Paul Krugman (PK). Nobel Prize winning economist and columnist for the New York Times.
Charlie Stross (CS). Hugo-winning science fiction author.
Anticipation World Con, Montreal, Quebec
August 6, 2009
CS: Good evening, we’re very pleased to be here and thank you very much for inviting us to talk.
PK: Yeah, this is different for me, but it should be a lot of fun. … (Set up problems) … What do you really think the world is going to look like, say, 30 years from now?
CS: Ummm, there’s a very simple answer to that and a misleading one, I think, and the simple answer is unless we are really, really unlucky the world in about 30 years time is going to look more complex. By really, really unlucky – nuclear war, major plagues or similar – the world in 30 years time after that is going to look a lot simpler, though not a good way.
PK: Right. Obviously what I’m thinking about is the technology. Given my perspective – I was thinking about his coming up – and thinking that – maybe it was just my age or something, but things don’t seem to have changed as much in the last 30 years as myself as a sci-fi reader would have expected them to. And I don’t know if I’m missing something – kinda that perspective.
CS: I think things have changed a lot in the last 30 years, but not in the direction that somebody 30 years ago would have expected. The 20th Century, and going back to the 19th Century, the real visible vector of change technologically was transportation speeds. You go back to 1809 and to get across the English Home Counties, the areas around London, you go via stagecoach and it would take you a couple of days to cross them, it would cost you probably about a month’s wages and cause you considerable discomfort. 2009, it costs about the same amount of money, it takes about the same time and the same amount of discomfort to get from here to New Zealand. The whole world has shrunk to the scale of the English Home Counties in 1809 over about two centuries. At the same time we’ve gotten used to performance improvements in speed. There’s this weird sort of political thing in the early 20th Century called air-mindedness. Everybody knew that flight was going to be the next really important technological revolution. They were all trying to find ways of making money from it or using it to demonstrate how important and modern and with-it they were and how on the cutting edge they were – sort of like computers today with politicians. Who will never pass up a photo-op with a computer even if they don’t even know how to type. Now the whole air-mindedness thing, the problem we ran into was … it was sigmoid curve – we had a slow start, a very rapid period of improvements where we went at about 20 years from biplanes to supersonic jets. And then the curve stopped going up – it flattened off. And the reason it flattened off is all to do with energy. To go much faster, you need more and more energy inputs. It’s not a linear input increase but virtually an exponential one. We hit a point at which chemical propulsion wouldn’t send us any faster. And for a variety of reasons including both engineering and politics, nuclear power wasn’t an acceptable answer. And airliners today are slower than they were 20 years ago. However, the big difference is that everyone and his dog flies today, whereas 20 years ago, or 40 years ago more accurately, that’s where the term jet-set came from, its because those were the people who could afford to fly long distances.
PK: And yet, let me press on. What I kind of expected. Let me show my age here. What you came out believing if you went to the New York’s World Fair in 1964 was that we were going to have this enormously enhanced mastery of the physical universe. That we were going to have undersea cities and supersonic transports everywhere. And there hasn’t been that kind of dramatic change. It’s not just that airplanes are no faster. My favorite test, which shows something about me, is the kitchen. If you walked into a kitchen from the 1950’s it would look a little pokey, but you’d know what to do. It wouldn’t be that difficult. If someone from the 1950’s walked into a kitchen from 1909 they’d be pretty unhappy – they might just be able to manage. If someone from 1909 went to one from 1859, you would actually be hopeless. The big change was really between 1840 and the 1920’s, in terms of what the physical nature of modern life is like. There’s been nothing like that since. So we can do fancy information searches in a way that no one envisioned 30 years ago – as one of my colleagues at the Times, Gail Collins, likes to say all the time where are the flying cars?
CS: Yeah, where is my food pill, where are my jetpacks. Actually, flying cars are really bad idea, if I can just go off on a tangent. Your flying car is great, what about your neighbors flying car when his 15 year old son gets into it and tries to impress his girlfriend in it. Normal cars have a simple failure mode; they stop moving, hopefully at the side of a road. Flying cars, if they have a failure mode, they stop moving and then they move very rapidly straight down.
PK: But the robot driver for the car? It’s the other thing that’s supposed to be around by now, and it’s not. It’s even on the information side.
CS: Partly, there are obstacles to getting some of these technologies out. I think that what has been happening rather than progress continuing and accelerating in a visible direction that everybody’s expected from 1960, we’ve seen immense progress in other directions and the effects are not immediately obvious because they take time to sink in. Faster transport brings its own side effects, most of them would have been fairly immediately obvious to anybody if you told them how it would work. It’s not a great cognitive leap from aeroplanes capable of carrying loads to bombers. It’s a hell of a leap from idea of getting a cheap camera chip and adding it to a mobile phone and coming up with a phenomenon of “Happy Slapping”. I don’t know if everyone knows what Happy Slapping is, it isn’t Slapping, and it isn’t Happy, but its where kids basically find some random stranger beat them up while one of their friends videos it with their camera and then upload it to YouTube. As social phenomenon go, that’s not one you can predict from the input technology. That’s a second order effect. We’re still seeing the second order effects emerge from the information technology, and as for biotechnology, that’s barely off the starting blocks. …. Where was I going with that one …. hold this thought for a moment.
PK: That’s the thing about technology – you never know where it’s going to lead.
CS: We’ve already seen some effects of information technology outsourcing mind workers to the developing world was not possible before the current upsurge of communications technologies and computers. It’s having large scale effects today, but where it’s going to go ultimately go is still not clear.
PK: There is no question that things have changed, but the rhythm of daily life .. and maybe it’s a generational thing … it used to be that if you saw someone talking to themselves on the streets of New York, he was crazy.
CS: Now they’ve got a mobile phone! They’re an executive!
PK: In some ways, I still have the sense that the transformation in the quality of life that I thought would be happening by now, it has not really happened. Lots and lots of changes and consequences. If I can veer off into something I allegedly know something about, what’s amazing about, in case you haven’t heard, we have a global economic crisis. What’s amazing about it is how much it’s traditional.
CS: A good, old fashion banking crisis.
PK: They happen to involve complicated institutions that are not called banks, they do rely on IT, you no longer have to have rows of tellers to provide people fast access to cash, not subject to standard bank regulation, they can manage to have bank runs all the same. You read John Maynard Keynes‘ The Great Slump of 1930, and with just a few words changed it’s a very fine description of what’s happened to the world in the past year. We haven’t actually changed the structure of how we do things to anything like the extent one might have imagined.
CS: Working hypothesis. It’s a working hypothesis that I’m trying to get my head around. Back to 1970-ish, do you remember the book by Alvin Toffler called Future Shock?
CS: My working hypothesis is that we are living in a future shocked civilization in fact the future shocked globe. There is a lot of evidence of it all around. The ascendancy of religious fundamentalism in all sorts of cultures is one particular response. People don’t like rapid change when it’s applied to them against their will, when it’s coercive, and when people don’t like something, an external stimulus, they tend to kick back against it. Religious fundamentalism boils down very largely to one thing: certainty in life. It’s one thing, someone will tell you how things are and this is the one way to live. And to people who are disoriented and distressed by the way the world around them is changing that’s got to be a source of … a very attractive offer of mental stability.
PK: You know, I think this is where being an American makes a difference. And knowing that we’ve had these crazies with us consistently as a major feature of our political scene. Going back to certainly the 1920’s.
CS: Don’t they seem to be a bit louder now?
PK: They have their ups and downs. But, a lot of what we see now is … read H.L. Menken on the fundamentalists and it’s the same … it sounds very similar. In a lot of ways, I think that the modern world began in the 20’s with radio and the penetration of mass culture into places that previously had been comfortable with their bibles. So this is not so new. They got louder … I’m about to go off onto a discourse on US … it’s not clear that the fundamentalists got any more fundamentalist … what happened was that we had a political shift in the United States at least that empowered them … the break up of the old weird coalition between basically Northern labor unions and Southern segregationists … created a place where the religious right had power again but I don’t think that there’s … maybe … I’m about to switch sides here … there has been a rise in religious fundamentalism among unusual groups there are … amazing number of relatives of mine who have the next generation on and their kids that have suddenly turned orthodox and that was not something anyone quite envisioned … maybe some kind of future shock.
CS: I’ve noticed in the UK over the past decade there has been an increasing (small “c”) conservatism in the electorate fostered by a feedback loop with some newspapers. Standard headline is, “Threatening entity here going to do something hideous to you.”
PK: That’s my column for tomorrow’s New York Times actually.
CS: There’s a wonderful website called the Daily Mail-o-matic that generates Daily Mail headlines and about one in ten of them is eerily accurate … Are Chavs Ripping Off the British Taxpayer, subtext: you are the taxpayer.
PK: That sounds a little like the application that I just saw this afternoon which is something that will generate a Kenyan Birth Certificate for you.
CS: I mean, this stuff is everywhere. And we have a pathological news media who’ve discovered that by terrifying people they can sell more copies. And scared people … (applause)
PK: Yeah, people have been talking about the … remembering what … it’s not as if we were all calm in the months before 9/11. We were all terrified of, at least if you were watching … was shark attacks. 2001 was the summer of shark and then they found something else to worry about for awhile. … I’m still trying to think about … My question, if I still walk into a kitchen … food obsession here … if I walk into a kitchen in the year 2039 …
CS: You’ll see something very different by then. Let me explain. One prediction that I have PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, did something very unwise earlier this year. Never mind demanding that everybody start referring to fish as “Sea Kittens” – that’s just an irrelevant publicity stunt. No, they went and offered a million dollars to the first inventor who could demonstrate a vat machine for basically delivering vat grown meat. And I don’t think they realize how close we are to this and which industry will develop this machine first because it just so happens that an awful lot of people in the biotech sector are working very hard to deliver machines that will generate bits of meat to order. Specifically, Long Pork. For the organ transplant business. One of the scenes in the next novel I’m working on set in about 15 years time will involve the ladies of leisure in Morningside a fairly posh part of Edinburgh who lunch together – they dine out on each other. From the point of view of a very, very disturbed police officer who’s trying to figure out what, if anything, to charge them with.
PK: I don’t want to think about that one. (laughter) So you’re saying our future society will be Polynesian?
CS: It’ll be Poly-something.
PK: Change has been … if you’re into IT, or you’re part of the chattering classes it means that you’re making your living with the dissemination of information, then it all it seems tremendously rapid … it’s been oddly diffuse in the way it actually affects lives. One of the things that was really striking … we had this question back in the 70’s and through the 80’s when IT was clearly well underway … not the Internet yet, but … a lot of transformation … I remember … doing statistical work on a hand calculator. I actually did my dissertation … my dissertation was a big box of punch cards that had to be brought in and then you waited for an hour for the Gods of the computer room to do whatever they were going to do with it. So all that changed and yet there was this long period when you really could not see it in productivity, couldn’t see it in economic growth, nothing was showing up and …
CS: There’s a huge latency in information technology. For example, one of the reasons we don’t have driverless cars yet is because the car has to be able to sense its surroundings in three dimensions, including hazards, in real time. Right, and that’s a lot of computing power required. I mean, we just saw about two years ago the DARPA Grand Challenge was won for the first time by a vehicle that drove 200 kilometers across the desert under its own control. Now I’ve got a hypothesis incidentally about where this is going. It’s going to be one of these things where there is going to be a sudden step change. One moment, self-driving cars are science fiction, the next self-driving stuff is going to show up very rapidly once it falls below a certain price point. Initially in luxury cars, but within five years in cheap ones. Afterward, we’re going to have some real fun with it because … you want to send your kid to school on the other side of town? Put them in the back of the car and car to drop them off at the school gates. Alternatively, you want to go to the pub. You drive to the pub, then get out of the pub after drinking six pints of beer and then get into the back of the car and say, “Home, Jeeves.” And shortly after that, something else is going to happen driven by the insurance industry. About 90% of all automobile accidents are caused by a driver error. When the automatic self-driving vehicles get sufficiently good that they are less likely to be in a collision than a human driver, your premium will go up if you insist on driving manually. Yeah, that’s going to go up steeply a few years later. I think we may be seeing the end of human beings allowed to drive the public highways within 30 years.
PK: I was about to say in New Jersey, it can’t come a moment too soon. (laughter) There’s a favorite story about this among the economic historians and it’s about electricity. Which is that electrification … widespread electrification is a phenomenon of the 1880’s and particularly factories were electrified in the 1880’s and it did nothing much for productivity because they were still building factories the way … a 19th century factory was a five story brick building … very tight spaces … which has a steam engine in the basement … driving trains and pulleys and shafts and it took about 30 years for them to figure out that, hey!, with each machine having it’s own electric motor, we can have a wide spread out single story floor plan with lots of space and we don’t have to be moving stuff up and down these stairs and we can have plenty of room for material flow and … we saw a little bit of that in IT, but the thing was it was terribly disappointing because although it actually does show in the GDP numbers, what was the first place where people really figured out what do with IT in a way that was productive, and the answer was Wal-mart. It turns out that all this unglamorous stuff like inventory management, basically knowing what exactly is left on the shelves the moment it is checked out of the counter being able to plan your whole system for something big box stores brought in and actually you can see that’s where the GDP growth …
CS: Logistics is vastly underrated. It’s invisible.
PK: That’s right. That’s the other thing, with globalization … about the outsourcing … about the Internet and the IT … but that’s a relatively minor thing so far, probably much bigger in ten years so, but the big thing was the freight container.
CS: Oh yeah, the freight container and the fork lift and pallet.
PK: Right. And the big cranes and the bar code on the side of the container.
CS: Actually, if I had to make a guess at one of the major things that’s going to affect us in the next 20 years … periodically, I keep hearing about peak oil and the long emergency that’s going to come … and it’s going to be very, very grim … and how our food travels an average of a couple of thousand miles between where its produced and where we consume it. I have a slightly different way of looking at this. We’re going to come to the end of cheap energy not because energy is going to be innately expensive because we’ve used all the oil up, but because we can’t afford to keep pumping more carbon into the air. Now we’ll be able to actually maintain an oil-based economy indefinitely. My betting is on Craig Venter, the guy who founded Celera Genomics tried to bootstrap a private enterprise genome program. His current venture with Shell is to try and crack the problem of producing diesel oil using genetically produced algae. And they’re throwing large amounts of money at this problem. I would reckon in 50, 60 years time Shell will still be selling you oil. It won’t be oil they’ve pumped out of the ground, though, it will be oil they’ve synthesized using atmospheric carbon, so it will be carbon neutral. That’s a whole lot cheaper than switching to a hydrogen economy because you don’t have to scrap all of your plant and tankage, just keep using the same stuff. But going a step further, there’s a huge inefficiency in these hub and spoke models of distribution and shipping stuff long distances. If you can produce stuff locally, and distribute it locally, that gives you a huge advantage. I think one of the things logistics is going to … well, computers are going to give us, is much tauter supply chains between production and consumption.
PK: That’s by the way one of the mysteries … we don’t quite know why there’s so much stuff being shipped long distances, particularly … it’s one thing where we’re talking about oil because oil is where it is, it has to be shipped to get to other places, but … there was a time, again thinking of the United States, a time when we knew what Detroit did for a living, we knew Troy, New York was the detachable collar and cuff center of America and all these local specializations and you could explain why stuff was being shipped back and forth. These days, it’s very very hard to figure out what’s different about the economies of different cities and so if … why is there so much … who are all those people on the plane today. Why were they traveling and … better still, when you’re flying between Cleveland and Atlanta, what is it that Cleveland has that Atlanta needs? What is it that Atlanta has that Cleveland needs? Actually, what is that Atlanta has that anyone needs? I actually did try to figure out what Atlanta’s economy is about … it seems to be about the airport. We’re not quite getting it.
CS: But isn’t Fedex’s main hub in Atlanta? [Editor note: Memphis is the main FedEx hub.] There you have it.
PK: More economics. When you are looking at a city and you try to figure out what is the common thread linking the export industries, not international, but string themselves to other cities and so, famously, although now its kind of a basket case, Rochester had Eastman Kodak, Xerox, Corning … it’s all about optics, it’s all about light. But if you try to do that with Atlanta, the closest thing I could come up with was the damn airport. If we can all have short supply chains why don’t we have that now for all of the services that cities generate and yet we have all of this trucking going back and forth among seemingly very similar US cities.
CS: Because I reckon that complexity, the number of different components, the number of different of different specialties that you need to run a modern, high tech civilization has mushroomed by orders of magnitude over even the past 50 years. And all of this stuff is really small, very, very specialized, there’s only a very few people who do it in one place and it has to get shipped about even though it looks similar.
PK: That’s the working hypothesis, something like that. Let’s totally change this. How the hell do you come up with ideas for these novels? (laughter) If I could say to everybody, this is what I cannot fathom. I live reading Charlie’s stuff and … I just can’t imagine just gestating … I can write within a very, very confined set of rules that structure the thing so easily, but I can’t imagine just where does this thing come out of?
CS: Well, partly I’d have to say … hell, I can’t reuse Roger Zelazny’s old thing about writing off to a PO box in Poughkeepsie can I? I get bored easily. That’s one reason why I write such different novels. More to the point, I have a short attention span and I read too much on the web. (laughter) There is so much happening all around us in different fields that are highly compartmentalized. That’s why I brought up the whole complexity thing earlier. There is so much going on that is just so bizarrely specialized. You get new stuff not by coming up with it out of the ether or out of pure imagination but by taking a couple of existing ideas and banging them together and seeing whether they mesh. For example, if you look at a road map that Intel has rolling out for the next five or ten years, what you’ll find is they know how long it takes to build a new chip fab, they know how that it will be such-and-such an improvement in the resolution of the process they’re using to make the chips. You can therefore guess that the performance of the chips that will be made on it. This in turn gives you some idea of what applications they can be put to. And there are all these wonderful trade bodies out there that come up with new standards, for example, you may have a 3G phone or data stick these days. The 4G standards are pretty much nailed down already and are in prototype. They’ll be showing up over the next couple of years. And you can bet that within ten to fifteen years time it’s gonna be out there and its going to be as old and slow as your GSM phone from five years ago. It’ll be cheap and it’ll be available. So if you want to write near future SF, these industry road maps are a good way to go.
PK: So that explains … I can understand Halting State, a little bit. The Laundry novels, I can’t imagine.
CS: I always had fun with spy thrillers and HP Lovecraft.
PK: Or the Family Trade novels.
CS: The Laundry novels were basically … I’ve worked for the NHS. I’ve worked for an American software multinational from Santa Cruz in fact … I’ve seen various organizations on different scales and they all seem prey to one form of dysfunction or another. The American software company, we always knew when the executives were going to come visiting the London development office because our managers would go around the morning before, taking down all the Dilbert cartoons that had been stapled to the cubicle walls. (laughter) All of these organizations have interesting dysfunctional approaches to passing information from low down the chain to high up the chain. It’s information flow again.
CS: Oh god, oh god, oh god. The first rule of AI in computing is if we can do it computationally, then it’s not AI. Chess playing, checkers playing. We have worldclass chess and checkers playing robots now. We’ve got cars that can drive themselves across a desert. Expert systems that can diagnose most diseases with better accuracy than physicians. None of this is AI any more. I’m not sure quite why, but its become a set of self-moving goal posts. The real question of whether we’ll actually get a robot friend who’s fun to be with … that’s another matter. We don’t even know what human consciousness is or quite how it works. And until we have a better idea of how we work, I don’t think we’ll be able to implement something equivalent in a machine.
PK: That was sort of the point though … it was long ago, probably in college, when I took computer science that the instructor told us all that by getting chess playing computer programs we’d learn alot the nature of consciousness and we ended up learning a lot about the nature of chess.
CS: Dead Danish computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra [ed. note: Dutch] had a number of pithy aphorisms starting with anybody who teaches a student how to program in BASIC should be shot. One I particularly like is the question of whether a machine can think is no more interesting than the question of whether or not a submarine can swim. The point being Boeing 737’s and seagulls can both fly, however, we don’t try to replicate seagulls when we’re designing a new airliner.
PK: Again, thinking about what I believed when I was in high school that we would have that we would have by the year 2009 … obviously HAL from 2001, but just in general we imagined there would be a level of interactiveness of intelligence in machines but that hasn’t come.
CS: I’m not sure this is a bad thing actually because … autocorrecting your spreadsheet is bad enough, imagine HAL9000 in charge of autocorrecting your spreadsheet.
PK: Now the web … once Google introduced page rank, instead of going for AI we’ve gone for cyborgs.
CS: We’ve gone for augmented intelligence, not artificial intelligence.
PK: And it’s the weirdest thing – by finding the eigenvector with the largest eigenvalue you end up in effect doing a computer meld of many peoples’ intelligence without knowing it.
CS: Amazon’s Mechanical Turk … actually, Amazon is very big on human intelligence emulating AI. They have a system called the Mechanical Turk where they pay people piecework to do basic tasks and farm them out using the network and if you want to throw money at a problem, you can find a hundred thousand pairs of eyes to work on it if you can divide it up suitably.
PK: Whatever the algorithm that Amazon uses to make recommendations …
CS: That scares me.
PK: It scares me too because I took a look, once they started selling music, they started recommending music to me. And I’ve never bought music from Amazon. And they were mostly right.
CS: What scares me was … a friend of mine pointed out … people sell the most amazingly weird things on Amazon. There’s one seller who sells tins containing about an ounce of uranium ore. People who bought this product also bought one of my books.
PK: On the other hand, the algorithm that TIVO uses to recommend programs needs work. What lately its been recommending to me are these shows which are live filming of surgery, where you actually see them cutting people open. I don’t know what it is in my viewing habits that makes it think I want to watch that but it insists that I do.
CS: Amazon’s page ranks can have some pretty weird results as well if you accidentally contaminate their database. For example, my wife has some interesting interests in stuff she can make. She asked me to buy her some books using my Amazon.com account a while back. Thereafter I was plagued by corsetry books and Georgette Heyer romances for the next six months.
PK: I want to come back. Not only were the music predictions reasonably accurate, they included some of my more embarrassing tastes … I think I’m going to stop right there.
CS: When you’re in a hole, stop digging. The other stuff we haven’t even looked at are genonomics and medicine and the biomedical sciences. I came along just a few years late to get sucked into bioinformatics, which is something I probably would have ended up in naturally if I’d been around to study computer science in school a few years later. Now, if I remember correctly, the original price prediction of the Human Genome Project when they got started around 1990 was about 20 years and 100 million pounds or thereabouts of that order. They finished it several years early under budget and they did 90% of the work in the last six months.
CS: Gets better. At that point, sequencing an individual human genome could be done for about ten million pounds. A while later it got cheaper and now we’re seeing gene sequencers coming on the market over the next year or so where its basically on an integrated circuit that should be able to do personalized genome scans to the same level of detail for about $5,000 in three hours. And it’s still getting cheaper. They have sequenced quite a few mammalian and other genomes since then it is getting cheaper all the time. Craig Venter came up with an interesting project a couple of years ago to sequence the Pacific Ocean. If you have a bucket of seawater, it contains probably on the order of a billion organisms most of which are viruses, probably single virus particles in that bucket from a number of species. It turns out when they did shotgun sequencing on a bucket of seawater 98% of the genes they discovered were hitherto unknown. There’s a lot of stuff out there that we do not have a clue about. About 90% of those unknown genes were from viruses and we have no idea what the host organisms of them were … basically, viral soup. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know about how the genome works. It’s not, as was widely thought in the 50’s and 60’s, a blueprint. It’s more like a very very messy snapshot of a running computer program. In fact, the bits we’ve been looking at and referring to as genes, the exons are, if anything, just the static data strings encoded in the program while it’s running. Things such as the actual text in a variable containing the copyright date and the name, stuff that doesn’t change. A lot of the interesting work seems to be epigenetic as various enzymes tag methyl groups onto genes to activate and inactivate them. And we’re not quite sure what we’re looking at except … pointing a debugger at the running program and saying let’s change the value in this variable and see what it produces.
PK: And that goes back to some of the things I was talking about in the beginning … we’ve scaled this awesome mountain which is sequencing a whole human genome and it turns out that now we can do this and it turns out this doesn’t actually give us, at least so far, the ability to predict, control, achieve stuff that one might once have thought it would.
CS: Actually, it showed us that the system is a lot more complex than that but we’re making huge amounts of headway. It’s sort of like the early days of the microprocessor revolution, we’re still in the 1960’s but its fairly visible that the rate of change is ramping up. There are going to be some astonishing breakthroughs over the next decade. I for one am hoping to live long enough that we find a cure for the collective package of malfunctions that give rise to senescence and aging. There’s a strong argument that the whole aging process is the result of an evolutionary blind spot that once you’ve passed reproductive age the mutations that cause slowly growing damage aren’t weeded out. You reproduce before this would impair your reproductive prospects.
PK: Nature really has no interest in keeping you whole past 40 or so because the odds of your being gored by a mammoth by then are pretty high. I don’t know whether to be worried by the prospect that I might not live long enough to benefit from this or worried by the prospect that I will.
CS: My take is that I’d rather live as long as I want to live than be sort of hurried off it by some really unpleasant degenerative disease. And from where I’m sitting it looks as if senescence is a really unpleasant degenerative disease that we’ve all got.
PK: But think of what it will do to the finances of Social Security?
CS: Well they’re going to have to abolish pensions and retirement for one thing.
PK: Tell me, what are you working on now?
CS: I’m working on a sequel to Halting State. I’m trying to set it about five years further out and I’m trying to get my head around the implications of 3D printers and rapid prototyping technology when they become ubiquitous enough that an actual desktop 3D printer is about as common as laser printers were in 1995, around the time that national mints and police began taking a serious interest in color laser printers that could produce something indistinguishable from a bank note. Also trying to figure out what the criminal applications are.
PK: If you really do figure it out, you’re not going to write that novel, right? You’ll do something more lucrative.
CS: It’s well known that the first real use of any successful new technology is pornography. I knew that machinima and MMO’s were successful when I saw that wonderful musical presentation called, The Internet is for Porn, sung in World of Warcraft.
PK: OK, I haven’t seen that one.
CS: I’m talking 3D printers because its something we actually have here today. It is a very fallible, very crude approximation of the sort of things people expect of Eric Drexler-style magical mannered tech pixie dust where we wave a magic wand and manufacture anything. The difference is that 3D printers exist, you can write a check or use a credit card and buy one and it will make 3D objects out of plastic or bits of metal here and now. What are the effects on society going to be once we actually have machines that can basically build anything you can feed a blueprint into?
PK: We still haven’t figured out the economics of easy information dissemination. Even though the Internet is all old hat, we still haven’t seen the economics of it play out. One of the big problems is we don’t know how do people get compensated for producing information when it can be …
CS: This is a personal preoccupation of mine, shall we say.
PK: It’s to some extent mine, although more of one of my employers. The New York Times has got enormous web presence, four million or so people read it online and yield the corporation very little in the way of revenue in the process. Whereas the dwindling number of people who want the dead tree paper are the source of … and the thing survives to some extent because people still like a piece of paper with their breakfast coffee but also to a large extent because you still can’t online get quite the visual quality of color advertisements for luxury goods that you can get in the New York Times Magazine. But you’re relying upon a very thin lag in technology to make the whole enterprise of creating and disseminating information viable. And if that starts to apply to lots of physical goods as well, we’re going to see whole sectors just implode.
CS: Oh, yeah. On the other hand, with physical goods, you’re still going to need mass and energy to assemble the frames. As for the intellectual property, I try not to get too worked up about it. There’s a lot of people angsting about piracy and copying of stuff on the Internet, publishers who are very, very worried about the whole idea of ebook piracy. I like to get a little bit of perspective on it by remembering that back before the Internet came along, we had a very special term for the people who buy a single copy of a book and then allow all their friends to read it for free. We called them librarians.
PK: Which is why … we used to work the professional journals, something I do know something about, professional journals sold about a couple of thousand copies worldwide, at an enormous price because every university library felt it had to have them and still does to some extent, but that’s an enterprise near to collapse because everybody reads the things online now.
CS: If it was up to me, I’d figure what we’re looking at with copyright today is a smoking hole in the collective landscape. It doesn’t work. Attempts to patch it don’t work, attempts to enforce it leads to travesties such as 32-year old single mothers being sued for several million dollars by large record companies. This is not good. We need to get away from this model. But the model is locked in through international treaty laws. We can’t simply wave a magic wand and change the copyright laws to something sensible. So probably a better solution would be to encapsulate it below some other layer and shove it off to onside so it doesn’t affect people. Now the best thing I’ve been able to come up with is an idea for doing this is a tax on bandwidth. Basically, if you have a mobile phone, if you have a broadband connection, if you have a modem connection, a chunk of what you pay goes in tax. The tax goes into a pool which is then distributed to content creators on the basis of some kind of sampling or rating mechanism that’s sampling the traffic that’s going across the network. How to enforce this, let alone deal with it internationally is mind-numbingly don’t-go-there, I’m not paid to go there, but at least it has the one supreme advantage that if you have such a regime in place, you can legislate that if you’ve paid your tax, you are then immune from prosecution for copyright violation. Yes, we can cuff the whole copyright issue off to one side and just do … there is a tax base here and it will be distributed to the creators of the content that is trafficked over the network.
PK: I was just following the chain of thought here. We have this financial crisis. Part of the problem was the rating agencies. Basically, there’s three – two and a half really: S&P, Moody’s and Fitch. The ratings agencies were willing to take these extremely complex, newly created financial assets that really had no track record and classify them as AAA. Now the question is why would the rating agencies be willing to do that and it turns out a lot of it probably has to do with an intellectual property issue. When the ratings agencies originally came existence they would produce a book of ratings and people would buy the book and that was how they made their revenue. And that has long since been impossible, people tend to disseminate the ratings too easily, so nobody buys the books so they had to find a different revenue stream. And some decades back the source of the revenue stream was that issuers of assets would pay the ratings agencies to rate their assets. That’s actually the revenue model that we have right now and you think about the incentives there and it actually does happen that if the rating agency isn’t sufficiently cooperative you go to one of its competitors …
CS: That’s going to end well.
PK: Right. And that has not ended well. Except now the question is, what do you do? And everybody looks at this and says, “This is a terrible way to do this.” But then the question is how are you going to fund that rating agencies? And there is a certain number of people who say, “They should be public.” They should be the BBC. But in America of course, well that wouldn’t work, it’d be government. So we can’t use that. So, we’re actually doing nothing to solve the problem. Because we have this fundamental lack of appropriability of information so we’ve ended up with a really God-awful technique for financing these needed institutions which creates all sorts of wrong incentives but we’re not able to come up with a fix. These are real world problems, but yeah it’ll become worse.
[Break for questions]