[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:12.4] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success. I’m your host, Matt Bodnar. I’m an entrepreneur and investor in Nashville, Tennessee, and I’m obsessed with the mindset of success and the psychology of performance. I’ve read hundreds of books, conducted countless hours of research and study, and I am going to take you on a journey into the human mind and what makes peak performers tick, with the focus on always having our discussion rooted in psychological research and scientific fact, not opinion.
In this episode, we discuss what Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and others consider the single greatest threat to humanity, why death is not a binary event that makes you transition from being alive or dead at a specific moment in time, we ask if you could spend a thousand dollars on a chance to live forever, would you take it? We look at the biology behind cryogenics, vitrification, and putting your body on biological pause. We explore why poverty, climate change, war, and all other problems melt away in the face of this one massive issue with our guest, Tim Urban.
The Science of Success continues to grow, with more than 725,000 downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries, hitting number one New and Noteworthy, and more. A ton of our listeners are curious about how to organize and remember everything, how to keep track of all this amazing information. I get tons of listener emails asking me, “Matt, how do you organize yourself? How do you keep track of all the incredible knowledge you get from reading hundreds of books, interviewing amazing experts, listening to podcasts, and more?”
Because of that, we created an amazing free resource for you, and you can get it completely free by texting the world “smarter” to the number 44222. It’s a free guide called, How to Organize and Remember Everything. Again, to get it, all you have to do is text the word “smarter” to the number 44222, or go to scienceofsuccess.co and put in your email.
In our previous episode, we discussed whether time speeds up as we get older, why your life story only makes sense looking in reverse, whether or not brain games actually work, the importance of proactive learning instead of passive learning, why psychology confirms all your worst fears about studying and getting smarter, and much more with a special two-guest interview featuring Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke. If you want to master your mind, listen to that episode.
[0:02:33.9] MB: Today we have another incredible guest on the show, Tim Urban. Tim is the creator of one of my favorite blogs, Wait But Why. He’s become one of the most popular writers on the internet with fans including Maria Papova, Sam Harris, and Elon Musk. Tim combines long-form content, humor, and stick figures to explain the world’s most interesting concepts, including SpaceX, AI, procrastination, and we’re going to dig in to a number of these.
His content has become so popular that, according to Fast Company, he’s captured a level of reader engagement that even new media giants would be envious of. With an average of over 1.5 million unique readers visiting and engaging on Wait But Why every month. Tim, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:11.5] TU: Thanks Matt, thanks for having me.
[0:03:14.1] MB: Well, we’re very excited to have you on here. For listeners who may not be familiar with you, tell us a little bit about yourself and your story.
[0:03:21.1] TU: Yeah, I started blogging — actually, I started blogging a long time ago. I started 2005 with a blog that I was kind of doing on the side. I always kept it to something I did on the side, but I really liked it, and it was in about mid 2013 that I decided to start a new blog and go full-time, and kind of see what would happen, and you know, I always kind of wished on the other blog I could see what would happen if I could just work on a post all week.
This was a chance to do that, and I started that in 2013 and to partner, and in the last three and a half years it’s kind of basically what I’ve been doing, is full-time blogging about all different kinds of things.
[0:04:02.6] MB: What is Wait But Why, and why did you decide to start it?
[0:04:08.6] TU: Yeah, well, Wait But Why, what it has become is a long-form stick-figure illustrated blog about everything from kind of the human condition, and kind of human psychology, to the questions of the universe, and the future, and the big things going on in tech, and kind of whatever I’m interested in.
I feel like what I just said is like, a list of things that a lot of people are kind of interested in all those things, and so am I. I just kind of write about all those things. The post go really in-depth, I’ll spend sometimes over a month working on a post, sometimes they get really long, and I really kind of enjoy the liberty that I have as an independent blogger to just go in as much depth as I want without having to worry about limitations on either time or words.
That’s what it is. When I started it, I didn’t say, “I want to do a long-form blog.” I didn’t really know exactly what it was going to be. I did know I wanted to write about a lot of different kinds of things, and I did know that, you know, that I wanted to do high quality things, because so much of what I saw on the internet was clearly done for clicks, done for volume, it was put out by a site that was trying to put on a lot of stuff, and I saw where the priorities were. They weren’t on, “We want this to be the best piece that we can do.”
That wasn’t really the focus on anything, most things I was reading online. I said that was the thing that I wanted to do different, is that I wanted to focus on not on volume, not even on consistency, but just on trying to do quality of product. That was kind of the core initial principle, and then I wanted to have fun. I didn’t want to try to figure out what I could write about that would get an audience, I wanted to make sure that if I was going to do this for a long time, I ended up doing something I really liked. I wanted to kind of — it was an outlet for my curiosity, and I wanted it to stay that way, and I wanted to kind of enjoy myself as I was doing it. That was the core idea, and it’s kind of become what it has become, and that happened as I went.
[0:06:19.1] MB: Before we dig into a couple of my favorite topics that you’ve covered on the blog, I’d love to share with our listeners a little bit about your TED Talk, and the themes of procrastination. We talk a lot about psychology and personal improvement on the show, so I’d be really curious for you to share the story of the TED Talk, and the message, and talk a little bit about procrastination.
[0:06:43.1] TU: Yeah, I always say I’m not really an expert on anything I write about, because if I wanted to be an expert on something, I would have to make that the one thing I wrote about, basically. I’d have to spend a bunch of years reading about it, and that’s not — that’s for some people but not really me. I get ADD’d about topics and want to move on after I’ve been in one for a while, and I’m curious about so many things that I want to skip around and I want to do a bunch of different things.
Which means I have become what I call a mini expert on things as I go. Procrastination is an exception, that I am an expert on being a procrastinator. That’s one thing I feel like I understand. I’m not an expert on the deep psychology of it necessarily, or that’s the work of a psychologist, but I am an expert on what it feels like to go through this problem, and to live with it, and to struggle with it, and to try a bunch of things that don’t work to fix it, and I think that made me very qualified to really write about what goes on in the head of a procrastinator.
What it feels like, and why it’s so hard, and so that started as a blogpost and ended up also being the subject of a TED Talk that I did. What I did for that is I kind of just sat back when I first wrote the post, and I just thought about what actually goes on in the literal, like, in the second, the exact second when I’m trying to do something, and I know I should be doing one thing, and then I go and actually do something else.
What is going on in that moment? I came to the conclusion that there’s two characters in my brain. There’s literally two motivations going on, and one of them, which I call the rational decision maker, is this adult, the adult in my brain, and just says, “Well, we should do this now, so that later we can do this.” The decision maker wants to have fun, like anyone else, but he just gets that there needs to be a balance. He can think long-term, he can see the big picture, and gets that if we do this now then we can do this later, if you don’t do this now then later’s going to be bad and we won’t be - very simple concept.
Then there’s this other character, the child in my brain. The child doesn’t think long-term, lives entirely in the present moment, and I call that child the instant gratification monkey, because it really is like a remnant of our animal past. We are in the animal present, we are currently animals, and this is the very primitive part of our brain that simply wants to eat, reproduce, and conserve energy.
We need both of these characters, because we are like weird species, we are an animal that needs to keep the animal alive and keep the animal satisfied, but we’re also this weirdly rational animal that has this like, super-higher being of consciousness that has all these big long-term plans. We live in this very complex, advanced civilization that requires this rational center of our brain.
They’re living together. It’s like two very — it’s like two very shitty roommates. It’s like Ernie and Burt are like, bad roommates, it’s like that. Or, it’s like a really dysfunctional single parent household with an only child and one parent, and they don’t — I realize that in that moment, the adult will say something — and everyone’s got both characters. The thing that makes someone a procrastinator is that when they disagree, which is a lot, a non-procrastinator, the adult, is able to say, “Not now, monkey. sorry. I know you don’t want to do this, but we have to,” and the monkey relents, or gets overpowered, or just knows its place and this point doesn’t even try that hard. The procrastinator’s brain, it goes the other way. The power is not in the right place. The adult says this, the kid says, “I don’t want to do that,” and grabs the wheel and starts driving.
The adult just kind of like helplessly stands there. It’s a power balance between these two characters. So that’s the core of the post, and the core of something I’ve struggle with for a long time. You seem like a crazy person, but it’s actually just that you have this kind of like, unhealthy relationship in the two characters, where the parent isn’t able to control the kid, he’s always mad at the kid, the kid probably doesn’t like the parent very much, and I don’t know whether…
Where I’m not an expert is like, the core psychology. Like a psychologist might say, “That’s when your growth was stunted at some age in this one area, and it was stunted because your parents did XY and Z.” I don’t know that, I don’t know why my power balance is off, but I know what is happening, and it’s that my power balance there is off.
Then the other part of the post and the talk is that I say, “So then how does any procrastinator get anything done? If the power balance is off, and anytime something hard needs to happen the monkey grabs the wheel, why isn’t that always just the problem?” And the answer is that there’s one other character in the brain, which I call the panic monster, which is a character that’s dormant most of the time and you don’t notice it, but then, when the deadline gets close, or when you’re in danger of public embarrassment or something like that, suddenly he wakes up and starts screaming.
That’s the one thing the monkey’s scared of. The monkey’s not scared of the rational decision maker, but this child in your brain is terrified of the panic monster and will run away, and then the rational decision maker, in those moments, can kind of grab the wheel and finally, with no monkey there, can go and do your work, do whatever you need to do. A really bad procrastinator situation, the only time they get something done is panic, and the reason that’s dangerous is not just because panic isn’t fun or healthy, it’s not going to produce your best work, but something much darker than that and deeper than that, which is the panic monster only shows up in situations when there’s a deadline.
That’s fine when you’re in school, maybe, or if you have a certain job that’s very deadline heavy, but most situations in the real world, after school ends, unfortunately don’t have deadlines. So things like careers and the arts, your entrepreneurial careers, or something maybe — anything you want to — or being at work in a job with a boss, but somewhere where you want to spend some of your time on self-improvement.
Long term self-improvement, actually, you know, learning more, getting better. There’s no deadlines on those things, and the panic monster doesn’t wake up for those things, and of course, like all the stuff that makes people happy outside of work. Learning a new instrument, or going into the gym getting healthier, working on your relationship, or just yeah, taking care of your health, or cooking really good meals, getting better at something.
All these things that kind of make life rich. There’s no deadlines on those, and without the panic monster, if they’re hard, the monkey’s usually going to not let you do them, and you don’t have anyone to help you. Procrastinators, they often — people see them as people who they cram the last minute and you have a bad relationship with deadlines. Actually, the much sadder thing, and the thing that affects way more people, I think, very quietly and behind the scenes is this kind of concept of long-term procrastination. This situation where there’s no panic monster to help, and the procrastinator just kind of has this problem forever, and it just sits there and kind of eats away at them, and no one else even really knows about it often.
It’s kind of like their own personal struggle, and they have huge regrets later, and they end up doing a lot of what you could think of as kind of — really urgent, but not important stuff, and there’s a lot of that in life. Emails, and your errands, and pick your kids up, or you have to go out to dinner with your friend, and you do that stuff, because those things have little deadlines. The urgent stuff. So often, the urgent stuff isn’t what’s important.
I mean, important stuff isn’t urgent most of the time, especially big life things. I want to change my job, that kind of thing is not ever going to be like, “I have to do that by Tuesday,” that doesn’t exist. You could skip a Tuesday and do it Wednesday, or Thursday, or never. They spend a lot of time doing that stuff, and they spend almost no time doing the important stuff that’s not urgent, which, like I said, is usually the really big things in life. The things that will end up on your gravestone. The things that you’ll be on your death bed really proud of.
That kind of stuff is really often not urgent, and without a panic monster, the procrastinator can really kind of miss out on that stuff in life, and so that’s what like - procrastinators need to think about is like, not just “Am I bad with deadlines,” but “Is there important, but not urgent, stuff in my life that if I really look at this honestly, I’m just not doing, because I’m not good at doing stuff when there’s not external pressure.” I think a lot of people can answer that question and say yes, there is, and it’s bothering me.
[0:15:29.9] MB: As a self-proclaimed procrastinator, how do you overcome that challenge?
[0:15:34.9] TU: A lot of times I don’t. A lot of times I continue to have this be my core struggle, like yesterday, when I have been working on this one blog post for a long time now, and I’m dying to just get it going. A lot of readers are emailing me and wondering what the hell’s going on, and I’m very frustrated with my pace on this, so I think, okay. I sit down all day yesterday to work, I should just be writing, working. I’ve done so much research already, already outlined it, and what I did is this is like a monkey clever tactic.
The rational decision making person isn’t so weak that he’s going to let the monkey sit around and watch TV all day. I don’t do that kind of procrastination usually. What I did do is I read articles that were relevant, I researched all day, even though I’ve already done plenty of research for a blog post. I’m not writing a book on this, I don’t need to do more research, and I did anyway, because my perfectionism kicked in, which is some — the monkey kind of like takes it. He can kind of use other characters in your brain, for like, you know, assistance, or uses my perfectionist guy all the time. Yeah, perfectionism kicked it, I said, “Oh, now I need to read this, oh, now there’s a hyper link in that article, we have to read that.”
The rational decision maker is screaming, saying, “Stop it! This doesn’t matter! This is not important for the long-term goals here, reading the 65th and 66th articles here.” That’s classic. I still definitely have — I still definitely struggle. That said, I have written a lot on Wait But Why. I’ve written probably almost a hundred pretty long blogposts in three years, that’s a lot.
That’s equivalent of many books of writing. I managed to conquer some things, but I think it’s mostly the fact that at the beginning, as I said, Wait But Why was started by me and a partner, my partner is my friend and business partner who runs kind of this other business that two of us started in 2007, and he is running that for both of us while I’m writing Wait But Why and starting this kind of what could be a media platform, what could be a brand, or could just be a cool project, but I’m starting it for both of us.
I had kind of a couple of things. I had pressure from the fact that I was letting someone else down, not just myself, if I didn’t work on this early on. That helped, that was external pressure, and then there were readers pretty quickly. I got lucky in that situation, where the readers happened pretty quickly, quicker than I thought they would, but there was an audience and it built up pretty early on in the life of Wait But Why, which for me is huge, because suddenly, that is kind of a panic monster.
It’s not a full one, like a hard deadline. The panic monster’s volume of his scream never gets to like a full peak volume, but he is always kind of there, because you have readers and they’re going to go away. That hard-earned readership is going to give up on you. They have plenty of other options on the internet, they’ll just get up and they’ll forget about you if you don’t write.
I kind of had some external pressure, some panic monsters going on, and that’s part of why I did that, so I would say that that’s — what I did is kind of an interim step a procrastinator can take. It was really important to me to do something like Wait But Why. I’m really happy and gratified that I have done it.
I think it’s like it’s a great thing for me to have done this, but I don’t think that I did it by solving that procrastination problem, I think I did it by creating panic monsters in my life, which is kind of a Band-Aid. It’s getting you through the next step without solving the problem, and its a problem. As far as the problem, I’m still working on it really hard, and I hope to one day come back and write another post about — it’s called, “How I Beat Procrastination.” That’s going to be a fun post to write, and I’m not anywhere near ready to write that yet.
[0:19:15.5] MB: In many ways it sounds like accountability and kind of creating some external pressure is one of the effective strategies that you’ve used in the past?
[0:19:24.0] TU: Yes, it is an effective strategy, but it’s not a sustainable long-term strategy, I don’t think. It could be, it’s just not great. It’s not — the really good long term strategy will be learning how to just have the adult have the power.
When there’s something hard to do, that I don’t want to do, that the adult has to say, “Well, it’s time to do it anyway, and we’re just going to do it even though there’s no deadline, even though it’s kind of amorphous and you don’t really know how to really do it. Just get working on it, and be efficient about that,” and there’s some days I see that. It’s not like I can’t ever do it, but not as much as I would like.
I’ve done kind of, like I said, a Band-Aid solution, which is build external pressure. There’s - some people have it because they have a boss, and they have a schedule they’re on, and they have to. If you don’t, that’s really dangerous for a procrastinator, and you have to — if you haven’t solved your long-term problem, you’ll have to figure out how to build external pressure into your life so that you’re forced to make progress, because otherwise it’s going to make you really unhappy.
[0:20:35.4] MB: I’d love to change directions a little bit and get into some of the topics that you’ve covered on the blog. One of my absolute favorite posts, or I guess series of posts that you did was a two-part series about artificial intelligence.
That, I highly recommend anybody listening to go and read that, because there’s no way we could cover everything in there just in this interview, but I’d love for you to kind of share at a very high level, some of the core findings that you had when you wrote those articles, and kind of the core themes of them.
[0:21:04.6] TU: Yeah, that’s definitely one of the craziest topics I dove into. Since I have started writing I, it’s kind of when you get into that topic, every other topic kind of melts away in importance in your head, because this is like, imagine if there was a bunch of monkeys on the earth only. There’s no humans or anything, and they’re trying to do a bunch of things. They’re trying to figure out better ways to crack the coconuts, and better ways to build nests in trees, and they’re fighting with other monkey tribes.
They’re dealing with all those things, and they seem like all these dire issues. Then some monkeys are going about and they’re saying, “We’re doing something new over here, we’re building this thing called humans.” It’s also an interesting project. We know from looking at that, that’s not a normal project, that’s not one of the projects, that is a project that’s going to define every part of their existence. It’s going to define all the other projects.
It can build humans that want to help them, the humans will easily solve all their problems. They could have a grocery store just for monkeys with every possible food they need. It’s not about cracking the coconut, now they can have any kind of food they have ever wanted - if the humans are working for them. If the humans aren’t working for them, humans could kill them all very easily without any — they could cage them, they could poison their food, they could tranquilize gun them, they could shoot them, they could taze them. They could have bombs.
There’s absolutely no match if the humans aren’t on their side, or it could be somewhere in the middle where the humans kind of ignore them, do their own thing. Sometimes the monkeys are in the way, and then the humans hurt them in order to fix that, or sometimes the humans find compassion for the monkeys and want to help. Some of them want to help and they can be a great help, but either way, building humans would be the most significant thing that the entire species of ape have ever done by far.
That’s what we’re doing. We’re building our version of humans. We’re building something far smarter than we are, and the thing that confuses people is they say, “Well, you know, my computer’s already smarter than me. It can hold more information, it has better memory, it’s faster. My calculator can multiply 10 digit numbers way faster. Computers are already smarter,” and the answer’s no, they’re not. What they are is they’re more intelligent in a very narrow sense, in a very specific sense. Whatever the computer’s specific job is, it’s better than humans at that job, but humans have this amazing capacity for breadth.
We have this incredible diverse intelligence that can — we have wisdom, we have social skills, we have creativity, we can learn from experience, we have reasoning, we have all this general reason. We’re smart in a way that no computer is or ever has been, not even close. There’s never been a smart computer, if you want to define it like that. You can accurately define that as general intelligence.
There’s never been a computer that had anything close to what we have, general intelligence. What computers have is narrow intelligence. We have a lot of artificial, narrow intelligence on the planet that’s really great at one thing. What humans are working on right now, and the thing the post was about, was not Siri, and Pandora, and all of this artificial narrow intelligence, it was about the concept of building AGI. Artificial General Intelligence, and what that will be like.
It’s not an easy thing to get there. I went through a bunch of different ways we’re trying to do it and the challenges on the hardware side and on the software side. Our own brain is a mystery to us, it’s extremely complex. Some people think it’s the most complex object in the known universe. Trying to replicate what it can do is not easy. We’re trying to do that, but the thing is, first of all, that alone would change everything. If there was a computer that actually could just talk to you like a person, and the computer could look at any situation and just kind of give you advice, or think about it with you and have its own ideas and plans about any part of your life.
That’s completely unheard of, but the thing about it that’s really intense is that it’s not going to just — once we get there, a lot of the way that we’re trying to build this is by building computers that can improve themselves, like they can make itself smarter through — it will be good at researching AI, and coding, and changing its own architecture, its own coding to make itself smarter, that’s why a lot of people think we’re going to get to this.
What’s going to happen when it gets there, it’s going to keep making itself smarter, and it’s going to be able to do that more and more as it gets smarter. You’re going to have something that’s the intelligence of a normal human, and it will be as good as a computer scientist as kind of a normal human, other than the fact that they can work 24 hours a day, never forgets anything, and can sync up with other computers so they can have all the same information.
You know, it will be pretty good. Suddenly it gets itself to be Einstein’s level of intelligence, which we think is a huge difference from the average human, but actually, in the big scheme of things, there’s very small difference on the intelligence scale between the smartest and the dumbest human. Very small.
Now, we have a computer that’s as smart as Einstein. Now, it’s a really good computer scientist, and before you know it, it makes itself smarter than any human’s ever been, and now it starts just leaping up in intelligence, and it can be like, once we get there, whether that’s in 20 years or 40 years or 60 years, people think it’s around, that’s kind of the ballpark area where they think we can get to general intelligence. It might be a month from that point, or maybe a week, or maybe an hour when suddenly the computer that has hit general intelligence has hit something else. What we call artificial super intelligence.
Something that, if Einstein had an IQ of 200 or whatever, just say. An average person’s IQ is maybe 110 or something. We’re talking about the computer’s IQ is now at like 50,000. Unheard of. Things we don’t even understand. Just like a monkey can’t get what a human even can do. Monkey doesn’t even know that we do what we do. It can’t even get that, even if we try to explain all the things humans do.
Not only can they not do those things, it can’t really understand even that we’re doing it. It doesn’t even have that level of capacity. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about. Now we have this thing on the planet that can use things that seem like magic to us, that are so amazing, not only can we not do it, but we literally can’t even understand what it’s doing.
If it sat down and spoke in perfect English to us and it tried to explain, it can’t. Our brains are not capable of even understanding what it’s working on. That’s such an intense concept, that again, everything else melts away. We talk about climate change, poverty, war, these things are huge problems. Nothing compared to the problem we’re going to have if super intelligence is not either on our side in the exact way we need it to be.
And, those problems are no problem at all if the AI wants to help us fix them, and it’s going to be like a monkey smashing its hand into a padlock a thousand times, when a human can just walk over and undo it. There would be no problem for an AI to fix all of our problems if it wants to, or we could very well go extinct in the next 100 years, because AI does something we don’t want. The mistake that people make is they anthropomorphize, meaning they apply human values and characteristics to something that’s not human and never will be.
So they think, “Oh it’s going to be evil.” I don’t know if you’re watching Westworld, but they’ve got that. The AI is going to want, it’s going to feel bad about itself, it’s going to want to be the intern, that’s something that human does. But it’s much more like is a human might build a house because it wants to build a house, and it builds on top of an anthill, and it kills all the ants in the anthill by doing it. That human doesn’t hate the ants. Humans aren’t like, “Yes, now I am king of all the ants,” no. The human is just doing it’s thing, and the ants happened to be in the way.
So the scary thing is that when the AI is that smart, it has an unbelievable amount of power. And that power, even just a bit, it could elbow the human race off the table by accident with that power. It’s like, if we’re in the way of something it wants to do, and we haven’t very specifically programmed it to value human life, then it’s an unprecedented amount of power on this planet, and we don’t know what’s going to happen with that. That’s just a huge question mark, so yeah that’s that topic.
[0:29:19.6] MB: You know, the funny thing is it’s really interesting, because if you look at like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, all of these people who are in the forefront of technology, you hear them off in the distance being like, “Hey guys, this AI think is really big.” No one is really paying attention to it, and I’ve heard that a number of times and thought, “Okay, whatever. What are these guys really talking about?” and your series of articles really brought the life for me the massive stakes and the consequences.
And there’s a couple of pieces of it that I’d really love to dig into. One of the things that you touched on is the idea that all these other challenges that we’re facing, all these things that seem like major risks or challenges, global warming, or climate change, poverty, economic displacement, war, there’s this binary outcome when artificial intelligence happens, right?
And we can talk about the science, and you’ve done a ton of research and talk about the science behind this is very, very valid, that it’s not really a question of if we’re going to have artificial super intelligence. It’s inevitable at some point, and when that inevitably gets created, there’s a binary outcome. It’s either the AI solves all of our problems forever, or we get completely wiped off the planet and humanity goes extinct.
[0:30:37.1] TU: Yeah, it kind of is. It’s one notch more complicated in that even the good side is tricky. When we think it solves all of our problems, well, who is determining what our problems are? ISIS thinks it knows what problems are, and what right and wrong is. ISIS thinks solving all of our problems means killing all infidels and creating a caliphate that rules the earth, so that’s it’s idea. Even within the US, with fairly likeminded people, you have people on opposite sides of the aisle, with different ideologies, who all say, “Well I think,” so in a very broad sense, yes.
The big problems you are talking about it can solve, but it has to be created by people who have similar values to you that successfully program the AI to have those values. To understand those values, or it’s going to be a problem, because you can imagine how many different humans and different parts of the planet with different motivations and different values are going to want to make sure the AI does what they think are the right things, so it’s very tricky.
It’s not an easy scenario to picture where everything goes right for everybody, so there is that. But yes, it is pretty binary whether, in general, this is a force for great good, at least to someone, or this is a destructive force like nothing we’ve ever seen. A destructive force like an asteroid was to the dinosaurs. It has that kind of potential.
What’s funny is these two topics we’ve talked about so far, procrastination and AI, they have a lot in common, and that’s what Elon, and Stephen Hawking, and Bill Gates, and a lot of these people who tried to warn us about AI, Nick Bostrom, what they say sounds a lot like the rational decision maker of humanity saying, “Hey, let’s do this slowly and carefully, or not at all maybe, since we’re thinking really long-term. We’re playing with fire here.”
They think we’re kind of a bunch of kids playing with a bomb, and what humanity is doing I is kind of the same thing humanity does when it comes to getting ourselves in climate change trouble, which is it’s humanity being controlled by its instant gratification monkey. Climate change is a full instant gratification monkey thing. It’s species only being able to see two feet in front of its face, trying to do stuff that’s going to make it money in the next 10 years at any given point, and not worrying about the big picture, and AI says the same thing.
If these entrepreneurs and these developers who are just working feverishly on this thing to change the world, they probably have good motivation, most of them, but it’s still slightly instant gratification motivation, where there’s some major potential long-term consequences, and it’s just not the thing that they seem to be focusing on. They’re saying, “Build, build, build, let’s do it!”
So I feel like the same thing that makes humans problematic, this battle in our brain between the long-term thinking adult and the instant gratification, this wanting child, which from my case comes up with procrastination. For other people, it comes up in eating unhealthy, and not being faithful in a relationship, and many other ways that this battle in our brain manifests itself. I think it’s also, humanity as a whole is dealing with the same battle, and I think that AI might be the most important example of where that now is going on, and in this case for better or for worse, hopefully not for worse, the side that is trying to build is not thinking too much about the long-term stuff.
There’s a lot more of them out there right now, and so I have my fingers crossed here thinking like, “I hope somehow these goes well, because it seems to be happening, and the people making, I am not sure they’re thinking about human extinction. They’re thinking about their particular app, and how developing a little bit better AI for that app can make them a lot richer. It can make their app a lot better and can make a bigger impact in the world.”
And then someone else in a different part of the world was working on their software, and they’re coming up with breakthroughs and AI for their software, and together as a species we are moving collectively down this road that’s going to end up with artificial super intelligence, but we’re all doing it in an instant gratification way. So I do think that this bit is kind of a child-adult battle. It’s the story of us, and the story of our time, and the story of the future, and for better or worse.
[0:35:11.2] MB: And AI is such an important topic. I highly recommend anybody listening that really wants to dig in on this, as we said, some of the smartest thinkers on the planet right now consider this to be one of the most important topics. Read both of the Wait But Why posts about artificial intelligence, and we will make sure to include those in the show notes so that you can take a look, but I highly recommend, everybody that I talk to that this topic comes up even remotely, I send them the articles and I say, “You need to read this immediately.”
I’d love to pivot a little bit and talk about another topic that’s controversial, which is cryonics. You’ve written about that, or many people refer to it as cryogenics, which I think you talked about is a misnomer, but I’d love for you to share some of your thoughts and experiences around that.
[0:35:53.2] TU: Yeah, cryonics, cryogenics is a branch of physics that deals with really cold temperatures. A branch of science. So it’s like anything that has to do with cold temperatures of metal or rock, or embryos. We call it frozen embryos, or artificial organs, a big topic. Cryonics is a specific thing that deals with - what people who don’t know what it is, they call it freezing a human after they die to try to bring them back to life later, which sounds rightly insane.
When I would hear about that, I’d say, “Okay, that’s obviously, nutsy people. People who can’t accept death, and just are desperate, and are trying some crazy thing that obviously won’t work.” Then I learned a lot more about it, and I understood how wrong my conception of it was. I learned a lot. I spent two weeks doing nothing but reading about cryonics, and I learned that a bunch of conceptions are wrong. So first of all, people say it’s freezing dead people.
So the first thing is the word freezing is wrong. If you freeze a human, the liquid in their bodies, which is most of our body is, turns to ice, which crystalizes, which it actually, A, it expands to 9% bigger than it’s normal volume. B, it crystalizes and the crystals themselves splash through cell membranes, and it completely irreparably damage the cells. You cannot freeze a human without killing a human permanently.
What cryonics does is it vitrifies a human. Vitrifies means, it’s the same thing we do with embryos and organs, transplanted organs, and so the concept of glass is not a solid in the normal sense. Glass does not form an organized crystalline structure when it’s in its solid state. Glass looks like a liquid, and then it’s just a jumble of atoms and molecules, and like liquid, they just aren’t moving. That’s the only difference, they’re not moving. They’re too discus, they cannot move.
So that’s what they do to a human. Well, let me come back to that, actually, because I want to talk about the dead part first. So freezing dead people, let’s talk about the word dead, then we’ll come back to freezing. So here’s the big part about cryonics, is that the reason we get confused about why someone could ever try to bring back a dead person is that we think about the word dead as a binary thing. Someone that’s living, and then you could pinpoint the exact second that they die.
And once they’re dead, they’re dead as anyone who’s ever been dead, and you’re either alive or dead at any given point. That’s not true. Cryonicists see death not as a moment, but as a process, and if you really look at the science, they’re the smart ones about this. They’re correct in that 50 years ago, if someone is walking down the street and they collapse and their heart is not beating and they’re not breathing, they can be declared dead.
That’s it, nothing to do, your heart stopped beating. They’re not breathing, it’s over, and they’d be taken to the funeral home and that’s the end of it. Today, with more technology, if that same thing happens, they wouldn’t be declared dead. They’d be rushed to the hospital - someone will give them CPR, and then they’d be rushed to the hospital and use the defibrillator, and many other more advanced techniques to try to bring them back, or not even bring them back, to keep them alive because they’re not dead.
And so when that happens, and that person ends up walking out of the hospital later that day, we don’t say, “Oh you were dead and you came back,” we say, “Thank God you didn’t die.” So what that shows is that the person 50 years ago who fell over in the street, they weren’t dead. They were hopeless. They were unable to be saved with the technology of the time. That’s a big difference. So a cryonicists says today when someone dies, when they die of cancer, when they die of a stroke, many things that we die of, they say, “That person is not dead. That person is unable to be saved with 2016 technology.”
The hospitals today can’t save them now. If there was a hospital across the city, if someone in the hospital is dying, and there’s a hospital across the city that has a tool that can save them, but this hospital doesn’t, everyone agrees we would get an ambulance and rush them to that hospital to try to save them. What cryonics is trying to do is rush someone to a hospital in the future that can save them, because the hospitals in the future probably will be able to.
I strongly bet that in a hundred years or 50 years, most of the things that when someone dies in a hospital today of, would not be a death sentence anymore, and so if someone is rushed into a hospital in the future, they do that by putting them on biological pause. The reason a frozen embryo can be frozen for a long time is that it’s not actually frozen. It doesn’t die in that state, because biology, officially, it’s proven many times, can sustain the concept of being vitrified.
They cool the embryo or the organ to such a cold state that, without changing a structure, without freezing the liquid, the atoms can no longer move anywhere. Now how do they do that? Well how do you vitrify a human? You pump anti-freeze into the blood stream, so that now you can bring the temperature down well below freezing, and you still won’t get freezing of the liquid. It will just slow and slow and slow until all activity stops. There’s not any atom in the human body that can move. It’s just paused, exactly the way it was.
With an organ, we know how to do that, and we know how to un-vitrify it and bring it back, and have the organ work in a real living thing. With an embryo, there are people walking around the earth today that at some point were frozen, were vitrified embryos. So this works. Now, it’s more complex with the human brain. We have not yet figured out how to do that. Cryonicists are very honest about that. They say, “We don’t know if this will work. We don’t know if this will ever work, and we don’t know when if it does, but we think there’s good scientific reason to believe that this is plausible, especially to the scientists of the future.”
Who knows what the human species of the future would be able to do? Probably pretty incredible things. Our society would be unbelievable to someone in the 1800’s, so why wouldn’t the future society be just as unbelievable to us? Why wouldn’t they be able to take a vitrified brain and say, “Yeah, we do know how to un-pause this brain and have it work.” It’s not that big of a stretch. It’s not that crazy. So essentially, that’s why cryonics is. If you sign up, then it depends on how you die. If you die in an accident, you’re going to have a very hard time. No one is going to be there at that moment, and it is a battle of time there.
So ideally, you die in a predictable way on a death bed on a hospital somewhere, and if you’re signed up for cryonics with your annual membership fee, and by the way, people think - another myth is they think it’s for rich people. Actually, most people can afford this. So I am currently now signed up for cryonics. My bill, my annual bill is about a thousand bucks a year total. That pays for my membership fee, and I get a very cheap life insurance plan that is just for the purpose of paying. It’s made out to the cryonics company, Alcor.
So whenever I die, that money will go to pay for the final part of the payment. A thousand a year. I mean I spend a thousand a year on so much shit. I spend that on cable. I spend it on coffee, I spend it on taxis, and other things I don’t care about that aren’t important. This seems worth it. Even if people say, “What if Alcor is a scam?” I don’t think it is. My sense, after reading about it and talking to the head of Alcor, I really actually don’t think it is. It’s a non-profit run by passionate cryonicists who are all signed up themselves.
But you know what? Yeah, maybe it’s a scam, A. B, maybe this whole thing never works, sure. For a thousand bucks a year, even if there’s a 1% chance of this working, I’ll take my chances, because the alternative is a zero percent chance, as an atheist. If you’re religious, different story here. If you believe there’s an afterlife, a different story, but for an atheist or someone who doesn’t believe strongly in an afterlife, your alternative is closing your eyes upon death and that’s the end of you forever.
And when you sign up for cryonics, you get to have the awesomeness that a religious person doesn’t get in their life. You get to your deathbed and you say, “You’ll never know. I might wake up. I might blink right now and then wake up in a new place,” and for me, just having that whole biz is almost worth the money. It’s like I’ll give my vitrified brain to future humanity. See what you can do, and it gives me some hope that maybe you won’t feel the passage of time.
It will be like a blink, and you’ll wake up, and you’ll be in some future year, and ideally, the idea is they bring you back. They can cure whatever it is that killed you, but also rejuvenate you, because the human body and brain is just a physical object. It’s just cells. It’s not that complicated. The species gets good enough with nanotechnology, and don’t forget, artificial intelligence can help?
It might be very well that you wake up with a new fresh body. A young body, they rejuvenate your brain. This is not out of the realm of possibility, and that’s all I care about. Just give me a shot. For a thousand bucks a year, it gives me a shot. So that’s the idea, and the final thing I’ll say is people’s instincts, because death is this hideous thing that’s in all of our faces and Nick Bostrom, this philosopher I like, compares death to a dragon that we all just accept. Yes, every year 60 million people have to go to the dragon.
Don’t ever question the dragon, and it’s not even that. It’s good that they go to. It’s like we ended up in a Stockholm syndrome hostage situation, where we’re convinced that this is a good thing because there’s no way we can help it, so we try to make the best. The truth is death sucks or no, death doesn’t suck. Involuntary death sucks. If someone wants to bow out at 90, cryonics isn’t going to stop that. If we can live a lot longer than 90, someone will have the option to bow out.
Death when you’re not ready is what sucks. When you really, really wish you could still be living. When your family still needs you or whatever. No one ever thinks that’s good, when humans just die at 40, or 33 with was the average lifespan 200 years ago. I guarantee you there are all kinds of people when doctors were saying, “I think we can get humans to live up to 70 and 80 on average one day,” there were people saying, “Oh why are you such a narcissist, wanting all this life,” you know? “Isn’t death the lot of man? Just accept it.” No.
But now, we all live up to 80 or 90, or the average lifespan is in the 70’s on the planet. No one is saying, “Oh, well we’re such narcissists for wanting to live to fight through cancer at the age of 60, so maybe I can live until 80.” Everyone thinks that’s a brave person doing that. We think, of course, it’s great to try to live until 80. As soon as cryonics and other developments allow us to live to 150, 200, 250 and again, that sounds crazy.
But not when you can replace your organs with truly great artificial organs, or you rejuvenate your brain cells. All we are is an object. If you can fix it, then there’s no reason that that number can go way up. As soon as you can do that, you know people aren’t going to look back and say, “Oh, this is so vain to want to live this long.” They’re going to say, “Great! This is so great that we now can live this long, and it’s so sad that people used to just die all the time in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, before they’re ready.”
Or they were ready because they’ve convinced themselves through some mind game that this is a good thing and that they’re ready to go, when the truth is, if they’ve could have lived longer they’d probably would have had a totally different mindset. So that’s my long story about cryonics. I just think the more you learn about it, the more you’re like, “Wait, this is a total no brainer and it’s amazing,” but before you learn about it, it sounds insane and icky and who wants to be frozen? Everything just sounds terrible about it, and a huge waste of money, and a scam, and crazy, and all of that, and then as soon as you learn about it, it seems like the only option.
[0:47:48.0] MB: You know, the funny thing, or the most interesting thing about cryonics is, as you pointed out, is other than the financial cost, there’s really no downside. If it doesn’t work, you’re in the same boat as if you’ve never done it, but if it works, it’s a massive upside for you, and so it’s almost like the golden wager.
[0:48:06.7] TU: Exactly, Pascal’s wager. Why not? Literally, the alternative is getting eaten away by bacteria underground. Does that sound awesome to you? Or being cremated, that sounds great to you? You either have a zero percent chance of something cool happening after the moment of your death bed, or you have some chance, and some cryonicist think it’s not a 1% chance. It’s a 50% chance. Another one thinks maybe it’s a 5%, but either way, yeah.
A thousand bucks a year, I can’t think of anything I am spending a thousand bucks on currently in a year that is a better use of that money. People say, “Oh that’s a lot of money.” It’s not when you think about the things that you spend three bucks a day on, so yeah. You just start paying for it. You adjust your lifestyle to not having that thousand dollars a year, and you move on. You’re just living the same life, not thinking about that expense anymore, because it’s just built in.
Now you have this hope, what a cool thing. That’s my full pitch to why everyone should look into this at least. By the way, the Alcor website - Alcor is like one of the two major companies that currently does this. I wouldn’t be surprised, by the way, my life insurance claim is currently made out to Alcor. I wouldn’t be surprised if I switch it over to like, in 20 years, and like Google or some company like Google has now created like the best cryonics facility in the world. I’m just going to switch then. If something that I think is more reputable comes along, I’ll switch.
At the moment, Alcor is the most reputable. What I was going to say is, the Alcor website has a great FAQ. It’s long, thorough, well-written FAQ, clearly by scientists, which is heartening to me to say this, by very smart, reasonable people who are not salesy, they’re not trying to sell you anything other than being just trying to be upfront. It has a ton more info there. I hope that any listeners who are intrigued by this do it so that we can all hang out in 2400 together, see how cool the phones are then, and other things. There’s going to be a lot of things that are really cool in 2400, and I want to see them.
[0:50:05.8] MB: This has been such a fascinating sample of just some of the topics that you cover on Wait But Why. There’s so much more that I want to ask you about, and I wish we could dig deeper on — we may have to do another interview. There’s just so many interesting topics, but for listeners who are curious about these things.
As I said, Tim has written blog posts that are super detailed, very research minded, rooted in science about both of these topics, and we’ll include all that stuff in the show notes, as well as the Alcor website, everything else.
Tim, before you go, where can people find you and the blog online?
[0:50:37.9] TU: Yeah, everything I do is basically on waitbutwhy.com. That’s just where I put all my blog posts, everything I’m doing for the last two years basically is sitting on that site. That’s the answer. Then I would try and encourage people who like what I do to subscribe to the email list.
Subscribing to email lists is icky, and I don’t like doing it, and I’m sure you don’t either, but this is a very unannoying one, where we just kind of send out a post when it’s done and that’s it. Only thing the email list is for. Otherwise, because posts happen so sporadically, it’s hard to remember to check the site, and it’s not like something where we let you know when it’s going to go up, so the email’s the best way to kind of just stay in touch, and I promise I won’t annoy you.
[0:51:23.9] MB: Well Tim, this has been a fascinating conversation, and topics that I’m really interested in, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing these insights.
[0:51:32.7] TU: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, this was fun.
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