The Post-Human World – The Atlantic

A conversation about the end of work, individualism, and the human species between Derek Thompson and the historian Yuval Harari.

At the end of the 19th century, France, Germany, and Japan offered free health care to their citizens. Their aim was not strictly to make people happy, but to strengthen their army and industrial potential. In other words, welfare was necessary because people were necessary. But you ask the scary question: What happens to welfare in a future where government no longer needs people?

The reason to build all these mass social service systems was to support strong armies and strong economies. Already the most advanced armies don’t need [as many] people. The same might happen in the civilian economy. The problem is motivation: What if the government loses the motivation to help the masses?

What is the meaning of life? Historically philosophers investigated questions that were interesting to only half a percentage of humankind.

“What is ideal way to seek happiness?” isn’t a useful inquiry when the entire countryside is dying of plague.

Yes, but once you are free from considerations of famine and plague, this becomes a much more practical question

you have a ominous prediction that humans will merge with the computers, algorithms, and biochemical devices that make our lives better. We will yield our authority and identity to data and artificial intelligence. What invention or innovation in the world right now is the best example of this future?

I like to begin with the simple things. Look at GPS applications, like Waze and Google Maps. Five years ago, you went somewhere in your car or on foot. You navigated based on your own knowledge and intuition. But today everybody is blindly following what Waze is telling them. They’ve lost the basic ability to navigate by themselves. If something happens to the application, they are completely lost.

That’s not the most important example. But it is the direction we’re talking about. You reach a juncture on the road, and you trust the algorithm. Maybe the junction is your career. Maybe it’s the decision to get married. But you trust the algorithm rather than your own intuition.

On a case-by-case basis, this technology seems wonderful. It’s making me so much healthier and happier. Technology is rescuing me from the natural errors of misreading my future wants and needs. But over time, “I” have disappeared, because I have outsourced my identity to a biochemical analyst.

Source: The Post-Human World – The Atlantic

The most disruptive phase of globalization is just beginning, according to economist Richard Baldwin — Quartz

Baldwin argues that globalization takes shape in three distinct stages: the ability to move goods, then ideas, and finally people.

Technology will bring globalization to the people-centric service sector, upending far more jobs in rich countries than the decline in manufacturing has in recent decades. … The disruption won’t come because people will move more freely across borders, but because technologies will provide “a substitute for being there,” Baldwin says.

even if we put up trade barriers, the jobs we protect will be for robots, not people

You say governments need to do more for the losers of globalization. How?

We have to look for inspiration from northern European countries who have comprehensive retraining, help with housing, help with relocation. Typically they have the unions, governments, and companies working together to try and keep the social cohesion. It doesn’t always work, but at least they try and most people feel that the government is helping them.

Source: The most disruptive phase of globalization is just beginning, according to economist Richard Baldwin — Quartz

A top GE executive says organizations must prepare for the “Emergent Era” — Quartz

we need new frameworks to understand and anticipate what’s coming next.

One of those frameworks is known as emergence. Up until recently, it’s been used primarily to explain natural systems. Basically, the term describes how, when individual agents interact en masse according to a set of simple rules, highly complex structures and behaviors emerge.

Bureaucracies were necessary when information was scarce. But in The Emergent Era, bureaucratic structures act as bottlenecks for information and inevitably throttle change. Organizations should instead use these six concepts to adapt to life in The Emergent Era.

  1. Organize around information flows; ditch hierarchy and bureaucracy.
  2. Empower individuals
  3. Replace long lists of rules with a good M.O.
  4. Establish feedback loops. They are critical.
  5. Get Used to Living in the “In Between.”
  6. Tap into the power of minds and machines together.

Source: A top GE executive says organizations must prepare for the “Emergent Era” — Quartz

Who Will Command The Robot Armies?

The obvious question as these systems improve is whether there will ever be a moment when machines are allowed to decide to kill people without human intervention.

I think we’ll see a similar evolution in autonomous weapons. They will evolve to a point to where they are fully capable of finding and killing their targets, but the designers will keep a single point of control.

And then someone will remove that point of control.

Technologies that we develop to fight our distant wars get brought back, or leak back, into civilian life back home.

The militarization of our police extends to their behavior, and the way they interact with their fellow citizens.

A lot of what we consider high-tech startups work by repackaging low-wage labor.

It’s odd that this human labor is so invisible.

Wealthy consumers in the West have become enamored with “artisanal” products. We love to hear how our organic pork is raised, or what hopes and dreams live inside the heart of the baker who shapes our rustic loaves.

But we’re not as interested in finding out who assembled our laptop.

So is labor something laudable or not?

I wanted to end this talk on a note of hope. I wanted to say that ultimately who commands the robot armies will be up to us.

The real answer to who will command the robot armies is: Whoever wants it the most.

And right now we don’t want it. Because taking command would mean taking responsibility.

What we need to do is grow up, and quickly.

Like every kid knows, you have to clean up your old mess before you can play with the new toys. We have made a colossal mess, and don’t have much time in which to fix it.

Source: Who Will Command The Robot Armies?

Dismissing Google Fiber (GOOG) as a failure is the same mistake we made bringing electricity to rural America — Quartz

It’s too expensive. No one wants to buy it. Laying cables is unprofitable. The government is overreaching. Objections to high-speed fiber broadband today sound like those facing rural electrification during the 1900s. History suggests they’ll prove wrong today as well.

Source: Dismissing Google Fiber (GOOG) as a failure is the same mistake we made bringing electricity to rural America — Quartz


Are there still enough people in rural areas?

The Rural Electrification Administration (REA) was created by executive order as an independent federal bureau in 1935, authorized by the United States Congress in the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, and later in 1939, reorganized as a division of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

Rural electrification – Wikipedia


  • 1930 US rural population = 54M, 43.9% of total
  • 1990 US rural population = 61M, 24.8% of total
  • 2010 US rural population = 59M, 19.3% of total

Population: 1790 to 1990 – US Census Bureau
US Census Bureau – Frequently Asked Questions
So although the percentage of the population in rural areas has dropped about in half, the total number is actually about 10% more.


Is rural netification much more expensive than electrification was?

Before the establishment of the Rural Electrification Administration the reported cost of rural lines, depending on consumer density and on terrain, ranged from $1,500 to $1,800 a mile. The average total cost of R.E.A.-financed lines is now less than $800 a mile. The average estimated construction cost of these Unes has been declining each year, from $904 in 1936 to $858 in 1937, $768 in 1938, and $583 in 1939.

– “Rural Electrification” by Robert T. Beall, Economist, Rural Electrification Administration – US Department of Agriculture
$1,800 in 1934 = $32,430 in 2016
$583 in 1939 = $10,126 in 2016
CPI Inflation Calculator – US Bureau of Labor Statistics


According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the per-mile costs on all new projects in the United States from over the past 15 years have ranged from $6,800 to as much as $79,000.

– “What is the real cost of fiber networking?” The Firetide Blog


Broadly speaking, the total cost per home ranged from more than $20,000 per location to about $5,000 per location, for densities of up to about 2.5 homes per linear plant mile.

Broadly speaking, when a telco can pass five to 65 locations for every mile of outside plant, the cost per home ranges between $4,000 and $5,000 per location.

– “How Much Does Rural Fiber Really Cost?” Performant Networks Blog
So, actually, 1930s rural electrification and 2016 fiber look to be approximately as expensive after accounting for inflation.

I would hope and expect that a wireless solution (e.g. microwave / WISP internet) should be even cheaper for rural netification (much less digging, much less physical material to produce, move, and place… how could it possibly be significantly worse?). I couldn’t find good numbers though.


Do rural areas even want greater connectivity and the jobs it would enable?

while they’re suspicious of big government, more than three-quarters of the respondents supported a government role in job training, renewable energy, and loans and grants to jumpstart economic development

Only 18 percent of the respondents said they rely on agriculture, farming or ranching for the bulk of their household income.

Nearly 90 percent of the respondents backed job training for the working poor, and loans, tax credits and training to help small businesses and farms prosper.

Seventy-eight percent said they strongly support developing wind, solar and other renewable electric generation in rural areas through tax credits, and investing in new transmission lines.

– “What does rural America want?” Illinois Country Living
. source: The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA)
. survey: conducted for the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs by the bipartisan team of Lake Research Partners and The Tarrance Group

Is the Self-Driving Car Un-American?

Our republic of drivers is poised to become a nation of passengers.

The experience of driving a car has been the mythopoeic heart of America for half a century. How will its absence be felt? We are still probably too close to it to know for sure. Will we mourn the loss of control? Will it subtly warp our sense of personal freedom — of having our destiny in our hands? Will it diminish our daily proximity to death? Will it scramble our (too often) gendered, racialized notions of who gets to drive which kinds of cars? Will middle-aged men still splurge on outlandishly fast (or, at least, fast-looking) self-driving vehicles? Will young men still buy cheap ones and then blow their paychecks tricking them out? If we are no longer forced to steer our way through a traffic jam, will it become less existentially frustrating, or more? What will become of the cinematic car chase? What about the hackneyed country song where driving is a metaphor for life? Will race-car drivers one day seem as remotely seraphic to us as stunt pilots? Will we all one day assume the entitled air of the habitually chauffeured?

the dialectic between the old-fashioned automotive freedom and the newfangled freedom from cars.

What exactly is that freedom worth? In answering that question, we as a society will schism in curious ways. For those of us who see driving as a kind of imprisonment — which, spatially speaking, it quite literally is — an extra hour to work or play (or eat, or read, or meditate, or fix our hair and do our makeup) will be cherished. But for those who see driving as a physical expression of freedom — which, spatially speaking, it also quite literally is — the end of driving will feel like confinement.

The question will become even more complicated once it becomes entangled in the sticky web of partisan politics, which it inevitably will be — another sign of just how loaded the car is as a pack mule of American symbolism.

Source: Is the Self-Driving Car Un-American?


To a large extent I deplore its passing, for as a basically old-fashioned machine it enshrines a basically old-fashioned idea — freedom.

— novelist J. G. Ballard

Today’s Innovations Are Tomorrow’s Baseline · Collaborative Fund

Innovation works like compound interest. Today’s group uses yesterday’s hard work and discovery as a starting point to build off of, rather than a finish line.

a lot of pessimism about the future comes from being incredulous that today’s generation is producing, say, another Bill Gates, Henry Ford, or Tony Hawk. This misses a critical point: We now get to use all of those people’s discoveries as a starting point, a foundation to build off of. Never underestimate the power of someone armed with the accumulated trial and error of every genius who came before them.

[my emphasis]

Source: Today’s Innovations Are Tomorrow’s Baseline · Collaborative Fund

Peter Singer, the most influential ethicist alive, says the world is actually becoming a better place — Quartz

“I’ve always had a reasonably optimistic view of where we’re going, and I’ve tended to look at the positive, in terms of progress that we’re making,” he says. “Globally, the world’s in a much better situation than it’s been in past periods, despite the headlines on the war in Syria and other places where bad things are happening. There have been fewer people killed in wars, or genocides, or other forms of violence in the last decade or two than there have been in any other decade. We ought to take consolation in that.”

Source: Peter Singer, the most influential ethicist alive, says the world is actually becoming a better place — Quartz

Climate Change And The Astrobiology Of The Anthropocene : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR

Looking at the Anthropocene through the lens of astrobiology could help us move on with the planet — so it doesn’t move on without us, says physicist Adam Frank.

These studies show us that Earth has been many planets in its past: a potential water world before major continents grew; a totally glaciated snowball world; a hothouse jungle planet. In understanding these transformations, we’ve gotten to see one example of life and a planet co-evolving over billions of years.

Astrobiology is fundamentally a study of planets and their “habitability” for life. But sustainability is really just a concern over the habitability of one planet (Earth) for a certain kind of species (homo sapiens) with a certain kind of organization (modern civilization). That means our urgent questions about sustainability are a subset of questions about habitability. The key point, here, is the planets in our own solar system, like Mars, show us that habitability is not forever. It will likely be a moving target over time. The same idea is likely true for sustainability — and we are going to need a plan for that.

We’re not a plague on the planet. Instead, we are simply another thing the Earth has done in its long history. We’re an “expression of the planet,” as Kim Stanley Robinson puts it. It’s also quite possible that we are not the first civilization is cosmic history to go through something like this. From that perspective, climate change and the sustainability crises may best be seen as our “final exam” (as Raymond PierreHumbert calls it). Better yet, it’s our coming of age as a true planetary species.

We will either make it across to the other side with the maturity to “think like a planet” or the planet will just move on without us.

Source: Climate Change And The Astrobiology Of The Anthropocene : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR

SpaceX’s Big Fucking Rocket – The Full Story – Wait But Why

It’s gonna take you to Mars.

Last time the US Congress checked with NASA, the cost to send a five-person crew to Mars was $50 billion. $10 billion a person. Elon thinks that to make the blue circle sufficiently large, it needs to cost $500,000 a person. 1/20,000 of the current cost.

That’s like looking at the car industry and saying, “Right now a new Honda costs around $20,000. To make this a viable industry, we need to get the cost of a new car down to $1.”

Source: SpaceX’s Big Fucking Rocket – The Full Story – Wait But Why