The following is a transcript of an audio interview of Brad Templeton by Venessa Posavec.
V: For Memebox.com, this is Venessa Posavec, and with me is Brad Templeton, Chairman of the Board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, boardmember of the Foresight Nanotech Institute, founder of the world’s first internet based business, comedian, and self-described troublemaker. Today we’ll be talking about digital rights and privacy, as well as the future of nanotechnology. Thank you for joining us, Brad.
Brad: Good afternoon.
V: Alright, so, first question, What do you do, why are you a troublemaker, and how is that related to the future?
Brad: Well, I guess I’ve always been attracted to technologies that are in a very dynamic state that are changing and that are perhaps making the future of our society; that involves both computer technologies, and artificial intelligence technologies, nanotechnology, and a variety of other matters, so, I’ve tried to put myself where interesting things are happening and I’ve been lucky enough to get to sit and get to participate in a couple of revolutions, which usually you don’t get even one of those in a lifetime, but we seem to be getting more of those are time goes on. I’ve also been involved in a lot of political issues around these things, around free speech and privacy. I got myself to be one of the first people banned on the internet for publishing politically incorrect jokes. Now at the EFF we do the reverse, we’ve got Congress actually trying to pass a law to stop us right now. That’s very disheartening in one sense, but if they actually have to have acts of Congress to stop you, you know you’re getting their attention.
V: Tell us, what is the Electronic Frontier Foundation?
Brad: The EFF is an organization that was founded over 15 years ago, in 1991, which is devoted to civil rights, particularly free speech, but a few others, and how they are affected is the world moves into cyberspace, into online activity. It should have been clear earlier, but it quickly became clear that the traditional institutions of society didn’t really understand this new environment very well, and there were going to be all these conflicts and problems, and it was worthwhile to have an organization that would try to understand them a little better, try and give advice and work out things but also in many cases perform legal action to deal with the problems that came up.
V: And so what are some of the most important battles the EFF is currently fighting?
Brad: Well, the thing that taking a lot of our time right now is a battle we are fighting against AT&T, because they participated in a program set up by President Bush to wire tap phone calls without warrants. Now, the President has admitted that this is going on. That’s a violation of the Constitution. It’s also a violation of specific laws about wire taps for phone companies to help the government do illegal wire taps. So, we used AT&T over that, and that case is going through the court here in California. However the major spy agencies in the White House petitioned to have the case thrown out because it would delve into state secrets. We actually won the first round of that, because the judge said, well, the President has admitted that this is going on, so it’s not a state secret anymore, at least that part of it. So we’re going through the appeals process on that.
V: And what are some ways that the organization is going about informing public policy and the political process?
Brad: Well we’re 501©(3), we’re not a lobby organization, now we are allowed to do a little bit of lobbying, and we’re doing it now because the phone companies got so scared of our law suit they’ve actually been pushing Congress to pass a law giving them a retroactive amnesty, a get out of jail free card if you will, for the way they broke the law in the past, and we are trying to fight those laws, and we do time to time comment on various legislative efforts. We do most of our work through legal action, though.
V: And can you tell us, in your opinion,
Brad: Well, that actually, is one thing that non-profits don’t do, is endorse particular candidates. So, we don’t have any position on specific candidates.
V: Ok. Then, moving on, How do you think the accelerating growth of technology and information are affecting the EFF mission?
Brad: Well, I guess they are the EFF mission. We basically exist because we know that that sort of growth is not going to be understood by the traditional institutions of government, by the police, the various justice agencies, and also even in some cases even the big ISPs. That’s a pretty broad question. That’s pretty much everything we do.
V: In your opinion, who are the big players?
Brad: Well, right now we’re seeing the biggest players in are the sort-of semi monopolies that have grown up in internet service delivery, the ISPs. Usually most people have only one or two choices for where they can get a high speed internet connection from. That’s creating some problems where you have powerful players. We’ve got the traditional powerful players, like the governments. And we’ve got some growing powerful players in the corporate world, companies that have gotten giant market shares, like Microsoft and Google, obviously have a big role in deciding how technology policy will take place. There are other big players though. There are players who are not those traditional powers. The open source community is not a single individual, I mean there are some famous individuals within it, but that community is actually having a big effect on how things happen to. So, there are players at all levels.
V: What would you recommend, as far as resources for our listeners, for understanding our changing information climate?
Brad: I think that the best information is coming from blogs in many cases. There are some professional publications, like Wired News. The EFF maintains a couple of blogs about some of the technology issues that we cover, one is called Deeplinks, and you can find those links on our website. Some of our former staff have one of the most popular blogs in the world, called Boing Boing. Cory Doctorow is one of the people who does that, and that actually covers our issues quite a bit, although it covers a lot of other weird stuff.
V: Another hat you wear is serving on the board of the Nanotech Foresight Institute, a watchdog advocacy group. Can you please tell us, in layman’s terms, What is nanotechnology?
Brad: Well, it’s a term that people keep trying to redefine, which does make it a little hard. The Foresight Institute was founded over 20 years ago by Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson. Eric had written the seminal book on nanotechnolgy, called Engines of Creation, and we’ve tended to use the definition that he came up with when he coined the term. More recently, people have tried to broaden that definition to refer to any kind of technology taking place at the very, very small scale. ‘Micro’ means a millionth, and so you have things that are a millionth of a meter in size. And ‘nano’ means a billionth, and so things are taking place at the scale at a billionth of a meter. Now, in particular, what we’re interested in the though, as the true definition of nanotechnology, refers to actual machines that operate at the scale of billionths of meters, things that actually do mechanical stuff. Now those machines already exist – you’re made of them actually. Individual cells, and the engine inside your cells called the ribosome, that actually builds the proteins that make you up, is actually a really fascinating but very very tiny nanoscale machine. So, nanotechnology as a field was created by the idea that we might be able to build machines on that scale. Biology already did, but that we might also be able to design and build machines either using the tools of biology, or using other tools like atomic force microscopes or self assembly that can actually build structures on these very small scales. So, if you can make machines on that scale, you can build anything, because you’re working at the very smallest scales of atoms, and the capacity for creation is tremendous.
V: Some people may think there’s cause for alarm at being able to create these tiny machines. One proposed nightmare scenario is the proliferation of grey goo. What is grey goo?
Brad: What is grey goo? Well, Eric talked in that book and particularly in that period, now remember this was 20 years ago, a lot of people felt that nanotechnology would be built in a way mimicking life. As you know, living cells actually produce more living cells by duplicating. One cell can split itself into two, in effect, cells can produce other cells. That’s called self-replication. And so a lot of people said, well maybe we, when we make tiny machines, the way we’ll do is it is we will have them replicate themselves so that one machine, tiny machine, could build another tiny machine, and then of course those two machines could make four, and four could make eight, and so on, the way that a biological organism grows. Now, what that does mean, however, is you’d have a risk that if someone were to build one that could duplicate itself, and it just went out of control and duplicated itself without any rhyme or reason, just trying to grow, just eat everything in its path, that that would be not very functional, and it would basically just be a goo that would grow and grow and grow and could possibly be very dangerous. So, people worried about what’s the potential for that, and how would you stop it. The human body faces this every day, it uses antibodies as a way to deal with things that try and grow and grow and kill you, but of course sometimes they do do that. However, more modern thinking in nanotechnology says that self replication, while it’s what life does, is not necessarily the best way to make it happen. That in fact more artificial structures, the way humans have done manufacturing, things like factories, but again very tiny factories, that have a billion arms that can make a billion nanomachines, that that’s actually probably a better way to build nanomachines anyway, and it has the positive benefit that since the machines don’t replicate themselves, they work more like factories do. Factories don’t build other factories, factories build machine tools, and then machine tools go into other factories and so on. Doing it that way, you don’t really have to worry about this grey goo concept nearly as much.
V: Tell us, why is it important to contemplate the future of nanotechnology?
Brad: Well, obviously it is not a technology that anyone has deployed successfully yet, so there’s still debate about how likely it is. Although obviously people at the Foresight Institute and a lot of people in the community think its definitely a question of when rather than if. So, this is an extremely powerful technology. It’s the ability to manufacture anything. It turns the entire physical world into a software problem, would be one way to express it. Building anything is a question of having its design, and having tiny machines that can build that thing one atom at a time, so it truly touches everything. It touches all manufacturing, all products, all the physical things you use in the world, it touches medicine, it will allow us to have machines to have machines that go inside our bodies and repair them and fix them and cure diseases. And it touches computing, because it will allow the creation of whole new levels of computing technologies. So, it’s pretty dramatic stuff.
V: So, how do you think that that will, kind of, change the face of humanity and civilization if we harness this technology? What will that world look like? What will we be doing?
Brad: Well, that is fairly deep futurist stuff. Many people believe that it’s actually pointless to make that prediction, because it’s going to be so different that we’re going to be like cavemen being asked “Do you think the Giants will win the Pennant?” They don’t even have a concept of what a pennant is or who the Giants are. So, the truth is, it is pretty tough. But some people like to talk about the nearer-term effect. If you have this sort of unlimited manufacturing capacity, you have something people have dreamed about since the dawn of human history, which is the end of scarcity. There’s going to be nothing, almost nothing, that’s scarce. The only things that would be scarce would be some particularly special rare raw materials, maybe some precious metals, and good real estate might still be scarce. If you want a nice beachfront house that may be something that’s hard to get. But not a lot else – and services, of course. The service of other human beings is not something nanotech does until you have AI. So, if nothing is scarce, that completely rewrites all the rules of economics. It also means, most probably, extremely long life span. The elimination of aging. So if there’s no aging, not only will you have no want for material things, but you’ll also be healthy for a very very long time. These are what I’m calling the simple things, and they’re pretty dramatic, as you can see.
V: What trends in your field are you aware of that people should be looking at?
Brad: Which field?
V: As far as information, all the things the EFF is dealing with, growth of technology and information.
Brad: Sure. There’s a couple of different things that’s going on. One of the long term trends that I’m kind of interested in is how the concept of law is being changed, sort of on the sly, by what’s called the clickwrap agreement. You probably have not even noticed anymore, but, it seems that every day, or several times a day, you find yourself clicking on the button that says “I agree”, in terms of a website or a piece of software you want to run. You’re not actually reading that contract, are you? Do you read all those contracts?
V: Uh, no. No I don’t.
Brad: You can go to rooms full of lawyers and judges and they’ll also say they’re not reading the contracts. So, we like the ability to agree to contracts, but clearly what’s happening is not making sense, because we’re getting all these contracts that nobody can negotiate, everyone is just agreeing to them and nobody is really paying any attention to what they’re agreeing to. So, there’s a potential for a complete rewriting of how the law works between people when it deals with online stuff, and I think the world is going to have to come up with some solutions to that. The threats to privacy are continuing to grow, and that’s disconcerting. We have cheaper and cheaper surveillance, and it’s going to get cheaper and cheaper, and we have, unfortunately, in the war on terror climate a greater tolerance for the government’s use of privacy invasive technologies and wire tapping, and that’s a pretty scary trend that we’re hoping to reverse. I also have a particular fear that futurists may find interesting, I call it the ‘threat of time traveling AIs’. Now, why are time traveling AIs a threat? No, I’m not saying AIs can actually travel in time, or that they even exist yet. But what is going to happen, is that in the future, the various technologies that make up artificial intelligence will improve, as they have been since the beginning. Technologies like face recognition, speech recognition, natural language understanding of text, these are areas of active research and improvement. What is going to happen is that while we don’t know how to do many of those things today, or we do them only poorly – although speech recognition is getting pretty good these days – we will still be recording everything, like this conversation. And the AIs of the future, and i don’t mean necessarily independently thinking beings, but the tools of the future will be able to go back into the past and look at the old recordings that the technology didn’t exist to process, and then they’ll be able to process them. Today, the face recognition doesn’t work very well. But, they’ll be able to have the face recognition in the year 2015, go back and look and say “Where was Venessa in December of 2007?” because you kept walking by 100 surveillance cameras everywhere you went, every ATM, every convenience store. You walk by surveillance cameras. We don’t have the technology or the computing power to process that, but in the future they will.
V: What are some of the big opportunities that the future holds?
Brad: I think that the internet revolution is really just starting. Yes, there was a bubble in the 90s, and there was a pop, and a lot of things fell down, but that was really only the first wave. I think there is still going to be plenty of opportunity for people to come up with interesting innovations in how people interact with other people using digital and network intermediares – there’s much more to happen there. It’s hard to predict when the nanotechnology opportunities are going to come, there are a lot of companies that are working on trying to make this happen, but obviously it is not yet that someone has made a tiny machine, at this point, but a lot of people think that’s going to happen and so they’re working and I think it’s something that’s worth considering for future opportunity. Most of the work that going on in very small scale stuff is coming out of chemists, and a few other disciplines, and there is some interesting work going on there, in very very fine structure materials, and that may lead – Now we just published in fact, the Nanotech Foresight Institute, the first draft of a roadmap for how we feel the progress of the technology may well go, and a plan for how to achieve the tiny machines, and you can get that if you become a member of our organization. So, that lays out some of the course of where opportunities lie there.
V: And what about the flipside of that – what are some potential drawbacks?
Brad: As I said, we’re still quite some time from making tiny nanomachines, so while there are obviously some dangers there, they’re a very powerful technology, and like any powerful technology, they could be used for both good and bad, but any use of them is still some distance away. I’ve been talking throughout this interview about some of the threats that are occurring to civil liberties and freedom as a result of new technologies, and there are also growing threats of censorship going on. One of the unfortunate things that happens is that the United States, which is a relatively free country, still builds in technologies into the equipment that is made here to do things like wire taps and do things like control the flows of information, and then our vendors sell those products to Saudi Arabia and China and other countries where we can’t trust the government. I’m not saying I actually trust the government here a great deal, but I trust it a lot more than I trust the Chinese government, so I fear that the more we allow that kind of technology to be built in the United States and in the other free countries, we’re doing a real disservice to the people in the world who are under oppressive governments, because we’re creating the technologies that will then be seriously misused in those places.
V: So you mentioned these nanobots, these nanorobots, these tiny little machines – when do you think they’re going to come into existence?
Brad: Yea, at every nanotechnology conference they ask that question of the room, how people think it’s 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. It’s a very, very hard prediction to make and so I don’t think anyone has a better answer than anyone else. In part, there’s some research to be done, but in part it’s just a question of getting the motivation, getting the dollars behind the research to make it happen. I would say, if we applied the money, I think it’s something we could see sometime in the next decade, late in the next decade.
V: Could you list some specific predictions for the year 2008?
Brad: I’m generally an optimist in the long term, although I am actually a little bit afraid for the short term. I think we’re going to see, unfortunately, a bit more repression in 2008, we’re going to see more efforts to curtail rights, both because of the war on terror, and because of those forces that are pushing for more and more ability to do censorship. It’s kind of a scary thing to talk about because they deliberately use this as a wedge issue, but there are these boogie men of the modern era, which are the child molesters, kiddie porn, that sort of people, and nobody thinks they’re not terrible people, and nobody thinks it’s not something that should be stopped, however, what happens is one side seems to always sort of portray it that unless we do what they want to do in order to stop terrible things, that you must be therefore in favor of the terrible things, which is not how it works. That means we see proposals to do things like monitor the entire internet to make sure that nobody is sending the wrong images over it, and if you say you don’t like that, they think, why, do you want to help the kiddie pornographers? And obviously, no, we don’t want to help the kiddie pornographers, but you also don’t like the idea of putting that level of surveillance on the network, because it has so many terrible potential misuses. Unfortunately, I’m seeing some growing trends in that area. So, my short term prediction is we’ll see a lot of efforts in that area by people to apply censorship, and my long term prediction is then in the end we will defeat them.
V: Now what about any disruptive events. Again, 2008, do you see any disruptive events happen that people will kind of be blindsided by?
Brad: I’ll make one longer term prediction about something that I think is not on as many people’s radar screens, but is actually much more important than people think it is, and it’s the end of human beings driving cars. What people don’t understand is just how dramatically bad it is that human beings drive cars. In the United States, it kills about 45,000 people every year. That’s 15 World Trade Centers. Now we got pretty upset about one World Trade Center, but we completely ignore 15 World Trade Centers. Every year. A million people around the globe killed by automobile accidents. 6 million automobile accidents in the United States every year, with a cost of about – I’m trying to remember what the number is – but it works out to somewhere between 3-4% of the entire GDP. In addition to that, in some cities, Los Angeles being the most extreme, over 60% of real estate is devoted to the car. It’s just pretty amazing how much we do that. And what has become more and more apparent in the last couple years, is that we’re much closer than people thought to making cars that are driven by computer. Self-driven car, or automatically driven car, whatever you want to call it. And the military have been doing these contests, they did one in the desert, and then they did one in a city street environment just recently, and they had actual winners – computer driven cars that were able to drive around city streets with other cars driving on them, and successfully navigate them. It’s not ready yet, but it’s much and much closer. In a few years, it should be more and more possible to deploy that. There are a lot of barriers to that, there will be a lot of resistance by people, but it’s just astounding when you think about exactly how much of a cost we tolerate in order to have people drive cars. I outlined that cost in human lives and the cost of accidents. There’s another cost too, which is that cars produce 40% of the pollution, the greenhouse gas emissions in our society. In part, they do that again because people want to drive them. If you don’t have to have people drive cars, you can have drive the right car for the trip. So, if you’re just going to the store that’s a couple of miles away – well, actually, you may not even have to go, you could just send your car to get the stuff. Rather, not a car, you wouldn’t send a car, you’d send something maybe the size of a bicycle that would go and get the stuff. If you just want to go somewhere, it might just be a small little electric vehicle that pops up and takes you there when you ask for it. And on the rare times when you want to go a long distance, then you’d have the gasoline car. Having humans not drive cars actually could also solve the pollution problems, as well as the congestion problems, and the wasted time, and all the horrible horrible death. So, I’m predicting that there’s a good chance that we’ll wake up to how bad it is that humans drive cars, and start an Apollo project of sorts to change that.
V: And when do you see this coming to fruition, when we actually have these self-driven vehicles?
Brad: I think we could have them in a very short time if we wanted to. I think we could have them in the neighborhood of eight to ten years. I think there will be legal hurdles and so on along the way, and opposition from existing entrenched parties that will delay it to more like 15 years or so. I have this prediction that the way the skeptics will be won over, will be that some company will build a fleet of self-driving cars, and – have you ever gone diving, and swimming with fish?
Brad: Have you tried to touch one?
Brad: And does it work?
V: Not usually, no.
Brad: No. You can’t touch the fish swimming in the schools. So, what they’ll do is they’ll make cars that are that good. They’ll give the skeptic a Hummer, and say, ‘here, take your Hummer out into that stream of self-driving cars, and try to hit one. And they’ll take their Hummer, and they’ll just go “rrrrr, rrrrr”, and they’ll go back and forth, and like the fish, they won’t be able to touch one. And then they’ll suddenly realize, ‘y’know, maybe I could get into one of these things.
V: So do you see that these automobiles that we drive now will just be phased out and we’ll all own our own self-driven cars, or do you see this trend of people moving into urban centers and there’ll just be these community self-driven vehicles that you just take from location to location, drop it off, and someone else takes it to the next location – it’s just more of a communal kind of thing.
Brad: So, people will live where they want to live. If they want to live urban or rural, they’ll live where they want to live. But, there’ll be a mixture of ownership. So, I think what you’ll have is you’ll have people who want to own a car, and it’s exclusively their car, and that’s fine, they’ll do that, that’s what of course everyone does today – or, not everyone, but a lot of people. Some people will be not quite as wealthy or not willing to spend that much, and what they’ll do is they’ll own a car, and that car will be their servant and will have a locker in the back where they keep their all their junk, because people like to keep their junk in their cars, right? But, when they’re not using the car, they’ll hire it out. And so it will then be at the beck and call of other people who pay a rental fee for it. And then of course there will be cars that are for just that purpose, effectively the equivalent of taxis today. Cars that you can just push a button on your cell phone and one immediately stops in front of you and takes you where you want to go. And then there’ll be people who then feel they don’t need to own any car, because they can do that. Not only do you push the button on your cell phone and a car stops in front of you, but the right type of car stops in front of you. And if you give it some advanced warning, it maybe even goes and picks up your things before you get into it, if you want to have things that you store that are available to you when you’re traveling. And so if you tell it, I just want to go across town, it’ll be a small electric one person vehicle. If you tell it you want to go to the lumber store to get drywall, it’ll be a little truck.
V: Do you have any specific predictions in just the next five years, through 2012?
Brad: I will predict that there’ll be a lot more interesting developments in the area we were just talking about. These challenges that DARPA’s been doing have shown some great results, and that will continue on. The early market is for that is going to be, actually, the military, not too surprising, because they’re really keen on vehicles that can just move stuff around a warzone without having to worry about a soldier dying if someone plants a bomb. So, that’s their sort of first application, and that’ll be good. In nanotechnology, we will see a lot more interesting fine structure materials, we’ll see more and more interesting uses of self assembly, which is where you have tiny structures and parts that sort of float in a fluid, and they just naturally, as they bounce around, or you bounce them around, they fit together and you get cheap ways of doing manufacture of small items. That’s going to be very interesting. I think Moore’s Law is going to continue fully for those five years and so we’ll have faster computers. We may, in many cases have to deal with the fact that we’ll be getting multi-core computers, rather than single linear processors, which is what mostly Moore’s Law has given us all that time. But that doesn’t bother me actually that much. It is certainly a different and harder problem to program for multiprocessors, and that’s got everyone in a tizzy because they’re not sure what they’re going to do about it. But, the reality is that software uses whatever tools the hardware provides it. So, if there’s an interesting problem that needs to be solved, then you can solve it with multiprocessors, and that’s true of most interesting problems. People will just do the work to make it happen, and for the programs that don’t really need the multiprocessors, you know, your word processor maybe doesn’t need that that much. You’ll just continue using that the way you use it now with processors you’ve got now.
V: You mentioned earlier you like to kind of look at things a little further out, so do you have any specific predictions for the next 10 years, through the end of the year 2017?
Brad: I’ve made a few in this discussion already. By 2017, I think we’ll start seeing the beginnings of the tiny molecular machines, and I think we’ll also be seeing automatic vehicles driving the roads. I think we’ll see a whole bunch of new internet applications, but if I new what they were, I’d be investing in them, I suppose. And I unfortunately think we’re going to see some more terrorist attacks which will as a result cause an erosion of civil liberties, but they’ll be a big fight against it.
V: And finally, are you working on any new future fiction?
Brad: Well, I’ve only dabbled in writing fiction, so I always have ideas in the back of my head, but I’m not actually working on a story of any kind. What I tend to do these days is if I come up with interesting ideas and I know I won’t have the time to truly flesh it out in that sort of form, I just throw out the idea on my blog.
V: Alright Brad, well thank you very much for speaking with us.
Brad: Good luck with MemeBox, and we’ll see how it goes, and hopefully you’ll have great success.