The human race is entering a new era. We merge with machines to restore damaged senses and organs through implants and sensory prostheses, and sequence DNA to sculpt personalized clinical care for molecular variants. AI advises us on matters of the heart, and soothes panic attacks at 4 a.m. NASA’s new robots are ready for off-world colonies, and giant 3D printers in the Mojave Desert are testing prototype edifices for the Red Planet.
But all these big ideas have moral considerations that should not fall prey to partisan politics. To put this in geek speak, we need a (Star Trek) Federation—a council of benign, wise governance—and the sooner, the better.
A suitable contender is headquartered in Los Angeles with several outposts, including one in Beijing. The Berggruen Institute was founded by Nicolas Berggruen, who made headlines in 2010, when he was dubbed “the homeless billionaire” for ditching his dwellings and possessions to travel the world (in a Gulfstream IV). His flaneur days behind him, he then settled in L.A. and invested $500 million into his eponymous institute. Its aim? To develop new thinking that will shape social and political institutions in what Berggruen calls “The current era of Great Transformations.”
PCMag talked with Berggruen on the phone, while his team packed up the organization’s current HQ to move into the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles, where Ridley Scott shot the original Blade Runner (pictured above). Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
Nicolas, your institute put out a call to find five fellows to spend 2018 and 2019 investigating ‘The Transformation of the Human.’ You’ll be announcing their names in March; can you tell us more?
Yes, in partnership with USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at University of Southern California, we want these individuals to examine how we now understand ourselves as humans, in the light of new technologies which are changing our material realities.
They will be researching cultural shifts and emerging technology innovations such as A.I. and CRISPR/cas9?
A.I., definitely, as well as developments in bioengineering, neuroscience, genomics and the human microbiome.
And as part of your sponsorship, they’ll have a space to reflect on the future of humanity inside the glorious Bradbury Building?
We wanted to have a presence in downtown L.A. and the Bradbury Building is just iconic. I find it a very inspiring place. I couldn’t resist the idea of being there, ever since I saw Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The way the light filters down through into the atrium. Extraordinary.
In fact, the Bradbury is just one of the Institute’s locales.
I purchased 450 acres, high up in the Santa Monica Mountains, and commissioned Herzog & De Meuron, the architects behind Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, to design a grand futuristic edifice which will open by 2022. I’m calling it a 21st Century secular monastery, where a cohort of global thinkers will gather to debate society’s most pressing issues.
This might be a bit geeky as a reference for you, but, when examining the architectural renderings, it appears to resemble something out of Star Trek.
(Laughs) If you say so.
But, for now, all the participants will be citizens of this planet.
The Berggruen Institute brings very influential Earthlings to the table.
We want to mix up different disciplines and cultures, get people from government, industry, technology and the worlds of philosophy, morals and ethics, across all cultures. For example, our 21st Century Council, which is tasked with helping shape the agenda for the annual G20 summits, has many members including Elon Musk, Eric Schmidt, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, Arianna Huffington, Fernando Henrique Cardoso (the former president of Brazil), former president of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo, and Zheng Bijian (advisor to China president Xi Jinping).
Arati Prabhakar, former head of DARPA, is one of our current fellows, and we are supporting her investigative research within the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. It’s important, for me, to represent all points of view. We are nonpartisan.
Just like the Star Trek Foundation.
(Laughs) Well, from a grand perspective, one might say the Berggruen Institute is based on a triangulation of classical values, drawing on the Platonic idea of philosopher kings leading city states; the European Enlightenment thinkers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, author of The Social Contract who spoke of government as a service institution for the good of its citizens; and also the concepts espoused by Confucius of social order, humanity, moral sense, right action, and respect for the wisdom of elders.
It all sounds very utopian.
I believe in the power of ideas. What makes us human is that we generate ideas. Other species live and procreate but what makes us special and self-transform is that we come up with ideas and then those drive us to do something. Our ideas create our culture. I believe in the design and implementation of new ideas of good governance, which draw on practices from both East and West, and can be brought to bear on the common challenges of globalization 2.0.
Talking of globalization 2.0, do you believe that technology is outpacing politicians’ ability to not just regulate, but even comprehend its implications?
Governments by their very nature are bureaucratic, and not exactly agile. So there’s a disconnect between society and government, especially in terms of emerging technology. That’s one of the purposes behind our work, we want to provide a way for governments to be more in touch with what’s happening.
Can you explain how you’ll do this on a practical level? For example, will you be a source of contemporary experts so it’s not just the same boring people talking on the same dull panels?
Definitely. I see that as our function to offer our own staff, or fellows we’re supporting within institutions, or just exciting thinkers that we know, and can introduce into more traditional arenas.
Won’t this bring you into competition with other think tanks? For example, in interviews you’ve expressed concern that there’s no global code around cyber warfare (PCMag visited US Army Cyber Command in 2016). Is this what Berggruen Institute wants to pioneer? Develop codes and plans?
All well-intentioned think tanks or places of ideas are great. What we do complements what others are doing. We may have a different way of doing our research. After all, we’re very long-term in our thinking and approach. We don’t have to write a paper for tomorrow. We don’t have any clients, per se. We are competitive only in the mode of getting to a standard of excellence in our ideas. We are interested in everything that transforms who we are. Our staff will engage in primary research and make valuable suggestions, our fellows will speak to our councils, to other organizations, and so on. We’re not a proprietary institute. We’re interested in doing things for humanity.
Talking of potential hazards to humanity, do you agree with Elon Musk that A.I. is a threat?
Elon is a personal friend, as well as on our 21st Century Council, but I cannot speak for him. However, I do agree with the view that A.I will, in essence, create a new species, and therefore be friendly or not so friendly. Therefore, once it exists, we’ve already lost control of it. It’ll be powerful. If a force for good, it’ll be a great ally. But not to think through the consequences now and how to deal with it would be almost suicide.
Will the Berggruen Institute draw up ideas on how to regulate A.I.?
Not regulation, per se, but we will look at how to understand and prepare for it, on a global basis, not just here in America, but in China and across Europe.
Finally, why are you doing all this in Los Angeles?
I’ve lived in many places and, while New York is a dynamic and exciting city, in California one feels it’s all about the future. It’s a place of possibilities. L.A. especially. It’s so vast, open, and diverse. When I moved here I started spending time with professors at USC and UCLA, and out of that ideas started to form, which lead to me setting up the Berggruen Institute. I’m not sure this would have happened so organically anywhere else. Los Angeles is something of a laboratory, particularly in democracy and brilliant new ideas. It allows you to imagine anything is possible.