Kevin Kelly on What Technology Wants (Podcast)

TreeHugger: One of the factors of this whole equation that nobody seems to have really clear answers to is population growth. Some estimates have it as high as 10 billion by the middle of the century. How do you see the planet supporting this many people?

Kevin Kelly: Population growth is a very interesting question, because, for me, the issue is not whether the planet can actually support the 10 billion people. But more importantly, is the reality of our progress to date dependent on population growth, and will it change once we pass the peak of population? So, the question is-and this is a question that really nobody has the answer to-is the progress we have experienced within our lifetimes, and even the last couple of hundred years, dependent on the fact that there has been rising population?

We have had no episodes in history where there has been increasing prosperity and decreasing population. We have lots of examples of increasing population and poverty, but none where there's increasing prosperity and decreasing population.

So the question really at hand is: do you need increasing population to have increasing progress? And it might be that that's what the formula is and there is no prosperity without population growth. Or it may be that, yes, there are lots of ways to be prosperous and we just haven't thought of any, and using technology we can actually invent some way where there's fewer and fewer people in the world and rising prosperity.

It's a kind of negative growth prosperity and progress model, but we don't have any historical evidence that such a thing works. It's not impossible to imagine, but it is very difficult to imagine.

TH: Another futurist, Ray Kurzweil, has some dramatic predictions for where we're headed. How would you say your idea of the technium differs from Kurzweil's predictions for the singularity?

Kelly: I think the main thing I try to emphasize in What Technology Wants is that there is no destiny, no endpoint, no final convergence of the technological evolution. I think Ray Kurzweil and I would agree that the technium is an extension of natural evolution, which is one of the reasons why I think it's inherently compatible with life, because the technium is a continuum of the same forces that crafted life.

But I think where we differ is that Ray says that we're going tohave this convergence, this endpoint, where what we make becomes greater than us, and then it can make something greater than itself, and it makes something even greater than itself, and that creation cycle keeps speeding up. And it happens so fast eventually that it seems to be instantaneous, and then all of a sudden, there's infinite smartness, infinite intelligence, that can then solve all our problems, and that's an endpoint.

I think evolution is moving outwards in all directions, like a radial explosion, and the whole point of evolution is that there is no endpoint, that there's a direction in terms of increasing complexity and increasing diversity, but there's no final destiny. So there's direction without destiny.

And I think that's a big difference between our two views.

TH: Do you think we have a moral obligation to advance technology?

Kelly: If you buy into my proposition: that the reason we make more technology is because it increases the choices and possibilities that we have, that it enlarges the space of differences and diversity of ways of making a living or seeing the world. If you've accepted that, then what technology gives each one of us is tools to find and express our individual talents.

Each one of us, just as we have different genes and different faces, we have different mixes of talents, and we need tools to help us make the most of them, just as Beethoven or Mozart needed the tools of the piano or the harpsichord to express their musical genius.

And so we can imagine the thought experiment of picturing the world where they were born 2000 years before the technologies of the piano or the symphony were invented, which would have left a huge hole in our culture and would be a great loss to them.

And by the same token, there must be a boy or girl alive today in the world who is a genius of the same caliber, maybe some Shakespeare, that's waiting for us to invent their technologies, so that they can express and share their genius.

And so in that sense of wanting to provide the option, at least, for every person alive today and in future generations, to have some possibility of finding and expressing their unique set of talents to the world, we have an obligation to invent new stuff, because they're waiting for us to invent their technologies, just as we have benefited from people in the past inventing new technologies for us.

And so I think we do have a moral obligation to increase the diversity of things in the world, to increase the possibilities so that everybody will have a chance to have the old technologies of clean water and abundant food and education, as well as the possible new technologies that they need to express and share their genius with all of us.

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