Russ Roberts

Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith on Soonish

EconTalk Episode with Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Soonish.jpg Ecologist Kelly Weinersmith and cartoonist Zach Weinersmith--creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal--talk with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about their new book, Soonish--a look at cutting-edge and not-quite cutting edge technologies. The Weinersmiths speculate about everything from asteroid mining to robotic house construction to the nasal cycle and how the human body and medicine might be transformed in the future. They discuss the likelihood of some really crazy stuff coming along and changing our lives as well as the possible downsides of innovation.

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0:33

Intro. [Recording date: December 18, 2017.]

Russ Roberts: Before introducing today's guests, I want to encourage listeners to vote for your favorite episodes of 2017, as well as telling us about yourself and your listening experience, at the EconTalk Survey we do at the end of the year. Go to EconTalk.org; and in the upper left-hand corner you'll find a link to that survey. Thank you for a great year. And I hope to make 2018 better.

0:56

Russ Roberts: Today, is Dec. 18, 2017; and my guests are Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. Kelly is an ecologist specializing in parasites and is a Huxley Fellow at Rice University.... Zach is the artist and creator of the daily award-winning cartoon "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC)".... Together they are the authors of Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin _Everything_. Kelly and Zach, welcome to EconTalk.... Now, I want to start off--I asked this before we started recording--I asked how to pronounce your last name. Kelly, can you explain that?

Kelly Weinersmith: Sure. So, Zach's last name before we got married was Weiner; and mine was Smith. And when I was publishing papers in grad school, it was very hard to find my own scientific papers because Kelly Smith is a very common name. And so I decided that I was going to change my name when we got married. But there's also a lot of Kelly Weiners. In fact, thousands of papers written by people whose name is Kelly Weiner. And so, we decided to combine our name into Weinersmith, for which there is only us. And so, now it's easy to find my scientific papers. And it's funny.

Russ Roberts: It's very romantic. I think you made a musical reference though, when you told me how theaters act [?]. What did you say?

Zach Weinersmith: Musical reference?

Russ Roberts: You did.

Zach Weinersmith: Oh. "It's a Tale as Old as Time," [?]. Weiner Shoe Smith[?]

Russ Roberts: Well, that's one of my favorite songs, from Disney musicals, from Beauty and the Beast. Is there some symbolism there?

Zach Weinersmith: Well, she's the on who does the field work, so--

Kelly Weinersmith: [?] time the beast is [?]

Zach Weinersmith: I have[?] rather luxurious hair, I should say.

Kelly Weinersmith: He does. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: That's a good point. On a semi-more serious note: This is an unusual book. It's--speculative science, is what I would call it. Science-fictionish. It's all over the place. It looks at space technology, the human body; home construction--we're going to talk about a bunch of the topics you cover in the book. But I'm curious how you literally wrote the book. And, it's illustrated with Zach's illustrations--I assume those are yours, Zach. So, I'd like to hear how you handled the division of labor on producing and writing the book.

Kelly Weinersmith: Well, for each of the chapters, one of us did the initial look at the primary literature. And so, we would go to manuscripts or, you know, scientific books, and take a first pass at, you know, what the field was about. And we'd write a rough draft; and then send it to the other person. And part of why we did it that way is because the other person wouldn't know as much about the technology as the person who did the primary literature read; so we could make sure that at least our first pass, describing each of the technologies, was clear enough that someone who didn't know much about the technology would be able to follow it. And then, after that, the second person would do a little bit more reading. And then I would conduct some interviews. And then we'd send the draft back and forth a couple of more times. And then Zach would add some jokes, and some comics. And then we'd send it back to the experts that we'd interviewed. And then to some additional experts so that they could catch any errors or tell us if we were not understanding the field correctly. And that was pretty much it. And, of course, our editor looked it over and told us if were being unclear. And that was pretty much the process.

Russ Roberts: Well, Zach, did Kelly write any of the jokes?

Zach Weinersmith: None that I accepted, I don't think.

Kelly Weinersmith: That is not true.

Zach Weinersmith: What did you write?

Kelly Weinersmith: Well, I mean, it was not a joke, but a funny story about interviewing John [?].

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, there was one of those.

Russ Roberts: That's very gracious of you, Zach. I will say, I learned a lot from this book about reading technology. And it was a very stimulating book. I'll try to share some of the things that I thought about along the way. But I did laugh out loud a couple of times. And there were a bunch--otherwise, there were a bunch of smiles, the occasional smirk; and I have to confess, the occasional 'That wasn't funny but it was a good try.' There were some swings and misses, which is, you know, that's great. You batted about 800, which is much better than what it takes to get into the Hall of Fame.

5:90

Russ Roberts: I want to start off with--the Space chapter--it begins with Space, the book does, and it's very lengthy, the discussion of Space. All kinds of different aspects of Space, travel. I want to start with asteroid mining. Explain what that is. And what the technological challenges are and why it could happen, even though it seems like a long shot.

Zach Weinersmith: Sure. The first thing to know is that the word 'mining' maybe gives you the wrong visual, because maybe you start imagining [?] with a drill on an asteroid with inexplicably large gravity field. But it's actually more like going to the asteroid belt or catching rogue asteroids and making use of the materials inside them. The asteroids themselves, is important, are not like Star Wars asteroids: they are not going to be like big potato-rocks. Some of them are going to mostly metal; some are going to be called 'rubble piles,' which are just sort of agglomerations of dust and rock. And so you can imagine all these things pose lots of problems in terms of landing and capturing. Which we can get into if you want to. But, the short version is: It's probably not economically viable to do what most people think the idea is, which is to get them and bring materials back. And there are a couple of reasons for that. One, of course, is that it's just very expensive to go to space, even under optimal conditions, which we talk about in a different chapter: Where it's very cheap, it will still be quite expensive. Two, you have to compare that expense against the cost of just digging a really big hole on earth. So, one thing we try to do in this book is inoculate people against bad science reporting. So, one thing you'll often hear, something like, 'Well, did you know in the asteroids there's $80 gazillion dollars' worth of platinum?' And it's true in the literal sense of it. But it's also true in the earth there is $80 gazillion dollars' worth of platinum. So, the question is not how much value is there in an asteroid. It's: Is it better to go get it than to dig a really big hole on earth? And earth has lots of conveniences, like Wendy's. But, so, there is a pretty deep, tough, economic question. However, the one potentially viable use is: If you really wanted to build a giant, Star-Trecky ship, or a settlement out in space that was quite large, asteroids might be a way to do it. And that comes down to fundamental physics. For listeners who don't know a lot about space stuff, the really hard part about getting around space is getting off of the planet. You know--

Russ Roberts: That was really interesting. Talk about the fuel problem. Because that was just--I never thought about it. It's a great point.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. So, we use a--what we say is: Imagine you want to take a car from Alaska to Buenos Aires--I forget what we actually used in the book. But, you wanted to go an extremely long distance in a car. And you had two choices. One was: Hit the gas station every hundred miles. And choice two was: Start with every bit of fuel you are ever going to use. So, intuitively, you want to go to the gas station. But the reason you want to go to the gas station is that--and this is very easy to visualize if you imagine the very beginning of the trip--if you are holding all the fuel you are ever going to use, a huge amount of your fuel goes to just carting more fuel forward. So, you imagine, in the beginning, you are starting with, like, a Mount Everest of gasoline, and there is just this little, tiny bit of cargo you are taking compared to the amount of fuel. So, your engine is working like crazy just to move that Mount Everest of fuel. And so, you can imagine--the opposite extreme would be like a magic pixie drops a single bit of fuel into your tank every time you need it. In that case, you are 100% cargo. You are the machine; you are you; you are your luggage, whatever you are taking. If you have to start with all the fuel, most of what you are going to be able to take is fuel. You are going to be able take, like, yourself, a mountain of fuel, and maybe a tiny bit of luggage. And essentially with a rocket, your in-scenario[?] will be: There are no gas stations on route for a rocket. So, what's the result? When you look at a rocket, what you are looking at is about 80% fuel by mass. And then, about 16.5% is just the machine, the rocket itself. And that's on a pretty, pretty measly mission to low-earth orbit. On a moon trip it's even worse than that. And then about 3.5%, again, on an efficient trip, is actual stuff going into space. So, you can imagine that really one limits the economics of what you can take to space. That's why when you look at the Apollo missions, they're like tin cans with paper-thin walls. It's just very expensive, very difficult to get stuff to space. Once you're in space, it's quite easy to move around.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, that's why it's hard to take a crane with you, if you are going to go dig on the asteroid, or whatever you do there. But, is there anything plausible about this at all? I mean, it's fun to think about. In each chapter of this book you speculate about how likely or unlikely or when it might happen, or what are the effects going to be, what's the downside of some of these innovations--all of which is interesting. But, is this one just pie in the sky--if I may use a bad joke?

Kelly Weinersmith: Well, so, it's possible that it is pie in the sky. But there are definitely some companies that have been built up just to do this and are working on the technologies for it. And certainly I wouldn't be surprised to find out that a company started up with an idea that wasn't going to pan out eventually. But, there are certainly people who think that this will be a money-making venture at some point. Maybe force-based tourism. I think some people are looking at it as a way to bring supplies to the international space station for cheap. So, some of these asteroids are made out of water, and if you can get out to the asteroids, they argue it might be cheap enough to go collect the resources from the asteroids and bring it to the international space station--maybe that would be cheaper than bringing it from earth. So, some of these--we liked to do a mix of technologies that are like: Well, maybe this will never work out but it will be awesome if it did; and then some technologies that are already rolling out, like, you know, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and stuff like that--that's in the synthetic biology chapter. So, this one, we admit, is one of the more, maybe, farfetched. But, there are certainly people who believe in it and are investing a lot of money in their companies to make it happen.

Zach Weinersmith: Could I add a--I think there's a more fundamental question about whether there's any use to going to outer space--outside of lower earth or geo-synchronous orbit--like, any economic use, I should say. So, one thing you'll sometimes see in books about space is that on the moon there is a larger amount, or, there's an accessible large amount of Helium-3, a rare isotope of Helium. And people will say, 'Well, we should go colonize the moon'--I'm sorry--'settle the moon.' 'Colonize' is no longer the preferred term. 'We should go settle the moon, because then we'll get all that Helium-3, which maybe could be used in a fusion device.' And, it really to me feels very specious, because: One, there's no plausible mainstream fusion device that uses Helium-3; but even then, again, you have to look at what you could get on earth. But, it's a bit of an ominous thought, though, that it'll be never economic to go anywhere in space. But, the core problem to my mind is: Everywhere else in space, they are operating on the same Periodic Table as us. Right? So, if you go to Mars, there's not Magic Mars Stuff. There's the same elements we have here. It's true in the asteroids, too. So, it's not obvious that there's a good economic argument for going to space. There may be a sort of human argument.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's aesthetic. Philosophical.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, there's a sort of Carl Sagan-ish, humans are nomads kind of argument; we find it aesthetically pleasing to go settle Mars. And then, perhaps as a result of that, there's a Martian economy. But, as you say, there's not an obvious win for any economy or business person for figuring out the way to go get asteroids. I say it's not obvious--there could be one we're not thinking of. But it is definitely tricky.

13:00

Russ Roberts: One of the challenges of this kind of book--and I salute you for even getting near it--is that so many things are unimaginable until they are imaginable. And then they are just humdrum, mundane things. I saw a chart recently--I think it used to take--it doesn't matter what the actual [?] is--my memory is that it used to take 3 weeks to go from New York City to Chicago. And you can imagine people, in that time saying, 'It will never take less than 3 weeks. And therefore it will never be economical to do x, y, or z with New York stuff or Chicago stuff and trade back and forth.' And to say that we'll go across the ocean. That's it's always going to be for dangerous--risk-taking, risk-lovers who are lunatics. And so, I mean the idea of human flight is absurd--until it happened. The question, though, is, there are certain fundamental limitations which seem, you know, maybe they are the speed of light. They certainly are gravity. There are certain things, it seems, that would make some of these space actions implausible, versus never, ever.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. What I want to say is--and again, this could just be the limits of our imagination. But, if someone in the year 1850 said, 'Hey, would it be good for the economy--like, would people want it if you could get from London to Paris in an hour?' The obvious answer is, 'Yes, it would be very useful.' It's not obvious, I don't think, if you could go to Mars, would you be able to boost the economy. I mean, there's tourism, but that doesn't increase productivity, right? So, at least, in my imagination, it's hard to predict why it's valuable. It is extremely valuable to go to low-earth orbit. It is extremely valuable to go to geo-synchronous orbit with a satellite. But what the sort of market value of having you on, must walk around on Mars rather than us all being really happy about it, is hard to predict.

Russ Roberts: Well, at one end, I think, at current knowledge--correct me if I'm wrong--serious space travel beyond Mars at long distance is not particularly good for you, for human beings, at least as far as we know so far. But, maybe it will turn out it is good for you. Maybe it will extend lifespans in interesting ways. And, it's not obvious to me that in 1850 that if you said, 'What if we could connect Paris and New York and London in an hour, wouldn't that be great? Or 'London and New York in an hour?' I think most people would say, 'Well, that's just a novelty thing. That's just, like, for tourism.' So, I think it's hard to imagine, again, the aspects of the unimaginable, not just the fact itself. It could lead to things that--well, it will lead to things that we can't anticipate.

Kelly Weinersmith: Yeah. To be honest, I think it's more likely that it will shorten lifespan--

Russ Roberts: Yes. Correct--

Kelly Weinersmith: in previously un-understood ways. But, we'll just have to wait and see.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. For sure. You'd have to alter the human body, that radiation has different impacts than it has now on us. Who knows?

Kelly Weinersmith: And let's like--having a baby in space. And getting pregnant in space.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. But root canal is great, probably, in space.

16:05

Russ Roberts: One thing--I want to ask one more question about space; then I want to move to a different topic. That elevator thing--I never--I don't quite understand how that works. Can you explain the elevator that is [?]? How long is it? How tall is it? What's holding it up? I don't quite understand that. The ribbony-thing. I don't quite--

Zach Weinersmith: So, yeah. It's called a space elevator, usually. And the basic idea--so, for people who don't know, the visual would be: Imagine you are in a boat on the ocean and you see what looks like an enormous oil rig. Perhaps a heavily-guarded oil rig. And now from the top of it is this very narrow ribbon, cable, that extends up into the sky like someone is doing the Indian rope trick, only it goes, you know, all the way out of vision. It's a very thin cable. You probably don't even see it until you are fairly close. But what you will see is little cable cars sort of riding up the cable. And they are going to go--in the design we discuss; there are lots of variations, but the sort of classic design is, there's, in 100,000 kilometer-long cable--that's about 62,000 miles--and it goes out to--

Russ Roberts: Oh, is that all? Oh, it's only 62,000 miles. Oh, okay.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. So, quite far out. And, at the other end is a counterweight. Which is, just maybe a captured asteroid, some sort of heavy object. And the physics, the reason you do that is that it puts the center of mass in geosynchronous orbit. A sort of simpler way to say that would be, it's set up so that the cable doesn't wrap around earth, either by the earth spinning slower than the cable or the cable spinning slower than earth. Because, you know, that would be embarrassing. And, the way I like to describe the physics, as a sort-of first principle way to think about it, is, you imagine you have a spring in your hand and you want to swing it around your head so it sort-of straightens out. And then--this is a bad analogy, but you can imagine if it's so that like an a[?] wants to crawl along the spring, you have to spring it, you have to swing it at a certain speed, because it's always trying to compress back down. So, if you put a rock on the other end, it's much easier to do that swing at just the right swing so that it's nice, stretched out piece of, say, metal, or whatever you are doing. So, why do you want this? Well, it goes back to what we discussed earlier about having to take all your fuel with you. We said, there's no gas station on the way to space. But, if you have a cable you are riding all the way to space, effectively, there is. In fact, there's arguably something better than a gas station, which is power beaming, the whole way up. So, in principle, you get the cost way down, because, A). you solve that fuel problem; but B). you are also no throwing away the machine you use when you go to space every time like you usually do, rockets.

Russ Roberts: But, you co-opt[?] that ribbon, in your little elevator, your little cable car. And you get to the counterweight--the asteroid. Now what? What's the point? I mean, it's a heck of a thrill ride. I get that.

Zach Weinersmith: Well, so the cool thing is, once you are that far out, so, so you are the audience test[?] the international space station. You are only about 250 or 300 miles from the surface of earth. You are actually experiencing most of gravity. So, you know, you don't feel like you are experiencing gravity, because you are in free-fall. But, if you want to boost way out, you want to go to the moon, it's still going to take a lot of energy, because you are still in earth's gravity. Well, if you go out 62,000 miles, you get into where your fuel, you feel very little gravity. So, meeting--if you want to go on a moon mission, you want to go to Mars--it's much easier because you are in open space. I'd like analogies for this--I don't know if you want; I don't know if we want to get too thick into this.

Russ Roberts: Probably not. But the point is--the point is--you could use your magic rocket shoes to lift off from outside the cable car on the way to Alpha Centauri, and it would be easier to escape the gravitational field of earth at 62,000 miles up rather than the surface. That's the gist of it.

Kelly Weinersmith: Yeah. And so, for rockets right now, it costs about $10,000 per pound of stuff that's going up there. And that includes the fuel. And the estimates for a space elevator is that you could get stuff up there for about $250/pound if you could get this crazy idea to work. And so at that point, you just bring a little bit of extra fuel, and then your rocket takes off from there or something, and it's much cheaper if you can make that system work. But that's a huge if.

Russ Roberts: So, if I mistakenly drink a cup of tea before I go to bed, usually I gain about a pound. So, you're telling me like that would be a $10,000 cup of tea, if I drank right before the flight.

Kelly Weinersmith: Yeah. Yeah. [?] calculated that an apple seed going into space would be $10. And a Quarter-Pounder with cheese would be $2500, or something. So, it's very expensive right now to get stuff up into space.

20:53

Russ Roberts: So, general question: We can ask it about the space elevator--which seems like one of the greatest terrorist targets of all time, if it ever happened, which is a tragedy about the state of humanity right now, but such is life. So, here are three people right now--you--the Weinersmiths and me--discussing a 62,000 mile-long cable/elevator that's somehow anchored by the counterweight which is going and rotating around the earth. And, we're speculating about the possibility and using it as a launching place for fuel. Now, it's possible we're the only three people on the face of the earth thinking about this right now. But I suspect not. So, I'm curious: First of all, how many people do you think are thinking about this right now? And, secondly, in the course of writing the book, you must have met a lot of strange people who spend a relatively large part of their day imagining--not imagining, but trying to solve the technical problems that are keeping these technologies from being practical. And, I'd like to hear your thoughts on that.

Kelly Weinersmith: Well, so, the people that we interviewed for this chapter were from NASA's [National Aeronautics and Space Administration] Advanced Innovative Concepts Group, NIAC [NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts]. And they spend a fair amount of time thinking about the space elevator. And, for example, there was recently an X-games--sorry, an X-Prize--event where the whole deal was trying to figure out how to beam power to the space elevator to keep it going. So, there are a lot of groups that are working on this problem. And I guess, I think, in general there are a lot of people working on technologies that may be many decades out. And you could argue that some of them are wasting their time. No doubt, some of them are. But I think a lot of them, if they solve their particular technological problem, even if they can't make the whole technology work--so, maybe if you came up with a good cord for the space elevator, a good cable, but you didn't actually make the space elevator itself work, that really strong cable could be used for other technologies. And so I think for a lot of these, the effort that goes into them could benefit other fields or other technologies, and be a good use of people's times. But, I do think there are a fair number of people who are working on the space elevator concept in academia, in government agencies, and, like, some people you could say they are working on the space elevator problem even if they don't really know that they are. So, for example, for a long time, people stopped working on the space elevator from what I understand because no one could figure out what that cable should be made out of. Because that cable needs to because very light weight and it needs to be very strong; and there was no material that was both light-weight enough and strong enough to be able to hold a cable car.

Russ Roberts: Dental floss--but okay, go ahead.

Kelly Weinersmith: Yeah, okay, there you go. But a totally different field discovered carbon nanotubes, which are just configurations of carbon atoms that create this tube that's really, really strong. And it turns out, if you can make a long-enough carbon nanotube--which it turns out is a gigantic 'if'--with no imperfections in it, then that might be what you need to make a space elevator work. So, sometimes people might put a technology down for a while and then a different field will come up with a new innovation and then that gets the game going in the space elevator field again.

Russ Roberts: Now, one of my favorite lines from the book, as an economist, was the sentence "New technology is not simply the slow accumulation of better and better things.' Of course, a huge part of our life is the slow accumulation of better and better things. I now have wrinkle-free shirts that claim to be formaldehyde-free. And they might even be less wrinkly, which is just a fabulous better--I think; I don't know; but they sell it. One of the selling points is: No formaldehyde. Which is: Okay, good.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. It's also [?]-free and--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. I'm in with that. And a huge part of life is like that. The car gets slightly better miles per gallon: there's a slight improvement in mileage. My battery on my phone lasts a little bit longer or more likely a little bit less. But basically that things move slowly. And much of what this book is about is the possibility that there will be radical transformation.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. As a similar example to a [?] segment, my understanding is that with Tesla, the company, it only became possible to do decent EVs--Electric Vehicles--because lithium ion batteries got so good. And, they weren't getting better on behalf of electric vehicles. They were getting better on behalf of gadgets. So, you know, a similar thing could happen for material for a space elevator, just if that market develops.

Russ Roberts: You want to add anything, Kelly, to that?

Kelly Weinersmith: Nope.

25:45

Russ Roberts: Let's move on to a different area, which--let's take housing. So, we've come down to earth, now; and maybe we'll end with inside the body. But, we're down to earth. You make the claim--I'm kind of surprised at the claim. I'd like to hear you defend it. Part of the claim is clearly true. You make the claim that a lot of--the first half of the claim, I would say, is that so little of what we experience in life is hand-crafted now. So much of it is industrially produced in a mass way, which keeps the cost dramatically lower than it otherwise would be. But, a house--a house is a bunch of people with tools who put it together for you. Which is a little bit bizarre. The part I was surprised at, you say, basically the technology hasn't changed much, I think you said in the last hundred years. That seemed surprising to me. Just drywall alone seems like something of a breakthrough. But, talk about home construction and what has changed and what hasn't. And, what's the possibility for a radical transformation there?

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, so in fairness, yeah. It has changed in some ways. It just hasn't revolutionized. We talk about it. The big development in the last hundred years that's not material would probably be the development of pre-fab [pre-fabricated] parts, which are maybe not aesthetically great but make things a decent amount cheaper. Although, the cost of construction has gone up significantly, so maybe that offsets it. But, yes. So, the idea is: There are a number of paradigms through which you might achieve this, but the basic notion is that you have machines take over the job of construction workers, either by sort of directly replacing them--you can imagine a sort of robot arm walking around with a robotic eye just replacing what a conventional construction worker could--I mean, heal[?] it when I say 'conventional.' But, there are other paradigms, like a kind of big 3-D printer [3-Dimensional printer] or little swarm robots that move things into place. But the basic idea is you replace human labor with machine labor on construction sites, and then potentially both save a lot of money but then also open up new architectural ideas and kind of open up bespoke architecture to everybody. And, so, lots of excitement if it works, if it actually becomes economical--which is also an open question.

Kelly Weinersmith: Although some of the technologies are--I guess, even close, more than close. So, like, Semi-Automated Mason, or SAM, is a robot that takes bricks[?], puts the mortar on, and is able to place the bricks; and it has to work with a human, which technically makes it a co-bot rather than a ro-bot, because it's working in tandem with a human. And so, it, like, puts the mortar on; it places the bricks; and then a human comes by and sort of cleans up the mortar and cleans up the lines. And, working together, they are 3 times faster than a conventional construction worker. And so, that's already out. And presumably that could reduce the cost of having beautiful houses made out of bricks. So, that technology is pretty close. But we also talk about some that are much farther away.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. What's the Smart House idea?

Zach Weinersmith: Smart House? I think we talk about--I'm trying to remember. Was it Coltsford House?

Russ Roberts: Don't remember. But, give me a radical--there was a point in the book where you imagined a radical change in the nature of a house for--either it was its ability to transform one room into a different room very dramatically and quickly. Was that what it was?

Kelly Weinersmith: Ah. So that was in the Programmable Matter chapter.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Yeah.

Kelly Weinersmith: And so, the idea there is that you could have a room that essentially has a robot in it, and the robot is able to change its configuration to meet the needs of the room at the time. So, imagine you are in an office space and you want to have your big group meeting. This robot will sort of open up the space and maybe create a table in the middle of the room. And everyone can get together and meet. And then you say, 'Okay, it's time for us to break up and work on our individual projects'; and the robot can fold in particular ways to give everybody their own kind of private space where they can go ahead and do their work. And so, the idea is essentially that you have a room that can have a lot more purposes than it originally had just by sort of changing the configuration over the course of the day.

Zach Weinersmith: There was a related notion there. Someone actually worked on an art project to create a house for the emotional states, which we thought was like maybe a terrible idea. I don't know that I want my house responding to me. But I guess, [?] detect ambient conditions or what the people in the house are doing as a house was happy or sad or angry, and then reflect that aesthetically--which is maybe not the ideal future.

Russ Roberts: Change the color of the walls if you are in a bad mood.

30:28

Russ Roberts: I was fascinated, actually, about that house, that robot house idea. Because, it made me think of, when I'm on the road and I'm staying in a hip hotel--which is not very often. To me, the definition of a hip hotel is a hotel where you'd need a special manual to figure out how the shower works.

Kelly Weinersmith: Yes! We had that same conversation on a tour--

Russ Roberts: Because, there's so many handles and levers and knobs; and you don't know, if you turn one, whether it's going to scald you or where the water is going to come out of. And it used to be kind of straightforward. But now, in a hip place, in a really cool hotel, there's multiple shower heads, multiple options. And you just kind of have to trial-and-error it. And along with that usually comes a chrome/glass sleekness that screams, 'I'm not like your parents' Hilton.' Right?

Kelly Weinersmith: Right.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And, I often find those places cold and not, you know, warm to come back to. There's a certain Frank Lloyd Wright-ish updated, frankly, Wrightish thing there--where, Frank Lloyd Wright was this great innovator, but my philosophy professor, Dr. Smyth, used to say, 'People don't always want to live in those places.' I like to look at them. But they want to come back to, like, a hearth, or a comfortable armchair, rather than a chair made out of, you know, Legos and helium, or whatever. And I thought about your house, and the houses you were describing, and whether those would be places that would they be a home? They'd be a house. But would they be a home, where you'd want to come home at the end of the day and feel something emotional? And yet it's always something different, because it's so smart. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Kelly Weinersmith: Sure. Well, so, for a lot of these technologies it's hard to know where they are going to find their home and how people are going to respond to them when they finally roll out. So, we talk about Google Glass in the Augmented Reality chapter. And essentially, it's just a pair of glasses where you look through it and it lays over virtual elements on what you are seeing. And Google invested a lot in this and thought it was really going to go places. And then it turned out that if you were walking down the street with Google Glass, people would just kind of get angry seeing you. Because they didn't like the way glasses looked; maybe it was the fact that they felt like they were being surveilled by these people who were, you know, hooked into the Internet through their glasses. And the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] of a place called Meetup.com literally said, 'If I see someone with a pair of Google Glass, I'm going to punch them in the face.' And, so, it's hard to know how people are going to respond.

Russ Roberts: What a great ad for your product!

Kelly Weinersmith: Right. And so, Google Glass is no longer on the market. But, people are working on, for example, contact lenses that work with glasses that look less obviously augmented reality-ish. And so the technology is sort of just adapting to the fact that people didn't like the look of those glasses. So, you can imagine, for some of these housing ideas, maybe, like you said, it never ends up becoming--it never gives you a warm and cozy feeling. And so, instead, it gets integrated into office spaces where maybe functionality beats wanting to have a warm and cozy feeling.

Russ Roberts: Good point. Yep.

Kelly Weinersmith: Or, you could imagine that over time, you know, the technology is made by engineers, and then people in other fields get their hands on it, and they find ways to make it feel warmer and cozier. Or, you know--maybe the newer generation doesn't--maybe they really do feel at home in that sleek glass and chrome look. That also doesn't feel very homey to Zach and I, but--

Russ Roberts: Right. It's what we're used to--

Kelly Weinersmith: I've certainly visited some--pardon?

Russ Roberts: It depends on what we're used to. You get used to it.

Kelly Weinersmith: Right. So, I visited some of my younger friends that live in lofts that I feel are very cold. But they love it. So it could be that there's a certain demographic for which these technologies really take off. These things are a little hard to predict.

Zach Weinersmith: Can I add: Some of the cold feeling, I think, goes back to a change in architecture that occurred throughout the 20th century. And one of the things that have interest to me about this technology, is that, what I always think of, is, there's this author Kelly and I both like, mostly forgotten, named Lilias Haggard, who is this sort of country women's writer in Britain. I remember reading one of her books--it was written in the 1940s--and she talked about, she was repairing a cottage and she talked about how, 'Oh, it's nice that there are still all these stone masons around; it's very easy to get skilled stone masonry.' And I just assume I can't just do that now. There are those people who at least they are not cheap. That sort of thing, they would have gone into in the 18th century cottage is now a thing for rich people. And so, that sort of homey aesthetic is actually something you need to pay for. And so, one of the ideas with introducing robots into the process is, you could potentially have a regular person who could afford stonemasonry, or woodworking, because you just have a like, a machine-arm that's programmed to do it, costs very little, and can do things that would, you know, take 30 years for a woodworker, for example, to be able to do. So, one project we talk about is there's this machine and the idea is it looks at a weird-shaped piece of wood and instantly deduces, 'Oh, this could be a beautiful chair with the following qualities.' And, presumably, to be a woodworker who can both determine that and execute, probably would take decades, I would think. So, one idea is, if you drastically lower the cost of labor, and especially lower the cost of certain types of highly skilled artisanal labor, you could introduce some of those homey qualities back into homes that regular people could afford. At least, in principle.

Kelly Weinersmith: And--this is slightly different point--but, to go back to integrating the Programmatic Chapter into this discussion, some of the things may not look exactly the way that you want them to look, but, perhaps they are so useful that you are willing to overlook that. So, we talk about a technology called Room Bots, which are essentially squares that are able to sort of move and connect to one another, and then they can, for example, pick up a piece of wood and become a table. And while this may not be a beautiful idea, design-wise, if you sort of picture what it would look like, one of the functions is supposed to be for people who can't get up easily, the table can adjust to the right height, or it can move over to you. And so, again, I can imagine, maybe these things wouldn't be in a typical comfy home; but there would be situations in which they would be very useful, and you would decide even though they don't look homey, you want them anyway because their functionality just really improves the quality of your life.

Russ Roberts: That's just a great example that runs through the book, and it [?] this conversation, that: Economics and life, a lot of it's tradeoffs. It's about the fact that: Sure, you'd love to live in the most gorgeous place of all time, but if it costs a zillion dollars, it's not worth it. And if it's incredibly--if it's a little bit cold and sterile but it's incredibly cheap, there are a lot of people in the world who would be a lot better off if they had a real house rather than a shack or a corrugated cardboard box to live in, which is some of the examples you talk about in the slums of the world. And I just want to add--and my point about aesthetics, is that--as you point out, and as I suggested, it's kind of what you're used to. There's that cottage in the Cotswolds that your author was, or wherever it was, that your author loved and found homey. We'd look at it now and go, 'That's a stuffy, weird little place,' maybe. We might not find that as comforting as they did then. You know, things, culture, changes.

37:44

Russ Roberts: Let's talk about augmented reality a little bit. Most of the--and this is, of course, much a technology--it's here in some dimension. But its potential is quite vast for all kinds of applications. One of the--when I think about it today, a lot of the applications you hear about are rather uninteresting to me. Like, you'd hold your phone up, or your Google Glass, whatever you are wearing when you are at a baseball game, and you could see the statistics of the players, hovering over them, in space. And that just doesn't do much for me. There are a lot of times I'm curious about what a player's particular statistics are in some part of the game, and I look them up on my phone. I do that fairly often, I confess. But, having my visual lines cluttered with that stuff--you know, I could be able to turn them on and off, and selectively, and all that. It's not transformative. Where does augmented reality have the potential to be transformative other than, you know, for novelty effects?

Kelly Weinersmith: Well, so, there are companies like DAQRI (daqri.com) that are working to add augmented reality into things like workers' helmets. And so the idea here is that when you are being trained on a really difficult task for the first time, you can have the augmented reality essentially tell you the way to do a task. And there's been a couple of studies where they find that when people are trained in this way, they are much less error-prone. So, for example, you are putting together a part of an airplane; and the augmented reality says--the screen in front of you--tells you, 'You need to pick up a particular wrench. This is the wrench, and this is where you need to be tightening the nut.' And, 'Oh, you didn't do it right,'--the program can tell you that you needed to turn it a little bit more or you turned the wrong nut in the wrong place. And so, they've done some studies--I think DAQRI in particular did a study where they teamed up with Boeing, and people who are putting together a delicate part of an airplane made far fewer mistakes when they used this augmented reality setup. And Zach and I are particularly interested in planes that have no mistakes when they are put together. And so--

Russ Roberts: Universal.

Kelly Weinersmith: Yeah. Right. Indeed. And so, useful for training. And then there's also the idea that if you are walking around your work site and there's something that maybe is about to go wrong in a catastrophic way, that could be hard for human eyes to pick up in some cases. But, the augmented reality helmet could be sort of keeping an eye on things that are going on around you. And if it notices something is amiss, it could alert someone to that quicker. And then you could take care of it. And, there's also some suggestion that this could be useful in disaster areas. So, maybe if there's an earthquake, some buildings might have a little bit of a tilt that would be hard to identify if you are just a human looking out at the landscape. But, if you had this augmented reality helmet that knew, you know, what the buildings were supposed to look like, it could very quickly compare, you know, the lean to what the buildings looked like before, and alert you to the buildings that need to be a priority to deal with immediately. So, from the perspective of dealing with disasters, training of various types--not just in industrial settings. It could also be surgical settings--training surgical residents or training a surgeon in a technique that they've never done before. Maybe in a war setting, where they can't get access to the surgeon who is a specialist, but they can get access to these goggles that will walk them through it. Or, maybe would even have the specialist hooked in to the goggles to give additional advice. These are some of the things that I thought were the most exciting.

Zach Weinersmith: With a little [?]. With the trading thing, it's not just that they make fewer mistakes. It's also, they actually pick up--at least in one study it appeared they pick up the actual skill of doing the task without augmented reality more quickly. Which, to me kind of makes intuitive sense. It's like having a tutor who controls your field of view. And so, to me, that's really exciting, because it means you can potentially pick up a skill much more quickly. Which it benefits everybody. And also, just, for those of us who have all [?] we want to learn but probably never will, you can learn twice as fast. That can be really exciting.

Russ Roberts: Yeah; it's like--I guess--I didn't think about this. It's kind of like YouTube but better. When you are trying to figure out something like how to carve a turkey, or all the life skills that we have around us that we do use now and then, nothing exotic, but simple things like that. And often, we'll go to YouTube. We'll look at it. And we'll close it. And we'll go try to carve the turkey. And then sometimes we'll prop up our phone near the turkey while we're doing it. Right? Or a recipe, in particular. But to have it hovering there in real space would be--better. A little bit better.

Kelly Weinersmith: Well, and sometimes when you are doing something, you don't know until a week later that you didn't do it correctly, when it falls apart or breaks at a catastrophic moment. And the augmented reality, you know, headset, for example, should be able to tell you while you are doing it, 'No, no, no, you thought you had it right but you had it wrong, and you need to do this a little bit differently.' And so, presumably you'd have fewer mistakes.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's very cool.

42:31

Russ Roberts: One of the culture[?] issues--this comes a little bit back to our discussion about comfort of homes--you point out that when Pokémon Go was the rage--does it still exist, by the way?

Zach Weinersmith: I think it does, but it's not quite as cool as--

Russ Roberts: It was so cool, so intensely cool, for such a short period of time.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But anyway, one of the things that people were upset about was there were Pokemon--and this, actually, there are probably people listening who don't know what it is. I can say, safely, I didn't play it. But, I understood it to be where you would see, looking out into reality you would see avatars, or whatever they are called, in places out in the real world. Is that a good summary?

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. The important thing is that they are persistent; and they are real in the sense that everybody would see the same thing in the same place.

Russ Roberts: And you saw them by holding up your phone to the--how did you see them, actually? I don't even know. I should say--I don't think either of us play. But yeah--it would be like, you hold up your iPad or, I don't know, if you are really dorky maybe you have like [?] headset or something.

Russ Roberts: There you go.

Zach Weinersmith: And so you would just look. And essentially there's an arrangement of servers that agrees at a particular point on the planet there is a little furry imaginary creature, so that you--perhaps if you didn't play, you probably saw people play. I remember walking around the zoo with my daughter, and you would see fully grown men walking around, all looking into an iPad. And it took me a sec to figure out what was going on; and I realized they were hunting around the zoo for Pokemon. So, yeah. So, that's basically what it is.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And it used to be that, when you saw someone looking down and mumbling to themselves, it was usually a college professor. But, now, it's just somebody talking into their cellphone. It's normal. But, anyway, the point is that there were Pokemon creatures, these virtual creatures, at Auschwitz, and Hiroshima--and people were offended that this silly, meaningless, superficial creative game was in places of human tragedy. And it seemed there was something jarring. And peopled want that fixed. So, they complained that they need to ban those, or stop that, or have the sense not to do that. And it just struck me as an example of how hard it is to stop technology once it's there. We like stuff. We like--whatever we like, we try to get. And that's a human quality. And it seems to me, the biggest way to stop the Pokemon at Auschwitz or at Hiroshima is for people who play the game to realize: 'That's not in good taste. I don't want to do that,' rather than trying to do it top down. Neither one of them are easy, though. It's just the nature of life.

Kelly Weinersmith: Yeah, so I think in those particular cases, Nintendo was sympathetic to the people who were asking for the Poké stops to not be in these sacred places. And so they moved the Poké stops out, and I think cordoned off those areas so you don't play Pokémon Go there. But, in general, it is a problem. And so I think another example we may be give in the book is what happens if someone takes a popular augmented reality channel, and for example, draws a swastika on the door of your company. And it's your company. You, you know, don't believe in the ideals of Nazis; you would like that swastika to be removed from your door. What right do you have to forcibly remove something from this augmented world? And the answer to that is not clear. And so, there's a lot of stuff that would need to get figured out in that regard if this technology did become common. And maybe people would just not care, because they would know that these things could happen in the augmented world and they don't necessarily have anything to do with what's happening in the real world. But, you can also imagine that a lot of laws would need to get passed regulating what people are allowed to do with this augmented world that lays over our everyday world.

Russ Roberts: I just think so much of it is going to emerge culturally in how we think about it, and that we--me, a 63-year-old guy who right now is somewhat up to date with technology, but looks at my 87-year-old father has trouble with his iPad--it inevitably just doesn't work for him. I say, 'Dad, what's wrong?' 'I don't know. It just doesn't come on.' Or 'I can't get to the music.' And I say, 'But you could do it yesterday.' And it's like--and then my brother sees him, or he brings it when he comes to visit me, and I get it to come on after--poke it, I hit a few buttons and it comes on; but he can't do that. So, that's going to be me in 25 years--is what I'm [?]. So, I'm worried about--I think culture will change in how we react to these things. It's just inevitable.

Kelly Weinersmith: I think it's definitely already happening. I feel like you can see as you talk to different generations, you know, asking how they feel about privacy and Facebook; and each generation already seems to have a very different feel for what's acceptable. So, you know, my parents don't want to be on Facebook. They don't want to share their private information. I'm comfortable sharing information about me, but I won't anything related to my kids on there--

Russ Roberts: Yep--

Kelly Weinersmith: And, you know, presumably, my daughter, when she's old enough to go on Facebook, will put every single detail about her life on there--

Russ Roberts: Yeah, could be--

Kelly Weinersmith: if this keeps moving in the direction it seems to be moving. And with augmented reality, that could also be scary, because there are ideas where you could have--I think there's program called Recognize, that can Recognize the faces of people, pull up information from the Internet, and then project it over their heads. You could meet someone for the first time and say, 'Oh, this person is single.' Maybe that colors the way that I deal with them. Or, if you are interviewing someone for a job, you could say, 'Oh, this woman is pregnant. How does that change about my desire to hire her or impact my desire to hire her? I wouldn't have been able to tell that just by looking at her, but now I know because Facebook has that information.' So, yeah. I think we are moving in that direction. And it will be interesting to see what the younger generations decide, because it's scary to us, but it doesn't seem so scary to some of the younger people we talk to while working on this book.

Russ Roberts: And we talk about--a lot of people, will, before a date, or before a job interview, will Google--and they should--they should Google a person; and you find out some things that normally, 40 years ago, would have remained hidden about that person. And interestingly to me, you find out things like, 'Oh, my gosh. This person follows so-and-so on Twitter. What's wrong with them?' Which is the way the world is going to be, I think, whether we like it, are used to it, or not.

Kelly Weinersmith: And to some extent that's good. Maybe you would discover you don't want to go on the date with that person because you think that maybe they're a little dangerous, after looking at their Twitter account. I don't know--maybe there's an optimal amount of information that gets shared.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, there's a lot of latitude for pickiness, I think is the danger.

Russ Roberts: Well, we see, actually, we see a little of that right now. I think in the world we are a little less social and we are moving in that direction slowly. There will be some kind of pendulum swinging back, I suspect.

49:20

Russ Roberts: Let's move to biology. I want to read a quote, which--hard to believe it's true, but it's in the book, and you guys are experts, so it must be true. And you told me you were really worried--you were really worried about making mistakes, Kelly. I think it was you who said it explicitly. Most of the book is written in the joint voice of the two of you, but I think Kelly said, 'You know, I'm a scientist. Zach's a mere cartoonist, and [?] about getting the science wrong.'

Kelly Weinersmith: I don't think we meant to imply that, but maybe we did.

Zach Weinersmith: [?]

Russ Roberts: Exactly. Well, you knew she'd thought it because you saw it over her head with the augmented reality glasses. But here's what you say. It's crazy--you say:

We've been genetically altering biology, including the foods we eat, for at least 10,000 years. If you look at our primate cousins, their food tends to be seedy and high in fiber whereas our favorite foods are things like cake, beer, and beer cake--no fuss calorie-conveyances.

We've gotten pretty damn good at altering biology. One time, we took a single species called Brassica oleracea and turned it into every vegetable you hated as a kid--brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, collard greens. YES. All one species, slowly modified over generations into a thousand okay-tasting forms, each more cheese-requiring than the last.
Is that true? Who is going to defend that claim--that they are all Brassica oleracea?

Zach Weinersmith: They are--

Kelly Weinersmith: They are. No, you can [?] genetic testing--

Russ Roberts: I'll accept that brussels sprouts are miniature cabbage. I'm very comfortable with that. But really--kale? Collard greens? Collard greens?!

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. I can linguistically prove it--in the Scots' dialect language, depending on who you are fighting with, they call cabbage 'keel[?]' or 'kale.' It's just an old word for cabbage. That's the scam of kale. Kale is just cabbage we haven't done much work on. It's just wild cabbage. That's why it tastes bad. [?] the times on this.

Kelly Weinersmith: I'll give you--it blew my mind when I first learned that. Because I didn't know that. As a biologist, I feel like I should have known that about a decade ago. But I think I learned it two years ago. And when I learned that, I definitely had a 'that's not true,'--like half an hour, until I convinced myself by looking, you know, in the scientific literature. But, no--it is indeed true: those are all the same plant. It's amazing what you can do with artificial selection.

Russ Roberts: The other thing I learned from your book, which really freaked me out, was the nasal cycle. Can you describe that? Again, I'm a little skeptical about that, and I didn't prep you before this Skype call that we were going to talk about the nasal cycle. Is one of you comfortable explaining that? Out of the blue?

Zach Weinersmith: Well, yeah. Let me give the setting for why we are talking about the nasal cycle in a technology book. So, in augmented reality, a lot of the research is about how to, essentially, deceive the senses. And so, you know, one of the ways you want to make visual augmented reality compelling is you have to pump it into both eyes and have both eyes slightly offset, because that's how reality works. You see an object at a distance; your eyes perceive the object as slightly different based on the distance, and that's how you perceive things 3-dimensionally. Anyway, so, the point there is the value of having two eyes is to make that 3-dimensional judgment. That's why some of the animals, especially carnivores, have these binocular eyes that are forward facing. And you have a similar thing with your ears, right? You can locate a sound just by listening because it hits your two ears at a different time. And it occurred, I guess to me: you have two nostrils. What's the equivalent of binocular, bi-nasaler--can you--

Kelly Weinersmith: Bi-smellular?

Zach Weinersmith: Can you bi-smellular the location of an object in space? And so, we actually dug in. And interestingly enough, Kelly happened to know offhand a guy who kind of had sort of that, because--so, snakes have forked tongues, and again, it's two things--which implies bi-smellulation. And so--

Kelly Weinersmith: I can't remember if it was smellulation or taste-ulation. It was one of those two things. And we were corrected--

Russ Roberts: Oh, they are related?

Kelly Weinersmith: They are. They are related. But, they are still distinct. And so, we were corrected. And that should have cemented it in my mind but it did not. And so, the idea is essentially that a snake walks around and it has a tipped tongue and it collects information about the environment, and then it sticks the tongue into different openings in the top of its mouth, and I think a thing called the vomeronasal organ. And it gets information about, like, you know, the mouse maybe went this way, or it can tell that there's more of a particular chemical on one of the tips of its tongue than the other. And that helps it make decisions about which way it wants to go. So, anyway, go ahead.

Zach Weinersmith: So, to get back to the nasal cycle. So, basically, it turns out humans can't do this. You can't sniff the air and say, 'Ah, my right nostril slightly perceives chicken,'--

Russ Roberts: They're close together, is one of the problems. Right? The nostrils, they are closer together than the eyes and the ears. So it's hard to get the separation.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, exactly. And the other issue--so our question was, 'Well, why do you have two nostrils instead of one giant meganostril?' Like, your mouth--you don't have two mouths. And it turns out--the argument is basically that you keep one nostril open all the time, and then you close it off and you open off the other, essentially to keep the whole system lubricated. If you were constantly breathing through one giant meganostril, it would dry out and that would, I guess, cause problems. It was interesting because scientists really get into this. Like, we found a group that was like 3-D modeling the nose as a sort of mathematical object.

Kelly Weinersmith: Which is not surprising. We have math models for [?] everything. But, yeah--and then there is some hypothesis that the nasal that is being used at a particular time influences your memory. And so there are memory tests where undergrads essentially take a test while plugging on of their nostrils with like a finger.

Zach Weinersmith: By being forced to breathe the wrong nostril--like you said--make undergrads breathe through the wrong nostril by taking little tests and see what the effect on what the outcome was.

Kelly Weinersmith: So, this was a field--

Russ Roberts: I'm very confident that that test on undergraduates was not a reliable, replicable finding. Because I bet it's a very small sample.

Zach Weinersmith: Yes; yes. We were mostly happy to find out that it had been done--they apparently just did what everyone does [?]

Kelly Weinersmith: They have been through quite a bit, it seems. Undergrads have been through quite a lot, it seems.

Zach Weinersmith: And course credit. I'm sure they got course credit.

Russ Roberts: But just to clarify--we got a little bit off this crucial educational lesson for EconTalk listeners. Your nose works one nostril at a time and goes back and forth. You said, you turn it off and on--it's obviously not conscious. You don't mentally make an effort to switch nostrils between breathing and not breathing. So, explain that? What happens? This is crazy.

Kelly Weinersmith: Well, so, to be fair, we didn't get too thick into this research. We read a couple of pages. But I think your body just automatically switches between which nostril is working at the moment; and that one does most of the--like, what is it called, the nasal elevator? You did most of the research for this one.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, yeah; yeah. Essentially you have this engorgeable tissue in your nose that blocks one nostril and opens the other. It's not literally true that it totally blocks which side you can breathe through. You can breathe through both of your nostrils most of the time. But what is--I think the word in the field is actually 'dominant'--you have a--this is the masculine field of nose studies--there is always a dominant side of the nose. But, yeah; it's just a natural thing your body does is allow you to keep smelling stuff. Sadly, not bi-nasally or whatever we call it.

Russ Roberts: Well, I have a deviated septum. I think everybody does. It's just a fancy name for saying that the piece that separates the two nostrils is not exactly even, so one nostril tends to work better than the other. And, this could explain a lot of my challenges in life--that I tend to be mono-noscular, -nostricular. And maybe it's constantly drying out; my memory's not working. Who knows? There's lots of challenges there.

Kelly Weinersmith: It's something you can blame, though.

Russ Roberts: It is. And now, I would like to say millions, but that would be a lie: millions of EconTalk listeners can do the same thing. But it's merely tens of thousands. Maybe 100,000 on a good day. Certainly for this one. Obviously.

57:56

Russ Roberts: I want to--there are some explicit economics in this book. And all of its economics in the background are, of course, as we've been hinting at. But, there was a paragraph that caught my eye about Dr. Nocera, who was working on hydrogen fuel cells. And it says,

But for Dr. Nocera, things didn't work out as planned. The device worked well enough, but hydrogen fuel cells never caught on as a way to store energy. Making things worse for him, but great for everyone else, regular old solar power cells got a whole lot cheaper, making his product less exciting. Dr. Nocera's idea was shelved for a time. But harnessing water splitting has a lot of potential. You've got this ultracheap way to split water, but the way you get energy out of it is cumbersome.
And then you say someone else, Dr. Silver, had an idea. But it just reminds me of the importance of when a technology gets subsidized--and I have no idea how much we've subsidized solar energy in the United States: it's some amount, 'Because it seems like a great thing. Solar's fantastic. It's clean.' And we've got this big thing called the sun, and it's got so much going for it; and it's big, it's far away but it's big. And so we have this natural tendency to want to subsidize it, and we often forget about what we call in economics the opportunity cost--the fact that, 'Yeah, but that means it's going to be harder for some other technology that you're not thinking about, or don't know what's going to come along, to be effective.'

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah, that's definitely true. My sense was, in the case of solar, I guess I don't know the history of subsidies there. It could have just been a natural--what I think of often was, my dad was an engineer at Bell Labs back when Bell Labs was Bell Labs, and he talks about how in the 1970s everyone was trying to figure out how to not use silicon, because everyone was like, 'Well, we've pushed it as hard as we can.' And it just turned out it was always a better deal to just keep pushing silicon instead of trying to figure out some germanium alloy or some other semiconductor. So, to be honest, I hadn't thought about the point you just made. I think--we were argument essentially that, like, PV--photovoltaics--for all their problems worked well enough that people kept pushing it, and it's just never been viable to try to introduce another option. But, yeah, I don't know. My sense is hydrogen can't take off without subsidies: it just doesn't seem viable to me. So, I think that was the limiting factor there. But I do think it's a fair point. PV has basically defeated all other solar options, with one or two exceptions; and it has been highly subsidized. So, yeah--of course, I don't know what could have happened had that not been the case.

1:00:24

Russ Roberts: So, I'm just going to read this sentence. We're not going to talk about it; I just don't want this episode to end without this sentence being read out loud. I don't even remember the context. I just clipped it out and pasted it while I was reading because I wanted to not miss it. And listeners, you are going to have to read the book if you want to know where it comes from. But, here we go:

If bankers had to get their body cavities opened up to receive a bailout, they might think twice about making another risky loan. Your move, Congress.
So, I just want to log that.

Zach Weinersmith: [?] the context to that. What was the context?

Kelly Weinersmith: I remember that. Do you want me to not go into it?

Russ Roberts: No, no. Spoil it. It's one of the many premiums for listening to EconTalk. Go ahead.

Kelly Weinersmith: That was in the organ-printing chapter. So, the idea is you can harvest cells from a human, grow them up, and then potentially use a 3-D printer [3-Dimensional printer] to print, for example, a liver. And so we were talking about one of the risks of doing this, is that people could decide: 'Okay, I could just get a perfect liver at any time, so I'm just going to drink like crazy and not worry about that.' So, we were talking about that moral hazard. But then we were pointing out that if you need to get a liver replacement, that surgery is pretty horrible. And so, it's sort of analogous to the bankers--you know, they can't get out as much money as they want, or something like that. And we were saying that, if the cost of making a mistake as a banker was as high as needing to have an organ replaced, then maybe they'd be a little bit more careful; and we would be okay with that.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah--I'm sure I wrote that line, but it sounds so gruesome to me now that you're--

Kelly Weinersmith: I read the audiobook, most of the audiobook version; so a lot of this stuff stuck in my head at that time.

Russ Roberts: Well, I like it because I like to always point out that the part, maybe a huge part, of the financial crisis, was the removal of feedback loops that used to engender prudence and less risky investments. And, the body-cavity thing, for the bailout--people say, 'Well, we couldn't have a choice. We couldn't help it. We had to save the world.' And that may be true. I'm open to the possibility. But they say that a lot. And sometimes they don't do what needs to be done to save the world; and the world doesn't end. So, I really like the idea of adding, potentially adding a cost. So, we could say, 'Well, we had to do the bailout.' And, of course, the normal human way to do that is that some people should have been fired, or removed, if the government is going to give them the money. But, I think, you know, some kind of biological punishment--would work--cheaper--it would be cheaper. Maybe more effective.

Zach Weinersmith: You could just do a thing where you'd put a person on a short stool in the middle of Town Square and put a cone-shaped hat on their head.

Russ Roberts: Yeah--

Zach Weinersmith: That would seem like a more gentle--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. That's good, too. I'm open for all kinds of innovations like that in raising the costs of irresponsible behavior.

1:03:13

Russ Roberts: We're coming to the end of our conversation. I've enjoyed it a great deal, as I think listeners will know. But I want you to reflect--you can each take turns. There's a part of book we didn't talk much about. Which is dark consequences of some of these innovations, or things running amok. And, of course, it's come up on EconTalk before: we've talked about whether robots are going to take over the world, in various episodes, and what are our risks of that. And there's various smart people worried about these things. I used to be a very optimistic person: that culture and tech--and other things would emerge to--sometimes legislation would emerge to deal with these things. I'm not quite as optimistic as I used to be. So, I'm curious, for you, having written this book and done all the research that you did to write it, and talked to a lot of strange people--brilliant, but peculiar people--about the things that fascinate them. How did it make you feel about being human? And--I mean, the book really captures the incredible span of human creativity. That part I found very inspiring. Then, there's the potential for things getting out of control. Did it leave you, in the process of writing this book did it leave you with any thoughts on those kind of issues?

Kelly Weinersmith: I guess it left me disappointed in some regards. So, one thing that was particularly disappointing was--so, I did really nearly interview for the book, and for each person that I interviewed, I asked them, 'What do you think the negative implications of these technologies could be?' And, most people told me that either they had thought of none or they hadn't thought about it at all. And, as someone who is in academia, I understand that you are so focused on trying to pitch the good aspects of what you are working on, so you can get grants, and you can get the public excited about it so you can later get funding. Like, I get how you get tunnel vision. But if you are going to be bringing some of these technologies to market, you really should be thinking about the negative things that could be done. So, one--I've said this in a lot of talks that we've given about the book--and one pushback that I get that I think is totally reasonable is that people in academia have so much stuff going on that they shouldn't necessarily also have to be a bioethicist, for example. And there's a reason why that's a completely different field. And I agree. People in biology are not necessarily trained to be ethicists, logicists, etc. But, I think that if they don't feel like they can think through the negative implications on their own, they should be teaming up with people who can think about it, so that we have some idea as to how these things can go wrong before they hit the market. And so, on one hand, I'm really excited, because people who are working on these technologies have thought about a lot of great ways that they can make our lives better and are really excited about some of these technologies. But on the other hand, I think that there are some ways that the technologies could be really bad that maybe we're not dealing with head on, or we've just decided that we'll see what happens and then we'll deal with it. And I feel like a more proactive approach would be better. So, part of why we wanted to include that in the book was the hope that it will become, it will get on people's minds and maybe we'll start dealing with this kind of stuff sooner. So, we're cautiously--I am cautiously optimistic: a little scared about some of the things but also really excited about the project people are working on. So, I guess I'm just--it's complicated.

Zach Weinersmith: Yeah. I think what we're both sort of by temperament optimistic. But, I would say for most people, I think correctly, there's [?] to speed--like if things happen slowly enough, culture tends to work out over a generation or two. Like, one thing I think about is when I was a kid, my brother and I would play video games till 4 in the morning--you know, which I'm sure was a very bad, unhealthy behavior. But I don't think--my parents didn't grow up with the hyperaddictive videogames, so they didn't know to tell us, 'No.' They would known to tell us 'No' if we were drinking. But they had no idea what we were doing. Probably a comparably unhealthy behavior, which was getting 3 hours of sleep a night so we could collect imaginary coins, you know. And, but, so, I will know with my kids, at least, not to let them do that. There will probably be something else I don't know to say no to. But [?], I do think culture tends to accommodate things. The scary thing is, if you get a technology that contains some sort of feedback loop--it contains its own development, like. So, the fear a lot of people talk about is AI [Artificial Intelligence]--like, it gets smart enough to make itself smarter and then change happens so fast we're not ready for it. I think--I don't know enough about it to have a strong opinion, but one thing we talk about in the book is called Brain Computer Interfaces, which is just, you know, the human ability to modify that thing between your ears. And, that is--could happen so fast that it becomes dangerous. Because it does contain an internal feedback loop, which is, we're all suddenly smarter and there's a market for increased intelligence. There always has been. There always will be. And suddenly, we are all smarter; and we have to be smarter than the other guy. And so, we are like, massively modifying our brains, and now, like, not only are we not ready for it, but the 'we' in that sentence has changed. Like, what we are has changed. And, you know, for me at least, beyond that point it becomes hard to even think about--like, I can think about basic ideas, like what might happen if we all had 50 more IQ points. Which sounds, at least in principle, not so bad to me. But, you know, you iterate that technology for 50 years, and at some point we are making changes that are hard for us to think about right now. And at that point, we've essentially obliterated our own species, in pursuit of, I don't know what--like, market signaling or something. So, that, that could be a bit ominous. If there's a rapid sort of feedback loop or a mechanism that's hard to deal with because it benefits the individual even as it hurts society--I don't know that there's a good way to fix it. That's actually, I would say, the one technology we are both pretty freaked out about, was brain modification. So, that's the one area I would say I'm a bit pessimistic. Maybe Kelly less so, I don't know.

Kelly Weinersmith: Yeah; I'm a little pessimistic, for the reasons that you said. As someone who studies parasites that manipulate the brain, I--that is actually a technology that I'm not super-convinced we are going to work out any time soon, because the brain just seems so complicated. But, anyway. I think wrangling asteroids maybe scares me more--prospective weapons. But anyway--now we're off on a different topic.



COMMENTS (9 to date)
Eric writes:

This is the Nostril-damus episode of EconTalk, where we sample the scents of Soonish innovations yet to come, considered one dominant side at a time, whether smelling the aroma of improvement or the stench of ruin.

A delightfully fun and thought provoking episode with a pair of enjoyable guests.

About "thinking through the negative implications" of potential innovations, scientists have no special expertise in ethics (and an obvious bias toward overlooking the negative case against their own work).

That said, the scientists do have a collective responsibility to consider and illuminate the technical side of what could go wrong. That is a technical question on which scientific discussion -- with disagreeing parties all contributing -- is vital.

p.s. I found it very interesting to hear even the small bit about Dr. Nocera and his work toward using solar energy to split water into oxygen and storable hydrogen (which produces no carbon dioxide when used to produce energy). I hadn't been aware of his work.

Michael Byrnes writes:

This seemed like an appropriate Jan 1 episode.

Eric wrote:

About "thinking through the negative implications" of potential innovations, scientists have no special expertise in ethics (and an obvious bias toward overlooking the negative case against their own work).

That said, the scientists do have a collective responsibility to consider and illuminate the technical side of what could go wrong. That is a technical question on which scientific discussion -- with disagreeing parties all contributing -- is vital.

Good points. I think the guests kind of put their finger on the problem - when new technology comes about too quickly is when downsides might emerge.

Carl Pearson writes:

Delightful episode.

Some specific (but rough) thoughts:

Asteroid mining / space settlement generally

- the car trip analogy was great. Didn't appear in the episode (perhaps in the book?), but another part of the equation is the engine, not just the tank. You need a lot more engine to move that initial mass, which is then largely useless / burdensome later in the trip.

- space colonization (emphasis here on out-of-favor term deliberate): I agree the economical viability story isn't obvious yet, but doesn't the con argument (at a high level: same stuff here already) apply to the general history of colonization on Earth? Some materials are actually unique to once-far-off lands (due to different histories, prevailing weather, etc), and there were also matters of local scarcity (of particular materials, living space, etc). I think the pressure from some sort of local scarcity will push this, leading to discovery of unique materials which will then trigger a pull as well.

- space elevator terrorist threat (spoiler alert): missed opportunity to invoke Carl Sagan again (very similar scenario in Contact)!

Home Construction / Industrial Tech

- as someone that regularly does home improvements, I think some of the historical improvements are a bit undersold. Material improvements have been pretty dramatic (drywall, various synthetic wood replacements, new coating chemistries), as have assembly technologies (push-to-fit plumbing is awesome) and implementation "technologies" (aka, building code and products to simplify compliance). They also mentioned pre-fab, which is letting smaller crews execute faster jobs. I don't think we take as much advantage of this as we should (e.g., shrinking fire departments, reducing density restrictions), but in other senses we do (e.g., ubiquitous central air conditioning appears in US appears partially due to insulation improvements making it more affordable).

- augmented reality: Google Glass is not exactly off the market, my understanding it's transitioned into the industrial landscape, providing manufacturing / repair aid. They get to this later in that discussion, of course, but don't mention that Glass lives there now. Just before returning to industrial AR, Russ mentions that he doesn't like the phone / glass version of, say, looking up baseball stats during a game - but isn't that stuff currently already happening in televised versions (e.g., pitch tracker)? Lots of this is informed by video game design, and is aware of the visual clutter challenge, so I think we're going to see more / better versions. Speaking of, love the "Youtube but better" comparison - I definitely do that in my shop, and I'd love to have in line rather than having to walk over to computer, seek to particular part of video, etc.

- artisanal labor: sort of implied, but I'll highlight it explicitly - the cost of this work is both the intensive labor to make those products as well as the large investment in human capital (e.g., developing the skill to be a master stonemason). Even if the work remains labor-time intensive, reducing that human capital development cost (either via machine learning for robots or AR-aided learning for humans) would be a huge win.

- augmented reality part II: e.g., the overlay question of the swastika on your business. I think there's some answer to how this will pan out via developing social media norms. I read a quote to the effect of "civilization figured out how to deal with plagues (when urbanizing), we'll figure out to deal with social media." I think (hope) people will adjust their perception of bombast, and gradually as the taboo-breaking value declines, so to will the general tenor of Twitter improve.

Biotech

- more on the cabbage front: even broader ubiquity, since these are all in the same genus as mustard. So worst vegetables, best condiment, same kind (...and actually, I like all the vegetables as well).

- bi-smelluation: this part of the interview feels like pure trivia, but the discussion is hilarious.

Economics

- subsidization discussion: interviewees didn't really bite on the problem, but I am glad they at least acknowledge the challenge.

Wrap-Up

- the tech risk issues: kind of disagree with worry about researchers considering risk / ethics, but I agree that giving no thought at all to the risk is dangerous. I think it was a previous econtalk episode where the interviewee essentially stated "let's figure out how to do this hard thing AT ALL first, before we obsess about avoiding all the risk" and that's where I sympathize. The other commenters are right about the pace being a big part of the problem -- slowly emerging technology == time for people to recognize problems, engineer around them. One addendum: depends on the problem timescale as well - fast failure modes easy to fix, while long running ones (e.g., slow evolution of atmospheric chemistry) complicate tweaking the technology before there's a huge infrastructure investment behind it.

- tech risk part II: I like the point about cultural evolution of dealing with risk (see previous note on emerging social media norms), and I had the same video game issue growing up (though to some extent it just displaced other harmful activities - probably teenagers are destined to be self-destructive with whatever is handy / their parents don't understand). I'm a bit less worried about the AI / human brain modification. There are lots of side benefits to IQ enhancements, not just further IQ enhancement, so it's not just signaling / status. I'm also not to worried about "no longer human" - I think we'd be unrecognizable to humans from more than 200-300 years ago today. Seems like not a big deal for that to shrink to roughly a human lifespan, though I'd probably start to be worried if the next generation was largely unrecognizable (many seem to think that already, however), as that might hamper transmission of knowledge between generations.

Dr Golabki writes:

On asteroid mining - generally agree that there isn't much practical reason for it except if you want to do other things in space (it's a means, not an end)... but wondered if Kelly and Zach had thought about harvesting solar energy in space as a plausible economic "end".

Hey Dr. Golabki, it's one of the authors -- we actually address that topic in the end of the book. Our basic conclusion is that it's probably a bad idea.

Roger Barris writes:

Another charming podcast. Thanks to all.

One observation: why was Russ so surprised that everything from brussel sprouts to kale comes from the same species? All dogs come from a single species: wolves. Yet the variability in dogs is probably even greater than in these veggies.

Selective breeding, particularly when combined with short reproductive cycles, is a very powerful thing.

Dr Golabki writes:

@ Zach WS

Thanks for the reply... I suppose we'll have to rely on our collective spirt of curiosity and adventure to justify space exploration... or maybe an eccentric multi billionaire or two will do.


Brian Mason writes:

I appreciated the discussion.

At the end was the obligatory negativism which is an entry ticket to most cocktail parties.

One author remarked that innovators are not thinking about downsides. Of course 99.99% of the population spend 80% of their time groping for downsides hence the cocktail parties.

Ken Bertagnolli writes:

For defense of the claim that brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and collard greens are all Brassica oleracea, listen to the Surprisingly Awesome podcast episode #6

https://gimletmedia.com/episode/6-broccoli/

[html fixed--Econlib Ed.]

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