Dirk Knemeyer

A Gentler Future for Knowledge Work, January 5, 2017

The French law really struck a personal note for me. The reason for that is when I was younger, it’s less over the last few years, but when I was younger I was basically working 17 hours a day.

I would be spending a little bit of the time with family, but even when I’m there the email’s going and if something important comes in I’m going to respond to it. There’s someone who I worked with for a long time, worked very closely, and certainly email was a big part of our communication. Probably more so for me, I’ve always been a heavy email-er, I’m introverted, it just email as a medium suits me pretty well. There came a point his wife wrote me and said, “Dirk, you can’t send emails on the weekend anymore.” She said, “All weekend emails flow in from you with all these big initiatives, requests, things to do, and my husband gets more and more stressed. More and more anxious. More and more unhappy, because your emails keep coming in.” She said, “You just, you just can’t do it anymore.”

I was in my 30s at that point and so you know I had been emailing my way, which is 24/7 essentially for many years. Just oblivious to the possibility that for another person, that flow of communication in certain times, in certain volumes, would be a negative. Would be something that had a deleterious effect on them, because at that phase of my life I was just sort of wired to be always working, always going, it wasn’t, it may have been subconsciously and internally stressful for me in ways I wasn’t in touch with. Consciously when emails would come in I didn’t feel stress, I just attacked them, I just took them, I just went right to them. The metaphor I’ve used for email is tennis. It’s like playing tennis. I would run around the court making sure the balls were always in the other people’s court, basically.

Fast forward now to today, and France is identifying the fact that email, receiving email, feeling the compulsion to respond to email, the requests that email may contain that spur someone to other action at certain times, in certain proportions, isn’t good for you. It’s unhealthy in ways large or small. I think that’s an important recognition. I don’t think that the French law, you know, you said the sort of- we don’t know yet, is it just one little thing, is it visionary. It’s probably one little thing. France has been a trailblazer in affecting labor law that basically no-one else adopts, right? France famously did the 30 hour work week I don’t know how many years ago, but sometime this decade. You know, nobody else is doing that, or maybe there’s a few small countries. But, the main pillars of the economy certainly are not. They’re going by the old rules, and the old modes.

I’m happy that this law is sort of making us think more about the impacts of modern technology on human life. First world life to make it more specific. But, I don’t think that this law in and of itself is going to amount to a sea-change of any sort.

I think things are going to get on differently now then in the earlier industrial revolution and there’s a few reasons why. Number one is at that time, the worst part of your life was work. You would go in, you’d lose fingers, you wouldn’t be able to sleep, it was human slavery, human torture, human- I mean it was really, the worst part of your life was the work experience. Now, the worst part of your life is not the work experience. So yeah I know, using email as the example, it can be stressful to get email at night. It can be stressful to get email on vacation, on the weekend, yadda, yadda, yadda. But, that’s not the worst part of our lives. The worst part of our lives is not the work part, it’s the life part. It’s the fact that we’re addicted to sugar. It’s the fact that we’re addicted to salt. It’s the fact that we are addicted to the call of the new. It’s the fact that we are in this broken capitalist paradigm that makes us fat, that makes us inattentive, that makes us feel unfulfilled.

There were enormous reasons why the industrial revolution needed to be reformed, and the inhumanity of work needed to be brought more in line with what’s appropriate. But, it’s so much farther down the list now. The issues we have, or rather some of the personal things that I said, or some of the more systemic things around global warming. Like, the fact that email stresses us out is just not a big deal on the list, whereas child labor laws and some of the things that didn’t exist over a 100 years ago, like the absence of those, were more sort of at the fulcrum of what was wrong with civilization.

The things that are wrong with civilization now are really far removed from the plight of the digital worker. Which, is not to say that those aren’t negative things, but it’s going to be a lot harder to coalesce around that as the rallying cry in this environment of plenty, and where the real issues and the real things that are killing us are happening at a very different level.

When I walk into a store, they have a sensor that records the person walked into the store; is that inclusive in my data? When I’m out on the street there are cameras filming, and some of them can make out my face and could come in tight on my face, and that’s data out there. Is that my data? To me that’s the trickiest, because it requires a crisp definition of what, quote unquote, your data is. I haven’t seen a good thesis for what that should be, and I think getting to the bottom of it is going to be tricky.

 


The Ethics of Designer Babies, Wealth & Power, October 10, 2016

For a long time we’ve taken an egg from a different woman and planted a sperm from a father and put it in the wife of the father as the host mother for an egg that she didn’t produce, or were taking sperm from another man, putting it into an egg of the mother from someone other than her husband. Of course, marriage is not a prerequisite for any of these things. Now, it’s taking essentially the egg and taking part of it out from a genetic perspective and replacing it with something else.

It seems newer, scarier maybe, but it’s really not that different. It’s really making a decision based on the viability of the biological material of one of the parents and making an alteration for the viability or the health of a baby. In and of itself it’s doing it at the genetic level as opposed to the sort of substitution of an egg or a sperm cell, which makes it different, but it’s pretty similar from an outcome perspective. Where this becomes more compelling is the slippery slope problem, because it’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh, yeah, you know, we don’t want to have this child born with this congenital problem. We want it to be born healthy.”

Most people are going to nod their heads with that and say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” making that replacement okay, but the path isn’t that long to the superman, the supermensch model, where you’re not replacing to avoid some disease or some condition. You’re replacing to enhance. You’re replacing to go and not just get healthy, but to healthy superstar. Right? I think that’s where it becomes more interesting. Certainly, this technology is on a path to allow that to happen, even though in the sort of concrete sense that we imagine it probably not able to happen today.

We were having a conversation about Trump’s tax return, and the fact that if you look at over all of human history, there’s always been an elite. Always is too absolute, but by and large, in civilization there’s haves and there’s have-nots.

That’s been the case whether it’s been a democracy, whether it’s been a hereditary monarchy, whether it’s been communism. Regardless of the social structure, there is a small group that has a vast majority of the wealth and power that tends to propagate generation over generation over generation, whether it be because it’s supposedly by divine right or whether it’s because you just have a shit ton of money that you keep passing down to the following generations.

To me, if we’re concerned about it being only elite are going to use this and their children are going to be more powerful, more successful, more set up, it’s already the case. It’s just manifesting in different ways. Now, it’s just they have the millions of dollars that they pass down, which gives the children ginormous advantages that sets them up to more likely to be in charge. This is just a different flavor of that.

Not that that is necessarily to advocate for or excuse it, but I don’t know that it’s such a different state of affairs than we already have in the world. The fact is, there is a power elite in virtually every organized manifestation of civilization as far back as recorded history goes, and that power elite generally tends to stay in place generation over generation. One of the things that’s remarkable about the experience in the United States of America, where we are, is that unlike the European countries, where many of us came from originally, it’s much easier to go from having nothing to make it for yourself and to get into that elite at one level or another.

The question is, would this make it harder? Would the sort of promise of America of, “I have nothing, but I’m going to work hard and be ingenious and make something for myself that starts to move me into a place of power and could move my family into a place of power,” do the hurdles of designer babies and technology create a system that is less penetrable by the lower classes? I think it may, but I think there’s a lot of unknowns, too, so I’m not sure.

Business is always way, way ahead of legislation on this stuff. There’s no question about it. Way ahead. The government’s going to be really slow to catch up. I don’t know that this technology is all that different from things that we take for granted now. What I mean by that is the wealthy now take their children and put them in private schools. They take them and put them in schools that are demonstrably better than the public schools that everyone else is in.

What is more impactful on the outcome of a child as they’re advancing? Is it more impactful that they get the super smart genes, or is it more impactful that they get the private schooling? I think it’s well within the realm of possibility that the environmental and network benefits of the existing old-school infrastructure that the money buys actually is the thing that should be more intimidating and frightening to the have-nots in terms of the advantages that the children are getting.

It’s just that the designer baby aspect of it is the sort of sci-fi. It’s not here yet. It’s a little bit scary. It’s easier to feel fear toward … I suspect that the very analog, very old-school advantages that the money of the power elite provide are really putting in harder-to-overcome obstacles for the rest of us ultimately, at least certainly in the short term until that technology is super-perfected and is creating more holistic uber-people.


Driverless Cars, Ethics & The Flawed Human Animal, September 30, 2016

Tesla with their autopilot feature, they’re explicit to drivers, “Keep your hands on the wheel, keep your foot on the brakes and stay alert the whole time,” right? That’s one of the reasons why when we talked about the technology before I was very critical of it. I was like, “Why bother? Just drive your fricking car,” at that point. This individual was given those warnings, and despite those warnings, presumably through inattention or not having the foot or not having the hands, something didn’t override and keep himself safe, keep himself alive. It’s sort of an over-trust in the technology, like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, those warnings, those are just … They’re being overly careful.” It’s like 10 and 2, we don’t really do 10 and 2, that’s overly careful. The guy’s dead because of it, and that’s really unfortunate.

I’d be interested to know what’s happening on the litigation side. If the traffic light malfunctions and someone dies in a car crash due to the malfunction, can you sue the … I don’t know how all that is set up, but can you sue the city, or can you sue the engineer, or can you sue the manufacturer? I ask those questions because I think the highways are a great place to talk about all this stuff, because we have this illusion of control. Right now we’re driving our car, we crash, it’s someone else’s fault or it’s our fault. However that’s figured out, humans are blamed. We’re heading towards a future of driverless cars. In that scenario, it’s very likely that cars will be far more safe and less people will die on the highways. A lot of people die on highways, I don’t know what the number is. It’s certainly tens of thousands a year in the United States, maybe in the hundreds.

I don’t know scale, but it’s a lot of people die on the highways right now. If those technologies cut that number in half, objectively safer, objectively better. The people who die in those accidents, now they’re dying because something went wrong with somebody’s technology, it was my car’s software, or your car’s software, or something else other than my agency of me as a driver, you as a driver, and we’re taking responsibility for what’s going on. Now it’s something totally different. I’m really curious on the litigation side how that’s going to pan out. I think there’s going to be a lot of people that hate the technology because they were the unlucky lottery winners of their loved ones being killed. Less people die overall, but my person’s dead. If they were allowed to hold their steering wheel, they wouldn’t be dead.

I think those are knotty legal and ethical things that are going to be great strawmen, great first to the fight in how we’re thinking about all the implications of turning various parts of the world over to artificial intelligence.

We’re going to be in danger, because humans are careless, we are. There was one time, I don’t know, it’s probably been a year or 2 even, so I think it’s worse now most likely. I drove down the road and just said, “How many people are texting or on their device?” I passed 12 people, every 12 of them, every one, 12 out of 12, were on this device. It’s certainly under 100%, but that sample size is a perfect example of it. I say we are careless, because look, I’m on my device sometimes too, unfortunately, on the road. It’s been communicated to us, we know, “Hey dumb dumb, you are much more likely to die whizzing at a high rate of speed in this big, heavy metal thing if you’re doing that,” but we still do it. We make this little calculation based on incomplete understanding, incomplete … really grocking what the danger is. We thrust ourselves into further danger, for what?

For nothing, for the difficulty of being bored, for the draw of the little serotonin rush, of the little thing. That way of behaving is going to continue to haunt us moving forward. It’s why we use easy passwords, it’s why we’re not secure with our online information, while many of us probably, unbeknownst to us, all of our goodies are out there already and people could be using those against us, and leveraging even today if they really wanted to. We’re careless. That carelessness is going to add risk to the future of AI.


Basic Income & The Future of Society, September 15, 2016

People who have been listening to me for a number of years, and for me this goes back to 1993, know that I think the core problem is capitalism. We’re having all of this churn and angst around worker rights and the conflicts of the gig economy, yada, yada, yada. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we have a very lightly regulated free market that incentivizes people to act selfishly and allows the creation of these sociopathic corporations that act destructively, and those are the underpinnings of the system. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that there’s all kinds of waste and human pain and loss coming out of that.

Every citizen in the country should be provided some baseline existence that they don’t have to be part of an ongoing 40 hour, 60 hour week cycle to have, right? I wrote about this a number of years ago, but the idea for the model is, if you’re a citizen and we’re in the United States, let’s call it the United States, if you’re a citizen in the United States there’s a minimum baseline that you should have, and you should need to work for it. That minimum baseline would be something like a certain level of modest housing, a certain level of modest food and beverage. I would have electricity and internet access be part of that baseline. To create all of the things needed in the baseline, that’s quantifiable, like the amount of human effort and human capital required to provide for everyone can be tracked. We should be tracking that, and we should have people having to work their fair share of providing for everyone.

Now, that might sound like just a different type of capitalism, but the trick is to provide this modest baseline for everyone wouldn’t have people working 40 hours a week. It would have people working 8 hours a week or 12 hours a week, right, in order to work their fair share. They would have the rest of their lives to decide for themselves. The example I like to use is the truffles example. If you really want truffles go ahead out there and gather truffles. Start a “business” around gathering truffles. Then other people who want truffles, you can work with them to get other things in a free market structure, but that free market structure needs to be put on top of the baseline, right? So, bring that back into the conversation we’re having now, the problem is right now there’s no baseline. It’s like if you don’t scrape and claw within this capitalist, largely unregulated free market, find some job for you to do, you’re going to be on the street. You’re going to be eating shit, and we have abundance.

We have the ability that if people are contributing a fair share to it, to provide a baseline for everyone. If we did that, all of these problems go away. They all go away, because people don’t need it. It’s not live or die. It’s not on the street or in something that’s comfortable and humane. It’s humane for all, and then building on top of that. I mean, that’s a very specific and prescribed solution for the problem, but I roll it out to really put the spotlight on the issue. Like, it’s just rubbish that we’re talking about, oh, Uber is this service that it makes sense from a convenience perspective, it makes sense from an environmental perspective, it is making the system of transportation smarter. It may not still be perfect, but it represents improvement. Now there’s all this teeth gnashing about it, because it’s costing humans jobs. There’s now the fear of with all of the AI and robotic solutions coming in, the fear of what are going to happen to more and more human jobs. It really shouldn’t matter. Like, these should be conversations about can you have truffles or not. They shouldn’t be conversations about can I have food and shelter or not. Food and shelter should be givens, assuming you’re contributing your modest fair share to your country as a citizen, as a participant in that entity.

There’s two problems with basic income. One is people don’t have to contribute to make it happen. It’s just money from heaven, right? Part of being healthy humans as well as being healthy societies is participation. It’s participating and having some reciprocity there going both ways. The second thing with the basic income is at the end of the day, people can spend it on whatever the hell that they want, and we know enough about the human animal to know that some non-significant percentage of those people are going to spend it on things that result in their, again, being on the outside without proper food and shelter. To have a healthy society, to build a productive civilization, we need to have people with food and shelter and some other basic things, I think, bottom line, brass tacks, no matter what. I think the basic income misses on a few key implementation points, although I do applaud it philosophically.

 

 


Engineering the Human Animal, June 2, 2016

We’ve mapped the genome, of course we’re going to fabricate a genome. There’s going to be some ethicists that are wringing their hands, but science is well on its way here.

Where I’m going with this, and tying back into this conversation, is I’ve talked a number of times on the show about humans having bad programming. Let me get into that with more specificity. When we were unsophisticated beings going back, I probably need to know my history of human biology better, but going back many thousands or millions of years, it was important that essential in our programming was drive to procreate, for example. For that to be just this inherently important code in how we behaved as a creature was essential, and it’s what allowed our species to continue and to reach a point of dominance over the rest of the animal kingdom and get to the point today where our ability to think and reason and logic is incredibly evolved and sophisticated.

That old, human code was important for that moment, but in today’s world with the way that we’re able to see the world, the way that we function in societies in the world, that code is garbage code. It’s like if you were looking at the latest and greatest software today, it would be like getting an app that’s totally coded in basic. People would be like, “What the hell are they doing? It’s using this code that is so unsophisticated, such bullshit.” We can’t use that code. We need to be using the latest and greatest code. Human programming is still done in fricking basic. I talked about male sexual urges and the deleterious impact that those have on other people in the society specifically but then in the society in total. That’s bad fricking programming. That’s a lot of basic code that is still crumming up how we behave and how we function in the world.

My saying this today is going to sound to most people like it’s crazy. It’s going to sound to most people like I’ve gone off my rocker, but as these technologies around the genome progress, as we learn to fabricate the genome, as we learn to fabricate a human being, as we learn to engineer babies, as we learn to reverse and re-engineer children and adults and humans, that’s going to come in the future. That’s a ways down the road. I’m going to tell you right now, at the point that that becomes a reality, all these other things in the world will have changed to the point where people are going to shrug and say, “Yeah, of course we have bad code. Of course we have crummy code. Of course we should be taking advantage of those technologies.”

That stuff today in 2016, or 10 or 15 years ago when I first started talking about this stuff, might sound crazy, but in 20-blabbity blah, decades up the road when this shit is reality, it’s not going to sound crazy at all. The kind of work that’s being done now by people like George Church, by companies like Gen9, by these things the mainstream media are totally ignoring and people are not aware of are going to be the technologies that allow us to evolve beyond our broken basic crappy code that was necessary when we were thoughtless, stupid creatures just trying to battle our way to the top of the animal kingdom. That’s going to all go away and be replaced by something else that is coming from these kinds of technologies, possibly or probably, and the world is going to be ready for it and not only accept it, but embrace it because in the context of our evolution as a species, it simply makes sense.


Social Controls to Reduce Crime, March 10, 2016

It’s easy to dismiss this as a China thing. Right? Totalitarian state regularly oppresses the liberties of the citizens. For me what’s compelling about this story is the fact that it’s a foreshadowing of things that we’re going to be dealing with in the United States, both in ways similar to what are being outlined here in a Chinese context, but also things far, far beyond that I believe. We are likely headed for a future where the government is using data to predict future behavior and takes preemptive action to control [criminal] behavior. Look, even thirty years ago we knew very little about the human animal. We would rely on things like characteristics that go back to classical times that we would bestow upon people. That’s a person with character. That’s a person with self-control. That’s a person with honor. That’s a person who is trustworthy.

I think we’re heading for this sort of tipping point, if you will, where we are going to have so much knowledge around human motivation and behavior, scientifically, not armchair theory, that comes together with our finally saying, “You know what? It is not acceptable for one in four women to have to deal with an attempted sexual violence.” These things are going to come together, and I think it’s going to result in at least the consideration, at the highest levels, and potentially in public forums, of prediction and control, and controlling people from doing those things that once upon a time were tolerated. Now they’re not tolerated, but they’re still not being forcefully addressed. I think we’ll forcefully address them, and I think something akin to pre-crime may be part of that.

The fact is, if you go above humanity and you look at it in some objective way and you say, “You know, for one of these two genders, this super high percentage is being abused by the other one in ways that can fundamentally shatter their sense of self and the rest of their lives,” that ain’t acceptable. It’s not acceptable. Up to now we haven’t been able to see it. We haven’t been able to understand it. We haven’t been able to control it, but science is moving so fast that we’re going to understand the human animal very well. We’re going to grok what it is that results in that stuff happening, the combination of physiology, psychology, sociology, the whole nine yards. We’re going to be able to control it. That control is going to look invasive and intrusive and like something out of a science fiction movie, but is it better to put those controls on to protect the half of the people who are being imposed upon and violated? To me it’s a no brainer. It’s just a question of what does that look like when the time comes.


Pre-Crime & Social Engineering, August 13, 2015

This is a great example of where big data is so powerful. If you have science, if you have an infrastructure that you can pour a lot of data into, that it has some validity to it, suddenly you can determine some really interesting and powerful things. One of those, potentially, is the likelihood of people to commit crimes again.

If you know that I have an 82% chance of committing another violent crime, for me, as a citizen, and considering human rights, and the rights of the citizens, I want me as the 82% future violator to be controlled. I don’t want the 82% future violator to be given that 82% chance to harm and destroy other people. That doesn’t seem equitable to me. My saying that, probably to a number of people listening to this show, is very controversial, which gets to the complexity of the issue.

I think it’s really interesting stuff, and we’re heading toward a whole new moral battleground that we haven’t had to deal with in our culture in the past. It’s coming fast, and it has the potential of doing much more good for the society, and for our citizens. Probably if we go down that path at the expense of individual rights, in ways we become accustomed to taking for granted. I’m fascinated to see how this all plays out.


On Not Needing To Work, July 16, 2015

Once upon a time, it was necessary for people to work in order to create the things that they needed to subsist. If they didn’t work to create those things, they would be incapable of subsistence. We are today at a point where machines make it … If you throw out the capitalism part, and throw out the fact that the money and thus the power is not distributed evenly, so you’ve having to try to get more of it to pay for things, but the technology and the infrastructure exist so that we no longer need everyone to work for our subsistence. The combination of human capital and technology make it so that subsistence is less than everyone working.

Now we’re all working either to provide luxuries on top of subsistence, or just to keep this structure, the capitalist economic structure, going. This is a giant evolutionary arc, and where we’re heading, the things like Hillary Clinton’s talking about, the idea of people are going to contractors. It’s clear that the old model is breaking down and changing. Those are all steps toward our not needing to work for subsistence or luxuries. It’s getting to the point where it will be well less than a hundred percent of human capital on top of technology required to provide everything that we would want or need.

The result of that is that people literally don’t need to have jobs. They don’t need to work, other than to make money, other than to accumulate power and leverage within the society most locally, or civilization more broadly. We’re approaching a time where the world could shift in really massive ways, because it’s simply not required for people to work to create the things that are needed to keep life going. The question is: what then? One of the byproducts of work, and I’ve mentioned this I think in passing on other shows, but I don’t think we’ve gotten into it too deeply. One of the byproducts of work is a form of social control, so if I’m working, I can’t be getting drunk, because I don’t have anything to do. I can’t be sleeping with the neighbor’s wife. I can’t be doing things that are potentially destabilizing to social systems of people co-habitating in modern civilization.

The question is how is that going to shake out? As we reach a point, and it’s coming. It’s decades, not years, but it’s really coming, it’s close. It ain’t centuries, that’s for damn sure. As we reach the point that most of the work can be done by technology, that’s going to leave a lot of people without needing to work as a means of providing the things that the society is trying to provide. What are they going to do with their time? To me, that’s the big and interesting question that gets lost in the froth and churn over viewing it in the current economic system of upper class and middle class, and forty hour work weeks. I think a lot of those things are going to get completely blown out by the direction this takes, and the thing that’s just not totally clear is what direction it does take, because there’s a few different that it could.