Tim Urban of Wait But Why

by Y Combinator1/3/2018

Tim Urban cofounded the blog Wait But Why with Andrew Finn in 2013.

His posts about Artificial Intelligence, Elon Musk, and the Fermi Paradox have been read millions of times.

We discussed Tim’s research strategy, the purpose of Wait But Why, and his thoughts on technologies including cryptocurrencies, A.I., and AR/VR.


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Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, happy New Year everyone. This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Our first episode of 2018 is with Tim Urban. Tim co-founded the blog Wait But why with Andrew Finn in 2013. He’s become well known for his long form explainer post about things like AI, Elon Musk, and the Fermi paradox. I met up with Tim in New York to talk about his research strategy, the purpose of Wait But why, and his thoughts on technologies including cryptocurrency, AI, and VR. Alright, here we go. Is the purpose of Wait But why to start kind of informing people to get them to care before it’s too late, or what is your intent with all the content you’re making?

Tim Urban [00:00:45] – The purpose in general is for me to do something I’m having fun at doing. I spent nine years after college doing something that was kind of objectively a cool thing, but I was not doing what I wanted to be doing. Honestly, I want to be excited to wake up, I want to be excited to do my work, I want to feel like I’m playing when I’m doing my work. And this fits a lot of things for me. I’m very curious, so I get to be a constant learner. I like having great conversations with interesting people, and Wait But why is connecting me to all kinds of great conversations. I love creating, artistically creating. A post is a piece of art in a way. And it allows me to continually stay in excitable mode, ’cause I can switch topics again, and again, and again. I feel like I’m in the honeymoon phase with the job all the time, ’cause I switch topics and it’s a whole new planet for me. I love that. And if I didn’t like it, I don’t think I’m a good enough person to do it out of obligation for, “I think this is going to help.” I’d like to think I would, but I think I’m more the kind of person that might throw money at something good. I’m not sure I would dedicate my life to something where I felt like it wasn’t my calling, it wasn’t something I really was passionate about, wasn’t something I had fun doing. That said, as Wait But why has gotten more popular as I’ve begun to dive into a lot more intense deep topics, I started to appreciate the impact that a viral blog post can have.

Tim Urban [00:02:21] – I appreciate it when times like when I go to, I’ve spoken at a bunch of colleges. I was at a place like MIT. Afterwards, a couple of students came up, and they said they’re going to work, one of them is working at SpaceX, and one of them is going to work in AI. They’re both because of my posts. Right there, these two are probably smarter than me, both of them, they’re 18, and if they both go to work, that’s 120 years of human effort going towards really good important things. And maybe they instead would have gone into finance or something else. To me, I was like, “That’s really awesome.” And if that’s two of however many, that to me is a massive impact. If I can convince really smart people to turn their attention or their money or their time toward important things, that’s about as big an impact as I could have as a human. Because me going into it myself, that’s one person. Plus I want to say these MIT dudes are probably more capable than I am. And just kind of, since it is a battle for awareness right now, awareness of the story that we’re a part of, this human Colossus story is crazy. We woke up inside of a thriller movie. I use this analogy. If human history’s a thousand centuries, about 100,000 years. There’s 500 page book telling the story, and every page is two centuries, if you’re an alien, and you pick up this book and you’re trying to understand what the human history is like, so the first 450 pages, the first 90,000 years gets us to just hunter gatherers, that’s it. Migrations and hunter gatherers,

Tim Urban [00:04:12] – and very, very slight biological changes. You are bored as an alien reading that book. Page 450 of the agriculture revolution, and you have cities, and you have the first wide scale cooperation, this Colossus takes a huge leap forward. Things start to get a little interesting. And that’s just the last 50 pages of the book. And things do develop in a kind of interesting cool way. Page 490, you have Jesus, you have A.D. starts at 10 pages ago, and you have Islam starts at page 493, and around page 497 you have imperialism gets rolling, then you have the enlightenment the next page. And right at the beginning of page 500, the very last page, you have the industrial revolution, and you have the entire Colossus kind of like goes on steroids. The Colossus grows up very quickly and becomes far more powerful. The populations balloons from less than a billion to seven billion on page 500 alone. And every other page before page 500, transportation meant walking, running, sailboats. Page 500 we’re going to the space station, we’re flying around planes and cars. Communication on page 499 and earlier meant talking to people and writing letters with your hand. Page 500, we have FaceTime, we have internet. If you’re the alien reading this book, suddenly you’re on page 500 and you’re like, you just can’t believe what you’re reading, and you’re so riveted that you’re saying, “Oh my god, this is the story, this is what this has all been leading to. What’s about to happen?” You turn to page 501, and you’re just like something big is about to happen here. We all were born right then, it’s crazy.

Tim Urban [00:05:59] – That part of what I can do, and the only reason I’m so aware of this right now is ’cause I write about it. My job is to think about this. Part of what I can do is just take humans that are every bit of smart as I am, and every bit as curious, but it’s not their job to think about this stuff, and kind of shake them and say, “Hey, we’re about to turn to page 501.” It’s either going to be the coolest story for humans or it’s the end. It is a 501 page book, and that’s it. Or this is the beginning of the new paradigm. We have a new B.C./A.D. situation. We have a B.C. which is like before something which is on page 501 when we all became immortal and all the suffering stopped, or whatever that is. And the B.C., this’ll be the real B.C., much more important than any religious thing. It’ll be the thing before humans came into their own. That’ really exciting. Or it’ll be the end, and there’ll be no more book.

Craig Cannon [00:06:58] – This is the barrier in the Firmi post, right?

Tim Urban [00:07:00] – It has to be. The problem is we’re wired for a world when nothing changed ever, so when someone says, “This is going to be the future, everything’s going to be different,” it’s wise to be naive, to feel that that’s naive.

Craig Cannon [00:07:17] – It’s kind of like the snake oil alarm.

Tim Urban [00:07:19] – It feels naive and it should feel naive, because it used to be naive. Today it actually is, all you can do is just compare, there’s no salesman needed here, just look at the facts of page 500 versus 499 and every page before it. This is clearly not like every other time. I find it exciting, I’m very happy.

Craig Cannon [00:07:46] – The interests in startups and technology kind of ebbs and flows it seems. And now, for better or worse, it seems to be like people are pushing tech away in big quotes, because they think of tech as just Facebook. But in reality it’s so, so, so much more. And when someone’s down on the stuff, and they’re like, “Ugh, I don’t need an app to walk my dog,” or something, change your point of view and look at this other stuff, and it’s crazy. There’s so much going on.

Tim Urban [00:08:17] – Tech is a monster god that is on the horizon running towards us right now. And when the god gets here, it’s either going to be a really good benevolent amazing god or a really bad god, depending on what we do right now, so we should go into tech. You should spend your career in tech. Literally, the people in tech right now are the people who are creating that god and deciding what that god’s going to be like when it gets here. And so, yes, you might object to the lifestyle that many of have taken on due to early tech, sure. Different topic than saying technology in general, it’s like, no, no, no, if you care about people, if you care about your grandchildren, you should be focusing on this too. And especially wary that the minds in tech right now, as good people as they may be, they’re humans, they’re primates. And what the primate wants is to succeed in its own life. They are worried about glory an trying to succeed. And when everyone in it is doing that, you have this monster being developed in a way that doesn’t have a larger kind of thought process here. It’s just being developed to develop it. That’s really, really scary.

Craig Cannon [00:09:33] – Is there a canon of literature around that specific topic or is this kind of a new idea? I guess you could think about it as a religion basically. How do we get past our short term monkey mind to care about more people when we’re developing technology?

Tim Urban [00:09:54] – As humans, the thing that when you want to really make a change, you don’t try to change humans fundamentally. That’s not easy. What you try to do is you try to build some kind of structure or system that will naturally incentivize shitty selfish humans to do the right thing. This is the Elon Musk formula and many others. In this case, the thing that drives humans more than anything, more than absolutely anything is culture, because we want, deeply want, to be accepted by our culture, and whatever society we’re in, we want to be cool in it. Whatever society says these are the cool kinds of people, everyone will put all their energy to try to be like that. Whatever the people around us, whatever will make us fit in and stand out, and be admired, and be attractive to the opposite sex, and all of this, if society decided that money was unattractive and that working with your hands and living on as little as possible really made you awesome, and that’s what all the movie characters suddenly were doing, and that’s what, again, the opposite sex really started to like, no one’s in finance anymore. We’d all be working out and trying to get out in construction fields and be really good. Money is only a big deal to us because that’s currently what society has told us matters. Because it’s a remnant of a world where resources were so scarce. Now, resources aren’t scarce anymore, but the values have stuck around. The value of let’s all obsess over resources is still here, so now you have rich people obsessing

Tim Urban [00:11:39] – their whole life over getting richer. If you want people to obsess over AI safety, right now AI development’s a big thing, because development, you know, entrepreneurship is getting rich, getting successful is what we value. If suddenly it became extremely cool in society to be a philosopher thinking about, or someone in tech obsessed with AI safety, and the way this could happen is if people were aware enough of this page 500 situation, suddenly there’d be all this fear around it. Right? And all of this excitement but all this fear, and if someone could have a breakthrough. Not in development. Development people would kind of almost look at it kind of suspiciously, like okay that’s fine. But if someone comes up with a big breakthrough in AI safety, and they became kind of Nobel Prize, front page of magazine, they were interviewed everywhere, they were the biggest celebrity because we were all scared, and they, “Oh my god, this person might save us.” Kind of like people thought the Manhattan Project might save us back then. Or anytime there’s fear in humans, that takes over everything. Then if you can kind of assuage that fear somehow. If you really wanted this to happen, I think that you need, someone like Elon Musk who’s really prominent but also really concerned with AI safety, that helps. Many people like me trying to make these points helps. But again, it’s not telling people you should want safety to be a good person. It’s saying this is the big challenge of our time.

Tim Urban [00:13:21] – This is the great decision moment we’re about to be at. This is the great filter or not. And who’s going to be the hero that can figure this out? This is the great problem. This is it. The development’s happening automatically, it’s like a tsunami coming towards us. Who wants to be the hero? Who wants to be the person that saved all of us? Everything in the world will be named after them. They’ll be basically a god in the future world if they came up with a solution. That will happen if people understand the reality. And if that happens, then you’ll see all kinds of people all thinking about it and forming clubs, and it will be the coolest thing to be going into. It will be the most noble thing you can go into, and the radest, the smartest people. It’s like, oh, you’re really smart, you should go into that then. Cancer research now might be that, something like that.

Craig Cannon [00:14:09] – Totally. When you were a kid, who’s the person who you’re like, “Man, that person is so cool. If I could just be like them, then I’ll have made it.” Emil Wallner basically asked this question. Where there bloggers or writers that you looked up to as communicators?

Tim Urban [00:14:27] – I don’t think as a kid writing was on my radar as much. As a kid, I wanted to compose music in a way, I wanted to be like Andrew Lloyd Webber, or Billy Joel, or the Beatles. When I was 11 would have done it. At some point, I wanted to be the president. I had a little egoy stretch there. Then that disappeared. I actually became the class president, and that one, I was like I’m out of this.

Craig Cannon [00:14:54] – In middle school?

Tim Urban [00:14:55] – In high school. I was 18, and I’m like, I’m not going to be doing more of this. I’m never campaigning again. And also, being class president is a useless job. You’re not really doing anything. You’re raising small amounts of money for one thing or two things that are already going to be funded somehow anyway. And that’s actually, a microcosm of a lot of real politicians’ lives. Not that politicians as a unit don’t together have a lot of power, but each trying to be a senator forever, I feel like I can do more actually in a lot of ways and have a lot more fun. That disappeared. And then I was back in creatively, where I wanted to be in either music or writing, one of those. And when I first started to think about blogging, I actually was blogging on the side for it’s like six years before I started Wait But why. Early on, Bill Simmons, I was in college right when he was at his peak popularity, big sports fan, Boston, so I was a big Bill Simmons reader. I wouldn’t say I necessarily wanted to mimic his specific style. But it was his personality and integrity, just the fact that he would go on and just be himself and be colonial and be fun, like the way he would write an email to his friends is how he would write an article, that resonated with me, that seemed very obvious. I was like that is clearly the way to go if I ever were a writer. And when I started my blog, it wasn’t even a question. I wasn’t going to try to be a journalist or have any kind of formula. I was just going to go and try to be a fun writer.

Craig Cannon [00:16:26] – Well, that just came with the internet too.

Tim Urban [00:16:28] – It did, exactly. He was one of the first really famous ones. And then I looked at other successful bloggers who I respected, Allie Brosh at Hyperbole and a Half, and Randall Munroe, and Jason Kottke, and certain blogs that I thought were great. And the thing I really appreciated about them is that they were all very unique kind of molded to the person’s personality who made them. They were just clearly a reflection of the person. The person wasn’t trying to be a brand or anything different. They were just being their best selves in writing form or drawing form. And so, again, I was very adamant about trying to actually not look at other styles, ’cause I was like, I want to do my exact style, ’cause that’s what I think is the key actually. But it was the integrity of these styles that I saw other people use that I think it really kind of stuck with me, it made it very clear that I’m going to double down on my own style versus trying to fit into any other kind of form.

Craig Cannon [00:17:26] – Yeah totally. I haven’t read your old blog. Is it still up, your old stuff?

Tim Urban [00:17:31] – It is somewhere. It’s called Underneath the Turban. Very few people have read it. It was much more classic blog style stuff. I would write about my day. I would rant about something. I’d write a list of things I didn’t understand in the world.

Craig Cannon [00:17:44] – Was it as thoroughly researched as–

Tim Urban [00:17:46] – No.

Craig Cannon [00:17:46] – Okay. There’s another Twitter question. Anish Giri asks, basically, what styles and techniques do you use to learn things quickly enough to, I think you’ve talked about it, getting from basically to level five, and ability to communicate this is AI, this is why it’s interesting, this is why you should care. What do you use to go from reading AI on Wikipedia to writing a 10,000, or what is it, like 30,000 word post about it? What do you do to get that?

Tim Urban [00:18:16] – The internet is a real godsend to a curious person or to a blogger trying to do–

Craig Cannon [00:18:23] – Or a procrastinator.

Tim Urban [00:18:24] – Or a procrastinator, to a lot of things. If you consider one through 10 knowledge on something, 10 is like the world’s leading expert, PhD’s get you to maybe seven or an eight, my goals is I’m starting at two or three, as a layman. If I’m a really curious layman, I’ll be a three, ’cause I’ve already known. And I’ll get myself of up to, like you said, a five, maybe a six. Becoming an eight would take years. I would have to focus in on one topic only. I’d rather become a six on 50 topics than an eight on three, or a 10 on one. That’s me, not everyone. Some people, the thing they love is being a nine or a 10 in knowledge. That doesn’t excite me that much. It would be great, it’s just it’s the lesser of excitement. And then my goal as a blogger is after I’ve gotten to level six, to then package everything I just learned and the road I just went down, I basically look at the road I went down and said if I could do this road again how could I do it efficiently now. And how could I package this in a way that doesn’t just take someone down this road efficiently, and thoroughly to get them to where I am, but does it in a way more fun way than I just had. I want the reader to have a lot more fun.

Craig Cannon [00:19:44] – More pictures.

Tim Urban [00:19:46] – Yeah, a lot more pictures, more storytelling, and just funnier, and just more enjoyable than what I just did. It’s that. I just went down a road, now let met take this road and make it awesome, and that’s my job. And I go on a new road, and then whatever. The question is about how do I go down my road to get myself from that two to a six. I start with Wikipedia, or general kind of Googling. What I’ll do is I’ll Google the question I have. If I want to understand cryonics, whatever it is, I’ll Google, “What is cryonics?” “Cryonics vs. cryogenics.” ‘Cause I don’t, you may all have heard those terms. And I’ll Google, “cryonics scam,” and I’ll Google, “Does cryonics work?” And I’ve heard Peter Theil said something. So, I’ll say, “Peter Theil cryonics,” and I’ll Google, “Alcor cryonics,” ’cause I heard there was a company called Alcor. And I’ll Google, “How many cryonics companies are there?”… “Cost of cryonics.” I’ll Google all of these, each in a different tab. Then in each tab, I’ll basically without even looking, I’ll just open every link, eight links on each tab. I’ll open up like 70 or 80 links. Among those are four different Wikipedia articles, and then a bunch of just articles written, secondary source kind of articles, written is Gizmodo and other places like that. None of those alone is an awesome source. It’s that on the whole, the group of those articles, will give me a foundational understanding. Wikipedia’s good for a foundational understanding. It’ll give me a foundational understanding.

Tim Urban [00:21:31] – It’ll also tell me what the big opinions are. I’ll realize where the big disagreements are, where the kind of uncertainties are, and it just kind of like orients me in general. And I’m like okay, I now understand what I need to start learning even.

Craig Cannon [00:21:46] – And so, are you writing notes to yourself at this point? Are you trying to communicate this to your girlfriend or your friends, so you actually know that you’re understanding it instead of just reading words?

Tim Urban [00:21:59] – I have a big document open that I’m pulling quotes that’s really interesting, or fact, or stat, or an opinion, and then when I see a counter opinion, I’ll find that opinion, I’ll put it underneath it into the document so they’re next to each other. And then I have a lot of thoughts of my own as I’m going. I’m suddenly bursting with thoughts, and I’m bursting with metaphors. I’m saying this is a lot like, or I’ll say cryonics is kind of like long term patient care. Or it’s like pausing you biologically, and I’ll just write it down, right? And I’ll write down all my thoughts as I go, ’cause a lot of the best ideas just kind of come out as you’re researching. First of all, sometimes it’s a very different process. If I’m thinking about procrastination, why you procrastinate, but thinking about why we care what other people think of us or why we get into so many bad marriages, people. I’m much more likely going to be thinking, I’m going to be pacing around thinking, maybe having conversations with friends, and writing stuff down. There’s less research. And so, I’m specifically talking about one kind of post I do right now, which is the heavy research post, an explainer post. And so, at that point, I have a foundation but there’s a lot more I need to learn. I’ll feel very insecure about my knowledge in many different of these areas. And I’ll just haver certain things I don’t understand at all. I’ll have to go deeper. I won’t understand why freezing your cells is not good, but vitrifying is. I’ll want to dig deeply into that. I’ll just first look at why

Tim Urban [00:23:30] – water expands when it freezes, and I’ll go read about that for a half hour. And then I’ll look at vitrification, and I’ll realize, oh, vitrify, we vitrify embryos and organs. How does that work? What actually goes on in the cell? What goes on in the actual atoms? What’s happening? Antifreeze, then I’ll go into how antifreeze works in cars to understand what antifreeze is, ’cause there’s an antifreeze type solution. Is it the same solution, is it different? And I just start going down rabbit holes after rabbit holes. Sometimes these become unproductive ’cause I just get curious, and I end up on YouTube, and like 12 hours later I’m watching people in road rage fights and all kind of, fuck. But then I’ll reel it in, and I’ll come back. But the point is, there’s a lot of different, depending on how broad you want to go, and I often want to go really broad. Then we’ll go into the Alcor website, ’cause they have this great FAQ. So, I’ll go and just read their whole FAQ. But I know that they’re one voice only, and they have maybe an incentive. So, then I’ll go read a competitor’s FAQ, and then I realize even all of that is still cryonics companies. Then all start to understand what the best argument is for cryonics, and I’ll understand the science behind it. Then I’ll have my own thinking about how I want to frame how I can explain this. I’ll want to track my own thought process. I’ll go from skeptical to kind of like super excited to then a little less excited but a believe or something, and I’ll want to track that,

Tim Urban [00:24:49] – ’cause I assume a lot of readers are going to go through that. I like to talk about where my own head’s at at the end of a post, because I feel like I brought readers here as a group discuss, even though I’m the only one in the room. Then I want to go and do a hardcore session on the skeptics, what they say. I want to go and just Google things like “cryonics scam, cryonics won’t work, cryonics bogus science, pseudoscience.” I’ll just Google these things, and I’ll read as many articles as I can. And it’s not that I want to get to the bottom, especially a lot of times there is no bottom right now. The skeptics are many and they’re diverse in their viewpoints, but there seems to be some big fatal flaws, and it seems like the cryonics people aren’t acknowledging them or whatever. Or, you look the other way and you say, you know, actually the skeptics don’t really seem to understand what’s going on here. They seem to have a knee jerk reaction. Some of them even talk about freezing a body, which that’s the first thing you learn when you read, is that’s not what’s happening. In which case, I’ll have a sense of them like, the cryonics people actually are seeming like the more serious thinkers right here versus the skeptics, or whatever it is. But I want to understand that too. At the end of that I have this huge pile of thoughts and research. And then I go onto the next phase, which is outlining, and the writing, and then drawing, and then revising. By the end of that, I know the shit out of the topic.

Tim Urban [00:26:17] – But when I’m really done, and especially since you then solidify it by outlining it and then writing it, and then discussing it, usually the next week, you solidify it. But by the time I’m done, again I’m not a true expert. I’m not going to advice a cryonics company on a new kind of technique to use. Nowhere near that level. But what I can do is basically talk to any laymen and answer basically any question they have. There’s almost no question at the end of that where I can’t, not just give you answer, but I can explain the science behind it, and I can explain the different contrarian views to the prevailing opinion. And this is just the internet. This is just a pretty smart guy on the internet with a–

Craig Cannon [00:27:03] – You’re not calling people, you’re just reading stuff.

Tim Urban [00:27:06] – Sometimes I will. For example, for this I called my doctor friend who I knew would be skeptical, and I wanted to just hear why. And I wanted to kind of play devil’s advocate to his skepticism with what I’ve learned and kind of set up a mock argument between a cryonicist and a skeptic by me playing the cryonicist. I’ll do that. For the post I just did on Neurolink, on brain machine interfaces, that is so new, and there are so many different opinions, and I had access, in this case, to a lot of great people–

Craig Cannon [00:27:33] – But you went there, right?

Tim Urban [00:27:35] – I went to Neurolink, and I met with all the founders, and I met wit many of them multiple times. I talked to a bunch of other BMI people too, and some sci-fi people. I find the sci-fi people are the ones who have the best handle on things like the page 500, on things like this big picture.

Craig Cannon [00:27:50] – It’s crazy, yeah.

Tim Urban [00:27:52] – Those are the people that think really big picture, and they know about all the different technologies, versus a lot of the time, the people in an industry, they have their blinders on, and they’re not that great at thinking about the really big picture a lot. Some of them are, but many times, actually, for example, I talked to Ramez Naam in this case, science fiction guy about brain machine interfaces versus language. Is this the next paradigm? Is language this one big movement, this big kind of change, and now, is brain machine interfaces like the next thing, or is writing kind of on that level? He’s a perfect person, we had this great conversation about that, because that’s the kind of stuff that he thinks about versus people the people at, it talked to in the brain machine interfaces industry. They were kind of like, well, they didn’t have much of an answer to that.

Craig Cannon [00:28:41] – Well, I think that’s actually what causes a rift between a lot of these people. Because some people are so deep in it, they’re engineers, they care about the practical day-to-day progress. And then there are these like writers philosophers on the subject, and they both kind of think the other party’s like, “Oh, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Tim Urban [00:28:57] – A lot of times the people in it are so annoyed by the idiots who basically lie about how quickly this is going to happen, the people who say we’re all going to be thinking to each other in three years, and they’re so mad about that, that someone actually way closer to them, but being pretty optimistic, they just group them all together, they say, oh no. But actually, they reject any kind of, they’re so dug in now on their stance that this is going to take a long time, that they can actually go too far with that too. But anyway, for cryonics for example, I didn’t talk to anyone else other than my doctor friend. Everything I needed was on the internet. AI, I didn’t talk to a soul. I read three books, probably 200 articles, including, once you understand stuff well, then you want to get to some really hardcore science. You get to the papers, I started reading all these mindless boring papers. I read a bunch of philosophy papers on this stuff. I just got deep in. But I just read for maybe two weeks.

Craig Cannon [00:29:57] – Which isn’t that much.

Tim Urban [00:29:58] – It’s not that much.

Craig Cannon [00:29:59] – It’s really not.

Tim Urban [00:30:00] – 80 hours of reading and taking stuff out, you can get the pretty big picture, especially if it’s an industry that we’re not even sure yet is a species. We’re arguing about it. You can understand everyone’s viewpoints pretty well. And one good book like Superintelligence, in the case of AI, can give you a really, really great foundation right there. Then you can just kind of tack on information to that foundation, or poke holes in that foundation, and then you end up with a solid understanding.

Craig Cannon [00:30:26] – How often do you let a post go where you’re doing the research, and you just can’t get a handle on it, or you feel like the research isn’t even there and you have to stop?

Tim Urban [00:30:37] – I don’t think I’ve ever really done that. I’ll often brainstorm a new post and then stop. But usually that’s because I suddenly, that’s this icky daunting thing. They’re all daunting. But when I’m looking at this one particular daunting topic, suddenly every other topic sounds better, the grass is green phenomenon. If I’m writing about life, and I’m just like, oh, I have to come up with my own philosophy on this, I’m just like, oh, imagine just researching something in science, how easy that would be. When I’m just buried in really thick research trying to understanding something, I say, imagine if I can just sit back and think about how we think. Or if I’m trying to be funny, when I’m doing either of those, it sounds so easy to just try to do a funny kind of observational comedy post. I’m doing one of those, I’m like, the other ones, I can just kind of like be earnest. I have to try to be witty here, and it’s a nightmare. I’m always switching for that reason really early on. When I’ve dug into a research post, usually I only start those in the first place because I already know it’s a good topic, ’cause I heard enough people talking about it, and I’m curious enough about it. I know there’s a lot to say. And whatever it is, it’s going to be worth explaining, whatever I can find out. If I find this, I’m researching that actually, there’s not really any good answers to this. That’s interesting in its own. To be able to say, “You know what, don’t feel bad for not knowing, ’cause no one knows what this is. But here’s what we do know.”

Tim Urban [00:31:58] – That’s fine, I’m fine to do that. Usually, when I pick the topic, I’m going to explain what is out there, whatever that is, and that’s fine.

Craig Cannon [00:32:05] – And do you ever feel that you ought to do kind of like an anti-skeptic post. If you fall into a YouTube rabbit hole, you can quickly come across flat Earth, or any of the related topics. Have you ever felt drawn to doing a disproving of that or any particular crazy conspiracy theory?

Tim Urban [00:32:26] – I’m writing a post now that is kind of taking aim at political dogma on all sides, and talking about how all of these stats that one political side takes as gospel, they’re almost always wrong, because in an echo chamber environment there’s no kind of white blood cells to kill the virus. Because decent isn’t okay over there. Not only is it not valued, it’s very much frowned upon. Everyone’s agreeing, everyone’s confirming, and you have these bad stats that live on. I’m trying to take a bunch of those in this case and show that they’re not true, and show why we got there and how we think. That’s one example. A few other times I’ve kind of tried to take a contrarian view on something that I really believe. But most of the time, especially with a researchy topic, I find that, to be a contrarian you have to have conviction. You have to have a strong opinion that this is wrong. And for me, if I get conviction it’s going to be because I stole it from the stuff I read. I’m only getting conviction from what I’m reading. All I’m really doing in that case is regurgitating someone else’s contrarian argument, and I’d rather just credit them and kind of present both sides and let the readers make a decision. People are like, “What’s your stance on AI?” I’m like, here’s this person’s stance, and here’s this person’s stance. This one seems a little more credible to me, but who knows? Versus me being like this is right. On the other hand, if I’m talking about we shouldn’t be so dogmatic, that’s deep in me. I believe that.

Tim Urban [00:34:09] – And I think it’s very much pervasive how dogmatic we are and it needs to be said. There’s certain moments like that that I can do that. But if it’s like, if I’m disproving flat Earth, I could do that. But the point is there, is also like, what’s that do? We’re going to pick on the .001% of crazies? It’s fun. I agree that would be kind of a fun thing to do. What’s the point? So we can all be like, “Yeah!” Great, no one who reads Wait But why thinks the Earth is flat. Although, I just was interviewed on a documentary about the flat Earth, and apparently there’s like 10,000 plus very serious flat Earthers in the US. A lot of them are really obsessed with the fact that they think it’s science based, why it’s flat Earth. They have all these measurements, they’ve done experiments, they have all this math and data showing it. They seem to always found some way they can create kind of a logic loophole that makes it seem true. I was asking, do they really believe it. And they said with all their heart they are sure, and they’re sure that this is this crazy world that everyone is believing this conspiracy.

Craig Cannon [00:35:24] – It’s like the genetic other side of that snake oil coin, where you’re like, “Oh, I know the secret, I get this.” And knowing the secret is this weird monkey sensation that makes us feel good and different.

Tim Urban [00:35:39] – It is. We all have in us a susceptibility to conspiracy theory. It’s a spectrum conspiracy. I think it goes from totally objective on one side to bias, like confirmation bias, cherry picking, kind of lawyering our way to conclusions where we kind of already know the conclusion we find arguments, right? Then you can get down the spectrum further that ends at full schizophrenia, which is everything I see is part of this thing. Your left brain is powerful, which is helpful in many ways. It finds a lot of patterns. That’s incredibly ingenious in a lot of ways, but it also gets us into huge trouble because it’s this great lawyer. It can find patterns in anything. If you want to believe something, your left brain will find the evidence to make you believe it. Before you get to full blown schizophrenia, where suddenly there’s this one story, and everything you see is in it. You get to this land in the middle with is conspiracy land. We all laugh at something like people who think 911 was caused by the US, or the moon landing didn’t happen, or flat Earthers. We don’t look at ourselves in the mirror. There’s a lot of times we genuinely believe conspiracy. And you don’t realize it, but you’re reading a bunch of news that is all catered to your–

Craig Cannon [00:36:56] – Totally, yeah.

Tim Urban [00:37:01] – I read an article the other day about how, when it comes to Trump and Russia, the left is believing a lot of crazy shit now. There’s just people out there who are just kind of making stuff up at this point about these ties, and there’s smart people passing it around being like, “This is it, this is when he goes down.” They’re being crazy, they’re being crazy. Because they want to believe something so badly, and they’re so in a bubble where no one’s challenging bad ideas. We can get there, any of us.

Craig Cannon [00:37:29] – I’m sure it happens with me on this podcast. There’s been times with people I invite. It’s like, “Oh, you fall in line with these things that I believe in, so therefore we should do a podcast together and keep it going.”

Tim Urban [00:37:39] – Selection bias.

Craig Cannon [00:37:40] – How do you break that with your posts? I’m sure you fall into–

Tim Urban [00:37:43] – Well, I just said. I always am going to read a ton of skepticism about any opinion I have. What is that doing? Think about how we do this, okay. The marketplace of ideas. The idea is that it’s specifically the clash of ideas that the dust settles and truth is left, right? The clash of ideas helps us. Now think about a courtroom. A courtroom has one attorney that is full selection bias, cherry picking, confirmation bias of every kind intentionally, as their job, of getting to one conclusion. There’s no defense attorney that says, “You know, the prosecution’s made some good points. Actually, I think my client’s guilty.” No, their job is to be one sided. But because you have both of them, they clash, and the jury can maybe start to see, after watching them clash. With cryonics, like I said, I don’t read one side, I want to read the skeptics as much as I can. By the time they’re done clashing, it’s not that I know for sure, just like the jury doesn’t know for sure. I’m going to have a hunch. I’m going to start to feel like these people are the ones who are much more fact based here. These people have thought about this more. These people are talking in more reasonable words. They seem to be more humble and more whatever it is. And so, if I’m reading now in the news, the news is hopeless to get an objective source, don’t even try. I try to be an objective guy. If I try to create a news source, it’s going to be biased in some way of my own. What I will do is I’ll read the New York Times article,

Tim Urban [00:39:11] – and I’ll go right away and Google the same thing on National Review, or I’ll watch something on MSNBC and then I’ll go try to find a clip on Fox News, preferably be the first pair. New York Times people get mad at, they think it’s biased, or Fox, or one of these. If you just treat it like one of the attorneys, it’s fine, it’s serving its role. The problem is when people treat it like the grand truth, like this objective truth. What I find is when I read, I’ve become through this post, and I’m not going to stop now. I read a ton of conservative media along with my standard kind of left wing media, and together, I just get a healthy degree of skepticism. It makes it very hard for me to feel a lot of conviction about anything. Because if you only read one thing, you can say, this obviously true. But I’m saying I read a really smart good argument by a really smart person saying this wasn’t true, and this was overblown, and that this was a made up stat. You end up feeling very humble, which doesn’t feel good all the time, but it feels at least like honest, and I don’t feel delusional. I don’t feel like I’m in some bubble anymore. I think that’s how we can do this. If you have guests on a podcast, get some people on that fundamentally disagree with you. Not just on what’s going to happen, but think differently. And just examine their brain. Put it out on the table and examine the way they think. Either you’ll still disagree with they way they think, but you’ll understand them better afterwards. Which can then lead you to be able to

Tim Urban [00:40:48] – change minds better if you understand. Or they’ll poke some hole in your logic, or humble you out a little bit in a way that’ll make you, it’ll hurt at the time, it’ll make you a better thinker in the long run. Or they’ll literally point out a way you’re wrong, or you’ll do something likewise to them. But for your listeners, they’ll benefit a ton from that. Intelligence Squared is this debate podcast. I’d much rather learn something in the form of a debate than the form of one person, because now it’s like a courtroom to me. I get to be a jury with both sides.

Craig Cannon [00:41:17] – Well, that’s why I’ve fallen into the longer form podcast, because you really learn how someone things instead of their edited sound clip version.

Tim Urban [00:41:24] – Exactly.

Craig Cannon [00:41:26] – One of the hotly debated and contested topics is cryptocurrency right now. Julian asks on Twitter, “Do you have thoughts or strong opinions?”

Tim Urban [00:41:36] – Definitely no strong opinions. I have read a little bit. I get more requests for this topic than I’ve gotten about anything in the last three months by far, by like threefold. And I do think it’s a good Wait But why topic. I don’t right now have the time at this moment. But I do want to dive in, because it’s exactly the kind of topic I like. Which is, this is important, this is extremely complex, and it’s incredibly hard to understand from an 800 word article, which is what everyone writes. But it’s not actually that hard to understand in a 10,000 word article. To me, it’s not that this is that complicated. It’s not that you need to be super smart. It’s just it needs to be really thoroughly explained. No one’s doing that very well. And this is important. AI was, and I think cryonics, and pretty much interfaces, and many other things I’ve taken on. From what I’ve read, the best metaphor that pops into my head for what this seems like, I think that’ll change as I research more, is it seems like it’s 1988, and there’s not one internet, but there’s many different interwebs, competitor interwebs kind of trying to start. Maybe none of them will take hold, and the whole thing will end up not existing, or there’ll be many of them or multiple, or there’ll be one that ends up becoming this giant thing like the internet. And I think the people buying cryptocurrency right now is kind of like buying domain names on various ones of these and hoping that they take off. Maybe there’s an interweb with not even any websites on it yet,

Tim Urban [00:43:21] – but there’s domain names you can buy, and you’re taking a lottery ticket that maybe this is going to become the internet, and then I’ll have this super valuable currency. But I also think that’s probably like, explaining magnets is like having a rubber band. Where it’s like, yes, it tells you what the basic deal is, but it’s actually fundamentally different than what’s really happening. When I research more, I’ll probably reject my own metaphor as maybe a first starting point, but then it needs to be explained further why this is not actually like that. It’s a really cool concept. We right now assume that the only way to do things is centralized systems, centralized governments, these trusted authority units we can all kind of hang on to for safety and for organization. Governments, we invented that. Countries are invented pretty recently. Page 497 we started having countries basically. Of course, there’ll be other paradigms. Big things are going to change. And I’m sure that the way that mining happens right now, and thing like this is going to look very primitive. We’ll come up with different ways. Especially when you have other kind of interfaces. You have brain machine interfaces for example. Just the way that an eye scanner, finger print’s way faster than a password. We might come up with things that are even cooler ways to verify transactions and everything like that and records. I’m very intrigued and Sit is definitely worth understanding and starting to think about. I think anyone investing right now

Tim Urban [00:45:05] – I think has to be aware that it could be amazing, but very good chance that any one of these currencies just becomes nothing. I think that people know that. But I think it’s just so cool, it’s fascinating. Understanding it starts with understanding kind of the block chain concept. And I think that starts with understanding encryption, and just literally how encryption works, and the public key, and the private key. When I dug into that a little, it started to make sense. I started to say I see, ’cause otherwise, people, they hear about this mythical ledger on computers, and they just tune out ’cause they think what does that mean. Once you get what it means, it starts to be kind of delicious. I think that that’s a great topic.

Craig Cannon [00:45:46] – Or they think it’s just this fake thing that you’re buying into only because it’s rising, and so you’re going to make money that way.

Tim Urban [00:45:51] – Or they one dimensionalize it as this is just like a different kind of currency. But it’s not. The currency itself is one of many kinds of things that can happen in a decentralized system. I have a two week reading stretch ahead of me there, and I’ll come out of that, and I’ll have a way better answer for you.

Craig Cannon [00:46:12] – Okay, cool then. I just want to wrap up with one more question from Facebook. So, Casey Stanton asks, “You gave an awesome talk about AI in Carmel,” it sounds like in May and, “What incredibly complex technology that’s coming needs our attention? What’s something that all of us should know or think about?”

Tim Urban [00:46:31] – Yeah. There’s a lot, there’s a lot right now. It’s exciting. It’s overwhelming. I’m going to name a few. Crypto is one thing to think about, things that might be as big a deal as the internet in 10 years is kind of how I’m thinking about it, or way bigger. There’s this hype kind of trajectory that goes big, something first starts to actually work as a technology, massive hype, then it’s not really ready for primetime yet though, and everyone just suddenly becomes like, everyone’s over that.

Craig Cannon [00:47:17] – It’s never going to work.

Tim Urban [00:47:18] – Right. And then it creeps back in as a actual existing thing. We’ve had AI and a few different of these bumps. VR/AR is one of these. There was a big stretch a couple years ago. You know, Oculus is new, and the Vive, and you have people who are doing these cool demos, and you have first AI kind of big explosion, with Pokemon Go, and you have the Google Cardboard, and you have Samsung Gear, and all this stuff. And I think it was this huge hype, and now you don’t hear much about it right now. It’s in a dead period because the only way to do it well was these really expensive, you have to get a fancy computer and a fancy thing, they were hard to even get, they were backlogged, the headsets, and you have to be tethered to your computer, you had to put stuff on the walls. I did all this, so I know. And then you got in them, sometimes they made you nauseous. There were some programs that were unbelievable, and I was just blown away that this is 1.0. This is MSDOS and it’s so good already. But a lot of them weren’t that good. A lot of them made you nauseous. The head set, it’s exhausting to have on for a long time, it’s heavy. Take it off, you’re sweating. All I’m thinking the whole time is people in 10 years are going to go to my closet and pull out my Vive 1.0. They’re going to say, “Oh my god, look how big this is.” They’re going to put it on and be like, “Oh my god, you wore this?” And it’s going to seem like the cellphone in a briefcase. But I’ve done this a lot more than most, because I am going to write a post on it. I went to the Oculus conference,

Tim Urban [00:48:49] – I’ve tried basically all the programs. I was just floored at how awesome, this is VR, so this isn’t even getting into AR, which is probably an even bigger concept. The Magic Leaps stuff, whether it’s through a headset or glasses, or eventually contact lenses or whatever, you actually just add stuff onto your world. Your whole computer interface is just floating there in front of you and whatever it is. A lot of things we can’t even imagine. The implications for gaming and entertainment, but also for just kind of experiences for communication, for training, for building empathy, and for a classroom of third graders in Missouri going on a fun field trip to the Moon with a classroom of third graders in Saudi Arabia, and coming back and this is good for empathy. This is good for the world, right? Being able to sit around with your grandmother even though she died 40 years ago, and sit there at the table like she’s there. And you’re just watching her look at you and laugh, and you’re having conversation, that you’re watching the conversation that took place. I can go on many, many examples. But I was in that headset, and I also learned enough about what’s coming with the technology. The headsets are going to get very much smaller, they’re going to stop needing to be tethered to something and needing to have things on the wall. You’re going to have cameras on the actual headset. They’re going to see the walls. And it’s just going to get better, and better, and better. And batteries are going to get better,

Tim Urban [00:50:23] – and computers are going to get better. We’re going to end up I think in 10 years with a billion people using VR, a billion. It’s going to be the new smart phone or cell phone. Young entrepreneurs who want to get into something that’s new, this is the time of start of VR company when it’s not being talked about. Start developing, start making really good things, or AR, whatever it is. And when the headsets are ready, and when suddenly, there’s the killer kind of headset that’s in everyone’s pocket, and it ends up all over the world, you’ll be in the position to be Google. The Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg of the VR world, they don’t exist yet.

Craig Cannon [00:51:06] – Well, they probably exist, but yeah.

Tim Urban [00:51:08] – They’re not famous yet. I know that Mark Zuckerberg also wants to be the Mark Zuckerberg of the, but there’s going to be new giants, and they’re not there yet. That’s one. Another one I would just say quickly is genetic stuff. CRISPR and all that, it would cost, I think it was almost two billion dollars, maybe it was almost three billion dollars, 20 years ago to sequence the human genome. And today, it’s like 50 bucks. Things are about to get really crazy. I think that your grandkids are going to say to you, “You just had a baby and hoped it was a good baby?” It’s going to seem crazy. It’s going to seem so old school. And only the crazy hippies are going to be like, “We just have a natural baby the way it is.” And people are going to hate them like anti-vaxxers, like, “You’re a horrible parent. You should never do that.” And all the implications of this, enhancing our selves, getting rid of disease, creating smarter people, you can really go on, and on, and on there. You’ll be able to have four people, two couples decide to make a baby, the four of them. Really kind of cool shit. If that really gets rolling, we’re going to look back to the world when, you know, you just had normal people. Also, this I haven’t researched, but pregnancy has got to go.

Craig Cannon [00:52:30] – It’s crazy, yeah.

Tim Urban [00:52:32] – Once you incubate the fetus, the embryo in this perfect chamber that has all the mother’s hormones, all the mother’s blood. It has all the exact same chemicals that would be going into it, but the perfect diet, it’s monitored perfectly, and the mother gets to live her normal life. The fact it would be that way, “Your grandmother gave birth like an animal? Like she was pregnant and she gave birth like out of her vagina like an animal.” It’s going to seem so primitive. Anyway, we can go on and on. I think brain machine interfaces is another huge one. No one’s talking about Mars right now. Give it five years. There’s going to be humans on Mars in a decade. No one realizes this. The amount of leaps for all of life on Earth that you can say are as big as going multi planetary, there’s like simple cell to complex cell, complex cell to multicell organism, multicell to like animal to out of the ocean, you know, on land. Multi planetary, I mean, this is so big, and it’s happening in our lifetimes. It’s so exciting. It’s going to be the new Moon decade. It’s going to be a new one. 20s is the new 60s. Lots of exciting things. This is why people should probably go into some kind of tech. And the word tech, they should move to California or other places. Austin has a scene in Boulder. They should get involved in the future, because it’s like we’re inventing this new planet that we’re all going to live on.

Craig Cannon [00:54:05] – And I would also say just don’t be intimidated to learn. Similar to you, just go for it.

Tim Urban [00:54:10] – Yeah, it’s easy.

Craig Cannon [00:54:11] – It’s easy to get involved, and it’s also easy to get scared. And I don’t think people should be scared.

Tim Urban [00:54:15] – Plus a lot of people think they need to be great at math or coding.

Craig Cannon [00:54:19] – Totally.

Tim Urban [00:54:20] – A lot of what we need are smart philosophers, smart people who can make great metaphors, people who can talk about ethics. It doesn’t matter what you’re good at. You have a role to play in this.

Craig Cannon [00:54:38] – Being pretty good at two things means you’re extraordinary at that one thing.

Tim Urban [00:54:44] – Absolutely. Exactly, exactly. Some people go for breadth, and then you offer something different, ’cause you see a big picture that other people don’t like the sci-fi authors. Or you get really into depth on one thing. Whatever it is, there’s a role. There’s definitely a role. Maybe your job is communicating what’s happening to other people, like me. SPeople just need to get excited and scared at the same time, which is going to fire them up.

Craig Cannon [00:55:11] – Alright, man. Thanks for coming in.

Tim Urban [00:55:12] – Okay, thank you.

Craig Cannon [00:55:14] – Alright, thanks for listening. As always, the video and transcript are at blog.ycombinator.com, and if you have a second, please subscribe and review the show. Alright, see you next week.


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