We hear a lot of promises about the future. But what’s truly on its way, and what’s going to remain a pipe dream for a few decades yet?
That’s the question that Zach and Kelly Weinersmith set out to answer in Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, which came out this week from Penguin Random House. Zach is the artist behind the wonderfully nerdy Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics and Kelly is a scientist focusing on parasites. Their book covers a wide range of topics, divided into sections about the universe (asteroid mining, cheap access to space), stuff (synthetic biology, augmented reality) and “you,” (precision medicine, brain-computing interfaces). The chapters explain not only the scientific concepts behind each technology — punctuated with comics, of course — but the economic and political and ethical implications and how our world is about to change.
The Verge spoke to the husband-and-wife team about what parts of reality moved faster than the book, the biggest surprises they found during interviews, and the dangers of trash cans with cookies.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you come up with the idea for the book? And how did you narrow it down to these 10 technologies?
Kelly Weinersmith: The original version was a guide for teens, something like “50 techs that if you’re 18 you can get involved in now,” with little sections like, “If you want to get in the field, how should you prepare?” And almost every scientist was like, “Learn more math. That’s the secret.” And it ended up being like, we’re going to have to rephrase “learn more math” 50 ways, and we’re not even 10 percent that clever. So we ended up having to retool. And writing for a teenage audience is a bit constraining, so we changed that, too.
Zach Weinersmith: We just had a big list, essentially stuff we were super interested in and didn’t know if it was real. To an extent, it was just curiosity. We’re both tangentially interested in stuff like asteroid mining. To sit down with a book and talk to experts and see what’s going on is fascinating, and sometimes what’s stopping the technology is almost more interesting than the idea itself, and it’s also really nice.
When people read the book, it will inoculate them against BS news. I was talking to a friend who for a while was into futurology, and he told me he had to quit reading about it because he was perpetually disappointed. While we were researching, we found that people claim that soon there will be an inflatable tower from which we’d launch rockets or space planes. But if you know a little about how a space launch works, you’d see it’s solving the wrong problem. Getting up high is not the hard part; the hard part is getting really, really fast. The hard part is not going up; it’s going sideways. The nice thing is, once you know, you can start reading the news a little carefully, and maybe you don’t get your hopes up quite as high.
KW: Other times, the topic ended up totally not being what we expanded. With asteroid mining, we thought the goal was to collect rare metals and bring them to earth and sell them to make a profit. A long time ago it was determined not to be profitable, so now it’s about trying to set up stuff that happens in space, to collect water, to set up colonies on asteroids or the Moon. Almost every chapter had an element where we thought the problem was this, and the problem ended up being something totally different.
Nowadays, scientific advances seem to be happening more and more quickly. Did you ever need to change the book because the advances you were predicting were already real?
KW: Augmented reality. Pokémon Go came out before we even submitted the final chapter, and then augmented reality was everywhere. I almost wanted to not check the news because I don’t want there to be updates that we don’t discuss.
ZW: Yeah. Interesting, the AR guy who literally wrote the book on AR says Pokémon Go technically doesn’t count because the pokémon are not in registration with reality. They just appear. So whether there’s a bench or not when Pikachu appears, true AR knows it’s a bench you can hop on.
One interesting thing was we talked about this potential ethical issue in AR. What happens if you own a shop and someone graffitied a slogan on it in AR channel? If it’s in the real world, the law has been settled because it’s the real world, and in the virtual world, who cares? But in the interface between the real world and virtuality, it’s a different thing.
KW: Yeah, I almost wanted to not check the news because I don’t want there to be updates that we don’t discuss.
ZW: The other technology that surprised us was reusable rockets. We were destroying rockets after every launch, but if you can reuse it, it causes the price to drop a lot. We knew SpaceX was planning to do a reusable one, but then they did it.
It was this hypothetical technology, and then it happened. By the time we turned in the book, it happened a couple more times. I was watching first time SpaceX landed one of the booster phases and this guy came on Twitter and said, “I was alive to see the moon landing and this is more exciting.” Maybe he just doesn’t remember how exciting it was, but you can actually argue he’s right from an economic point of view. The example we give in the book is: imagine what it would cost to fly an airplane from LA to NY if at the end you blew up the plane, thinking about how a 747 costs something like $40 million. But as we know, you just reuse the plane. So maybe it’s not as awesome as a guy jumping on the Moon to be a truly spacefaring society, it’s true.
I know Kelly is a scientist focusing on parasites, but neither of you are experts in all 10 of these fields. What was the process like?
KW: For each of the chapters, we tried to read a couple textbooks. One did the textbook and manuscript and we split that. My job was to do the interviews as well, and Zach has this amazing network of nerds that we could tap into.
Zach would read a bunch of textbooks and papers and get some background information, and we’d figure out who the big names were, and we’d make our list of people we’d ask for interviews. Zach would write a rough draft and I would go through and interviews and then Zach would put jokes in. Then we’d send it off to additional people so they could fact-check if we missed anything.
ZW: I would read, you read for another month, and then you’re sick of the topic. For me, that’s the point at which I felt like writing the chapter. I just want to info dump this and be rid of it.
For a couple chapters, the challenge was just finding the right keywords because once you have the right keyword you can get the right research. Brain-computer interfaces were the worst. It was originally called brain modification and it’s only in the past 10 years that the field has called itself BCI, so we weren’t sure what to search for.
There are a lot of interviews in the book. Were there any surprises in terms of what people’s goals were, or how they evaluated a technology?
KW: I was interviewing a doctor that studies brain-computer interfaces. We thought the ultimate goal was so that paraplegics would be able to have full control of limbs. And we asked them, what do you imagine the end goal will be, and his answer was not at all what we expected, it was that we will all be able to have a collective consciousness and essentially be one big super-organism with all of our brains loaded on the cloud and we’ll all share thought.
No doubt, if we reach that, humanity would be totally changed by that. But Zach and I don’t think that’s at all desirable. Your thought process is how you filter things out things you will believe or not believe. You play with them in your brain and see if they make sense. The doctor admitted that if you had the passing thought “maybe I want to leave my partner” it’d be less than ideal if they knew. I asked others in the field, is that something that other people are expecting the field will take seriously?, and they’re like, oh yeah, we don’t talk about that too much, after we give people robotic limbs, then we will all become a super-organisms. It clearly wasn’t the case that everybody has this on their mind as the ultimate goal, but they were like, yeah yeah, this is something, maybe we’ll get there. That was pretty awesome.
ZW: The other one comes to mind involves this synthetic biologist named named George Church. He read a lot of our book for us and also we disagreed with him about something and he was super cool about it.
He’s a genetics guy. He’s really out there and one of his ideas is mirror humans. Life on earth has a number of molecules that have a certain chirality, or like a mirror image —like right and left hands — and they only work in one chirality.
His proposal is that you can create mirror animals with the opposite chirality. Then they would not be subject to diseases because diseases are subject to one specific chirality.
The negative is that people would also have to eat food that was also the other chirality. But anyway, while researching, I think on Twitter a guy said to me, there’s this particular molecule that makes things taste like spearmint, and its mirror makes things taste like caraway seed, which is the unique flavor of a Jewish rye bread. And so somebody was like, oh my god, if mirror people walk among us — you know, what if George Church secretly completed his goal? — can we detect them by giving them Jewish rye and they’d be like, why did you give them mint bread? When we were finishing up were super lucky to get in touch with a scientist to ask, can we detect mirror humans by giving them caraway seed? The answer is basically, it’s complicated and maybe, but we’re not going to get to test it anytime soon. But that was a really fun digression. We had all these little sections with are threads that came that aren’t relevant but that we thought were awesome.
A lot of the advances are promising, but the downsides of technology are potent, too. Were there any discoveries that frightened you?
ZW: The one that popped up for me was the issue of how to handle just transferring heavy objects around space. You don’t need a nuke to have a big explosion, you need to have a lot of energy and a big heavy object moving fast has a lot of energy.
They have this concern sometimes called Rod from God. The basic idea is that you have a 20-ton hunk of tungsten and throw it toward NYC and there’s basically nothing anyone can do it about it. If it were a nuclear warhead, potentially you can just blow it up because a nuke is a pretty sensitive mechanism, but just a hunk of metal, what are you going to do?
In a world where space travel is cheap and where you can access stuff, if there’s any desire to get it to the home planet, how do you safely de-orbit without threatening people? Even if you trust the US to never blow it, by what right do you say to Russia or even North Korea that they can’t bring heavy objets into orbit? That’s a little ominous.
You were talking about how you came across all these digressions in the course of research. Is there one that’s your favorite?
KW: So, when we were writing a robot-related chapter, we came across this story where an undergrad for her honors thesis wanted to see how much people trust robots. So she tried to see if she could get a robot to be given permission to enter permission to enter the building by people who lived in that dorm.
There was no reason why anybody should be letting anyone in the dorms. They recently had bomb threats and it’s Harvard, so it’s common for tourists to try to sneak in and they had been warned in many instances, don’t let anybody in.
So the student made it look like this robot was moving on its own but she was actually sitting somewhere and hiding and remote-controlling and she had it ask for permission to get in. Groups of people were more likely to let it in, but the thing was, if the robot was carrying cookies — not even very good cookies, just crummy grocery store cookies— people were very likely to let it in, like three times more likely. It’s probably because they thought, this is Boston, somebody is starting up a company where robots deliver cookies. But still, the robot could have been carrying a bomb and nobody checked to confirm.
And so another guy did his PhD dissertation Georgia Tech wanted to see how much people.
Students agreed to follow robots over a hallway into a room where they were going to fill out a survey. Fake smoke billowed and they had to decide where to escape. In different scenarios of the case, the robot was varying degrees of reliable. Like in one case, the robot had taken a wrong term and gone into a wall, and the experimenter said that the robot wasn’t working right now.
In a very high percent of the cases, the students followed this robot. They followed it where they were led to believe the robots were totally defective.
Once the robot led them into a room with the light turned off and sofa in front of the door and the robot kept pointing, going go into the room and the student stood next to the robot waiting for it to give it updated instructions. And some of them stood there until an experimenter said, you could go this way instead. These are no doubt some of the brightest students in the US, but the point is that we’re all very trusting of robot overlords.
ZW: My very favorite part is that they’re not advance humanoid robots, they’re remote-controlled trash cans! Fancy robots walk among us. They’ve developed exoskeletons and human skin and still it turns out a trash can can convince you to go into a building that’s on fire and sit there and wait to die. So movies have got it totally wrong. There’s real opportunity for the Terminator where there’s a trash can with cookies.