human species. We both share an interest in telepathy and brain-computer interfaces. What’s the state of the art?

RN: Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do brain-computer interfaces: you can go completely non-invasive with scanners like EEGs and fMRIs, or you can go invasive, and that’s doing brain surgery and sticking electrodes in.

Nobody wants to have brain surgery voluntarily, but scanners like fMRIs and EEGs simply don’t have good resolution.

You can do all kinds of cool games with an EEG. You can do interesting research with FMRIs, but without getting under the skull, you’re never going to have something like Nexus. You’re never going to have telepathy.

But in the last few years, I have seen some amazing stuff being developed. Most of it is not tested on humans yet, but we have a neuromorphic silk-based interface that researchers are about to try in humans. It’s a silk substrate with wires embedded in it. You put two small incisions in the skull, and stretch it out on top of the brain. You don’t have to penetrate the brain itself. The device just sinks onto the cortex and the silk biodegrades and you have a mesh laying on top.

Meanwhile, a guy at Berkeley is building something called “neural dust,” which is thousands of tiny particles that don’t need wires. You sprinkle this neural dust throughout the brain and it communicates ultrasonically with sound waves to pedestals that are like base stations. These base stations then communicate ultrasonically with a thing that sits outside the brain, that sits on the skull, that then itself can communicate via normal electrical signals.

Lastly, DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office recently outlined their vision for a “cortical modem” that they want to build. They imagine a device about the size of two nickels that you can plant in the visual cortex in back of the skull. It would allow you to wirelessly send vision to a person’s brain.

The idea of being able to hack into your own brain, change what you’re seeing, what you’re thinking, and transmit data to somebody else…is incredibly fascinating.

Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking need to chill about AI

DK: Let’s talk about artificial intelligence. A number of prominent technologists — like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and a few others, have talked about the threat to humanity posed by conscious AI. Where do you come out on this?

RN: AI does not keep me up at night. Almost no one is working on conscious machines. Deep learning algorithms, or Google search, or Facebook personalization, or Siri or self driving cars or Watson, those have the same relationship to conscious machines as a toaster does to a chess-playing computer.

Throughout the entire history of Earth, we’ve had only one example of truly self-directed, intentional intelligence that has its own goals, and might decide to go kill something, and that’s in the animal world.

This type of capability has only arisen in cases of evolution going through billions of cycles and selecting for self-preservation. It’s never happened just by accident. As [sci-fi author] Bruce Sterling wrote recently, “Siri doesn’t dream of writing poetry.”

DK: Okay, sure, but on a long enough horizon, the obstacles to conscious A.I. could be resolved.

RN: When we start to get close to that, we’ll have some idea, and we’ll start to think about taking precautions.

But it’s also reasonable to believe that there’s a good chance that if we do build a conscious machine, it won’t be malicious. I think there’s a good chance we would make them better than us, more benevolent than we are.

DK: So why brain-computer interfaces in particular?

RN: We all live inside of our brain. The idea of being able to hack into your own brain, change what you’re seeing, what you’re thinking, and transmit data to somebody else…is incredibly fascinating.

It’s a radical transformation of what it is to be human.