We talked about a number of interesting subjects including, what prompted him to write his new book How Innovation Works, privacy concerns amid the Covid-19 pandemic and when he sees a possible return to normalcy, climate change, and the appeal behind pessimism and dystopian fiction.
Matt shared some great insights and we immensely enjoyed this refreshing chat with one of the leading experts in the fields of biology and human history.
You can read the complete transcript of the AMA below.
Q: Question by community member
C: Comment by community member
Q : I would like to start with a question regarding the current hot topic….! In response to COVID-19, it is assumed that there will be a number of innovations: a new way of working, medical devices, new drugs, and new technology. What is the new innovation you are most interested in the post COVID world?
Matt : The thing that most surprised me about this episode was realising how slow vaccine development still is. The big prize would be much faster and more oven-ready vaccines for viruses. But I suspect antiviral drugs will make big strides during this pandemic too as they did during ebola. And hand-held, instant DNA PCR testing kits will surely become a big part of the world's preparedness.
Q : In a recent blog, you said that one of the things that will help end the pandemic is the tracing of every contact that an infected person makes. A lot of people are concerned about privacy issues such tracing involves. Will people look back in 100 years and identify this pandemic as the moment when a new regime of surveillance took over?
Matt : I hope not. We clearly have a difficult choice to make right now between trusting the technology to get this right or failing to tackle the pandemic. Actually I think this could be the moment we realise we can trust the technology. These apps are being designed so that they exchange random information that reveals proximity to you, the owner of the phone, but not to the companies and governments. Let's hope they work in that respect.
Q : Do you believe that with our human collective brain, our marketplace of ideas sprouting from specialized individuals, that there is a limit to how much we can innovate and circumvent any hardship? Is there a utopia waiting for us, or a cyberpunk version of our society like we see so much in various media?
Matt : I see no limit to potential innovation. Not even a theoretical one. Because innovation means rearranging atoms or bits of information is useful ways and there are infinite ways of doing this. Futuristic visions are often dystopian, but I think that's a mistake. Can you recall any Hollywood film in which the future is portrayed positively?
(C) That is very true, all projections of our future stem from our current world view, so it's no wonder we tend to be pessimistic. But reading your book, I begin to believe that we have logical reasons to be optimistic, although it's difficult to believe that we'll be able to find groundbreaking innovations to get us out of the pit we've dug for ourselves 🙂
Q : In a recent interview, you said that we had a dry run with SARS from which we learned very little. Do you think we’ll learn the lessons we need to learn from COVID-19? Will we be faster in testing, in developing a vaccine, in saving lives when the next virus hits?
Matt: Yes. I think it is inconceivable that this episode with its huge shock to living standards as well as geopolitics will not lead to massive improvements in preparedness for pandemic threats. The World Health Organisation said in 2015 that climate change is the greatest threat to health that exists. That statement now looks foolish, I would argue.
Q : Hi Matt, can I ask what is your approach to writing? Do you pace yourself or do writing binges? Do you write at any particular time, like in the mornings? How do you balance writing, with reading and research?
Matt : It's true I am terrible at telling people how to write because I don’t really know how I do it. But writing in the morning is definitely the right thing to do. Brain much fresher. I revise the text in the evening, but I rarest compose.
Q : Hi Matt! You’ve been writing about cryptocurrency from as early as 2014 - Just as the COVID 19 crisis spurs governments worldwide to print money to inflate themselves out of the crisis, next week the bitcoin mining reward goes through its four-yearly halvings. With this setting, how have your views on bitcoin and cryptocurrency evolved, and how do you see the impact of digital money on society moving forwards?
Matt : I am fascinated by crypto but admit to struggling to understand how it works still, in detail. So I am not very certain about what I think will happen. I think it is a great long term bet, but like many technologies, it will disappoint in the first ten years (this is called Amara's law). I also think we cannot underestimate the ferocity with which the state will defend its monopoly on money. Generally, I think blockchain will revolutionise other things than money - contracts, etc.
Q : Matt, you're a world-famous biologist and have written extensively about threats like Coronavirus. Why have you refused to address the incoming Murder Hornet disaster? Do you agree with me that Coronavirus is just a distraction from Murder Hornets? And are you in the pockets of Big Hornet?
Matt : Ha! I keep seeing the phrase murder hornet, but being in the UK I have not read any stories so I know nothing! This is an insect, right? Where has it come from and why is it a murderer. Is it like a killer bee only bigger? Here in Europe, we are supposed to be scared of Japanese hornets apparently. But you're right - I am being paid by a big hornet. 😊
Q : Matt, what can you tell us about your upcoming book How Innovation Works that’s coming out in May? How long have you been working on it? How is it different from The Rational Optimist (since you already talked a lot about innovation in The Rational Optimist)?
Matt : I have been working on How Innovation Works for about two years, but the topic is one that I have been thinking and writing about for a lot longer than that. You're right there is a lot of innovation in the rational optimist and in other books. But in this book, I tackle it head-on. I try to draw out lessons for how to encourage innovation from real stories of how innovations came to be, and I try to pin down the elusive human habit once and for all.
It's been a joy to write this book because I think innovation is the secret of all human society and prosperity and it's surprisingly mysterious and misunderstood.
Q : Reading the Rational Optimist made me think this book wouldn’t have been possible without many months (or actually years) of research, which made me curious to ask you about your reading habits? Do you only read non-fiction books that help you with your own writing projects or do you read a lot of fiction as well?
Matt : Good question. I read very little fiction. I have some favourite fiction authors, but I get my fiction off the screen mostly. I am not against fiction but I find non-fiction endlessly fascinating - history, biography, science, economics, etc. That said, I know people like stories, which is partly why I structured my new book around stories, non-fiction ones. The thing about fiction is that it's like playing tennis without a net -- I love the constraint "this actually happened."
Q : What does your general information intake look like? Do you read Twitter and blogs as well as traditional media like major newspapers?
Matt : I read newspapers still, but online mainly, I use Twitter as a newsfeed a lot to direct me to news, comment, and essays. This is very different from a few years ago when I sampled a regular menu of blogs, and still more different from 20 years ago when I read newspapers and magazines. I will always read books.
Q : My 2nd question is kinda related to the other one; what are your thoughts on the slowing of Moore's Law, our artificial processing speed not doubling every year as it once did? Do you think we'll eventually hit a wall with our computer technology, even with our seemingly endless ability to rearrange atoms to suit our needs?
Matt : Yes, this is really interesting. I argue in this book that although there is another law that the end of Moore's Law is predicted every two years (😊), this time we really are nearing the atomic limit where Moore's Law stops working. And I am fascinated by the way transport speed did hit a wall: we got faster and faster in travel for 150 years till around 1970 and then no improvements since then. The same could happen to computing. I don't think computing advances will dominate innovation in the next 50 years as they did in the last 50 years.
(C) I guess innovation will find another way then 🙂 Wouldn't be the first time for a tech to pave the road for another one!
Q : What is the appeal behind pessimism and why is it so fashionable? Why is it that people are likely to accept pessimistic predictions at face value but if you’re optimistic about the future you have to face criticism and skepticism?
Matt : Why pessimism? It's a question I've wrestled with endlessly. The fact that people are much more optimistic about their own lives than they are about the country or the planet is revealing. I think it suggests that media focus on pessimism has a big impact, but the media responds to our interests so it is circular. Pessimism probably does have a value - or did in the Stone Age. It made more sense to worry about what might go wrong than to speculate about what might go right.
Q : Hi Matt! 😀 I have a question. As medical science and technology continue to improve life expectancy and quality of life, do you think we will be able to stop aging and extend our lifespans indefinitely at some point? Do you think that is likely to happen in the near future? And what would be the consequences of this on society and the environment?
Matt : Good question. I think we will tackle the underlying causes of ageing so as to give people a healthier old age. But the evidence suggests that we will not be able to extend the maximum human lifespan anything like so easily. Despite far more people reaching 90 and 100 than ever before, we are not breaking records for maximum lifespan. The oldest person in the world is 117, I think, and it's been roughly that for about 20 years. Longer if you discount the record holder, Jeanne Calment who lived to almost 123, but there are doubts now about whether she swapped a birth certificate with her daughter. It's amazing that we are NOT breaking records in maximum lifespan. Suggests we have some kind of sell-by date built into our genes.
Q : Speaking of innovation Matt, what in your opinion has been the biggest boon to innovation, and what are some of the biggest barriers preventing innovation from flourishing in the 21st century?
Matt : The biggest boon to innovation is freedom. That's what has been most lacking from most societies for most of history. Freedom to experiment, to invest, to play, to collaborate, to profit. Biggest obstacles to innovation: incumbent vested interests, irrational fearmongers, sluggish regulators, rent-seeking patent holders.
Q : Hi Matt! Slightly different subject, but what do you do to relax, and what kind of music do you listen to?
Matt : My biggest relaxation is walking. I walk every day and I combine it with bird watching or other kinds of natural history. I also love fly fishing - a fabulous way to waste a lot of time and clear the mind. I am not very musical so I only listen to music when in the car driving, usually. I prefer bird song! My musical tastes are fairly boring: Beethoven and the Beatles, etc.
Q : In the 21st century, what do you think of education, being an autodidact, and an individual's self-development? When it comes to improving one's own circumstances, quality of life, and producing more value for the world. (Particularly given we have ever-growing mental health issues in 1st world countries, yet many people don't do the basics of improving themselves)
Matt : The older I get the more sceptical of formal education. Yes, it can be amazing and I am the beneficiary of some great teaching. But I fear some of the stuff I was made to learn was a waste. Too much Latin and a lot of science taught in an unimaginative way, starting physics with Hooke's law rather than Black Holes, for example. So I am a great fan of an autodidact. The most valuable thing I was taught was reading. I have learned far more from reading than from education. I'd like to see more kids taught how to read interesting stuff.
Q : When do you think there will be some semblance of normalcy (e.g., travel, return to work, etc.) ? And what’s your best guess of when we might have a cure or vaccine?
Matt : I hope we will be back at work soon, traveling more but not much by air till late in the summer. I pin my hopes on July being a time when the world looks almost normal again. As for vaccines - not till next year. But antiviral drugs that work, maybe sooner. They can be tested more quickly.
Q : I recently came across a September 2011 article you wrote in the WSJ entitled "Modifying Mother Nature to Kill Nasty Viruses". You detail a drug called DRACO invented by Dr. Todd Rider, an MIT-trained bio-engineer. Have you ever followed up with Dr. Rider to see if in 9 years he was able to continue developing DRACO?
Matt : Yes, I had completely forgotten about DRACO till recently. It looked very promising in 2011. But it seems to have petered out as an approach for lack of funding. I wonder if it will be revisited. I should contact Dr Rider.
Q :If one accepts that green attitudes are alarmist, how do you see the really long term? Where do you see us in, say, 1,000 or 10,000 or a million years? Must we become gods to survive?
Matt : Great question. I can easily imagine the year 2100: quite a lot like today only much better in lots of ways. A bit warmer, sure, but not in a problematic way, and CO2 levels on the way down by then because of new technologies. A thousand years from now is really tough. It feels like we are already close to running out of ideas for movie plots, for song tunes, for restaurant menus. So how on earth can we keep innovating in those areas for a millennium??? As for a million years, no, I have nothing worth saying!
Q : Is electricity generation by fusion possible in the foreseeable future and, even if it is, is it worth the expense over fission?
Matt : Yes, I am now fairly optimistic about fusion. High-temperature superconductors have made a big difference and the private sector is now involved. So I think we will see working fusion reactors within the next decade or so. I hope I am right.
Q : Ever since the United States detonated the first atomic bomb literature, art and scholars have echoed a similar sentiment, that technology has given us the capability to end civilization/life, and that we might lead ourselves to our own destruction. How likely do you think is a nuclear apocalypse in which all or most of Earth becomes uninhabitable, or do you think a nuclear holocaust is another one of those unlikely scenarios, another scare that needs to be debunked?
Matt : Well, the nuclear winter theory, in which a nuclear exchange leads to climactic collapse, was -- we now know for sure -- cooked up in a Soviet disinformation campaign and fed into the western environmental movement through Sweden. It was never plausible. (See Rupert Darwall's recent book). But of course, all-out nuclear war would be utterly devastating in lots of other ways. Wiping ourselves out is possible and may be the explanation for the Fermi paradox, that there seem to be no extraterrestrial advanced civilisations out there contacting us: maybe it is because they always blow themselves up first.
Q : Matt, what are some of your all-time favorite books that you recommend to everybody?
Q : I wonder what was your way to become a writer, a scientist and a businessman. How did you manage your career from the point of view of time management since all these activities, especially business and science, are time consuming?
Matt : Time management is one of the key things for a productive but also enjoyable life, I think. I've not been a scientist, journalist and businessman all at the same time, more like in sequence with overlaps. But I have always tried to minimise time spent in committee meetings, so I can read and write.
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