All posts by Alan AtKisson

Writer, songwriter, public servant, dedicated to advancing sustainable development, based in Stockholm

Quote: I just don’t do positive and negative (Sterling)

As a futurist, I just don’t do “positive” and “negative”. I actively avoid that kind of value judgment. Wishful thinking and fearful thinking gets in the way of an objective understanding of change-drivers.

Change occurs from pent-up energies: it’s like asking if a battery’s voltage is “good” or “bad.” All potential change has positive or negative potential: otherwise it isn’t even “potential.”

— Bruce Sterling, interview with Jon Lebkowsky, 2016

Notes: Elon Musk’s vision of the future

Screenshot of Elon Musk’s 2017 TED interview. Click to view.

It is widely known that Elon Musk — founder of Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company (for revolutionizing tunnel technology), and most recently Neuralink (for developing computer-mind interfaces) — wants humans to live on Mars. Why?

Intellectually, he describes the reason this way: if we “stay on Earth forever, there will be some eventual extinction event.” [1] Apparently his biggest worry is “World War III”.[2] Musk and others believe that spreading humans out into the solar system is the only real insurance against these existential risks to humanity’s survival.

But that’s just the intellectual rationale. Musk’s most powerful motivations for heading to Mars appear to lie a bit deeper in his psyche.

In a revealing 2017 interview [3] on the TED channel, Elon Musk often seemed to be searching for the most efficient and effective words that would convey his thoughts clearly but in an entertaining fashion. As you watched him parse the interviewer’s less-than-clear questions, which were laced with hero worship (“Yeah,” Musk would say, in a disappointed tone that suggested he was thinking, “I guess you felt you had to ask that question that way, but you could have asked it much better”) one could easily imagine why he wants to create brain-computer interfaces. There was often a methodical jerkiness to this delivery, as though having to squeeze his big, fast thoughts through the slow, cumbersome instrument of an ordinary voice, in a body, on a stage, was just so damn slow.

Musk in public is one of the most future-focused people I have ever seen, though his passion for vision is deeply influenced by his sense of the past. He reminded the TED audience that past civilizations built up impressive technologies only to forget them later (the ancient Egyptians, the Romans). He summarized the history of the US space program in a few sentences:

“If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 you were able to send somebody to the moon. 1969! Then we had the space shuttle. The space shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit. Then the space shuttle retired and the United States could take no one to orbit. So that’s the trend.” He made a gesture with his hand, slicing downward from left to right. “The trend is down to nothing.”

This trend greatly disturbs him. “People are mistaken when they think that technology automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.” Without that continuous focus and effort, says Musk, technology often degrades.

Musk often appears in the media as a single genius, reshaping the future, but of course the greatest part of his accomplishment resides not just in “dreaming big,” as the TED interviewer kept insisting, but in building companies around those visions, hiring brilliant talent, and motivating them to “work very hard to make it better.”

But what motivates Musk, at least as he reports in this interview, is not a messianic urge to save humanity. It is his inability to live without the possibility of realizing his vision of the future.

“It’s important to have a future that’s inspiring and appealing,” he says. “There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning, and you want to live.” And what makes Musk want to live? He does not wake up in the morning torn, as E.B. White famously wrote, “between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” Improving the world is absolutely what matters most to Elon Musk. Because Elon Musk is in love with the future. 

“What do you love about the future?” he said to the audience at TED, though he was referring to himself, and to the question he wakes up with in the morning. “If we’re not out there — if the future does not include being out there among the stars, and being a multi-planet species — I find that incredibly depressing.”

Elon Musk is not trying to save the planet, or save humanity. “I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”

[1] Elon Musk, “Making Humans a Multi-Planet Species,” New Space, June 2017.

[2] Olivia Solon, “Elon Musk: we must colonise Mars to preserve our species in a third world war,” The Guardian, 11 Mar 2018

[3] TED.com, “Elon Musk at TED: The Future We’re Building – and Boring“, April 2017

Notes: China intends to take the lead on AI

“In July, China unveiled a plan to become the world leader in artificial intelligence and create an industry worth $150 billion to its economy by 2030.”

As China Marches Forward on A.I., the White House Is Silent,” New York Times, 16 Feb 2018

Artificial Intelligence may be the technology that is currently most linked, in the public mind, to expectations about the future — even though there are many other technologies that are likely to change our lives just as much, or more. The announcement of an “AI Race,” much like the “Space Race” of the 1960s, suggests that the public hype around AI will only increase in the coming decade.

Notes: From “Homo Prospectus” (Seligman et al.)

Cover for Homo Prospectus These are quotes from a New York Times article summarizing the book Homo Prospectus, by Martin E. P. Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy F. Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada, Oxford University Press, 2016. (Also see the critical review of Seligman’s work in Psychology Today.)

[People think] about the future three times more often than the past, and even those few thoughts about a past event typically [involve] consideration of its future implications.

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Most prospection occurs at the unconscious level as the brain sifts information to generate predictions.

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Perception is manageable because the brain generates its own scene, so that the world remains stable even though your eyes move three times a second. This frees the perceptual system to heed features it didn’t predict, which is why you’re not aware of a ticking clock unless it stops. It’s also why you don’t laugh when you tickle yourself: You already know what’s coming next.

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Even when you’re relaxing, your brain is continually recombining information to imagine the future, a process that researchers were surprised to discover when they scanned the brains of people doing specific tasks like mental arithmetic. Whenever there was a break in the task, there were sudden shifts to activity in the brain’s “default” circuit, which is used to imagine the future or retouch the past.

This discovery explains what happens when your mind wanders during a task: It’s simulating future possibilities. That’s how you can respond so quickly to unexpected developments. What may feel like a primitive intuition, a gut feeling, is made possible by those previous simulations.

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Google can instantly provide a million answers because it doesn’t start from scratch. It’s continually predicting what you might ask.

— Martin E. P. Seligman and John Tierney, in “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment,” New York Times, 19 May 2017

Film: A Beautiful Planet

Screenshot from the website for “A Beautiful Planet” (click to visit)

When these breathtaking views of our planet begin to fill the domed screen of an IMAX theater, filmed at the International Space Station by astronauts living there, it is difficult not to be moved. (Although the young students all around me in the theater, at Stockholm’s Natural History Museum, had no trouble not being moved. At lunch, some of them confessed to falling asleep.)

“A Beautiful Planet” begins with a simulated faster-than-light trip into the Milky Way galaxy and its hundreds of billions of stars, which underscores the absolutely non-special status of the star we know as the Sun.

But somehow, all this stellar ordinariness only enhances the planetary uniqueness of Earth — covered with glittering water and air, just warm enough for life, protected from solar radiation by a magnetic field, which reveals itself in the shimmering green curtain of the northern lights.

Familiar and unfamiliar places float by — Paris, Florida, massive lightning storms over the Congo, the enormity of the ocean, Arctic icescapes, great river deltas — and the message digs deeper and deeper into your consciousness: this planet is alive. We are part of that life.

By the end of the film, the astronauts whose pictures and voices have filled one’s head and heart have begun to speculate about whether another “Goldilocks Planet” (a planet where everything is “just right”) might host life as we know it, or at least something similar. Of course, given the vastness of space, that is very statistically probable.

But without real (as opposed to simulated) faster-than-light travel, we are not likely to find out. And until then, there is only Earth — Gaia — our spaceship, our extraordinarily beautiful home, captured in all its glory in this wonderful film.

Object: The Antikythera mechanism

The Antikythera mechanism, used in ancient Greece to predict the movements of celestial bodies. Photo: Wikipedia

The Antikythera mechanism is considered the oldest known machine for accurately predicting the future based on scientific observations and mathematical calculations — in this case, the positions of the stars, the orbit of the moon, the four-year cycle of the Olympic Games, and astrological features that were important to the Greeks.

Computer-generated reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism’s display face. Image: Wikipedia

Discovered in an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Greece in 1902, the mechanism dates to approximately 100 BCE. A complex set of 37 gears powered the mechanism, like a clockwork, and a display face indicated when future events would occur (see the computer model reconstruction).  The knowledge of science and technology that are reflected in the Antikythera mechanism were lost to the Western world for well over a thousand years, only reappearing again in Europe during the 14th Century.