Ν. Negroponte & Μ. Bletsas with economia at Delphi Economic Forum
In this year’s DELPHI ECONOMIC FORUM, economia Publishing has had the pleasure to present to the diverse audience of the Forum – conducting in a digital environment, due to the Covid pandemic – on Thursday, June 11 2020 Nicholas Negroponte, Founder, MIT Media Lab, USA in conversation with Michail Bletsas, Director of Computing, MIT Media Lab, USA on our Digital Future.
M.B.: Hello and welcome to another electronic session of the electronic DEF. I’m here with Nicholas Negroponte will try to explore some of what the future has with us in the area of technology. Looking at the title of the session a talk that Nicholas gave 3 years back at MIT came immediately to my mind and at that talk he coined the phrase that biotech is the new digital. I would like to start the session today by asking him to comment on that and see how that has evolved in the past 3 years.
N.G.: when I say biotech is the new digital i mean it in two ways one is it’s going to really change the future. You think we’ve had big changes because of the digital world. You see nothing the really big changes ahead are very and biotech, but the other reason I say it is that we have been able as humans to work at smaller and smaller and smaller physical scales. And what that means when you get really small is your down at the levels the nature works at and even go below those and there’s an interesting coincidence that most people don’t know about and that is that the first thesis on nanotech was written at the MIT media lab by a PhD student and one of the reasons he did it at the media lab which is if I may say that the whole lab is that nobody else wanted to do it? It was he was refused every place else and we embraced him. He did his thesis. He went off he practiced he created a field and it’s commonly accepted. But the same in the biotech world has been happening also at the media lab. Now, when I found the media lab, I thought that I could predict everything we do and that everything we would do would be somewhat related to design that it was it was really a very synthetic spirit to the lab. It was about making things it was coming in part from my own background in architecture, but also the other people who were initially found the lab had a design background as well, but none of us not one person, 35 years ago, thought that we would be designing mice today. We have mouse design program and the people working on mouse design are doing it for all sorts of reasons in one particular case. It’s to get the mice to have the genetic properties to kill the ticks that lead to Lyme disease. So it’s a particular application but we did is designing mice.
M.B. I hear these things I mean, I joined the lab 25 years ago to work on Computing and always I feel a little bit like a dinosaur what since I’m not coding in DNA yet. But what makes me feel particularly good about what I do is that Computing is the substrate that enables a lot of this progress. We wouldn’t do it without computing. And when people think of nanotechnology, the first thing that comes to mind is shrinking silicon transistors. Things that bring … they don’t think about more modifying matter as much programmatically yet, but this is essentially what is coming to our future programming everything. Well software is essentially expanding but we think about software seems to have a much broader application into the natural world. We have always tried to marriage the natural and the artificial some people think that as very as a very scary thing. A good example is what happened over the last few years when it came to artificial intelligence and the progress quote on quote that has happened over there. A lot of people sit on that agonistically. I see it as completely different capabilities. I see it as a marriage again of the natural and the artificial but there is a when it comes to Computing there is a very large theme that has emerged not the last three years in the past decade, I think and it’s not as much miniaturisation anymore. It’s not as much as how many transistors we can fit into a specific area. But rather it is how much we can do with a specific amount of energy. It seems that energy is the limiting factor to a lot of the things that we are doing.
N.G. before you go to energy. Let’s go back quickly to some of the roots of intelligence because they do lead up to the subject of energy, but it’s important to remember that the word the term artificial intelligence was coined in the summer of 1956. A special project had been created and the name was artificial intelligence given by Marvin Minsky among others. There were very few people involved. And when the media lab was founded Marvin join the founding of the media lab and brought with him years of having considered and done work in artificial intelligence. And because I was a personal friend I was not so much his student and he wasn’t really my mentor but he was a current personal friend I got to see Marvin in his daily life with all of the most amazing scientists of the era passing through his home for lunch or dinner. And in those rare moments, what did they talk about? What did they discuss in the 70s and early 80s and even late sixties? What were they talking about when they talk about artificial intelligence? They didn’t talk about self-driving cars. They didn’t talk about Big Data. They talked about humour. They talked about music. They asked questions like why does the mind preciate music what makes something funny? And I felt at the time those were pretty profound questions, but most people in the world didn’t appreciate them and artificial intelligence as a field in so far as you could call it that drifted more towards robotics, self-driving cars, problems that Marvin Minsky would have called the easy problems. Something happened about 10 years ago, which they hadn’t anticipated. The founders hadn’t really thought about collective intelligence that you could actually create through telecommunications a collective intelligence. That was far more powerful than any one of the individuals in the system. And so it’s only been in the past three years, maybe three and a half that it’s come into daily parlance that people refer to ai they wouldn’t have known what it was three years ago. And the reason I know that is that Marvin Minsky died a little over three years ago, and he never got to solve see it. He was accused by many people of being a charlatan. People referred to artificial intelligence as an oxymoron. But he pushed it and through people like Marvin and Marvin’s students and Marvin’s students students. It is now by far the most exciting field or subfield of computer science.
M.B. It is however in even in the existing forms of you know, collective super intelligence that we have, we still haven’t been able to address the fundamental questions. I mean symbolic thinking, humour, you know ethics all of these things are still 20 years away as they were since the inception of the field so but what has become completely obvious is that with the existing approaches and with the existing technology that we have, you know, Marvin’s student kurzweil’s for example theory about the singularity. We are not gonna you know, we’re not going to have an emergence of intelligence just because we build something extremely complex just because there is not enough energy to build something as complex as the human brain using silicone at this point. So energy seems to be very caring theme here. We have to look at the biological Computing maybe for the future because know the human brain seems to be extremely efficient being the very very complex machine that it is. So we live in now in an era that it’s a strange situation that we are in right now because of covid-19. We kept forgetting what the biggest problems were before we went into covid-19. Now everybody was concerned and hopefully we’re still concerned about you know, what happens with the climate and human in used changes the planets’ equilibrium. Again, there is a huge move for cell to towards renewable energy people, you know, some people think that this is the way that’s going to get us where we need to be by 2050 if you think that that’s the Milestone, but it doesn’t seem that we’re getting there fast enough ss we didn’t with AI in the past. We are not getting there with energy either we are doing progress, but we’re not getting better.
N.P. One of the reasons we have at least we’re not getting there if I think most people have a very wrong minded approach to climate change and energy. Quite frankly this is a bit extreme but it’s almost correct. Renewables will not get us there. Renewables may be a distraction, especially some of the Bio Renewables where we’re burning wood chips. That’s ridiculous. And while there’s a place for solar panel and there’s a place for wind their energy density. This is the most important concept: it is energy density and if we need energy and I believe we need five times more than we currently use to bring people out of poverty to take slums and convert them to redo for mankind. We can’t look at what we consume today. Because right now 80% Energy is consumed by 20% of the people. So if we really do need five times more, then whether you and I save 20% by conserving, by having a smaller footprint. While that’s nice at certain levels, it doesn’t get you there. You really need to think of the CO2 generated by all means of production and if we were perfectly green tomorrow zero CO2, no emissions we still have to take out at least 500 gigatons of CO2 that’s in the air at the moment. So being carbon neutral is a fundamentally stupid concept. You’ve got to be carbon negative not carbon neutral. Secondly, you can’t wait to 2050 doing by 2050 what I hear people saying we’re going to be carbon neutral by 2050. I want to get sick because you can’t wait till then and also as I said, you have to be carbon negative and there’s only one way to do that. It’s too clear. Just think about it this way. When people who converted from wood to coal and they locomotive only needed one carve col vs. two cars of wood because coal is double the energy density of wood. Nuclear is three million times the energy of coal just on the basis of energy density. We have to include it much more vigorously in our future than people have. And there’s no way around that. You can build windmills and you can build more solar panels, but you’re not going to get there without a strong nuclear presence and I don’t mean nuclear power plants. I mean thousands and thousands of small ones.
M.B. How do we address the fears though at this point? And how do we… is this the best solution moving forward? Is this a realistic solution moving forward assuming handling of nuclear waste as opposed to moving to the next step. Fusion.
N.P. There are three fears none of which might be enough to pause, but all three together do give people pause. There’s the fear of nuclear proliferation. That if we do this tournament two bombs, there’s the fear of safety in the sense of a meltdown and an explosion and then there’s the fear of the waste. If you look at all of those fears together and you look at contemporary so-called generation, three and generation four, nuclear solutions which are much more modular they’re built in factories it doesn’t have the properties that we knew in Generation 1 and 2. Can I say perfectly safe almost? Do they have waste? No the new ones use their own waste? And can you have proliferation? Well, not if you use low-grade uranium or thorium or some other materials, so in all those dimensions, it’s gotten better better and better and then people say yes, but Fukushima happened. How many people died in Fukushima? From nuclear the answer is zero. Did people know they had designed it badly? Yes, were their warnings that they should build a higher sea wall. Yes, so, there are accidents but so far in the entire history including Chernobyl that was badly designed without an outer casing, 57 people have died. Compare that to 3 million a year who die from coal. So we just have to change our attitude and document much much better than we have why it is safer why proliferation has changed and why there won’t be a meltdown in the sense it if it’s if there’s a problem people just walk away and it turns off on its own.
M.B. So the it’s a matter of resources also mean doing the certification and the testing and the research at this point. We have at MIT a variety of examples that didn’t really go anywhere because I think we mostly because we passed them over to the private sector too early. I mean the capital requirements for energy research are much more what you know, the Silicon Valley we see more than is more willing than able to provide. The question becomes at this point given that there is always a limit in finance. Is it more realistic to pursue this path or should we go full force infusion again? At this point as a bet.
N.P. There’s always the futurist that may feels you have to bet on the future which is certainly fusion. Fusion is the future. And it’s much closer than it’s been under people working on it. But if you abtract to fusion for a moment and ask yourself who are the leaders who is doing the most advanced work in fusion? And the answer is the Russians and the Chinese. Now why? Why are the Russians and the Chinese doing all this advanced work and the United States falling way behind and other countries way behind and the answer is just what you said a few months ago. The answer is that they are state-owned companies. And those state-owed companies do the work in nuclear fusion for different reasons. They don’t have to break even economically. The truth is nor do we. This is an existential issue. This is something about will the world exists for your grandchildren. And there is no price on that and even if nuclear power costs twice as much we should be using it. So looking for economic models in quite frankly a waste of time and when we move toward Fusion, and we don’t know how advanced the Chinese are how advanced the Russians are, but we do know the projects that are going around or happening in the United States and the UK which are the two most active in this area they’re interesting, they’re good. Most recently the year 2025 is suggested by one that happens to be an MIT spin-out called Commonwealth Fusion. I’ve never heard anybody proposed 2025 as a time when a fusion system would be online on the grid and fusion has no chain reaction. Fusion has no waste and fusion has nothing that is in any way weaponizable. It’s it’s not part of the same physics and so the fusion reactors which will be relatively big they’ll be the size of your living room at smallest. Size of two-storey building perhaps more commonly, it’s very important because that is the Holy Grail. And it’s very clear. It doesn’t run out of fuel. Really.
Μ.Β. Τhe main issue, I mean to an engineer the main issues that the online side you have something that works and you know how to make it work now and on the other hand you have something that will require a ton of investment will require immense International cooperation. This is at the end and existential threat and addressing an existential threat and all of that in an era where it seems that International Corporation is back-tracking at this point in time. If there is something hopeful about this whole covid-19 mess is that you know, people did seem a) to throw away economic models when it comes to existential issues. A lot of countries the countries that have successfully addressed the crisis at the instant at its first staege were the one that didn’t really worry to much about the economy and they moved on early. This is probably a good thing to keep in mind for the climate crisis. If you start to count point you’re too late. You probably miss your opportunity to address it early on. But we see that there is an increasing tribalism. There is an increasing attackonism mostly between the US and China in this point in time as the main players in economy and in the technology the Europeans seem to not being able to get their collective act together at this point. So, how how do you think this sort throws us back? Doesn’t it?
N.P. Well, the keyword perhaps your question is because the United States is behaving so badly, it’s embarrassing. It is really embarrassing because if there were any time In the history of the world where we should be collaborating. And think about it this way. Let’s imagine that you are the most powerful economy. And let’s imagine that you are in some decline. I mean, I don’t want to be too dramatic, but you’re no longer the most powerful and everything. The second most powerful economy seems to be on the rise. They’re in rough numbers four times our population. It would seem to me that now is the time to collaborate that United States and China should get together and collaborate on everything and the fact that there is a fight going on or even a pretense of a fight. Is it’s shameful. Absolutely shameful. The United States treatment of Huawei as a specific example is unbelievable. It’s unheard. Huawei is a very interesting great company doing lots of advanced research. We want to collaborate, but we couldn’t. The government the US government told MIT to stop and they even told you Michalis Bletsas to take the walk away equipment out of the building. So that’s crazy stuff. And the reason it’s crazy stuff is that Huawei’s research project is ….. (κενο) the National Science Foundation of the United States. Τhink of that: the National Science Foundation does lots of things in all branches of science. Our (keno) of all of that through National Science Foundation is smaller and what Huawei is putting towards telecommunications, vision, chips AI all of that. So who should be working with whom and when people say we’ve been stealing their property or they’ve been stealing ours you can go back and find examples and so on the truth is we all did it. But today MIT steals anything from anybody.
M.B. So yes, I think that we are taking a temporary step back for the next few years and we have to reverse that hopefully with more reasonable presidet the White House might change and in the meantime the science community has to push against this tribalism, because the problems that we have to address are not going to be addressed in, you know, local environment. Hopefully people will start realizing the scale of the issues much better. Unfortunately short term we don’t see good signs. Everybody thinks that you know, when a problem gets a… people forget that all the fundamental progress of the past century was funded by government research and then it passed on to the private sector. I don’t think people realize that and you know today we have space sex reaching the putting astronauts on the International Space Station and lots of people will come out and say see we were right forgetting how much research was done and how much effort was put in before at a point where this thing was bitterly a moon shot and hopefully we will see that, you know, we all build upon each other’s accomplishments and when you have international problems, this has to happen at an international level. What happens with Huawei it’s kind of funny given that most of the equipment that we all use it’s manufactured in China anyway. But that’s a different discussion. For our digital future we need more energy and more collaboration and with that we are going to end. Thank you very much.
N.P. Thank you.