Why optimistic science fiction is still possible and really important
Also: The new case against taxing robots
“Resilience is the capacity to cope with unanticipated dangers after they have become manifest, learning to bounce back through economic growth and technical progress. Increased wealth and technical knowledge help us build up a reservoir of resilience for dealing with such problems.” - Aaron Wildavsky, Searching for Safety
In This Issue:
The Long Read: Why optimistic science fiction is still possible and important
The Short Read: The new case against taxing robots
The Micro Reads: Carbon capture, productive bubbles, hyperloops, and much more. . .
🌌 Why optimistic science fiction is still possible and important
French film director François Truffaut famously claimed it was impossible to make an anti-war film. (The observation even qualifies as a trope.) As he said in a 1973 interview with the great Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel, “I find that violence is very ambiguous in movies. For example, some films claim to be anti-war, but I don't think I've really seen an anti-war film. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.”
I think I understand the point Truffaut was making: So many aspects of war are inherently appealing, from combat action to self-sacrifice for your countrymen or fellow soldier. But I don’t think he was entirely correct. When I first saw Jean Renoir’s 1937 World War I film, The Grand Illusion, it certainly struck me as anti-war. The same with Oliver Stone’s Platoon from 1986.
That Truffaut quote popped into my head when I came across a similar observation from Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton: “Futuristic science fiction tends to be pessimistic. If you imagine a future that’s wonderful, you don’t have a story.” I agree with the first bit. Science fiction does strongly tend to be pessimistic, especially post-1960s sci-fi soaking in Silent Spring enviro-catastrophism and the skepticism of government driven by Vietnam and Watergate.
But futuristic science fiction doesn’t have to be pessimistic. It can have plenty of dramatic tension while showing a path forward to a better, although still imperfect, world. It can show people using technology to solve problems, even if those problems were originally caused by technology. Showing that process isn’t pessimistic, it’s realistic. Economist Joel Mokyr sums it up neatly:
Whenever a technological solution is found for some human need, it creates a new problem. As Edward Tenner put it, technology ‘bites back’. The new technique then needs a further ‘technological fix’, but that one in turn creates another problem, and so on. The notion that invention definitely ‘solves’ a human need, allowing us to move to pick the next piece of fruit on the tree is simply misleading.
Sci-fi can be tech-solutionist, if not purely tech-optimist. While Crichton’s Jurassic Park can seen as warning of the dangers from genetic editing — recall mathematician Ian Malcolm musing about scientific hubris: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should” — even it has a tech-solutionist streak. Early on in the 1993 Steven Spielberg-directed film version, the soon-to-be-running-in-terror visitors are shown a brief animated explainer about how the brachiosaurus and triceratops made their return (no mention of velociraptors, though). The cartoon Mr. DNA, an anthropomorphic DNA helix with a jokey Texas accent, entertainingly explains the advanced genetics behind cooking up a batch of dinosaurs, as well as engaging in on-screen banter with John Hammond, the park’s founder. It’s a sequence that Walt Disney, who obviously helped inspire the Hammond character, would have loved.
Maybe the best recent example is the book and film The Martian with its “I'm going to have to science the sh-t out of this” problem-solving ethos. Or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar that shows a dystopian world caused by the rejection of technological progress — but where technology (and, yes, love!) ultimately provides humanity’s salvation. To quote astronaut-turned-farmer Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey):
We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars; now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt. We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.
Sci-fi has an important role in helping us remember that we are pioneers and our exploring is far from finished. How many Silicon Valley technologists and founders were inspired by the various incarnations of Star Trek, after all? And this isn’t just my opinion. Plenty of sci-fi creators have publicly bemoaned their genre’s overly dark turn and its impact on our societal ambition, including Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash and other sci-fi classics. His concern even prompted him to partner with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to create Project Hieroglyph, which produced Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, an anthology of tech-solutionist, hard sci-fi stories. (Stephenson’s contribution, which is outstanding, is about a space elevator.)
So what if Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wants to follow up his rescue of The Expanse from cancelation by funding some other tech-optimist/solutionist projects? Back in 2017, technology analyst Daniel Wang offered a few ideas:
If I had funding and access to studio talent, I would reshoot a bunch of films. Elysium, with a focus on the logistics behind the smooth functioning of a satellite habitat. Ex Machina, featuring an artificial intelligence whose greatest desire is not acceptance in human society. Gravity, with greater marveling of space and the desire to explore, not the aftermath of random mechanical failure. Her, in which artificial intelligences decide to improve humanity, instead of migrating en masse to a higher spiritual plane. Star Wars with no wars and no Jedis — and therefore no Sith — that instead draws out the gains from interstellar exchange under oversight of the Trade Federation. (Bonus points for working out rules that would govern countervailing duties and state procurement under a galactic trade regime.)
As for now, though, I would recommend The Expanse on Amazon Prime Video, as well as For All Mankind on Apple TV+, from Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D. Moore, which depicts an alternate reality where the US-Soviet Space Race never ended. (I podcast chatted with Moore about his show and sci-fi optimism last October.) Oh, I should add this: Truffaut had a small but important role in one of the most optimistic and life-affirming sci-films: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
🤖 The new case against taxing robots
I was less than enthused when Bill Gates floated the idea of taxing robots. In a time of increased skepticism about the benefits of creative destruction — whether from trade or technology — America’s most famous businessman and uber-billionaire can’t just leave live ammo like that lying around for some opportunistic politician or rabble-rousing TV personality to pick up. (Make America great again: Tax the 'bots!) Here again is what Gates said an interview with Quartz back in 2017:
Certainly there will be taxes that relate to automation. Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, Social Security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you'd think that we'd tax the robot at a similar level.
Look, we need more robots, not fewer. Nor should we slow down their adoption into the economy. (And I think Gate’s basic point was less neo-Luddite than reflecting a desire to use robot tax revenue to improve worker training and modernize the safety net for a world with more automation.) While I hope we’re leaving behind the productivity slowdown that began in the early 2000s — New Roaring Twenties! — I’m not going to assume that will be the case. Policymakers need to evaluate all tax, regulatory, and spending decisions on their innovation impact.
Helpfully, a new analysis enhances the economic case against robot taxes. In “Tax not the robots” for the Brookings Institution, Robert Seamans, director of the Center for the Future of Management at NYU’s Stern School of Business, calls the notion of implementing robot taxes “a misguided idea that would have negative consequences for firms, their workers, and ultimately the economy.” Among Seamans’ evidence-driven points: First, firms that adopt robots experience more employment growth than those that do not, according to several firm-level studies over the past couple of years. Such companies are also more productive.
Second, it’s a non-trivial matter to even define what a “robot” is, exactly. Seamans points to a government survey, for example, that defines a “robot” as a machine that could weld or package, but not a driverless forklift. Seamans: “This example points to a big danger with a robot tax: depending on how a ‘robot’ is defined, it may create disproportionate burdens on some industries and not others.” And good luck defining which kinds of software qualify as “robots.”
Third, there are better ways to help workers than taxing their competition, whether made from metal or silicon. New data-driven tools can better match human labor to jobs. Limits or even bans on noncompete agreements would also help labor market mobility. Seamans concludes: “In general, supporting broad-based policy changes that help to reduce labor market frictions across multiple industries and geographies is a better approach than a targeted policy such as a robot tax.”
The Dream of Carbon Air Capture Edges Toward Reality - Yale360 | Bad news for degrowthers, but good news for the rest of us who want a livable and prosperous world. From the piece: “So within the industry, there is plenty of money and plenty of enthusiasm. What is in short abundance, in light of the hottest month on record and near-term projections for future global temperatures, is plenty of time.”
Inside the mind of Big AI- Financial Times | “Sheer scale, it turns out, may have opened the door to something new: an era of more general-purpose AI systems that can turn their hand to many different tasks — and whose full capabilities can no longer be predicted with absolute certainty.”
Trust us (and this rendering), the Virgin Hyperloop looks really, really cool - Mashable |
Welcoming our first riders in San Francisco - The Waymo Blog | “Now, for the first time, San Franciscans will be able to hail an autonomous ride in one of our all-electric Jaguar I-PACE vehicles equipped with the fifth-generation Waymo Driver.”
Why Not Innovate More? - Robin Hanson | “While innovation is the main cause of growth in population, wealth, and satisfaction over time, the people who put in effort to create and diffuse innovations on average gain much less from their efforts than what everyone else gains. So they do too little.”
Productive Bubbles - William Janeway, Noema | “Relatively unleveraged waves of speculation are best left to run themselves out. The longer-term productive benefit of an innovation that attracts speculative attention is by no means always evident at first glimpse. And even if there appears to be no possible productive benefit, killing the speculative impulse at birth does have the potential to create a negative externality: an absence of enthusiastic investor response when a genuine productive bubble could generate social benefits.”