Kelly and Zach Weinersmith Predict the Future
In their New York Times bestseller, Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith describe a future world of space elevators, brain-computer interfaces, and asteroid mining, in a manner that's totally accessible and terribly funny.
They bring that same engaging humor and excitement to the podcast -- making even the most science-challenged (aka me) feel a little smarter. Kelly is an adjunct assistant professor at Rice University in the BioSciences Department. She specializes in parasites (my old job!). Her husband, Zach, is a cartoonist, who is best known for his webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.
On the pod, they talk about future technologies that sound super cool and slightly scary and share some of the best writing advice I've heard in a while.
Jon: Well hello, everybody. Welcome back to Write About Now. I'm your host, Jonathan Small, and Write About Now is my podcast. It features in-depth interviews with top writers and literary types of all stripes talking about how they make a living writing and what they've learned along the way.
On today's episode I have Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, and they joined me to talk about their new book, Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That Will Improve or Ruin Everything.
Kelly and Zach are a lot of fun. Always good to talk to a married couple that somehow manages to stay married and write a book together. They're super interesting, and I'm going to talk to them about their predictions for the future. What is our life going to look like 25, 50 years from now? It will include some good news…
Kelly: You can give surgeons in countries that are far away from major medical centers these augmented reality glasses, and if they are in a situation where they have to do an emergency specialized surgery that they've never done before, the information can be put on their goggles.
Jon: …and we’ll also look at some of the more disturbing things that could happen, such as asteroid mining.
Kelly: If you have the technology to go out to the asteroids and capture them and move them around so that you could do mining stuff with them, then you also have the ability to go out to space, capture an asteroid, and maybe fling it at the Earth if you were pissed.
Jon: And of course, I'll ask the question that's on all our minds: what's going to happen to writing? Is technology and artificial intelligence going to be advanced enough at some point where writers aren't even necessary?
So as you can see, we cover quite a bit of information. I could have kept them on the phone for hours, but I had to respect the fact that they were East Coast time and they had just put their kids to sleep and were trying not to wake them up. So here, without further ado, are my guests Kelly and Zach Weinersmith.
Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, welcome to Write About Now.
Kelly: Thank you for having us. We're happy to be here.
Jon: I am so happy that you both are on the call. Loved your book, so can't wait to talk. First I just have to do a little bit of understanding of your last name. [laughs] Before I started recording, you explained to me that Kelly, your last name is Smith, and Zach, your last name is Weiner, and rather than doing the Weiner-Smith thing, you guys just combined it.
Kelly: We thought that was funnier. I had been publishing scientific papers as Kelly Smith, and there were actually literally over 100,000 papers by “K. Smith,” so I couldn’t find my scientific publications. There were thousands also by “K. Weiner,” and I didn't really want to take the last name Weiner unless it was going to clear up my science publishing problems.
It turned out that if you google – maybe she's not going to appreciate me saying this, but if you google “Weiner-Smith,” I believe there is a person whose last name is Weiner-Smith who I think is an obstetrician, which is hilarious because she’s helping people smith wieners. But anyway, we decided that if there was someone who had the hyphenated version, we might as well go with the 100% unique version and just smoosh them together.
Jon: I like it. Weinersmith. You just put things together. I like that. It’s a great name.
Kelly: Yeah. Whenever I go to the doctor, it's always like “Ms. Smith, Mr. Nguyen… Kelly.” Nobody wants to try to say “Weinersmith.” I'm always the only one in the room called by their first name, which cracks me up every time.
Jon: Zach, my last name is Small, so not an easy name to grow up with. Growing up with Weiner, tough name to grow up with? You have to be pretty tough when you grow up –
Zach: Yeah, I’m a very tough person. [laughs] Here’s the thing: you can't do anything with Weiner. You can only repeat it. I feel like the worst thing would be something that’s really close to Weiner that you have to keep correcting. Like “Weinder” or something. That would be worse. You’d have to correct people like, “No, it’s Wein-der!”
Jon: [laughs] I once knew a Richard Weiner, who was I guess Dick Weiner, which I always thought was really too bad. But anyway, that is another conversation for another time.
Kelly: Real quick, Zach's sister married a man whose last name is Johnson, and she went with “Weiner-Johnson.” She totally leaned in.
Jon: That is amazing.
Kelly: She won.
Jon: Yeah, she won the name battle. All right, so tell me both what you guys do when you're not writing amazing books. Kelly, we'll start with you. You are a professor and a scientist. You specialize in parasites, is that correct?
Kelly: That's correct. I'm an adjunct assistant professor at Rice University, and we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia so that I can start a small ecology research station that focuses on ecological parasitology – in particular, parasites that manipulate the behavior of their hosts into doing things that are bad for the host but good for the parasites, which is just my favorite thing in the world, actually, to talk and read about and study.
Jon: That’s incredible.
Kelly: So I'm doing more of that, but we're opening up a research station out here and that's why we're in Virginia instead of Houston.
Jon: That’s so cool. I do have one question about that. We'll get to the book, I promise. I promise we'll get to the book. But when I found out what your expertise was, this is something I've been wanting to ask somebody like you forever.
I read an article about five years ago about how cats have a parasite – toxoplasma gondii, is that what it's called, I believe? I went back and tried to find the article – that lives in their stomach. It's a parasite that must find its way back into a cat's stomach to survive, so the parasite has evolved in such a way that it will take over its host's brains to increase the likelihood that they'll be eaten by cats.
So basically there's a cat parasite that makes you love cats so that they'll lick you. The idea here was that there was a parasite that makes people love cats.
Kelly: You're like 50% correct. There is a parasite called toxoplasma gondii that lives in the guts of cats, and the cats poop into the environment and then it gets eaten by things like rats and mice. To me, the really interesting thing about this system is that rats go from being afraid of the smell of cat urine, which would be a good way to avoid areas where there's predators, to suddenly being attracted after they’re infected.
Zach: Erotically attracted.
Kelly: Erotically attracted. Usually when rats are uninfected and they smell cat urine, the parts of their brain that are associated with fear activate, but when they smell it when they're infected, the parts of their brain that are associated with sexual arousal turn on and they spend more time in that area and they just kind of walk around the cat urine.
That seems like a good way to get rats eaten by cats. No one has actually done a study allowing infected rats and uninfected rats to get eaten by cats to see who gets eaten more often. We all feel a little too squeamish for that. But the story is at least really nice, although there's definitely some studies where it doesn't work out, so there are some debates about how strong this effect is and when you see it.
But the human literature is more difficult because it's all correlations, where they do personality tests and look for correlations between whether or not someone is infected. But it could be the case that if you act in a certain way, you're more likely to get infected. In that case your behavior influenced your risk of infection as opposed to your behavior changing because you're infected. Does that make sense?
Jon: I see what you mean.
Zach: So crazy cat ladies get toxo, not toxo makes you a crazy cat lady.
Kelly: Yes. But also, the crazy cat lady story is not scientifically supported. It is not the case that people who are infected, as far as data shows at the moment, are more likely to have a lot of cats and hug cats and stuff like that. In particular, men who are infected find the smell of cat urine to be a little bit more attractive than uninfected men, but that effect does not show up in women. So the crazy cat lady story is debunked. There’s a little evidence for the crazy cat man.
Jon: I thought I was a crazy cat man until you told me that I had to be turned on by urine, which is not the case for me.
Kelly: Yeah, we may be uninfected. We're also not interested in that. [laughs]
Jon: Well, I'm sure there's a book coming on parasites, but we'll have to bring you back. Zach, tell me what you do. You're a comic book writer/illustrator. Are you also an academic?
Zach: No, no. I mean, we both do nerdy stuff, but I just draw comics.
Jon: I love your comics. They're awesome.
Zach: Thank you.
Jon: How did you get started in that? How did you make that into a profession?
Zach: I’d done comics for a long time just in college, and I actually had been trying to make a living in the Los Angeles film business. I don't know how much interaction you have with it.
Jon: Oh, I do. It's a dreadful, dreary place.
Zach: Yes, it's an evil monster – but with nice people I know who work in the belly of the monster.
For people who don't know, the thing you do when you go to LA and you don't have a friend who already has a Hollywood job is you try to work your way up to being assistant to somebody who has power. I got that job. I was an assistant to talent agents, and it was so utterly miserable that it just completely wiped out my desire to work in the business.
I was like, well, I do these comics and they do OK for me. Long story short, I decided to lean into that and it ended up becoming a better career than I had guessed.
Jon: Always follow your passion. So this book, Soonish – how did you guys collaborate on this? How does a married couple collaborate on writing a book?
Kelly: We often get people who phrase that question, “how miserable was it writing together?”
Zach: Yeah, “how awful?”
Kelly: It was pretty great because we have a pretty nice division of labor. For each topic, for each technology, for each chapter, one person was assigned to be the main person who did the research. That person would collect textbooks and scientific manuscripts and they’d do a bunch of reading and they’d write an initial draft, and then the other person would read the draft and point out where things were unclear or where they didn't understand the explanation.
Then they would go and do a little bit of extra reading of their own, and then I would do the interviews and add that interview information to the chapter. Then we'd throw the chapter back and forth a couple times to make sure we had said everything we wanted to say, and then Zach would go through and add jokes and then figure out where the comics should go.
Then we’d send it to our editor and to our friends and to various other people to try to catch scientific mistakes and make sure that the explanations made sense to people who weren't already familiar with the technology. Actually, it was a lot of fun.
Jon: How long did it take?
Kelly: Three years, two years?
Zach: I think we had 18 months to do it, but we had already completed some of the work when we did our initial pitch. If you don't count editing time, if you just count research to manuscript time, something like 20 months. We would rather do it a little more slowly. That was a bit breakneck.
Kelly: That was while I was starting a position at Rice and I was pregnant and Zach was working on his comics.
Jon: Oh my God.
Kelly: It was not our favorite two years of our life, but we're really happy with how the book came out. So we’d probably do it again.
Jon: So you sold the pitch, or you got an advance on it? Or was it something that was just a labor of love and then you got a deal later?
Zach: No – long story short, I have a literary agent who was like, “Give me some ideas.” This was the idea he really liked. We sent him a version of it after having done a few months of research as a pitch. Neither of us had written books like this, and we had to show that we could do it. Then he took that out, and there was a surprising amount of interest in it.
Jon: That's great. You both are not futurists. That is not your expertise, and yet you both have expertise in other things, but you chose to write about the future and what's coming. Is this just something that you guys have a passion for and talk about all the time? Why this subject matter?
Zach: That’s kind of true. We do mostly talk about nerd stuff anyway. There were lots of technologies we were interested in, but I feel like to really understand this stuff you have to go beyond the science articles, which are unfortunately often a bit misleading or overly enthusiastic about how likely something is.
This was a chance to just dig in and see what would happen. I feel like we offered some value in the sense that we're fairly skeptical people who are not devoted to some concept of the future. You know from the book, we built in a lot of caveats and “here’s why this might not work, or it would be awful anyway.” I feel like that was something we brought to the table.
Jon: Yeah, like you're outside. Also, you brought humor to the table. It's not written in any way like an academic book. Why was that important to you?
Zach: I feel like the fusion chapter is a good example of this. That's probably the most technically intimidating chapter for a reader. I feel like none of the actual concepts in that book are really that mind-bending. Taken as a whole maybe they are, but I feel like if you can tell a joke about this sort of stuff, it really takes the edge off for people.
I’ve found there’s a lot of science that if people would just relax, it’s really not that confusing. When you get it in your head that it's going to be really complicated and terrible, then it's harder to learn. The jokes offer some value there, I hope.
I think maybe even the jokes could function as a kind of check on your understanding, because a lot of them are inside jokes once you’ve understood a concept. So maybe there’s some value there too.
Jon: By the way, I do have to ask how a comic book illustrator with Hollywood aspirations met a professor of parasites at Rice University. Is there a story there that you're comfortable telling?
Kelly: Sure. So we both really liked free dating sites. He was actually going back to school for physics at San Jose State University, and I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of California Davis when we found each other on OK Cupid and we met up at the – what was it, the Body Worlds exhibit?
Zach: Yeah, plasticized bodies.
Jon: Nothing says romance – yeah. [laughs]
Kelly: Yeah, and it was just love at first sight. [laughs] It’s all been uphill from there.
Jon: That's awesome. So you chose these 10 areas that you wanted to focus on, and I'm curious why those 10 areas, because there's so many different things if you're going to predict the future that you can focus on. There isn't a chapter on, say, driverless cars, but there is a chapter on rockets and space elevators and that kind of thing, augmented reality. How did you choose the topics that you chose?
Kelly: It was a tough balance to strike. We started with a list of 50 technologies, and actually the initial book was going to be either 50 or 25 technologies explained briefly, but we ended up thinking that we could do no better than writing the funny version of a Wikipedia article if we tried to get that many technologies in one book. So we decided we would pick 10.
We tried to pick 10 that didn't have too much overlap. In the conclusions, in the Graveyard of Lost Chapters, we talk about how we ended up losing the chapter on advanced prosthetics because it ended up being too much like the chapter on brain computer interfaces because that's an important part of making good advanced prosthetics. So that chapter unfortunately got dumped.
We tried to find technologies that were fairly different from one another, were likely to have major impacts on our lives if they worked out, and then were not so new that you couldn't be sure if it was totally crazy and not so far along that all that was left to figure out was details, which is sort of less exciting to explain to people. We tried to hit the sweet spot there. We also picked 10 technologies that we thought we could stand reading about for at least a month.
Jon: Yeah, you had to be interested in it yourself, otherwise it’d make you crazy. You definitely do some disclaimers in the beginning, like “most of these predictions probably won't come true.” You make a joke, as you guys do so well. But have you ever thought what percentage of these might actually come true?
Zach: I’d have to go case by case. There were two that actually partially came true as we were submitting our manuscript.
Jon: What were those?
Zach: As you mentioned, we have a chapter on augmented reality. The really exciting versions of augmented reality, those really haven't happened yet. Certainly not at a consumer level. But Pokémon came along as we were doing our manuscript, so we had to actually reincorporate it into that chapter. Pokémon Go, I mean, the AR stuff.
The other one was – we have this whole chapter on ways to get to space that would make space access a lot cheaper. The least crazy way is reusable rockets, which at the time we started writing I think had not been successfully done. Then partway through, SpaceX managed to stick the landing on a couple of booster phases, and now they’ve done it countless times. So we had to revise that chapter as well.
So I could place a 100% bet on a couple of the technologies in the book.
Jon: That are actually going to happen, yeah. You have identified two technologies I'd love to dive into a little bit more deeply.
Let's start with augmented reality. Actually, this is interesting because I just came back from the Consumer Electronics Show, CES, in Las Vegas, where they showcase a lot of these newfangled – I kept thinking, “You think this is the future? I've been reading this book, and I really know what's coming.”
But augmented reality was definitely there to some degree, at least in a consumer-facing version of it. One of the things I did – and I don't remember the name of the company, but I did put on a pair of glasses that were just as ugly as Google Glass and just as douchebag-y, and they had me walk by different areas. There was one area that was like a fake store, and then in my peripheral vision I saw the name of the store. Let’s say it was a restaurant – what they provide, how much would be. I also went to a grocery store and it would tell me each product, what it costs, and then I could scan it in my glasses.
The idea was that it was augmenting my reality somewhat, but the augmented reality that you talk about is different. Do you foresee people walking around with either glasses or – I think you guys even said contact lenses – that augment the reality around them? Do you think that's definitely going to happen?
Kelly: It's hard to say what final form it's going to take. When Google Glasses first came out, I think people thought that was going to really take off, and then it turned out, like you said, that everyone thinks that when you wear Google Glasses you look like a douchebag. I think it was the CEO of Meetup.com who said that if he ever saw someone wearing Google Glasses on the street, he was literally going to punch them in the face.
But you can imagine contact lenses – maybe they're uncomfortable or maybe for some reason the visual experience that they're able to give you isn't quite as good as glasses, so maybe it'll end up looking like a normal pair of glasses that have just been teched up so that they're much cooler.
It's hard to predict what the final form is going to take. I don't think you'll know until a lot of versions have been tried out and you've seen what the public settles on, which is hard to predict.
Jon: You had talked about some uses of augmented reality that have even been either discussed or even tested.
Kelly: There's a company called DAQRI that's working augmented reality into construction visors. This is a very useful way of working augmented reality in because with augmented reality you need a screen on which you input the information, and then you need a place to store the computer. If you're wearing a hardhat, the nice thing is you can store all of the computational stuff in the hardhat itself, and then the visor is a nice big area where you can display anything that you want the user to be able to see.
These helmets are being used for training for very specific technical tasks. Instead of having someone read a manual and then try to figure out what to do, maybe on the visor there'll be an arrow that points to “this is the screw that you need to screw next, and then the next step is you pick up this tool and you go right over here.” You can get much more specific instructions.
We talked to a woman named Gaia at DAQRI. I don't know if this ended up being published, but I think that they worked with Boeing on some technical skill, and the people who were using the DAQRI visor had much higher success rates right off the bat. Of course, you don't want there to be any mistakes with your airplane.
So the idea here is just that you can make people learn quicker and be much less likely to make mistakes with their technical jobs, and of course that's great.
Then there's also some ideas where you can give surgeons in countries that are far away from major medical centers these augmented reality glasses and if they are in a situation where they have to do an emergency specialized surgery that they've never done before, the information can be put on their goggles or on their glasses so that they can see, “OK, the next cut is here.” Maybe a specialist in a different country can actually be guiding you through it using the augmented glasses.
These are different ways that our lives can be safer using augmented reality.
Jon: These are very noble, this positive side of any technology. But there's always a negative side too that comes out of any new technology, disruptive technology. What would you imagine or what in your research would you imagine are – if I were to put on a pair of augmented classes at the Consumer Electronics Show in 25 years, do you have any idea what it might reveal to me?
Zach: There’s a couple things that are potentially worrisome, mostly pertaining to privacy. Part of why Google Glasses made you get punched in the face by the CEO of Meetup.com is the same reason you would get punched in the face if you walked into a bar with your phone camera on and pointed it forward and just walked around the whole bar with it. Someone's going to punch you in the face, and I think it's probably obvious to everybody why.
That might get a bit resolved if you have a contact lens one because then people just can't tell if you're wearing it, but then the consequence of that is you imagine everyone in that bar is wearing a contact lens at any time, and all the data from those lenses – maybe someday it’s sound in addition to vision, and maybe that visual information is extremely in-depth in 25 years – you can imagine a world where anyone who wants to can reconstruct every corner of that bar, every little thing that was happening.
I guess maybe from a law enforcement perspective that's good. Anytime someone thinks a crime was committed, you can reconstruct every location on Earth. But there are obvious scary implications.
The way I like to think about it is everybody does little things they would like not to be public, whether they're illegal things or just personally embarrassing things or what have you. If you imagine a world where even a trusted third party, like if you trust Google, even that's uncomfortable, because in potential they have enormous power over you. So there's that.
There's additionally something we talk about a little bit, which is it potentially changes the structure of human relationships. We talk about a trivial example which already exists now, which is when someone says “happy birthday” on Facebook, it kind of means less because you know they were prompted to do it. It could be your really good friend did know, but there’s this kind of taint on it because you know they got a prompt.
You can imagine a world where everyone's got like a Heads Up display all the time, so if someone says “I brought you these flowers because I know you like them,” you don't know – do they really remember it, or is it in the Heads Up display? And by the way, does it matter? Do we care?
A slightly darker version of that we talked about is one thing American soldiers sometimes have to do in other countries is try to understand local languages and interpersonal relationships. You can imagine a world where the soldiers got a Heads Up display so that they know who they're talking to has these kin relations, these social relationships, etc.
Jon: It's very Terminator. It reminds me a lot of Terminator.
Zach: Right. It’s very depersonalizing. One thing – I can’t remember if we actually included this in the book or not. It’s been an uncomfortable topic, but part of why people get PTSD is just seeing the faces of other people in combat. You can imagine a Heads Up display device that erases that out or replaces it. Obviously nobody's in favor of people having PTSD, but on the other hand, eliminating the grotesque aspects of bad things is not clearly desirable, let’s say.
Jon: Yeah, I think what you're talking about – and I wanted to ask you about that – is something that you talk about, “diminished reality” as opposed to augmented reality and the idea that you there is some technology that will diminish certain things that might be uncomfortable.
Of course, the danger of that is that you're diminishing things that are important, like that car that's about to hit me, or I think you mentioned homeless people. What about if you said, “I don't want to see homeless people when I go out for a walk.”
Zach: Yeah. I assume when you say diminished reality, most of your audience is thinking this is dystopia stuff, so let me give the upside of diminished reality.
There are certain people – perhaps this is part of what's going on with autistic people who are sort of over-experiencing reality. They’re having a too-intense experience of reality. Or you can imagine, going back to people with PTSD, people who have PTSD and hear fireworks clearly have a legitimate, non-concerning reason to diminish their reality a bit, for medical or personal reasons. I don't think there's any negative side to that.
But yeah, as you say, you can imagine just, “Boy, there's a lot of social blight in my town. I'm just going to turn the knob on my visor and now I feel great about the way the government is doing welfare.”
Jon: Yeah. I also just wonder – it’d just be interesting to see, having this thing in your peripheral vision all the time – it's already dangerous enough that we walk around with our faces in our phones. Always having this other reality that we're walking around with is just bizarre. But it's hard for us to understand, I guess, what it's going to feel like in 20-30 years.
Zach: I think that's really important. You go back 100 years, it's an open question whether it's OK to take a photo and have people in the background. We don't think about it anymore. You go to Disney World, you take photos, and there are people in the background and whatever. There was a time when that was like, “Hey, are you violating all these people's privacy?” They wouldn’t have said it that way, but that’s the basic implication. Now we’re just cool with it.
There’s a similar thing going on now. Nowadays if you're like 20 and you're feeling depressed, you post about it on Facebook. To me, that's a little weird. I'm almost 37, so to me that's a little weird but I get it. To my parents, it's baffling, the idea that you would be feeling these strong emotions and therefore the thing you do is post in a public forum to people, some of whom you barely know. To them that's weird. But someone under 20, I think that's not even something you think about. It’s just normal behavior. You might choose to reject it, but it's just the current cultural offering.
So you can imagine maybe in 70 years it's like, well of course we’re all walking around with Heads Up displays and we know everybody's business all the time. That's just the way life works.
Jon: Yeah, that's interesting. All right, let's talk about space travel. What is the problem right now in science that doesn't enable us to go to Mars in an inexpensive way? It's very, very expensive to do space travel. That's one of the big barriers to entry.
Kelly: Yeah, one of the main problems right now is on average it costs about $10,000 per pound of stuff that you want to send to space. With a lot of our rockets – it's been long enough since we wrote the chapter that I don't remember the numbers. I think if you look at a rocket, by mass it's 4% cargo that you're going to send up into space. What is it, 85%…?
Zach: Yeah, if you look at a rocket – there's some variants here, but you're looking at about 80% fuel, like the stuff you burn up, the gas in the tank. About 16% is the machine of the rocket, and then 4% – and this is really lean, this is like a really high performance rocket we're talking about here – 4% is going to be stuff that actually goes to space to do stuff you want it to do in space.
By the way, since you mentioned Mars, that 4% is just for low Earth orbit. That's just for going a few hundred miles around the planet at high speed. The Apollo missions, it was closer to 1.5% I believe, to go just out to the moon. Mars is obviously quite a bit farther, so for a Mars mission I don't know what the number would be.
The way I like to think about it, when you're sitting there looking at this skyscraper-high thing, you are mostly looking at stuff that's going to be exploded on the way up.
Kelly: But the nice thing about the stuff that's going to be exploded on the way up is that that part is relatively cheap. The expensive part of that rocket is the actual physical rocket structure.
One of the ways that SpaceX is driving those costs down is that – what we used to do is we'd essentially shoot all that stuff up into the sky and then we’d drop the rocket into the ocean, which would be sort of similar to taking a flight from LA to Japan and as you get into Japan you just let the airplane fall into the ocean as everybody jumps out and sets out their parachutes.
What SpaceX is doing now is they're recovering parts of the rocket, refurbishing it, and using it again. For a while it wasn't clear if that was going to be a really great strategy because we tried to, for example, reuse the Space Shuttle. But the cost of refurbishing the U.S. Space Shuttle ended up being extremely high, which is one of the reasons that the Space Shuttle program ended up getting closed down at one point. Having this reusable vehicle didn't end up being that cheap after you factored in the cost of refurbishing.
But it looks like SpaceX is able to recover parts of their rockets, refurbish them, and use them again and actually drive costs down quite a bit that way. So they’ve proved that this is a viable method for driving costs down. But the extent to which they can continue to drive costs down is just going to be a fun thing to watch in the future.
Jon: Yeah. The other technology that you bring up is this idea of space elevators. I don't totally understand that. Can you explain it to me in layman's terms? You're very good at layman's terms. I've heard this concept, and it sounds crazy, and yet it sounds like it's possible.
Kelly: The idea is you have a platform somewhere in the ocean, and up from that platform is a really, really, really long cable. You want to get that cable long enough and moving fast enough so that it essentially keeps track with the Earth. So as the Earth rotates, the cable tracks with the Earth instead of wrapping around the Earth like thread around a spool.
Up that cable, you have an elevator that clings to the cable and is able to climb up it. By doing this, the people who work on space elevator ideas claim that you can get the cost down to something like $200 per pound of stuff to bring it up to space. What you’d do is you'd load up the elevator, you'd get up to space, you'd release your satellites. You could bring people up and it would be a relatively pleasant trip. You could get up there pretty quickly, pretty safely.
That's the current idea, and once you have one up there, it's easier to do another one because you can just drop the spool from the elevator and start a new space elevator. Does that make sense?
Jon: It totally makes sense. It's funny because it’s a very sci-fi idea but yet very primitive because you have all these cables hanging from space. I would imagine there would be thousands of these cables. It just seems like, can’t we do it digitally or something? I don't know. [laughs] It's like a cord on a phone or something. I don't know. But it's fascinating, the idea that you would be in these little – I guess you would be in a pod or something?
Zach: Yeah. The main reason this is exciting, as weird as it sounds, is – like we said, 80% of your rocket is fuel.
The analogy we like to use is imagine you had to drive on one tank of gas of any size you want from Alaska to Argentina, but you only get to gas up once. You can imagine that tank is going to be enormous. The way to think about it is the hardest part is going to be the first mile because most of your ability to turn those tires is going to move this giant tank you're taking with you.
That's basically what rockets have to do because there's no gas station on the way up. Whereas with a space elevator, you're not actually carrying anything but cargo. You could even beam the energy or possibly send it up the cable. That's questionable.
But yeah, in a way it feels low tech. The high tech part comes in with this – what we like to call the middle part is the hard part, the middle 100,000-kilometer-long cable, because you have to have a very, very special material. You ever see one of those Superman movies where it’s Superman's hair and it's holding up like a million pound weight?
Zach: That's basically what you need. There are a couple of things going on. The actual thing you need is what's called specific strength, and strength in a physics context just means how hard can you thwack it before it breaks. Specific means you're dividing by something.
Essentially what you need is something that's really, really, really strong but also really, really, really lightweight, because you can have some really strong like titanium or steel, but they’re brittle and heavy.
It turns out there's this thing called carbon nanotubes which are just these little – well, they don't have to be little – these molecular honeycombs of carbon atoms. It turns out they have extremely high specific strength. We're just really bad at making them. We can make them about a foot and a half long so far – no one's done much better – and we need them to be 100,000 kilometers long with no errors. [laughs]
Jon: Somebody’s going to figure it out. It's not something that you could snip, like some guy could go up in his space vehicle and just snip the wire with a wire snipper or whatever?
Zach: No, you could. This is part of the problem. Ideally you’d want – I think most people imagine if you had one of these, you'd have to have extreme security around it. You’ve got to consider the stuff on the way up that could break it.
This is part of why it's tough, because it's not just a cable hanging. It's a cable that's hanging through the cold of space into the windy upper atmosphere, not to mention the ionosphere, which is perhaps charging it up with electricity or with electrons or with ions, anyway. Then it has to go down here where it's on Earth, it's moist and warm. It has to endure all these different conditions, and the tension created in the single cable by these different conditions can create all sorts of weird stuff.
My understanding is it’s even hard to model. You can imagine – just as a situation you might not instantly contemplate – if the upper part of the cable is getting ions from the sun, it's going to charge up while the lower part of the cable is not. So you're going to have this charge difference perhaps on your cable, which could create all sorts of weird fields. Oh, and you should tell the lightning thing.
Jon: What’s the lightning thing?
Kelly: It turns out that if the cable gets struck by lightning, that could cause the cable to disintegrate. It would be very bad if it got struck by lightning. I was talking to someone at NIAC, the NASA Advanced Innovative Concepts. They do all the awesome stuff. Anyway, they said lightning could be a big problem for the space elevator cable.
The solution – and this is a very not-satisfying solution – is that there is a place in one of the oceans, I think the Pacific Ocean –
Zach: Near Ecuador, I believe.
Kelly: Where no lightning has been recorded by any of our devices in the history in which we’ve recorded these things. So the idea would be you put the space elevator there and hope that it never gets lightning in the future – which in this time of global climate change, when things are changing, is a dicey proposition.
There's also some proposals where you could make it so the platform moves, so if a storm comes your way you could try to get the elevator out of the way. But that would be a pretty tense moment, I think. But anyway, just the idea to me that we would put a space elevator somewhere and hope that our weather predictions were accurate is a little…
Jon: I think you've just written next year's blockbuster Hollywood film. Lighting’s going to strike, you're trapped on this elevator. Not for claustrophobic people, by the way, the space elevator.
What other technologies were you blown away by? There was a ton that I was blown away by. I'm just curious, in doing the research for the book, some of the things you were like “whoa, that is cool.”
Zach: For me, I found the section on brain computer interfaces really enthralling. Very quickly, brain computer interfaces are what they sound like. They're interfaces between brains and computers that you might want for all sorts of purposes.
You have simple versions of these, mostly for medical applications. You can put a device in your brain that will help mitigate seizures. Perhaps also, there's some evidence that you can use these devices, under only extreme circumstances, to help with severe depression and that sort of thing.
But the future-y version, as you can imagine, is augmenting your memory or your intelligence or pretty much anything cognitive you can imagine enhancing. You can also imagine doing things that you just can't do that computers can do, like downloading your brain states, that sort of thing. Also communication between brains. All sorts of weird stuff.
There's obviously a lot of weird implications. Part of why I find this idea really engaging is because there's a weird economic structure it creates. I don't know how you feel about this. I'm not itching to get a brain implant, even if it promises me whatever it is, 5 more IQ points or a slightly better memory. I’m not going forward it.
But I’m a cartoonist. You can imagine a brain implant comes out that makes you 20% cleverer and everybody else is willing to use it, so suddenly everyone’s like “Boy, Zach’s comics are just not what they used to be.” Now all of a sudden I'm really obligated to get the brain implant.
It’s not so tragic when it’s a cartoonist, but if you can imagine every office worker is forced to compete with Bob who's willing to get the focus implant put in…
Jon: Yeah. But also it becomes an economic thing, that if you can upgrade your brain because you have money – it becomes a class thing too.
Zach: Exactly. It's a class thing, but it's also just there's almost no resisting it. I think we cite this in the book. If you survey elite academics – so to speak, people who really have to use their brains more than cartoonists, let’s say – I want to say 20% will admit to using brain enhancing drugs already, which in many cases there are not long-term studies to show what dangers they’re risking.
So people are apparently already willing to risk bodily damage in order to enhance their brains to gain economic advantage. I think probably anyone who's listening who's interacted with academia can tell anecdotes about that sort of thing. You can imagine a world where that's just the competition – who's willing to do more.
To give you a really dystopic example, there was a proposal that we read that was not meant to be a bad thing. The idea was – we can already do this – you can detect lapse in focus. You can detect when people are daydreaming. So the idea was hey, if you have people working, you can detect if they’re lapsing in focus. For anyone who’s ever had an OK office job, that sounds like a literal waking nightmare. [laughs]
But quickly, the good version of that is if you have a jet pilot or a surgeon, maybe you do feel like someone ought to be watching to make sure they're not daydreaming.
But you can imagine a world where the irresistible economic structure is just to be a regular office temp, you have to give access to your brain information to your boss because someone else is willing to do it. There needs to be some sort of legal structure in place if you want to avoid that.
Jon: Yeah. Was there any technology that kind of scared you? At the end of every chapter you have a section called “Concerns,” where you raise some concerns about the different technology. We already talked about augmented reality and the potential dangers there with privacy; was there one that you were like, “Ooh God, if that got in the wrong hands, that could be not good”?
Kelly: I think for just about every chapter except for bioprinting, there were some pretty massive, serious potential negative implications that freaked us out.
But I think the one that freaked me out the most is probably asteroid mining. The idea with asteroid mining is that there are these asteroids out there. Specifically there's a belt of them past Mars, and they have a bunch of resources that maybe we would want either because we can collect them and bring them back to Earth or we could use them to build space bases and go out and explore the universe using the resources we extract from them.
All of that is exciting, but then of course, if you have the technology to go out to the asteroids and capture them and move them around so that you could do mining stuff with them, then you also have the ability to go out to space, capture an asteroid, and maybe fling it at the Earth if you were pissed.
At the moment, the people who go into space have passed stringent psychological tests that presumably weed out most of the type of people that you wouldn't want in space having that kind of power – although we’ll note that those psychology tests aren't completely foolproof. Perhaps you remember the story of the astronaut who drove across the country in diapers to try to kill her lover's partner or something, who was also an astronaut.
Anyway, they don't get it right all the time, and once you have a lot of different countries up there, you can imagine you could get the wrong person up there who now has the ability to fling asteroids – which may be worse than slinging, for example, a nuclear weapon at a country. If a nuclear weapon is heading towards your country, you can shoot a missile at it and try to blow it up in an area that would be better – for example, over the ocean. Essentially these are finicky devices, and if you blow it up in the right way, the damage it causes could still be extreme but could be much less extreme.
But there's not much you can do when a gigantic hunk of metal is coming towards your country. It's not easy to move it off course. This is physics, and you can't do much to fight against physics in this case.
So anyway, we thought that was potentially scary. It’s something that we hadn’t previously dealt with.
Jon: That is scary. Thank you. Thank you for haunting my dreams.
Kelly: Yeah, good luck sleeping. That's going to be the next blockbuster: what happens when North Korea makes it to the asteroid belt?
Jon: And they started flinging asteroids. Ay yi yi.
One of the things I was thinking about was what's going to happen to writing? The profession of writing as a writer – and you guys are writers as well. Is technology and artificial intelligence going to be advanced enough at some point where writers aren't even necessary? I've heard that already there is artificial intelligence that's writing articles. Have you come across any research about that? Just to terrify my listeners. [laughs]
Zach: Yeah. We didn't go too much into AI personally, because it's explored in other books. But yeah, I'm familiar with – there are articles written by AI, but they tend to be stock reports or sports report, which, if you've heard them, they're pretty routine anyway. You probably could have automated that 70 years ago. That doesn't take ultra-advanced AI.
I'd like to think at least something like – part of what you're doing with writing is surprising people. I feel like by the time you can automate that, I don't know what other professions haven't already succumbed. I don't think people who write for a living are the best, smartest people in the universe – maybe some are – but our job is probably pretty hard to automate because it depends on being a bit mysterious or it won't work.
Jon: Especially humor.
Zach: Right, humor in particular. As a way to think about it, humor in particular requires you to really understand human brains.
You can imagine if tomorrow we met aliens, it's very easy for me to imagine them having something like drama or tragedy or a comedy, like the broad idea of wanting something and then not getting it or wanting something and then getting it, which is what comedy is in a broad sense.
But the idea of telling a joke, which really relies on setting up a human expectation and then changing it, that I don't believe a random alien species would get. They wouldn't get why you find this joke from Monty Python funny. They would get the general idea of comedy, but it would be hard to explain a particular bit of humor. That I think is particular to humans.
To be clear, I'm a materialist about this. I don't see any reason why a robot brain couldn't be made to eventually do humor. I just think by the time it happens, you’ve replicated human brains completely and we're in some weird, totally alien universe anyway.
Jon: Yeah. I know that this point is brought up in some other books, like Sapiens and stuff – the idea that maybe eventually science will bring us to another kind of being, like past the homosapien, a sort of next iteration of something that's not quite human.
Zach: Sure. I mean, why not? There is a part where we talk about very briefly – as you mentioned, we have a section where we talk about why each technology would be really important.
In the brain computer interfaces section, we talk about how it's hard to predict the future because it's so alien. So to speak, you can imagine a world where everyone's impossibly smart, like not just Einstein smart, but like 20 times Einstein smart with perfect recall of everything that's ever happened to them and whatever else. It's hard to conceptualize a brain like that, and it’s thus much harder to conceptualize a society of brains like that.
In an interview Kelly had, there was one guy, Dr. Schalk, who wants to network all human brains into some mega-brain, and that is yet harder to contemplate. So I think, yeah, probably there are things beyond us.
Jon: Even if you think of when we were kids, imagining that you would have this thing that you could hold in your hand that was a phone but it was also a camera and a mini computer – I don't think we could have even conceived of that.
Although, to his credit, in 1993 I went to – I used to be a magazine editor. Bill Gates was giving a talk to magazine editors, and he said, “One day you will be walking around with these little pads and you'll be able to get every magazine on this pad, and all your newspapers.” I was like, “Heh.” We were all like, yeah, how's that going to work? This is pre-internet. It was like, oh my God, he was right.
Kelly: Spot on.
Jon: He didn't invent that one, though. [laughs]
Kelly: Missed opportunity there.
Jon: A missed opportunity. Well, this has been so fascinating. You guys are great. How did you learn to be such good writers? Have you been writing all your lives, both of you?
Kelly: I spent most of my time doing science writing, and this is very different. Part of it was just sending it to a lot of people who could tell you “this is way too jargon” or like “you haven't found the right level here.”
So the help of friends and other experts who checked on stuff was super important, and then also it was very helpful to have a writing partner that you could send chapters back and forth to, to try to figure out what was working.
Other than that, I think it's just writing for years. What is your trick to being so hilarious?
Zach: [laughs] The real trick is you should be reading all the time and stealing from everyone. That’s the secret.
Jon: Yeah, you can't be a good writer without being a big reader.
Zach: And you should be reading what other people are not reading. I think that's very important.
Jon: What do you mean by that?
Zach: As you know, at any given time there's a subset, like there was a whole year where everyone was pretending to read Thomas Piketty and his economic analysis. And that's great, but if you want to be someone writing something surprising, just try to find authors that are maybe a bit forgotten.
That sounds like it’s hard to do, but it’s really not. If you read organically, you'll read one novel and some character will mention some other novel that was popular at the time that novel was written, and you’ll find you just bump into all sorts of weird stuff. Or just walk around the library.
Kelly: Mary Roach is the example of this. Mary Roach seems to be interviewing people that other people aren't talking about and reading things that other people aren’t reading. Maybe you’ve read five or ten different pop-sci articles about what you can do with dead bodies, but you haven't read what Mary Roach has found out about this topic. She has a fresh view on it because she's just read stuff that other people haven't read and talked to people other people haven’t talked to.
For each of the tech topics that we covered, we tried not to read the pop-sci articles about it. We tried to read all of the original literature because in the original literature you find funny little tidbits or funny little tangents that you can go off on for the note benes, and maybe you can offer the readers something that they haven't seen before because you read broadly and deeply from the original literature.
So we tried to do that and tried to not read pop-sci articles so we wouldn't get caught in the trap of talking about what has been discussed a lot about these technologies already. Hopefully we did an okay job with that.
Jon: You did. That's really interesting advice. I never heard that before, to read – because basically everybody reads the same newspapers, the same magazines, of a certain educational level. I mean, if you're in New York, everybody’s reading the New York Times. So it's like everybody's reading the same thing.
Yeah, maybe shake it up. Read the Des Moines Register or read a book by Balzac or – I don't know. Yeah, that's cool.
Jon: I love that. I love ending with an instructional tip. Thank you so much for your time. I'm glad that we were able to do this call and your kids are still asleep and we didn't even wake them up during the call, which is terrific.
Kelly: Thanks for having us. We had a lot of fun.
Jon: Are there any other books in your future, or is this it?
Zach: I am about to put out a graphic novel. I hesitate to mention it because it's kind of controversial and political.
Jon: Oh, cool.
Zach: OK, good. [laughs]
Jon: I love it.
Zach: I’m working with an economist. I'm really just an illustrator who added some jokes and some – well, not worth getting into. But anyway, my co-author and I are putting out a book advocating a completely open immigration policy via comic book. So that's the next thing I'm working on. And then we're kicking around ideas for another pop-science book.
Jon: An open immigration policy via comic book. So you're advocating for it via comics, like what it might look like.
Zach: Yeah. For people who don't know, comics is actually a genre that – I've been surprised to know people don't even know this exists – there's such a thing as what are sometimes called explainer comics. If you happen to have come across them, the classic version are by Larry Gonick. They’re called A Cartoon History of the Universe or A Cartoon History of the Modern World or something like that.
Jon: Oh, I didn't even know these. Now I want to – I have one of hip-hop. I think there’s one for hip-hop?
Zach: Yeah, yeah, I know what you're talking about. Yeah, the idea is essentially you just use the medium of comics to tell – in the same way you would normally take 200 or 300 pages to tell a story, you instead make an argument using visuals.
Actually, it sounds kind of silly to make a serious argument with a comic book. Some of that is the American prejudice against comic books. But it can be really useful. For a book about immigration, there are a lot of charts. There are a lot of graphs involved. Comics handle that very naturally.
Also, one thing comics do elegantly is handle tone, so you can say something – as you imagine, there's a lot of sensitive stuff in a book like this, even stuff that's not controversial politically. You're dealing with issues of people of different ethnic backgrounds coming together, so you can imagine there's some topics that get a bit fraught.
But if you can put a character who’s saying these topics and you can have their visual expression, you can inform the audience that they should relax and you're just trying to have a conversation with them. So I think for certain things, comics can be very adept.
It also helps that a comic book is a really whole experience in the sense that most people will just sit down – like with a graphic novel, you can read the whole thing in two hours. You get the whole argument. For something that would be the equivalent of let’s say a 30 page in-depth essay, it's really nice to do as a graphic novel.
Jon: That is really interesting. I want to bring you on when that comes out and just talk about the whole process of writing graphic novels because I feel like the graphic novel thing – I missed it. Maybe it's because I’m older. All the people who I know who were really into it are all super successful, either writing graphic novels or being inspired by graphic novels to write films. I was like, damn it, I missed it! The one thing. [laughs]
Zach: This is a whole conversation, but the short version is Europe in general has better comics – and I’m not a Europe snob, I’m not obnoxiously – I like Velveeta. I’m perfectly American.
Jon: [laughs] OK, well if you like Velveeta.
Zach: The deal is, in the U.S. – and I'm won’t go into this because it's a whole other conversation, but basically in the U.S., by threat of Congress, we made comics terrible in the ’50s.
If you want the key word to look up, look up Dr. Fredric Wertham. This is a whole forgotten bit of history, that comics basically got censored and turned into – I mean, this is not to insult people who like men in spandex fighting evil, but there’s a reason the entire genre is dominated by that sort of thing, and it goes back to this incident in the ’50s, whereas in other countries comics naturally became more adult to tell more like series.
Jon: Like Japan, yeah. OK, I know where my next podcast is coming. I'm going to keep in touch with you about that, because I would love to bring you on and talk to you about writing graphic novels.
Thank you both for writing this book, Soonish. It's a great book, and I recommend everybody pick it up and read it. We just touched the surface. Have a great night.
Zach: Yeah, you too. Thanks very much.
Kelly: Thanks, you too. Thanks for having us on. Glad you liked the book.
Ella: Thank you for listening to Write About Now, hosted by my dad, Jonathan Small. If you like the podcast, you can find more information at writeaboutnewmedia.com. To subscribe, go to Apple Podcasts, Overcast, CastBox, or Google Podcasts. Also check out my dad’s Facebook page, Write About Now Podcast.
My name is Ella, and as always, I encourage you to do the write thing! Hey, do the write thing.