When attempting to introduce non-rationalists to the ideas of cryonics or Strong AI, it appears that their primary objections tend to be rooted in the absurdity heuristic. They don't believe they inhabit a universe where such weird technologies could actually work. To deal with this, I thought it would be useful to have a cache of examples of technologies that have actually been implemented that did, or ideally, still do, challenge our intuitions about the way the universe works.

The first example that comes to my mind is computers in general; imagine what Ernest Rutherford, let alone Benjamin Franklin, would have thought of a machine that uses electricity to calculate, and do those calculations so fast that they can express nearly anything as calculations. Nothing we know about how the universe works says it shouldn't be possible, indeed it obviously is knowing what we do now, but imagine how weird this would have seemed back when we were just coming to grips with how electricity actually worked.

I suspect there may be better examples to challenge the intuitions of people who've grown up in an age where computers are commonplace though. So does anyone have any to volunteer?

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If you told someone in 1980 that just three decades later they will have a portable phone, a video phone, a worldwide electronic teletype, a movie player with a 300dpi screen, a color photo and video camera with a flash, a satellite world map, a music player that holds over a hundred LP albums, dictionaries and translation tools for all Earth languages, train and flight schedules updated in real time, a library of books (one of which an illustrated encyclopaedia that exceeds Britannica in volume and, in some areas, in accuracy), plus thousands of free porn channels and video games, all crammed into a single wireless device that fits in your pocket and costs less than $300 -- would they believe you?

I'm no expert on science fiction, but as far as I can tell, the vast majority of sci-fi authors missed this idea -- perhaps because it's too ridiculous to be believable.

Added: What's even more ridiculous for a layman from 30 years ago is that all this amazing stuff is implemented on the basis of a computer, basically a machine that adds or subtracts binary numbers and stores the results in memory. "Eh? A music player that works by adding binary numbers? Are you okay?"

I have to wonder why my parents are so desensitised to these advances. My father was born at the end of WW2, imagine all the things he has seen. Yet when I mention transhuman technologies and there potential impact, I expect excitement, instead at best I get shrugs or denial. I wonder what is going on there?

I wondered about that too, and I think your parents may have a point.

We humans have been into space, we landed on the moon, we built computers that destroy humans at chess, we have the entire Internet in our pocket, we have Avatar in the cinema and Crysis on our computers, we read genes, we created synthetic life, we print transplantable bladders and blood vessels, we have self-driving cars, and we mass-produce transistors just 220 hydrogen atoms wide -- but so what?

People died of cancer in 1960, and they still do.

Drunk drivers ran over people in 1960, and they still do.

There was violent crime in 1960, and it's still here.

Politicians were inefficient and corrupt in 1960, and they still are.

To normal people (like your parents and many of my normal friends), an ordinary human life essentially remains the same no matter how drastically human technology improves. Birth, childhood (good or bad), school with friendships and bullies, marriage, nine-to-five job, retirement, grandchildren, death.

Perhaps this is what's going on with your parents -- and with a lot of my "normal" friends and coworkers.

But a cancer diagnosis means expensive treatment then more years of life, not near-certain death.

But there are fewer car accidents now (depending on where you are), and driverless cars might change that.

But there's much less crime now.

But revolutions spread like whoa now, because the media's fast.

Also, your scale is tiny. There were very few deaths by cancer when lifespans were short in the days before farming. There were no drunk drivers in 1800. There were no corrupt politicians in bands of < 150 people. There was no school for most people in 800. There were no 9-to-5 jobs in 1900 when we were all farmers. Long enough to explain a mistake, not to prove a point.

Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes...

(actually "Yes", "Yes", "Not in Russia", and "Yes, but they ruin countries in result")

... but normals just don't get that. The scale I gave an example of is a scale of many normal people I know. They don't appreciate antibiotics, phones and electricity -- they take it all for granted. Their life expectancy from 200 years ago is totally irrelevant to their everyday life.

(Prediction: Russia will come around in < 50 years

Revolutions help because you threaten politicians with them so they cooperate, actually doing them sucks but you have to to keep the precommitment believable.)

I agree they don't get it. But they don't have a point, they're making the common mistake of failing to learn from history. People are crazy, the world is mad.

Also, do they appreciate indoor plumbing? Much of my 1960's-born family grew up without it, but they seem to consider it mundane now. What about cell phones?

Revolutions help

Any data to back this up?

(I'm no expert here, but based on my own observations, I've yet to see a country that benefited from a revolution -- at least in the last decade. I may be wrong here, so any real data is welcome.)

I was without plumbing for several years as a teenager (1980s). Occasionally I marvel that I can use an automatic dishwasher instead of dipping up a pot from the rain barrel and heating it on the stove. It got mundane for me mighty quick though.

pretty much. Humans get used to new things amazingly fast. My family home got running water in the mid 80s, sewage and telephone in the 90s, central heating in the 00s. These days I get phones and netbooks for free and use them everywhere. My technology exposure curve was higher than common in the 90s, but it has evened out, and i am very used to all of the items I have. Living in the future is awesome!

No, I meant the opposite (well, I think some South American countries did, but I'm no expert and still ambivalent on the Chavez countercoup). A revolution actually happening is very bad. But the threat of a revolution keeps politicians in check; occasional revolutions are better than letting dictators run free because they know there won't be one.

I would nominate as an example the French Restauration; after a series of revolutions, the restored French monarchy moved towards constitutionalism and generally more freedom.

But they don't have a point

Maybe their point isn't "technology doesn't provide any tangible benefits", but "the scale of benefits that trickle down to us from technological advancements doesn't match the (perceived) scale of these advancements"?

Also, do they appreciate indoor plumbing?

No, they take it for granted -- and I'm afraid I'm guilty of this too. Strangely, cellphones and the Internet still amaze me, perhaps because I remember life without them.

Hmm, that just isn't true. There isn't a perfect match (indoor plumbing is low-tech with big benefits, I've seen really cool tech that's useless out of tiny niches), but there's a correlation (like, I could name five laser-based things you've used this week). There have been huge social changes (farming, literacy, urbanization, medicine, electric lighting, the Internet) due to technology.

They have more of a point about time scales. "Technology improves too slowly for us to benefit." But that's not so true since the industrial revolution, and completely false now.

If the Internet hasn't changed their lives (it sure changed mine), and neither have cell phones or cheap TV or recent medical advances or new kinds of jobs or satellite TV that reports on revolutions in nearby countries, then at least they could have noticed that as it accelerates so does social change (you mean they don't marry two black genderqueer atheists, either?).

I had read an article on the net in which the author wrote something like "and these wizard's wands that we call smartphones". Since then, I'm getting used to the idea of my Experia as a wizard's wand :)

The Elitzur–Vaidman bomb-tester isn't involved in any existing technology as far as I know, but it has apparently been verified in a lab and violates intuitions on how the world is supposed to work at the level of basic logic. ("Stuff that didn't happen can't matter.")

I would say this means "'anthropics' (i.e. branch selection effects) is relevant to the physical world, not just people."

"Stuff that didn't happen can't matter."

Or you can just accept that did happen

thank you for the link. that is so awesome.

Radio transmission and nuclear energy would be my first ideas for technologies which almost no-one would assume can exist without a modern physics education or an existing proof of concept. It's hard to come up with earlier stuff than that. Hot-air balloons were probably very surprising, but the principle isn't that hard to grasp in retrospect. Electricity falls outside naive physics, but you can still observe lightning in nature. Nukes and radio on the other hand just plain shouldn't exist if you asked anyone well-educated and level-headed circa 1800.

Google actually mostly working. Wikipedia actually mostly working.

Cells (or if you like commentary, here).

Spray on skin.

Coffee ground hand.

I like to use milk as an example. We have industrial processes for squeezing a cow's udders so that it lactates, collecting the milk, pasteurizing and homogenizing it, and shipping it around the world. If you let milk rot and then treat it properly, you get cheese.

A few not too too weird things, that some people seem to appreciate.

Brain controlled catgirl ears.

There are so many robotic exoskeletons. The limiting factor on how many links was how long I felt like finding videos.

It's only just now struck me what an odd cultural quirk it is that we immediately interpret a pair of artificial cat ears that can be strapped onto anyone's head as "catgirl ears".

Those catgirl ears are awesome.

More utilitarian use for the same tech, imagine if young children, those with speech difficulties etc. could be given something that lights up to indicate their thoughts and moods. Next stage would be making something that allowed easy control of a computer.

[Also loved the little moment where her ears perked up when she checked the guy out]

They'd be more awesome if they were more accurate to real cat body language (hint: if a cat's ears go all the way down like that, do not pet it; it's angry, not relaxed), but if that's the most obvious objection they certainly still belong on the list.

I can forgive that, since cats express fairly complicated emotions with their body language which are probably beyond the current capability of miniaturized brain scanners. It seems, and I didn't bother to translate any of the Japanese website or anything, like that thing just measures general electrical activity levels.

I think I saw a pair at ACEN about a week ago. I just thought they were moving at random at the time... I wonder if they'll make an expressive hair wig or appropriately billowing cape in the future.

Dibs on the appropriately billowing cape.

Birth control pills. You mean a few mg of chemicals put through the digestive tract can stop pregnancy?

Humanity actually had this "technology" a couple of millenia ago, but squandered it.

Are we talking about non-rationalists, or non-x-rationalists? With Traditional rationalists (free thinkers, skeptics and the like), it seems that you could indeed phrase both of those issues are purely engineering problems with the strategy you are proposing, and expect some payoff.

With non-rationalists, however, it seems like the biggest part of the problems are these:

With strong AI, it is overcoming the tendency that people have to associate it with some foggy ideas about 'consciousness' they have cached, and thus conclude that it is 'beyond' the category of 'mere engineering problem'.

With cryonics, a somewhat related issue occurs with the association of death with a 'soul' or an 'afterlife' and cryonics. When you get into the specifics of reviving the brain, similar issues about 'consciousness' can arise as well.

That said, I might bring up the notion of printable organs.

The Apollo program. There's no particularly strange technology involved, but you're just not supposed to actually succeed in doing something like that.


Pretty much anything can sound weird if you phrase it the right way--check out Eliezer's post Mundane Magic.

A list I made a few years ago:

This morning I harnessed the power of lightning to make breakfast, made some synthetic milk for my baby daughter, watched some moving pictures that were sent over the ether, and then piloted my metal horseless carriage to work. I had some productive discussions about how to improve the ways in which we send people to space and back. (Although making predictions by using machines to solve trillions of nonlinear equations is very cheap, the results need to be more reliable.) Once I finish sending my musings to you folks via this world-girdling network of glass and copper wires, I plan to drive home at a hundred kilometers per hour over a few concrete ribbons (often suspended dozens of feet off the ground), instantly reheat some food with microwave radiation, and maybe enjoy a glass of grape juice that's been partially consumed and replaced by yeast excretions.

Some of these ideas are better or worse than others, they're all relatively normal today, and some of them have been pretty normal for decades or even millennia. But could you imagine what a crackpot you would sound like explaining each concept for the first time to someone unfamiliar with it?

You bring up cryonics and AI. 25 years ago Engines of Creation had a chapter on each, plus another on... a global hypertext publishing network like the Web. The latter seemed less absurd back then than the first two, but it was still pretty far out there:

One of the things I did was travel around the country trying to evangelize the idea of hypertext. People loved it, but nobody got it. Nobody. We provided lots of explanation. We had pictures. We had scenarios, little stories that told what it would be like. People would ask astonishing questions, like “who’s going to pay to make all those links?” or “why would anyone want to put documents online?” Alas, many things really must be experienced to be understood.

I believed Drexler's prediction that this technology would be developed by the mid-90s but I didn't expect it to be taking over the world by then. Probably to most people even in computers it was science fiction.

As far as computers in general, their hardware reliability's the least intuitive aspect to me. Billions of operations per second, OK, but all in sequence, each depending on the last, without a single error? While I know how that's possible, it's still kind of shocking.

A related example that I, personally, considered science fiction back in the 80s: Jerry Pournelle's prediction that by the year 2000 you'd be able to ask a computer any question, and if there was a humanly-known answer, get it back. Google arrived with a couple years to spare. To me that had sounded like an AI-complete problem even were all the info online.

I'm not sure if you mean technologies we use in every day life or just technology in general? If it's the latter then I think this video should astound.

Damn, so we are in a fictional universe after all!

Reality is pleasantly stranger than fiction.

  1. The whole idea of public key cryptography. Take a message, put it through a certain algorithm, but the algorithm doesn't work in reverse.

  2. Rockets in space. A flying vehicle that seems to move forwards by pushing on nothing.

  3. The absolute speed limit of special relativity. Not quite technology, but the experiments could be described.

To bring Special Relativity into the realm of existing technology, one might emphasize the GPS system's reliance on it.

GPS itself is some pretty cool technology.

For me, the one-way functions weren't the impressive part of public-key crypto; it was the idea that you can stand in a crowded room full of people who desperately want to eavesdrop on you, hold a shouted conversation with someone you've never met before or spoken with privately, and keep everything secret. I mean, wow, y'know?

Algorithms that are hard to reverse is pretty simple to understand. Every Schoolboy Knows that division is "harder" than multiplication, and I'm still not entirely sure how to find roots in my head.

Writing a computer program that can defeat the strongest human chess player.

Google driverless car is one thing that comes to my mind that sounds like sci-fi idea but actually got implemented. It's still fresh so it makes big impression (at least among my friends). Check out the ted talk

Brad Templeton's site has some good info on driverless cars as well.

Modern cryptography that everyone pretty much agrees can't be undone just by "breaking the code". Public-key encryption that enables reasonably secure internet commerce for regular people.

Public-key encryption is very weird; most cryptographers did not believe it was possible before it was done. But anyone who understands public-key encryption enough to appreciate this point is probably not in your target non-rationalist audience.

I've found that most people who are initially dubious of the idea of public key encryption will at least agree that it is plausible once you demonstrate the asymmetry of inverse operations like multiplying primes / factorising products.

Once you convince them that it's easy to multiply primes but hard to factorise products, you can say "there is an algorithm where you can encrypt a message using the product, but to decrypt it you need the original primes" and (in my experience) they will usually find this sufficiently plausible to overcome the initial skepticism.

If they still doubt it of course you can go into more detail but I've found this was enough to convince lay-people at least of the possibility of public-key encryption.

GPS, cellphones, Google, GoogleMaps, many an Internet service. Skype lets you call abroad for free! Vaccinations are a bit more iffy.

Mechanical ventilation is at least as miraculous as cryonics will turn out to be if it works. Victims of previously fatal diseases are saved by the stupid and brilliant trick of just keeping them breathing until they get better.


I think loudspeakers are pretty impressive. Who'd have thought that waving a paper cone around in just the right way could produce the same effect as blowing a French horn?

(Or just show them magnets - how do they work?)

In terms of visual and emotional impact I think the Luke arm is worth a mention.