Campus & Community

Mars, Elon Musk, AI and Other Musings of a Star Science Blogger

Lecturer Tim Urban discusses wide range of tech topics at Stevens Institute of Technology

Tim Urban on stage at Stevens' DeBaun auditorium as the featured speaker of the President's Leadership Seminar.
Tim Urban presenting a talk at Stevens Institute of Technology on November 15, 2016.

It takes a certain kind of thinker to connect the Big Bang Theory, evolution, space travel, artificial intelligence and the future of mankind in just a little over an hour.

But simplifying the complex is what Tim Urban does. In fact, he’s Elon Musk’s favorite explainer of things.

Through his long-form, stick-figure-illustrated blog "Wait But Why," Urban ruminates on topics that range from presidential elections to how the internal combustion engine works to colonizing Mars. And he was given free rein to discourse on a wide range of topics as the featured speaker in Stevens Institute of Technology’s President’s Leadership Seminar November 15.

In opening remarks to a packed audience filling Stevens’ DeBaun Auditorium, Stevens President Nariman Farvardin noted Urban’s star power among the many students in attendance. They are among the legion of fans who follow Urban’s blog, which receives more than 1 million unique visitors each month and has more than 440,000 email subscribers. His 2016 TED Talk on procrastination has also been viewed more than 8 million times.

Human existence: an anomaly within an anomaly within an anomaly

For those unfamiliar with his work, Urban began by introducing himself as someone who writes about science and technology as well as “the craziness of humanity and society."

Weaving together big-picture topics, Urban began by exploring the origin of life in the universe. Acknowledging the Big Bang Theory is not an “easy thing” to explain, he emphasized the relative short period of human existence when viewed within the history of the universe. After a humorous discussion of human evolution, accompanied by his trademark stick-figure drawings, he wondered about the possibility of alien life — or rather the absence of it. The fact that we still have not discovered other forms of intelligent life in the universe gives him pause.

“Really smart people are convinced that we are not just the only intelligent life, but perhaps the only life.”

Urban says one theory is that there must have been a Great Filter – a stage or wall in the long evolutionary process that makes it extremely unlikely or impossible for life to get beyond that barrier. If humans managed to get through the Great Filter, that would make us extremely rare.

“To get from nothingness to us [would have been] an incredible freak thing to happen,” he said.

We are not living in a normal time

Spanning the history of human existence from 100,000 B.C. to the present, Urban marveled at the extraordinary developments of just the last 200 years, including the invention of cars, airplanes and cell phones as well as the development of space travel and the internet. Under the law of accelerating returns, he said, the pace of human progress should be in overdrive from here on out.

“Now we live in this world where our parents – just one generation from us – can’t even understand our technology. Grandparents forget about it,” he said, telling audience members, “You’re not going to be able to understand your kids’ technology. This is a crazy time to have been born. So much of what feels so normal to us is a crazy anomaly."

Google, Pandora, Siri, Amazon, Facebook – we’re already living in a world run by artificial intelligence, albeit artificial narrow intelligence, Urban continued.

“No one calls it AI when it works. That's why we don’t think we live in a world of AI.”

Even harder to grasp for most people is the concept of artificial superintelligence (ASI). Such an achievement would be in essence, “God in a box,” Urban said, with far-reaching possibilities: curing disease and hunger and even mortality; reprogramming the weather to protect the future of life on Earth; and so forth.

But would this be a benevolent god? Urban’s not sure.

“We [humans] understand good and bad because it was evolutionarily advantageous to understand good and bad,” he said. 

Programming a nuanced human emotion like empathy into a computer poses not only a technological challenge but a moral dilemma, he added. 

“Valuing human life is a very specific value. Who decides how to program this god into what it thinks,” he challenged. “The more you think about it, the more troubling it gets.”

What makes it even more troubling is that there may not be the adequate attention paid to safeguarding against a potentially malevolent ASI.

“The people who are nervous are not usually the developers, they’re the philosophers, the people behind the scenes, and they’re worried that we’re a bunch of kids playing with a bomb.”

Count entrepreneur Elon Musk among the worried.

Why Elon Musk wants to go Mars

“What scares Elon is not an asteroid, what scares him is us, AI, things we’re doing with nuclear weapons,” continued Urban.

In June 2015, Musk tapped Urban to write about his companies and their surrounding industries, leading to a four-part blog series with a particular focus on SpaceX, the private rocket firm aiming to establish a human colony on Mars of 1 million people during the next 100 years.

A Mars colony would offer a “backup hard drive,” so to speak, in case things go very wrong on planet Earth.

“Instead of having all of our eggs in one basket, [Musk says] ‘why don’t we try to divide people into two planets and have a self-sustaining civilization on both of them.’”

The first rockets to transport humans to the Red Planet may happen as early as 2024, concluded Urban.

The entire lecture may be viewed online.

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