Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Gawping at “science” evangelists has developed into one of my favorite pastimes. I use the scare quotes because, more often than not, the people who are celebrated as science evangelists (typically at places like Reddit) seem to be living out some kind of fantasy — one based more on wild flights of fancy than on what we traditionally think of as science.
Elon Musk, for instance, appears to have fashioned himself as a real-life Tony Stark, the billionaire inventor who is the alter-ego of Marvel’s Iron Man. (Or maybe Stark is based on Musk? It’s hard to tell sometimes.) From what I can tell, Musk made his fortune with PayPal, an internet money-transferring operation, and he cemented it through his involvement in Tesla Motors, an electric car company funded by a massive loan of taxpayer money. (Musk: he’s big on money transferring.) He’s also a mover and shaker in the realm of privately funded space shuttling, an industry that seems poised for growth now that NASA has shifted its focus to multiculturalism and climate change. Oh, and he talks a lot about traveling to Mars. No one can figure out what the point of going to Mars is. But, then, why not? If and when the time comes, Musk will presumably be there to transfer someone’s money all the way to the Red Planet.
Undoubtedly, Musk is a brilliant and ballsy guy. He’s also the kind of idiosyncratic tycoon that people root for. He excites the imagination. Certainly, I enjoy Musk and his brand of techno-adventuring a helluva lot more than Bill Gates and his dreary foundations.
Still, I can’t help but giggle at the seriousness with which many seem to take the guy. He’s widely seen as a symbol of enlightened courageousness. Take, for instance, this article’s calm proclamation that “with Elon Musk, nothing is impossible.” Let’s see, so far Musk has helped found PayPal, helped refine the electric car, and raised a lot of money for vague space adventures. Maybe I’m being overly jerky in my analysis, but none of these admittedly impressive achievements strikes me as being anything close to impossible.
To my way of seeing things Musk is a smart, ambitious dude who has found ways to make lots of dough while burnishing his image and cozying up to the Powers That Be. And now he’s using his money and influence to live out a nerd fantasy. More power to him. But why would I take his public gesticulations as anything more than entertainment?
Lately Musk and other science evangelists have been assuring us that computers will soon take over the world. There’s a sort of wishfulness to their warnings, a sense that they’d be more comfortable if things were run by robots rather than by, you know, people who shop at Walmart. This article even has physicist and television host Neil deGrasse Tyson predicting that our robot overlords will engineer a more docile race of humans. Presumably, computers being as smart and as rational as Tyson, they will inevitably breed the sort of people who watch “Nova.”
Like Musk, Tyson often seems to be inhabiting an image based on pop culture and fantasy. In his recent redo of the “Cosmos” series, Tyson pads across the deck of a CGI spacecraft as he calmly tells us about black holes, supernovas, and the dangers of anti-science bigotry. He doesn’t seem to realize how silly he looks. And it’s sometimes hard to tell whose footsteps he’s treading in, Carl Sagan’s or Captain Kirk’s.
As to the general idea of A.I. taking over . . . let’s just say I’m skeptical. It sure is fun to think about, and I don’t have a problem accepting Stephen Hawking’s opinion that it’s possible. But, ultimately, I can’t take it any more seriously than Musk’s fantasies of colonizing space. I’m no scientist, and I haven’t founded PayPal, so my opinion is probably invalid. Still, my guess is that robots taking over the world is about as likely from a 2015 perspective as the ideas in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” were in 1818. That is, not very.
To me, all this wild imagining looks an awful lot like what we used to call “science fiction.” And while there is, of course, a degree of science in science fiction, the “fiction” is there for a reason. I’d even argue that it’s the more important word in the term.
Look, I’m not trying to denigrate sci-fi. I love sci-fi. I’ve read most of Asimov’s “Foundation” novels. Their sciencyness is felt mostly in their tone and the way in which they present themselves — that is, as escapism for rational-minded dudes who are bad at sports. The storylines, which involve people zipping around the galaxy, conversing with humanoid robots, and controlling things with their minds, is pure fantasy. Asimov’s making Hari Seldon a mathematician doesn’t make the character’s ability to predict the future a whole lot more science-based than it was when the Greeks had Cassandra do it 3,000 years ago. Seldon’s (and Asimov’s) sciencyness is a trapping.
Someone will probably pop into the comments to inform me that, technically speaking, it is possible to predict the future using math — just like Hari Seldon! Maybe. But by the time Elon Musk builds the computers necessary to run the equations, the human race will likely have died out or been replaced by incredibly well-behaved animatronic versions of Neil deGrasse Tyson. In other words, don’t hold your breath, nerdlingers.
I mean, lots of things are possible, right? Given enough time donkeys might evolve sentience and cure AIDS.
Here’s what I find amusing: 40 years ago the people fawning over Musk and Tyson would’ve been wearing ill-fitting Star Trek shirts and going to sci-fi conventions to argue about dilithium crystals. Now they wear ironic facial hair and go to TED Talks to argue about worm holes and sustainability. I wasn’t expected to take the former activity seriously; the latter activity I’m almost required to take seriously. Why?
- I see that Asimov’s “Foundation” series is one of Musk’s favorites. Paul Krugman is a big fan too. Says PK: “I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” Wow, thanks for caring, bro!
- Musk and others have banded together to form something called The Future of Life Institute, which sounds a bit like a more boring and self-important version of The Avengers. (Or does it sound more like Asimov’s Foundation?) I love how the Wikipedia page devoted to the organization cites Morgan Freeman and Alan Alda — who serve on the board of the Nerdvengers — as “science communicators.” Presumably, when the giant robots come, Alan Alda will be there to communicate them out of existence.
- A skeptical review of the documentary “Particle Fever.”