Lots of Questions But No Easy Answers at the Berkeley Ideas Fest

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Author Kate Losse in conversation with Scott Rosenberg at Uncharted 2014. Photo Pete Rosos

Among the topics discussed at the Uncharted: A Festival of Ideas on Friday and Saturday in Berkeley was Moravec’s Paradox — the notion that hard problems are easy and easy problems are hard. The concept was first framed by scientists working in artificial intelligence when they realized getting robots to pick up a sippy cup or recognize Uncle George's face was harder than making them play chess.

Andrés Roemer, Uncharted 2014, October 24, 2014; photo by Pete Rosos
Andrés Roemer talks about dangerous ideas with Daniel Schifrin . Photo by Pete Rosos

Uncharted speaker Andrés Roemer, who is the General Consul of Mexico in San Francisco, the author of 16 books and the organizer of his own festival — La Ciudad de las Ideas, in Puebla, Mexico — captured the spirit of the Berkeley gathering with his notion that “the really dangerous idea is something that goes against the status quo.” The status quo was always in question during two days of conversation with leading scientists, artists, authors, researchers and activists. Change is occurring at such an exponential rate in the era we live in that even the architects of the scientific and technological advances driving the change cannot themselves fully understand the potential impacts or ethical implications.

Jennifer Doudna and Randy Schekman are both top scientists in molecular and cell biology at U.C. Berkeley.

Jennifer Doudna discusses her gene editing technique.  Photo by Pete Rosos
Jennifer Doudna discusses her gene editing technique. Photo by Pete Rosos

Doudna’s CRISPR technique makes it possible to easily edit the genome of any species. Profoundly powerful, it’s also disconcerting, and Doudna has founded the Innovative Genomics Initiative to look at the vast implications. “Technology is always out in front of the understanding of ethical issues,” she said.

Randy Schekman won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2013 for his work understanding transportation inside the cell on a molecular level. After calling for “curiosity-based science” rather than “top-down science” driven by corporate and government interests, he said “We may reach a point where we control our own evolution.” Neither Schekman, or anyone else, knew what to say to that potential status quo.


Dev Patnaik, CEO of the strategy firm Jump Associates, talked about the massive changes coming in a world that will soon swell to 9 billion with growing inequality and other challenges.  Most people, however, when told the world is changing and they have to act, resist.  Only 17 percent are future oriented.   According to Patnaik, most change happens only when the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same. With health care, for example, when people finally realized the US didn't have the best system in the world, reforms at last started to happen.  “We have to make the current state of crapitude tangible,” he said.

Nate Lewis, the scientific director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, definitely feels the urgency.   He and his colleagues are racing to develop a carbon-neutral power solution --  an artificial leaf that uses micro semi-conductors instead of chlorophylls to capture energy.  “We have to do this in 20 years because planet is a ticking time bomb,” he said.

Shashi Buluswar leads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies, which is developing sustainable technologies to fight global poverty and serve a need that charity, governments or the private sector can’t or won’t fill.   Their first product is a portable, solar refrigerator to transport vaccines, which easily spoil.   “There’s a moral imperative to succeed” because hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated children die needlessly every year.

Since 1900, Americans have gained 30 years of life expectancy — a wonderful thing.   But living longer isn't just about extending old age. “We have to carefully redesign the whole life cycle,” said Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen. “We need to improve the quality of life for all ages.”  In her vision, people will be working longer, but better – maybe fewer hours a week.  Leisure doesn't have to begin at 65.

Being part of the culture of change is imperative yet many are excluded from it. Among other things, this creates a poverty of ideas. Kalimah Priforce of Qeyno Labs in Oakland runs minority-focused hack-a-thons. “These kids design different apps because they have different needs,” he said. Instead of a pizza delivery app, one girl built an app to help stop trafficking of young women.

Coffee break at Uncharted 2014; Photo by Nancy Rubin
Coffee break at Uncharted 2014; Photo by Nancy Rubin

And in the midst of so much change, what does it mean to be ourselves relative to robots and artificial intelligence that are becoming increasingly sophisticated thanks to the networked “robo-brain” in the cloud? Or in social media environments that both facilitate and control our communication?

For Kate Losse, author and former Facebook employee who used to write Mark Zuckerberg’s posts, the answer has been to start her own simple website where she can publish one article and control how it is framed instead of having her expression shaped by the algorithms on Facebook that choose what goes when, where.   “The algorithm is a blunt instrument,” she said.

As for robots, it’s somewhat reassuring to know that “saying something interesting is a deeper problem than saying something true,” according to Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human. In other words,  the open-channel communication that takes place in a cafe or bar when we naturally process sensory input and memories while we converse requires “theory of mind,” something computers definitely lack. But as the “robo-brain” acquires vast amounts of data and well-tested algorithms to process it, we may think we’re more like robots than we really are.

When asked whether it was possible to encode ethical behavior into machines, Ken Goldberg, a robotics scientist and artist from U.C. Berkeley, said that humans also have ethical challenges. “Do you swerve to avoid the old lady, or the child?” Goldberg said computers do not have initiative. “But we have to be careful how we program them.”

Of course language and art are the most mysterious and powerful of human technologies. Sadly, composer John Adams had to cancel his talk on why he makes music. In the wake of protests lat week at the New York opening of his opera The Death of Klinghoffer, about the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by the Palestine Liberation Front,  he needed “to remove himself from the public realm and finish his commissions.” But as the managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theater Susan Medak said, the controversy over the opera showed that music and words “actually do matter.”

Vincent Medina Jr., Uncharted 2014, October 24, 2014; Photo by Nancy Rubin
Vincent Medina recites an Ohlone prayer in the Chochenyo language. Photo by Nancy Rubin









Among the words that mattered most at Uncharted were those spoken by Vincent Medina, Jr., a young Ohlone Indian. The last two speakers of the Chochenyo language died in the 1930s, and the tongue had been declared dead. But a curious Medina started researching and found forgotten recordings and notes on grammar in the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley.  Now Medina, together with members of his tribe and linguists, have brought Chochenyo back to life. “I like to say the language was asleep and is now being nudged back into consciousness,” Medina said, after reciting a prayer to the creator in Chochenyo. “There are the oldest words of this area that we now call Berkeley.”

Uncharted gave all the ideas I mentioned above and many I didn’t have space for an ecumenical airing.   In the parlance of Brian Christian, it was full duplex — open channel cross talk like in a bar — not the reductive half duplex talk of one at a time messaging, which is what a robot can handle.

In such as atmosphere, easy problems may still be hard (for robots and some of us humans). But hard problems are at least easy to talk about.