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Jaan Tallinn: A Skype founder on biomonitors, existential risk and simulated realities

5 Kevin 01 June 2013 12:52AM



As we try to talk by Skype, Jaan Tallinn is fading in and out on my computer screen. Sitting in his living room in Estonia, he is having trouble with his connection, which may seem ironic for a co-founder of Skype, the wildly successful video chat service. But these particular technical difficulties are not Mr. Tallinn's problem these days. Since Skype was sold for $2.6 billion in 2005, making him tens of millions of dollars, he has moved on to bigger issues—like extending the span of a healthy human life and saving the species. And those are just this spring's initiatives.

Jaan Tallinn, co-founder of Skype and now MetaMed. Photo illustration by Kaapo Kamu for the Wall street Journal, Grooming by Olga Zhgut

When the screen finally clears up, Mr. Tallinn comes into view. A youthful 41-years-old, with short blond bangs and fair skin, he could be a poster boy for his latest venture, MetaMed, which promises customers personalized health-care research and analysis of their medical conditions.

Health care is a relatively new focus for Mr. Tallinn, who has been interested in computer science and technology since he was 10. Born in Estonia to an architect mother and a father who directs for film and TV, he didn't get access to a computer until he was 14, when the father of one of his schoolmates selected a group of them to work in his office. There he met the friends who would eventually join him in developing Kazaa, the file-sharing application turned music-subscription service, in 2000 and then Skype in 2002.

He launched MetaMed last March after a $500,000 investment from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. So far, the New York-based company has about a dozen employees and 20 clients, half of them friends who are trying it pro bono. The idea emerged from another of Mr. Tallinn's goals: "surviving as a species this century." He has also been developing a new nonprofit called the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk with two academics.

What risks worry him? "The first one is artificial intelligence," he says. "The second is the things that technological progress might create that we're unaware of right now."

He has just read an early draft of a book by his friend Max Tegmark, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, arguing that the only reason nuclear bombs can't be made from instructions downloaded from the Internet is that the laws of physics luckily make it hard to do. "There's no guarantee that wouldn't be possible," he says, referring to homemade nuclear bombs.

His third fear is biological risk. "There could be synthetic viruses that evolution doesn't even know how to create," says Mr. Tallinn. For all practical purposes, he suggests, evolution stopped with the advent of gene technology. "The future of the planet depends much more on technology than evolution," he adds.

Having five children with his wife of 16 years has made many of these ideas more concrete for Mr. Tallinn. "When somebody goes all abstract on me ... saying things like, 'Perhaps humanity doesn't deserve to survive,' I say, 'Look, do you have kids? Do you realize you're talking about the death of your kids or my kids?" Mr. Tallinn says he's always glad to hear when technology developers have children because it makes them think in the long-term.

Glancing away from the screen to the trees outside his house, Mr. Tallinn laments that most people don't take these longer-term risks seriously.

"In general, it seems to me that people in society are bad at dealing with things that have never happened and overreact to things that have happened and happened recently," he says. As he notes, more people die slipping in the shower than in plane crashes, train accidents and terrorist attacks combined. "Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed by falling furniture than by terrorists," says Mr. Tallinn.

And these, in his view, may not be humankind's only blind spots. Mr. Tallinn is open to the possibility that our lives and consciousness are all part of a computer simulation. "As our computers and technology get better at making virtual worlds, it's reasonable to expect them to be able to create virtual worlds that are indistinguishable from the real one," he says. "So if you're in a single-history universe, with one real one and many simulations, the chances of being in the simulation are higher than the real thing."

If we are indeed living in a simulation, should we behave differently? "What we should do depends on what kind of evidence we have that we are in a simulation ... and then the critical question is why the simulation is being run." Mr. Tallinn won't say whether or not he believes we are in the real world or a computerized fake. "Once you're in a simulation you don't even know—it could be that it's not even you."

At the moment, Mr. Tallinn's virtual presence is getting fuzzy again, and his image finally fades from my screen. Calling back with his video turned off, he assures me that he is no pessimist. He looks forward to self-driving cars, which "might completely change the logistics of civilization." he says. With MetaMed, he's excited by the prospect of more advanced biomonitors. And then there's the possibility of cheap gene sequencing.

As Mr. Tallinn sees it, his career, from Skype to MetaMed to the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk, has followed a progressive arc. He recalls how he introduced himself at a recent party: "First I saved about one million human relationships," with Skype, but it "doesn't make sense to save human relationships if you don't make sure [people] live longer, and then make sure they don't get destroyed."

Nick Bostrom: Moral uncertainty – towards a solution? [link, 2009]

-6 Kevin 08 March 2012 11:07AM

Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis [link]

-7 Kevin 28 February 2012 10:45AM

Fissure opens in chess AI scene [link]

-4 Kevin 23 January 2012 02:14AM

Details of lab-made bird flu won't be revealed [link]

8 Kevin 25 December 2011 12:17AM

Spend Money on Ergonomics

43 Kevin 23 December 2011 06:40AM

Warning: This is an applied rationality post, about rationality applied to a specific area of life, not a generalized rationality post.

Ergonomics is incredibly important. Sadly, so many of us in the techno-geek cluster ignore well-defined best practices of ergonomics and develop the infamous hunched back of late night computer toiling.

Seriously, ergonomics is basically a solved problem. The mathematics of anthropometry in relation to body mechanics and repetive stressors on the body are quite well understood.

I am here to offer you a basic, incredibly important, yet widely ignored lesson of rationality.

Spend money on ergonomics!

I really can't emphasize this enough. It's such low hanging fruit, yet I know way too many master aspiring rationalists with egregious ergonomic setups.

It is accepted wisdom on Less Wrong that optimizing your career is important, because you'll spend 80,000 hours working on your career. Strikingly, ergonomics presents an even larger time-based optimization opportunity. With straightforward monetary investment, you can dramatically improve the next hundreds of thousands of hours of your life. The effect size here is just enormous. Spend money on ergonomics, and you will be less fatigued, more energetic, more productive, and healthier into the later years of your life.


If you must do your computing while sitting (and do consider alternative standing deskstreadmill desks, or a desk suited to computing while lying in bed), then a good chair is a stunningly good investment. If you make your living while sitting in a chair and computing, what is a $500 investment in your comfort and good health and productivity while sitting? A used Aeron from Craigslist costs around $500 and is the gold standard of ergonomic chair design. 

At the low end of ergnomic chairs, the Ikea TORBJÖRN gets a hearty recommendation. It's only $39. Buy some extras for your visitors? That's what I did but then they all ended up in the rooms of my roommates. At the midrange, I have recommended the Ikea Verksam, but it appears to be discontinued. I think the current model Volmar is similar enough though I have not personally sat in it.

The important thing when getting your chair is to make sure it actually fits your body enough to let you sit in a proper ergonomic position. Note that the model in these OSHA images is committing an ergonomics no-no by using arm rests. Yes, I know they feel good to rest your arms on, but they're a crutch. Most all of the positions where you are resting your arms on your armrest are really bad for typing 8 hours a day. Just take the armrests off of your chair and start building up your arm strength. Similarly, avoid chairs with head rests.



Unsurprisingly at this point, I will declare that ergonomic keyboards are just better. They used to be a premium product, but now Microsoft's entry level ergonomic keyboard is only $25. Also, DVORAK is strictly better than QWERTY, ignoring the inconvenience of being forced to switch back and forth between keysets.



Ironically, given that it is the default environment for computing, sitting is not very good for the body compared to standing or lying. This makes sense in an evolutionary biology sense -- the human body was definitely designed for working while sitting up, and sleeping while lying down. We can hack this a little by working while lying down, though many people have trouble focusing given the implied lack of focus of a lying down position.

So, a good mattress can be an investment in both your sleeping comfort and your working comfort. I think a good mattress is even more important than a good chair. You spent 1/4-1/3 of your life asleep! I can accomplish no useful work without a good night's sleep.

If you sleep with (or ever plan on sleeping with) a partner, get a queen size bed. A US full size bed is equal to 1.5 twin beds, which doesn't fit two full size adults. My parents sleep on a full size bed (along with a small dog!) and are plagued by insomnia, not enough space, and bouts of blanket stealing. Apparently, it was not uncommon among their generation to prefer the forced physical closeness of a smaller bed. This is ok sometimes, of course, but when we're talking every night, you'll sleep better when not forced to be crushed up against your partner. 

A king size bed is even better, of course, if your room can fit it. I got a king size bed because my partner and I both like to compute while lying down in bed, and two people plus computers fit much better on a king size bed than a queen size bed.

I like memory foam mattresses. A minority of people really don't. My heuristic on this is that if you think you'll like a memory foam mattress, you will. One nice thing about memory foam is that it doesn't transmit vibrations from one side to the other. This means that you could probably sleep while someone else is jumping on the other side of the bed. That would not work on a conventional spring mattress. I've heard latex mattresses are even better but I'm too cheap to take my own advice to the full logical conclusion. 

Feel free to skip the box spring, unless your bed requires one. 



This is an area where my own ergonomics falls short. I'm 5' 11'' and I just can't quite fit in my Hyundai Elantra. No matter how I adjust the seat, I can't get in a perfectly ergonomic driving position. I refuse to buy another car until I can get one that drives itself, so for now, it seems like I am stuck with a somewhat unergonomic driving experience. 

On hand positioning, note that the 10-2 advocated by some DMV and then driver's ed is basically wrong. Whatever slight advantage it might offer is offset by the risk that your arms are between the airbag and your body during a crash. 9-3 is a new conservative choice. I drive 8 and 4. The California DMV manual now supports this.


Fidget more often

One of the most important points of ergonomics is that injury comes from sustained stress. The body can handle a little bit of a stress for a short period of time without much in the way of problems. People often walk into a room and see me scrunched up in the most awkward seeming, obviously unergonomic and uncomfortable looking positions. Why do I do it? Well, it turns out that your body can tolerate almost any position at all for short periods of time. The important part is to notice when your body is experiencing too much stress and shift positions.

Take a step back from this article and note how your body feels, as you are situated. Do you notice any discomfort or stress in your neck, shoulders, back, or lower body? Try fidgeting into a more comfortable position. Next time you notice stress, fidget again. Repeat for the rest of your life.

The science of fidgeting is still surprisingly undeveloped, though more evidence is coming out in favor of it. Fidgeters are much less likely to be obese than non-fidgeters. Fidgeting also works as a technique to help with focus -- it's well documented for ADHD people, but fidgeting doesn't just help ADHD people focus.

Try barefoot shoes

Vibram Fivefingers are popular enough among aspiring rationalists that I frequently joke about the cult of the toe shoe. The evidence behind barefoot running as strictly superior to conventional running shoes at this point seems overwhelming. The evidence for barefoot walking as superior to shoe'd walking is less so, but it seems intuitive to me -- when you actually get tactile feedback from your feet painfully thudding against the ground, you're more likely to walk in such a way as to minimize stress on your body.

I really like Fivefingers, but got annoyed with random passerbys asking me about them everytime I leave my house. Also, they have a tendency to fall apart after heavy use and repeated washings. 

The cult of the toe shoes seems to be moving onto Ninja Zemgears. They're also much, much cheaper than Fivefingers, so it's not as big of a deal when they inevitably fall apart. They are also much less intrusive as footwear than Vibrams. People notice them less, and when they do, they think you are wearing comfortable Japanese slippers (Tabi shoes) rather than monstrous toe forms. 


I've offered a lot of suggestions here for how to actually improve your life. If you do this sort of life-hacking, you will be able to actually notice that you are happier, less fatigued, more energetic, and more productive. Just try it. No one ever regrets improving their ergonomic well-being. You'll get to spend more of your day at your peak level of performance instead of in a tense, fatigued, or uncomfortable state.

I'm happy to answer specific questions or give product recommendations in the comments.

Larry King: I want to be frozen

9 Kevin 05 December 2011 02:11AM

I know celebrities cryocrastinate just as much as anyone else, but King seems like the kind of guy to go through with it.


Kickstarter fundraising for largest Tesla Coils in history

1 Kevin 28 November 2011 05:48AM

"If the government is not willing to fund the building of two 10-story tall Tesla Coils, then why the hell do I even pay taxes?"

This seems like by far the best investment of $300,000 out there, if your metric is revolutionary new physics discovered per dollar. I pointed the founder at Thiel's Breakout Labs, which is probably more suited to this kind of thing than Kickstarter. But there is still a very non-negligible chance that the Kickstarter Grant will come to fruition.

One pixel electronic contact lens tested on rabbits [link]

2 Kevin 22 November 2011 11:31AM

The nocebo effect [link]

1 Kevin 14 November 2011 12:59PM

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