What happens when a futurist, a sci-fi writer and a former astronaut get together to talk about the future? We found out during one of the most insightful and illuminating sessions at our recent GeekWire Summit.
The panel, moderated by GeekWire columnist Frank Catalano, consisted of Hugo-award winning sci-fi writer Nancy Kress; computer scientist, futurist, and award-winning author Ramez Naam and former NASA astronaut and Sentinel Mission CEO Ed Lu. Watch the full video below, and continue reading for edited excerpts.
Frank Catalano: All right, I want to start, since this is a wide ranging conversation about the future of technology and humanity, with the big science news of the week, water on Mars, admittedly it’s like putting drops into a hot pretzel and sucking the water out of that, but how does that change your view of the Mars, and what we might do there. Ed, let me start with you on this one.
Ed Lu: It actually hasn’t changed my view of Mars because we’ve known it for quite some time, but it’s nice to see it actually on the surface as opposed to having to dig down below, but I think there’s lots of good reasons to go to Mars. I think it would be amazing if we did find that there was life there. I think that would be game changing in terms of how life formed. I’d love to see us figure out a way to answer that question.
Frank Catalano: Does it change anything? I know Nancy, you love technically realistic stuff like this. What do you think?
Nancy Kress: The first thing I thought was there goes Matt Damon’s movie, but yes it is extremely exciting, and it might change how we actually plan to go there and what kinds of equipment we pre-ship in order to take advantage of this.
Frank Catalano: Ramez, I’m curious too because, you know, have you seen, has anybody here seen The Martian? I know it comes out today, but has anybody seen…
Ramez Naam: I read the book, which is great.
Frank Catalano: Do you think it changes things? This water on Mars?
Ramez Naam: I think there is one big change with this water on Mars. You may not have heard this part, but the Martian water has now been claimed by California. No, I don’t think it changes much. Mars is great. I think it’s amazing. We should go there, but that water is still drier than the driest parts of the earth.
Frank Catalano: Yesterday, on a session, we had a former NASA deputy administrator up here and she said that the whole idea of space exploration and alien life, or life that’s not of our life here is follow the water. Do you agree with that? Do you think that water is a requirement for life in the future?
Ramez Naam: Ed’s probably better to answer this than I am. What do you think Ed?
Ed Lu: It’s certainly true here on earth, so if we’re going to look for life that is like what we see here on earth, then that is the correct thing. The real interesting is, is there a life that’s different? Frankly, we have no answer to that yet.
Frank Catalano: We may not even recognize it if it isn’t water based.
Ed Lu: Exactly, because not water based, how would you know?
Frank Catalano: All of you think about the future and you think about things that keep you up at night, both in an exciting way or a scary way. What keeps you up at night in either direction? Pick one of the two directions that really worries you. Nancy?
Nancy Kress: I was a little confused when you first emailed me, Frank, because you said we’re going to have a fun-like, interesting conversation, and I’m going to ask you what keeps you up at night with apprehension and fear. I thought, “Well, there’s an interesting juxtaposition, and I think what keeps me up at night is, we are way overdue for the next large plague. We have not got antibiotics that are very good against anything. There are seven hundred thousand deaths globally every year, fifty thousand of them in the United States, from infections that are resistant to every drug we can throw at them. Although there are new ones in the pipeline, and one particularly promising one coming out of Northeastern University in Boston, still, we are vastly under prepared for any kind of plague or any kind of infection. Even Ebola, which caused tremendous amounts of consternation and worldwide news media attention, was not handled in a way that was the most efficient possible way. As Bill Gates has pointed out, the cases were filed on paper, and then all the data had to be entered slowly, and then it could be coordinated and collected and analyzed from the places where, first over here, and then that result sent back to the people actually in the field.
We not only need better drugs, we need better systems for predicting, pinpointing, and fast responses to when the next emerging plague does strike, because it will. I don’t mean to sound tremendously fearful, but bacteria can replicate a new generation every twenty minutes. They mutate enormously fast. This is something that we are not braced for and we need to be.
Frank Catalano: So please touch the food items at lunch only once before moving on. Ed, I mean, naturally someone might assume you’re worried about asteroids because of the Sentinel Mission. Are you?
Ed Lu: I’m actually taking the other way of looking at this. I think we’re on the verge of, within the next ten, fifteen years, of being able to protect the earth from large asteroid impacts, meaning, starting about ten or fifteen years from now the earth should no longer be hit by large asteroids. That’s actually a very amazing thing. This process of periodic control, alt, deletes on life on earth has been happening for four billion years. We’ve had numerous mass extensions. The dinosaurs is just a well known example, but it’s happened many, many, many times. In fact, if you look at the statics of how many times a year the earth has been hit by something of that size, it’s a few hundred, so we’ve had multiple resets.
The amazing thing is that we’ve got the technology now to find and track these things. There’s a large telescope going up in Chile right now called the LSST, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. There’s our project. There’s another project of NASA that has been proposed. We’re going to have a good survey of asteroids that could hit the earth. In other words, we’ll know decades in advance if something is going to hit the earth. Then, from that point on, you don’t actually need Bruce Willis, but it’s actually fairly trivial to deflect an asteroid from hitting the earth. I mean, we can talk about that later, but what this essentially means is that we’re only a couple of decades from being able to protect the earth from this point forward, and I think that is pretty amazing.
Frank Catalano: The Sentinel Mission, just for people who may not know, is a fund raising mission, right now, to put a telescope out there where it can keep an eye on things for us in advance. Right?
Ed Lu: Yeah, the Sentinel Mission is an infrared space telescope that’s going to orbit the sun and scan the earth’s orbit and basically track each and every asteroid of significant size, accurate enough that you know decades in advance whether or not any of those are going to hit the earth, and when and where.
Frank Catalano: This is more of an exciting thing for you, keeping you up at night, being able to pull this off.
Ed Lu: Yeah, I guess I’m an optimist.
Frank Catalano: All right, so no robotic hand going out as the kid said in the video.
Ed Lu: No, there’s other much, much simpler ways to do this.
Frank Catalano: All right. Ramez, how about you? What keeps you up at night either way?
Ramez Naam: Most likely it’s checking Twitter.
Frank Catalano: No, no, let’s move a little further into the future.
Ramez Naam: Okay, I’m a huge optimist. I think there are bad things that have happened. More bad things will happen. We have issues with climate change, with antibiotics not working, and so on, but if you look at the numbers, in the last few decades we cut poverty in half. We’ve cut the number of people in hunger in half. More people live in a democracy than ever before. People have more access to information. It’s undeniable, to me, that the world is getting better, substantially better. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. I know it’s occasionally five steps back and it takes you a while to move forward. It doesn’t mean that we’re headed for Utopia or that bad things will stop happening, but the best bet about what the world will be like in 2030 is substantially better than today.
If there is one thing that I’m most excited about it’s these things. There are now five billion people on earth that have used a phone, at least, maybe six. Three billion on the internet; we just hit it the end of 2014. Half of the adults on the planet have used the internet. Most of them via a very sort of low bandwidth, intermittent sort of connection, but you look out fifteen years and you have nearly everyone on earth with a super computer with a gigabit connection and an HD camera and that impact on poverty, on growth, on freedom, on anti-corruption, taking a picture of somebody trying to shake you down, I think, is gigantic.
Frank Catalano: I’m curious about a poll the people in the audience here, if I can get them up from their phones for a moment, how many of you read, or have read science fiction? I don’t mean like watch a movie. Read or have read. I’m seeing hands go down. Reading requires looking at words. How many of you were inspired by science fiction in the work you do today? Or the career you do today? A pretty good number. I’d say maybe five percent were inspired, but probably about half read science fiction. I’m curious about what you think the role of science fiction is in thinking about the future. We have two science fiction writers up here. We have a science fiction fan in the middle. What is the role? Is there a role, or is it just pure entertainment? Nancy?
Nancy Kress: Somehow I seem to be appointed the pessimist up here. There’s something I worry about in connection with science fiction and the future and its role in the future, which is this, when we writers write a story about a future scientific development or technological development, we often portray it going wrong, because fiction is about stuff that gets screwed up. Nobody wants to read a four hundred page novel where everything goes smoothly. As a result, we tend to present some of these things in the worst possible light. We may not actually believe that. We may actually believe that, for instance, that biotech and space exploration and all of the kinds of things that we’re talking about up here are good and positive and are going to have a positive impact on the future of mankind, but often that’s not the way we present it. I do worry about this a little bit, but I haven’t really found a good way around it. Except sometimes to show, as I did I my novel, Beggars in Spain, that the technological innovation itself is good and has no downside. Then, you have to show that the social impact on it has a downside or you don’t have a story. Do you worry about that Ramez?
Ramez Naam: I do and I worry about that with the media as well. There’s a saying, “It bleeds; it leads.” There was a poll, just a few days ago, that said that two thirds of Americans think poverty has doubled in the world in the last few decades. Most of the rest think it’s stayed the same. Nobody knows that it’s plunged. Right? That’s because you get a lot more clicks, a lot more views, or a lot more readers if you make something exciting and bad things are more exciting. At the same time, I think people, generally, are way more pessimistic about the future or about the present, than data supports.
At the same time, I do think that there’s a role for pessimism, for pessimistic stories too. Like 1984, super pessimistic story, the world is not like that, not to that extreme at any rate, but part of the reason that we push back on NSA surveillance is because we all have this meme in our head that a surveillance state is bad. I think it, David Brin talks about the self-defeating prophecy, so not all bad stories are bad. They can be useful.
Nancy Kress: Yeah.
Frank Catalano: I interviewed Cory Doctorow earlier this summer and he is basically on a tear against negative visions of the future in mass culture, pop culture, and in writing. Yet, you’re sort of defending that. Is the role of science fiction just to tell us what could go wrong? I mean, does it sort of give us a chance to look at possible futures that might be good too?
Nancy Kress: It does. Science fiction is not a predictive literature. We’ve occasionally hit it right, but we’ve often hit it really wrong, and we’ve often skipped stuff. In the 1950s in science fiction you find very few computers. Nobody saw the change that would make. You don’t see the women’s movement. Nobody saw the change that that would make in the way that society is structured. We’re not a predictive literature, but we are a rehearsal literature constructing thought experiments to see how this might play, which is why you can have ten science fiction writers write about the same thing and you will wind up with ten different stories, because each of them is rehearsing a different possible future. I think Corey is right in that we rehearse a lot more negative futures than we do positive ones, but one of the advantages of that is it’s a cautionary tale. The cautionary tale has a long and honorable history in science fiction. If this goes on this is where we could end up, oops.
Frank Catalano: Isn’t the purpose of science fiction, although, at its heart, still just to tell a good story though?
Ramez Naam: It is a marketplace and people flock to stuff that entertains them in some way.
Ed Lu: Yeah, who goes to see a bad movie where nothing happens?
Frank Catalano: Let’s move to a different type of science fiction. Let’s move to the visual science fiction. The Martian is actually considered, even though I haven’t seen it, a positive view of the future. Tomorrowland, for all of its flaws in storytelling, was a relatively positive view of individuals in the future, yet we have Mad Max: Fury Road, which looks like Mars does today, on earth. We have Interstellar where the agriculture decimation of the earth has occurred. Why do dystopias get such great attention when we could be doing positive, interesting, exciting movies in science fiction?
Nancy Kress: Because it tells a better story. That’s what we were just talking about. Science fiction movies, most of them are ridiculous. I hope that The Martian is not. I love the book, like you, and I have great hopes for it, but most sci-fi, I mean, Interstellar, I mean, really? The only thing that can escape a black hole is Hawking radiation and Matthew McConaughey?
Ramez Naam: Where are the biologists in Interstellar? How come nobody is working on fixing the plague?
Nancy Kress: I’m sorry?
Ramez Naam: Where are the biologists in Interstellar?
Nancy Kress: That’s right, and Moon. Moon is even more ridiculous. We find out half way through that we have pods that will go back and forth because the corporate guys go up to check on things, so instead of hiring three guys and giving them hazard pay to go up and mind this stuff, you construct …
Ramez Naam: Wait? Astronauts get hazard pay? I didn’t know that.
Nancy Kress: … underground clones and jamming techniques from earth and all kinds of ridiculous things. I really get impatient with science fiction movies because they do our genre a disservice. We’re more serious than that.
Frank Catalano: Ed, do you love any science fiction movies? Do you have any favorites?
Ed Lu: I like Galaxy Quest.
Frank Catalano: Galaxy …
Nancy Kress: Yes, yes.
Ed Lu: I wouldn’t call it science fiction, but it’s fun.
Nancy Kress: I loved it.
Frank Catalano: All right, since we’re talking about Utopias and dystopias, I’d like to spring a lightening round on you.
Ed Lu: Okay.
Frank Catalano: This lightening round, I’m going to name seven developments that may happen, or if they continue, and you’re allowed to say whether it will lead to a utopia, a dystopia, or it’s complicated.
Ed Lu: Okay, so we have a copout answer.
Frank Catalano: Hmm?
Ed Lu: We have a copout way.
Frank Catalano: You have a copout, but I prefer you not use it, and you’re allowed one sentence of explanation. Seven items, lightening round, utopia, dystopia, or it’s complicated. All right. Uber becomes a viable alternative to mass transit. Ramez?
Ramez Naam: Utopia mostly. We can cut the emissions of those vehicles tremendously and the cost of transport should drop another fifth.
Frank Catalano: Ed?
Ed Lu: Utopia because it will allow people, especially elderly people, who were going to have more and more of, who can’t drive well, mobility that they don’t have now.
Frank Catalano: Nancy?
Nancy Kress: Utopia, for the reasons Ramez said.
Frank Catalano: President Donald Trump.
Ramez Naam: Oh my god, dystopia. No explanation needed.
Ed Lu: You’re kidding, right?
Frank Catalano: I don’t think we need to do a full round here, Nancy?
Nancy Kress: No, I would consider immigrating.
Ed Lu: It’s a utopia for Canada.
Frank Catalano: Robots finally cross the uncanny valley and are human-like. Ramez?
Ramez Naam: Utopia. I think there’s a huge range of situations where people need more care, where empathy is an important thing, and as Japan has no kids, like robots that are human-like, can increase the well-being of a lot of people there.
Frank Catalano: Ed?
Ed Lu: I’m going with it’s complicated on that one because obviously, that fundamentally changes how human beings react with their technology and I don’t know where that would go.
Nancy Kress: It’s complicated because it depends on which aspects of humanity have been incorporated into them. If they all want to start start-ups and put the rest of us out of business, or write novel, then a dystopia.
Frank Catalano: Utopia or dystopia, all new knowledge exists only in digital form. Ramez.
Nancy Kress: Dystopia. I don’t know why we would do that. Dangerous.
Frank Catalano: Ed?
Ed Lu: Dystopia because I think you need dissimilar redundancies, what we call it in the space program. Two different ways of doing the same thing is a lot more robust than putting everything in the same format.
Nancy Kress: Impossible because it has to exist inside heads as well, in flesh form. What is it they call that? Grayware? It can’t exist only in digital; it has to exist in greyware, because somebody put it in there.
Frank Catalano: The iPhone 17S.
Ramez Naam: It’s about this long. Who cares?
Frank Catalano: Okay, so it’s not even “it’s complicated” it’s sort of like, “Why are you mentioning this question?” All right, Ed?
Ed Lu: I don’t know. I’m an android, so …
Frank Catalano: Nancy?
Nancy Kress: I am technologically inept and I just transitioned from my ancient Blackberry, so I’m the wrong person to ask.
Frank Catalano: The internet of things. In other words, toasters finally know, before you want it, that you want that slice. Ramez?
Ramez Naam: It’s complicated. Tons of upside in energy and health and transport, and it’s nothing like secure at all.
Ed Lu: Yeah, I would say it’s complicated because it introduces whole new failure modes to all the things that we rely on, like water and electricity and all of the basic utilities, and I don’t think it’s been thought through very well.
Nancy Kress: It’s complicated because although I do want my toaster to anticipate, especially my coffee maker when I’m semiconscious in the morning, to anticipate me. We get hit with one good EMP and there goes the ballgame.
Frank Catalano: All right. Our last area for utopia or dystopia, self-driving cars reach 50% market penetration.
Ramez Naam: Utopia. A half a billion lives a year saved, lower carbon emissions, a third of the land in cities that’s currently used for parking given back, amazing.
Ed Lu: I think it’s utopia, but I still like driving. I just enjoy doing it.
Nancy Kress: Utopia. I hate driving.
Frank Catalano: Yesterday one of the speakers said that this may be, with self driving cars, the last generation of fifteen year-olds who have to take a driver’s ed class. That was an interesting perspective on where we might be going.
Ed Lu: Don’t you think that’s a bad thing to have? In some ways, getting your driver’s license, for a kid, is their license to go out there and explore the world, and if it means that people, kids, become more inward looking, less adventurous, and that’s a bad thing.
Frank Catalano: I don’t know. I wouldn’t want my … my son totaled four cars when he was a teenager. I think there’s a limit on adventurousness too.
Ed Lu: With exception of your son.
Frank Catalano: Yes. He’s now an engineer at Boeing. I won’t tell you which line he’s working with. I want to talk about space exploration because, Ed, you have a little experience in this area, and about the future of humanity and humans in space. There is this ongoing debate about, “Isn’t the stuff more easily and safely done by robots.” On one side. On the other side it’s, “Human’s can process information and do stuff much, much faster.” What is our role in space in the next ten, twenty years, of people?
Ed Lu: First off, I think this debate about humans versus robots is beyond stupid. It’s like saying, “Would you rather have bicycles or transport aircraft?” They are two different things, alright? You need both. They do different things. There is a role, obviously, for robotic probes. They can go places that people can’t go. No human being is going to set foot, is going to enter the clouds of Jupiter. Unbelievable pressures.
Frank Catalano: More than once.
Ed Lu: Yeah, unbelievable pressures and temperatures and so on. You’re just not going there, okay? On the other hand, moving people outwards, had its own reason for going, because otherwise, what are we all doing here? What is the purpose of life if not to live? To go places? To do things? To spread humanity? I just think it’s a nonsensical debate.
Frank Catalano: What about the expense? I mean, that’s one of the issues that’s always brought up, is that it cost a lot more money to put somebody, a human being in space, than it does to send a robot out there.
Ed Lu: That depends on what your purpose is. If your purpose is to go get a piece of scientific data from the surface of Mars, or to get a piece of scientific data from Pluto, that’s a different thing than saying, “Hey, I’m going to build a colony on Mars.” How are you going to build a colony with robots? Sort of by definition, you can’t. I mean, what is the value of humanity spreading out? What was the value of human beings spreading out of Africa millions of years ago?
Frank Catalano: When do you see the next real serious manned exploration beyond lower earth orbit?
Ed Lu: I think it’s coming up. I think it’s coming up in ways that we can’t predict. Right now, I am actually not hopeful about NASA doing it. It’s heretical to say this as an astronaut, a former astronaut, but I think NASA has lost its way. I think what’s going to push them forward is private companies doing some very, very interesting things. First in low orbit, and then, perhaps, elsewhere. Once you have the capability to get a large amount of stuff to low earth orbit, you can start putting fuel up there. That’s the key. When you leave low earth orbit 90% of the mass of your space craft is fuel. It’s not the space craft itself. They’re giant fuel tanks. Once you have the ability to cheaply put things up in space you could have a market for bringing fuel up to space. Private companies can fulfill that, you get economies to scale, things become cheaper, and once you have a whole lot of fuel you can go anywhere you want.
Frank Catalano: Not to put you in a corner, but when do you think we might actually have some kind of manned exploration again?
Ed Lu: Fifteen years.
Frank Catalano: How many?
Ed Lu: Fifteen years.
Frank Catalano: Fifteen years, so 2030, or so?
Ed Lu: Yeah.
Nancy Kress: Do you think a space elevator is a viable option for putting fuel up there.
Ed Lu: Not in the near future, no.
Nancy Kress: Not in the near future.
Ed Lu: Too many failure modes. I wouldn’t trust it.
Frank Catalano: Ramez, what do you think? I mean, did robots, humans, how long before we’re back up there?
Ramez Naam: Look, if you want to do science, it’s unmanned. It’s robots, and that will get more and more the case as they get smarter, smaller, more resilient and so on. If we want to get our eggs out of the one basket of the earth, then yes, we should send humans. I think I have talked to a number, a mass, of people who say that the real purpose to them, with a manned space program is to get to the point that we can have a civilization on another planet, so let’s do it.
Ed Lu: Yeah, but that’s incredibly, incredibly hard. I think even now, people radically underestimate just how hard that is. In fact, if you look, Elon Musk, you look what’s happening to the SpaceX, they got a million dollars from Google, what are they using that billion dollars for? To build satellite internet around earth because that is the actual demand most people have for space, is services back to the planet in some way. I think it will be a century or more before we will have people actually living in a sustainable way, that doesn’t depend on earth, on other planets.
Frank Catalano: Nancy, does this gel with your thinking about the future of humanity.
Nancy Kress: Yes. Looking far ahead I would definitely agree with Ed that we are going to need to spread out past earth, especially if we don’t do some things like get climate change under control. That may be the only human civilization, that ends up out there. Yes, it’s going to be very expensive and very hard, but most new endeavors are in the beginning. Also, like you, I am very, very enthusiastic about private enterprise doing it over government. They can move faster, they can make decisions more easily, and they are not dependent on public funding in the same way. Elon Musk and Richard Branson are two of my heroes.
Watch the full video above.