Vinay Gupta on Big Data, Elon Musk, Virtual Reality, and Saving the World

Vinay Gupta is one of those humans who make you wish there were about 10,000 more humans exactly like him.

He’s a technologist, inventor, futurist, systems theorist, and global resilience guru whose life’s work focuses on how to ensure the long-term survival and flourishing of the human race. 

He is perhaps best-known for inventing the hexayurt, an extraordinarily inexpensive and easy-to-build housing structure. At 20% of the cost of a disaster relief tent, hexayurts are likely to become indispensable in disaster relief scenarios and refugee camps. And, if mass-produced and widely distributed, they could theoretically play a crucial role in eliminating homelessness and poverty on Earth.

Gupta is also an advocate for becoming a multi-planetary species, believing that humanity will increase its chances of long-term survival in the cosmos dramatically if it can “get off this one fragile, risk-filled, tiny sphere.”

Vinay Gupta has done an impressive amount of stuff in his few decades on Earth. Here’s a more detailed introduction to his work, if you’re curious.

Today, I’m going to share with you twelve quotes from Vinay Gupta to give you an idea of the sorts of things he’s thinking about, speaking about, and working on. All of these quotes are taken from parts one and two of his interview with the Future Thinkers Podcast, which I cannot recommend highly enough. The conversation is truly exceptional.

Read slowly, with an open mind, and really chew on these ideas. There’s a lot of substance here, on everything from religion and virtual reality to Elon Musk, ending poverty, and saving the world. 

12 Extraordinary Quotes From Vinay Gupta

On his long-time heuristic for determining whether something is worth doing:

“I made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t do anything for money that I wasn’t willing to do for free, and that kept me focused really entirely on the hardcore world-changing stuff. And when I could get paid for it, I got paid for it; and when I couldn’t get paid for it, I didn’t.”

On the possibility of a species-level panic response to manmade disasters:

“We’re in the early stages of a sort of cosmic insurrection. Humanity is at a point where the knowledge that we might wipe ourselves out has gotten really deeply soaked into our deep minds. It starts at the beginning of the nuclear age, and it’s run right through and only gotten more intense. And what I see around us is the fundamental sense that this cannot go on any further, and the push to fixing it…

There’s a… traditional New Age certainty that there’s a kind of species-level awakening coming and all the rest of this sort of stuff. You know, the sort of Terence McKenna vibe, and I’m sure you’ve heard that until you’re just purple in the ears. I don’t think it’s that, and I don’t think it’s Marxist historical inevitability or any of that stuff. What I think is coming is a species-level panic response: ‘Oh my God, we’re all going to die. We have to work together to avoid all dying.’ There’s a book called A Paradise Built in Hell about spontaneous cooperation after large-scale natural disasters. And I think that there’s a pretty good chance that we’re going to experience a moment like that in response to the manmade disasters that we’re currently beginning to live in.”

On avoiding the existential risks posed by nanotechnology and biotechnology:

“What I’m really working on right now is how we can build a platform of policy to push all replicator engineering out of Earth orbit. We need a business model for space. We need a business model for a Mars base and lunar orbit factories and all the rest of that stuff. And we also need to get dangerous replicator technology away from the biosphere. If we got a replicator accident—whether its biological, nanotech, or something in between—if we have a replicator accident, it could wipe us out in a weekend. So we can’t do it on Earth safely. And we need a business model for space. Let’s put these two things together and force all the replicator engineering at least as far as lunar orbit. It can’t be in Earth orbit because if something goes wrong, it might fall back down again. We want it at least as far as the moon.”

On the potential use of big data as a tool for political manipulation:

“The next generation of radical political candidates could very easily get quiet phone calls in the night that simply say, ‘Look, we have your porn history. You really shouldn’t run… We are going to tell people exactly what you did last summer, so we really don’t want you running for this job.’

And that notion—that you could have a kind of blackmail state where spook agencies get to decide who will or will not run for public office on the basis that everybody does something stupid and they know it—I really think that some of this stuff is pretty unacceptable, and we’re not going to be able to get fundamental change in our societies if we allow the spook agencies to simply edit who gets to run for democratic office, or who gets other kinds of positions of political power. And the databases to enable that kind of shame-based theocracy are really, really, really piling up. That’s an entirely plausible outcome.”

On his vision of a world without poverty:

“My vision of this world is that everybody gets to live the full length of their natural life, and everybody else is responsible for providing the things that they need to do that. Now, that notion of a world in which everybody gets to live the full span of their natural life; nobody dies from poverty; and everybody else is responsible for making sure that that is true—in the same way that you’re responsible for your children or your parents—that is political radicalism of a kind that is unheard of in Western culture. It’s the Gandhian vision, and the Gandhian vision is the most politically radical thing you’ve ever heard because it makes everybody responsible for everybody else, and it says, ‘Start on your own doorstep and trust that other people will start on their doorsteps. First, I’m going to eradicate poverty on my own doorstep, then I’m going to eradicate poverty as far as I can reach.’ And if all of us did that simultaneously, poverty would be gone in half a generation.”

On the psychologically traumatic effects of Western religion:

“The avoidance of the thought of death is a proxy: death in itself is not a particularly scary thing, and it has an inevitability about it, and humans are pretty good at accepting inevitability. What really punishes us in Western civilization is the fear that God is a bastard and that hell is real and that you’re going there. The fear of death, in Western culture, is simply a layer over the fear of an angry God who’s going to torture you for existing. If you think about that—I mean, this is kind of a controversial thing to say, but we seem to be in the territory—what kind of parent would have children and then torture them for disobeying—not punish, torture? The answer is: a completely psychotic and evil parent that should be removed from their children, locked in a deep, dark dungeon, and never allowed outside again. And if treatment will help them, that’s great, but it probably won’t.

And that’s the God of Western civilization. It’s the God of Islam too. This is a being that—if that was an actual human being—we would consider to be the worst kind of psychopath, and we would lock up and never allow out again. And that is, I think, a very reasonable way of approaching Western religion: I think it should be locked up and never allowed outside again because it’s completely psychologically destructive for people to believe that they are trapped in the universe with that kind of a deity. It’s an unbelievable psychological trauma. It’s a huge scar on the culture.

And frankly Western culture is in a process of recovery from having gotten a really bad rap in the sort of medieval mythology game. You got a really bad medieval mythology. It’s twisted your culture in some really bizarre and frightening ways that are threatening the existence of the entire planet. But, at the end of the day, you can recover. We know where human beings came from—they evolved. They weren’t made by some angry God, and that angry being is not waiting for you as soon as you die to beat you with a stick. It’s fine. God is dead. There’s nothing to worry about. Have a nice day. Go out and enjoy yourselves.”

On the semi-serious possibility of declaring Elon Musk global pharaoh:

“Musk says Mars base in 10 years: 2025. And right now his batting average is so high—I mean, oh my God. I think that a national, sort of global cult where we simply worship Elon Musk is… you know, we’re getting to the point where we should probably just decide that he’s a demigod, give him the status of global pharaoh. You know, ‘What is our answer to all the problems?’ ‘Put Elon Musk in charge.’ I’m semi-serious because humans are really good at worshipping demigods. We’ve got really deep cultural programming for deciding that a given human being is a god and worshipping them… So the notion that you simply decide that the most effective engineer in the world is a god and worship him as such—that’s more or less what the Pagans would have done with him. Why not? Maybe he’d even enjoy it.”

On the possibility of democratic virtual reality environments:

“Imagine that we simply decide that we’re going to approach virtual reality as an experimental ground for consensus political decision-making, new democracy, liquid democracy, and all of these other systems. Every VR system that gets created—all of these virtual environments—the default assumption that people will want to make is that you’ve got a bunch of authors at the center of the system that create a world for other people to pay to enjoy. That political assumption will automatically assert itself because people will treat virtual reality like the web.

But there is no reason that Facebook couldn’t have been a user-owned cooperative, and that Facebook users vote for their representatives, and those representatives govern Facebook on their behalf. Facebook could have been built as an electoral democracy; instead it was built as a corporate feudalism. Virtual reality could be built as electoral democracies; it could be built as literal democracies; it could be built as corporate feudalisms; you could implement almost any political system for governing the environments that we’re almost certainly going to be using a huge chunk of our working lives for the next 20 years.

In 5 years, when we have this conversation, I would strongly expect us to be wearing stereo goggles on both ends. As common as Skype is now, VR is going to be in 5 or 10 years. I think we’ve got an opportunity to say that these systems will be user-governed and community-owned because otherwise you’re going to have corporations literally building your realities for you, to a degree that we can currently only dream of. They’re already doing it, and if we give virtual reality to them, they’re going to do it even more.

Oculus is owned by Facebook. ‘Welcome to Facebook Land!’ If that becomes the ubiquitous technology… [if] everybody who’s using virtual reality is using Facebook’s Oculus and that’s the only offer in town—if that becomes the standard hardware platform—I really think that we are putting the future of the human race’s cognitive liberty in jeopardy. I don’t want us to be rats in a virtual maze that observes everything that we do and manipulates our behavior to make us buy more.

I mean, we’re evolved creatures. We’ve only had language for—I don’t know—a few million years. We’ve only had tools for half a million years. We’ve had fire for half a million years. Actually, we’ve had tools longer. But fire is half a million years. Agriculture is ten or twenty thousand years. We’re still filled with exploitable reflexes that are artifacts of our primate evolution. And if you push those buttons, you get pathological behaviors out of us. We’ve created a system where we’re evolving our own predators in the form of corporations which watch our behavior, throw it through statistical analysis, identify the weak points that evolution has [left] us, and then stab them to make us buy things. Virtual reality is going to be an astonishingly powerful toolkit for that kind of work, and if we don’t take control of the governance of those systems, they’re going to be used as weapons against us by marketers and worse.”

On the need for a new Wild West of communication:

“I need an environment where I can really talk about that kind of political radicalism, and I can teach people how to see the world in those ways without it wrecking my ability to do less radical work. And… I used to use Twitter for doing the heavily politically radical stuff because there was a kind of common understanding that social media was a bit of a Wild West, and people were not necessarily going to take something you said on Twitter at four in the morning and haul it back out as a piece of evidence. Now, everything is on Twitter; everybody has gone corporate; everything is on Facebook; and everybody expects these to be fully accountable daylight media.

I need a new Wild West. I need a place where I can have frank and open conversations in an environment where people will not bring that stuff back up and throw it at me in a different context. Because, although my beliefs are extremely radical, my actions are fairly conservative. I’m not a bomb-throwing anarchist. I am somebody that is working on appropriate technology and trying to build some software. This is not the kind of anarchy that causes people problems. This is slow, methodical, diligent work toward the long-term freeing of humanity from fear.

But, where am I going to get my playground where I can actually have the conversations about the big picture stuff in a way that lights fires in people’s hearts and minds and souls, if we don’t have some kind of environment which is nicely, safely bounded? And that, in a modern world, requires cryptography, and I need a cryptographic application that lets me talk to my close friends about the big picture ideas in a way which is not part of anybody’s assessment of whether or not I’m fit for a job, or whether I’m the right person to get to help on an aid project. I need privacy in order to be able to function. I think the killer wrap for all of these technologies might be as simple as giving us back privacy so we can talk to each other without unconsciously feeling like it’s all being logged by the NSA for our later scrutinization.”

On something unconventional people can do to help change the world:

“Put a picture of a Chinese factory worker on the back of your Macintosh, on the case. Do it for your iPhone. Do it for your ThinkPad. Any device you use that was manufactured in China—put a picture of a Chinese factory worker on it. I’m going to do it… Now that I thought of it, I’m going to find a picture. I’m going to put it on there. Maybe in the long run we could even have kind of like a pen pal system where we actually talk to Chinese factory workers, and we get their pictures, and they send them to us, and we put them on the things that they made. We’re never going to know whether Bob actually made this particular iPad, but we know that he works making iPads, and we want to know about his life. I think, if I’m in a position now where I see somebody who has a picture of a Chinese factory worker where normally the sticker goes on the back of a computer… I know this person is my friend.”

On improving the world:

“All of this stuff [about improving the world]—it really does come from just slowing down and really looking at how things are now…

We know that all this climate stuff is based on cars. You look outside of your front door. People don’t need to be driving that much. We could close the center of most cities to everything except bicycles and walking, and maybe electric scooters for people that need powered transport because they’re older or they’re injured. We know these problems—they’re right on our front doors. If the Democratic electorate were honest with each other about these problems and paid attention to what was in front of them rather than the media, we could get this stuff cleared up inside of maybe two generations. It’s actually not that big and complicated. The whole left-right political dialogue has completely distorted our ability to understand it. You just fix the stuff that we can fix and move out from there.

Taking the cars back out of cities would be easy. You know, electrical tricycles for people that are unable to do biking. Other than that, the cities run on bicycles. They’re pretty much doing that in some parts of Europe already. What’s it going to take [away]—10-15% of our carbon consumption? The quality of life would go hugely up. The cities would come back to life because you get so much more street life. Everything becomes better. People become healthier. It cuts your healthcare bills. They’re pleasant to breathe in. You can let your kids outside; they’re not going to get hit by a car and killed.

Whole systems transformation: everything gets better simultaneously. These options are all over the landscape. We just need people to actually talk to each other and expect better. We can do it. We can do it in a generation. We’ve got huge technological help to do it. I haven’t even talked about how the rising tide of technology is going to pull people out of poverty in 20 years, but it is. It could all work out pretty well—you know, this whole Mars thing is running along excellently. By the time Ethereum is at full size, I fully expect Elon Musk to have a Mars base that’s running on the thing. Why not?”

On a scientific hypothesis for how evolution may have equipped humans with means of “bending reality”:

“Here is my fundamental hypothesis: We know from things like Young’s double-slit experiment and the rest of quantum mechanics that matter behaves in some truly truly peculiar ways. [In Young’s double-slit experiment,] you take a single electron; you fire it through the two holes; you expect it to form two dots, one through each hole, and instead you get dots all over the paper, and they concentrate in bands corresponding to where you would get wave interference, and this gives you things like the frequency of the electron… The particle acts like a wave, and probabilities appear to interfere with each other because the particle only winds up in one place, but you still get wave interference about where the particle will be. So probability waves appear to be a thing that is capable of forming and interfering, and then the particle shows up in one place rather than another on the basis of that.

And that’s the fundamental stuff that we evolved on top of. Do you think it’s at all plausible that it’s possible to read or write information to the probability wave mechanisms that appear to underlie all physical matter including chemistry? After all, we’ve got probability A and probability B, and they’re interfering with each other. Probability A, as it goes through the first hole; probability B, as it goes through the second hole—the probabilities interfere in a wave-like way, wave interference, and then the actual particle takes one path or the other depending on those probability outcomes. That’s exactly like every decision that a human being ever makes. Probability A, probability B—there’s a landscape of probabilities; we resolve one way or the other way and then we pick a path and we implement. Just like electrons.

My speculation is that the fundamental human decision-making apparatus is actually a quantum mechanism for changing the shape of the future, built on the fundamental substrates of quantum mechanics. So, what comes out of that is firstly that the mind is very plausibly a quantum phenomena because after all the brain is a quantum phenomena because after all the brain is made of chemistry and chemistry is all about quantum mechanics. Hypothesis one. Hypothesis two is the radical one, which is: if there’s any way for us to either know the future or change the future by manipulating probability directly, you can bet your ass we do it because that’s how evolution is. And I can point to evidence of us doing it.

Here’s the evidence: The two places where evolution really, really makes changes are everything to do with death and everything to do with sexual selection. Those are the areas that evolution absolutely specializes in because those are the real turning points in what happens in the next generation. So, we evolved to be able to run incredibly quickly, and we evolved to be able to fight well and all the rest of these things because death is one of the forces that trims the next generation. Sixth senses for danger are absolutely ubiquitous in industries where people are in regular physical danger. Everybody knows that there are some people—everybody some of the time and some people almost all of the time—who just know when something bad is going to happen, and they get out of the way early, and you always listen to those people when they say, ‘Something doesn’t feel right.’ All over the place. And those people—the ones who are really good at that stuff—are often legendary inside of those domains. You know, the surgeon that is just like, ‘Um, could you recheck everything? Patient oxygen levels look a little funny. Something is not right. I don’t know what it is.’ And even though that oxygen level is within normal range, they have a hunch; you recheck everything; sure enough, somebody’s plugged a tube in the wrong side. So we see that everywhere around us as a perfectly common part of life wherever people are in danger. And yet, we never really treat that stuff as serious. And yet, if we evolved in a quantum mechanical environment and physics permits it, we’re going to have those kinds of capabilities. We see evidence of those kinds of capabilities, and we see the physics in the lab.

Other one you would expect it: sexual selection. Over and over and over again, you ask people how they met their life partners, and a third of the time or half the time there is this phenomena of an impossible-seeming chain of coincidences which eventually slams the two people together at an impossible speed… That story is everywhere in our culture. You ask people, and a third [or] half—they’ll tell you that story. It’s really really really common among people that you would think of as being more intelligent and more conscious. And my favorite one of those is a guy I know who was on a plane going from something like San Francisco to Seattle. He gets sat beside a woman; they talk; it’s just kind of love at first sight. They don’t exchange numbers on the plane; they’re walking outside; somewhere in baggage, they get separated; and, he’s just like, ‘Oh my God. I’m never going to see her again. This is the worst disaster ever.’—goes into a depression. Two weeks later, he’s flying from something like Boston to New York, and she’s on the same plane in the same seat—you know, it’s like the same model of jet; they’re both in the same seats that they were in. They look at each other. They know. They’re married. They’ve got three kids. And those stories are everywhere. We’re knee-deep in the bloody things. It’s what we think of true love as being about in some sense. But what you’re seeing there is evolved mechanisms to manipulate probability fields to bring together people with partners that in a state of nature would then have kids. It’s the evolutionary imperative manipulating what you would think of as being space-time to bring people together because evolution needs the next generation. And if quantum mechanics is real; and if evolution is real: if there’s any way of bending reality, [there’s a] high probability we’re going to do it, and that’s what it would look like.”

Further Study:

The Future We Deserve: 100 Essays About the Future by Vinay Gupta, et al.

vinay gupta quotes hexayurt the future we deserve save the world utopia bitcoin blockchain ethereum

The Future We Deserve is a collection of 100 essays from people of all walks of life discussing our world from amazingly different perspectives. Utopia or oblivion, plenty or famine, freedom or slavery? We do not know, but we do know that there is a vital thread of insight which emerges when people think together about what they really want, what matters most to them, and how we are all going to live in just a few years.



A version of this essay was first published on HighExistence.

If this essay resonated, you'll enjoy my Dead Honest Newsletter, my list of Cage-Melting Books, and following me on on Facebook and Instagram.

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a Lover of God, healer, mentor of leaders, writer, and music maker. The best way to keep up with his work is to join nearly 7,000 people who read his Substack newsletter.

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