With the meteoric rise of corporatization, we must ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing by heavily integrating technology into our daily lives.
For years now, there has been a growing concern that the proliferation of artificial intelligence and robotic development will force the average human into the unemployment line.
Many of the jobs that were available as early as a decade ago, have been eliminated and outsourced to phone applications and internet search engines.
We are often awe-stricken by cutesy, near sentient avatars and cyborgs popularized by contemporary media, but rarely do we stop to think about the ramifications of these advancements. Think about your job; is it something a robot or algorithm couldn't do in the near future?
Meet Marshall Brain, the founder of the ultra-popular HowStuffWorks, a now iconic website concerned with the form and function of products and concepts.
HowStuffWorks sold to Discovery Channel in 2008 for $250 million. Today Marshall directs the Engineering Entrepreneurs Program at NCSU, and also writes about things like Mars, Transhumanism, and the constantly evolving technological landscape.
In this interview we discuss these ideas and the impending shift in economic culture.
Prox: Could you discuss your work habits in the earliest days of How Stuff Works? Was it difficult to balance your professional life with what was a hobby at the time?
Marshall: When HowStuffWorks started, things were very simple. Each weekend I would write and illustrate an article, and then publish it on the web site. Each weeknight I would answer a Question of the Day. People would write in with questions, so I had a huge list to choose from for topics.
Prox: Are you still surprised by how successful How Stuff Works turned out to be? Does it ever feel surreal?
Marshall: HowStuffWorks was a great experience. When I started it, there was no grand plan – I was simply writing for the pleasure of it. And for the first 6 months or so, no one really cared or visited. It truly was a thing I enjoyed doing. I had no idea there were so many “curious people” out in the world who wanted to know how stuff worked, until they started coming to the site in such large numbers.
I have another project I'am working on now called “Imagining Elon Musk’s Million Person Mars Colony – The Greatest Thought Experiment of all Time”, at http://marshallbrain.com/mars.htm . It is exactly the same process. I really enjoy working on this project, and it is a lot of fun writing about it.
Prox: During the earliest days of the Robotic Nation essays some people called your ideas kooky and/or farfetched, but now we are seeing that is hardly the case. How can humans stay relevant in a world that is becoming increasingly artificial?
Marshall: I wrote the Robotic Nation articles in 2003 (You can find them at http://marshallbrain.com/robotic-nation.htm or https://www.amazon.com/Robotic-Nation-Freedom-Tenth-Anniversary-ebook ). At that time there was quite a bit of skepticism, yes. People were thinking that “robots” might be a threat in the 22nd century, not now. Robots seemed “way off in the future". By and large, no one felt that robots would be a threat “anytime soon”, despite the early harbingers that were visible in 2003.
There is growing concern today. An increase in articles on the subject is evident. Everyday there is a news story or two. In the general public, however, I am not sure concern is very high at all, even now. Things are changing relatively slowly, so we are “boiling the frog” as they say (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boiling_frog). My sense is that something big is going to need to happen to jolt the system and get people’s attention. For example, within 10 years it is quite likely that a million or more truck drivers will lose their jobs over a fairly narrow time period. They will be completely replaced by automated trucks, and there is likely to be a lot of economic pain for many people when that happens. See this page for a discussion: http://marshallbrain.com/second-intelligent-species4.htm .
The other economic aspect discussed in the Robotic Nation articles in 2003 was the concentration of wealth (aka “economic inequality”). The concentration of wealth is running wild today, and appears to be unstoppable unless we as citizens were to start marching in the streets by the millions. The amazing thing is that the concentration of wealth is causing significant economic pain for everyone, but no one experiencing the pain (the 99%) seems to really care. These three articles are interesting if you would like to learn more about the general state of things:
Prox: Job creation has been one of the biggest political talking points for campaign hopefuls for much of the modern democratic process in the U.S, however we seem to applaud corporatization and robotics. Would you say that it is hypocritical (or at the very least counterproductive) to normalize mechanization in the workforce the way we have?
Marshall: We are witness to the end of “job creation”. The fact is that humans are in the process of creating the second intelligent species on planet Earth. For many millennia there has been one intelligent species: humans. The problem with the second intelligent species (or the huge benefit, depending on how you want to look at it) is that it will inevitably displace more and more people from jobs, eventually displacing everyone from every job. This is inevitable. See http://marshallbrain.com/second-intelligent-species.htm for more info.
Given that this is an inevitable process, the question then turns to: how are humans going to prepare for and adjust to this inevitable future? This is what “Imagining Elon Musk’s Million Person Mars Colony” is about (http://marshallbrain.com/mars.htm) – how do we create a new economy that allows every human being to live a happy, prosperous, rewarding life as the second intelligent species takes over all of the jobs. The book “Manna” at http://marshallbrain.com/manna1.htm shows one possible, and very beneficial, end point once robots have completely taken over. The Mars book shows how we make the transition.
Prox: I think it’s safe to say that entrepreneurship has changed significantly since the introduction of social media and computers in general. How does this impact the methodologies you teach to your students?
Marshall: The thing that is so amazing about being an entrepreneur today is that so many tools are now readily available and easily accessible. Want to start a web site? It could not be easier. You can create a Wordpress web site in an hour and begin broadcasting your message (whatever it is) to the world (http://marshallbrain.com/wordpress-intro.htm). Want to publish a book? Creating a Kindle book is simple and free, and your book can be making money the day you upload it. It is incredibly easy to create videos now, and YouTube will broadcast your video to the world for free. Kickstarter is like free money falling from the sky. And so on.
Being successful comes down to two things: 1) Getting started, and 2) Finding an idea that resonates with people. This article can help: http://marshallbrain.com/turn-idea-into-product.htm. See also this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qr3j8GozmYA
Prox: How do you think this current tech space we’re in will define the legacies of up and coming entrepreneurs? Do you think the human component of capitalism will be phased out?
Marshall: Wow – we could write a whole book about just this second question. But to try to condense it down to a few sentences, think about these four points:
There was the era known as “the golden age” in the United States (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post%E2%80%93World_War_II_economic_expansion).
Approximately, it is the 1950s and 1960s. Or to put it another way, it is the period of time after WWII and before the oil shocks of the 1970s. It was easy to find a good job, it was easy to afford college, it was easy to buy a house, etc.
This era is what the “Old Economy Steve” memes memorialize. In addition, the ethos of this era trended toward sharing the benefits of economic growth across society. For example, CEOs were making 10X what rank-and-file employees were making, not 100X or 1,000X as we see today (the CEO of Nike takes home something like 4,000X more than the people making the shoes in Vietnam and Indonesia do). This era gave rise to a strong and powerful “middle class” in the United States.
Once microprocessors came into widespread use, followed by the Internet, combined with “globalization” plus trade agreements plus offshoring, combined with declining union power, we have the period from the 1980s to present. A “Millennial” today is typically saddled with significant student loan debt, has a great deal of trouble finding a good job, cannot afford housing in a major city, cannot afford health care, etc. Today we talk about “the hollowing out of the middle class”, “economic inequality”, “the 1%” and so on. The idea of “spreading the wealth” completely collapsed, and all economic gains now flow to “the elites”. Compared to the 1950s and 1960s, the economic landscape for middle class America is a disaster. There is enough propaganda to make people think it’s “not so bad”, but for the majority of people in the United States, the standard of living has retracted. American children are now much less likely to earn more than their parents (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/18/506076733/u-s-kids-now-less-likely-to-earn-more-than-their-parents). Salaries have stagnated while the price of major things like housing and healthcare have skyrocketed.
At this point (2017 time frame), microprocessors are powerful enough and cheap enough to begin competing with humans in new AI sectors. Advanced computer vision systems, for example, will soon revolutionize robots. Siri is getting better and better at understanding natural language. Watson can play Jeopardy better than people. Google cars drive themselves. We are about to enter into an era of extreme economic pain as robots and AI begin to take over jobs in retail, restaurants, construction, etc. We will also see people like doctors, lawyers, managers, etc. being replaced by AI.
And then, eventually and inevitably, we will invent artificial consciousness – robots that are as smart and capable as humans. Then these robots will become much smarter than humans, because technology never stops advancing. Robots will be as smart as humans, then 2X smarter, then 4X smarter, and so on. At that point, humans become irrelevant. See http://marshallbrain.com/second-intelligent-species.htm for details on how this unfolds. If we are lucky, people can all move to artificial realities to escape from our irrelevance. See: http://marshallbrain.com/discard1.htm for details.
In this context, where humans become completely irrelevant, everything will be phased out. However, this process will take 50 years or so. In the meantime, it would be much better for everyone if we could transition over to the kind of economy described here: http://marshallbrain.com/mars.htm. But given the political landscape today, anything beneficial like this sort of transition is unlikely to occur. Therefore, the status quo will remain in place for the foreseeable future, which means capitalism as it exists today will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The “human component of capitalism” will exist until we get to the latter part of #3 and then #4. The best thing to do is to take advantage of all the tools now available and start your own project.
Prox: Please tell us something that influences your work that we may not know about.
Marshall: I am incredibly interested in replacing the current economic disaster that is unfolding in the United States with an economic system that benefits everyone, as described here: http://marshallbrain.com/mars.htm. Then we can extend this economic system across the planet. If we, as a species, could pull this off, 7.5 billion humans around the world would benefit from the new economy in profound ways.
Think about it this way… About a billion people on planet Earth today live in appalling slums. There are 65 million refugees. Half the people on the planet live on less than $3 per day. Even in the United States – one of the richest and most powerful countries on Earth – tens of millions of people are on food stamps. It’s crazy. We need a new economic system that solves all of these problems, and that also takes advantage of the coming advances in AI and robots so everyone on the planet benefits.
Prox: Could you give us some tips for aspiring businessmen and intellectuals?
Marshall: The key thing is to get yourself in motion. Here would be my tips:
If you need inspiration, read an inspirational author like Grant Cardone or Gary Vaynerchuk or Tony Robbins to get inspired. There are lots of inspirational people with web sites, Youtube channels, books, etc. Find one who is working on your wavelength.
Set yourself some goals and write them down. Writing them down is important.
Find the entrepreneurial community in your area. Most major cities have such a community. For example, I live in Raleigh, NC and there is a vibrant entrepreneurial community that has networking events, meetups, seminars, etc. nearly every night. Use a search engine and find calendars of entrepreneurial events in your area. Get involved and start meeting people, talking to people, seeing what people are thinking and doing. In a spreadsheet, keep track of everyone you meet and what they are doing.
Start making a list of the ideas you have. Look at the world, listen to people, look at other businesses, notice problems in your life, etc. and come up with your own ideas. You might find that you can write down two or three ideas each day. After a month or two you will have dozens of ideas, some of them better than others. See this article http://marshallbrain.com/turn-idea-into-product.htm and the book The $100 startup.
Take one of your good ideas and try it. See this video for inspiration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qr3j8GozmYA Start a web site, write an app, create a Kickstarter campaign… try something. The hardest part for many people is getting started, so start. You will be amazed what you learn by trying something.
Want to stay updated on new interviews and posts? Head over to the Inside the Rift Facebook page and leave a like or follow me on Twitter @insidetheriftx, Instagram @insidetherift, and Soundcloud @Insidetherift! You can also support me by Contributing or on Patreon!