Season 1
Episode 19: Silicon Valley: Fighting Robots and Mind Uploading

The Untold History of Silicon Valley.

How counterculture, burning men, and fighting robots created modern Silicon Valley, a place where you can live forever in cyberspace. 

The Bay Area around San Francisco is home to beautiful beaches, gorgeous wineries and the people who are creating the future. Because if you head south from San Fran, you’ll find Silicon Valley, the center of global technology.

The place today is filled with artificial intelligence, billionaire tech-bros and people trying to become immortal.  Silicon Valley might be the wealthiest town in America, but behind the Teslas and the venture capital is an origin story defined by people who bucked all the rules. The history of this town was written by adventurers, with an ethos of “nothing is impossible, everything is permitted”.

This week on Passport we’re going inside the Matrix, into the real Silicon Valley, mapping its history through the hackers and freaks who made it boom. We’ll meet secret societies, burning men and giant fighting robots from San Fran’s past, as well as the AI overlords, transhumanists and mind uploaders who dominate the place today. Strap in, it’s going to get weird.

MORE TO EXPLORE

SAVED PINS

5 spots that will upload the true to Silicon Valley experience to your brain.

  1. THE APPLE PARK AND VISITOR CENTRE IN CUPERTINO
    Apple’s Iconic “Infinite Loop” – take an AR trip into the heart of Apple, then pick up Apple merch available nowhere else on the planet.
  2. THE COMPUTER HISTORY MUSEUM
    Journey back to the earliest days of computing to at the biggest and best of the Bay Area’s tech museums.
  3. BUCK’S OF WOODSIDE
    Dream up the next revolutionary startup while eating at one of the tables where the likes of Paypal, Netscape, Hotmail and Tesla all started.
  4. HALF MOON BAY
    Let the fresh Pacific air help you disconnect in this surf town with a gorgeous beach and wonderful restaurants.
  5. SURVIVAL RESEARCH LABS
    Trust us, no Bay Area trip is complete without giant fighting robots.

CONNECT WITH US!

On Instagram: @passportpodcast

On Facebook: @passportpod

On Twitter: @passportpod

On The Web: frequencymachine.com/passport

Get The Ticket – the Passport newsletter with amazing new stories. 

This episode of Passport was written and edited by Harry Stott. 

Big big thanks to Adam Fisher, Jason Sosa, Michael Mikel, John Law, Mark Pauline and Randal Koene for their insight into one of the craziest places on earth. 

The music in this episode was written by the wonderful Nick Turner, with extra tunes from Imilly, Trypheme, Carla Kay Barlow, Lobo Loco, Listen With Sarah, Keshco, Mystery Mammal, Ego Plum, Say Vandelay, Sun Cuts, David Fenech, Avant Garbage and The Benign One Ones.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski. 

Eliza Engel is our production assistant. 

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari, and Avi Glijansky are our divine AI overlords, and they executive produce the show.

Which is hosted by Neil Innes and a man who is really just a brain in a vat of primordial sludge, Andrés Bartos.

See you in the next place!

 

Banner images:
Apple Park, photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash
Transamerica Pyramid, Photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash

EPISODE 19 – TRANSCRIPT

NEIL: We need a temperature read in here.

ANDRÉS: It’s hot, smoking hot.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Three studs and one flamingo. Is this us avoiding talking about Elon Musk?

HARRY: I bet he would enjoy this conversation. I imagine he would really go for this conversation.

ANDRÉS: I bet he could really bring a lot to the table. Wow.

HARRY: Should we give him a bus?

[Laughter]

[PASSPORT MAIN TITLE]

ANDRÉS: A destination isn’t always a place.

NEIL: Sometimes it’s a new way of seeing things.

I’m Neil Innes

ANDRÉS: And I’m Andrés Bartos.

NEIL: From Frequency Machine, this is Passport.

ANDRÉS: Your ticket to everywhere.

[END MAIN TITLE]

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: Elon Musk wants to put a chip in your brain so that you never have to talk again. Mark Zuckerberg is creating algorithms that can read your mind. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page want to help you live forever.

NEIL: Behind closed doors in cavernous labs on the sun kissed stretch of the Northern California coast, the world’s wealthiest people are hatching plans that will change the world as we know it. This is Silicon Valley today.

ANDRÉS: The Bay Area around San Francisco is one of the richest, most beautiful regions of the United States. And it’s a place like no other on earth.

NEIL: People here think a little differently. It’s either a dystopian nightmare or the salvation of our species. Today on Passport, we’re going into the matrix inside Silicon Valley.

ANDRÉS: Well, I mean, we’re walking into the territory of tech.

NEIL: I mean the only visual representation I have of Silicon Valley is the introduction to the TV series, Silicon Valley. And that’s what I imagine it to look like.

HARRY: Well, one of, one of the guys I spoke to actually did say that everything in that show is pretty much bang on. In terms of the, in terms of the look of the place, I think it’s just surprisingly normal. A lot of it it’s very low-rise office parks, but once you get, I think once you get behind those gated walls, then the fun begins.

ANDRÉS: Behind the garages.

So we were just talking before we got into this, that we’re doing this the day that the heads of the biggest tech corporations are in front of Congress.

NEIL: Yeah. Bezos, Zuckerberg and

ANDRÉS: Cook.

NEIL: Cook. Tim Cook. Everyone did okay. Apart from face man, who I mentioned before, which is what

ANDRÉS: He’s talking about Zuckerberg.

NEIL: Yeah, face man.  

HARRY: Face man.

NEIL: Uhm, who just looks like an amalgamation of everybody’s face on Facebook. I’m just going to do a review of Mark Zuckerberg’s face. It’s the weirdest…

ANDRÉS: Oh no, here we go.

NEIL: It’s the weirdest face I’ve ever seen.

ANDRÉS: Poor man.

NEIL: It looks like he has a swimming cap on, like a hairy swimming cap.

[Laughter]

HARRY: I feel like he’s one of those guys who looks like he’s wearing a mask of his own face.

NEIL: Yeah, exactly. It’s like he’s face swapped himself.

ANDRÉS: Yeah, definitely.

ANDRÉS: I mean, it’s, it’s basically the most important place on earth right now.

HARRY: Yeah.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: The concentration of wealth, money and the, the gaze of the world on that place is crazy. I don’t think there’s any other place like that right now.

NEIL: No.

HARRY: Yeah. I think it’s the money thing these days, the amount of money, especially since, I mean, I guess since Facebook, since social media, the amount of money that is there now has basically allowed that to happen, has drawn the gates I guess.

ANDRÉS: Yeah. I mean, I was in San Francisco in the nineties where you still had a little bit of like Haight Ashbury, kind of the rests of that feeling, but everyone I know has fled or has had to flee.

NEIL: Pushed out.  

ANDRÉS: Yeah. Like the price of things is crazy.

NEIL: Well, it’s the highest, the highest rent in the United States, I think.

ANDRÉS: Absolutely.

HARRY: I think it’s $3,700 median for like a one bedroom flat.

NEIL: It’s the new Hollywood.

ANDRÉS: But it’s bigger than that. It’s like the kind of dream, I mean, yeah, the joke is in the nineties, you had a script. Now you have an app, that maybe now that’s even changed.

Like it’s like what AI kind of tech do you have? I don’t know. It moves so quickly. It’s such a strange place.

NEIL: I’ve got this idea to take blood from young people and pump it into old people. Like I know exactly where to go.

ANDRÉS: I think that’s been done.

[Laughter]

HARRY: Anything like that you’re going straight to San Francisco.

[Song playing]

HARRY: From the southern end of San Francisco down pass fishing villages and surf towns to the streets of San Jose lies an evergreen peninsula.

It’s filled with orchards and vineyards flanked by the Santa Cruz mountains, which stare down at the choppy waters of the Pacific.

[Waves crashing]

HARRY: Sounds pretty idyllic, doesn’t it.

For outdoor pleasures, the Bay Area in Northern California is tough to beat. But if you prefer being inside, staring at a screen late into the night, that’s fine too, because at the foot of those lush mountains and in between the endless greenery, there’s an army of programmers and engineers, coders, and hackers tinkering away.

[Typing]

HARRY: They call this region Silicon Valley, named after the computer chips they’ve made there since the fifties. It’s grown a little bit since then.

Today, it’s the heart of global technology. In mammoth office complexes billionaire owners rollerblade to their next meeting while employees sit on bean bags, chatting about AI over micro doses of LSD.

[Chatter]

HARRY: But to folks like you and I, Silicon Valley seems impenetrable.

We’ll be needing a guide, someone to take us by the hand to explore the inner sanctum of global tech. And luckily, I know a guy.

ADAM: I grew up in Silicon Valley, um, I consider myself a native.

HARRY: Adam Fisher is a journalist and author. He’s pretty obsessed with tech. His book Valley of Genius tells the stories of the hackers and freaks who forged Silicon Valley’s tech boom.

ADAM: You know, I had that classic geeky kind of childhood. I went to computer camp, which was the first computer camp on the West Coast.

HARRY: Adam’s drawling accent is pure Northern California, and I can see his skate and surf boards in the background as we speak.

ADAM: So Silicon Valley originally was really just Stanford and the counties around it. Everything from that mountain range to the water of the Bay is Silicon Valley.

[Song playing]

HARRY: The Bay Area is naturally stunning, but the urban centers of Silicon Valley proper, Palo Alto and Mountain View, well, they looked surprisingly normal. Until Google moved there, Mountain View was infamous for being well pretty boring.

But take the time to look a little closer and you’ll see something different. Stores run by robots, robots cleaning the streets, people zooming by on electric scooters, drinking raw water and Soylent with sight and sound augmenting implants in.

Because in 2020, the entire Bay Area has been subsumed by tech. Touchdown at San Fran international today and you can grab a coffee from a robot arm at a Cafe X, hop in an Uber, a Tesla, naturally, to drive you to breakfast at Buck’s of Woodside, which is where Mr. Musk came up with the idea for the car you’re being driven in. Then while away the rest of the day down south near San Jose, at Apple’s $5 billion park and visitor center in Cupertino. There’s an AR experience and an Apple store where you can buy exclusive t-shirts, tote bags and loads of other tech merch sold nowhere else on the planet.

There’s plenty of computing museums in Silicon Valley, too. This is the region with the world’s richest tech heritage after all.

ADAM: And in a way, you know, Silicon Valley has grown up. It’s kind of like Detroit in, in a way like there’s three main players, they’ve got everything, you know, buckled down.

HARRY: Google, Facebook, and Apple, these are Silicon Valley’s factories of tech. Their combined revenue in 2019 was nearly 500 billion, about the same as the GDP of Nigeria or Iran.

ADAM: But then, you know, there’s another Silicon Valley too, where people, uh, you know, the, the engineers are just constitutionally, just bored by, you know, working for the man.

And I think that’s the interesting parts of Silicon Valley. Not Google, not Facebook, not Apple, they’re not interesting anymore.

HARRY: The cool stuff, the creative stuff, it’s not being carried out by internet tech giants anymore. People are bored of apps. Hardware is in vogue.

ADAM: The engineering that I find to be interesting now is like people building flying cars and people building, you know, rockets.

There’s a company that’s called Stealth, which is, um, they’re going to be building a rocket a day and going to space every day.

HARRY: Keep up Elon.

[Rocket countdown]

ADAM: Why aren’t we on the moon? Well, I got a couple billion. I don’t want to spend it on art. I’m going to spend it on rockets. I guarantee you it’s going to happen as crazy as that sounds, because anything that is not like literally forbidden by the laws of physics will eventually happen.

HARRY: This is the scale that people work on in Silicon Valley.

Nothing is impossible. Everything is permitted. Even making machines that think like and are indistinguishable from humans.

JASON: Yeah, so my background is in artificial intelligence.

HARRY: That’s Jason Sosa. He’s an entrepreneur and advocate for exciting new technologies.

JASON: I started a computer vision company, uh, that was letting cameras detect people’s faces, their age, their gender, their emotions. And started this pretty early in the renaissance of AI.

HARRY: Artificial intelligence, it’s everywhere. And Jason has been at the forefront of innovation in it for his whole career. Those self-driving Google cars you see rolling through Palo Alto, they’re running on AI. Those algorithms telling you what to buy on Facebook, yeah, that’s AI too. AI has pretty much become a marketing necessity for new Silicon Valley startups. But what actually is it?

[Song playing]

JASON: It’s probably better to describe what AI is not. AI is not alive. It is not, it doesn’t have feelings. It does not have like a murderous intention to kill you.

It’s really statistics. It’s, it’s what you do when you load up Netflix. It’s finding you patterns and recommendations. When you look up, when you pull up Google Maps. As a society, we should be just celebrating automation and robots and, and technology.

Um, but it’s their application of it that makes it challenging.

HARRY: AI is essentially machine learning. Creating a computer which can take into account its surroundings and adapt its behavior to achieve its goals. Research into how to properly utilize it and release its potential is probably the most significant technological field in Silicon Valley at the moment.

How good they’re getting out is well, kind of terrifying.

JASON: Once the machine is able to teach itself, over a period of time, it will begin to convince us that it is real. But I don’t think there’s anyone in doubt, um, in the tech spheres that, that we’re headed in this direction.

HARRY: So to answer how Silicon Valley became a place where no idea is too crazy, where even the sky is no limit, let’s hop on our DeLorean electric scooter and take a trip back to the Bay Area of the sixties and seventies to meet the people who actually created this place.

Let’s head back to a time of free love, psychedelic drugs and the very first computer chips. Oh, and anarchy, just the right amount of anarchy.

[60s archival montage]

ANDRÉS: Oh, man.

NEIL: The hippies, the hippies that built Silicon Valley.

ANDRÉS: That’s what’s, that’s, that’s what’s special about this, you know, if you did, there will be blood, that’s like the story of oil in America. This is like, there will be tech.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: That terrain that was there beforehand makes it unlike any other kind of boom, industrial boom in history, because you didn’t have a bunch of like people in sandals with long hair wearing polyester pants, smoking joints, and building the future.

NEIL: It’s a mentality thing that I reckon though, like, you know, those people who decided, yeah, no, no limits, man, no limits. Like the kids and the grandkids of those people. That’s where they all, that’s where they all are.

HARRY: Yeah and I think that’s just something about the Bay Area. It’s always been like that.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

HARRY: Even back to like the, like the late 19th century, they’re saying it’s like, it’s almost kind of weird American romanticism that existed there.

ANDRÉS: It’s a combination of the brains that are serious mathematicians, engineers, and coders and all that. And then on the other side, the people that, uh, look up at the moon, think about how you can get up there or how you can travel faster to LA.

NEIL: Yeah, it’s the dreamers, it’s still the dreamers.

HARRY: But it’s interesting I think what Adam said Facebook, Google, Apple, are not actually where the really interesting stuff is at. It’s kind of changed. It’s almost like this retro futurism thing where actually going to space again is the new it thing.

NEIL: It’s become like, like punk rock music or something. It’s become like all of the cool stuff’s happening on the outside, like always. And that’s, that’s what’s happened to tech.

ANDRÉS: It’s when you have such a huge concentration of talent for sure, money.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: And then you have so many people that have already done the kind of established things that you have space for proper, crazy ideas.

HARRY: It’s not just money. It’s not just Facebook. It’s saying, okay, we have this issue. Let’s solve it by doing something completely absurd.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: By this point, we should be used to it, but it’s still like, sounds like science fiction.

[Song playing]

HARRY: In the sixties, when Silicon Valley really got going, it was actually the dark horse in the USA’s tech race.

The Northeast was the place to be. They had IBM and MIT. So the West Coast needed another trick to become the world’s center of technology. Here’s Adam again.

ADAM: The most important factor for this discussion is the fact that people in the Bay Area just think a little differently. San Francisco is a very young city that attracted people first for the gold rush from all around the world.

And they brought their ideas with them and it was a very, um, kind of free place or lawless place, depending on how you want to characterize it.

HARRY: The pirate tradition, the barbary coast… the Bay Area is full of myths of its renegade heritage. And in the sixties, it was the hippies who ruled. Flower power, protests, drugs, this was the climate in which Silicon Valley was born.

ADAM: Google, Facebook, E-bay, Apple. They all were started as kind of a sense of play really, a sense of fun. They were not, they were not money-making ideas. And it was a very creative community and a lot of people came in kind of from the arts, but, uh, they really, you know, they really thought they were creating tools for the augmentation of human values.

HARRY: There were no venture capitalists searching for the next billion-dollar startup when Silicon Valley began. For the early pioneers of computing, technology was a high minded, intellectual pursuit or a way to express their playful, creative whims.

[Typing and printing]

HARRY: One of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley at the time it was called Xerox PARC.

They were pretty much the Google of the seventies.

ADAM: Yeah, so, uh, you know, Xerox PARC was, um, a California place. Like they had a weekly meeting where they all sat on beanbag chairs, but they were tasked with creating the future, inventing the future and they did.

[Computer noises]

HARRY: The future came in the form of what is arguably the very first personal computer, the Alto. It changed the whole idea of computing from a military machine to a tool for the everyman. Steve Jobs infamously, nabbed the whole idea for his fledgling company, Apple.

But the engineers who created the software for the Alto, weren’t stiffs in suits or snotty nose geeks.

[Song playing]

ADAM: They all, you know, they’re all considered hippies by their kind of corporate masters back at Xerox. But then one day they met a real hippie, a guy named Alvy Ray Smith, and his dream is to create an animated movie with the computer.

HARRY: Alvy Ray Smith saw computers as a new artistic frontier. He helped develop color graphics and animation as we know it today on late night benders at Xerox PARC.

Two decades after those nights at Xerox, Alvy did realize his dream of making a full-length animated movie on a computer. It came out in 1995 and its name was Toy Story.

[Sounds from Toy Story]

HARRY: While the hippies were searching for Nirvana through acid and psychedelic music, the original techies were expanding their minds through brand new technology.

[Horses walking]

MICHAEL: During the whole movement West all the weirdos and crazies and the idealist piled up on the West Coast in San Francisco.

HARRY: That’s Michael Mikel. Yup, two Michaels for the price of one.

If you’re looking for a free-thinking tech pioneer, someone who mixes technical expertise with a right on Bay Area attitude, he’s your guy.

MICHAEL: When I first came to San Francisco, I was following a lot of the ideas of the degeneration.

HARRY: Michael is tall, wily and oddly softly spoken for a man who’s been part of some seriously out there stuff.

MICHAEL: We integrated a lot of, uh, ideas, uh, about philosophy and freedom about, and about what tech should be.

HARRY: Michael and his tech pals weren’t locked away in cloistered office parks back then. They were part of a wider, weirder community.

[Cacophony Society film trailer]

MICHAEL: In the mid-eighties, I heard about this underground group called the Cacophony Society.

HARRY: It was a secret society of the absurd. They orchestrated bizarre events in the San Francisco underground. They were a seriously wild bunch. Part dada, part situationist, part pranksters, part street theater, part flash mob.

MICHAEL: They would explore abandoned buildings. Uh, they climbed the Golden Gate Bridge in the middle of the night and were doing these really amazing, outrageous things that were, uh, participatory experiences. So I decided that the Cacophony Society should be open to everyone. And I came up with a slogan that you may already be a member.

HARRY: You may already be a member of the Cacophony Society. That means you explored San Fran sewers in the middle of the night, you dined in tuxes on the Golden Gate Bridge, you ran around wasted dressed as Santa, starting the first ever Santa Con, and you stormed upstream against the crowds in the San Francisco marathon, dressed as a salmon.

You also went on mysterious mind expanding “zone trips” into the desert inspired by avant-garde Russian director Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker.

MICHAEL: The Cacophony Society is a randomly gathered network of free spirits united in the pursuit of experiences beyond the pale of mainstream society.

HARRY: Fight Club, the book turned movie with Ed Norton and Brad Pitt – it’s author Chuck Palauhnick was a Cacophony member when their hijinks spread to Portland and across the USA. He actually based Fight Club’s, project mayhem on the Cacophony Society.

But Fight Club isn’t the only thing they inspired.

MICHAEL: In 1988, I heard about a group of people who were going to go down to the beach in San Francisco and burn a wooden man.

[Lighter flicker]

MICHAEL: And I thought, well, that sounds like some kind of pagan event or something. And I thought this, this is great. And the next year I put it as a listing in the Cacophony Society newsletter. And all of a sudden, several hundred people showed up. And that was the beginning of, real beginning of Burning Man.

[Song playing]

NEIL: Dude, you doing Burning Man? Right now…

ANDRÉS: You’re going to burn this year.

NEIL: We’re all gonna goooo…

ANDRÉS: That’s an excellent California accent there Neil. Not insulting at all to anybody listening.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Gotta get all the syllables in there.

NEIL: It’s just weird that they’re like, let’s go burn a big man. What that whole thing has kind of become.

HARRY: But back in the day it was, it was still the same kind of people who were all going well, these Silicon Valley guys, they were all going there in the nineties and now it’s evolved into something, which is, if you’re in Silicon Valley, you have to go there in a very different way.

ANDRÉS: Oh no, now it’s a mutant. Like when he said hundreds of people, now it’s tens of thousands of people. It has its own post office. People fly in workers to build their camps.

People have sushi chefs flown in. We’re talking crazy town.

NEIL: Yeah. It’s, it’s kind of become a, it’s like a badge of honor, you know, to be a burning, a burning man or what do they call them?

ANDRÉS: A burning man. It sounds like the magical period of all of this.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: Like the 68 era of experiential tech hippie-dom.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: But it still, it still has like the innocence, the utopia is still there. There’s still like this kind of experimental nature to it, exploratory. It’s like almost contrary to everything else that’s happening in America in the eighties, Reagan America, with everybody wearing suits and trying to be yuppies and trying to make money on the stock market.

You know, it’s like a parallel world.

HARRY: Yeah, these guys are just there in San Francisco playing, trying to try to make, make games. It was like Steve Wozniak, the other half of Apple.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

HARRY: Literally made the first Apple computer, the Apple II, I think, um, so he could play his arcade games that he, that he loved playing.

ANDRÉS: Fantastic.

HARRY: He literally just programmed the whole thing so he could do that. And that’s what these guys were doing, they were just like, they wanted to game, they wanted to just, you know

NEIL: Look for ways to have fun.

HARRY: Exactly. Yeah.

ANDRÉS: Well, it it’s, it’s like the ultimate dream, right? To make a bunch of money, but still be able to like, hang out in a beanbag.

HARRY: Still be a cool guy.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

[Laughter]

NEIL: We still cool guys.

ANDRÉS: Still cool.

[Song playing]

NEIL: We’ll be right back after the break with robots, big and small, like really small. We’ll see you in a bit.

[Song playing]

HARRY: In the nineties, Silicon Valley, Burning Man and the Cacophony Society all embodied the Bay Area’s free-thinking philosophy and disregard for rules. This was a time when you really could be a freak on the weekend and into work, doing million-dollar deals on Monday morning.

MICHAEL: Yeah. I remember going to a board meeting in LA, uh, with very powerful government people, and I’m wearing a suit and tie and it’s Monday. And I’m thinking if they knew what I did last night, canoeing under the sewers of San Francisco, they probably would not have understood.

HARRY: By the 1990s, Silicon Valley had lost its place as the West Coast tech hub. But it didn’t mean the Bay Area had become boring or lacked imagination, anything but. You had virtual reality being invented by a dreadlocked hippie called Jared Lanier and mad, drug fueled raves hosted by a cyberpunk tech fanzine called Mondo 2000.

They were the precursor to Wired.

[Techno song]

HARRY: These parties were where all the Silicon Valley tech heads were hanging out, including Michael.

MICHAEL: Oh, that was another side. Gosh, I’d almost forgotten. I’ve done so much stuff.

[Song playing]

MICHAEL: The Mondo 2000 group was, uh, had headquarters in this old house in Berkeley and attending their parties there was just amazing. And, and they were getting, uh, drugs from the lab in Stanford that weren’t even illegal yet. It was crazy.

HARRY: The culture of Silicon Valley, long hidden away behind labs and screens was coming out into the mainstream and even onto the streets.

[Survival Research Labs Archival Sound]

HARRY: You’re standing under the Eisenhower freeway near South Park, San Francisco. Around you are 6,000 other people. You look to the left, there’s a guy torching a tower of pianos with an enormous flame thrower. You look to the right, there’s tons of rotten food being sprayed all over your head. Huge, shuttering brutes of machines are clunking towards you.

Mechanical wrecking balls are clattering into each other. A humanoid robot with a drill for an arm is fighting a fire spitting four-legged metal freak. This is not some dystopian San Fran future. This was in 1989 and it was a show, a show to entertain the public. Put on by Survival Research Laboratories, SRL for short.

MARK: So I came out to San Francisco in 1978 and then, uh, basically started breaking into all these abandoned factories. I was pretty handy with burglary stuff, so the thought of the idea of SRL, I said, you could take all this equipment and you could put it together and make machines out of it and robots and you could do shows with them around the world.

HARRY: That’s SRL’s founder, Mark Pauline. He’s a punk, an engineer, a mechanic, an artist, and a true showman and revels in the visual power of destruction like few people I’ve ever met.

[Survival Research Labs Archival Sound]

HARRY: SRL was another underground group in the Bay Area that started in the late seventies. Because rather than doing fun pranks or creating humanity enhancing tech, SRL built enormous fighting robots.

MARK: They say the physicist’s ultimate goal is to release as much energy in the shortest period of time possible. You know, so I like to think of it like that. It’s showtime.

HARRY: Mark’s robots are 20 feet high, two-ton monstrosities. There’s the pulse jet engine, which fires out a furious spinning column of hurricane fire. The hand-o-God, a spring-loaded giant metal hand which slams to the floor with a bone crushing eight tons of pressure. The shockwave canon, which exhales super-fast vortex rings of air.

Not content with making these machines for show, Mark would take them out into San Francisco at night and have them fight each other in public.

MARK: San Francisco was just this amazing, lawless place back then. You could really get away with anything, even murder, really. Everyone thinks that those shows are, were all like underground and illegal, but you could just ask people, like you could ask people at the school board, you say, hey, I want to use your school property for this giant show with machines and robots and they’re like, okay, fine, that sounds great.

Nobody would ever say no and that was the whole key to this stuff happening in San Francisco. The police didn’t give a fuck.

HARRY: This was San Francisco in the eighties and nineties. It’s all connected. SRL grew in no small part because of the Cacophony Society’s newsletter.

And Michael Mikel told me he used to give his surplus high-tech equipment from Silicon Valley to Mark. The two were actually good friends. By the nineties, SRL were getting thousands of people into their shows. But their most legendary event had to be 1989’s “Illusions of Shameless Abundance.”

MARK: I did the show under the freeway, you know, Illusions of Shameless Abundance show. It was about five or 6,000 people the show, it was really crowded.

And one of the things we did is we were snooping around the back of a packaging company in San Francisco, and there was a couple of cardboard boxes and I opened one. And they were, they were full of the TNT, military TNT canisters. They normally would be filled with C4 explosive, but we mixed up a bunch of plaster with sawdust particles and poured it into there.

And so, at one point during the show, we had this machine with a magnet on it, pick up this black plastic bag, a huge black plastic bag we got somewhere, and the bag had a bunch of razorblades attached to strings. People started grabbing the razor blades and cutting it open. So all the bombs fell out on the ground and people were like, what the fuck?

And they all moved back.

[Crowd screaming]

MARK: I had one real one that I made with a real high explosive in it. I lit that and threw it out in the middle of them. And it went

[Explosion]

MARK: It just exploded like this massive explosion. They were all missed, they were all gone after that. People were trying to blow up all the churches and all these people trying to blow them up all over the city.

So it ended up being this bomb scare that went on for a week.

[Archival sound – SRL in the news]

HARRY: If all that sounds like it was going to erupt in a fireball of craziness at some point, well, it already had. Mark blew off his hand in an accident building a machine in 1982 and around 1995, SRL started pissing off the San Fran fire department a little too much. And by the late nineties, all this chaos had even filtered into the business culture of Silicon Valley.

Here’s Adam again.

ADAM: The dot com boom, you know, so much money was made in such a short time. I mean, which was like just infinite money coming into San Francisco.

[Song playing]

The dot com boom drew a new type of person to Silicon Valley. The wolves of wall street left New York and headed out west to take on those California idealists.

The weirdos didn’t stand a chance.

[Song playing]

ADAM: Post netscape, there’s not a lot of overlap. You know, it’s a whole new set of names. You could really start a history of Silicon Valley then if you, if you wanted.

ANDRÉS: That was bonkers.

HARRY: Yeah, he’s a legend.

ANDRÉS: Freaking crazy.

NEIL: Yeah, it’s mad.

Finding TNT behind a factory.

ANDRÉS: I mean,

NEIL: Putting it in a bag, having a magnetized robot arm pick it up, tying razor blades and string to it, you’re like, where is this going?

ANDRÉS: The levels of crazy, yeah, it just doesn’t end. I was going to say, I’ve always had in my mind this link between, you know, like the hippie culture, the, the gold rush and went to California, but yeah, when you mix punk into that. Man, it’s literally explosive.

NEIL: The first rule about punk robot club is

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Nobody was like, no, we don’t want you to fight, they’re all like, yeah, that sounds cool.

HARRY: He was telling me one of his first shows was actually they did it outside a gas station. These pyrotechnics.

ANDRÉS: Totally safe.

HARRY: It’s like, I think he just gave him like $20 or something and he was like, yeah, alright I’ll do it.

ANDRÉS: Alright, go for it.

[Laughter]

NEIL: Stay away from the fuel pumps

ANDRÉS: Can you move the giant robot just a meter over that way.

HARRY: And these, I mean, you’ve got to look up what these things look like.

ANDRÉS: So there’s videos online?

HARRY: Oh yeah. And they are obscene, they are just monstrous.

ANDRÉS: Huge.

HARRY: Enormous. Yeah. You’ve seen Robot Wars, right?

NEIL: Yeah, like remote control.

HARRY: Yeah, yeah.

NEIL: Like remote control disk with a, with a circular sword on it,

HARRY: But these things are honestly 10 times the size of that and they are fighting, they’re properly going at each other, it’s so sick.

[Laughter]

HARRY: And, and it’s art as well. I mean, that’s the thing that he comes from an art background in Florida, I think, Mark Pauline.

And that’s how he sees the whole thing. He’s just like, yeah, it’s a show, it’s art, does it in galleries and stuff. Yeah.

ANDRÉS: And he lost his hand for this.

HARRY: Yeah. He lost it in 1982 as well. So this is like, that show…

ANDRÉS: He’s been building robots with one hand?

HARRY: And still is, yeah, with one hand. Yeah, the nineties in the Bay Area, it sounded, it sounded like, yeah, it was just, it feels like this kind of like hybrid, tech rave culture, and then it’s just robots fighting in the background.

It’s like, what’s going on. But then obviously like, as we heard there, all comes to an end with the dot com boom, that that’s a real significant kind of

ANDRÉS: It’s the watermark.

HARRY: Exactly. That’s the real marker. And then after that, everything’s basically different. But as we’ll find out, some of it’s still the same.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: It’s foreshadowing. For anybody keeping track, that was a tease from Harry Stott.

[Song playing]

HARRY: Silicon Valley today is different. After the dot com burst of 2001, the years of plenty road on in. The monotonous suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley became filled with new age office campuses, equipped with valet parking, movie themed meeting rooms, bikes, slides, free food trucks. That’s all in Google’s Mountain View headquarters by the way, you’ll need an invite to get in.

The ludicrous amounts of money that Silicon Valley’s big three and the new Uber star disruptors brought with them, priced out the burning man and sewer explorers from San Francisco and the Bay Area. And it let in a flood of straight edge, geeky programmers on seven figure Google salaries.

Goodbye Cacophony, hello, the big bang theory.

MARK: There’s not a big demand for bat shit crazy shows anymore. People want safety and people just want different, they want it, they want it to be a phone app. If SRL was a phone app, it would be really popular.

HARRY: People really like to complain about the tech bros of Silicon Valley today.

And it’s not all unwarranted, but behind all the apps and innovation, there is still that same ethos in Silicon Valley. The nothing is impossible culture. It never left. It just evolved. And the characters are all essentially the same, they’re just better funded.

MARK: And so now what I find is some very wealthy individuals in the tech world are wanting to produce big shows.

I sold a commission to a very, another tech CEO, you know, who collects art. And so that’s what I’ve been building for the last year and a half. So it’s way more complicated than any other machines that have been made here and probably more dangerous too, but

HARRY: What machine is this?

MARK: It’s the predator arm.

It’s a machine that uses like AI and advanced 3D mapping sensors. It uses those to map out people in front of it and then the AI looks and decides who’s the victim based on a bunch of algorithms. And then it tracks that person and tries to kill them.

[Laughing]

MARK: I’m making a flame thrower now for this 11-foot robot arm and it’s a very advanced flame thrower. It uses the injector nozzles from the f35 fighter jet engine. And it’s actually a classified technology that you cannot buy or if I showed them to like, third party like Chinese people, I could get by go to prison for it, like treason.

HARRY: But talking about the future of AI actually opens the door to something else, something more radical and much weirder. It’s called transhumanism.

Instead of tech evolving to mimic human intelligence, this is about fusing tech with human beings. Here’s Jason, our AI expert again.

[Song playing]

JASON: Transhumanism is the idea that man is merging with technology. That we are, um, enhancing our capabilities like we would with eyeglasses, like we would with any tool. And we’ve been doing this for thousands and thousands of years, right?

[Recording: That’s all there is to it, right?]

JASON: And the natural progression of that is that over time we will embed that into our bodies. We’re already hearing things of Elon Musk and neuralink, the ability for one brain to communicate with another brain.

[Archival sound – Elon Musk on Neuralink]

JASON: It’s opening up a whole new way of thinking around where we’re headed as a species.

HARRY: Like with AI, there is a hugely positive side to transhumanism’s goals. Elon Musk claims his newest venture, Neuralink, will be able to cure any brain injury with a chip in the back of your head, wired up to your cerebral cortex.

This means people who have suffered strokes, who have Parkinsons, Alzheimers, even people who are paralyzed from the neck down. They’ll all be able to talk again, walk again, be restored to their former selves.

JASON: We’re really not that far away. If you look at the doubling effect of where technology is growing. So, in the old days of computer the size of a building, we have them now the size of a phone that fits in our pocket.

You know, soon they’ll be the size of a blood cell embedded into our bodies. And so that’s the next evolution of, of, uh, of technology.

HARRY: But transhumanism isn’t just about health. For many Silicon Valley tech elites, it’s more like a religion. There’s a church of transhumanism.

[Church archival sound]

HARRY: There’s even a political party of transhumanism.

[Man speaking about transhumanism party]

HARRY: These guys are the true believers. Some literally worship a divine AI godhead. It’s an ideology they think will allow them to live forever.

JASON There’s just so many ethical and social implications for us to consider, do these AI’s become God? Do they become some sort of supernatural intelligence? Will they enslave us?

Will they make us extinct? Are we their pets? So those are kind of the questions that we’re facing now as a civilization.

HARRY: Dark portents about the future of technology have been around since the luddites, but there’s something about the state of modern tech which makes it seem so real. And so close. Silicon Valley has always had a culture of radical tech optimism, but with the current money flying around now, tech CEOs are able to truly delve into their creative whims.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink is the most obvious, but Mark Zuckerberg is also allegedly working on similar mind reading type software. Not to mention other Silicon Valley elites like Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil, who are literally cuing up to have their brains uploaded to the cloud.

Yup. Mind uploading, you know, like in the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror or Upload, the new show on Amazon prime.

It’s all the rage right now, especially in transhumanist circles.

[Song playing]

RANDAL: I have to be honest and I have to label myself a transhumanist.

HARRY: Meet Randal Koene. When you start looking into mind uploading, not just talking about it, the people actually trying to do it, it’s his name which keeps coming up over and over again.

RANDAL: I am a transhumanist because the things I try to do fall within those, the realm of those, those ideas that, that they care about.

HARRY: Randal has the measured tone of a scientist rather than a tech guy. He was pretty wary of associating completely with the entire transhumanist movement too. This is no doubt because he actually is a scientist. A computational neuroscientist in fact.

If you want to work out how to upload your mind to a computer or even the cloud, this is the career for you. But to get there, there’s another step. It’s called whole brain emulation. A computer which works like a human brain.

RANDAL: Brain emulation if we just forget the whole part for a second, I would define as not just carrying out a simulation of what the brain is supposed to achieve, but instead you’re emulating, in other words, you’re using the solution that the brain uses by copying what the neurons are doing.

And then whole brain emulation is really just saying, okay, we don’t just want to understand how the retina works or how the hippocampus is doing its work. Instead, we want all these pieces working together.

HARRY: This is incredibly difficult to do. There are 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses in your brain. And millions of them are working simultaneously right now just to listen to this podcast.

[Computing sounds]

HARRY: But there are two ways scientists are currently trying to do it. One is called scan and copy where you take a fully preserved brain, slice it extremely thin, run it through a super-fast electron microscope that creates a 3D reconstruction of all the components of the brain and hey presto.

The other is called replacement, which is where you have a live brain and continuously replace little bits of it which are not working with tiny nanobots called neural dust until eventually you have a whole new one. And once you’ve got the hardware, an emulated brain, your mind can then be uploaded to it.

RANDAL: So, it’s really a bit more than just the dimension of longer life span. For me personally, it was always combined with this other bigger sense of understanding the blueprints of things and being able to change them. So, it wasn’t just about living longer, but it was about, oh, we could just give ourselves a different brain.

We could, uh, make our, augment our brain to be, to be able to do things we couldn’t do before, or the same would be true for our bodies. Our bodies could be entirely different bodies. We could have bodies that were suitable for living in space or living on Mars or whatnot. So, for instance, if our memory really was memory, if we could actually remember what happened, rather than just reconstructions of some portions of what may have happened at some point.

[Song playing]

HARRY: Uploading your mind to a computer isn’t just about immortality. You could build humanoid robot frames for your computerized mind that could live in space that could breathe underwater. You could even hook it up to a virtual simulation and live out your days in the cloud as a kind of sin. You could literally and willingly hook yourself up to the matrix.

When it’s possible, would you do it?

RANDAL: Oh, I absolutely would do it. Uh, just the opportunity to potentially see what’s there in, you know, decades or centuries, it just seems worthwhile just to have that chance.

HARRY: Of course Randal would do it. It was a silly question because when Randal got to Silicon Valley, he met a community of people who thought in a similar way, and he started his own foundation to study mind uploading.

It’s called Carboncopies and they’re doing some seriously pioneering research.

RANDAL: Carboncopies, first and foremost, it’s a community. The most important thing we do is we try to maintain a roadmap to whole brain emulation.

HARRY: Just like the Cacophony Society and the tech ravers of the nineties, the transhumanists have developed their own networks in the Bay Area.

RANDAL: I think the reason why it keeps happening is that, uh, that the same sort of people, they keep coming here. And it’s, it’s always a new generation, another generation of, uh, some young individual who doesn’t have too much to lose. Nobody comes here and says, oh, I want to invent teleportation and then somebody says, are you crazy, that’s impossible.

Typically, the answer is more something like, oh, wow, that’s a pretty ambitious. Uh, how do you think you’re going to go about that?

HARRY: Nothing impossible. Everything permitted, carbon copies, the Cacophony Society, Burning Man, even the transhumanists – there’s a thread which runs through them all.

They’re all really down to community. Movements like this don’t just spring up overnight. They need to grow in an ecosystem that fosters them.

RANDAL: When you’re living with all these other people who are all doing some startup or working at Stanford or something and, uh, and they talk to each other about their ideas.

It’s not just tech entrepreneurs. It’s usually say 60% tech entrepreneurs and 40% struggling artists who are making giant metal sculptures or something like that. And that happens all the time.

HARRY: The Bay Area is still a swirling mass of art, tech and mad ideas. Yes, it’s got pricey to live there. Yes, the main tech companies are becoming increasingly part of the establishment, but in smaller startups and the progressive companies, the Silicon Valley utopian ethos, the community hell bent on building mind expanding tech has in one form or another basically stayed the same.

And the transhumanists well, despite the often terrifying ambition of their goals, the rest of the 21st century is probably going to belong to them. It’s going to be a world defining culture that started in Silicon Valley and is now spreading across the world.

ADAM: I think the transhumanists are actually a very positive sign that Silicon Valley is growing up and realizing kind of, the power that it now has. It’s not just a bunch of crazy hippies on the fringes of civilization.

They’re actually at the center of the future and they’re building the future and it comes with great responsibility not to fuck up the future.

[Song playing]

ANDRÉS: Holy shit balls, man.

NEIL: Nano robots, living in your bloodstream.

HARRY: Living in your brain.

NEIL: Living in your brain.

ANDRÉS: I mean, one thing, one thing that’s really crazy is that the feedback loop of the sci-fi stuff like the Arthur C. Clarke, the Phillip K Dick, all this stuff that we were talking about earlier that actually stuff that for us is fantasy for them was like manuals.

[Laughter]

ANDRÉS: Like, oh, this is where we should be headed.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: And I have, I’m really ambiguous about all of it.

NEIL: I know.

ANDRÉS: You know?

NEIL: This conversation is going on now where it’s like, you know, it’s the thing of just because you can do it, should you do it. In more ways in the world than there ever has been.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

We’re at another point of that, that is yet to be defined.

NEIL: Yeah.

ANDRÉS: And what’s going on now in the world is maybe affecting that or transforming what’s going to come.

NEIL: Once the technology catches up to the reality.

ANDRÉS: Yeah.

HARRY: I mean Randal thought that for whole brain emulation, 20 to 100 years but economic collapse was his…

ANDRÉS: Well we’re on our way.

HARRY: Which we’re on our way to.

NEIL: Yeah, it’s going to put brain uploading on the back burner for a little bit.

ANDRÉS: Here’s a question for you, Harry, who’s gone through this whole thing. Like where do you come on the other come out on the other side of this whole madness that you’ve been through?

HARRY: I guess now, how pervasive this transhumanist ideology seems to have got is not surprising, but it’s kind of terrifying, I guess, because of this bubble, this Silicon Valley bubble idea, that is definitely there.

If you’re locked up in this bubble thinking, okay, this is going to work, we can do this. We can now do these crazy technological things so we’re just going to do it. We’re not going to consider these ethical implications. Where does, where does that end? That’s terrifying.

ANDRÉS: And it’s the, before it was the, you know, the symbiosis between tech and hippie punk culture music.

Uh, but this has the combination of tech and religion, which is like a that’s what makes my little spider sense tingle.

[Laughter]

NEIL: Put him in the battery.

[Laughter]

NEIL This one will be useful in millennia to come. Put him in the battery.

[Song playing]

NEIL: This week’s saved pins are five tech spots in the Valley you definitely don’t want to miss.

ANDRÉS: Number one is the Apple Park in Cupertino. So where do you start a trip to Silicon Valley? At the $5 billion offices of its most famous son, of course. The Apple Park and visitor center in Cupertino is a stone’s throw away from San Jose and has an AR experience that lets you get a feel for what’s really going on inside the infinite loop, the glass ring of an office where Apple’s magic truly happens.

NEIL: Number two, the Computer History Museum, once you’ve seen the modern end of computing, head 10 minutes up the road to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View to learn about technologies past, present and future. This isn’t some stuffy, dusty, old place. Their mission is to decode technology for everyone with interactive exhibitions, loads of great talks and one of the world’s biggest collections of old school computers.

ANDRÉS: Number three, Buck’s of Woodside. After all that learning, you’re going to be peckish, right? So you want to eat like all the tech leads do. The best place to do that is Buck’s of Woodside, a classic diner with seriously eclectic decor in the heart of Silicon Valley.

It’s well known to all techies as a place to hatch plans for a new tech company. PayPal, Netscape, Hotmail and Tesla were all started there over coffee and burgers.

NEIL: Number four, Half Moon Bay. If you’re all teched out by now, don’t worry because the Bay Area is known for its natural beauty as much as its business innovation.

So if you fancy sampling some of the fresh Pacific air or catching some waves, head to Half Moon Bay. It’s not far from Redwood City. You can surf, hike and enjoy some seriously good food and drink. The Half Moon Winery, which overlooks the bay’s cliffs is a must if you want to try some top notch, California wines.

ANDRÉS: And number five, Survival Research Labs.

So you’ve seen the companies and the computers, you’ve eaten well and drank plenty, now, fighting robots. If like us, you feel like you need to see Mark Pauline’s creations in the flesh, you can head to Survival Research Laboratories’ warehouse studio. It’s about an hour north of San Fran in Petaluma.

For a small fee, Mark will take you around to see the predator arm, the hand of God, all of those monstrous creations. And if you’re lucky, there might be a show going on too. Check out the SRL website before you go.

[Recording: That’s all, that’s all there is to it]

ANDRÉS: All right, guys. Thanks so much for listening.

Next week, we’re headed to Amsterdam and no, we’re not going to be smoking weed and going to the red-light district. We’re going classy. We’re on the hunt for Vincent Van Gogh, literally. We’re going to meet the thief behind one of the biggest art heists of the 21st century and the art detective hell bent on getting those paintings back. We’ll see you next week.

[Song playing]

NEIL: Big big thanks to Adam Fisher, Jason Sosa, Michael Mikel, John Law, Mark Pauline and Randal Koene for their insight into one of the craziest places on earth. Definitely take the time to read up some more about all their work – we’ve got all their info in the show notes.

Our theme music is written by the wonderful Nick Turner, with extra tunes in this episode from Imilly, Trypheme, Carla Kay Barlow, Lobo Loco, Listen With Sarah, Keshco, Mystery Mammal, Ego Plum, Say Vandelay, Sun Cuts, David Fenech, Avant Garbage and The Benign One.

The show is mixed and mastered by Julian Kwasneski.

Eliza Engel is our production assistant. Hi Eliza! 

Stacey Book, Dominique Ferrari and Avi Glijansky are our divine AI overlords, and they executive produce the show. Which is hosted by me, and a man who is really just a brain in a vat of primordial sludge, Andrés Bartos.

We’ll see you in the next place.

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.