Ramez Naam is a tech industry veteran who has also experienced success as a non-fiction writer. He worked at Microsoft for 13 years and won the 2005 HG Wells Award for his non-fiction book, “More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement.”
This week the Seattle resident is building on that experience — expanding into science fiction with the release of his new book, Nexus: Mankind Gets an Upgrade. Set in “a near future scarred by the misuse of advanced technologies,” the plot focuses on an illegal nano-drug called Nexus that can wirelessly link human brains together.
Just how realistic is this scenario, and what was Naam’s inspiration? Those are some of the questions we asked him in the Q&A below. Meet our new Geek of the Week, and continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What do you do, and what does it mean to you?
I’m a writer. My first science fiction novel, Nexus, comes out December 18th, and my 2nd non-fiction book (about winning the planetary race between innovation and overconsumption) comes out in April.
For me, it’s a fantastic way to connect with people and to influence them. Marshall McLuhan wrote that all communication is about change. You’ve only communicated something if the person you’re communicating with is a little different as a result. So that’s what I’m trying to do in my own way – create a little bit of change.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? (The long-term potential, surprising applications, a misconception debunked, etc.)
My god. I could define my field a lot of ways! I’m a writer, yes. But I write about a lot of different things. In my sci-fi, the science is mostly about getting data in and out of the brain. In my next non-fiction book, it’s all about energy and environment and solving climate change and peak oil while keeping the world growing richer.
Specific to my novel, the big news is that we’ve done a heck of a lot more to get data in and out of the brain than anyone realizes. We’re not quite to The Matrix yet, but we’ve got prosthetic eyes that restore vision by sending data in through the optic nerve. We have brain implants for the paralyzed that let them move robot arms or cursors on computer screens – even from hundreds of miles away across the internet. We have algorithms that can look at an fMRI scan of your brain and put together a crude image of what you’re seeing. So that’s quite exciting.
I’ve read science fiction my whole life. I never really dreamed that I’d be a published science fiction writer myself, but a short story I started years ago sort of demanded to be turned into a novel. The other inspiration is just seeing how fast things are happening in the science. It’s pretty amazing stuff, and fertile ground for lots of storytelling.
The plot is centered around a ‘nano-drug’ called Nexus that can wirelessly link humans together, brain-to-brain. To what extent does this portend the future of humanity, in your view? Is this where we’re headed?
We’ll get there. It will be a while. But one thing we’ve learned is that communication technologies are incredibly powerful, and people have a huge demand for them. We all want to be able to reach out to others, to hear from family or friends or even strangers, and to express ourselves. So if can actually do that by tapping into the brain directly – letting you share what you see, what you think, what you feel, even what you’re imagining – I think there will be a tremendous embrace of that.
So long as it’s safe, reliable, and affordable, of course. And those are the biggest barriers, really.
How has your experience at Microsoft influenced your work as a writer?
I’m a geek through and through. My last job at Microsoft was leading much of the search engine relevance work on Bing. There we got to play with huge amounts of data, with neural networks and other AI techniques, with massive server farms. So that is all endlessly fascinating. But it also gives you a view of how hard progress in science – which is really what we were doing on search engine relevance – actually is. Most experiments to improve your algorithms fail. Only a few succeed.
So, while the book is only very slightly about the process of developing this tech, there’s a passage where I get to describe a year of research, and all the very many things that failed. And there are other passages – including one bit towards the beginning that people generally find pretty funny – where I show the consequences of a bug in this software system running on your brain, that manifests at exactly the wrong time.
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why?
We all depend on so many. We take most of it for granted. Electricity. Refrigeration. Antibiotics. Supply chains of cars and trucks and ships that bring things to you. There’s no way to keep a human society this large going without an incredible amount of technology.
But of the recent stuff, smartphones have really changed my life. I’m someone who likes being hyper-connected, and this is a better time to live in for that than ever before.
I work from my home. I have an ‘office’ technically. I never use it. I work on a couch in my living room, with my laptop on my lap, looking out the windows. I love space and green things. And I’m an incredibly casual person. I slouch. I close the laptop and just lie on the couch for a while if I need to think. I put my feet up on a table while I type.
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.)
Start with the end in mind. Some people manage their writing by saying “I need to get 2000 words written today.” Others by saying “I will write for X hours.” Not me. I start with a plan for the book, break it down into scenes, and I know what scenes need to get written each day. If the scene takes more words than I thought, so be it. If it takes more hours or fewer hours, so be it.
Of course, you can compromise. You have to adjust things at times, because your estimates were off or because you’re changing the structure of what you’re working on. You’re refactoring.
But at the end of the day, the world doesn’t care about how many hours you worked or how many words or lines of code you wrote. It cares about your ultimate output. It cares about the book you got out or the app you wrote. All the other stuff – hours in the day, lines of code, which productivity tools you use, whether you use ‘get things done’ or look at each email 10 times – all of that is just tactics. It’s just implementation details.
The high order bit is: Know the single most important thing you need to get done that day, and do it.
Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows 8, and loving it.
Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? Picard. I love Earl Grey!
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? I’d say “Time Machine” except I’m pretty sure I’d tear a rip in the fabric of reality with the ways I’d use it. :-) So Transporter it is. I’m sure I can make billions from the licensing!
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Kickstarter meets the X-Prize: crowd sourced prizes to reward innovations that people want to see happen.
I once waited in line for … I’ve spent longer in lines to get into – and out of – Burning Man than almost anything else on the planet. More than once. That’s a pretty darn fun line at times, though.
Your role models: Richard Feynman – He was brilliant but he utterly refused to live by any rules he considered dumb. He was the quintessential irreverent genius.
Bill Gates – He looked at where he was in life, at what he’d done, and consciously chose to shift his gears towards a new direction, not because it was more rewarding for him, but because he saw it as the best way to make a positive impact on the world.
My parents – The came from Egypt to the US in their 30s and absorbed into a totally different culture, learned a new language, learned how to operate in this country. They chose to stay here in large part because they saw it would make a better life for me.
Greatest Game In History: Life. It’s an infinite game. You make up the rules as you go, and one of the goals is to keep playing for as long as you can.
Best Gadget Ever: I don’t have one of these yet, but just last week there was an article about a contact lens that has a tiny LCD screen on it. I’d personally love that.
First computer: Commodore Vic20. I learned to program in BASIC on it.
Current phone: iPhone 4.
Favorite app: This is pretty silly, but next week it’s going to be NovelRank. It lets you track your book’s sales and rank on Amazon from your phone. Authors find that data addictive. :-)
Favorite hangout: My girlfriend and I love eating at The Harvest Vine on Madison. Great tapas food, and you can sit at the bar and watch them cook. I’ve been going there long enough that I earned one of the plaques with the names of regulars inset into the bar surface.
Favorite cause: Anything that helps people in the developing world. 6 billion people don’t have cars, air conditioning, or the other things we take for granted here. The future innovators that are going to invent the new stuff that’s going to make our lives better might be living in India or Sub-Saharan Africa, but their potential isn’t going to come to fruition unless they can bootstrap their way out of poverty.
More specifically, I give money to a Seattle-based group called Water 1st that builds self-sustaining water projects in places that need them. Helping people get their basic needs met so they can lift themselves up higher.
Most important technology of 2012: The smartphone. Did you know that more people worldwide access the internet through their phones than through computers or tablets now? The phone has turned into the most universal information access device, and it’s changing the whole world.
Most important technology of 2015: The $10 Android tablet. We already have $25 Android tablets being sold in India, so I’m extrapolating here. A small tablet is big enough that you can use it in education, you can use it to run your small business, etc… In the developing world, cheap tablets are a game changer in schools and all sorts of situations.
And Android is going to win. Even though my computer is Windows and my phone is Apple, that’s completely obvious to me. The fact that Android is open source means that it’ll be the thing used on these incredibly low-end devices, and that low end is what’s going to be cheap enough to reach billions of people. In fact, it’s happening already.
Google will probably make almost nothing off of this trend. Making Android open source might have been a big business blunder for them. But that ‘mistake’, if it was one, is going to improve the lives of billions of people, which I think is awesome.
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Do something you think is important. Something you’re passionate about. Life is too short, and work takes up too many hours of the day, to do anything else. When you do something that matters you’ll find that you’re happier, you’re better at it, and the whole world is better to boot.