Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S5. EPISODE 1
Progress Check: Catching Up on the News
Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas
Is mental health worsening across generations? Has criminal justice reform actually worked? And are we ready for the first mass produced humanoid robots? “What Could Go Right?” hosts Zachary Karabell, founder of The Progress Network, and Emma Varvaloucas, executive director of The Progress Network, take a look at the progress that has been made since last season.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network, and What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast dedicated to yep, you guessed it, what could go right.
So today, Emma and I are not going to interview anyone. We’re gonna look at some of the news and stories of the world that are less attended to but should be more attended to, the kind of things that we point out every week in our weekly newsletter that Emma writes also called, conveniently enough, What Could Go Right? So, Emma, what are we gonna talk about today? Just you and me, just a chat about what’s going on in the world.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): We are gonna chat about a lot of different stuff, some cool things happening in the United States, some science and tech developments, and a whole lot of other goodies. But we’re gonna start with Gen Z. I think Gen Z has a very strong narrative around them that they have just been absolutely wrecked by smartphones and social media, and that the generation as a whole is just super anxious, super depressed, super lonely. And I personally hear a lot of worry about them from parents and just from people in general.
So Gen Z’s narrative doom, Gallup recently did a poll that was funded also in part by the Waltons who own Walmart, just a general poll on how Gen Z is doing as far as their wellbeing, and they’ve ran this poll for many, many, many years. And to start with the mental health component first, that narrative that Gen Z’s mental health is worse than previous generations. That seems to be very correct.
So 20% of the Gen Z respondents to this survey rated their mental health as excellent, 44% ranked it as good, 26% ranked it as fair, and 10% ranked it as poor, which— I don’t know how those numbers seem to you. What’s really striking about it is when they asked millennials the same question when they were Gen Z’s age, like 18 to 26, in 2013, over half of millennials, 52%, rated their mental health as excellent. So that’s a pretty steep drop if you’re comparing generation to generation.
The thing about it is, is that it’s not unique to Gen Z. Millennials and Gen X have also reported really strong drops in their mental health over the same time period. So it seems to be people affected by the smartphone and the social media era. That theory seems to be proven out by this.
ZK: Yeah, and that’s certainly something a Progress Network member, Jonathan Haidt, has been all over as a major thing. As you know, my questioning of that is not about those realities, it’s the whole category of “How is your mental health?” as a question that, A, should be asked and that, B, should be answered is a relatively new one in that neither Gallup nor anyone else— it didn’t even occur to ask that question in the 1950s and 1960s, and it didn’t really occur in the 1970s, even though you could legitimately point to the 1970s as a before and after moment when people really started attending to their inner lives, and what’s it all about, and is this relentless rat race of materialism worth it? But the category of mental health as an operative one is new.
So I think cross-generational comparisons, maybe you can do it with millennials and Gen X, but I would be wary of doing too much of that in that it’s like asking people in the 19th century what their joint health was. I mean, people had aches and pains, but it didn’t occur to anyone to discuss their lives in those terms.
EV: I mean, I understand what you’re saying. I’ve had the same question too, where it’s like, are we all really more anxious than the generations before us or have we just been told how to better recognize our anxiety? And are we potentially maybe over-diagnosing, that a thought that is mildly stressful is then also called anxiety. I think that’s a valid question.
What I do find interesting is that, so Gen Z had 20% of the respondents rated their mental health as excellent, 29% of millennials, 31% of Gen X, and then 39% of baby boomers, and 33% of the silent generation, which I think supports your theory that— well, actually, I don’t know if it does support your theory, that it’s just because we have great awareness on mental health because the silent generation doesn’t seem to be fairing so well, and by your point, they should have less inner awareness than the rest of us who kind of like grew up in the therapy era. Unless you wanna make the point that they are starting to decline and they’re of a certain age where just mental health starts to go down. What do you think?
ZK: Well, they’re also swimming in the same cultural soup that we’re all swimming in. So they’re no less susceptible to the, hey, it didn’t occur to me to ask this question and suddenly I will. And the other complicating factor of any surveys like this done let’s say in the past three years is just the intense but hard to discern effects of the pandemic, of the lockdowns, of the disruption, of the feeling that I think we all had to some degree of a rug being pulled out from under us commensurate with our expectations about how the world was gonna be and what the future was gonna look like. And the ways in which that continue to play out are probably almost impossible to isolate, although the idea that that wouldn’t have some degree of lasting effect, I mean, I think some of the continued roilingness of people’s sense of personal safety in cities in relationship to crime statistics and sense of political stability and all of it is certainly not helpfully affected by the 2020, 2021 into 2022 effects of the pandemic and the political divisions domestically and globally. So that too is kind of an X factor that we may not even be aware of.
And again, I’m not trying to say, hey, social media and phones and all of it are a null factor, and my sons would definitely strongly push back against the idea that social media and phones and the obsessive amount of attention and life lived on them is not a predominant cause of internal dis-ease. But, again, all this stuff is new, and it’s tempting as human beings to nail down a degree of certainty about the effects of things. But unfortunately, I think life is just by nature more complicated and human beings have been struggling mightily to be human beings long before these technologies. So the greater point is we thought everything was negative, but these surveys show…
EV: The surveys show… that despite these apparent mental health struggles, that Gen Z is super optimistic about their own lives. So 82% of them in this survey believe that they’ll achieve their goals. 76% think that they have a great future ahead of them. 66% feel that they can nab a dream job. So for people that seem to be rating their mental health as decently low, I guess, they still feel pretty good about their life outcomes.
And the other part of this that I really enjoyed is that the segment that they surveyed that was most optimistic about their future were Black Gen Z-ers, which is really cool because I think that if the outcomes match the expectations, I think that’s gonna start to really positively change all of these race relations questions in the US the more you see younger Black generations succeed and feel good about themselves and their future in the United States.
ZK: This idea of the mismatch between self-reported mental health and positive expectations about the future is kind of wild. I mean, I think it points to the fact that we all contain multitudes of often contradictory internal states, right? We’re not rarely so one thing or another, but it does surprise, given the narrative you just talked about and given the way in which people usually articulate their sense of problems in the present, that there is such— I mean, those are pretty starkly indicative numbers, right? We’re not talking 51%. We’re talking strong majorities believe in the future, believe in their own capacity to get a good job, which means that even if they’re struggling to nab that dream job when they’re 24, it’s not from despair that that will never happen, or at least not reported as such, and that’s kind of wild.
EV: Yeah. It’s also interesting for me to think about this in relation to a lot of the climate change anxiety surveys that get put out there about Gen Z and younger generations because a lot of people answer on their surveys that they’re really anxious about their future as related to climate change. And I’m not saying that people aren’t, I just wonder, in terms of that generation, if someone puts a paper in front of you and says, “Are you nervous about climate change?” You might be like, “Yeah”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re so nervous about it, it seems, that it affects how you think you’ll actually fare out in your own personal life.
ZK: Yeah. And it is, I think, supportive of our overall endeavor here, which is there’s a lot more going on about attitudes than everything is fcuked.
EV: Yeah [laughs]. I’ll give a few more interesting tidbits from the survey and then we can move on because I just think it’s interesting to get to know the next generation. Top three aspirations are financial security, by far this is almost 70%, that was their number one. Like, I really care about making sure I’m financially comfortable. Then far below that was getting married and pursuing a personal passion in work. Pretty strong amount, 64%, are worried about barriers to achieving their goals due to finances or funding options. Generally, they mean student loans. And I thought this was really interesting because just over half of them say that schoolwork challenges them in a good way, which I guess you could read as maybe it challenges them in a bad way, but I chose to read as we should be making school harder for these kids. It sounds like they wanna be challenged more maybe, so I was into that.
ZK: All right, so turning from the surprising degree of Gen Z optimism, and not surprising from the perspective of these kind of conversations we’ve been having, but surprising from the meta uber narrative that, Emma, you just charted out for us, that everything is going downhill. And obviously, people are both capable feeling that and maybe even feeling the mental health effects of all these negative externalities, and also simultaneously believing that the world can be better, that their lives can be good, and that the future can be brighter. And it’s just a reminder of the complexity of both
internal human experience and the world that we’re living in all the time.
One of the real challenges and issues is the need and/or imperatives of media and discussion and just human nature to simplify everything and make one story or another, right? It’s black or it’s white, it’s true or it’s false, it’s up or it’s down, it’s good or it’s bad. And that tendency can be very useful when you’re trying to slice and dice problems and solve them, but it can also be socially deleterious and counterproductive when it makes us [inaudible] all the things that are going on apropos what you just highlighted for us.
EV: No, that’s right. And you do need some space, both in media and in your own mind, to parse out that nuance, which could be difficult to find, but that’s what you’re here for [laughs]. So moving on, Zachary, I’ll let you choose your own adventure here. Would we like to talk about decarceration or would we like to talk about some other state-by-state exciting changes that have been going on in the US while we have been on a podcast break?
ZK: Let’s do a little bit of both. We’ve been on the decarceration theme. There’s certainly a bunch of Progress Network members who have been focusing on criminal justice reform. So what do we have there?
EV: All right, so the Council on Criminal Justice just came out with a big report on tracking the size of America’s criminal justice system. I think it’s very well known that [laughs] the United States criminal justice system is massive and that we incarcerate individuals higher than most other countries in the world. And it was something like 1 out of every 100 Americans were in prison in the ’90s. It’s a large number. But, good news, the criminal justice system’s footprint is shrinking, and in some places, quite a lot.
So I should say first that this does correspond with a pretty strong drop in crime. We’ve had increases over the last three years, and Zachary, we’ve talked about that a bunch as far as related to the pandemic on the podcast. But if you’re comparing generally what’s been going on the last 15 years to what was going on in the ’80s and ’90s, we’ve had a really strong reported crime drop in both violent crime and property crime and in drug crime, I believe.
So with all of that crime dropping, accordingly, we’ve seen really big drops in arrests, really big drops in numbers in terms of who’s in prison and in jail, and also the numbers of people who are on probation or parole, which is what we would want to see, right? That we are both dropping crime and dropping the number of people that are getting entered into the system.
One thing that I wanted to pull out in particular is the really strong drop in juvenile crime rates and juvenile inmates. I am pulling up the numbers right now. Juvenile arrests peaked in 1996, and that was over 2.5 million arrests of juveniles, and that is down, in 2020, 85% to under a half million. I’m looking at this graph in front of my eyes right now. It’s just a totally, totally precipitous decline. And what’s cool about that is that, again, there’s been a precipitous decline in arrest rates across races and across both genders.
ZK: I mean, it’s a great stat. Last year, I visited a prison in New York State where Bard College has had this thing called the Bard Prison Initiative, which I really encourage people to take a look at. There’s also really good PBS documentary about them. And what was fascinating about it, so Bard professors or hired professors go in and offer either the finishing up of a high school degree or college degrees to inmates. And what’s amazing about it is the proportion of inmates at this particular prison— and this was a maximum security prison, although the lower end of maximum security, whatever that means, within the New York State Correctional Facility system, and the number of them who had been in the system for 20 years or more, all of whom had started as juveniles, so they had been arrested ’cause they were part of a gang or they were selling drugs or they were engaged usually in some sort of petty crime and often that did escalate, and that was really striking how much of this was a very early pathway, not late 20s or 30s, but teens, and that that essentially determined the rest of their lives.
Now, obviously, a 19-year-old who kills someone is a 19-year-old who kills someone. I’m not saying that that should be treated loosely just because you could say, well, they’ve got the rest of their lives, but we definitely have lost this idea of doing the crime paying the time, or whatever the phrase is. You did the crime, you served the time, you paid your debt to society and then moved on because also a lot of these people had gotten out and then were re-incarcerated for parole violations. And often those parole violations were incredibly complicated and arcane. Things like crossing the state line to go visit a family member for Thanksgiving, but that had been a parole item that wasn’t approved, whatever. And that’s a whole aspect of this decarceration, is really working on parole reform so that people aren’t kind of de facto incarcerated forever.
The issues about whether convicted felons should be stripped of their right to vote forever is another big issue about can you ever actually pay your debt to society for a crime that’s been committed. But this whole juvenile issue is a huge one because essentially, you can derail someone’s life for much lower level offenses than one would think.
EV: Yeah. And you mentioned in your example, a 19-year-old that kills someone. And I think people might not be totally aware, okay, a 19-year-old is an adult, but let’s say you’re under 18. We didn’t have reports of juveniles being held as adults in jails and state and federal prisons until 1993. The number of juveniles being held as adults peaked in 1999. It was around 8,500. And again, now, that’s way down. So now we have 1,700, which, again, is just another aspect of the system that’s— sorry, those numbers I just said were just for jails, but it similarly has dropped precipitously for state and federal prisons as well. We only have 292 juveniles held as adults in 2021 in state and federal prisons.
ZK: That’s wild. And, again, some of these education reforms have been huge. There’s high levels of correlation between educational achievement and lower levels of either recidivism or committing crimes in the first place.
And then there’s this whole issue which legitimately got some focus during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, was that whether we should be criminalizing certain types of illegality. Unpaid tickets, noise disputes, things that could be handled by a different type of local enforcement mechanism than police with guns who are trained and disposed to potentially use force to resolve and/or halt public disturbances of any sort. And that absolutely has a vital role, but does it have a vital role in unpaid traffic tickets? Or go down the list of nonviolent crimes that the United States, more than many other societies, uses police to deal with, and police who are armed and trained not to use those weapons. I mean, police are often trained to deescalate, but they are not primarily in the business of non-coercive enforcement. So that’s a whole other aspect that plays into this decarceration. And I think there is some progress in that.
The only negatives here are the pandemic effect of sharply spiking crime in every major urban area in the United States as everything “opened up” end of 2020 into 2021. There’s a lot of evidence now that those crime rates are coming down, murder rates are coming down. They’re not coming down in Washington, D.C. They’re not coming down in some other places, but overall, in most cities they are. But as per usual, the spike gets attention. The spike gets the New York Post headline, the decrease doesn’t because the story of going up and the drama of crime is that slow decrease is a much less interesting story.
EV: Although I’ll shout out to The Washington Post for running an op-ed a few months ago about positive decarceration trends for Black Americans. They did run one op-ed and they mentioned falling crime rates. So they get that, they get a point for that.
ZK: One point.
EV: So this is very much related to one state development that I wanted to talk about today as well. Illinois is the first state to end cash bail entirely, which is really interesting. And what we’ve been talking about reminds me a lot of the story that the Associated Press opened with when they did their piece on this. It was a mother, I believe, and she was in the car with her partner and wasn’t aware that he had ecstasy in the car. She was arrested and was given $150,000 for bail and she couldn’t meet that because I mean, a lot of people can’t meet that, and she sat in jail for a year. Eventually, I think she got out. I don’t remember actually what happened, but just making the point to people that you can sit inside some of these facilities for crimes that you have not been tried or convicted for and which are non-violent offenses.
So Illinois, the first state to do away with cash bail completely. New Jersey, California, New York, and Alaska have done some reforms around that, but they have not just completely done away with it. So we will see what happens.
ZK: And look, in New York State, where I live, bail reform became a really politically charged issue that definitely hurt the Democrats in New York State, and to some degree hurt Governor Hochul in her reelection campaign. There definitely was some aspects of bail reform that went too far, which doesn’t mean that all bail reform went too far, it just meant that those aspects where you removed any discretion from judges became an issue in X number of cases that were then seized on as indicative of the failure of the whole system.
So even here, there is a reality of cash bail in multiple circumstances ended up being a really punitive system for lower quintile people, often skewed racially as well, who found themselves in the criminal justice system simply for things like the inability to pay these traffic tickets or these things that then led to charges that then led to bail that they then couldn’t post. And the cascade, the domino effect of that is intensely negative. You end up in jail, someone has to bail you out, you lose your job. I mean, suddenly, it becomes a nightmarish scenario and an unnecessary one and also one that is socially very expensive. I mean, we spend a lot of money in every state every time one individual spends one day in jail, let alone prison. And there are just more effective ways of dealing with most of these things.
And we’re not talking about the person accused of multiple rapes or violent felonies and armed robberies or murder or assault. I mean, there’s a whole slew of violent crimes that I don’t think anybody disagrees should be dealt with swiftly, effectively, and firmly. So this bail reform question where everyone goes, oh, what about that person who got released? Well, we’re not talking about that. And if that had happened, there’s a legitimate space to say, hey, we should’ve done these reforms with an awareness of the areas where that shouldn’t actually be a reform. That doesn’t mean the whole thing should be tossed out.
EV: Yeah. And I mean just thinking about someone sitting around for a year, not seeing her children for a year, whether if she knew there’s ecstasy in the car or not, I mean, gosh, in New York, how many people are running around with ecstasy? Like everyone I knew in New York [laughs]. It’s just ridiculous.
And we should say too, just to address some of the pushback that you were just addressing, Zachary, one of the concerns about this is that if you don’t have cash bail, people who are charged with a new crime won’t appear in court for their court dates. And the New Jersey data shows that the number of people who failed to appear in court after the bail reform remain steady. But again, we’ll see. We’ll see what happens with Illinois. We’ll have fresh data coming out of there in the years to come.
So keeping us on the crime beat [laughs], we’ve been talking a lot about crime this episode, but I thought this was really, really positive. It’s bipartisan, so it should make everyone happy, unlike cash bail reform. 40 states and the district of Columbia have now implemented or have committed to implementing a sexual assault kit tracking system in the past nine years, which is amazing.
This summer, this happened during our podcast season break, Alaska and Florida launched their tracking portals and Colorado and Louisiana passed legislation to establish tracking systems. Pulling this from a wonderful article in The 19th, these portals mean that if you’re a victim of sexual assault and you go and you have your rape kit done, which is a really awful experience, a lot of those kits were just disappearing. They didn’t know what was happening with their own case. They would have to call in and ask and oftentimes the kit would get lost or just be buried under a long backlog. So these tracking portals can be accessed by the victim and they also help police figure out where the kit is in the process, and if there’s some kind of error, they can easily figure out what happened and fix it.
ZK: You know, this was a big issue. Mariska Hargitay, who’s famous for Law & Order, SVU, also had a foundation called Joyful Heart, and for years they were trying to shed light on the rape kit issue of just the non-processing of rape kits. As you said, first, the traumatic reality of a rape, then the traumatic reality of how a rape kit evidentiarily is assembled physically, it’s kind of a physically invasive process, and then these kits would just disappear into some black hole and never get processed.
And to be fair, that’s ’cause no one had allocated the budget to process them. So you’d collect them, but they were costly to process and multiple states had, as legislatures often do, sort of passed one set of laws without passing the other. So you had this massive issue of just the backlog of rape kits. And there’s been like 20 years of people trying to say, hey, wait a minute, we have a real problem here in this mismatch. And it only now seems like these things are being dealt with. I’m sure to some degree the movement of technologies has made the processing of these less expensive and also the registering of the data in a database more doable. It probably could have been done just as effectively 10 years ago, but it’s certainly true that technology aids this process, but it’s been something a lot of people have been fighting for, for many, many years and is now thankfully coming to fruition.
EV: Yeah. It’s nice to see that large number of states. Normally, I feel like when we report on state news, so many times, it’s just split amongst red/blue lines. For instance, this one that I’m about to say now, which is that Pennsylvania became the 24th state to introduce automatic voter registration.
Audio Clip: Next time you go to a PennDOT Center to get your driver’s license or ID card, if you are eligible to vote, you will automatically go through the voter registration process as well unless you opt out. Those who were eligible before this had to take some additional steps.
EV: Which, again, it’s a partisan issue. But I do think that with the right checks in place, just again to clarify that you do have to be a citizen, this is voter registration that happens when you are going to get your driver’s license or state ID so you’re already passing all of those bars to get that, to become part of this voter registration process, it really helps. Even if you don’t take a political argument about it, I remember doing that in New York, and it was so easy, man [laughs]. It was so convenient and so easy and I really appreciated it.
ZK: Yeah, and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue in that voter registration means voters can vote. It doesn’t mean they vote Democrat or they vote Republican or they vote independent or they vote libertarian. It just means that the ease of doing so is greater, which you would think everyone would agree on as a thing because it certainly can advantage anyone, doesn’t necessarily mean it advantages one party or the other. So this is like an odd partisan thing in the United States, just getting time off to vote.
Now, I get the fact that it has become partisan because it’s certainly true that that some Republicans in some parts of the country recognize that demographically, their base is aging and declining, and so there is a fear that if you made voting easier, you potentially will lose a demographic challenge. I suppose the answer to that is well then come up with a message that’s more appealing. We said the same thing to any party that loses. But that’s partly why it’s become a partisan issue. But in theory, it shouldn’t be and it doesn’t need to be.
EV: Yeah, absolutely. And maybe one day, we will see a country where automatic voter registration is everywhere. One can only hope. So let’s move on to something that happened very recently. People listening are probably aware of this one ’cause it did get a lot of media attention. Biden just established the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which was a request from a parent who lost a child in the Sandy Hook shooting. We don’t know exactly if this office is going to have a lot of effect. Obviously, the announcement of it forming was just made. They are going to work, they said, primarily on four different areas, one which includes making sure that the enhanced background checks for buyers under 21 is being enforced. But it’s interesting, right? And it could also be something that gets undone if the administration changes over in the next election. But I am curious what kind of staying power it might have and what might come out of it.
ZK: Right. Again, here’s things that are partisan that shouldn’t be. No one is in favor of gun violence. At least I think that is a fair generalization to make. The question then is what do you do about gun violence or how do you reduce the levels of gun violence, particularly of mass shootings? And at this point, the prohibition side of things, outlaw weapons, do that, wherever we sit, I’m in New York, you’re culturally in that place, while we may be more in favor of limitations on gun ownership, the reality is the United States is awash in weapons of all sorts. And so we’ve got a lot of guns. What do we do about gun violence? That’s just an issue that we can all at least agree is an issue and then try to figure out ways to deal with it.
So these things ought not to be partisan in some ideal world. We have gun violence, we have too much of it. What do we do about it is a question that probably unites far more people than it divides, even though the solutions that are preferred by one side or another divide for more people than it unites. How we navigate this, I have no idea. At least the idea that there should be a national endeavor to galvanize across aisles, across states, across parties, some solutions that we can all agree on, that’s something we should keep striving for.
And oddly enough, and we’ve pointed out this before, one of the few genuinely bipartisan efforts during the Trump years was criminal justice reform in the middle of the Trump administration before the pandemic that had the support of the Soros Foundation, it had the support of the Koch Foundation, it had the support of Republicans and Democrats. There are things that lots of people agree on and that we can work together on, and reducing the levels of gun violence certainly is one.
EV: Yeah. And the office will obviously be— for people who might be thinking about this, the office is going to try to push new legislation that not everyone might agree with. It’s not that. They’re working with already existing parameters. So we shall see what happens. And let’s leave that be for now.
Let’s leave politics be, and move on to some cool sciencey techie stuff, which sometimes we give short thrift ’cause neither of us are science techie people, wanted to offer a quick congrats to India who went to the moon over the summer. Zachary, do you know what number country they are to have reached the moon?
ZK: Ooh, that’s a good one. Quick calculation. What country are they to have reached the moon? They didn’t land on the moon, right? They just reached the moon.
EV: They went to the South Pole. Oh, that’s a good question. I didn’t know—
ZK: They went to the South Pole.
ZK: I would say the fourth.
EV: Yeah, you got it. You got it. So they are the fourth. US, China, former USSR.
Audio Clip: India has done it. It has become now the fourth country to land a spacecraft on the moon after the US and China and the former Soviet Union. Just moments ago, we’re talking just a couple of minutes, the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft landed on the lunar South Pole.
EV: I mean, it’s a big achievement obviously. And also because India is definitely, we’ve talked about this before, in the midst of a pretty strong transformation. I think as far as a potential world power, it’s a really strong economy. We don’t know, we’ve talked about this before, but it’s a little piece of evidence in in that direction, in the pro direction.
ZK: Yeah. So space exploration, it’s interesting, if you were to describe the apex of optimism before the nadir of pessimism that beset the United States and a lot of the world in the 1970s, the moonshot was a big one, right? And people forget conveniently how much of that was animated by a need and a desire to compete, on the United States part, with the Soviet Union. The idea that when Sputnik went up that the Russians were gonna dominate space and therefore we’re gonna lose the Cold War. But there was a huge degree of optimism around this.
There’s a great HBO show, or I think it’s great, called For All Mankind, which sort of does an alt history of NASA and the space program, but this idea that we would leap forward into the unknown and explore was a huge animating aspect of American utopianism in the ’60s and led to that moon landing in 1969, which is a very different spirit than Elon Musk and Mars exploration, which is predicated much more on a pretty negative view of humanity’s sustainability on the planet Earth, right?
So the Mars efforts often are much more in the spirit of we’re gonna destroy our planet so we need an alternate home, versus the moon landing initiatives, including India’s recently, which is much more of the we’re gonna go where no man has gone before, we’re gonna explore where no one has explored before. And that has been a huge aspect of human drive that has been the formula to unlock untold wonders. So I think, at least for now, it’s something to celebrate.
EV: And amongst those untold wonders, I will say there’s a quick smattering of other cool space stuff, one being that people might not know that airless tires exist, that NASA developed airless tires, and those are now on sale for the first time. So you might be having an airless tire coming to your bike soon.
EV: Yeah. They look weird. They look like sci-fi tires. I don’t know how to describe them, but people can Google it, see what that looks like.
ZK: And one of the members of The Progress Network, Ché Bolden, who has been really— his father was the former NASA administrator. Ché himself is now involved in a kind of space consultancy. There’s a whole nascent world of space industries, how we’re gonna figure out how to use space collectively as human beings, should we use the law of the sea as a correlate to how we think about space. There’s is preexisting international law, including about the moon, like what if we all wanna colonize the moon? How do we divide it up in a way that doesn’t lead to conflict?
EV: Oh, boy.
ZK: But that’s a whole other realm, not of the unknown necessarily, but that is sort of beginning to be a 21st century issue, challenge, interesting frontier.
EV: And they’ve also designed kind of like those floating things that go around to rivers and oceans and collect plastic in the ocean. They’ve now also designed this floating trash bag in space that floats around and collects space junk ’cause that’s one of the negatives of the new frontier that we’ve created for ourselves already, that problem.
ZK: There’s a really bad ’70s movie or show about a bunch of people whose job it was to haul away space junk, so the more prosaic aspects of intergalactic reality.
Well, those jobs have been replaced [laughs] by a giant space bag.
[Laughs] Space robots.
Yeah, space robots. Just for our audience, keep space robots in your mind ’cause we’re gonna come back to that. I wanna take a quick turn to AI, a couple of more cool things happening with AI. One, Spotify announced this crazy technology where they use AI to copy a podcaster’s voice and translate it into Spanish. You know, it’s limited right now. They’re only doing it with huge names like Lex Fridman. But if you Google it, you can find an example video that they did with Lex Fridman, and he’s just standing there speaking in Spanish, which just to clarify, all his podcasts are in English. And obviously, his mouth doesn’t entirely line up with what’s being said in Spanish, but it sounds like his voice. And honestly, I just thought that was amazing.
ZK: So soon enough, we’ll be like El Network del Progreso or Le Network de Progrès.
EV: We’ll know how to speak so many languages, you and I. It’ll be fantastic stuff. So I thought that was just a cool AI thing.
Another cool AI thing that’s happening is that Amarillo, Texas, they are creating a AI chatbot. She’s sort of like a hot white lady, just to give people an idea of what the chatbot looks like, young. Anyway, she’s sort of like a 311, but she speaks 62 different languages, which is cool in and of itself, but it’s especially cool because Amarillo is the city in Texas with the highest number of refugees per capita. So it’s specifically designed for refugees who may not be speaking English to be able to go and ask questions. And you can also of course use it as a normal citizen. You can even type in a question like how much of our city’s budget is spent on X, Y, Z? And the chat bot will pull it up for you. It just seems really neat as a resource for anyone in that city.
ZK: Well, there you go.
EV: And then coming back around to the space robots, and this is something where it’s like— we have discussions internally all the time, like, is this progress? Is this scary? Is this good? Is this bad? So, Zachary, you can lend your opinion. Salem, Oregon this year is gonna be home to the world’s first humanoid robot factory.
Audio Clip: This is a really significant moment in the robotics industry. This is the world’s first humanoid robot factory. This has never been done before. It’s a brand-new building, about 70,000 square feet, and it’ll be able to deliver over 10,000 robots a year at max capacity.
EV: So the first mass production robot factory for those kinds of robots that you’ve seen online where they walk around the humans and put boxes away and jump and stuff like that. We’ll see what happens with that. In other countries, this discussion is so advanced that in South Korea actually, they’re having arguments because they have a lot of robots in a lot of positions already in South Korea, but the economy’s being flooded by cheaper robots from China. So now we’re having labor arguments over the cheap Chinese robots replacing the more expensive South Korean robots, which is wild.
ZK: Yeah, that’s a whole other dimension of anti-immigration. We’re against their robots.
EV: Yeah, it’s super weird.
ZK: We don’t want any of those foreign robots. We want our own domestic robots-
EV: That’s right.
ZK: -to replace our own domestic jobs [laughs]. We don’t want those foreign robots undercutting our jobs.
EV: Exactly [laughs]. I’m like, wow, this really got futuristic really fast. The factory in Oregon that’s gonna be producing the humanoid robots is going to be supervised by humans. So just to clarify that point, that it’s not robots producing other robots, which I think would be a step too far for most people right now. There are gonna be humans producing the humanoid robots.
ZK: There’s an old joke that went something like this, when a factory would open in a town United States or anywhere in 1950, it’d be ribbon cutting. The factory would create 15,000 jobs, multiple shifts, really exciting. Same factory opens in 2000 and it creates 5,000 jobs. High tech, automated production lines, et cetera. Same factory opens in 2020 and it’s like 1,500 jobs. Lots of robots, very high tech, not nearly as many jobs. And that that factory, when it opens in 10 more years, will have one human and a dog, and the job of the human will be to make sure that the robots don’t break and order repair them when they do, and the job of the dog will be to make sure that the human doesn’t fall asleep.
EV: [Laughs] Yep.
ZK: So that’s where we’re heading. That’s where we’re heading.
EV: And I think there’s an open question about if we can manage to make sure that people remain gainfully employed in other ways, that could be a cool future. But I mean, certainly what you would hear from many people right now is, that’s not progress at all. That’s kind of dystopian as far as what that’s done to jobs in the US.
ZK: Yeah. I mean, again, it’s a bit of both because the work that robots do in theory frees humans to do less repetitive work, and so in that utopian world, the jobs that are created on the other side of the jobs that are lost are more dynamic, more uplifting for the human spirit, et cetera. That remains to be seen, but that’s the bull case, the optimistic case, for what happens on the other side of these technological revolutions, which I’m sure we will keep talking about.
So that has been a good weekly roundup of several months of dynamic stories, of which those are only a smattering of what you get from the weekly newsletter, from the What Could Go Right? But in general, I think the whole point is you could fill massive amounts of airtime with these conversations, airtime that is otherwise filled with the latest Trump indictment or the divisions around the latest climate report, or, or, or, and we obviously think it’s important that some of that conversation is about these things and not just about those things ’cause there’s plenty of conversation about those things and not enough conversation about these things.
And it unfortunately gets presented as an either-or, but we all have more bandwidth than we use and there’s certainly more airtime than could ever be meaningfully filled except we choose to fill it either with really negative stories or the Kardashians. Nothing against the Kardashians, just it has an inordinate place in a culture that could otherwise probably focus on something else. And that’s what we are trying to do, hopefully with some good effect.
So thank you for listening to our conversation today, and thank you, Emma, for leading it. And we will be back next week with more of this, but also more of our interviews.
EV: Thank you so much, Zachary. And everyone, please stay tuned for our interview with Steve Inskeep of NPR next week. We’re gonna talk about the Civil War, bum, bum, bum.
ZK: Cool. Until then.
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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