Jason Silva is something of a professional mind-blower (mind-blowist?), though the more refined term “Futurist” is probably more useful. Though his endeavors in filmmaking, TV hosting, magazine contributing, public speaking, and all-around technology punditry, Silva has become a key name in a new generation of futurists. This puts him in a lineage that includes the likes of Timothy Leary, Kurzweil, I.J. Good, and Syd Mead (the most recognizable for film fans, as Mead helped design movies like Tron and Blade Runner). More specifically it means he’s a guy that’s contributed to a dozen publications, including Wired, hosted popular shows like Brain Games on NatGeo, lectured at TED conferences, and created the YouTube channel, “Shots of Awe.”
Ostensibly I spoke to Silva about Robocop, MGM’s remake of the Verhoeven classic (which hits theaters today, February 12th, 2014), though you’ll see that Silva is like a philosophical freight train. He speaks in an idea-dense stream of consciousness that inevitably barrels towards the biggest ideas, and it’s tough not to follow him there.
From nanotech to 3D printing to Robotic cops, we broach a lot of topics here, including the always-interesting discussion of what responsibility scifi bears in our ever-changing world.
I hope you enjoy it, and thanks as always to the fine folks who hook me up with these unique interviews.
Renn Brown: Let’s start off. So, my understanding is that Robocop folks have brought you in recently to talk about what the movie deals with and how what we have going on in the real world could lead to similar scenarios.
Jason Silva: Yeah, exactly. I was brought onboard as a sort of- to help them in communicating the relevancy and the realism of some of the ideas that are being explored in the film’s context. And I have a series of short films on the Internet that explore the coevolution of humans and technology, and I basically explore the way in which we use technology to extend the boundaries of the mind, to extend the boundaries of cognition, to extend the boundaries of our intelligence. And I guess you could say that my work helps to popularize the ideas of thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly, who talk about technology as our second skin, as our scaffolding, as our exoskeleton so to speak.
And one of the main ideas that I try to put out there is to try to explain to people the implications of exponential change, because a lot of the times I think people will see a film or a premise like the movie Robocop and they’ll think: “Yeah, that sounds cool, but it’ll never happen. It’ll happen in a hundred years or two hundred years. It’s not relevant to today.” But that’s actually not true at all. And the reason is that most people – we’ve inherited these brains that are a hundred thousand years old in design, and our brains intuitively only think in a linear and local way. But technology, in our counterintuitive fashion, actually evolves at an exponential rate, and so one of the examples I use to tell people what that means in the context of how advanced these technologies are becoming is: if you take thirty linear steps – you know, one, two, three, four, five -, you get to thirty.
If you take thirty exponential steps, you’ll go two, four, eight, sixteen. By step thirty you’ll be at a billion, and that is the reason why the cellphone in your pocket today is a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful than what used to be a 16-million-dollar super computer that would have been inside a building forty years ago. So, what used to be half a building now fits in your pocket. In the next 25 years what fits in your pocket is going to be the side of a blood cell interfacing with your biological neurons.
So, the whole idea of like symbiosis between man and machine, the idea that we are smack in the middle between the born and the made actually becomes all of a sudden that much more relevant, because it points to a deepening symbiosis between us and our tools in erratic lock-mentation of what it means to be human. Now, granted in a film like Robocop, there’s going to be the cautionary tale element.
Jason Silva: There’s going to be the conflict element because that makes for a good story. I get that and I think that’s fine, and I also think the people need to understand that technology has always been a double-edge sword. You know, it extends and amputates at the same time. You know, you can use perhaps the greatest technology of all, the alphabet, to compose Shakespearean sonnets, but you can also use it to create hate-speech propaganda and move armies to hurt each other. So, even language potential is dangerous if used in the wrong hands.
But I guess my sort of bigger meta-point is that I’m interested in the ways these technologies extend our capacities. And yes, I’m more interested in them extending our capacities in positive ways than in negative ways, but nonetheless, I think people would just be able to marvel a little bit more if they understood just how powerful and how much more powerful these tools are increasingly becoming.
So there’s more. There’s more energy per second per gram flowing through the tiny corridors of the chip in your laptop than there is on the surface of the sun. So, the human ability to compress energy in (Unclear 4:18.0) substring to create that kind of complexity in such dense spaces points to sort of just a future that is hard to even fathom. It’s like trying to explain to a monkey the subtleties of a Shakespearean sonnet.
Renn Brown: To put it simply: that’s heavy stuff, man.
Jason Silva: I know. I know.
Renn Brown: So, I haven’t yet seen this new Robocop remake, so I don’t know what the thematic core that it tackles is as opposed to the original, or anything like that. But Science Fiction in general, or at least the Science Fiction I tend to be most interested in, does have that kind of warning element.
Jason Silva: Yeah.
Renn Brown: That strain of, individuals or society going too far or too quickly or too thoughtlessly.
Jason Silva: Sure.
Renn Brown: So, when we’re living in this age of exponential change– and things are moving so quickly that we barely have time to even recognize some of the ethical concerns before we’re, you know, plowing into new territory. How do you feel about how well we’re processing those ideas?
Jason Silva: Sure. Well, I think that that’s why it’s important to constantly re-contextualize what it means to be human, in the face of these new, emerging technologies. You know, when we had the technology to go to space for the first time, when astronauts were on their way to the moon and they turned around and took a picture of the earth from that perspective, that changed the story of what we were. We had technological mediation. Because of technology, we’re all of a sudden able to see ourselves in a different context, see ourselves in a different way, and change the story of who and what we were.
And that picture of earth from space, for the first time, started to change the consciousness of sustainability, of we’re this pale blue dot and we’ve got to take care of this pale blue dot. So, how does technology change our understanding of ourselves is something that’s really interesting to me, and then of course what is the kind of media that we’re going to create, because media is a kind of social technology as well. How do we create media that informs the public consciousness on how we can use these tools for the benefit of humanity and to address the grand challenges of humanity rather than to destroy ourselves?
So, this is really the focal point of my views with technology. And you can actually go. I did a recent series of videos on AOL called The Future of Us that you can Google.
Renn: I’ll be sure to pop a link in there [note: the biotech episode might be an appropriate place to start].
Jason Silva: Those kind of put into context in a very visual way some of these ideas. I also have a YouTube channel called Shots Of Awe, and I have several videos there about futurism. I have one about artificial intelligence. I have one about singularity. And these videos are short, but they’re super, super just kind of idea dense and they’ve become very popular on the Internet, and that’s sort of what I’m known for. I do a lot of Keynotes for companies like IBM and Intel and Microsoft and Adobe, and they bring me in to talk to them about this exponential future and what does exponential change mean.
To me it means exponential opportunity for reinvention, exponential expansion in our creativity, exponential imagination. I mean everything all of a sudden becomes exponentially grander in this context, because if we think of these tools as extensions of our cognitive capacities, then it’s really us who’ve become exponentially more powerful.
Renn Brown: I find it really interesting that the way technological progression has worked, some of the things that have made our present look so much like the Sci-Fi futures that people have envisioned are these technologies that are splintering into our pockets, into our hands, into our homes.
Jason Silva: Yes. Yes.
Renn Brown: This is opposed to, say, the Kennedy/NASA era, where –aside from new toasters or whatever– everyone’s technological hopes were pinned to the grand technology that the Government had and were putting billions into. Making the ultimate rocket or whatever, as opposed to our world now marked by personal devices that tens of million of us have. But that comes with new, creeping ethical concerns. For example, it had never occurred to me that, say, 3D printing raises issues of people making guns in their home and things like that.
Jason Silva: Yeah.
Renn Brown: How do you feel about the conversation we’re having in general with the kind of individualism of this technology and how widespread it is?
Jason Silva: Yeah, I mean you’re right. It used to be it was this idea. Computers and technology and Government mainframe things that the average person had no access to. But then, in the 1960s, you had a collision between high technology and the counterculture, Silicon Valley, and there’s a book by a New York Times writer named John Markoff, called What the Dormouse Said. And it’s about how basically the hippies and the free thinkers were able to reconfigure the notion of these tools and see that the computer could embody the psychedelic dream of mind expansion.
And I guess, you know, the whole Apple ethos, right? The whole Apple logo. Take a bite from the apple of knowledge was that we could give this power of technology to the individual.
Renn Brown: Right.
Jason Silva: The Prometheus power of stealing fire from the Gods could be given to the individual, you, with your iPhone, with your laptop. You could change the world. You could make a difference. Now, at the same time, you’re right. 3D printing and eventually do-it-yourself genetics. You know, do-it-yourself gene sequencing. Who knows? It could also mean that somebody could make a pathogen in their garage.
So, there are always concerns that accompany these expansions in our capacities. And I also feel though that there’s plenty of people out there scaremongering and not enough people out there trying to inspire positive ways in which you might use these tools. So, I’ve kind of taken it upon myself to try to point that in a sort of optimistic direction.
Renn Brown: I think that’s a noble endeavor. Sci-Fi does tend to concern itself with the scarier edges of what’s possible.
Jason Silva: The doom and gloom.
Renn Brown: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, it’s really – I remember in art school, when I had studied some of that stuff and had my mind blown learning the Internet was largely developed by people dropping acid in the woods.
Jason Silva: That’s right. Exactly.
Renn Brown: Fascinating how those two worlds intersected and changed things. So, I’ve had the privilege of getting to speak about movies and things with some people in the science communities, and I always like to ask what, if any, Scifi –be it literature or movies– inspired you to go down the path that led you into this field.
Jason Silva: Yeah. I’ve always loved metaphysical science fiction. I’m a big, big fan of the false reality genre. So, films like Vanilla Sky, Inception, Altered States, and The Truman Show. Films that make us question what we know about reality. What is real? And then perhaps make that intimation that tells us that maybe it’s life itself that is the dream. So, I like those kinds of films that make you think; that make you question. I also am a fan of science fiction films like Contact that explore the conflict between science and religion, or science and faith.
That’s a genre that’s always been interesting to me. So, you know, provide context for these moral dilemmas about consequences of our actions. Can we ever know what’s real? And just I guess films that get under your skin have always been inspiring to me.
Renn Brown: Well, it certainly seems to be a good time for that. Oblivion, Elysium, and most importantly Gravity hit this year, and the latter played with the science and faith thing.
Jason Silva: Yeah.
Renn Brown: We have Christopher Nolan making Interstellar that’ll be coming out next year. And Wally Pfister making Transcendence.
Jason Silva: Exactly. Transcendence. Yeah, those guys. Those guys had reached out to me originally as well to talk about those themes. That’s all about the singularity and our conscious.
Renn Brown: But in general, we just have such a strong strain of Scifi as I guess our artistic media kind of catches up and starts reflecting on what’s going on.
Jason Silva: Right.
Renn Brown: Do you feel like science fiction and kind of the storytellers of culture bear any responsibility for either inspiring new people or helping us, you know, process what’s happening in our civilization?
Jason Silva: Oh yeah, definitely. Well, I think there was a great book by Jean Youngblood called Expanded Cinema. And he defined cinema. He defined cinema as reflecting our historical drive to manifest our consciousness outside of our mind, in front of our eyes. A cinema is a mirror that we hold up to ourselves. It’s a shared dream space in which we can together sort of probe the perimeters of who we are and where we’re going and what’s happening.
I think cinema is the last altar left. Sort of almost provides the space for contemplation that the Church once did. And so, filmmakers, I think, have a responsibility to debate those mythopoeic experiences for audiences to really put themselves and their lives into context.
So there you have it- we didn’t get deep into what it means to be both a robot and a cop, but it’s a fun conversation about scifi in general and our technological precipice- the edge of which we currently teeter on. Follow the links in the piece to see more of Silva’s work, and be sure to catch Robocop in theaters to see what cinema has to say about all this biotechnology business.
Thanks for reading.