Kevin Kelly on why the future is inevitable (or some of it, anyway)

Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor and ‘senior maverick’ at Wired, gets called all the worst things people in technology call each other: ‘maverick’, ‘renegade’, ‘evangelist’, ‘guru’, ‘prophet’. But two things separate Kelly from nearly everyone else: 1. He was called these things before they were cliches; and 2. They’re actually kinda accurate.

Before Wired, Kelly was an editor of the Whole Earth Review and the Whole Earth Catalogue, the future-thinking countercultural bible, which Steve Jobs called “Google in paperback form”. He is now a freewheeling thinker, philanthropist, photographer, conservationist and author, who spends as much time with the Amish of Pennsylvania and the farmers of Yunnan, China as the disrupters and pivoters of Silicon Valley. His most recent book The Inevitable looks at the twelve technological forces that Kelly thinks will inevitably shape the next thirty years. Henry Oliver asks him about the implications of technological inevitability, and how we, in New Zealand, can benefit.

Henry Oliver: You’re often, in the media at least, called a 'digital prophet'. How do you feel about that term and its religious inference?

Kevin Kelly: Of course I don't think of myself that way at all. I'm not even really trying to predict anything. If I'm predicting anything, I'm trying to predict the present. Most of what I describe is already happening, and I'm trying to extrapolate it, but I'm not really trying to prophesize at all.

So your book The Inevitable is more about what already exists, but will shape our future?

Yes. In other words, it exists in small measures. It's already present, but the things I'm talking about are things that are on the rise or increasing. That's dictated by the fact that these are trends that are embedded in the very nature and physics of the technologies. These technologies are all physical, even the digital bits have to live in the real world with wires and switches and whatnot. That dictates its behavior, and what I'm extrapolating is the increase, the continued increase of these things that are already present in small measure.

You talk a lot about artificial intelligence. AI is a great example of something that there is, at once, a lot of fear and a lot of excitement about. You veer towards more of the excitement. Are you largely optimistic about where things are going?

Absolutely yes! I'm totally optimistic about where we're going, and I'm optimistic because of the last couple of hundred years of history, if not longer. If you look at the absolute evidence, the scientific evidence, not necessarily news or anecdotes, in every respect the things that we care about as humans are getting better and have been for 200 years. It is possible that next year things would stop getting better, but it's much more probable, statistically, that they would continue as they have for 200 years. Even though it's possible, greater than zero, that it will all collapse, it is very unlikely.

What are you most excited about? What will do the most to make our lives better?

Out of all the forces I talk about, I would say that the most important and the most fundamental, the one that's going to have the biggest effect on our lives, for good as well as bad, AI. It's long-term consequences are on par with, and probably exceed, what happened in the first industrial revolution, in terms of the scale and the way it affected all parts of our lives. This next phase is what you can think of as the second industrial revolution. That is coming about not because of the artificial power that we had in the first industrial revolution – steam power, electrical power – but because of artificial intelligence and cognition.

This will affect everything from education to the military to sports – every aspect of our lives. The same way that the first industrial revolution unleashed us and brought us prosperity that has filled our lives and has created everything that's around you right now and everything that's surrounding me, all because of the artificial power that we unleashed with the technology of the electric motors. We're going to do something similar and even greater with artificial intelligence applied on top of that artificial power. We're beginning to already see artificial intelligence changing our lives very mildly, but, every year from now on, it will become more and more intense and the challenges as well as the opportunities from that are going to be immense, like nothing you've seen, and are going to be far far more powerful than the internet and the web has been.

What aspect of AI are you apprehensive about?

There's many. Most reporters are very focused on the negative. I don't really spend much time talking about it because everybody else likes to talk about it. This is one of the very first times in history where people are actually thinking about and planning restrictions on something that hardly even exists yet, so this is probably the most scrutinized technology in the history of the world. You have people worrying about what happens about it, even before it hardly is born.

The kinds of things that could possibly be harmful range from the fact that there's going to be a complete relocation and dislocation in the employment arena. Most jobs will be redefined by AI. They aren't going to go away, they're going to be redefined. Most jobs are bundles of tasks, and some of these tasks will be done better by machines, which means the other tasks that we do will change.

There’s also the moral aspects, the ethical aspects, as we have drones and soldiers that are run by AI, we get cars that are driven by AI. All of these things that have decision-power in our lives. This is a huge ethical issue. And then there's what we call 'the moral issue', in the sense of ‘Will we treat these things as slaves?’ The issue is whether we will treat them like slaves, because treating things like slaves might have a corrosive element in our own spiritual beings. How we treat things, whether it's for real or not, affects us. That's another aspect that we don't know and won't know until we actually try it.

You talk about a transition of jobs, rather than a replacement. But there’s a huge segment of the population employed to do tasks that would be done better by AI. And not just manual labour but jobs like accounting and legal services. What will they be transitioned to and how will that affect the economy? Do you support the idea of a universal basic income, for example, to ease that transition?

150 years ago, 70 percent of Americans were farmers, now that’s less than one percent. So all those jobs went away. If you went back with a time machine, went back there and confronted those farmers, and told them, ‘In a couple generations, your jobs are all be gone,’ they would be incredulous. They'd say that's going to be total economic disaster and depression. You’d say ‘Oh no, because we're going to invent jobs like web designer and mortgage broker and yoga teacher.’ They wouldn't comprehend that. They would say, ‘Those aren't real jobs. How could people actually pay for those things? Why would they pay for them?’

The thing people forget is that these new technologies will create far more opportunities for us to create new things for new wants and for new desires to be met. And those opportunities will far exceed the current jobs that we have. By the way, a lot of the jobs that humans do right now are jobs that, in 50 years from now, we will be ashamed humans ever did, like counting money as a cashier. People are fighting over those kinds of jobs? That's crazy. There will be a huge new number of tasks that we didn't know why we wanted. At the same time, the other things that we make, the things that the machines make, will continue to drop in price.

There certainly may be economic dislocations, so the idea of universal basic income is an experiment worth trying. It's one of those things that you could think about it forever. The brightest economists in the world could think about it forever, but it's not something that you can actually figure it out whether it works, without trying it. So it has to be tried. Multiple times. It is an experiment that's worth prototyping. If it's useful, it'll be useful for multiple reasons.

The book is not just about the technological forces, but their inevitability. You argue that by thinking about these technologies as inevitable, we can shape them, rather than be surprised and therefore be shaped by them. What's our responsibility, both as individual citizens and as governments, to regulate these technologies?

One of the functions of government is to regulate these in terms of, primarily, fairness. These new technologies will be regulated, and what regulation does best is follow the general social consensus that emerges from using something. I don't believe in the precautionary principles, it's very detrimental. You want regulation to come out of engagement. You want people using these things first, in order to figure out what they're good for and what the problems are. You can't figure out what these technologies are good or bad for by thinking about them; you actually have to use them and engage with them.

So I preach engagement with technology as a way to steer it, rather than prohibition. I believe that when you prohibit things, or outlaw them, or regulate them too early, you don't get to steer. You only get to steer and manage them through engagement. Ideally, the regulation is slow to come, rather than early. That's one of the issues with, say the self-driving car, is that there's a rush to regulate it and it's hardly been born yet. And that regulation can be very, very detrimental too early. Really, what you want to do is have people be using this and having millions of miles, until we have some sense of what the regulations should be. The laws should really just solidify what the consensus is, rather than make the consensus.

Speaking of prohibition and technology, you spend time with the Amish. What does being away from technology teach you about technology?

It's funny you should mention that. I was just with the Amish this weekend, staying with a family, and we went to a couple of auctions. They had a technology fair where all the Amish hackers were at, it was really cool.

The difference between the Amish and the non-Amish, is that the Amish are slow to adopt things, but they are adopting. Most of the old-order Amish have cell phones, but they're the flip phones. They don't have cell phones with internet, they just have cell phones that are phones. They've also gone electric, but they're not electric on a grid, so they're now solar-powered. They've got batteries for cordless tools, and they modify those into LED lamps they hang in their home, and they recharge by solar.

They are slowly adopting new technology, but the main difference, besides their slowness, is the fact that the Amish have a consensual deliberation about what technologies they want. Rather than choose individually, they choose as a group. And because of that, they need to articulate in some ways what their framework or criteria is for adopting things.

The typical American, we're making choices as well. We're actually at the point now where there's so many new technologies being invented every year that we simply cannot use all of them. From here on in, we are also going to be neo-Amish in selecting only some of the technologies, simply because we can't use them all. The difference is that we often don't even know why. We don't have a theory, we don't have a framework, we don't have any kind of guidance, so it seems kind of random and arbitrary, and often is. What we could learn from the Amish is to try and tease out or evolve a framework to help guide us on what we choose to do or not to do.

And, by the way, there are a lot of early-adopter Amish who are trying the latest things, but they're very ready to give them up if it doesn't work out. That is a model for us, which is to try everything, but to hold on to few things, and to have a reason, a larger criteria for what it is that we choose.

You said recently that China has to learn to innovate, that people from China come to the US to learn to innovate. What do you mean by that? How does one learn to innovate?

There's some cultural differences between the American and Chinese culture. As many people in Silicon Valley are aware, a lot of the hottest and most powerful and prosperous startups are often headed by immigrants, including Chinese immigrants. So the Chinese educational system and culture can produce innovators. But why do they have to come to America to do this? Why can't they do it in China? The answer is in part that Chinese culture lacks a couple of key ingredients that I think really fosters sustainable innovation.

One, embracing failure. Not just tolerating it, but actually encouraging it to some extent so that failure is an ordinary process of a company's day-to-day, where people are given permission to try stuff, knowing that a fair number of those things won't work, and will cost the company money, and maybe even some losing face. Americans are much more at ease with trying things that don't work and saying that's just the price of innovation. The startups have a high failure rate, and somebody who tries something and loses money and loses investors' money is actually often rewarded. In fact, it's not uncommon for VC's and others to view previous failures as a necessary qualification for giving someone a bunch of money. It's like, ‘I'm not going to give this person money until they've had a couple failures under their belt, because they learn so much from failure’. It's no longer something they're reading in a book, they've gone through it themselves, and they hopefully have absorbed, in a deep way, those lessons that are almost not receivable any other way, other than experience. This doesn’t exist in China so much, where if people lose money for somebody, they are penalized. They often don't get to come back. They cause a loss of face. And idea that a company would do something or would release a product or service that is not perfected, that will cause complaints, that is unacceptable.

The second thing, which is also very important, is questioning authority. It's almost a cliché in American movies. Every American movie is about a rebel who's questioning authority. It's the story we tell ourselves again and again and again. That, also, is not common in places like China, where, from challenging your boss to challenging the premiere or the prime minister or the one-party system, you simply don't have a lot of room to question authority. That's a hurdle, when you're trying to be innovative. There's an authority that the successful have, there's an authority that the process has, and if you can't question that success, then you aren't going to be able to do the really disruptive thing.

And here's the thing – I think those are teachable. Just as Japan was a copy culture. When I was growing up, they were considered to be the China of the day, making cheap crap copies. They came to the American gurus, and they said ‘How do we make quality stuff?’ And the American gurus said, ‘Well you do this, this, and this’. Japanese took the checklist, and they implemented it, and suddenly they become the world's experts on this perfect quality in manufacturing. The Chinese are doing the same thing with innovation. They're listening to people who are saying things like, ‘If you want to be innovative, you've got to question authority, you've got to do this, you've got to have science fairs and garages and maker-spaces’.

It takes time to implement, but they're doing it. They're going to succeed in changing their culture. They will produce, within five years, a product that is wanted and coveted and paid for globally, that becomes the best in the class, and is a global brand. I don't know what it will be. It's possible it could be an auto-driven car or something. The Chinese are very into the AI in cars. They could put it together, and they could come up with some Chinese brand auto-driven car that is the iPhone of its time and everybody wanted one. That's not impossible at all.

I'm talking to you from New Zealand. And we're a small country, both in population and economy, a fair distance from the major markets of the world. We think of ourselves as an innovative nation, coming from a tradition of tinkering and resourcefulness. What's the best way a country like us can take advantage of these inevitable forces?

For New Zealand, and countries that are very small but agile and nimble, the greatest potential lies in some kind of specialization in something that's broad enough to have a whole ecosystem around something that is not common elsewhere. If you're going to try and compete against Silicon Valley and produce software, you're going to lose. There's no way to do that, there's network effects taking place, so it's very hard to disrupt, and it's very unlikely that anyone, let alone New Zealand, will be able to displace Silicon Valley in producing software.

We have these other clusters where there's network effects, like in Shenzhen which is manufacturing, Hollywood which is doing entertainment film stuff, New York and London vying to do the finance, fashion in Milan. The hope for a place like New Zealand would be latching on to something that's very specific where you could have a network effect take place, where if anyone wanted to do anything in that way, they'd have to go to New Zealand to do it. What that could be is wide open.

As I said, there's all these other things coming down the line, from AI to virtual reality. My book was only about the digital, but there's energy and there's biotech. There are going to be so many new frontiers. If there was something you could then build into this network cluster of things. Not just in one city, but broadly with multiple universities and multiple companies and cities involved. Then you have something very very powerful.

It would take decades to do. Shenzhen took decades. And Silicon Valley took decades. It's not going to be something you can do right away, or succeed at right away. It's a long term investment. You know, all the AI going on right now actually came from Toronto. Canada was funding AI when nobody else was. Unfortunately, they all left to do the commercialization of it, and Canada failed in benefitting from it. What New Zealand would want to start with is funding basic research around something. Seriously funding the academic research that would take a decade or more to pay off. Whether it's robotics, self-driving cars, I don't know.

Having a cluster where you have basically the world-class researchers working with a very long horizon, generating the graduate students and the beginning of the eco-cluster that you need for that. You need to have a very deep edge so that when the commercialization happens, it's not just one company like Weta, it's bunches of them. With a 20-year horizon, that may be possible, but there's going to be no gain within the first 20 years. It's a long game if a country is willing to play that.

What are you working on? What are you excited about?

I'm still trying to keep tabs on AI, which is moving very fast and has broad implications. We're still so much at the beginning that there's a lot to keep up on. I go to China a lot to talk about the future, but I also go to capture the past. I spend a lot of time traveling to remote areas. I'm doing a book about Asia and its lost traditions. I continue to be fascinated by China, but each time I go there, I know less and less. I keep having my mind changed, which is why I go, it keeps my mind flexible. Many Chinese don't have any idea what's going on in China, so I don't feel too much of a handicap from not knowing. I do want to know more because there's one billion more Chinese than Americans. I'm just flabbergasted by everything I see, so I'm trying to understand that, and I think it's important.

Technologically, the kinds of things I'm monitoring are VR, to an extent. I'm trying to do a bit more, but I'm most interested in video right now. As I talk about in my book, I think there's a swing from where the word on the page as the center of culture, to the video. In a certain sense, I don't want to do any more books. I don't want to write native books. I want to do video-books, or video-something.

I'm very excited by some of the potential of video, and the way that's moving into the social media. A lot of it's celebratory and short and ephemeral, but I suspect that there's something deeper there, and we're in the middle of this shift from the literacy to the visuality and centrality of video in our culture, both in entertainment as well as conceptual, intellectual arena. I want to do something there. It's just the beginning of what we can do with it. It's not just watching, it's kind of like reading video. I'm excited by the potential.