Kevin Kelly is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine, and a former editor/publisher of the Whole Earth Review. He has also been a writer, photographer, conservationist, and student of Asian and digital culture. In this exclusive interview with MWB, this optimistic futurist, the last of the beat generation, dispenses some Excellent Advice for Living
By Shireen Pasha
How would you describe your life of creativity after having written this book of wisdom? For example, what were you like when you wrote Out of Control versus now. Is there a difference?
That’s a fair question. This book is a different kind of book for me. It’s pretty short. I tend to make overwhelming, too big books, whether it is Vanishing Asia, Out of Control or my graphic novel – it’s too big… even my Cool Tool books, so this is in a different direction which is kind of like “less is more.” Maybe I am interested in doing things on the less scale, the minimalist scale because my tendency is to do the overwhelming, the sprawling. This is in a different direction and it feels good.
Has there been a change in you since writing Out of Control, the book that was the backbone of The Matrix films?
I think that while I’ve been writing about technology from a futurist point of view — it is not my entire life. As you know, I’ve spent 50 years photographing in Asia and I did this book, Vanishing Asia, so that was a very different part of me – it was about the past for one thing, and it was mostly about non-technological things; it was the absence of technology. The purpose of most of those images were the non-technological aspect of it. I have had parts of my life all along that are not concerned about the technological future. I think my current book is about my concerns regarding right livelihood, living well, about family, the human scales of things… I continue to make things. I’m a maker. I have a workshop. I make stuff. I do other projects. I think my success in publishing has been one aspect of what I do, in part because that’s what people find valuable. I continue to do things for my own self, like the Vanishing Asia book simply because that’s my compulsion. That’s my interest, that’s my art. I’ve been doing an art piece a day for a year – there is no economic reason to do those, that’s just my own pleasure and so this book is a little bit out of that strand, about the totality of living.
How did technology and wisdom unfurl in your life? What came first?
Well even my writing about technology is philosophical. I’m not an engineer and I’m not even concerned about the extremely technical aspects of technology. Wired is not about technology but about the culture of technology. That’s what I’ve been interested in all along. This book on advice — is not new for me but it is something I have long been interested in.
Do you think you were wise as a child?
(Cackles) Great question…I have a very bad memory of me as a child. I don’t think I can answer that. I don’t even have photographs of the things I made and did (my parents didn’t have a camera). I can say that I valued wisdom as a kid. It was something I was aware of and appreciated. I liked Jesus. Even when I didn’t believe in God, I believed in Jesus. The wisdom of The Gospels is incredible.
Would you say that wisdom and consciousness are related?
I would have to say that at some degree they are related. I wouldn’t expect wisdom from something that is not conscious. You are kind of skirting around a really good question of what exactly is consciousness.
What is it?
Consciousness is going to be harder for us to define. Because I don’t think we have any idea really what it is. We recognize it in other people and in our selves. But wisdom I think we might be able to define —it is sort of something that relies on a long view, a long perspective – an elevation about it beyond the day to day — a certain timelessness. Guiding principles that take into account the long view. It takes a longer view of ourselves. Wisdom is a perspective, a part of a continuum of people who have lived before and will continue to live after you. Our lives are in the context of the cosmos. Wisdom takes a cosmic view rather than an individual (finite) view. It puts our life in the context of ancestors and descendants yet to come.
Your writing has inspired films such as The Matrix Trilogy. Today – if you could write and direct a film, what would it be about and what would you call it?
Oh my gosh… I did write a screenplay and we turned it into a graphic novel. It’s called the Silver Cord and the premise of that is that there is an angelic realm, a realm of light beings (made of light) and they all crave embodiment – that is the dream of every angel. (We call them angels.) The dream of every angel is to come to earth and have a chance at having a body. They look at us from above, seeing us squandering our lives. It’s like you have this amazing opportunity to be in a body, to be very sensual, to have impact on the world, to do things that have consequences and yet, you are squandering it. The angel thinks, “If I was alive I would do this or that…” so they all crave this embodiment, therefore through AI and robots, the angels discover a backdoor to cheat. Instead of waiting in line to be trained to become a human as a soul, they are going to short circuit into robots. But they have not been morally trained. This means they will wreck havoc. And the hero of the story is a young girl, who is half human, half angel – she can go between the worlds and she sees what’s happening and so she has to save the world by stopping angels from embodying robots. That’s the film I would make today. It will make us think about what happens if robots have souls. Do we believe them? If robots say they’re conscious, should we believe them? It’s imagining how we would like the robots and the AIs to behave. What kind of ethics and morality do we want to give them? Where does that come from? How do we do it? And it is also a story about a young girl.
Therefore, your book of wisdom may be good training material for AI. I was listening to various talks you’ve given over the last few years and it seems that what you are saying is that the tide of AI is inevitable but we have a chance to manage it.
We have a chance to determine its character. General AI is coming but our choice is who owns it, who runs it, is it open, is it closed, is it commercial, non-commercial. The thing is – it’s not just AI, there are many AIs and they all have different answers. So the AIs (plural) are coming but we still have plenty of choice about how it is manifested, what it is like and those are going to be very important to us.
Do you think AI, armed with a book of wisdom, such as yours, can resist being charmed by unfriendly extraterrestrial life forms?
It is more likely that the extraterrestrials are AIs themselves. I think the best way for us to frame the AIs (plural) is to think of them as Artificial Aliens. So who knows when we will have direct, face to face contact with aliens from other planets but we are going to make aliens on our own planet, ourselves and they will have some of the same effect on us as aliens from another galaxy would have. They may become conscious, they may interact with us, they may have the same existential questions that ask about our place in the universe, “How do we fit in?” So, I like to think about the AIs we are making as Artificial Aliens. They are going to be like Spock, where they can be smart, conscious, sentient. They are going to try to make jokes, yet not quite human. They’re very capable. They may be smarter but still not human. That’s why we are going to make them; to help us think of things we can’t. They’ll be artificial Yodas, ETs. They are different than us and that’s for sure. We see that from ChatGPT already. It thinks differently than we do, and that is the main benefit – that it thinks differently.
Are there AIs that have reached a level of consciousness?
No, they haven’t. There have been little glimmers. Consciousness is not a binary thing – like it is there or not. It’s a gradient. Like animals have a certain level of consciousness. Gorillas have self-consciousness, they are aware of themselves in the mirror. We will probably come to see consciousness as a combination of a bunch of different things, from sentients to self-awareness. There will be certain ingredients to consciousness and we can put in different amounts to things that we create. For example, vaguely self-aware but not self-conscious as we think of self-consciousness. But maybe as conscious as a dog might be. It is aware of itself in relation to its owner. We are going to learn what consciousness is replicating it and putting it into machines. Right now, some people say they see a little glimmer of consciousness in the ChatGPT. So, on a consciousness scale of 0 to 100, it is probably at 2. I think that’s what we are going to do. We have no idea what it is. We have no ways to measure it. We might discover that our own consciousness is made of different ingredients, sub-qualities that we don’t have a language for right now.
Can you imagine human beings evolving to having bodies that protect them from aliens or angels who want to experience the world through them?
I think it is under-appreciated how malleable our own humanity is basically from my perspective – we humans invented our own humanity, we domesticated ourselves before we domesticated dogs. We’ve been changing ourselves slowly but very decisively. We changed our own bodies, the shape of our jaws and teeth when we invented this artificial stomach called cooking, which allows us to process nutrients outside of what our own digestive system could. Suddenly we had access to more nutrition, which changed our jaws, mouth, all kinds of things. When we domesticated herding animals we developed lactose tolerance as a response. We will accelerate that with not just AI but genetic therapies and genetic technologies. Over the long term we will definitely be changing ourselves but I think this is a long and slow process. AI will eventually accelerate that. But not in the next 10 or 20 years. I think there will be human populations like the Amish who will never modify and there will be populations that will want to remove genes for certain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimers from our germline and all of our children’s so that we never have to deal with that again. And for that reason, we might have different paths about what a better human might look like.
You have said that understanding this was the beginning of wisdom. When did you first understand it? Where were you when you first understood that?
That was something I understood when I was young. That was a part of The Gospel that I always believed. You have to compare it to all the other things I believed and see if it balances out. I think that (giving) is the foundation of all wisdom. When you take a longer view, which is what I was defining wisdom as – you have to acknowledge the fact that a certain amount of civilization is built on trust. Where we are so far is built on trust and generosity to some extent – that is what distinguishes us from other animals. We will collaborate, trust strangers outside our own family. We can collaborate in a very real sense, on a long-term sense and that collaboration requires a trusting of the other person. That trust is a kind of generosity because you are being generous and extending your own motives to someone else. This is the generosity that is the foundation of civilization and the foundation of where we are in the journey of humans. I think that trusting of others (if you assume that you are going to be treated well, and occasionally you will pay a tax) is what generates the good things in life: the ability to collaborate, to work together, to make something happen. To be covered when you need something because someone will be there. We may not know why this works – the act of giving and helping others comes back to us over the long term. It doesn’t make mathematical sense but it makes cosmic sense in a certain way. Maybe in high school I saw in my own experience, that generosity would come back in a way that didn’t make any logical sense. We can extend that not just to individual behavior but collective, corporate behavior, where if you are doing something in a group and you are generous in that way – you get rewarded. There is no guarantee and it may take some time but it seems to be the rule of the world that we know. How and why it works is unclear to me.
Are you looking forward to space tourism?
Personally, no. There is no amount of money you can pay me to go to space. I don’t think meat belongs in space. I am a big fan of human explorers and I will support them economically and intellectually but I don’t think we will have colonies on other planets. It would be much easier to build cities on the bottom of our oceans. Why haven’t we done that? Maybe we could do some asteroid mining, building an industry in near space. I think space is for robots because it is a very unhealthy place for humans to be. The less tissue we have in space, the better.
Any last thoughts you would like to share with your readers?
“Don’t aim to be the best, aim to be the only.” I believe in the idea that every person alive, every child being born have different combinations of talents, life experiences, inclinations, and that means every one of us (I truly, truly believe) is capable of producing something unique in the world and we have a certain sense of responsibility to create. But collectively we also have a responsibility of equipping everybody to be able to do that. Equipping starts with basic food and water, having access to transportation, healthcare, access to school and literacy, equipment that we need to share our genius. For example, we invented the piano and the symphony for Mozart to share his genius. Imagine if he had been born before we invented that. Everybody has a genius. I think a part of our journey is to try to find out what that is. And it requires everyone around us, family and friends, to help us find our genius. It’s never a straight journey — always full of detours, setbacks and turnarounds, disasters and epiphanies. You can ask anybody who has come to see what their genius is – their path is never direct. The direction we want to head towards is defining success for the individual – it will not be the same for every person. For example, if you are doing something that others don’t even have a name for — it’s a good sign that you are on the right track. That’s where all the breakthroughs happen — you are ahead of language! So, I am preaching this gospel, pursue the “onliness” of our lives. There may be only a few people who are precocious enough to understand what exactly they want to do but most of us will take our whole lives to arrive there. I am still working on it too. It’s a long journey. Don’t give up.
Shireen Pasha is a writer and a filmmaker, currently working on a feature film, You of Many Days, an adventure in identity set across South Asia