Lex Fridman Podcast - #58 - Michael Stevens: Vsauce

The following is a conversation with Michael Stevens,

the creator of Vsauce,

one of the most popular educational YouTube channels

in the world with over 15 million subscribers

and over 1.7 billion views.

His videos often ask and answer questions

that are both profound and entertaining,

spanning topics from physics to psychology.

Popular questions include,

what if everyone jumped at once?

Or what if the sun disappeared?

Or why are things creepy?

Or what if the earth stopped spinning?

As part of his channel,

he created three seasons of Mind Field,

a series that explored human behavior.

His curiosity and passion are contagious

and inspiring to millions of people.

And so as an educator,

his impact and contribution to the world

is truly immeasurable.

This is the Artificial Intelligence Podcast.

If you enjoy it, subscribe on YouTube,

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at Lex Friedman, spelled F R I D M A N.

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And now here’s my conversation with Michael Stevens.

One of your deeper interests is psychology,

understanding human behavior.

You’ve pointed out how messy studying human behavior is

and that it’s far from the scientific rigor

of something like physics, for example.

How do you think we can take psychology

from where it’s been in the 20th century

to something more like what the physicists,

theoretical physicists are doing,

something precise, something rigorous?

Well, we could do it by finding

the physical foundations of psychology, right?

If all of our emotions and moods and feelings and behaviors

are the result of mechanical behaviors of atoms

and molecules in our brains,

then can we find correlations?

Perhaps like chaos makes that really difficult

and the uncertainty principle and all these things.

That we can’t know the position and velocity

of every single quantum state in a brain, probably.

But I think that if we can get to that point with psychology,

then we can start to think about consciousness

in a physical and mathematical way.

When we ask questions like, well, what is self reference?

How can you think about yourself thinking?

What are some mathematical structures

that could bring that about?

There’s ideas of, in terms of consciousness

and breaking it down into physics,

there’s ideas of panpsychism where people believe

that whatever consciousness is,

is a fundamental part of reality.

It’s almost like a physics law.

Do you think, what’s your views on consciousness?

Do you think it has this deep part of reality

or is it something that’s deeply human

and constructed by us humans?

Starting nice and light and easy.

Nothing I ask you today has actually proven answer.

So we’re just hypothesizing.

So yeah, I mean, I should clarify, this is all speculation

and I’m not an expert in any of these topics

and I’m not God, but I think that consciousness

is probably something that can be fully explained

within the laws of physics.

I think that our bodies and brains and the universe

and at the quantum level is so rich and complex.

I’d be surprised if we couldn’t find a room

for consciousness there.

And why should we be conscious?

Why are we aware of ourselves?

That is a very strange and interesting

and important question.

And I think for the next few thousand years,

we’re going to have to believe in answers purely on faith.

But my guess is that we will find that,

within the configuration space

of possible arrangements of the universe,

there are some that contain memories of others.

Literally, Julian Barber calls them time capsule states

where you’re like, yeah, not only do I have a scratch

on my arm, but also this state of the universe

also contains a memory in my head

of being scratched by my cat three days ago.

And for some reason, those kinds of states of the universe

are more plentiful or more likely.

When you say those states,

the ones that contain memories of its past

or ones that contain memories of its past

and have degrees of consciousness.

Just the first part, because I think the consciousness

then emerges from the fact that a state of the universe

that contains fragments or memories of other states

is one where you’re going to feel like there’s time.

You’re going to feel like, yeah,

things happened in the past.

And I don’t know what’ll happen in the future

because these states don’t contain information

about the future.

For some reason, those kinds of states

are either more common, more plentiful,

or you could use the anthropic principle and just say,

well, they’re extremely rare,

but until you are in one, or if you are in one,

then you can ask questions,

like you’re asking me on this podcast.

Why questions?

Yeah, it’s like, why are we conscious?

Well, because if we weren’t,

we wouldn’t be asking why we were.

You’ve kind of implied that you have a sense,

again, hypothesis, theorizing

that the universe is deterministic.

What’s your thoughts about free will?

Do you think of the universe as deterministic

in a sense that it’s unrolling a particular,

like there’s a,

it’s operating under a specific set of physical laws.

And when you have to set the initial conditions,

it will unroll in the exact same way

in our particular line of the universe every time.

That is a very useful way to think about the universe.

It’s done us well.

It’s brought us to the moon.

It’s brought us to where we are today, right?

I would not say that I believe in determinism

in that kind of an absolute form,

or actually I just don’t care.

Maybe it’s true,

but I’m not gonna live my life like it is.

What in your sense,

cause you’ve studied kind of how we humans

think of the world.

What’s in your view is the difference between our perception,

like how we think the world is and reality.

Do you think there’s a huge gap there?

Like we delude ourselves that the whole thing is an illusion.

Just everything about human psychology,

the way we see things and how things actually are.

All the things you’ve studied, what’s your sense?

How big is the gap between reality and perception?

Well, again, purely speculative.

I think that we will never know the answer.

We cannot know the answer.

There is no experiment to find an answer to that question.

Everything we experience is an event in our brain.

When I look at a cat, I’m not even,

I can’t prove that there’s a cat there.

All I am experiencing is the perception of a cat

inside my own brain.

I am only a witness to the events of my mind.

I think it is very useful to infer that

if I witness the event of cat in my head,

it’s because I’m looking at a cat that is literally there

and it has its own feelings and motivations

and should be pet and given food and water and love.

I think that’s the way you should live your life.

But whether or not we live in a simulation,

I’m a brain in a vat, I don’t know.

Do you care?

I don’t really.

Well, I care because it’s a fascinating question.

And it’s a fantastic way to get people excited about

all kinds of topics, physics, psychology,

consciousness, philosophy.

But at the end of the day, what would the difference be?

If you…

The cat needs to be fed at the end of the day,

otherwise it’ll be a dead cat.

Right, but if it’s not even a real cat,

then it’s just like a video game cat.

And right, so what’s the difference between killing

a digital cat in a video game because of neglect

versus a real cat?

It seems very different to us psychologically.

Like I don’t really feel bad about, oh my gosh,

I forgot to feed my Tamagotchi, right?

But I would feel terrible

if I forgot to feed my actual cats.

So can you just touch on the topic of simulation?

Do you find this thought experiment that we’re living

in a simulation useful, inspiring or constructive

in any kind of way?

Do you think it’s ridiculous?

Do you think it could be true?

Or is it just a useful thought experiment?

I think it is extremely useful as a thought experiment

because it makes sense to everyone,

especially as we see virtual reality

and computer games getting more and more complex.

You’re not talking to an audience in like Newton’s time

where you’re like, imagine a clock

that it has mechanics in it that are so complex

that it can create love.

And everyone’s like, no.

But today you really start to feel, man,

at what point is this little robot friend of mine

gonna be like someone I don’t want to cancel plans with?

And so it’s a great, the thought experiment

of do we live in a simulation?

Am I a brain in a vat that is just being given

electrical impulses from some nefarious other beings

so that I believe that I live on earth

and that I have a body and all of this?

And the fact that you can’t prove it either way

is a fantastic way to introduce people

to some of the deepest questions.

So you mentioned a little buddy

that you would want to cancel an appointment with.

So that’s a lot of our conversations.

That’s what my research is, is artificial intelligence.

And I apologize, but you’re such a fun person

to ask these big questions with.

Well, I hope I can give some answers that are interesting.

Well, because of you’ve sharpened your brain’s ability

to explore some of the most, some of the questions

that many scientists are actually afraid of even touching,

which is fascinating.

I think you’re in that sense ultimately a great scientist

through this process of sharpening your brain.

Well, I don’t know if I am a scientist.

I think science is a way of knowing

and there are a lot of questions I investigate

that are not scientific questions.

On like mind field, we have definitely done

scientific experiments and studies that had hypotheses

and all of that, but not to be too like precious

about what does the word science mean?

But I think I would just describe myself as curious

and I hope that that curiosity is contagious.

So to you, the scientific method

is deeply connected to science

because your curiosity took you to asking questions.

To me, asking a good question, even if you feel,

society feels that it’s not a question

within the reach of science currently.

To me, asking the question is the biggest step

of the scientific process.

The scientific method is the second part

and that may be what traditionally is called science,

but to me, asking the questions,

being brave enough to ask the questions,

being curious and not constrained

by what you’re supposed to think is just true,

what it means to be a scientist to me.

It’s certainly a huge part of what it means to be a human.

If I were to say, you know what?

I don’t believe in forces.

I think that when I push on a massive object,

a ghost leaves my body and enters the object I’m pushing

and these ghosts happen to just get really lazy

when they’re around massive things

and that’s why F equals MA.

Oh, and by the way, the laziness of the ghost

is in proportion to the mass of the object.

So boom, prove me wrong.

Every experiment, well, you can never find the ghost.

And so none of that theory is scientific,

but once I start saying, can I see the ghost?

Why should there be a ghost?

And if there aren’t ghosts, what might I expect?

And I start to do different tests to see,

is this falsifiable?

Are there things that should happen if there are ghosts

or are there things that shouldn’t happen?

And do they, you know, what do I observe?

Now I’m thinking scientifically.

I don’t think of science as, wow, a picture of a black hole.

That’s just a photograph.

That’s an image.

That’s data.

That’s a sensory and perception experience.

Science is how we got that and how we understand it

and how we believe in it

and how we reduce our uncertainty around what it means.

But I would say I’m deeply within the scientific community

and I’m sometimes disheartened by the elitism

of the thinking, sort of not allowing yourself

to think outside the box.

So allowing the possibility

of going against the conventions of science,

I think is a beautiful part of some

of the greatest scientists in history.

I don’t know, I’m impressed by scientists every day

and revolutions in our knowledge of the world occur

only under very special circumstances.

It is very scary to challenge conventional thinking

and risky because let’s go back to elitism and ego, right?

If you just say, you know what?

I believe in the spirits of my body

and all forces are actually created by invisible creatures

that transfer themselves between objects.

If you ridicule every other theory

and say that you’re correct,

then ego gets involved and you just don’t go anywhere.

But fundamentally the question of well, what is a force

is incredibly important.

We need to have that conversation,

but it needs to be done in this very political way

of like, let’s be respectful of everyone

and let’s realize that we’re all learning together

and not shutting out other people.

And so when you look at a lot of revolutionary ideas,

they were not accepted right away.

And, you know, Galileo had a couple of problems

with the authorities and later thinkers, Descartes,

was like, all right, look, I kind of agree with Galileo,

but I’m gonna have to not say that.

I’ll have to create and invent and write different things

that keep me from being in trouble,

but we still slowly made progress.

Revolutions are difficult in all forms

and certainly in science.

Before we get to AI, on topic of revolutionary ideas,

let me ask on a Reddit AMA, you said that is the earth flat

is one of the favorite questions you’ve ever answered,

speaking of revolutionary ideas.

So your video on that, people should definitely watch,

is really fascinating.

Can you elaborate why you enjoyed

answering this question so much?

Yeah, well, it’s a long story.

I remember a long time ago,

I was living in New York at the time,

so it had to have been like 2009 or something.

I visited the Flat Earth forums

and this was before the Flat Earth theories

became as sort of mainstream as they are.

Sorry to ask the dumb question, forums, online forums.

Yeah, the Flat Earth Society,

I don’t know if it’s.com or.org, but I went there

and I was reading their ideas

and how they responded to typical criticisms of,

well, the earth isn’t flat because what about this?

And I could not tell, and I mentioned this in my video,

I couldn’t tell how many of these community members

actually believe the earth was flat or we’re just trolling.

And I realized that the fascinating thing is,

how do we know anything?

And what makes for a good belief

versus a maybe not so tenable or good belief?

And so that’s really what my video

about earth being flat is about.

It’s about, look, there are a lot of reasons

that the earth is probably not flat,

but a Flat Earth believer can respond

to every single one of them, but it’s all in an ad hoc way.

And all of these, all of their rebuttals

aren’t necessarily gonna form

a cohesive noncontradictory whole.

And I believe that’s the episode

where I talk about Occam’s razor

and Newton’s flaming laser sword.

And then I say, well, you know what, wait a second.

We know that space contracts as you move.

And so to a particle moving near the speed of light

towards earth, earth would be flattened

in the direction of that particles travel.

So to them, earth is flat.

Like we need to be really generous to even wild ideas

because they’re all thinking,

they’re all the communication of ideas.

And what else can it mean to be a human?

Yeah, and I think I’m a huge fan

of the Flat Earth theory, quote unquote,

in the sense that to me it feels harmless

to explore some of the questions

of what it means to believe something,

what it means to explore the edge of science and so on.

Cause it’s a harm, it’s a, to me,

nobody gets hurt whether the earth is flat or round,

not literally, but I mean intellectually

when we’re just having a conversation.

That said, again, to elitism,

I find that scientists roll their eyes

way too fast on the Flat Earth.

The kind of dismissal that I see to this even notion,

they haven’t like sat down and say,

what are the arguments that are being proposed?

And this is why these arguments are incorrect.

So that should be something

that scientists should always do,

even to the most sort of ideas that seem ridiculous.

So I like this as almost, it’s almost my test

when I ask people what they think about Flat Earth theory,

to see how quickly they roll their eyes.

Well, yeah, I mean, let me go on record

and say that the earth is not flat.

It is a three dimensional spheroid.

However, I don’t know that and it has not been proven.

Science doesn’t prove anything.

It just reduces uncertainty.

Could the earth actually be flat?

Extremely unlikely, extremely unlikely.

And so it is a ridiculous notion

if we care about how probable and certain our ideas might be.

But I think it’s incredibly important

to talk about science in that way

and to not resort to, well, it’s true.

It’s true in the same way that a mathematical theorem

is true.

And I think we’re kind of like being pretty pedantic

about defining this stuff.

But like, sure, I could take a rocket ship out

and I could orbit earth and look at it

and it would look like a ball, right?

But I still can’t prove that I’m not living in a simulation,

that I’m not a brain in a vat,

that this isn’t all an elaborate ruse

created by some technologically advanced

extraterrestrial civilization.

So there’s always some doubt and that’s fine.

That’s exciting.

And I think that kind of doubt, practically speaking,

is useful when you start talking about quantum mechanics

or string theory, sort of, it helps.

To me, that kind of adds a little spice

into the thinking process of scientists.

So, I mean, just as a thought experiment,

your video kind of, okay, say the earth is flat.

What would the forces when you walk about this flat earth

feel like to the human?

That’s a really nice thought experiment to think about.

Right, because what’s really nice about it

is that it’s a funny thought experiment,

but you actually wind up accidentally learning

a whole lot about gravity and about relativity

and geometry.

And I think that’s really the goal of what I’m doing.

I’m not trying to like convince people

that the earth is round.

I feel like you either believe that it is or you don’t

and like, that’s, you know, how can I change that?

What I can do is change how you think

and how you are introduced to important concepts.

Like, well, how does gravity operate?

Oh, it’s all about the center of mass of an object.

So right, on a sphere, we’re all pulled towards the middle,

essentially the centroid geometrically,

but on a disc, ooh, you’re gonna be pulled at a weird angle

if you’re out near the edge.

And that stuff’s fascinating.

Yeah, and to me, that was, that particular video

opened my eyes even more to what gravity is.

It’s just a really nice visualization tool of,

because you always imagine gravity with spheres,

with masses that are spheres.


And imagining gravity on masses that are not spherical,

some other shape, but in here, a plate, a flat object,

is really interesting.

It makes you really kind of visualize

in a three dimensional way the force of gravity.

Yeah, even if a disc the size of Earth would be impossible,

I think anything larger than like the moon basically

needs to be a sphere because gravity will round it out.

So you can’t have a teacup the size of Jupiter, right?

There’s a great book about the teacup in the universe

that I highly recommend.

I don’t remember the author.

I forget her name, but it’s a wonderful book.

So look it up.

I think it’s called Teacup in the Universe.

Just to link on this point briefly,

your videos are generally super, people love them, right?

If you look at the sort of number of likes versus dislikes

is this measure of YouTube, right, is incredible.

And as do I.

But this particular flat Earth video

has more dislikes than usual.

What do you, on that topic in general,

what’s your sense, how big is the community,

not just who believes in flat Earth,

but sort of the anti scientific community

that naturally distrust scientists in a way

that’s not an open minded way,

like really just distrust scientists

like they’re bought by some kind of mechanism

of some kind of bigger system

that’s trying to manipulate human beings.

What’s your sense of the size of that community?

You’re one of the sort of great educators in the world

that educates people on the exciting power of science.

So you’re kind of up against this community.

What’s your sense of it?

I really have no idea.

I haven’t looked at the likes and dislikes

on the flat Earth video.

And so I would wonder if it has a greater percentage

of dislikes than usual,

is that because of people disliking it

because they think that it’s a video

about Earth being flat and they find that ridiculous

and they dislike it without even really watching much?

Do they wish that I was more like dismissive

of flat Earth theories?


That’s possible too.

I know there are a lot of response videos

that kind of go through the episode and are pro flat Earth,

but I don’t know if there’s a larger community

of unorthodox thinkers today

than there have been in the past.

And I just wanna not lose them.

I want them to keep listening and thinking

and by calling them all idiots or something,

that does no good because how idiotic are they really?

I mean, the Earth isn’t a sphere at all.

We know that it’s an oblate spheroid

and that in and of itself is really interesting.

And I investigated that in which way is down

where I’m like, really down does not point

towards the center of the Earth.

It points in different direction,

depending on what’s underneath you and what’s above you

and what’s around you.

The whole universe is tugging on me.

And then you also show that gravity is non uniform

across the globe.

Like if you, there’s this I guess thought experiment

if you build a bridge all the way across the Earth

and then just knock out its pillars, what would happen?

And you describe how it would be like a very chaotic,

unstable thing that’s happening

because gravity is non uniform throughout the Earth.

Yeah, in small spaces, like the ones we work in,

we can essentially assume that gravity is uniform,

but it’s not.

It is weaker the further you are from the Earth.

And it also is going to be,

it’s radially pointed towards the middle of the Earth.

So a really large object will feel tidal forces

because of that non uniformness.

And we can take advantage of that with satellites, right?

Gravitational induced torque.

It’s a great way to align your satellite

without having to use fuel or any kind of engine.

So let’s jump back to it, artificial intelligence.

What’s your thought of the state of where we are at

currently with artificial intelligence

and what do you think it takes to build human level

or superhuman level intelligence?

I don’t know what intelligence means.

That’s my biggest question at the moment.

And I think it’s because my instinct is always to go,

well, what are the foundations here of our discussion?

What does it mean to be intelligent?

How do we measure the intelligence of an artificial machine

or a program or something?

Can we say that humans are intelligent?

Because there’s also a fascinating field

of how do you measure human intelligence.

Of course.

But if we just take that for granted,

saying that whatever this fuzzy intelligence thing

we’re talking about, humans kind of have it.

What would be a good test for you?

So during develop a test that’s natural language

conversation, would that impress you?

A chat bot that you’d want to hang out

and have a beer with for a bunch of hours

or have dinner plans with.

Is that a good test, natural language conversation?

Is there something else that would impress you?

Or is that also too difficult to think about?

Oh yeah, I’m pretty much impressed by everything.

I think that if there was a chat bot

that was like incredibly, I don’t know,

really had a personality.

And if I didn’t be the Turing test, right?

Like if I’m unable to tell that it’s not another person

but then I was shown a bunch of wires

and mechanical components.

And it was like, that’s actually what you’re talking to.

I don’t know if I would feel that guilty destroying it.

I would feel guilty because clearly it’s well made

and it’s a really cool thing.

It’s like destroying a really cool car or something

but I would not feel like I was a murderer.

So yeah, at what point would I start to feel that way?

And this is such a subjective psychological question.

If you give it movement or if you have it act as though

or perhaps really feel pain as I destroy it

and scream and resist, then I’d feel bad.

Yeah, it’s beautifully put.

And let’s just say act like it’s a pain.

So if you just have a robot that not screams,

just like moans in pain if you kick it,

that immediately just puts it in a class

that we humans, it becomes, we anthropomorphize it.

It almost immediately becomes human.

So that’s a psychology question

as opposed to sort of a physics question.

Right, I think that’s a really good instinct to have.

If the robot.


Screams and moans, even if you don’t believe

that it has the mental experience,

the qualia of pain and suffering,

I think it’s still a good instinct to say,

you know what, I’d rather not hurt it.

The problem is that instinct can get us in trouble

because then robots can manipulate that.

And there’s different kinds of robots.

There’s robots like the Facebook and the YouTube algorithm

that recommends the video,

and they can manipulate in the same kind of way.

Well, let me ask you just to stick

on artificial intelligence for a second.

Do you have worries about existential threats from AI

or existential threats from other technologies

like nuclear weapons that could potentially destroy life

on earth or damage it to a very significant degree?

Yeah, of course I do.

Especially the weapons that we create.

There’s all kinds of famous ways to think about this.

And one is that, wow, what if we don’t see

advanced alien civilizations because of the danger

of technology?

What if we reach a point,

and I think there’s a channel, Thoughty2,

geez, I wish I remembered the name of the channel,

but he delves into this kind of limit

of maybe once you discover radioactivity and its power,

you’ve reached this important hurdle.

And the reason that the skies are so empty

is that no one’s ever managed to survive as a civilization

once they have that destructive power.

And when it comes to AI, I’m not really very worried

because I think that there are plenty of other people

that are already worried enough.

And oftentimes these worries are just,

they just get in the way of progress.

And they’re questions that we should address later.

And I think I talk about this in my interview

with the self driving autonomous vehicle guy,

as I think it was a bonus scene

from the trolley problem episode.

And I’m like, wow, what should a car do

if this really weird contrived scenario happens

where it has to swerve and save the driver, but kill a kid?

And he’s like, well, what would a human do?

And if we resist technological progress

because we’re worried about all of these little issues,

then it gets in the way.

And we shouldn’t avoid those problems,

but we shouldn’t allow them to be stumbling blocks

to advancement.

So the folks like Sam Harris or Elon Musk

are saying that we’re not worried enough.

So the worry should not paralyze technological progress,

but we’re sort of marching,

technology is marching forward without the key scientists,

the developing of technology,

worrying about the overnight having some effects

that would be very detrimental to society.

So to push back on your thought of the idea

that there’s enough people worrying about it,

Elon Musk says, there’s not enough people

worrying about it.

That’s the kind of balance is,

it’s like folks who are really focused

on nuclear deterrence are saying

there’s not enough people worried

about nuclear deterrence, right?

So it’s an interesting question of what is a good threshold

of people to worry about these?

And if it’s too many people that are worried, you’re right.

It’ll be like the press would over report on it

and there’ll be technological, halt technological progress.

If not enough, then we can march straight ahead

into that abyss that human beings might be destined for

with the progress of technology.

Yeah, I don’t know what the right balance is

of how many people should be worried

and how worried should they be,

but we’re always worried about new technology.

We know that Plato was worried about the written word.

He was like, we shouldn’t teach people to write

because then they won’t use their minds to remember things.

There have been concerns over technology

and its advancement since the beginning of recorded history.

And so, I think, however,

these conversations are really important to have

because again, we learn a lot about ourselves.

If we’re really scared of some kind of AI

like coming into being that is conscious or whatever

and can self replicate, we already do that every day.

It’s called humans being born.

They’re not artificial, they’re humans,

but they’re intelligent and I don’t wanna live in a world

where we’re worried about babies being born

because what if they become evil?


What if they become mean people?

What if they’re thieves?

Maybe we should just like, what, not have babies born?

Like maybe we shouldn’t create AI.

It’s like, we will want to have safeguards in place

in the same way that we know, look,

a kid could be born that becomes some kind of evil person,

but we have laws, right?

And it’s possible that with advanced genetics in general,

be able to, it’s a scary thought to say that,

this, my child, if born would have an 83% chance

of being a psychopath, right?

Like being able to, if it’s something genetic,

if there’s some sort of, and what to use that information,

what to do with that information

is a difficult ethical thought.

Yeah, and I’d like to find an answer that isn’t,

well, let’s not have them live.

You know, I’d like to find an answer that is,

well, all human life is worthy.

And if you have an 83% chance of becoming a psychopath,

well, you still deserve dignity.

And you still deserve to be treated well.

You still have rights.

At least at this part of the world, at least in America,

there’s a respect for individual life in that way.

That’s, well, to me, but again, I’m in this bubble,

is a beautiful thing.

But there’s other cultures where individual human life

is not that important, where a society,

so I was born in the Soviet Union,

where the strength of nation and society together

is more important than any one particular individual.

So it’s an interesting also notion,

the stories we tell ourselves.

I like the one where individuals matter,

but it’s unclear that that was what the future holds.

Well, yeah, and I mean, let me even throw this out.

Like, what is artificial intelligence?

How can it be artificial?

I really think that we get pretty obsessed

and stuck on the idea that there is some thing

that is a wild human, a pure human organism

without technology.

But I don’t think that’s a real thing.

I think that humans and human technology are one organism.

Look at my glasses, okay?

If an alien came down and saw me,

would they necessarily know that this is an invention,

that I don’t grow these organically from my body?

They wouldn’t know that right away.

And the written word, and spoons, and cups,

these are all pieces of technology.

We are not alone as an organism.

And so the technology we create,

whether it be video games or artificial intelligence

that can self replicate and hate us,

it’s actually all the same organism.

When you’re in a car, where do you end in the car begin?

It seems like a really easy question to answer,

but the more you think about it,

the more you realize, wow,

we are in this symbiotic relationship with our inventions.

And there are plenty of people who are worried about it.

And there should be,

but it’s inevitable.

And I think that even just us think of ourselves

as individual intelligences may be silly notion

because it’s much better to think

of the entirety of human civilization.

All living organisms on earth is a single living organism.

As a single intelligent creature,

because you’re right, everything’s intertwined.

Everything is deeply connected.

So we mentioned, you know,

Musk, so you’re a curious lover of science.

What do you think of the efforts that Elon Musk is doing

with space exploration, with electric vehicles,

with autopilot, sort of getting into the space

of autonomous vehicles, with boring under LA

and a Neuralink trying to communicate brain machine

interfaces, communicate between machines

and human brains?

Well, it’s really inspiring.

I mean, look at the fandom that he’s amassed.

It’s not common for someone like that

to have such a following.

And so it’s… Engineering nerd.

Yeah, so it’s really exciting.

But I also think that a lot of responsibility

comes with that kind of power.

So like if I met him, I would love to hear how he feels

about the responsibility he has.

When there are people who are such a fan of your ideas

and your dreams and share them so closely with you,

you have a lot of power.

And he didn’t always have that, you know?

He wasn’t born as Elon Musk.

Well, he was, but well, he was named that later.

But the point is that I wanna know the psychology

of becoming a figure like him.

Well, I don’t even know how to phrase the question right,

but it’s a question about what do you do

when you’re following, your fans become so large

that it’s almost bigger than you.

And how do you responsibly manage that?

And maybe it doesn’t worry him at all.

And that’s fine too.

But I’d be really curious.

And I think there are a lot of people that go through this

when they realize, whoa, there are a lot of eyes on me.

There are a lot of people who really take what I say

very earnestly and take it to heart and will defend me.

And whew, that’s, that’s, that can be dangerous.

And you have to be responsible with it.

Both in terms of impact on society

and psychologically for the individual,

just the burden psychologically on Elon?

Yeah, yeah, how does he think about that?

Part of his persona.

Well, let me throw that right back at you

because in some ways you’re just a funny guy

that gotten a humongous following,

a funny guy with a curiosity.

You’ve got a huge following.

How do you psychologically deal with the responsibility?

In many ways you have a reach

in many ways bigger than Elon Musk.

What is your, what is the burden that you feel in educating

being one of the biggest educators in the world

where everybody’s listening to you

and actually everybody, like most of the world

that’s uses YouTube for educational material,

trust you as a source of good, strong scientific thinking.

It’s a burden and I try to approach it

with a lot of humility and sharing.

Like I’m not out there doing

a lot of scientific experiments.

I am sharing the work of real scientists

and I’m celebrating their work and the way that they think

and the power of curiosity.

But I wanna make it clear at all times that like,

look, we don’t know all the answers

and I don’t think we’re ever going to reach a point

where we’re like, wow, and there you go.

That’s the universe.

It’s this equation, you plug in some conditions or whatever

and you do the math

and you know what’s gonna happen tomorrow.

I don’t think we’re ever gonna reach that point,

but I think that there is a tendency

to sometimes believe in science and become elitist

and become, I don’t know, hard when in reality

it should humble you and make you feel smaller.

I think there’s something very beautiful

about feeling very, very small and very weak

and to feel that you need other people.

So I try to keep that in mind and say,

look, thanks for watching.

Vsauce is not, I’m not Vsauce, you are.

When I start the episodes, I say,

hey, Vsauce, Michael here.

Vsauce and Michael are actually a different thing

in my mind.

I don’t know if that’s always clear,

but yeah, I have to approach it that way

because it’s not about me.

Yeah, so it’s not even,

you’re not feeling the responsibility.

You’re just sort of plugging into this big thing

that is scientific exploration of our reality

and you’re a voice that represents a bunch,

but you’re just plugging into this big Vsauce ball

that others, millions of others are plugged into.

Yeah, and I’m just hoping to encourage curiosity

and responsible thinking

and an embracement of doubt

and being okay with that.

So I’m next week talking to Christos Gudrow.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar who he is,

but he’s the VP of engineering,

head of the quote unquote YouTube algorithm

or the search and discovery.

So let me ask, first high level,

do you have a question for him

that if you can get an honest answer that you would ask,

but more generally,

how do you think about the YouTube algorithm

that drives some of the motivation behind,

no, some of the design decisions you make

as you ask and answer some of the questions you do,

how would you improve this algorithm in your mind in general?

So just what would you ask him?

And outside of that,

how would you like to see the algorithm improve?

Well, I think of the algorithm as a mirror.

It reflects what people put in

and we don’t always like what we see in that mirror.

From the individual mirror

to the individual mirror to the society.

Both, in the aggregate,

it’s reflecting back what people on average want to watch.

And when you see things being recommended to you,

it’s reflecting back what it thinks you want to see.

And specifically, I would guess that it’s

not just what you want to see,

but what you will click on

and what you will watch some of and stay on YouTube

because of.

I don’t think that, this is all me guessing,

but I don’t think that YouTube cares

if you only watch like a second of a video,

as long as the next thing you do is open another video.

If you close the app or close the site,

that’s a problem for them

because they’re not a subscription platform.

They’re not like, look,

you’re giving us 20 bucks a month no matter what,

so who cares?

They need you to watch and spend time there and see ads.

So one of the things I’m curious about

whether they do consider longer term sort of develop,

your longer term development as a human being,

which I think ultimately will make you feel better

about using YouTube in the longterm

and allowing you to stick with it for longer.

Because even if you feed the dopamine rush in the short term

and you keep clicking on cat videos,

eventually you sort of wake up like from a drug

and say, I need to quit this.

So I wonder how much you’re trying to optimize

for the longterm because when I look at the,

your videos aren’t exactly sort of, no offense,

but they’re not the most clickable.

They’re both the most clickable

and I feel I watched the entire thing

and I feel a better human after I watched it, right?

So like they’re not just optimizing for the clickability

because I hope, so my thought is how do you think of it?

And does it affect your own content?

Like how deep you go,

how profound you explore the directions and so on.

I’ve been really lucky in that I don’t worry too much

about the algorithm.

I mean, look at my thumbnails.

I don’t really go too wild with them.

And with minefield where I’m in partnership with YouTube

on the thumbnails, I’m often like, let’s pull this back.

Let’s be mysterious.

But usually I’m just trying to do

what everyone else is not doing.

So if everyone’s doing crazy Photoshop kind of thumbnails,

I’m like, what if the thumbnails just a line?

And what if the title is just a word?

And I kind of feel like all of the Vsauce channels

have cultivated an audience that expects that.

And so they would rather Jake make a video

that’s just called stains than one called,

I explored stains, shocking.

But there are other audiences out there that want that.

And I think most people kind of want

what you see the algorithm favoring,

which is mainstream traditional celebrity

and news kind of information.

I mean, that’s what makes YouTube really different

than other streaming platforms.

No one’s like, what’s going on in the world?

I’ll open up Netflix to find out.

But you do open up Twitter to find that out.

You open up Facebook and you can open up YouTube

because you’ll see that the trending videos

are like what happened amongst the traditional mainstream

people in different industries.

And that’s what’s being shown.

And it’s not necessarily YouTube saying,

we want that to be what you see.

It’s that that’s what people click on.

When they see Ariana Grande, you know,

reads a love letter from like her high school sweetheart,

they’re like, I wanna see that.

And when they see a video from me

that’s got some lines in math and it’s called law and causes

they’re like, well, I mean, I’m just on the bus.

Like I don’t have time to dive into a whole lesson.

So, you know, before you get super mad at YouTube,

you should say, really,

they’re just reflecting back human behavior.

Is there something you would improve about the algorithm

knowing of course, that as far as we’re concerned,

it’s a black box, so we don’t know how it works.

Right, and I don’t think that even anyone at YouTube

really knows what it’s doing.

They know what they’ve tweaked, but then it learns.

I think that it learns and it decides how to behave.

And sometimes the YouTube employees are left going,

I don’t know.

Maybe we should like change the value

of how much it, you know, worries about watch time.

And maybe it should worry more about something else.

I don’t know.

But I mean, I would like to see,

I don’t know what they’re doing and not doing.

Well, is there a conversation

that you think they should be having just internally,

whether they’re having it or not?

Is there something,

should they be thinking about the longterm future?

Should they be thinking about educational content

and whether that’s educating about what just happened

in the world today, news or educational content,

like what you’re providing,

which is asking big sort of timeless questions

about how the way the world works.

Well, it’s interesting.

What should they think about?

Because it’s called YouTube, not our tube.

And that’s why I think they have

so many phenomenal educational creators.

You don’t have shows like Three Blue One Brown

or Physics Girl or Looking Glass Universe or Up and Atom

or Brain Scoop or, I mean, I could go on and on.

They aren’t on Amazon Prime and Netflix

and they don’t have commissioned shows from those platforms.

It’s all organically happening

because there are people out there

that want to share their passion for learning,

that wanna share their curiosity.

And YouTube could promote those kinds of shows more,

but first of all, they probably wouldn’t get as many clicks

and YouTube needs to make sure that the average user

is always clicking and staying on the site.

They could still promote it more for the good of society,

but then we’re making some really weird claims

about what’s good for society

because I think that cat videos

are also an incredibly important part

of what it means to be a human.

I mentioned this quote before from Unumuno about,

look, I’ve seen a cat like estimate distances

and calculate a jump more often than I’ve seen a cat cry.

And so things that play with our emotions

and make us feel things can be cheesy and can feel cheap,

but like, man, that’s very human.

And so even the dumbest vlog is still so important

that I don’t think I have a better claim to take its spot

than it has to have that spot.

It puts a mirror to us, the beautiful parts,

the ugly parts, the shallow parts, the deep parts.

You’re right.

What I would like to see is,

I miss the days when engaging with content on YouTube

helped push it into my subscribers timelines.

It used to be that when I liked a video,

say from Veritasium, it would show up in the feed

on the front page of the app or the website of my subscribers.

And I knew that if I liked a video,

I could send it 100,000 views or more.

That no longer is true,

but I think that was a good user experience.

When I subscribe to someone, when I’m following them,

I want to see more of what they like.

I want them to also curate the feed for me.

And I think that Twitter and Facebook are doing that

in also some ways that are kind of annoying,

but I would like that to happen more.

And I think we would see communities being stronger

on YouTube if it was that way instead of YouTube going,

well, technically Michael liked this Veritasium video,

but people are way more likely to click on Carpool Karaoke.

So I don’t even care who they are, just give them that.

Not saying anything against Carpool Karaoke,

that is a extremely important part of our society,

what it means to be a human on earth, you know, but.

I’ll say it sucks, but.

Yeah, but a lot of people would disagree with you

and they should be able to see as much of that as they want.

And I think even people who don’t think they like it

should still be really aware of it

because it’s such an important thing.

It’s such an influential thing.

But yeah, I just wish that like new channels I discover

and that I subscribe to,

I wish that my subscribers found out about that

because especially in the education community,

a rising tide floats all boats.

If you watch a video from Numberphile,

you’re just more likely to want to watch an episode from me,

whether it be on Vsauce1 or Ding.

It’s not competitive in the way that traditional TV was

where it’s like, well, if you tune into that show,

it means you’re not watching mine

because they both air at the same time.

So helping each other out through collaborations

takes a lot of work,

but just through engaging, commenting on their videos,

liking their videos, subscribing to them, whatever,

that I would love to see become easier and more powerful.

So a quick and impossibly deep question,

last question about mortality.

You’ve spoken about death as an interesting topic.

Do you think about your own mortality?

Yeah, every day, it’s really scary.

So what do you think is the meaning of life

that mortality makes very explicit?

So why are you here on earth, Michael?

What’s the point of this whole thing?

What does mortality in the context of the whole universe

make you realize about yourself?

Just you, Michael Stevens.

Well, it makes me realize

that I am destined to become a notion.

I’m destined to become a memory and we can extend life.

I think there’s really exciting things being done

to extend life,

but we still don’t know how to protect you

from some accident that could happen,

some unforeseen thing.

Maybe we could save my connectome

and recreate my consciousness digitally,

but even that could be lost

if it’s stored on a physical medium or something.

So basically, I just think that embracing

and realizing how cool it is,

that someday I will just be an idea.

And there won’t be a Michael anymore

that can be like, no, that’s not what I meant.

It’ll just be what people,

they have to guess what I meant.

And they’ll remember me

and how I live on as that memory

will maybe not even be who I want it to be.

But there’s something powerful about that.

And there’s something powerful

about letting future people run the show themselves.

I think I’m glad to get out of their way at some point

and say, all right, it’s your world now.

So you, the physical entity, Michael,

have ripple effects in the space of ideas

that far outlives you in ways that you can’t control,

but it’s nevertheless fascinating to think,

I mean, especially with you,

you can imagine an alien species

when they finally arrive and destroy all of us

would watch your videos to try to figure out

what were the questions that these people.

But even if they didn’t,

I still think that there will be ripples.

Like when I say memory,

I don’t specifically mean people remember my name

and my birth date and like there’s a photo of me

on Wikipedia, like all that can be lost,

but I still would hope that people ask questions

and teach concepts in some of the ways

that I have found useful and satisfying.

Even if they don’t know that I was the one

who tried to popularize it, that’s fine.

But if Earth was completely destroyed,

like burnt to a crisp, everything on it today,

what would, the universe wouldn’t care.

Like Jupiter’s not gonna go, oh no, and that could happen.

So we do however have the power to launch things

into space to try to extend how long our memory exists.

And what I mean by that is,

we are recording things about the world

and we’re learning things and writing stories

and all of this and preserving that is truly

what I think is the essence of being a human.

We are autobiographers of the universe

and we’re really good at it.

We’re better than fossils.

We’re better than light spectrum.

We’re better than any of that.

We collect much more detailed memories

of what’s happening, much better data.

And so that should be our legacy.

And I hope that that’s kind of mine too

in terms of people remembering something

or having some kind of effect.

But even if I don’t, you can’t not have an effect.

This is not me feeling like,

I hope that I have this powerful legacy.

It’s like, no matter who you are, you will.

But you also have to embrace the fact

that that impact might look really small and that’s okay.

One of my favorite quotes is from Tessa the Durbervilles.

And it’s along the lines of the measure of your life

depends on not your external displacement

but your subjective experience.

If I am happy and those that I love are happy,

can that be enough?

Because if so, excellent.

I think there’s no better place to end it, Michael.

Thank you so much.

It was an honor to meet you.

Thanks for talking to me.

Thank you, it was a pleasure.

Thanks for listening to this conversation

with Michael Stevens.

And thank you to our presenting sponsor, Cash App.

Download it, use code LexPodcast,

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If you enjoy this podcast, subscribe on YouTube,

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And now, let me leave you with some words of wisdom

from Albert Einstein.

The important thing is not to stop questioning.

Curiosity has its own reason for existence.

One cannot help but be in awe

when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity,

of life, the marvelous structure of reality.

It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend

a little of this mystery every day.

Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

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