Bill McKibben: Climate Change, Artificial Intelligence & Genetic Engineering Threaten to Destroy Humanity

Web ExclusiveApril 16, 2019
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Has the human game begun to play itself out? That’s the daunting question posed in the new book by environmentalist and journalist Bill McKibben. It’s called “Falter.” Thirty years after McKibben wrote the first book about climate change for a general audience, his new work examines looming threats to humanity, including not only devastating climate chaos, but also artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. We speak with McKibben in our New York studio.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Bill McKibben is out with a new book. Yes, the co-founder of the global climate organization 350.org. His new book is Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

Well, Bill, you talk so much about climate change. Interestingly, in this book, you expand to talk about the threats of artificial intelligence, of genetic engineering. Why?

BILL McKIBBEN: Put it this way. You know, I’ve described climate change as a possibility of ending nature. These new technologies have the possibility of ending human nature, of taking us from what we’ve been, all through our evolutionary past, and replacing us, quite quickly, with something else. Some of those worries are practical: What does AI do to people’s livelihoods as, you know, we start automating everything that we do? Those practical problems are important, but there’s a deeper problem around sort of human meaning that really gets to me.

I talk a lot in the book about the advances in human genetic engineering, because, as you know, these are now no longer just some distant science fiction threat. The world produced its first two genetically engineered human beings in October, a pair of twins in China. The scientist who did that is now in trouble with his government and with scientific groups. And there seems to be some at least beginnings of a recognition that we’re on dangerous terrain here. But there hasn’t been—I mean, we’re sort of at the same place we were with climate change 30 years ago. There hasn’t been the debate that we need in society.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what just happened with genetic engineering of these—

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure. A doctor in China produced two twins who had been genetically engineered to make sure that they would never get HIV—something that, as every doctor pointed out, is an absurd use of this technology, because there’s lots and lots of ways to make sure you don’t get HIV once you’re born, OK?

But the thing that worries everyone is that as you start by making changes that seem benign like this, you very quickly move over into the world of improving children. Scientist after scientist, from James Watson, the kind of father of the double helix, on down, have made it clear that that’s their goal—improving intelligence, changing mood. We’re now to the point where those things are at least beginning to be within our grasp. We know how you regulate dopamine in the human brain and what genes turn it on and off. And it’s not beyond possibility to imagine trying to change the mood of a child. Once you start down that path, the thing that scares me most of all is that you take away human meaning.

There are two ways I think people can understand this. One is the fact that by making people into products, you also start the process of making those products obsolete. So let’s say, Amy, you go to the clinic to your first child, and you have a certain amount of money, and you’re able to spend it to upgrade your kid with the best stuff that there is. Then let’s say you go back five years later, maybe have a little more money, and definitely technology has progressed, because that’s what this kind of technology does. Now your $5,000 buys you twice the upgrades you had before, the sort of human equivalent of, you know, moon roof and leather seats. And what does that make your first child? Your first child’s now Windows 6, you know, iPhone 8, obsolete already. That’s new for human beings. We’ve always been connected to the past and connected to the future.

The other challenge, the other thing that just sort of makes me shiver, is to imagine what it means to grow up one of those children. Let’s say that your parents engineered you to have a certain mood, to be sunny and optimistic, say. Well, you reach adolescence, and you suddenly realize that you don’t know whether you’re sunny and optimistic today because something good has happened to you and that’s how you’re feeling or because that’s your spec, you know, that’s the thing that your body has been engineered to produce. Human meaning is as vulnerable as the physical planet we live on. And just like the physical planet, we overestimate its stability. We take it for granted, because it’s never been challenged before. But just as we’re now wrecking the planet around us, we’re also running the danger of wrecking the most intimate and essential things about who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: Artificial intelligence?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, artificial intelligence—

AMY GOODMAN: And what exactly does it mean?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, that’s, of course, one of the questions. And we don’t exactly know where the lines are, but we begin to sense that there’s a problem about making machines that are smarter than we are, much, much smarter. The scientists who talk about this envision that sometime in the next 10, 20, 30 years, computers, that have already shown they can beat us at chess and beat us at poker and beat us at a lot of other games, will develop a kind of far-reaching, more general intelligence that allows them to outthink us. That’s why, you know, some of the leaders of the technological pack start imagining futures where human beings are essentially pets of these intelligences or whatever it is.

The question to ask ourselves, one of the questions, anyway, is: Why are we doing this? What thing is it that we need to do that requires us to run these kind of risks. And I don’t think that there’s—sometimes people say, “Well, we should do it because we have to deal with climate change.” And that’s so hard. Look, the human brain, as currently constructed, is perfectly capable of dealing with this, you know? We’ve built great solar panels, great wind turbines, great batteries. We could do what needs to be done. If we wanted to genetically engineer anything, it should probably be the brains of plutocrats, who are so greed-obsessed that they can’t help themselves from trying to wreck it all. But even that, I mean, truthfully, I’d rather beat the Koch brothers than engineer them.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, on the one hand, you have greater awareness of the climate catastrophe that is upon us. On the other hand, perhaps you have people more disconnected from their physical environment. You, yourself, are deeply—you live in the natural environment.

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, I used to. And more and more, like everybody else, I live my life on Twitter and—you know, because that’s the place where we’ve needed to do some of this work. But, man, it’s a Faustian bargain. I mean, the—

AMY GOODMAN: Just like kids are online relating, less than they’re actually relating to people, which causes a very serious psychological disconnect.

BILL McKIBBEN: It’s one of the reasons, by the way, that this Greta Thunberg movement of climate strikes is so wonderful. And one of the things that made it possible—and Greta will say this herself—is she’s autistic. And she’s talked about it a lot. She says, “You know what? I’m able to focus on one thing all the time,” which is something that—you know, ability to focus is definitely something that we’re yielding up.

AMY GOODMAN: She said two things: focusing on one thing all the time and seeing everything in black and white.

BILL McKIBBEN: Yeah, understanding that there are places where we really do have to make choices. Look, we’re at such an interesting moment in so many ways. We’re going to find out, in the next 10, 20, 30 years, whether we have some hope of preserving the planet and, with it, the civilizations that we’re accustomed to, and whether we’re capable of preserving the idea of human beings as something not just useful, but kind of beautiful. Look, it’s easy to get annoyed with ourselves, you know? I get upset that human beings have done such a poor job of responding to these threats, of allowing so much injustice, whatever. Human beings are also, at root, funny and kind and capable of great love. Those are things machines will never be capable of, and we shouldn’t sacrifice them easily.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the phenomenon of Trump and all that he is denying right now, you know, obviously, starting with climate change, saying it’s a Chinese hoax, though no one actually believes he actually believes that, then winning the election. You were a big Bernie Sanders supporter. Now Bernie Sanders is going to the Trump supporters to try to win them over. Your thoughts on that and whether you think climate change is a way to approach people, that people understand, across the political spectrum, when fires burn down their houses, when their property is flooded?

BILL McKIBBEN: So, it’s not just that climate change is a way to talk across the political spectrum. So are the answers to climate change. I mean, oddly, the single most popular thing in America, when people poll about it, the one thing that everybody agrees they like is solar panels. They poll at 80% among Republicans, independents and Democrats—maybe for different reasons. I mean, I think sometimes that conservatives like the idea of a solar panel on their roof so they can isolate themselves from everyone and everything, you know? But that’s a really good place to start.

And I think also people increasingly understand that we’re in severe problems in terms of economic security for people. One of the things about the Green New Deal that’s going to strike a chord is this guarantee of a federal job, if you want one, to do the work that needs to be done making this country a habitable place. I think that that’s also one of the answers to this encroaching artificial intelligence and the automation of our livelihoods and so on and so forth.

It’s hard to—I mean, you know, it’s hard to overestimate the stakes of the moment. I try to, in that subtitle, say, take them as high as I can: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? That’s, for the first time, a very real possibility. The good news is that there are at least some people who are thinking about it and working hard.

AMY GOODMAN: What would playing itself out look like?

BILL McKIBBEN: Well, you know, we used to say, “Will the world end with a bang or a whimper?” I think it’s possible that the world will end with, you know, the gurgle of a rising ocean and the soft beep of some digital system taking over.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

BILL McKIBBEN: That those are things that we have the most to fear, this ongoing degradation of the physical world and this encroachment of a different world, the digital world, on human flesh and blood, on what we’ve always understood ourselves to be.

AMY GOODMAN: And the alternative?

BILL McKIBBEN: The alternative is the noisy, raucous world of human solidarity, where we unite not only to take on climate change, but to take on the people who made it possible, to bring down those people who have built a world so unequal in wealth and power that it threatens our survival.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you see the presidential election mattering in 2020?

BILL McKIBBEN: In climate terms, we’ve run out of four-year terms to waste. If we don’t get it right soon, we won’t get it right. The thing always to remember about climate change, above all else, is that it’s a timed test, the first timed test that human have ever had. And we’re running out of time.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much, Bill. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org. His new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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