Scaling to optimism: Futurist, author and computer scientist Ramez Naam on the power of cheap tech

Futurist and author Ramez Naam. (GeekWire photo / Clare McGrane)

If you were to ask globally known clean energy expert Ramez Naam what makes him optimistic about technology and the future, it may boil down to one word: scale.

Naam has a long history of thinking about the effects of scale, even before his current role as co-chair for energy and the environment at Singularity University. In his award-winning Nexus science fiction trilogy, Naam tackled the implications of widespread brain-to-brain communication. And in his past role as a computer scientist at Microsoft leading teams working on early versions of Outlook, Internet Explorer, and Bing, Naam came to appreciate what sheer magnitude can do.

“I learned that we can create tools that really improve people’s lives, and that technology can scale to help billions of people,” Naam said. “And that, I think, inspired me with the power of using our minds and our imaginations to make the world better.”

Naam joined GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on science fiction, the arts, and pop culture, discussing his expectations for the future of the planet — and whether we’re trending more toward Mad Max or Star Trek. Throughout the conversation, the Seattle-based technologist kept coming back to the concept of scale as a reason he’s a self-described optimist.

Listen to the episode below or download the MP3.

It’s not like everything is rainbows and unicorns, of course.

“The world sucks in a lot of ways,” Naam said, pointing to the hundreds of millions of people without electricity, clean water, or who don’t have secure sources of food. “But as a percentage of humanity, those are all at record lows. And those numbers have mostly dropped by a factor of two or three since the 1970s,” he said. “Statistically this is the best time to be born human ever in the hundred-thousand year history of humanity.”

In this way, Naam’s beliefs are aligned with those of futurist Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity University co-founder.

Naam thinks it’s the very human predilection to pay more attention to dramatic catastrophes than to slow, gradual improvements which leads many to believe the world is worse off than it is. “We are wired because of our hunter-gatherer evolution to be more attuned to threats than good news about the world,” he said. “That’s what matters more to our ability to survive.”

He does find climate change to be a very real threat. Yet even there Naam is encouraged by technology and the plunging price of solar panels, wind power, and battery storage. “Now in places like Arizona, Southern California, even Colorado, solar power is just cheaper than coal or gas. Even if you took away all subsidies,” he said.

They are examples of what Naam called “exponential technologies” that improve rapidly. “Now will we do it fast enough? I don’t know. It’s a race right now between climate change and how fast the tech is getting cheaper and being deployed,” he said.

Outside of clean energy, Naam sees both technological hope and hype. He noted virtual reality, for example, will take time to fulfill its promise for entertainment and education. “It has to get down to being super high-fidelity in lightweight, unobtrusive mobile devices that are un-tethered before it’s really good,” he said.

And some artificial intelligence systems are very good today, but only where success is easy to define, such as in pattern matching. “They can be better than humans at almost any narrow task,” he said. “They’re already better at face recognition in pictures. They’re better at spotting cats in pictures.” But move into unstructured tasks with no clear success metrics or sufficient data, and “there’s still nothing like humans.”

Naam’s own examination of future tech — in the form of wireless electronic brain-to-brain communication in the science-fiction thriller trilogy Nexus, Crux, and Apex — may also be inching closer to some kind of reality since the third novel appeared in 2015. “Nexus is a drug that you swallow that gets into your brain and basically attaches little tiny WiFi nodes to all the brain cells,” he said of his fictional creation. In the real world today, “At the University of Washington, we have a couple of researchers that have sent signals back and forth between human brains non-invasively.”

Nexus, which received science fiction’s Prometheus and Endeavor awards and was named an “NPR Best Book” of the year, may also be headed to screens. Naam said it was optioned for film earlier and it’s currently on option for a television series. “What I’ve learned is that an option is like your seed round of your startup, and an IPO is when it comes to the screen. So fingers crossed,” he said.

But the futurist and author appears more aligned with the promise, and power, of tech that can reach magnitudes cheaply.

“The thing that really excites me is how as technology drops in price, it scales out to billions more people,” he said. Naam recalled 1980s-era Motorola DynaTAC mobile phones which were the size of a brick, cost thousands in today’s dollars, and were once a sign of immense wealth. “Now 85 percent of people in Kenya have mobile phones,” he said. “So that dissemination of technology I think is incredibly empowering and incredibly leveling for the playing field.”

Listen to this episode in the player above and subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast in Apple PodcastsGoogle Play or your favorite podcast app. Podcast production and editing by Clare McGrane.

Previously in this series: From Harry Potter to Star Trek Beyond, behind the scenes with Seattle Symphony’s multi-sensory tech

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Commercial space ventures hail NASA opportunities in orbit and on the moon

Astrobotic's Peregrine lander
An artist’s conception shows Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander on the lunar surface. (Astrobotic Illustration)

The Trump administration’s proposed shift to commercial partners for space operations in low Earth orbit as well as on and around the moon is getting a predictably positive reception from those potential partners.

“This moment here, with the shift to the moon, is what we’ve waited 10 years for,” John Thornton, CEO of Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, told Geekwire. Astrobotic has been working on a series of private-sector lunar landing missions and is now looking forward to heightened interest from NASA.

Over the next few years, hundreds of millions of dollars would be set aside for private-sector moon missions and for commercial ventures in low Earth orbit — either by putting private ventures in charge of the U.S. segment of the International Space Station, or by establishing new orbital platforms.

Not everyone is thrilled by the budget proposal, in part because it calls for phasing out federal funding for the space station by 2025. The critics include leading members of Congress who will have to fine-tune and approve the budget proposed today.

Today Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said abandoning the space station would be a “non-starter.”

“Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense,” Nelson said in a tweet.

But Robert Bigelow, the billionaire founder of Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, said the shift toward commercialization is “Earth-shattering news.”

“Bigelow Aerospace applauds the focus on commercial partnerships for low Earth orbit and lunar exploration, and stands ready to partner with NASA and others — in new and exciting ways that we will announce in the near future,” he said in a tweeted statement.

Space station ventures

Bigelow already has a test module on the space station, and has proposed sending up even bigger expandable habitats for use in Earth orbit and lunar orbit.

Two other private ventures, Axiom Space and NanoRacks, have their own plans for orbital space platforms. Axiom Space would consider incorporating some elements of the International Space Station into its own commercial station if they became available sometime after 2024.

“We would continue on the work that was already begun on the ISS without throwing it all away,” Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini told CNBC. “Otherwise entities would need to build new hardware and get it to orbit all over again.”

NanoRacks is already working with NASA to develop a commercial air lock for the space station, with an eye toward moving the hardware to an entirely commercial space station some years into the future. The Texas-based company is also part of NASA’s NextSTEP-2 program to develop space habitat prototypes, along with Bigelow, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada Corp.

The NextSTEP program is expected to show the way toward the establishment of a Deep Space Gateway — or Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway, to use NASA’s new term. The LOP Gateway would be assembled in lunar orbit in the 2020s and help blaze a trail for Mars.

Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber, told GeekWire that NASA’s proposal for the post-2025 time period was well-timed. “They should be applauded for raising the issue now, rather than when it’s too late,” he said.

Manber said today’s announcement should help NanoRacks and other ventures raise capital for an assortment of orbital platforms, tailored for astronaut training, space tourism or robotic manufacturing.

NASA’s five-year spending plan calls for setting aside $150 million in 2019 to support the transition to commercial operations in low Earth orbit, with that figure rising to $225 in fiscal 2023. The agency plans to conduct an open competition this year for commercial capabilities, which may involve the International Space Station or free-flying orbital platforms, according to Andrew Hunter, NASA’s chief financial officer.

Moon ventures

When it comes to commercial moon exploration, the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize helped blaze a trail, even though none of the teams will end up winning the top prize. The competition encouraged the development of lunar landers such as Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander and Moon Express’ MX-1E spacecraft.

Those ventures, along with Masten Space Systems, are participating in NASA’s Lunar CATALYST program (a.k.a. Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown), which facilitates the exchange of information — but no NASA funds.

NASA’s 2019 budget proposal aims to change all that, with $200 million set aside for commercial lunar landing services. NASA’s Hunter said a request for proposals relating to carrying a NASA payload to the moon is expected to go out sometime in the next two or three months, with the “mission of opportunity” to be flown in the 2019-2020 time frame.

That timetable suits Astrobotic’s Thornton just fine. He told GeekWire that his company has “plenty of room for NASA” aboard its Peregrine lander, which is currently due for launch in 2020 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

Eleven commercial ride-along deals have already been struck, at a price of $1.2 million per kilogram (2.2 pounds), Thornton said. “We’re down to about a dozen kilos available commercially,” he said. Astrobotic is reserving an additional amount of mass for NASA, but Thornton declined to say how much.

Astrobotic’s first mission is aiming for Lacus Mortis, a region in the lunar mid-latitudes with a pit that could provide protection for a future habitat. Follow-on missions could go to places around the lunar poles that offer reserves of water ice.

Moon Express and Masten Space Systems also hailed NASA’s heightened support for lunar initiatives. Moon Express, which was co-founded by Seattle-area tech entrepreneur Naveen Jain, is working on a plan that would make use of Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle to send landers on their way to the lunar surface.

“The future has never been brighter for our commercial lunar business plans, and we look forward to an expanding partnership with NASA in supporting a U.S. return to the moon, and a new era of lunar exploration and discovery supporting science and commerce,” Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said in an emailed statement.

David Masten, the chairman and chief technology officer of Masten Space Systems, voiced cautious optimism about NASA’s lunar lander initiative.

“It’s a good start,” Masten said in a tweet that was accompanied by an emoji face with a winking eye and stuck-out tongue. “But the devil is in the details, and we’ll see where we are after Congress takes it up.”

Later on, heavier-duty landers — such as the Blue Moon system that’s being offered to NASA by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture — may come into play. The granddaddy of all landers would be SpaceX’s BFR spaceship, which Elon Musk has proposed for trips to the moon as well as Mars.

Endangered ventures

The downside of NASA’s proposal was that after this year, funding levels would recede slightly from $19.9 billion to a flat level of $19.6 billion, with no accommodation for inflation. What’s more, several programs would be canceled entirely, including five Earth science missions, NASA’s Office of Education and the space agency’s $3 billion-plus Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST.

WFIRST is in the very early planning stages, but it’s seen as a long-term successor to the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to be launched in the 2019-2020 time frame.

The proposed cutbacks already have sparked an outcry in some quarters on Twitter. Here’s a sampling:

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Travel giant Expedia cuts jobs in tech infrastructure and operations teams

Expedia CEO Mark Okerstrom announces the companies expanded shift to Amazon Web Services last year. (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

Expedia Inc. has cut about 30 jobs from its technology infrastructure and operations teams, most of them at the online travel giant’s corporate headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., GeekWire has learned.

The move is part of a restructuring of the teams, part of a larger attempt to speed up the delivery of new technologies and features, according to a person familiar with the job cuts. Most of the employees impacted by the cuts are expected to be moved to other parts of the company, this person said.

Expedia isn’t commenting publicly on the cuts. Like many other big companies, Expedia has been making a broader shift toward cloud computing technologies, away from its legacy data center operations. Expedia announced an expanded relationship with Amazon Web Services last year.

The company’s fourth-quarter results, reported last week, missed Wall Street’s revenue and earnings expectations, and its stock is down more than 16 percent since that report.

“2017 was a year of change for Expedia across many dimensions,” Expedia CEO Mark Okerstrom said on a conference call with analysts after the earnings miss. “And though the year did not end up as we planned from a financial perspective, we hit some important milestones and made huge progress in a number of areas. Importantly, we spent the last quarter aligning the organization strategically and operationally to execute on our ambitious plans. And we are now firmly in execution mode.”

The positions being cut represent about 7.5 percent of the 400 people on the infrastructure and operations technology teams. Expedia employed 22,615 people as of the end of last year.

Expedia Inc., which plans to move its headquarters from Bellevue to the Seattle waterfront next year, operates travel brands including Orbitz, Travelocity, HomeAway, Hotels.com and others. The company’s previous CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, left to lead ride-hailing company Uber last year, and Okerstrom, who had been the company’s longtime finance chief, took over as chief executive in September.

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Was Christopher Steele Paid by Russian Oligarch and Putin Ally Oleg Deripaska?

A release last week of texts showed that Christopher Steele, the former British spy whose memos regarding the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia are referred to as the Steele dossier, reached out to Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, through a Russian-linked Washington, D.C., lobbyist named Adam Waldman. Among Waldman’s clients is Oleg Deripaska, a Russian aluminum magnate with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a text dated March 16, 2017, Waldman texted Warner, “Chris Steele asked me to call you.”

In 2009, Waldman filed papers with the Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) registering himself as an agent for Deripaska in order to provide “legal advice on issues involving his U.S. visa as well as commercial transactions” at a retainer of $40,000 a month. In 2010, Waldman additionally registered as an agent for Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, “gathering information and providing advice and analysis as it relates to the U.S. policy towards the visa status of Oleg Deripaska,” including meetings with U.S. policymakers. Based on the information in his FARA filings, Waldman has received at least $2.36 million for his work with Deripaska.

Continue reading “Was Christopher Steele Paid by Russian Oligarch and Putin Ally Oleg Deripaska?” at…

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The Chosen Ones: An Interview with Maureya Lebowitz

Born in Malibu and trained in Winnipeg, Maureya Lebowitz is a real, live, Jewish ballerina. Suffice it to say, she is not your typical ballerina. For starters, her show prep includes a power nap, an espresso, and some dark chocolate. After joining the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2011, Lebowitz has started to gain international attention, dancing as a soloist all over the world: As Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, and Spring in Cinderella. She happened to be in New York and, as such, we met in downtown Manhattan for Mexican food and conversation.

Periel Aschenbrand: So your family moved from Malibu to Canada?

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Copenhagen’s 184-Year-Old Great Synagogue Set to Reopen This Summer

There may not be many Jews living in the Danish capital today, but the local community is world-famous for the exceptional protection it received from its government and their compatriots during World War II. Despite the challenges of emigration and assimilation, which are typical of many other Jewish communities across Europe, the Jews of Copenhagen—approximately 2,500—still form a vibrant, dynamic community. And later this year, they are hoping to return into their 184-year-old great synagogue, which is scheduled to reopen in August.

The synagogue, located in the very heart of the city center, was completed in 1833.

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The Last European Capital Without a Chabad House Finally Gets One

Vietnam has two Chabad Houses, one in Hanoi and one in Ho Chi Minh City. Kyrgyzstan has one, in the city of Bishkek, and so does Mauritius, home to an estimated 150 Jews. Montenegro, New Zealand, and Martinique all have Chabad Houses. Every year, options are dwindling for shluchim (emissaries) looking for an exotic locale to start a Jewish community center. Unless you’re willing to go to Reykjavík.

Of course, Rabbi Avi and Mushky Feldman don’t see it that way—Iceland’s first ever Chabad shluchim, who are preparing to set up shop this spring, are delighted at the chance to create an institutional Jewish presence in Iceland. According to Chabad, “Rabbi Feldman will be the country’s first permanent rabbi; and aside from congregations formed by British and American troops during World War II, theirs will be the first synagogue in Iceland’s 1,000-plus years of history.”

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Sorry, Whoopi, But That Pence-Is-to-Gays-What-Nazis-Are-to-Jews Analogy is Horrible

Being a world class moral idiot, Donald Trump has an uncanny ability to turn his critics into moral idiots too.

Case in point: Increased tensions between the Trump administration and the nuclear-armed, dynastic despotism of North Korea are leading major media outlets and the president’s partisan antagonists (often indistinguishable) to swoon over the North Korean delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. “North Korea’s 200-plus cheerleaders steal spotlight at 2018 Winter Olympics with matching outfits, synchronized chants,” reads a headline from ABC News. (You’d steal the spotlight too if missing a beat in a synchronized chant resulted in death for yourself and your entire family). A CNN dispatch declared Kim Jong-Un’s sister was “stealing the show,” presumably in the same way Adolf Hitler did at the 1936 Berlin games. (“If ‘diplomatic dance’ were an event at the Winter Olympics,” the CNN reporters wrote, Kim Yo Jong “would be favored to win gold.”) The New York Times, channeling the spirit of Walter Duranty, headlined a dispatch, “Kim Jong-Un’s Sister Turns on the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight,” favorably contrasting her “messages of reconciliation” with Vice President Mike Pence’s “old message” of pledging that the U.S. would “continue to ratchet up” sanctions.” In a since-deleted tweet, Washington Post national reporter Philip Bump swooned over the “deadly side-eye” Jong shot at Pence; a Post headline, quoting a think tank analyst, dubbed her the “Ivanka Trump of North Korea.” So fawning and obsequious has coverage of the North Korean slave state been that Buzzfeed, as reliable a shaper and purveyor of woke millennial opinion as any outlet, felt the need to issue a “PSA” informing readers that the emissary of a giant concentration camp is “Not Your New Fave Shade Queen” but rather a “Garbage Monster.”

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A Price Comparison of Some of the Most Expensive Buildings in the World

Reigarw Comparisons created a new animated video where they compare the prices of some of the most expensive buildings, structures, and properties in the world.

Includes most expensive house, most expensive mansion, most expensive penthouse, most expensive stadium, most expensive resort, most expensive skyscraper, most expensive castle, most expensive hospital and more. As well as the sizes of stacks of $100 bills to show how much $100 you need to buy the building.

Note:
– Prices here typically refers to total cost to build – Except for the mansions, which are cost to purchase the land.
– Buildings before 1900 are estimated based on how much would it cost to build in today’s money.
– Buildings built before 1988 (30 years ago) are inflation adjusted.

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Olympic Athletes Fart Their Way to a Smelly Victory at the 2018 Winter Games

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