- About Us
The Singularity, hyper-efficient machines and a social media economy | An interview with 'Life on Nubis' author Robert Harken
Technology is changing; perhaps more rapidly than at any point in history. Do we know what the future will look like even 20 years from now? A decade? Five?
One Sammamish author and futurist, Robert Harken, has taken a look at two possible futures — both fewer than 30 years away — and what they would mean for humanity.
Harken published Snow Falling, a short story about a woman fighting for privacy and survival in a social media driven economy, in November. Life on Nubis, his novel about interplanetary exodus after humanity's displacement by hyper-efficient machines, was released in January to acclaim from the Midwest Book Review.
Harken will speak publicly about technological developments and the consequences for mankind at the Issaquah Library Nov. 10 at 1:30 p.m., and again at the Bellevue Library Jan. 26 at 2 p.m.
He agreed to sit down with the Reporter with a few of his thoughts on his stories and ideas about the future.
Had you written fiction prior to "Snow Falling" and "Life on Nubis?" What inspired you to begin publishing your stories?
Robert: My writing prior to Snow Falling and Life on Nubis primarily focused on business and legal non-fiction. I took the standard writing classes for students NOT studying fine arts at school. My background required a great deal of self-education in technique because I had become allergic to school by the time I decided to write fiction. Several factors prompted me to publish my stories. First, I wanted to inform my children about the technology-driven changes in our future and offer advice on how to manage those impacts. Second, I’ve had lifelong compulsions to be creative and to make a positive impact on the world. I recognize that these compulsions require a good bit of hubris and arrogance on my part, which I counterbalance with the thought that readers will judge the merit of my work for themselves.
Let's talk about your writings on social media first. A recent essay posted to your website and blog, "Social Capitalism," called for — or at least extrapolated — a system in which a person's virtual social score could translate into material trade "by changing the value basis for currencies." What change do you think would have to take place for this to be feasible? Considering Facebook alone, a new Like is produced every time someone clicks the button. It strikes me as the ultimate fiat currency.
Robert: The technology to implement social capitalism exists today; however, the design of social capitalism requires much work. Your example of Facebook Likes is a good one. Trivial acts, such as Likes, should not accrue wealth in a relationship economy. This begs the question of what is the value standard.
Today, “the market” determines value, i.e. a good or service is worth the amount at which the buyer and seller complete an exchange. Let’s transpose the current process into a relationship economy to assess fit. Suppose a person, call them Pat, feels down and needs someone to talk with about their problems, so they post a request for emotional support and advice. People bid on the opportunity and Pat selects the lowest bidder to confide in. Most people would find this process odd to say the least. A relationship economy will necessarily function differently. As I currently conceive the idea, an organization, like the Federal Reserve, or a democratic voting process would set values for relationship transactions — not individuals. People earn value through actions that affect others positively and lose value in actions with negative effects. Note two characteristics: the recipient of the action pays nothing and an action without effect creates no value.
I suggest community values because group valuation prevents a lot of fraud from the start. We must eliminate the influence of special interests in a communal approach, but specific system designs go beyond the scope of what we need to discuss today. People have to accept the concept first.
Social Capitalism will become feasible only when we change the economic and social contracts underpinning our civilization. People must be willing to participate in a version of capitalism that monetizes a fundamental aspect of being human — relationships. Bitcoins, the digital currency, is an ongoing, interesting experiment in alternative currencies. Are you willing to sell your car for Bitcoins? Reservations will arise with “social dollars” as well; however, the adoption of Bitcoins is easy in comparison to social capitalism, which some may perceive as a commercial blight on our nature.
The change process is fundamentally political. Unfortunately, I believe this means less proactive action and more reaction once innovation consequences become intolerable. These ideas seem untenable today, but consider a future where, for example, 80 percent of the population is unemployed. Concurrently, the production of goods and services to satisfy our needs and wants requires little or no human effort. New ways of earning money become more attractive.
That same essay opens by noting that innovations in technologies that increase productivity could or will lead to labor share losses and widespread unemployment. How does social capitalism counteract this?
Robert: Social capitalism shifts the earning power from goods and services to personal interactions. Innovations that increase the efficiency of producing goods and services have no effect on the “employment” of people who earn a living interacting with others because the value chains are different. People will still trade social dollars for conventional goods and services, but earn the dollars in a different market.
A risk I intentionally passed over in the article (for brevity reasons) involves the reallocation of resources to enhance the relationship earning power of innovators instead of using those resources to enhance conventional goods and services. Likewise, people must not inflict themselves on others for the sake of earning a buck. Our economic architects must prevent over-investment in relationships by restricting innovation and behavior in a manner analogous to the printing of money today, i.e. the government decides when and how to print money.
Behavioral risks exist as well. Snow Falling explores some of the unintended consequences of technology-driven social drift.
I wish to make clear that social capitalism represents one type of solution. I presented this alternative economic scheme to broaden the dialogue about future innovation impacts. Others have either denied the Luddite Fallacy will become the Luddite Verity or proposed a socialistic system in which the government taxes and redistributes wealth. Whether we implement social capitalism as I described is less important than developing creative solutions for the negative effects of innovation while maintaining the positive aspects of change.
Do you believe the technological Singularity — the point at which artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence — is coming soon? Which current technologies do you think are contributing most to this event?
Robert: I believe the technological singularity will occur sometime between thirty and fifty years from now. We experience the impacts of technology innovation today and those effects will become life altering long before the Singularity. Last year was the first year the U.S. poverty rate stopped increasing—our best performance three years into an economic recovery is no change in the poverty rate.
Three technology areas drive the change: biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence.
Biotechnology helps us understand the human mind. Nanotechnology will create quantum computers powerful enough to run artificial intelligence (AI) software capable of human-equivalent thought as understood from biotech research. In case you think these advances will occur outside your lifetime, consider that Xbox Kinect, iPhone’s Siri, and Google search run powerful AI algorithms. I will discuss specific, current advances in biotech, nanotech, and AI during my talks at the Issaquah and Bellevue libraries. Life on Nubis explores further reaching implications of these technologies.
Your novel, Life on Nubis, examines life at the point of the Singularity. Machines have contributed to human displacement — economically and literally, as protagonist Aiden is part of an interplanetary mass exodus. Who is left to benefit from the hyper-efficient economy back on Earth?
Robert: For a while, the individuals and companies driving innovation will benefit from the hyper-efficient economy. As wealth distribution skews dramatically in their favor and their advances reduce or eliminate the earning power of consumers, innovators will sow the seeds of their demise because people without money can’t consume and eventually become unhappy enough to force wealth redistribution. Professions focusing on personal interaction, such as psychology and politics, will be insulated from negative impacts until people become too poor. In the end, the combination of our current economic system and technology development makes everyone unhappy. This, of course, doesn’t have to be our fate.
I'm still reading the book now, by the way, and it strikes me as great sci-fi in the "old school" vein. By which I mean it's very focused on applying the concepts of your predicted future, and doesn't fall into character navel gazing. Who do you consider your greatest influences?
Robert: This question touches on my motivation to create positive change. Science fiction that influences me the most reveals insights about humanity, our future, or both. From Pebble in the Sky to the Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov opened minds to new ideas through his art. Aldous Huxley, Philip K. Dick, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Kurt Vonnegut are a few of the many talents who have walked this path, but you don’t have to be a guy to produce (or enjoy) great science fiction. Suzanne Collins wrote a biting criticism of societal values, the media, and our consumption of media content in The Hunger Games. She dosed our medicine in a young adult, Sci-Fi romance adventure that tastes a lot better than cherry cough syrup.