Tesla Masterplan: Phase 2

Ten years ago Elon Musk wrote a blog post proclaiming Tesla’s masterplan. At the time it was largely ignored; where it wasn’t ignored it was largely panned. He wanted to solve Earth’s energy problems, and he wanted to do it via the circuitous route of building a series of electric cars. Building cars is hard. Building electric cars is super hard. It looked like idiocy.

But then he did it.

A week ago he tweeted that he would be announcing part 2 of Tesla’s masterplan. Today he published that plan.

The goal is still to accelerate the advent of sustainable energy. The gist of part 2:

  1. Tesla, joined with Solar City, will put solar panels on every roof and batteries in every house. No more fossil fuel need be burned at home.
  2. Tesla will produce electric vehicles to replace the dirty versions of all major forms of terrestrial transport. This includes the Model 3, but also heavy trucks and busses.
  3. Tesla will make all its vehicles automatic, which allows them to be shared, which allows them to be incredibly cheap to own.

This time, I’m not betting against him.

The announcement: https://www.tesla.com/blog/master-plan-part-deux

The Aletheia Problem

Human Connectome Project

All of our success depends on making the right decisions, yet our public decision-making tools are primitive. Can software revolutionize the pursuit of truth? 

There’s something special about humans. In the vastness of space there’s something special about any kind of life, sure. But even here on lush and bustling Earth, we humans are different. We are the ones sending rockets into space and visiting the other animals at the zoo. We’re the ones that have mastered agriculture and built societies in which millions of our kind live their entire lives without ever knowing the fear of starvation — a luxury that the universe doesn’t grant to living creatures by default.

What makes us special is our extraordinary talent for reasoning. To an extent far surpassing any other creature, we successfully reason about what’s good for us and how to get it. That talent lets us act in such a way that our fields produce feasts of vegetables in autumn, rather than dirt and weeds. It is what lets us plan our retirement, and avoid turning cold wars into hot ones. It’s not an overstatement to say that all of our success depends upon our ability to reason.

And yet, as important as it is that we reason well, the way that we go about it as a public is a disaster. Look, for example, at the way America makes decisions about matters like gun control and health care for its citizens. It’s a political clusterfuck. Science and the academy are wonderful developments — but when it comes to influencing a democratic population, research papers are but more noise in the chamber. The debate around climate change is a stark illustration: the consensus among the scientific community is at 98%. Yet among the public, it’s closer to 48%. Something is broken.

The costs of this problem are too great to ignore. When we reason poorly, we erode our ability to make smart plans and achieve smart goals. We fumble, we fight, and we miss opportunities to make the world a better place. Worse, our animalistic infighting may carry us, blundering and bickering, into catastrophe. Ours would not be the first species to meet a brutal reckoning in this amoral universe.

But there’s reason for hope. The emergence of software and the wiring-up of the world began just a moment ago, on the grand view. The problem described above — call it the ‘aletheia problem’ after the Greek word for truth — is at its heart a matter of organizing information.

There are those who believe that software will revolutionize the pursuit of truth. Imagine a world in which reasoning — that sacred process of pondering, planning, conversing, and debating, all for the goal of getting things right — is scientific. Objective. Transparent. Where the ‘truth’ of a statement, understood as the opinion that you yourself would come to hold if you were to investigate the matter, is an objective value that you can just look up, instantly, the way you would look up a stock quote. And the structure of reasoning that lies behind that belief is mapped, the lattice of connections well-traversed by others, so that it’s transparently and asynchronously available, the way the pages of Wikipedia, though constantly in flux, are always there when you need them.

This would be a world in which the deciding voice is not the one that shouts the loudest or has the most money. It’s a world in which truth is not, in the end, a matter of opinion.

There is right now a confluence of forces that makes it feasible that such a solution to the aletheia problem is on the horizon.

Software is eating the world, and like history’s most significant revolutions, this is a process that will go through many iterations of creative destruction before it finds a lasting stasis. The aletheia problem will not be easy to solve. But we have ample reason to expect that the digital revolution, that software-powered assault on inefficiency in all its forms, will transform the way we pursue truth. Fifteen years ago there were still those who called the nascent internet a “fad”. Now, in 2014, we’ve seen enough to know that the reality is far more exciting than we imagined. The early internet wasn’t a fad. It was the first flicker of life.

Software will eat democracy

It’s easy to be pessimistic about our collective future, but this attitude misses one important trend: software is eating the world.

The form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.
— John Adams

On a spring afternoon in 2011, a Manhattan public school teacher named Alberto Willmore was arrested in front of his home in the Bronx for possession of marijuana. Willmore, an art teacher, was working on a piece of chalk art when he flicked a cigarette butt in the direction of the nearby sewer grate. A passing NYPD officer saw this and quickly pulled around. The officer restrained Willmore and retrieved a cigarette butt from the area. Willmore was arrested, and lab tests later showed that the cigarette butt retrieved by the officer contained 0.2 grams of marijuana.

This marked the start of an ordeal that would shatter Willmore’s career.

The day after his arrest, he received a letter in his school mailbox informing him that he would be suspended from teaching pending resolution of his case in the courts. At the time, he couldn’t know that his course through the legal system would be an absurdity of delays and extensions lasting nearly two years. It wasn’t until January of 2013, seven court dates and 579 days after the arrest, that Willmore’s case was resolved — with a dismissal.

Finally ready to resume teaching, Willmore was shocked to discover that the city’s Department of Education remained unsatisfied. The Department decided that the nature of the charges against him warranted further suspension pending a hearing. And in March of 2013, the Department made its final ruling. Willmore’s job was gone for good.

By all accounts, Alberto Willmore was an excellent teacher — one that a society bent on maximizing the happiness of its citizens would want to cherish. A student said of Willmore, “I honestly think he would just jump in front of a bullet for us. Like, he loved us, for real.” But instead of cherishing him, Willmore’s government struck him down and dragged him through the gutter.

And Willmore’s case is far from unique. In 2011 there were 759,000 marijuana arrests in the United States. That’s about one arrest every 40 seconds. Each arrest carries with it all of the expense, embarrassment, loss of liberty, and collateral damage to one’s personal and professional circumstances that Willmore experienced.

And here’s the rub. All of this is due to a misguided policy decision. Marijuana prohibition is a bad idea and an empirical failure. Marijuana is now recreationally legal in two states. The sitting president has said that in his opinion marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol. After an extensive review of the medical research and a series of visits to people affected by marijuana prohibition around the country, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta recently changed his mind on marijuana, saying, “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.”

CNN’s Sanjay Gupta recently changed his mind on marijuana, saying, “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that.”

But we live in a democracy, and prohibition has been our will. Only recently has the country begun to realize that we got this one wrong.

This error is exactly the kind of thing political theorists expect from democratic societies. Policy decisions are hard. The voting citizens in a democracy have jobs and lives to take care of — we don’t have the time, let alone the resources and motivation — to review every policy issue and come to an informed position. So we take shortcuts; we absorb our opinions from the zeitgeist. Or worse, we don’t even bother. We can be lazy and apathetic and are often misinformed and manipulated.

And as a result, we get our preferences wrong. Consider the relationship between a parent and child. A mother doesn’t take it as her job to satisfy all of her child’s preferences — the child often desires the wrong thing. We adults are in the same position. A moment’s historical retrospection is enough to shake free the illusion that we live at an exceptional point in history in which we finally have it all figured out. Smart people thought slavery was right before they realized it was wrong; they opposed universal suffrage before they were for it; the majority of Americans thought invading Iraq was a necessity before we realized we shouldn’t have done it; well-meaning legislators thought alcohol prohibition was good policy before they realized it was not. Larry Page, CEO and co-founder of Google, offers a reflection. “Consider our own history,” he said. “When we started Google, it wasn’t really obvious that what we were doing wouldn’t get regulated away. Remember, at the time, people were arguing that making a copy of a file in a computer’s memory was a violation of copyright. We put the whole web on our servers, so if that were true, bye-bye search engines. The Internet’s been pretty great for society, and I think that 10 or 20 years from now, we’ll look back and say we were a millimeter away from regulating it out of existence.”

For as long as the idea of democracy has been around, theorists have seen the ignorance of the electorate as its inextricable flaw. “The best argument against democracy,” Churchill is rumored to have said, “is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

“The best argument against democracy,” Churchill is rumored to have said, “is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

But this problem may not be inextricable after all. There’s a revolution going on that Churchill could not have foreseen. It’s been called the digital revolution, the software revolution, and the information revolution. Whatever you want to call it, its impact is unmistakable, and it’s only just begun. The most illuminating summarization of what’s happening may be Marc Andreessen’s famous phrase: software is eating the world. The idea is simple. For any problem within the sphere of human interest that involves the handling of information, from selling a dresser, to finding a spouse, to delivering advertisements to consumers, software presents the opportunity to do things far more efficiently than traditional methods. And whatever software can do better, software inevitably will do better.

The ignorance of the electorate is fundamentally an information problem. As such, it’s a problem that’s ripe for consumption by software. Framed in terms of a solution, it is the problem of discovering the informed preferences of the individual voters. Here’s what I mean by that. As our evolving attitudes towards marijuana prohibition illustrate, our current preferences aren’t the final answer — we may be misinformed, misled, or ignorant. And in that case, our votes will favor policies that differ from those that we’d support if we knew what was good for us. But our informed preferences — those policies that we would favor if we were to take the time to investigate the question thoroughly — are hard to get to. We discover them only by a process of labor-intensive inquiry, which we often don’t have the ability or inclination to undertake. But the days aren’t getting any longer, and the issues aren’t getting any simpler. This is why theorists have long seen democracy’s ignorance problem as inescapable. The challenge for software, then, is to find new ways to streamline the path to our informed preferences. If software can do that, then the electorate’s ignorance will be radically undermined.

This is no easy problem to solve. However, if we hold this problem in mind while taking a careful look at the recent trajectory of progress in information technology and brain sciences, I think we will see that only a very brash person would predict that the path to our informed preferences will remain as inefficient as it has been thus far.