Don Rowe speaks to Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, the leading science communicator of our age, about climate change, celebratory ignorance and the rise (or not) of artificial intelligence.
Stoners worship him, nerds want to be him, the average person wishes they had just a tenth of his IQ – Neil deGrasse Tyson is the closest thing science has to a rockstar right now and likely ever will.
Host of the 2014 remake of Cosmos, the Carl Sagan classic, Tyson is an astrophysicist, podcaster and science communication extraordinaire, breaking down the deep mysteries of the universe in a way that’s accessible even for me, a young boy of middling intelligence and motivation to learn.
He’s also a calm and rational voice in the maelstrom of chaos and bullshit that is modern dialogue, providing reasoned takes on everything from the truth of the moon landing to the chances of a sinister AI becoming your new dad. We spoke by phone ahead of his visit to New Zealand in July.
The Spinoff: Your science journey was fueled in part by an early encounter with Carl Sagan, and now you’re the Cosmos dude, and you’re the leading science communicator. How important do you see your role as being, particularly in the current political and societal conditions we’re enduring?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: That’s a great question. I have a slightly unorthodox perspective on that one. Let me reverse it and say that it’s not that I am playing a role in the public understanding and appreciation of science, it’s more that I’m offering science and people are flocking to it. So, that tells me that this appetite was there all along, and it’s not just me.
In the United States, the number one show on television is called The Big Bang Theory, and if you do a Google search of The Big Bang Theory, the TV show comes in ahead of the origin of the universe usage of the term. So I see myself on a landscape that’s in the role of servant of the public appetite for science and science literacy.
I think it was always there and I think the media never gave the public enough credit for having such interest. Now that it’s being manifested, especially in people 30 and younger, I would say that it’s important that everyone recognises what role science plays in our civilisation. On this wheel that is turning, I’m just a cog.
There are people who would disrupt that, but I think they will rapidly become outnumbered as this next wave of the population, as they become old enough to become heads of companies and heads of agency and heads of government. I actually have very high hopes for the future, in spite of what a lot of people are saying about it, given prevalent politics.
Is there a danger that even as the number of scientifically literate and interested people increase, there’s going to remain that hard core of reactionaries who celebrate ignorance? They’re still important to our society – without workers the machine doesn’t run – so how do we avoid alienating them?
That’s an important and perceptive point. I would say that what matters here is not that everyone becomes a scientist, or everyone becomes a genius, what matters it that no matter what you are in life, that you have some understanding of what science is, and how and why it works. Some understanding, you don’t have to be an active scientist, just have some understanding.
What happens when you have some understanding is that when scientists pose a warning, you’re not frightened or discount what is being said as if they’re somehow an enemy of this community. You embrace it, and say, “Oh my gosh, this person is an expert in a field that I’m not, I can either study it myself to confirm it or take their word for it.” In that way the expertise of everybody is respected.
I’m old enough to remember the 1960s, and there was no time in that era, in spite of how turbulent it was especially in the United States when we were at war with Vietnam and the Cold War with Russia, the Soviet Union, I don’t remember anybody standing in denial of science. No matter how blue collar you were. So this is not an inherent and fundamental divide, it’s some emergent risk that I don’t think has to remain or be there forever.
I think it can change. I don’t have the secret recipe for this but what I do know is that instead of treating people like they’re idiots because they believe one thing versus another, if you empower them to figure things out on their own, then it’s not about your authority being invoked upon them, it’s about you being an educator, or me being an educator, helping them find out what is true in the world. Then I go home, and they go off and search for truth, and in that search is where they learn who are the charlatans and who are not and what might be the best steps to take to preserve this world that we have borrowed from our descendants.
The thing that strikes me about blue-collar people being interested in, or at least not adverse to, science is that there were things like the mythology of the space race and the competitive drive of facing down the Soviets which they could rally around. Now that we’re facing down climate change, how do we convince people that that is a battle worth fighting? Landing on the moon can be comprehended quite easily, climate change not so much.
It’s harder. It’s definitely harder. So one of my fears, which is maybe simultaneously a gift, is that people will only be motivated to do something about the climate if it has economic consequences in their favour. So that’s a fear, but it’s also a gift. Now I’m making this up, but suppose that in the rust belt – the area of the US that used to make steel until the price collapsed and manufacturing was shipped overseas – suppose a major manufacturer of solar panels decided to make a factory there, and then someone else is making green energy, manufacturing windmills, suppose that happened, then there’s an economic pathway to go from what you once were to where you will be.
That pathway is not only green but it’s less likely to be resisted by people who fear that this new world won’t include them. It may be that that kind of solution is necessary for people to embrace the change rather than have people say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll be green even though I lose my coal mining job.” When it comes time to pay your rent and feed your kids, it’s very hard for people to make these kinds of decisions for generations not yet born. It may simply have to be economic.
It reminds me of why and when we stopped slaughtering whales wholesale. Whales were a huge industry, primarily for oil and blubber. The fat content was hugely valuable economically as an energy source. Then we discovered oil in the ground, and from that you can make all manner of energy rich products. So if you were against killing whales at the time and no one was listening to you, people eventually listened but for different reasons.
They had whole other motivations. You got to save the whales, because meanwhile people found an economic replacement for them. So this is the world we live in, and I’m trying to be very pragmatic about this. What I’m hoping is that we can get over the early investment threshold of what it might take for industry to take root and those thresholds then bring in an economy of scale to drop the prices on solar panels and alternative means of generating energy. Then the next wave of civilisation that is sustainable and oil-independent can begin.
That requires a certain amount of empathy for the working class, and I think maybe one of the issues is that they feel as though there is no empathy or respect right now, they’re just written off as rednecks. We have similar issues with dairy reform here. But in terms of other significant societal change, the huge factor that’s rapidly approaching is functional AI. That seems like the thing that is really going to put us into the twilight zone. What strikes you as paranoia around AI, and what are reasonable concerns?
I am fearless regarding AI. Just completely fearless. I’m a contrarian regarding people’s concerns. They’re ready to have AI become our overlords, and I just don’t think that will happen. I see a pathway where that can happen, I just don’t see it actually happening. These are two very different things. So you have to ask, are you actually going to create a humanoid robot that’s smarter than yourself? No you’re not! You know why? Because first of all a humanoid robot isn’t even the most efficient machine you can make for the task ahead. It’s just not.
I remember, growing up, people said, “Oh the bones in the hands and feet are intricate and the pinnacle of evolution,” and then you realise you get arthritis, your knees hurt, your joints hurt. Now in the Olympics you have these guys and these girls with no legs running on these blades, and that’s more efficient than running on human feet. And so if we have tasks for which we invent intelligent computers to solve, that’s how we’re going to use them.
We’re already using them that way. Computers beat us at chess, computers beat us at the culturally-rich game Jeopardy. The questions are all about pop culture, and a computer beat our all time best players. Did civilisation collapse? No! And if you went back thirty years and said a computer will one day beat us at chess and at Jeopardy, people would think that’d be the end of the world, “if they can do that, they can do anything!”
Computers fly our airplanes. Computers decide all manner of things that we have ceded to them. You can judge whether that is good or bad because maybe it took your job, but there’s a limit to how many jobs you can take, because if it starts taking everyone’s job, nobody has money to buy the product that the computers making. That’s a self-limiting problem in society. So I’m just simply not worried, because I think the actual pathways will not be the pathways that people have specifically selected to be the scariest possible future they can imagine.
Obviously once you reach a sufficient level of AI you can use it for research and experimentation – the computer could be doing the work of 10,000 research scientists in a day. Are there other significant upsides we’re ignoring out of fear and paranoia?
Yes of course! Watson can read thousands of medical papers, and you give Watson certain symptoms, it will prescribe a solution that might not have otherwise been dreamed of by the medical community, but when they look at it’s solution they think, “yes, you made a better decision than any one of us could.” If that’s not AI, I don’t know what is. People are pushing their finish line for what AI is to say, “it’s something else, not what we’ve already seen”, and I’m saying: “bring it on.” If it makes life easier, bring it on. If we can prolong our lives because it figured out a way to do that, bring it on. Elon Musk is worried that it’ll turn us into pets, but I can unplug AI! [laughs]. The things I could do to get AI out of my house … and so, in practice, I’m simply not worried about it, and the upside is huge.