Kevin Kelly knows technology can’t be stopped. Of course, artificial intelligence will wipe out or rework whole industries, and entire career paths will vanish. And if you think the world is addicted to its phones now, just wait until there’s a screen everywhere, and you never really escape the grid. We will be tracked like never before.
While this may sound like the recipe for a Tom Cruise dystopia sci-fi movie, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, in his new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kelly goes to great pains to make it all seem like a net positive. And maybe that’s healthy, since it’s coming no matter what.
Kelly has done more than spending decades predicting the future: He’s actually been creating it too. Kelly was an editor at Whole Earth Catalog and went on to found WELL, an early, hugely influential online community. He was the executive editor of Wired during most of the 1990s, when the publication was finding its voice and defining the boundaries the vast and expanding world of technology. He still has a title at the magazine: senior maverick.
Although he still writes on technology (including a recent Wired article that profiled the mysterious augmented reality company Magic Leap), his interests are varied. He has published several books and sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation, a group that is attempting to get humanity to think further into the future.
Newsweek interviewed Kelly in his home in a tree-filled canyon in Pacifica, California. What follows has been edited and condensed.
The Inevitable felt like a very optimistic book. How much of that is intent or effort on your part?
I think it's just a complete reflection of my own temperament. I'm a very optimistic person. I think that the future is actually decided by optimists.... It's hard to be responsible for generational thinking if you're pessimistic.
Do you consider yourself a futurist?
I think I do at this point. I don't know how you get this title, and I don't use that word, but if people say it, yes, I'm talking about the future, so I guess I'm a futurist.
What would you say the trick is to being a good futurist?
Being right. How right have I been? That's a good question. In the past, one of the advantages that I have is that, and I say in this book as well, is I'm talking about long-term trends, which I think are predictable, while the specifics, the products, the particular institutions are completely unpredictable. I make no attempt to try and predict those things.
My analogy is that if you were to visit other planets, they would have telephone systems. The iPhone is not inevitable at all. It's completely unpredictable. The internet is inevitable. Twitter and SnapChat are not inevitable.
I think one of the things that I try to do, or one of the sources for where I get my beliefs about technology, is from something I would call listening to the technology. I believe that the inevitability of these things arises from the inherent dynamics of the physics of this stuff.
When technology comes out, what I spend my time looking at is how people actually use them on the street versus how they're supposed to be used, how the designers intended them to be used.
My canonical example is copying. The internet is the world's largest copy machine. If something can be copied, and it touches the internet, it will be copied.
The music industry spent years, decades and decades, resisting the idea that these copies are going to just move. [Now] they've finally come around to try to make the business around the idea that things are going to spread, that you can't stop the copying. If they had done that 20 years ago instead of spending all that time trying to crush Napster and each one that came up. It's insane.
You mentioned the music industry. What institutions or things do you think are going to get disrupted in the next 30 years?
I think the advertising industry, which right now is the fundamental engine for most of the internet wealth and all the businesses from Google to Facebook. Their billions are coming basically from advertising. I think it's going to be very ripe for destruction because, in a curious way when we have this abundance of materials, commodity, everything, just super abundance, that the only scarcity we have is human attention, which is limited.
We're all limited to 24 hours a day. Even more curiously, we have to spend it every day. We can't bank it up. If that's the only true scarcity, and the true value in this new economy. It's kind of curious that we give away so much of our attention for nothing. I see an opportunity where people will start charging to watch an ad, charging to read someone's email, charging to see this thing.
Of course, I think as the self-driving stuff goes on that the ramifications of having self-driving vehicles is not just the truck drivers. By the way, I've been told that the most common occupation in America is actually truck driving. There's that obvious first-order disruption, but I think there's many, many other second- and third-order disruptions that will come from having self-driving cars. For instance, what are we going to do in the car if we're not driving it? There's this whole time slot that suddenly opens up.
Again, it's not that those businesses go away, it's just that the business models have to change.
There's something you say in your book about dystopia and how it just doesn't stick around.
Right, it's self-canceling, self-limiting. It's like explosions, in a certain sense. They're traumatic and dramatic, but they don't last very long because they blow themselves out, and they blow themselves up. It's very hard to have a self-sustaining explosion that went on for hours, or days, or years.
In general, most of the Hollywood movies about the future are very dystopian because they're so much easier to imagine than a coherent, plausible future where things are working. I have to say that it is difficult to imagine 50 years from now, a world where there's ubiquitous tracking, ubiquitous VR, AI, total screening everywhere that would be a place that you would want to live.
I don't know if you made a movie set in 2016 in the '70s, nobody's going to find it cinematic. We have these things in our pockets. That's cool, but it's just not cinematic.
Part of what I'm trying to do with this is to lay out something that I see as maybe a place that people want to live. I don't know if I succeeded in terms of if anybody else wants to live there, but I was trying to imagine a place that would be a destiny that I wouldn't mind living in.
The movie Her struck me as one of the few science-fiction movies that had a fairly plausible, not terrible pedestrian daily life.
Unlike the other movie, [Ex] Machina, which I didn't like. One of the Hollywood tropes that just infuriates me is the idea of the lone villain with all this technology. Most people can't keep their laptop going by themselves.
Her was good in a sense because there was at least an indication that there were systems going, a lot of other people involved.
Any other depictions of the future do you think are plausible?
In a funny kind of sense, the Star Wars universe is because they're well worn, because they have this sense that not everything is new. Blade Runner is a little bit like that, this kind of worn future is I think very much it, which is that the future is not this world of all gleaming technology. It's the old is still going to be present, and you have little layers of new stuff on top of the old, which is the predominant mechanism.
I worked on the movie Minority Report with [Steven] Spielberg, and our job...a bunch of futurists...was to imagine the world in 2050 in a plausible way. I think we did a pretty good job of depicting that world, which had ordinary stuff for most of the world. [The] transportation system was different and precog. There was the new embedded and layered on top of a lot of the old. I think that's the pattern.
Do you have any fears of something like a paranoid Philip Dick future?
Well, Philip K. Dick was very broad in his paranoia.
I don't worry too much about technology because I think we tend to self-correct very fast. There are a couple of areas that I don't think we're paying attention to quite enough. I just had a conversation with some Department of Defense folks about AI. We've not yet invented a technology that we haven't weaponized. It seems inevitable that we will weaponize AI.
This team looking at the assessment of the technology, they're trying to really prepare the Pentagon to thinking about AI broadly, not just with what the U.S. is doing, but what's happening around the world. There are other countries weaponizing, making robot soldiers, and all this stuff. It becomes kind of worrisome when we take the humans out of the kill decisions, meaning that we let autonomous AIs decide whether to shoot or not.
I'm really very, very concerned that we don't have any rules for cyber war. We don't have any consensus. We don't have any governing principles about what's fair, what's not fair, what's allowed, what's not allowed, offensively and defensively.
None of the countries will talk about what they're doing. That kind of secrecy is preventing the discussion about what we should allow. Is it OK to go in and turn someone's electrical system off? Is it OK to disrupt a banking system? What's the equivalent of a landmine or chemical weapons in this? What should we not allow?
Do you think humans are going to be able to stick around?
Absolutely, for a couple of a reasons. One is they are us, we are them. One is we invented our own humanity. We were the first animals that we domesticated. We invented this external stomach to cook things that we couldn't digest very easily ourselves, and so...we could digest, get nutrition from things. That additional nutrition changed our jaws, changed our genes. We developed lactose intolerance very, very quickly once we developed herding animals.
We physically changed ourselves through our own inventions, and we are still doing that. We're actually evolving genetically very fast right now. We will continue to modify ourselves. One of the things that will happen over this time span with genetic engineering is that we're going to modify ourselves. At the same time, all these other things are happening.
The second thing is right now the best chess player in the world is not a human. It's not an AI. It's a human plus AI. It's these centaurs. Best medical diagnosis: It's not human. It's not AI. It's doctors plus these things. We are going to make all these other kinds of AIs to work with us. Working with us, it makes us more powerful.
I think the idea that we aren't needed, I don't see that in nature. We see extinctions happening all the time. They're not very fast. In fact, the more common story is that you're making an ecosystem that keeps enlarging. While it's not impossible that we could just go extinct, it's statistically unlikely.
The way that the AIs think is not human like. That's the main thing. The reason why we want them to drive our cars is because they don't drive like humans. Our kind of thinking will be absent and will be needed. It'll be part of the mix. It'll be good, because they aren't going to think like us.
You're known for having a very personal spiritual story. I'm wondering how that informs your vision of the future.
For me, I think it illuminates several things. One is it helps me think as an outsider, think differently, think other, because I think if you have a worldview, then you are aware that everybody has a worldview. People who say they don't have a kind of orienting worldview or beliefs, actually, they do have beliefs, they may not be aware of it.
The second thing is I think it inspired me to try and develop the long story for technology. People weren't talking about technology as being in any way connected to the rest of the cosmos.
I think my spiritual seeking said, "Well, that has to be connected in some way to the rest of the cosmos. Where does technology fit into the cosmos?" Asking those questions of how it fits into the cosmos, what was the cosmic connection, I think is something else I got from my belief.
Do you find technology spiritual in its current incarnation?
I would say that technology in its current history, the past, now, the future, is a reflection of the divine. It is, in the same way that we might say nature is a reflection of the divine, if you believe in the divine as I do. I think my interpretation of technology is that it's an extension of the same forces that has made the natural world. In that same way that we might say the grove of redwoods is a reflection of the divine, I would say the internet and cellphones are.
Do you put any credence in the singularity?
The singularity is this mythic state of what's often called an intelligence explosion where the idea is if you can make an AI that was smarter than humans, whatever that means, and that was capable of making one smarter than itself, that very soon you would have this upward bootstrapping cascade where it's making itself smarter and smarter and smarter and often quicker and quicker each cycle, so it instantly, from our perspective, blooms into this all knowing intelligence almost like God, and there's a rapture.... This thing, this super intelligence, solves most of our problems, eliminates cancer, makes us immortal, and we live forever.
That's the strong version that is preached by Ray Kurzweil and is sometimes called “The Rapture of the Nerds,” meaning that if you can live long enough to reach that moment, you'll live forever. Ray himself is taking 250 pills a day to make sure that he lives to that moment of the rapture. I think that's very unlikely...let me put it that way...for a number of many, many reasons.
I do think that there's a soft version of the singularity, in the same kind of version that we had with language. When humanoids invented language, they could not see that world after language.
It may be very difficult to understand what happens on the other side of once we have a global connection of 7 billion people and 7 trillion machines and AIs all connected together, that there may be things that happen at that level that we are not even aware of or can't even be aware of.