Taking ActionNovelist Chris Robinson on cryptocurrency, artificial intelligence and creating for the future
April 3, 2018
1. Express your thoughts about 2017 in an image, GIF, or noise.
Some years you slack, explore, travel. Some you hustle. Some years you hustle so much you’re strictly on your grind, even when democracy’s crumbling. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to do your part, it just means you’re pissed off you even have to be fixing this shit.
2. What did you take for granted in 2016 that you’re extremely grateful for in 2018?
Cryptocurrency. If I had a bitcoin for every bro who keeps saying that, you’re probably thinking. But hear me out..though I’m not a radical Marxist, I am a singularitarian. AI is coming, and it’s going to put us all out of work. And if we don’t prepare for this shift, as we’re not preparing for global climate change, we’ll not only be dealing with massive population displacement as coastlines get flooded and our hot but habitable areas become unlivable ovens, we’ll be dealing with poverty riots. And those crowds won't just be filled with coal miners, they’ll be filled with doctors, lawyers and novelists like me.
Knowing this is coming, I’m even more worried about our present economic inequality, because if we don’t attempt to fix the social systems and human dynamics that lead to inequality before AI brings everything to a sudden head, we’re — pardon my ciphering — %$@&^#. The selfishness of our genes leaves me little hope we’ll collectively overcome the evolved desires that lead us to covet, exploit and strive for our own at any other’s expense. But that doesn’t mean we can’t affect those behaviors with technology. Indeed, we already have, for money is a technology. The current structure of our economic system, where wealth is heritable, where massive institutions control the store, flow and exchange of money, magnifies the inequalities in human societies. This has always been an inescapable consequence of civilization developing currency. Vast inequality is only possible with money, for if we’re only measuring wealth in coconuts, turkey legs or even sexual partners, there’s only so many hours in a day and ounces in a stomach. It wouldn’t make sense to stockpile three million turkey legs for yourself — unless they were frozen and you could trade them for other goods and services, and now we’re back at money. Money: it’s not the root of all evil (that’s evolution, which led to our imagination), but it is the multiplier of inequality.
That’s because having money makes you money, and because the money holders set the rules for how money is exchanged and acquired—rules that obviously favor those with the most money. Traditional money, anyway. With cryptocurrency, all the rules are out the window. Human economic exchange is suddenly liberated from the gatekeepers. It’s decentralized, borderless, not tied to the stability or corruption of governments. A farmer in Kenya, if she’s got a $20 Android phone (and more people do now than have access to clean water), she can accumulate and store wealth without a bank account or social security number. All she needs is a crypto wallet. She can give and receive microloans in cryptocurrency, across borders, without fees. That Android phone isn’t just a bank account, it’s a bank. (Blockchain expert Andreas Antonopoulos explains better than I can.) There are currently 2.5 billion people with no access to banking. They are not tied into our global financial system. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have economic value. Cryptocurrency is the revolution that will provide them a seat at the table. That changes everything about our global economy. It won’t create equality, but it will lessen the magnification of our selfishness and lead to a less stratified society. That’s crucial, because in one version of the future, the .001% own the robots, and what do the rest of us do? AI is a magnifier of economic power. We need to make sure that this magnification is spread out among the global mass of humanity, not super concentrated. Decentralizing currency just might do that.
3. What piece of art — film, book, album, performance, painting, whatevs — restores your faith in humanity?
It’s easy to get caught up in the politics of the day and forget even the immediate context of your era. This happened to me recently when visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. Seeing the endless horrors of Jim Crow both gave me hope for the current state of our racial inequity and depressed me. We’ve come far but not nearly far enough. But even the context of our era can be shortsighted. There’s a longer view yet one can take, and it’s the view of our history as humans. The book that really brought that home for me was Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.
The book starts with our evolutionary beginnings, and tracks the divergence of Homo sapiens from other branches of the Homo genus that came out of Africa. The “cognitive revolution,” as Harari calls it, happened about 70,000 years ago, allowing us to develop a greater complexity of social cohesion and cooperation, which was the key ingredient to our sweeping dominance of planet earth. About 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals disappeared. Why? Harari makes a good argument that we brought about their extinction — through violence. Genocide has been in our legacy for as long as we’ve been humans. Again and again, we see this in the fossil record. Homo sapiens moves into a new territory, and species after species goes extinct. It puts the Nazi holocaust in perspective. For me, it hammers home that we’re basically all still apes, driven by ape-like tribalism and selfish survivalism. It’s a glorious wonder that we’ve managed to develop language, music, the International Criminal Court, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We’re still screwing up big time, disenfranchising and oppressing our own left and right. But look what we’re dealing with! We’ve been upgrading the software on our old-model brains for at least 40,000 years (how long behaviorally modern humans have existed) and perhaps as much as 300,000 years (how long anatomically modern humans have existed).
Try building a skyscraper out of toothpicks on top of a swamp. That’s what humanity has done with civilization. It’s rickety, it may sink or collapse, and some of us are still stuck in the bog water. But what an accomplishment! And yes, we’re all selfish tribal racists with tendencies toward genocide. But at this point, we’re the least racist and the least genocidal that we’ve ever been! Despite the spectre of mass shootings, and police violence against African Americans, and ISIS, and drug cartels in Central America, global violence is at an all-time low. Sapiens gives me faith that even with our shoddy old brains, we can make it even lower.
4. What happened in 2017 that actually made the world a better place?
#MeToo. Most of society's ills are collective action problems (society itself is a collective action problem). Why should I give up my resources to help those in need if you and you and you won't do as good of a job as I will? Why should I bear all the burden? Why should I speak up against police brutality if my neighbors aren’t, thereby ostracizing myself in my own community, and for what, a tiny incremental droplet of change? That kind of thinking has always been an obstacle to positive change in the world; it’s the fundamental interplay between selfishness and selflessness. But fortunately, the internet has given us the ability to defeat these collective actions problems. Online communities are born in minutes and spread in hours, and in that way, millions of dollars can be raised for hurricane relief or hundreds of thousands can arrive in D.C. for the women’s march. Before this mass instantaneous connection, the brave voice of a woman speaking out against her abuser was so often stomped down by the powerful men around her and quickly forgotten. It would have been nigh impossible to take down Harvey Weinstein in the age of old-media. The #MeToo movement fills me with wonder, for it’s an example of how isolated acts of bravery and defiance can amplify each other in our present day, making it progressively easier for more people to speak out. And in that way, we can dismantle the patriarchy, white supremacy, the wealth gap. The power of the boycott has never been stronger. No one is alone in their suffering. None of us have to bear the entire burden of change, or the risk of backlash. Shout into the void, and someone will shout back: Me too!
It's thanks to Jodie Kantor, Megan Twohey, and most of all, the women who came forward to tell their stories, that our society is having a long-overdue conversation. It's the best superhero story we saw in 2017.
5. What are you determined to do — or make or change — in 2018?
I’m determined to become more collaborative than I’ve ever been. My writing career thus far has been marked by a collaborative spirit. I co-wrote my first novel, War of the Encyclopaedists, with my pal Gavin Kovite. Our second collaborative novel, Deliver Us, is coming out soon. And this time around, we partnered with a Detroit artist, Eno Laget, to design the cover. His wife, Grace, is doing voiceover for the book trailer. We’ve reached out to anonymous co-conspirators to put up street art promoting the book in a dozen cities and to smuggle copies of the book onto the Amazon campus (the plot revolves around the Seattle tech giant setting up their HQ2 in Detroit to beta-test their drone delivery program, which leads to a local backlash led by a black social media activist). It’s a novel about the role automation plays in alleviating or exacerbating racial and economic inequality. And addressing that more is my other determination for the year.
I’m already collaborating with my partner Amanda Knox and friend James Kaelan on a VR piece about wrongful convictions. My next step is to figure out what collaboration with automation itself looks like. How can it be used to better society? Before an AI writes a best-seller or performs your surgery, we’ll have a transitional period — we’re just about there — where humans and AI work together, augmenting and supplementing each other. Your doctor will consult with his vastly knowledgeable AI colleague who lacks bedside manners (for now). Novelists and screenwriters will turn to AI editors to look not just for typos, but for bad plot mechanics and thin characterization.
After losing to Deep Blue, Grandmaster Garry Kasparov invented a new style of chess competition: a human and chess computer working together in competition against another such pair. He called these teams “centaurs.” Currently, the best chess player in the world is not a human or a computer, but a centaur. I want to be a centaur novelist and screenwriter, working with AI to create narrative. I want to take a bigger step into the fog of the future. This is important, because what we find there will be determined by what we bring with us, and I want to bring social justice, so that by the time I’m really out of job, the AIs can carry that goal forward for us.
Share your own #CaseForOptimism or get your collaboration for a brighter collective future going by supporting one (or more!) of the campaigns in 100 Days of Optimism. Because independent doesn't mean alone.