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FAREED ZAKARIA GPS
Self-Driving Cars May Happen Sooner Thn Expected. Aired 10-11a ET
Aired December 24, 2017 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN GPS HOST: More than a century ago, Orville Wright climbed aboard a powered flying machine at Kitty Hawk and successfully soared through the air for a 12-second flight that changed the world. Sixty-six years later --
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have lift off.
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ZAKARIA: -- the astronauts of Apollo 11 walked on the moon. Today, we carry around in our pockets devices with more computing power than that spacecraft.
All these were big ideas, ideas that at one point in time seemed impossible. In this special hour of GPS, we're going to focus on the next big ideas that will disrupt and probably improve our lives.
ZAKARIA: Have you ever dreamt of a flying car? Well Sebastian Thrun, the former leader of Google's self-driving car team and the CEO of a company aptly called Kitty Hawk, tells me it may be possible and sooner than we think.
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SEBASTIAN THRUN, CEO, KITTY HAWK: Why don't we just fly? The sky is empty, the sky is so ample, it's so big.
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ZAKARIA: Do you have what it takes to be the next Steve Jobs? I'll talked to Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and now Leonardo da Vinci about what makes a genius.
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WALTER ISAACSON, BIOGRAPHER OF ALBERT EINSTEIN: Curiosity, a just absolutely random, absolutely playful and passionate curiosity is something that connects Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci. And the cool thing about it is you and I can do that.
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ZAKARIA: And one out of nine people are hungry on the planet but the world waste one-third of all its food. Blue Hill Chef Dan Barber will talk to me about ideas to solve this global tragedy.
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DAN BARBER, CHEF, BLUE HILL: It's about the utilization on every part of the plant, every part of the farm.
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ZAKARIA: Plus, as artificial intelligence gets more advanced, many people worry that robots and automation will displace their jobs. I'll sit down with two MIT scholars who discuss using AI, artificial intelligence, to enhance human work.
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ANDREW MCAFFEE, CO-DIRECTOR, MIT INITIATIVE ON THE DIGITAL ECONOMY: If we can bring minds and machines together intelligently, we can cancel out each other's mistakes instead of doubling down on them.
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ZAKARIA: And finally, the neuroscientist, Lisa Genova talks to me about a threat many of us will face. The author of the book the Academy Award-winning film Still Alice is based on would tell us what we can all do to stave off Alzheimer's.
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LISA GENOVA, NEUROSCIENTIST AND AUTHOR, STILL ALICE: There's been a lot of research to show that there are lifestyle changes that we can make that help actually prevent the biological advancement of the disease.
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ZAKARIA: All this coming up in the special hour of GPS: The Next Big Idea. And let's get started.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.
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ZAKARIA: From the DeLorean to the Jetsons, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Harry Potter, flying cars have made appearances on big and small screens for decades. Clearly the stuff of cinematic magic, the reality of personal flying vehicles has always seemed light years away.
Well, not if my guest has anything to say about it. Sebastian Thrun is an adjunct professor at Stanford University, he specializes in robotics, artificial intelligence, and education among many other things. He founded Google's Moonshot Factory called Google X as well Udacity, a company dedicated to bring tech education online.
He led Google's self-driving car team and he has been called the father of the self-driving car. Now, he has set his sights on the skies. He is the CEO of Kitty Hawk, a company working toward revolutionizing transportation by making the dream of personal flying vehicles a reality.
THRUN: Fareed, good seeing you.
ZAKARIA: Why are you doing this? What was the -- is there an origin story here?
THRUN: I have always wondered if you can make transportation safer, and self-driving cars is a tragic story of a good friend of mine who died in a traffic accident. And at some point, it dawned on, me if you stay on the ground, if you keep using roads, and bridges, and tunnels we won't get rid of congestion. We're going to have an increasing number of wait times in traffic.
And then I asked myself, why don't we just fly, the sky is empty, the sky is so ample, it's so big, why can't we invent (flyers)? Why can't we take our car and fly to work?
ZAKARIA: So Peter Thiel has famously said, "We thought that this technology revolution would get us flying cars and instead all we got was 140 characters."
THRUN: And he's wrong. He's wrong. We're working on flying cars.
ZAKARIA: You have a video that you haven't' shared with the public yet and it looks like a helicopter, it takes off vertically, transitions to a horizontal plane, then lands vertically. And you feel like you've achieved a test flight with this vehicle, right? How far along are you?
THRUN: Yes. We've been working with this, with NASA and with a professor at Stanford named (Aydan Crow) for about six to seven years. And around 2013 we started flying our first electric aircraft and the video that we showed and transition we did where it flew vertically and then transitioned to about 60 miles per hour horizontally and then safely landed again. Since, we've made a lot of progress.
ZAKARIA: So when I think about this, I'm also thinking, "My God, there's going to be chaos up there." You're going to have these drones with humans in them and they're going to bump into each other, there'll be traffic in the sky just there is here, except it's dangerous because if somebody bumps into the other, they're going to crash and die. THRUN: I agree that there's an issue about how to de-conflict flying vehicles if all of us use them every day to and from work. But there's much more space in the sky than on the ground. And having worked on self driving cars, I can tell you, there's lots of stuff that you can hit on the ground that doesn't exist in the air.
Let's put it this way, in the ground say you have two roads and they're at a right angle and people drive this way and drive this way, to de-conflict cars, we put in things like stop signs and traffic lights to make sure that you don't bump into each other.
In the air what you do is you led these guys go 100 feet higher than these guys and all of a sudden they can just fly both at the direction they wish. By having this third dimension, by having the altitude, you get so much more space that the de-conflicting issue becomes much easier in the air than on the ground.
ZAKARIA: And so you use this for short trips, you're able to do it but, again, I'm thinking that means lots of people are grocery shopping at the same time, but you look at a city like New York, a city like Chicago, a city like Beijing and you still think everyone can go grocery shopping in the sky?
THRUN: If I talk to my friends in New York that cross the Lincoln Tunnel every day, I think there's a real pain point here. If you were to cross Lincoln Tunnel in the sky, it would take two or three minutes, okay?
But it is a vision. I mean in New York in particular between 1900 where almost all transportation was horse-based and 1930 where almost all transportation was car-based, it took 30 years to implement this vision. That doesn't mean we're wrong, it just means it's going to take some time. We have to work on technology, we have to work out the regulations and air space management.
But on the logical base, I think we will transition from a society that is ground-based, where all transportation is ground to one where even short trips will eventually be in the sky.
ZAKARIA: What's the cost?
THRUN: It's actually -- we haven't set a price for our vehicle yet, but if you work it out, a flying car shouldn't cost more than a regular car.
ZAKARIA: Wow. And are there any kind of implications here, crime, terrorism? I'm wondering that this is a pretty powerful vehicle in some sense and that it can go anywhere.
THRUN: Look, the way I look at this is almost anything you can buy can be used in a bad way, even the kitchen knife can be used in a bad way. We're working very hard to making this a very safe technology and we believe very firmly that a flight vehicle should and must be safer than a ground vehicle.
ZAKARIA: You have another vehicle called the Flyer, what is that? THRUN: It's very small, it's the smallest vehicle we've built. And it's there as a personal fun vehicle, we fly over water bodies and so on and it enables people to learn how to fly in five minutes and take to the skies.
ZAKARIA: So it's like a sports car?
THRUN: It's like a sports car for water, but it really gets the experience of flight to everybody. I mean flying is every boy's and every girl's dream. And now we get this infinite freedom to take to the skies. It's actually easier to learn how to fly our vehicle or Flyer than it is to learn to ride a bicycle.
ZAKARIA: Why is that?
THRUN: Because we use computers. We use computers to do all the hard stuff that you don't want to care about as a human pilot and then it gives you a joystick, there's a forward, and backward, left and right. And it's actually really fun -- it's the funnest thing I've ever done because flying is everyone's dream, it's very boy's and every girl's dream. You can this infinite freedom all of a sudden go to the skies, it's a transformative experience.
ZAKARIA: Sebastian Thrun, pleasure to have you on.
THRUN: Fareed, pleasure.
ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, what does playing the violin have to do with theoretical physics? I sit down with Walter Isaacson to discuss the birth of innovation and what makes a genius.
ZAKARIA: Thomas Edison said genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Is that really the case?
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ZAKARIA: It's hard work how Steve Jobs transformed our world with the iPhone. Was it Albert Einstein's perspiration that helped him figure out some relatively tricky physics and what was it exactly about Leonardo da Vinci that motivated him to dissect human bodies, invent a flying machine, and paint a knowing smile on the Mona Lisa?
What makes a genius? At the Aston Institute, I sat down with Walter Isaacson, biographer of all these men and more to answer that question.
ZAKARIA: Walter, pleasure to have you on.
ISAACSON: It's great -- this show of one of my favorites too every year. So thanks for having me. ZAKARIA: You've studied da Vinci now. Before that Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, some people would regard Henry Kissinger also as a highly innovative person. Is there a common feature? If somebody comes to you and says, "So what makes somebody innovative at that really kind of world historical level?"
ISAACSON: You know, especially with Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, and even Einstein. You look around and they love to cross discipline. They love the humanities and the sciences. And Leonardo da Vinci is sort of about the ultimate in that. Somebody who wasn't just smart but has a playful curiosity about everything there was to know. And just like Steve Jobs loved design and loved calligraphy but he also loved electronics, I think innovation comes from crossing discipline.
ZAKARIA: There's a story that Einstein tells that when he would get stuck on a physics problem sometimes he'd stop, he'd go and play the violin and he come back and there are now people who said that you actually exercising different parts of the brain when you do that and that that produces precisely the literal cross fertilization you've studied.
ISAACSON: When he was trying to get general relativity and those, all those years in 1912, 1913, he's living in Berlin and he gets on - he'd play Mozart on his violin and he'd say, "That reconnects me to the harmony of the universe." And it was that ability to feel the harmonies of music and the harmonies of nature's laws that is the exemplar of what we've been talking about.
ZAKARIA: Is there a difference between the kind of genius that an Albert Einstein has and the inventiveness of a Ben Franklin? Because I think a lot of people will say to themselves, "Look, I'm never going to be Einstein." But I wonder what is that made Ben Franklin be able to invent bifocals? Where is it that made him look at the lightning and say, "Hey, I wonder if there's some way to conduct that?
ISAACSON: It's a great question because Einstein had a mental processing power that we will never come close to. We cannot aspire to be Einstein. But Benjamin Franklin, like Leonardo da Vinci and like Steve Jobs weren't necessarily the smartest in terms of just pure mental processing power. But they had a playful curiosity and Franklin would just travel around, he'd see a whirlwind and have to chase it along and he'd come up with a notion to both the Gulf Stream and Northeastern storms.
And so curiosity, just absolutely random, absolutely playful and passionate curiosity is something that connects Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and the cool thing about it is you and I can do that.
ZAKARIA: How much does hard work play a role in this? Edison famously said, "Genius is 99 percent perspiration, one percent inspiration." Is that true?
ISAACSON: I think you have to work hard but as I look at people, it wasn't hard work that got Benjamin Franklin or Steve Jobs or Leonardo da Vinci where it was -- it was just sort of a continuous curiosity about nature, a passion, a willingness to observe things.
So, yes, I think for some people over and over again -- and that's what makes you a very deep in one field type of genius. But what I'm talking about is geniuses that can cross many disciplines and that's got to come from almost having attention deficit disorder, not from just hard persistence.
ZAKARIA: What about failure? One of the most famous elements of Steve Jobs' life is that Stanford Commencement Address he gives and he talks about how he basically have to deal with these extraordinary setbacks in his life. He founds the company and he gets fired from it. The company starts doing terribly, then he gets a diagnosis of cancer. When you look at these characters, do you think their ability to deal with failure, with setback is crucial?
ISAACSON: Yes. I think resilience is part of just being a driven, optimistic personality. If you want to talk about it with Einstein. I mean when he's doing general relativity in Berlin at that time, you're talking about a huge rise in anti-Semitism.
He's got to leave, Kissinger has has to flee in the early 1930s, Germany. So this ability to continue to bounce back, that along with curiosity, imagination, and a willingness to cross disciplines all brings together a sense of genius to me.
ZAKARIA: I want to know about your creative process. How do you work?
ISAACSON: I tend to write storytelling narratives. If it's going to be Henry Kissinger or Steve Jobs or Leonard da Vinci, it's going to start when they're born and take them through life, because I think people accumulate wisdom as they move on. And something that happens in 1922 affects what's going to happen and what you're going to do in 1923. So when I write, I try to start with the chronology and then step back and say, patterns, themes, and all great innovators, they see patterns and themes and they cross the disciplines and say, "Oh, I get it. That swirl of hair and that curl of hair, they have a certain type of pattern."
And I think when you look at a narrative, what's important if you're trying to talk about innovation to say what patterns are emerging?
ZAKARIA: And do you think there's a particular, is that an innate skill that people have? Because pattern recognition I think is the hardest thing -- we have so much noise that finding that signal is very hard.
ISAACSON: I don't know, it's one of the cool things about it is we would just talk about artificial intelligence, machine learning. That's the thing that machines have the most problems with. So if you can train yourself as a human to be good at pattern recognition, then maybe you'll outrun the artificial intelligence machines gunning for your job.
ZAKARIA: On that hopeful note, Walter Isaacson, pleasure to have you on. ISAACSON: Fareed, it's always great. Thank you.
ZAKARIA: Up next, waste not, want not. Why one world renowned chef is turning garbage into gourmet cuisine.
ZAKARIA: Would you ever throw out a third of the pizza you just ordered? Probably not. How about a third of that hamburger your friend just grilled up? Unlikely. A third of your ice cream cone? Probably never. But believe it or not, about one-third of all the food produced in the world each year for humans is thrown out, more than 1.4 billion tons according to the U.N., that is the weight of about 3.5 million fully-loaded 747s.
And Americans are the worst offenders, throwing away almost as much food as they consume according to The Guardian, so what to do? Well my next guest have some ideas and the influence to implement them.
Dan Barber is the chef and owner of the highly acclaimed Blue Hill Restaurants in the New York area. One of the Obamas' first date nights as president and first lady was at Blue Hill in Manhattan's Greenwich Village and Blue Hill at Stone Barns has been called the best restaurant in America and one of the best in the world by those who rank these things.
ZAKARIA: Dan, pleasure to have you on.
BARBER: Thank you.
ZAKARIA: So why are we throwing out so much food?
BARBER: Well, the American food culture or lack thereof allows us to eat what I call high on the hog, which is to say the middle of the animal, the cuts that we have become not just accustomed to but that we expect, twice a day, seven days a week. And that's an American invention actually and unfortunately we're exporting that to the rest of the world.
ZAKARIA: And you say it's actually bad from the point of view of gourmet cuisine, because we're missing out on taste. You said that all great cuisine begins with rejects. Explain what you--
BARBER: Yes. Well I don't think our style of cooking, this six-ounce piece of protein centered on the plate with a smothering of vegetables and grains on the side is actually very delicious in the end.
When you look at the great cuisines of the world what you're looking at is off cuts and imagination and creativity and transmutation in creating these delicious -- you think of coq au vin. Well coq au vin is a rooster that tastes like this, but when you braise it in white wine and vegetables, you create one of the great iconic French dishes in that culture in a cuisine.
Same with bouillabaisse, that's trash fish that couldn't be sold at the market that the fishermen's wives created as stew for the fishermen at the end of their selling of the fish. This is -- these are all dishes that came out of a culture of being unable to waste food because there wasn't enough produced.
America unfortunately has a tradition where there's just abundance everywhere you look and unfortunately the food culture that's arisen out of there has suffered because of that.
ZAKARIA: So you have a solution and you call it "WastED" as in waste education, explain.
BARBER: Right. Well we turned the Blue Hill New York City, my restaurant in the West Village, into a restaurant devoted to food waste. So we created a menu around dishes that were a hundred percent headed for the trash.
And it was a little bit of provocative work there. We had dishes like dumpster dive salad and we had a dish we called dog food. That was a little bit to ignite some interest and some provocation. But a lot of it was really to look at what we can utilize that we otherwise don't covet.
And part of the responsibility of a chef and a restaurant one could say is to spark that kind of interest, that conversation. Now the food waste issue too much I think concentrates on ugly fruits and vegetables, the kinds of things that we reject at the supermarket, the expired dairy.
They're low hanging fruit really when you look at the global food system and you look at diets, I mean look at the American diet and you look at things like you mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the pizzas and the hamburgers.
Well, 90 million acres of corn and soy rotations take up a big percentage of the grains that are produced in this country, 90 million acres of corn and soy. Well, we don't eat any of the corn and soy, we feed the corn and soy to chickens and we feed them to cows, and that's an inefficient system which is a wasteful system.
ZAKARIA: I have to ask you, you had all these fancy diners coming to your restaurants and you would give them -- serve them essentially garbage on fancy plates, did they -- how did they react?
BARBER: Well, yes, there was a -- actually there were lines out the door and I think part of that is the provocation, but part of it is the provocation but part of it is this idea of a restaurant, we think of restaurants as places of escape, and increasingly we ought to be thinking about them I think as places of connection and connection to big ideas and connection to big issues where the culture needs to shift.
ZAKARIA: Do you think -- to that point, do you think this is doable, do you think you're going to do -- do you think realistically and one hears about American excess whether it's energy consumption, whether it's food, and there's a tendency to one that is this ever going to change? We are, we have always been a very rich country.
ZAKARIA: You think you can get somewhere on this?
BARBER: What's promising is that we tend to move quickly with new ideas, with sort of dizzying speed, I think of sushi but I also think of Greek yogurt and I think of kale, I think of quinoa.
You think of all of these items that were inconceivable to be popular even five or ten years ago and with American food culture, the change is rapid. That doesn't happen in other cultures for good reason, because they have an entrenched group culture and they have a pattern of eating that actually supports the food tradition and the culture and the landscape.
We don't have that here and what's needed for the future I think is to set the stage for how do we think about a pattern of eating that reflects and supports the landscape? And when we do that, we truly support a landscape, we're going to be soaking up a ton of waste and inculcating it into our everyday diets in ways that are pleasurable.
And to me the message of food waste is not a wagging of the finger which I tend to do, but instead a pleasure principle, it's really about hedonism, it's about taking these un-coveted and undesired foods and transforming them into something that's delicious. That's what chefs do and which is why I think chefs have a role to play in solving this problem, that 40 percent of our food that's produced is wasted.
ZAKARIA: Dan Barber, pleasure to have you on.
BARBER: Thank you for Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Up next, computers may one day help us fly a car but will they also take all our jobs? Will we be a society on permanent vacation? That's what many scaremongers may warn you. My next guests say, be skeptical.
ZAKARIA: The industrial revolution ushered in the first machine age which brought the world the steam engine, radios, cars, and much more. We're now in a second machine age in which technological advances in artificial intelligence are reshaping our world.
The fear across America and the world is that this new era will mean massive job losses. But the authors of a new book say it is up to employers to navigate this brave new world using technology to enhance human work, not necessarily replace it. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffee direct MIT's initiative on the digital economy. Their new book is called Machine Platform Crowd, Harnessing our Digital Future.
Welcome both. Andrew, let me start with you, you don't contest at all that the -- if you think that computers are automating work and basically taking away some jobs, you ain't seen nothing yet.
MCAFFEE: Absolutely. And that's a line that Erik and I use a lot, mainly because we're seeing a second surge in computers' capability. In the first surge they got really good at routine work and really lousy at anything that required subtly, nuance, pattern matching, these deeply human skills, judgment, intuition, things like that.
What we see now in this era of artificial intelligence and machine learning is that computers are getting really good at exactly those abilities which until pretty recently we thought were the domain of human beings alone.
ZAKARIA: We all know that computers have been able to beat human chess masters, the world chess champion. We know that they've been able to beat the Jeopardy champions and that's even harder because it's kind of a more complicated way of thinking.
Why is it so important that the computer has now been able to beat the world's Go champion, Go being the Chinese game that many people regard as being almost impossible?
MCAFFEE: Yes, Go has been completely different and computers have been laughably bad at it up until just a couple years ago. And there are two main reasons, one is that there's so many possible Go moves that you can't simulate your way to victory. There are more possible Go moves than there are atoms in the universe. Now, in the old world of computing, if nobody could explain how to do something, you could not embed that in software. What's crazy to Erik and me and lots of other people is that that's no longer an impediment to automation.
ZAKARIA: And that's this new age of artificial intelligence --
ZAKARIA: -- with neuro-learning where the machine is actually teaching itself.
ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON, CO-DIRECTOR, MIT INITIATIVE ON THE DIGITAL ECONOMY: This is probably the most important thing to understand about the current wave of artificial intelligence, and it's really machine learning because instead of us be giving instructions step-by-step of what the machine to do, we give the machine examples.
This is a success, this is a failure, this is the word yes, this is the word no, this is a picture of a dog, this is a picture of a cat, cancer, not cancer. You go --
MCAFFEE: Go victory, not Go victory.
BRYNJOLFSSON: If you give enough examples, they can learn.
ZAKARIA: So give me a sense of some of the kinds of jobs that you see as being transformed if not replaced.
BRYNJOLFSSON: Right. Well transformed is exactly the right word, because the problem with day today is not a world without work, it's a world of rapidly changing work. And work doing routine, repetitive kinds of tasks, those are getting more and more done. And now, also a lot of pattern matching jobs, some of them quite high paid like pathologists or radiologists are going to be increasingly affected as parts of those jobs can be done by machines.
ZAKARIA: I think of lawyers, I mean a lot of work of discovery is basically search function.
BRYNJOLFSSON: Yes. At J.P. Morgan there are --
MCAFFEE: Financial advising.
BRYNJOLFSSON: -- there are hundreds of thousands of hours that have now been done by machines. I think the best way to think about it is more at the task level than the job level, Andy and I have looked at it and we see that parts of different jobs are being affected. But there's still other parts that may become more important, especially those that involve interacting with other humans, involve creating, even to setting the agenda to finding the problems to go after.
MCAFFEE: Erik and I also think that there's a lot of work right there in the middle of the skill ladder and down lower in the skill ladder that's not about to go away. So in the middle, a good old fashioned manager is a job that's easy to make fun of with Dilbert cartoons and easy to think will be swept away by this wave of technology, we don't think so because when you look at what middle managers actually do, they motivate, they persuade, they negotiate, they coordinate.
They're kind of the transmission belt of information and ideas in an organization. I have not yet seen the digital middle manager that could bring a team together and lead them in the correct direction and we don't think that's coming tomorrow.
ZAKARIA: I still wonder, we have this great problem that we're now all focused on which is what do you do about the guy without the college degree. The person in rural Pennsylvania and Ohio, used to work on a steel plant. Or maybe a truck driver, 50, 55 years old and let's say the self-driving trucks come along, what's their future in this world?
BRYNJOLFSSON: Well let's just be real clear, this we think is the biggest challenge for our society in the coming decade. We should not take it lightly. The technology is advancing faster than it did in the past decade. So we need to be much more aggressive about changing the conversation to working with -- to identify the new jobs.
And there's a set of things you can do. We need to reinvent education more fundamentally. We need to actually boost entrepreneurship, not because everyone is going to become an entrepreneur but because those are the people in our society that are tasked with inventing new jobs.
ZAKARIA: Right. Well, how do companies best integrate this artificial intelligence in a way that supplements human jobs rather than replacing them?
MCAFFEE: It's one of the big pieces of homework for companies going forward, because if they get the balance between minds and machines wrong, they're going to get out-competed by somebody who gets it right. One of my main takeaways is that we're way too fond of, we're way too confident of human judgment, human intuition. It's not that that stuff is worthless, but the computers are demonstrating that they're actually really, really good at it. So I think in many cases we need to flip the balance around, let the computers take the lead and have the humans double checking, intervening when the computers do something dumb.
The good news there is that computers make very different kinds of mistakes than people do. So if we can bring minds and machines together intelligently, we can cancel out each other's mistakes instead of doubling down on them.
ZAKARIA: Thank you both.
MCAFFEE: It's been a pleasure.
BRYNJOLFSSON: Thanks, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Up next, Alzheimer's disease may not be curable but is it possibly preventable? The neuroscientist Lisa Genova whose book Still Alice was turned into a major motion picture joins me to talk about it.
ZAKARIA: So far in this hour, you've heard a lot about people's ability to think, to create, to make decisions. But what if those abilities begin to wane? For many of us, they will.
While deaths from heart disease have decreased by 11 percent since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer's have increased by 123 percent. In fact, one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia according to the Alzheimer's Association.
The numbers are astonishing. It is a disease for which there is no cure. But my next guest says it does not have to be our brain's destiny. That we can and should do certain things that can help stave it off, whatever our age.
Lisa Genova is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist and a novelist. She's the author of Still Alice upon which the Academy Award-winning film is based.
ZAKARIA: Pleasure to have you on.
GENOVA: Thank you.
ZAKARIA: Just so that a layman can understand, what is Alzheimer's simply?
GENOVA: So what happens with Alzheimer's, we think the disease begins with a buildup of a protein called amyloid beta, that's the bad guy that starts this, and this protein is normally released into the synapse which is the space in between two neurons where they connect and communicate. And normally it's cleared away, but for some reasons, it can build up over time and when this happens it sticks to itself and forms plaques. So you may have heard of amyloid plaques. And that's the trigger that then once it builds up to a tipping point will cause a bunch of molecular events in the brain that lead to the death of the neurons.
ZAKARIA: But this tipping point is sort of more important than others sometimes.
GENOVA: Well, what's interesting about the tipping point is that you can have this -- the disease can be ongoing in your brain without you knowing for 10 to 20 years we think. Before the tipping point, you don't have symptoms of Alzheimer's. Once it hits the tipping point, I liken the accumulation of amyloid plaques as like a lit match and once it hits the tipping point, it sets fire to a forest.
ZAKARIA: But as you say, given that it's dormant, what are the kinds of things one can do to make sure that you either stave off or ameliorate Alzheimer's if and when you get it?
GENOVA: There's been a lot of research to show that there are lifestyle changes that we can make that help actually prevent the biological advancement of the disease. One of the sort of more alarming new areas of research has to do with sleep. So in deep sleep, in slow wave sleep, our glial cells, these are different kind of cells in our brains, our glial cells clear away metabolic waste that accumulates in those synapses while we were in the business of being awake.
And one other things it clears away is amyloid beta, that bad guy that starts the Alzheimer's disease. But what happens if you don't get a good night's sleep? What happens if you deprive yourself of that slow wave deep sleep? Well, the glial cells didn't get a chance to clear everything away and so you start the next day with some amyloid buildup. And so over time that can lead you to that tipping point. Heart disease, heart health, we know through lots of studies that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, and smoking all increase our risk of getting Alzheimer's.
Autopsy studies show that as many as 80 percent of people with cardiovascular disease also had Alzheimer's. And we've seen an animal model that aerobic exercise actually clears away amyloid beta, so there were some great studies that's showing that Mediterranean diet leads to a decrease in dementia by a third.
ZAKARIA: What about the idea that I should be learning Ancient Greek when I'm 75? And that that triggers - that keeping the brain active in some way helps.
GENOVA: Yes, Ancient Greek would be quite an accomplishment. Yes. This idea of learning new things, I think the general public has this sense of like, "Well, if I do crossword puzzles, then I won't get Alzheimer's."
And they're on the right track but not really, because crossword puzzles are mostly retrieving information you've already got stored. And what you really want to do is learn new things, and this is -- the reason for this is every time you learn something new, you are building and strengthening new neural connections, new synapses.
The idea is that the more you learn, the more backup cognitive reserve you've got. So there was this great study, this nun study where these nuns were followed for two decades in older age, 75 and older, and when they died, their brains were donated for autopsy. And one of the shocking things that came out of the study is that some of the brains which upon autopsy looks like clear Alzheimer's pathology, it had plaques and tangles and brain shrinkage from neuron, the cell death, the scientists looking at this said, well, these nuns have clearly had Alzheimer's and yet when you go back to the data and look at how they lived, they weren't diagnosed with Alzheimer's. They had no cognitive or memory problems.
ZAKARIA: So you have no symptoms.
GENOVA: No symptoms.
GENOVA: And we think it's because they had a high level -- these particular nuns had a high level of cognitive reserve.
ZAKARIA: What does that mean?
GENOVA: These nuns were highly educated, they had a high degree of literacy, they were always learning new things. And so we think that they had -- just had an abundance and a redundancy of neural connections which spared them from noticing that a lot of their neurons were compromised by a disease.
ZAKARIA: Do you think that we'll get to a place where Alzheimer's is cured? Is it a kind of disease that one could imagine, just a drug?
GENOVA: Yes. Absolutely. And this is -- one of the things I'm really excited about, I'm advising a team of folks working on creating an X price for Alzheimer's, we don't have to feel helpless about Alzheimer's and we have examples in the past.
We have treatments and survivors for cancer, for HIV. We treat heart disease 30 years before the person will ever get a heart attack and maybe we prevent that forever. There's no reason why we couldn't have a blood test that shows that you are at risk Alzheimer's, you get this at your annual physical, checking on your brain health as much as we do your heart health.
So, yes, I think we'll get there and I think we have to, otherwise we're going to have a crisis like no other in the near future.
ZAKARIA: When we come back, I'll give you my take on all these big ideas and what this innovation could mean for the future.
ZAKARIA: For the last quarter century, we've had a simple view of innovation, worshipful. Innovation was celebrated because it represented human genius and inventiveness. Its technological feats were dazzling, its economic effects were positive, its social consequences were liberating. And we were awestruck by the wealth amassed by the wizards of the innovation era. I believe we are now entering a new age, one in which innovation will be given far greater scrutiny. We will ask whether new technologies really do increase productivity. And if they do, how come it doesn't show up in the economic statistics?
Perhaps more importantly, we will ask if they genuinely create new industries and opportunities, not just for a few highly-skilled people but for many and if they do, why is it that so many people in the most advanced societies in the world are struggling to find good jobs with good pay?
We will ask how genuinely open and competitive this new innovation economy is, and how it is that a handful of companies now dominate the entire digital economy. This digital space is one in which there are massive advantages to being the first mover, the first company to establish a standard or market or channel of distribution.
There appear to be natural monopolies that form. So once you've established a position, you can slowly but surely put others out of business. There is a winner take all dynamic, there's no point being the second best search engine or second best online marketplace, everyone will go to the first.
And if all that is true, why has the government not tried harder to create a genuine level playing field or distributed more of the gains from these winnings to society at large? We will ask whether the social consequences of these new technologies are really so liberating, whether work and family life, friends and human bonds are all enhanced by the smartphones to which we are now all addicted.
Has the pervasive and ever-expanding loss of privacy been worth it? The new skepticism will often go overboard just as did the adulation of the past. But perhaps we can come to a sensible middle ground where we can admire innovation for all that it achieves and yet ask serious questions about its effects in every realm.
Innovation after all comes from the Latin root and it means new, to introduce something new. Is new always better, though? That's the question we might find ourselves debating in the years ahead?
I'm Fareed Zakaria, thanks for watching. I'll see you next week.