Breaking Banks - Episode 331:
Sci-Fi Legends talk COVID-19
Sci-Fi Legends talk COVID-19
On this week’s show, we invited acclaimed science fiction authors David Brin, Kevin J. Anderson, and Ramez Naam on the show to talk about how the #COVID19 crisis might affect humanity on a long term basis, looking out short-term and then 50 years from now. These authors have written science fiction with topics like evolutionary adaptation, pandemics, nanobot infections and alien viruses, so they’re well placed to think about societal impact. This is one you won’t want to miss!
[4:10] What are we seeing in terms of global response to the coronavirus that are intriguing.
[04:35] David Brin wrote a book called Earth in the 1980’s and the most difficult part for a sci-fi writer to predict is the very near future.
[6:45] Will daily life return to normal after the events of COVID-19? What is the fall out from reduction in the demand for oil?
[8:30] Does capitalism at its heart have the tools necessary to solve the outlying problems? Is COVID-19 a wake up call for capitalism?
[10:36] David Brin discusses https://tinyurl.com/breathassist1 and the XPRIZE Foundation.
[12:15] What does the future of working from home look like post coronavirus?
[15:50] Will VR become the wave of the future in communicating, conferences, and dating?
[19:00] David Brin gives listeners a lesson in haptics and comedy ensues.
[22:51] Ramez Naam speaks about flattening the curve and how China handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
[30:30] In the United States will we see the scales tip towards a more socialist society after COVID-19?
[35:30] Does the United States need a basic social safety net?
[40:20] There’s no doubt the United States needs to be more agile, will COVID-19 spur rapid innovation and change to be implemented?
[41:50] Brett King explores the theory that sensors and cutting edge technologies could protect, diagnose, and prevent future outbreaks.
[45:40] David Brin addresses the notion that the first symptom of COVID-19 is the loss of sense of smell.
[50:00] Will citizens be open to sharing more personal information and data in order to move about freely post COVID-19?
[51:19] Brett King asks each guest what society looks like 100 years post COVID-19.
Ramez Naam @Ramez
Kevin J. Anderson @TheKJA
David Brin @DavidBrin
Breaking Banks is the #1 global fintech radio show and podcast, created by Brett King. Tune in for a look at how technology and customer behavior will bring about more changes in banking in the next 10 years, than in the last 200 years. Listen every Thursday at 3pm eastern time, noon pacific on the VoiceAmerica Business Channel. Subscribe at Provoke.fm to hear the show nearly 2 million listeners from 72 countries are raving about.
Welcome back to Breaking Banks. This week, we thought with all the Coronavirus fuss and bother, that we would bring in the sci-fi guys and we would have a talk about what's going to happen next. Part of the art of science fiction is trying to role play, model out scenarios, look at how events that are happening right now might extend out into the future. So we've invited a few friends on. Mez, Ramez Naam. Welcome back.
Ramez Naam: (00:30)
Thanks Brett. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Hugo award winning author of Nexus, if I understand correctly, a singularity university. Was it Hugo award?
Ramez Naam: (00:38)
No Hugo for me. [crosstalk 00:00:42].
It was the Philip K. Dick. Sorry. Philip K. Dick Award. At singularity university, one of the preeminent experts on clean energy and solar and all things. Ramez, welcome back to the show. We always enjoy having you on.
Ramez Naam: (00:56)
My pleasure. It’s great to be back.
Another returning guest, Kevin J. Anderson. I don’t know how many Hugo’s you’ve won Kevin but-
Kevin J Anderson: (01:03)
Oh, I haven’t won any. I’ve been nominated but I haven’t won any of them. Yet.
But you do have hundreds of books out in publication. Many, many New York Times Best Sellers. A very well respected author. And of course, right now in the midst of writing another Dune novel, I understand.
Kevin J Anderson: (01:19)
Yeah. Well on a lot of the stuff that I’ve done, I’ve been with Brian Herbert, the son of Frank Herbert in the Dune universe and in fact that’s something causing us a lot of turmoil right now because this year was the year of Dune for us. There’s a major new movie from Legendary that’s supposed to be released on December, I think 18th and then there was a spinoff TV series that we were working on. And not that, I’m not doing doom and gloom here, but now everything’s sort of, are we sure this is going to be released when it is and are we sure… I’m not speaking for Legendary, I don’t know any of that, but it just makes us question things and not to kick it off. But I do just want to say Brett, that I’m happy to be on as a guest. Every single world catastrophe that happens.
Yes. Well, this could generate a few more world catastrophes as it goes. But having said that, all right, so to frame this conversation, let’s look at the things that are happening right now that tweaked your interest, that you thought, oh, this could be interesting because having met you guys before and knowing how you think, when we see stuff happening like this in the real world, you guys are extrapolating this. What’s this like 50 years out, a hundred years out, a thousand years out?
Oh, and David Brin has also just joined us. David, welcome to the show.
David Brin: (02:44)
Hi, there we go. And there are my old colleagues.
There you go. I don’t know if Kevin likes being called old, but anyway.
Kevin J Anderson: (02:56)
I’ll take it. Hi David. I’m younger than David. That’s okay.
David Brin: (03:00)
Hey, this is not my father’s 70th.
No, that’s fine. You’re doing well. So David, just to give you context because we were just kicking off. We’re looking at the post Coronavirus world but the question I just asked and maybe Kevin if you can kick us off with this, sci-fi guys tend to look at the world in these sort of phases of development and you look at these triggers or things that could end up being something that could develop into something very interesting. So what is it that you’re seeing in terms of global response to this pandemic that has struck you as, oh this is interesting?
Kevin J Anderson: (03:37)
And I’m glad David popped on because I really did want to open up with, I don’t remember what year it was David in the ’80s, that you wrote the novel Earth. And I read an interview with you when the book came out and you made this really interesting comment where you said, “We’re science fiction writers are looking into the future and the most difficult part for a science fiction writer to predict is the very near future.” And you were just spot on about that. I can make up something for a century hence, but next year is going to be really hard right now with everything going… There we go, we have Earth being shown up there.
Kevin J Anderson: (04:17)
And so I think one of the things that is astonishing me is how rapidly and significantly everything is changing. It’s not like this turmoil and gradual thing. We have all this virtual technology like the Zoom meeting, the long distance technology, the virtual teaching. I’m a professor at a college and suddenly we’ve been given this instruction of everything has to be online and you need to do it in the next three days. Well, we figured it out. We had to do it in the next three days.
Kevin J Anderson: (04:52)
Just here in my own household, we had several checks sitting around here that needed to be deposited. We’ve actually never gotten around to the take a photo of it and deposit the money virtually. We just always, we go to the post office, we go to the bank and that’s just our habit. Well, I don’t want to go to the bank. So we had to learn how to take a picture and deposit the check remotely.
Ramez Naam: (05:15)
I love hearing about that.
Kevin J Anderson: (05:16)
Not that that was a difficult thing, but this gave us the impetus to do something that we probably should have been doing years ago.
Ramez Naam: (05:24)
Mez. From a perspective of the energy. One of the things that’s really interesting is we’ve seen globally emissions are down. It shows what’s possible, although it’s been a pretty drastic measure to do that. But do you think, we’re just going to go back to normal after this?
Ramez Naam: (05:42)
I think unfortunately, yes. We are going to go back to normal after this, more or less. There will be some fallout because of the oil price war that’s been triggered by the reduction in demand. It’ll shake out and kill a bunch of fracking companies in the U.S. and so on. So I don’t think this will have a major lasting impact on the energy system or climate change per se. Though it depends on what kind of stimulus we pass. After the 2008, 2007 downturn in the U.S. the Obama administration created a lot of great clean energy policies as part of the stimulus and that helped.
Ramez Naam: (06:17)
So that’s an option on the table. We don’t know what will happen. But I do think it’s a little bit of a advanced taste of what will happen to the energy world when demand for oil goes into permanent decline because of the rise of electric vehicles and so on. And so these bankruptcies… Saudi Arabia are running a massive deficit with maybe five years of foreign reserves in the bank, that might be corrected for a little while, but in 10 years we might be on a permanent track. I like that.
No, I think you’re right. I think it does show what’s possible in terms of action, but given that it’s not closely related to the cause. Having said that, one of the things that become apparent, obviously I’m sitting in New York City today. We’re recording this in advance of the air date, but I’m seeing in New York City today and I’ve just watched Cuomo talking about the shortage of hospital beds as a result of Coronavirus and the system potentially being overwhelmed.
One of the biggest impacts of this is this real question as to whether capitalism at its heart has the tools necessary to solve these sort of outliers. Because pretty quickly, within just the period of a couple of weeks, when they were talking about potentially 25, 30% unemployment, now we’re talking about people are just losing their jobs because of this. And over half of Americans don’t even have the ability to absorb the $400 shock, let alone losing their job in the midst of this and potentially having to pay for a Coronavirus test and then pay for health treatment rather than it being sponsored by the state as it is in most other developed nations.
So David, you’ve written a lot about the pyramid, diamond shaped economic system, socioeconomic systems in the past and things like that. Do you think this is a wake up call for capitalism? Do you think we need to reform capitalism as part of a long lasting response to this?
David Brin: (08:21)
Well, there’s so much to what you guys have said and so thought provoking. The reason I was late getting in here was I was on a teleconference with the XPRIZE Foundation, a team I had put together to create an XPRIZE to develop ad hoc breathing assistance machines, not ventilators, but things that people could make just from shop vacs and painting respirators and things that you can get at a Home Depot. And if anybody wants to see an example, I’m going to hold up the URL here.
Breath assist one. We’ll tweet that out. We’ll tweet that out.
David Brin: (09:03)
It’s tiny URL breath assist one, not breathe assist, but breath assist. And Brett will put it underneath. This is rep assist and Bret, we’ll put it underneath. So it’s inspiring to see the innovations going on and there are contests being run out of Munich and McGill helped by XPRIZE to try to get people out there to innovate ways past a crisis that we shouldn’t have. Because, had the medical resiliency systems been established properly, and Obama did get them rolling. We have about half of what we need. And then that got cut off. But yes to what Mez was saying, we’re going to be getting, for 20 years meeting ware, like we’re using right now, this is fine for a group like this but to supervise people working at home or to teach children in a remote manner that can both be supervised. These softwares are stuck back in the 1990s because managers haven’t wanted to do it.
David Brin: (10:11)
And we’re going to see a bunch of ironies come out of this. For instance, what will happen probably is that you’ll be able to work at home but have to go in say for instance, one hour a day to some little corner shoplet that your company manages so that you can be supervised in the old fashioned way to some degree. And this is going to result in dispersal, but also… I recall, here’s a sci-fi scenario for you.
David Brin: (10:46)
What if we manage to slip past this COVID, which we undoubtedly will because people are saying it’s a dry run for the real zombie apocalypse, and the survival rates are so high. What if we wind up with half the population exposed and half the population not?
David Brin: (11:05)
Are you going to wind up with companies dividing their employees into two separate factories, just like those old herpes dating clubs. So one factory is filled with people who’ve gone through their COVID and one factory is filled with people saying, get thee behind me, Satan, unclean. These are the sorts of potential unseen consequences.
I can imagine us having to carry COVID-19 immunity cards or showing that you’ve got antibody’s or something to travel for sure.
David Brin: (11:44)
Well as Asimov said, it’s not… No, it was Fred Pohl who said, “It’s not the job of the science fiction author to predict the automobile. It’s his job to predict the traffic jam.”
Ramez Naam: (11:57)
Kevin J Anderson: (11:58)
You said something really interesting, David, about how working from home and working remotely, and I think it hadn’t occurred to me because, like everybody here on this, on this call here, we’re all independent. We’re all happy to work at home. In fact, we would prefer to be left alone so that we did get our work done. But there is a large portion of the population which I’m assuming a couple of you have met that don’t work well unsupervised, that cannot be relied on to get their work done unless somebody’s standing over there making them accountable for something. And sadly probably none of them are listening to this podcast because you have a very intelligent audience. But I have employees and some of them you’ve got to watch every minute and other ones you could just say, do this and then ignore them for the rest of the time.
Kevin J Anderson: (12:48)
If we’re shifting to a society where people are indeed working remotely and independently, then I think a huge important wave is going to be, as a boss or a supervisor, how do you watch over or make your employees accountable so that they’re not just sitting there playing video games or something when they’re supposed to be whatever their actual job is? If they were sitting at the desk next to you, you could see whether or not they were working. But I think that opens up a whole bunch of questions about how people are going to work and make themselves accountable.
Yeah. How do you think this is going to affect the take-up of virtual reality technology for socializing, not just entertainment. Any thoughts?
Ramez Naam: (13:39)
I think what you really see is things like Zoom right now because it’s still much more accessible to people and so on. If VR was a little bit more mature right now, if we already had a lot more VR headsets, I think this could be a big pop of usage. But what we have is a lot of people with phones and laptops and so things like Zoom, Skype, what have you, are just a software download for them rather than-
Rather than having to buy hardware, yeah.
Ramez Naam: (14:06)
But it might attract more interest and more investment in VR. If this helps shift, if this makes it more acceptable to do distance work, it might drive not just the adoption of the current tools but more interest and investment in better tools.
Well we all do conferences as well. So, if it comes back then we’ll be back in the conference centers. But if this extends for a period of time and we have to develop virtual conferencing-
Kevin J Anderson: (14:39)
Well Mez, we’re getting so serious here, but I think what really might push us over to bumping up virtual reality is, just think about what do you do for dating if you can’t leave your house. Rebecca and I were just watching a sit-com last night, just your typical sitcom of the widowed guy, he’s trying to get out of the market again, and his friends are trying to set him up and so they’re in bars and he’s meeting people and we just looked at each other and said, “Well, how, how do you even date now if everybody’s supposed to be sheltered in place for the next month?” Sure, having a FaceTime talk or something like that with a potential person on a dating site is great. But I think VR would enhance the dating experience a whole lot more than just talking on the phone.
Well, let’s talk about the behavioral element of it. We have suggestions now that we should greet each other with the Vulcan salute or the Thai why. Do you think that there’s behaviors like handshaking that are going to be affected by this on a longer term basis?
Ramez Naam: (15:42)
It’s certainly possible. I tend to think that humans are still, deep down inside, we’re primates. We have a certain evolved set of behavioral packages and so touch is important, in person events are important. People like to shake hands or hug or whatnot. So I think all things being equal, we may see an uptick in more use of virtual and this stuff. There’s still something wired into our DNA. It’s not just been culturally taught, that is about mutual touch, that is about face to face interaction.
Ramez Naam: (16:20)
So while I think this year, there might be no conferences really at all in person. I think that once it gets back to normal, maybe there’ll be more virtual stuff, but people will still want to congregate and still want to greet each other with handshakes or hugs or whatnot.
David Brin: (16:39)
Well, haptic is the magic word that Vernor Vinge really re-familiarized us with in Rainbows End, probably one of the best predictive novels of the last 20 years. A lot of the stuff in that novel is coming true and I tried to emulate it in my own novel Existence.
David Brin: (17:01)
But haptic is where you get feedback from your glove and it actually makes you feel as if you’re holding the sphere because the resistance of your body suit makes you think that you close your eyes or even in augmented reality, this sphere that you see in front of you in your AR world is giving you feedback on your hands so that you actually feel it.
David Brin: (17:25)
And when we have that, people who come up to each other on the street and go like this, a couple of feet away from each other, they’ll actually feel the hands that they’re shaking. So we’re talking about a new world and of course in one of my stories called Natulife, it winds up being used for the obvious use. The use that all new technologies are put to before any other. And I’m looking at the grid-
The Internet is for porn, yeah we know.
Kevin J Anderson: (17:57)
You talked about grasping the sphere.
Kevin had to go there.
David Brin: (18:08)
But I want to mention something that people should look up and there’s this guy named Hyman Minsky, M-I-N-S-K-Y, and the smartest economists and sociologists have been paying a lot of attention to him lately because he had a basic rule and that is, periods of stability lead to sudden instability because people assume the stability will last. And therefore, they start taking greater risks. They start assuming that they can borrow on margin and that they can bankrupt the city or popularize their neighbors and eventually it leads to an unstable episode. And if it happens soon enough, then the society’s underlying stability mechanisms can step in. And you restore resilience and bad practices.
David Brin: (19:00)
So the period of instability leads to the period of stability. And I think it’s important to recognize that, if our fundamental ways to looking at our institutions and our nation have not been destroyed by an artificially generated phase of the American civil war, I think we’re in phase eight. If it has not been destroyed, then it should result in the kind of reset that we’ve had from time to time that shows what we’re made of. And we’ll innovate and reinvigorate our institutions. After all, if the greatest generation could do it in 1933, but then again that same year, we saw what happened across the Atlantic when a great nation panicked and brought into power the very worst of humanity.
David Brin: (19:55)
So, I think we really need to bear 1933 in mind.
Yeah. We don’t learn a lot from history generally.
Ramez Naam: (20:05)
Well, I think what you’re saying is very interesting David, and I’ve been thinking about that a little bit on the global stage, on two or three sort of interrelated axes. One is that the countries that have done the best in flattening the curve on Coronavirus have all been Asian nations and in particular in China, you see China bungled things early on. They hid information. They made a lot of mistakes, particularly a lack of transparency. But then with the institution of very severe measures, even though they’re probably under reporting cases now, they’ve made progress in a way that you don’t see European nations or the U.S. doing.
Ramez Naam: (20:46)
And you see China now taking on a role similar to what the U.S. did after World War II. It’s China that’s sending out support medical teams to Italy, sending test kits, sending ventilators and so on. And so I think this, A, this enhances the power of China and degrades the power of the West broadly. Even in the countries that made a great progress that weren’t totalitarian, there was a tremendous use of surveillance and tracking. You look at South Korea-
And they tended to be more compliant to populations as well.
Ramez Naam: (21:24)
Yeah, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, all quite compliant populations. A respect for authority. That’s something that goes against our American sort of ideals. But you look at South Korea, they didn’t do the massive lockdowns, but they had massive testing. People paid less attention to the fact that they used your credit card transactions, your phone GPS data and CCTV cameras to track people who tested positive back and see where all of their contacts were.
Ramez Naam: (21:58)
And that’s something that I don’t know that Americans will be comfortable with. I know David has written obviously extensively about a transparent society, but I think we’ll see a real question of will regimes or nations that were more okay with surveillance or that took more authoritarian actions, come out of this looking better?
Ramez Naam: (22:23)
I’ll add one more third point that is sort of a counter to number two. At the same time in China, we’ve seen probably the greatest amount of public criticism of the Chinese government by its own citizens and journalists of any moment in the last at least decade, certainly since Xi took over. Will that just fizzle and go away or will that lead to something more? And I think in Iran you see some similar factors. So I could imagine it going either way. I could imagine this leading to more people willing to give away power to a government, more authoritarianism looking attractive, or at the same time more criticism of those governments that have hidden things from their population.
It’s interesting. All right guys. Let’s just take a quick break and then after the break I’d like to come back and talk about the S word, socialism. See what we can get into on that.
You’re listening to Breaking Banks. I have sci-fi legends, David Brin, Kevin J Anderson and Ramez Naam talking the post Corona world.
Now we’ll be right back after this break.
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SHOW SEGMENT #2
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Brett King: (01:29)
Welcome back to Breaking Banks. I’m your host, Brett King. Before the break we were talking with Kevin J. Anderson, David Brin and Ramez Naam about the changes that have been thrust upon us in the world of the coronavirus.
Brett King: (01:41)
One of the things that is sort of ironic out of this is we were talking, we had guys like Andrew Yang and Bernie and Elizabeth running as primary candidates and they we’re all being accused of socialists-type leanings, universal basic income for example, proposed by Andrea Yang and universal health care as proposed by Bernie and Elizabeth Warren and yet, here we are in a situation where we have the Senate voting on measures that appear socialist.
Brett King: (02:16)
So, do you think that we will have a bit more of a softening of policy in the United States? Because, the US tends to be … I’ve had people frame the Constitution for me as an outsider who now lives in, has been living in the US for 10 years, frame the Constitution as a document that guarantees the rights of individuals but not the collective.
Brett King: (02:39)
Are we tipping the balance back a little bit more towards the collective with our coronavirus response? Maybe, David, do you want to jump in and start us on this one?
We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, provide for the common defense [crosstalk 00:02:57] …
Brett King: (02:59)
You don’t have to read the whole … You don’t have to read the whole Constitution, David.
… [crosstalk 00:02:59] welfare. No. No. This is a pragmatic revolution and the number one thing that it was intended to do was to get past the recurring awful mistakes that had made the last 6,000 years a litany of horror. The number one innovation of this Western enlightenment and especially the American bourgeois revolution, was ending feudalism.
The outrageous notion that the Tea Party right-wingers claimed the Tea Party when the American Revolution was not against government per se, it was against oligarchy … All of the Declaration of Independence is filled with denunciations of entrenched oligarchy.
The American traders and seamen had to go to specific ports and specific docks owned by the king and his cronies. So, you have the fact that feudalism is the natural thing for a society to drift in to simply because it is Darwinistically self-reinforcing.
Males who bash other males and take their women and wheat get reproductive success out of it. We’re all descended from the harems of bastards who did this, and the result was that they would crush the one thing that a nation needs in order to make fewer mistakes and that’s reciprocal accountability and criticism.
It’s not democracy per se, it’s not freedom per se, it’s not individualism per se, but the thing that those three things enable you to have, which is the discovery of error in the ruling class. And human males, when we get power, we always tend, or tended to repress criticism. Don’t you dare say that, Ramez. I know what you’re about to say.
So, what it comes down to, and I get garrulous, I’m sorry about this, what it comes down to is that the interplay that enables us to avoid those mistakes of feudalism means that any of these rigid systems like socialism … That’s just …
The USSR was just another czarist pyramid with a slightly different religious incantation. It was exactly the same and it transmogrified from czarism to Leninism and Stalinism straight into mafia, and it’s exactly the same, exactly the same emotional patterns.
So, what I’m urging people to use is not the term socialism, but to go to the nostalgia that a lot of middle Americans feel toward the Greatest Generation, the generation that fought Hitler and won the Depression and all that sort of thing, and ask them one simple question. Who was their most favorite, their most adored living person?
And that person established the social contract that then resulted in the greatest boom of capitalism, the greatest boom of competitive enterprise and creativity. Okay, and that person’s name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Brett King: (06:34)
Yeah. And because he supported the growth of the entire economy, you had a really robust middle class that was able to consume and housing and [crosstalk 00:06:49]` …
And entrepreneurship that involved flat competition between people who cannot adjust the market. The Senate bill that was proposed the other day would have had none of Obama’s demands that companies that are bailed out issue equity as collateral.
We actually made a profit off of the bailouts of the auto companies and some of the TARP assets. The Senate bill is saying basically, “Give us several trillion dollars, no strings attached.”
Brett King: (07:23)
Yeah. I’d throw in here I think David’s right. Talking about socialism, something else, those are just words and socialism remains a dirty word in the US. But I think that just as the Depression gave birth to the New Deal, you may see something very similar and I think this is really highlighting the importance of a basic social safety net. Most European nations are not really socialist.
There’s a great talk by the former prime minister of Denmark. When Bernie, during the 2016 campaign was saying, “Let’s be socialists like Denmark,” where the prime minister said, “This is widely misunderstood. We are not a socialist country. We’re a capitalist country. We have a market economy where people are free to pursue their dreams and compete, but we have a robust safety net”, that’s the thing that the US alone of the, at least Western rich nations doesn’t have.
I think there’s a second pivot to this, too, though, which is China doesn’t have a universal government-paid healthcare. Right? China is talking about this. China did a great job, we think. Again, there’s quite a high probability that they’re not being fully transparent on their recent numbers, but nevertheless, it looks like they really did suppress coronavirus quite a bit. It wasn’t because everyone had universal healthcare. It was because China has great state capacity, and that’s something that we’ve let erode in the US.
State capacity doesn’t mean that you are running the economy or it’s a command economy. It means that you have the assets and resources that you can mobilize quickly when you need to. China made coronavirus testing and treatment free and China used their state capacity, working with private companies in some cases, to massively build out hospitals and so on and so forth.
Interestingly enough, the US have some of the state capacity, the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA and so on and has been until the last couple of days, extremely reluctant at the federal level to use it. The state capacity we eroded the most has been expertise, scientific experts, et cetera, et cetera, and clearly the president that doesn’t listen or consider those things highly. So, I’d expect more of a social safety net to come out of this, but socialism to remain a dirty word.
Brett King: (09:55)
Kevin, did you have anything to add?
Well just I wanted to point out that one of the things that scares everybody about gigantic government bureaucracies running this huge safety net, whether it’s the Veterans Administration hospitals or the DMV, we, the public understands from government bureaucracy is that it is ridiculously inefficient.
It’s complicated, it wasteful, and the fact that this coronavirus is hitting us so fast and making us make changes that aren’t five years in the implementation but five days in the implementation, it’s possibly forcing us to come up with systems that really do work in a short period of time. That’s just is fundamentally against what a genuine, large government bureaucracy tends to run and I’m actually tickled about it.
I mean, because I always do things right away when somebody asks me. I don’t know why it takes the DMV six weeks to get something that should be just a pushing of the button. So, this might actually force us to streamline and get fast lanes in some of the things that had become needlessly complicated, because people’s lives are at stake.
Brett King: (11:15)
Yeah. To Ramez’s point, you have China that builds these hospitals in the space of days and in the US, okay, we’re converting Javits Center into a field hospital right now, but we haven’t responded with anything like the speed.
Brett King: (11:30)
We don’t tend to be rapidly scalable on a capitalist basis for these sort of things. Whereas in an authoritarian government like China, they can just say, “Look, just get it done.” We’ve got to get consensus before we do a lot of these things, right?
Well, and I’ve always been astonished that I just drive down the interstate near my house and it takes them three years to just build an off ramp. It shouldn’t take that long, but it does. Of course, the Army Corps of Engineers wouldn’t take that long.
So, I think we might be looking at a shift in our expectations that we’ve got to get something done now rather than letting it grind its way through for the next however many years. I mean, just think of how long we’ve been seriously discussing coming up with a new healthcare system. I mean, well before Obama they were talking about it and it’s now 15, 20 years later and it’s just been circling and circling and circling and doing nothing.
But this may cause a, as David mentioned, an FDR level, some massive change that gets implemented, because we need it, dammit. You can’t wait 15 years for it to get fixed.
Brett King: (12:40)
Now, one of the things that’s happening in the healthcare space is we’re seeing the use of new technologies, a new 15 minute test has been developed using microfluidics, so very similar to what Theranos was proposing as a technology. I don’t know that it’s not for them to come back, but … Mez is getting ready to jump into this.
Brett King: (13:00)
And of course David and Mez, you guys have both worked with Peter Diamandis on the X Prize stuff. X Prize has the medical tricorder prize and other things like that. One of the things that could be an interesting side effect of this is we are getting to the point where diagnostics are getting very good because of technology. We will be able to wear sensors or ingest sensors that will be able to monitor our health.
Brett King: (13:27)
So, can you imagine technology providing us with future defenses from these pandemics using sensors? I’m not quite talking Iain Banks Culture stuff here, but I’m talking about as this transition where we sort of augment ourselves with data.
Brett King: (13:42)
Now, there is the monitoring aspect you mentioned, Mez, but from an efficiency perspective, do you think that technology is part of the solution to preventing future outbreaks like this?
Yeah, I think it certainly is. It’s funny because we knew about this in January, right?
Brett King: (14:01)
And so we had the information to some extent, so I don’t think a lack of awareness of the issue was the main thing that held the US or Europe back. That said, we still don’t have a really accurate idea of how many people in the US have it. I do think it’s interesting that, well short of implantables and so on in our body, there’s a startup called Kinsa that has a smart thermometer that digitally connects to the cloud and stores your temperature data and so on there and anonymizing the data.
They built this thing called a fever map that shows where in the country are temperature’s running hotter than they should be right now. You can go just look it up and it’s quite interesting. I think we don’t know yet if it’s actually predictive. We don’t know if it actually tells us anything, but this is going to be a great sort of uncontrolled trial of that technology.
I do think more and more … I’m wearing a Fitbit right now. It doesn’t take my temperature. But it’s inevitable within a pretty short timeframe, within a decade that a whole, the number of people wearing some sort of health tracking device will soar. They’ll all be cloud connected. Nobody wants that data to be just totally available in a personally identifiable way.
David might think it’s a great idea, but most consumers probably don’t want that. But using that aggregate and anonymous data could be quite revelatory for tracking diseases [crosstalk 00:15:35].
A lot of people misunderstand my pro-transparency position and that is that I am willing for the average person to have to deal with greater transparency if in exchange we get …
Something better [crosstalk 00:15:52].
… 2X transparency on all elites, and that’s the elites especially of criminality, world mafias, oligarchies and things like that. That lessening of our personal obscurity is inevitable anyway, but if that is the trade off, then what we can do is limit the thing that’s really important and that is what powers can do to us.
It is vastly more important to limit what the mighty can do to us than what they can know about us. [crosstalk 00:16:29] If they know about us, but cannot do anything to us, then we live our lives. If we know an equal amount about them and especially our NGOs, which is the great invention of the West that Vladimir Putin hates above all else. His principle objective is the destruction of the Western NGO.
If we have that, then we’ll live in a future of [inaudible 00:16:54] but real privacy because we will be able to catch the peeping Toms within a narrower realm, perhaps only the boundaries of your own home. But you’ll be able to do that if we have a fairly transparent world. Now, I want to switch to something that’s both amusing and extremely practical that your listeners [crosstalk 00:17:15]
Brett King: (17:15)
Please go ahead.
… right now, Brett, and that is the strongest supported rumor out there about COVID-19 is that the first symptom of actually coming down with the illness rather than being infected is a loss of sense of smell.
Now, it has some support, but the thing is we can all participate in a massive experiment. Everybody tell everybody to participate in this experiment because there is no downside. There is absolutely no conceivable downside to everybody we know taking a lemon, scratching it three times a day and sniffing it. Sniffing lemons three times a day will at minimum cheer you up. Even if it does, no other good, it will, sniffing lemons cheers you up.
That’s the side effect. The other effect is that if you do it religiously three times a day and you suddenly notice you’re not smelling the lemon, it might do you some good as an alert. But in any event, you can take note of that fact.
Brett King: (18:39)
You could do cluster analysis. The CDC …
Brett King: (18:41)
… has this questionnaire right now. You could do that. You could do a range of symptoms every day. You just get a message on your phone, you’ve got to check in. Do you have this? Do you have that? Do you have this? On the basis of that, we could catch outbreaks happening in real time.
It’s even simpler than that. If you smell a lemon three times a day, every day, you note the day that you stopped being able to smell and then you note the day of your other symptoms.
Brett King: (19:11)
Simply register that gap or whether there’s no other symptoms, whether it was a false alarm. Just that information coming from thousands and thousands of people would be of high clinical use and the experiment has no drawbacks. Now, was that of actual use to your listeners? Well, it was a lighter note than some of my other blather.
Brett King: (19:37)
Okay. Well, you’re assuming everyone can get lemons in this time of [crosstalk 00:19:40].
I don’t know …
Brett King: (19:44)
You’ve just started a crisis. All the shops are going to be out of lemons now. Lemons and toilet paper are gone.
I’m heading to the store right after this, you guys.
You can’t find garlic? You can’t find garlic or something else pungent? Even as far as not showering for a while.
Brett King: (20:05)
[crosstalk 00:20:05] I wasn’t going to go there, but …
Garlic doesn’t make me as cheerful as a sniffing lemons does.
I actually would love to come back to the topic of transparency a bit. I just want to be clear. I was not criticizing the idea of the transparent society. I think we need much more transparency of our government.
My question is really about citizen and consumer acceptance right now. People have been told that they should expect their medical data to be private but if we imagine that it’s going to be 18 months until there’s a vaccine and that while coronavirus may or may not slow down in the summer, even if it does, it’s likely to come roaring back in the fall, people are not going to willing to stay isolated for 18 months. We just can’t do that.
And so the only way that I’ve seen, the only plan I’ve seen proposed is one of super high speed, ubiquitous testing and contact tracing and that’s going to be asking people to give up information about their movement that they’re not used to doing. So, I think it’ll actually be a tremendous test of some of your ideas, David, of how much can we persuade people to reveal this information for the good of others.
And then a second question of once we’ve done that, is that a precedent that remains, either in changing people’s expectations …
Brett King: (21:31)
Yeah, is it temporary or permanent?
Yeah. Well, and one of two ways, people might just decide, okay, this is a good thing. I should be willing to share this data or we might enact laws that make that sort of thing more permanent.
A lot of these changes are happening, are just ubiquitous across the spectrum and I’m very skeptical that once something changes fundamentally that we’re just going to snap right back to where it is. I mean, it’s like we’re not going to jump back to watching VHS tapes or something like that.
I feel that once we’ve shifted to do, to watch movies at home, instead of going out to the theater or once we’ve shifted to taking university courses online instead of going into a classroom, I think there’s going to be a great momentum to keeping the change rather than just instantly saying, “Okay, we’re done with that now. Back to the way it was.”
So, I think just in general, a lot of these changes are not going to be temporary. I think we’ve shifted onto …
… a different set of tracks and that’s what we’re going to do.
Brett King: (22:35)
Let me follow that thought, Kevin. We’ve got about three, four minutes left, so I’d like you each to take about a minute and really put your sci-fi hats on. A hundred years out, how will we remember as a species the coronavirus pandemic and what impact will it have on our future history? Do you want to, do you want to kick us off, David?
Yeah, sure, all right. A lot of people are already talking about something I started talking about and that is that if the coronavirus is what we see and there’s no science fictional aspects to it … And mind you, I’m not going to support the rumors saying that it is proved that it came out of a weapons lab.
But if I were wagering on this, the coincidences having to do with the Wuhan P4 facility and the difference in the bat virus genes from local Hubei province’s bats, those things come together that if I were to be asked to make a bet based upon completely imperfect knowledge, I would go give 60-40 odds that it was.
We have to set aside the science fictional worries about something else being in all this. If nothing else, if what we see is what we get, then you’re talking about a death rate that is easily endurable, tragic. Then the question is does immunity …
Now, coronaviruses in general, and SARS and MERS and the common cold are all coronaviruses, coronaviruses in general do not imbue you with very good immunity, so we may have to start taking these things with our flu shots every single year. I think that’s an equilibrium we may be heading toward.
If we can reach that equilibrium and it’s a solid one, then the outcome of this is an early arrival at the Minsky moment when we switch over to starting to be responsible. And one of the links that Brett will have at the bottom of the screen will be to an interview that I gave about all the ways in which we could increase our national, world and species resilience. I hope folks will comment on that and I am done now.
Brett King: (25:04)
Thank you. Kevin?
Well, I think in a hundred years that David’s uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees will look back at what we did wrong and have formed their own societies better than this.
Brett King: (25:16)
That doesn’t help anybody. I’m sorry.
Brett King: (25:20)
I like it. Mez? [crosstalk 00:25:22] humans with neural chips in their brains? How are we going to deal with it?
I’ll give an optimistic scenario and a pessimistic scenario. The optimistic scenario is we look back at this at a pivotal moment that sparked a new New Deal in the US that sparked more transparency among nations as citizens of places like China demanded it and we’re not satisfied with the government’s lies. That’s the good story.
The bad story is this is going to be a massive retreat from globalization, more countries isolating themselves or putting up more barriers, the end of the EU as nations put up borders, and more and more of a pivot to authoritarian governments because they’re the ones that are seen as having been successful.
I hope it’s the first one and not the second. Probably some mix thereof.
Brett King: (26:18)
Very good. Well, thank you guys for joining us on Breaking Banks. We will get back to you guys on the Futurist event, which has been postponed for now. But if you want to check out these legends, you can go to www.wordfire for the official website of Kevin J. Anderson, you can go to davidbrin.com. That’s B-R-I-N, and you can go to rameznaam. That’s N-A-A-M.com.
Brett King: (26:44)
I’ll put all of these in the profiles and on the social media stream in any case to check out these legends. Thank you all for joining us on a very enlightening discussion and happy coronavirus to you.
Thank you, Brett.
Thank you Brett.
Thank you, Brett.
[crosstalk 00:27:01] talk to everyone.
Brett King: (27:02)
That’s it for Breaking Banks this week, guys. We’ll see you again next week with more great stuff on the changes in our world. See you later.
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