Byron Reese, Speaker, Author, Entrepreneur

Esther Dyson on Intelligence, Altruism & The Bigger Picture

Understanding Our Collective Purpose with Esther Dyson: Intelligence, Altruism, and the Bigger Picture

The Interplay of Artificial Intelligence, Human Evolution, and the Quest for Meaning in a Complex Universe.

In this episode of The Agora Podcast, Byron welcomes Esther Dyson, executive founder of Wellville, and a prominent figure in venture capitalism, philanthropy, and space exploration. As they dive deep into topics including: artificial intelligence, the nature of intelligence, and the human drive for purpose, listeners will find themselves navigating through topics as vast as the cosmos and as intimate as our innermost desires. With insights from Dyson’s experiences and philosophical takes on intelligence’s role in our future, this discussion pushes the boundaries of what we understand about ourselves, our society, and the universe we inhabit.


Founder of Wellville and chairman of EDventure Holdings, Esther is an active angel investor, best-selling author, board member and advisor concentrating on emerging markets and technologies, new space and health. She sits on the boards of 23andMe and Voxiva (txt4baby), and is an investor in Crohnology, Eligible API, Keas, Omada Health, Sleepio, StartUp Health and Valkee, among others. From October 2008 to March of 2009, Esther lived in Star City outside Moscow, Russia, training as a backup cosmonaut.


Key Takeaways:

  • The Essence of Intelligence: Dyson suggests that intelligence requires purpose to truly be considered as such; without purpose, intelligence would remain stagnant.
  • Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Dyson poses the question: Does the lack of extraterrestrial intelligence evidence we’ve found indicate civilizations destroying themselves due to short-term thinking?
  • Optimism in Practice: Dyson stresses the importance of practical optimism as a driving force to enact change. She also suggests that humanity’s survival may be tied to our innate sense of purpose.
  • Altruism’s Evolutionary Puzzle: The podcast touches upon the enigma of altruism in evolutionary biology, suggesting its potential tie-in with our collective survival and well-being.


Byron Reese: Hello, everybody, this is Byron Reese and this is The Agora Podcast. Today I have a special guest. It’s Esther Dyson. She is the founder of Wellville, which is a 10 year nonprofit, health and wellness initiative. But she’s so much more than that. I mean, there are people who you say need no introduction. I have known her since she released 2.0. She was a venture capitalist, there’s so many things. I think she, like a lot of people, has so many interests that she indulges in so many different ways. Six years ago, she sat down with me, and let me interview her about artificial intelligence. And to be honest, something she said to me, that there’s probably not a month that has gone by that I haven’t thought about it. And it’s really been impactful to me in the way I think. And I wanted an opportunity to talk to her more about that. And so she doesn’t even know what this is yet. This is like news to her. But I have a book coming out called, We Are Agora, and it posits that humans collectively form a super organism, not metaphorically, but actually form a creature, a living creature, maybe a conscious one as well. And that creature is what knows how to make iPhones, and that creature is what knows how to do all these things that no person can do. It’s only the emergent entity that knows how to do them. And the purpose of this creature, the reason this creature exists, I believe, is to protect this planet. From celestial threats, like, the stray rock, that’s gonna hit us statistically. But it has a purpose and that purpose gives us you know, a meaning and a reason that it exists. And then all of us are parts of it. And our purposes, I think, aren’t big, grand things like we tell ourselves they are, I think our fundamental purpose is to be kind to each other. And the reason I think that is because beehives are superorganisms, and they exist and are healthy to the extent that the bees were together, you don’t have half the bees fighting the other half of the bees. We should all do what we can to make the world better, don’t get me wrong, but our number one purpose is to be kind to each other to help each other. And that makes Agora healthy. And Agora is what will defend this planet. So with all of that preamble, I’m going to read just one thing Esther said to me, in that interview six years ago, she said, and we were talking about artificial intelligence, she said, “but yeah, until it, it Artificial intelligence, has a mind of its own, what is intelligence? Is it because of the soul? Is it because of purpose? Can you truly be intelligent without having a purpose? Because if you’re truly intelligent, and you have no purpose, then you do nothing. Because you need a purpose to do something.” And then she went on to give an example. And the last thing I’ll say, and I’d just like her to pick up on this theme, like in the last six years, has your thinking changed? She gave this example of her time in Russia. And she said, the men were largely purposeless, they did meaningless work, and were paid in meaningless money. And the women, on the other hand, took the kind of worthless money and they had to get food and they had to provide for their families and take care of the kids, and they had purpose. And so while the men kind of succumbed to alcoholism and depression, the purpose that the women had drove them forward. So that’s the thought that has stayed with me all these years. And I think it’s given me a lot of my thinking about artificial intelligence, and about Agora and so forth. So, thank you for that, I guess is how I want to open and then where did that come from? And riff on it a minute, like, do you still think the same? Does AI still need a purpose? And does it have a purpose?

Esther Dyson: So, first, what a wonderful way to begin. Completely unexpected. And everything I said then, I still say very few people pay as much attention as you did. And I call it consciousness/purpose. Artificial intelligence is sort of like it’s, it’s real intelligence, but intelligence to be alive and to evolve needs a purpose. I mean, the purpose almost works backwards. Why did humanity survive and grow? Because the things that weren’t purposeful, died off, and so the people of Earth might not themselves, the fact that they’ve got purpose may be random, but they will survive only if they have that purpose because otherwise, yes, they’ll succumb to short term thinking. And, you know, this is the big question, why is there no extraterrestrial intelligence that we just found? Is it because when you get sufficiently intelligent without that meta purpose, you destroy yourselves, because your short term thinking overtakes your long term thinking? And, you know, I mean, when you look at physics or whatever, this notion, you know, there is a discount factor, things immediate, are worth more than things far off, because things immediate, are 100% available, things that are far off are promises. And based on history, you don’t know how much to believe them so you discount the value of things in the future. And the more intelligent you are, as opposed to the more purposeful you are, the more intelligent you are, the better you get by fulfilling those short term desires, which may not be good for you long term. But then again, evolution comes in either at the level of the species, or maybe at the level of a planetary world. The ones who are not good at thinking long term eventually die off. And so we evolved to think long term and to have a meta somewhat purpose, because the ones without a meta purpose, died off. But you’re right, just as evolution works at the level of the genes, and the things that the genes carry, the evolution of planetary societies works at the level of the entire planet. And in our case of the entities that sort of control the modification of the planet, which, you know, it’s basically up to humans, because however intelligent the whales are, they lack the ability to make tools. So is that sort of an answer?

It seems to be wrapped up in some level of altruism, which really puzzled Darwin. I think it still puzzles a lot of evolutionary biologists, the idea that it’s better to be selfish and benefit from the altruism of others.

Except when you kill everyone off.

Right. When I talked to you last time, I asked you if you were fundamentally optimistic about the future, and you were then. And I’m curious if you still are now?

How shall I say? I’m sort of pessimistic in theory, but optimistic in practice. I do not like the notion of well I’ll believe in God because it’s useful.

Occum’s Wager.

Yeah. But in the same way, I might as well believe in optimism and behave that way. Because that’s the only hope of the pessimism, turning out not to be true. I mean, it can be pessimistic and do nothing and things won’t work out very well. I mean, I don’t control the universe, but still, you know, I might as well be part of the optimistic side. So it’s like a quadrant, pessimism is true, I’m pessimistic = pessimistic outcome. Pessimism is wrong, but I’m pessimistic. Like, Lady, be part of things, help. And, you know, the most optimistic scenario is optimism is true, and I’m part of the optimism and help make it happen. And then there’s the other one in the other corner, but you might as well lean in and be optimistic and help make optimism the reality.

I remember you’ve always been interested in space and I believe you trained to be a cosmonaut in Russia I think, and I’ve always been really interested in the in the overview effect, the idea, you know, you can go to space, and you see it all together, in my Agora book, I’m trying to recreate the overview effect at ground level, because I can’t send everybody into space to see it. Do you know, do you have any thoughts on how you help people have that transcendent overview effect without going into space?

So your timing is impeccable. I was at a lunch presentation this afternoon, by a company called Space Perspective, which, disclosure, I’m an investor in and instead of doing the space launch, they basically take people up with a giant helium balloon, to just sort of the top of the atmosphere, you get the same view, it’s much calmer, you go up at 12 miles an hour, it takes two hours to get up there, you’re sitting in this nice little living room and you get that overview view for about two hours. And then you come down, it seats eight people. And so that’s one way it’s $125k a throw, so it’s not exactly. But it appears and feels much less risky, in so many ways. I mean, there’s no big launch, acceleration, all this kind of stuff. So that’s one. And I said at the end of it, it’s like cosmic consciousness without mushrooms. Certainly, mushrooms are another possibility. And the thing about all of this is, this is totally wonderful. When you come through the experience, you have a family, you have a job, you have a home. And so much of what’s creating problems in our society now is so many people don’t have that or are just living at the edge of a hole and might fall in. But how else to get it? You know, it really is, from sitting around with your family singing. It’s not from, you know, virtual reality or, in a sense, it’s not just loving people, it’s people who need you, and it’s a slightly different context, but it’s very relevant. People talk about communities, but so many communities actually are audiences. If I’m in a community, if I don’t show up, where’s Esther? If I’m in an audience, it’s like, yeah, there’s a few empty seats. But the spotlight is on the content, the speaker, whatever, as opposed to the spotlight is on everybody, and everybody is present to one another. How do we get that in a world where, in a sense, you’re an audience to millions of people, it’s something that doesn’t scale. The ability for everybody to have it, you want to figure out how to make that scale, but seeing that you’re part of this big, what they said in the Space Perspective, you should go to their website and just look, but everybody, when you look down, that is the place that everybody who ever lived, everybody you ever knew, all the people you read about, they all live or lived on this one, it’s not quite the blue dot, but you see, you see the atmosphere, it’s just a thin little layer. And that’s all that protects us from that great vacuum out there.

Your sound kind of discouraged, and it feels like technology, which supposedly was supposed to help everybody find their tribe, unfortunately, that’s tribalism. Everyone’s supposed to let people who could support each other find each other. And it wasn’t supposed to divide people. And of course, the story isn’t written. I mean, social media is still incredibly new in the grand scheme of things, but what do you think went wrong?

Well, I mean, one thing that went wrong is we’re so focused on architecture, as opposed to fabric, that word the social fabric, you know, people connected deeply, versus structures and hierarchies and, again, audiences versus communities. And as someone who is not religious, I still believe that religion and belief and purpose has played a huge part in helping human beings to be… all the commandments: do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Love thy neighbor, hate the sin, love the sinner. We need to believe in something other than the market, science is not everything. And at the same time, more and more family bonds are getting fractured. Women aren’t growing up learning how to take care of babies. And it’s not, we need to go back to the way it was. But we need to figure out how to recognize that humans fundamentally need purpose underneath all this other stuff. And because you can’t quantify purpose, what’s the metric? There is a metric for sense of agency, which is great. And actually, that’s a really interesting question, if you were doing a health study, looking at impact and outcomes and so forth, what would you measure, as a sense of purpose? I mean, you can ask people, what’s your purpose, and you’d hope it’s not, “oh, I want a really good funeral.” You hope it’s more about your children, and what you leave behind, and the notion that you’re part of something that will last longer than you do.

So when I talked to you six years ago, you were relatively early in your Wellville journey, and now you’re reaching the end of that, can you talk about that journey? And what you learned from it, and what you took from it?

Yeah, I mean, so when Wellville started, it was five communities, five metrics, five years. And so Wellville has two basic beneficiaries. One is the five communities, we come in, we don’t charge you anything. We also don’t give you anything, we’re not handing out money. And what we’re basically there is to be coaches, sort of like your aunt, we’re not going to financially support you, but we have your back. We come from outside your community, we don’t want your job. We’re independent, we’re not gonna get too involved in local politics. We just want to help the community as a whole, build its own sustainable social fabric, sustainable organizations, and so forth. And so in that sense, the communities are beneficiaries, but they do all the work. You’re like a football team, you know, the coach sits on the sidelines and calls the plays and gives advice, but the player is on the ball, they own the team, they, and they own the result. On our side, my hope was that I would learn a ton, which I did, and then be able to understand better how to fix some of these problems that I’ve talked about. Lack of purpose and too much competition where people should be collaborating and fundamentally, what I consider to be the meta problem of addiction, which is the short term, self centered addiction, you know, constant craving for relief that never actually relieves that constant craving. And people get addicted to all kinds of stuff, we can talk about that, but community organizations get addicted to short term grants. And modern investors get addicted to exits, they don’t get addicted to profitable, sustainable businesses. And so businesses are kind of drawn like body parts and sold off, your purpose is to build it and then sell it, not to build something that will actually sustain itself and provide value to the world. And so we’re now, over the years, each of the five things actually changed. Firstly, of the five communities, one of them got switched out, because they didn’t really want to listen to us. They were hoping we’d come in with money, and we didn’t. So we still have five communities, but one of them is different. At around three or four years, we realized there’s no way we’re going to be done in five years. And there’s no way we’re going to be done in 10 years. But in 10 years, we hope to have actually made a difference in a way that we hope will be sustainable. And I think that’s going to work out. And then the third one was, we sat down right at the beginning to try and get the five communities to come together and decide what metrics they wanted. And they would compete on the basis of the metrics and two things happened, they couldn’t agree on the metrics, and second, they said, “We don’t want to compete with these guys. We want to learn from them and collaborate.” So the metrics problem, I mean, there’s metrics up the wazoo, we can look at diabetes, the prevalence of diabetes, and, you know, I’m not sure how much we’re making broad community difference in communities on the order of the smallest one is 20,000 people, the largest is 180,000. The High school graduation rates, I mean, to me, the most interesting one is to talk to real estate brokers and say, you know, do people want to live in this place? Oh, yeah, more people want to come here. It’s really great. As long as it’s not gentrification, and people being pushed out, versus yeah, you know, once the kids graduate from high school, they’re gone, they don’t want to come back. So trying to change that sense of this is where I want to raise my kids, this is where I want to be with my family, this is the place I love. And anyway, those are the very fuzzy metrics. And then there’s lots of specific data such as the county health rankings and measures. But what we are now going to do individually is we’re now a team of seven. Most of us are going to go off and try and become advocates, I’m planning to write two books, our CEO is going to basically try and foster work with a coalition of kind of nonprofit health related but not health care, advocacy organizations around equity, remediating disparities, again, long term thinking, personally, I always say this, with a whole lot of quotes around it. But you know, let’s defund predatory health care, in favor of helping to foster health. And the best way to reduce healthcare costs is to make health care less necessary by keeping people healthy. Or another way you can say it is don’t rent your health from an absentee landlord. So that’s where we are, we have learned a ton, about patients and equity and collaboration and addiction. And yeah, in a sense, the goal is to change the mindset. But to do that, you need to come out, show up with evidence, you need to be persuasive. And it’s going to be a lot of fun, and very challenging, and keep asking questions. 

What are the two books that you’re working on? 

Yeah, well, so my friend Jim Fallows, who writes about, he’s a great author who writes for The Atlantic, and his advice was write two books, one to make yourself famous, and then once you’re famous, people will listen to what you have to say about, you know, world peace and all this other stuff. So the first of the two books is called Present Without Leave. Which is about my interesting life, everything from growing up sort of on the campus of where Oppenheimer went after Los Alamos and going to Morocco with my boyfriend when I was 17. And being a journalist and just traveling the world and seeing the most amazing stuff, including all the time I spent in Russia, which taught me something about Russia, but it taught me a whole lot more about the US, by just giving me not necessarily an overview effect, but a side view effect. And then the second book is what I said, Don’t Rent Your Health from an Absentee Landlord – Invest in it. It’s an asset you can build and conserve and maintain as opposed to something you have and then it starts to disintegrate and you start paying for it through the nose to your absentee landlord.

And in the meantime, where can people keep up with what you’re doing? Are you going to be speaking and traveling or lecturing?

I’m going to start blogging more on And that will turn into a lot of the second book, the first book. I need to start writing short things that I can then reassemble into a book, which is the same way I wrote my first book long ago, which was called, ironically, Release 2.0.

I remember that.

Yeah, the newsletter is at least one. So I’m starting to do that now. And that’ll be a number of years. And meanwhile, we’re working with the communities to figure out how you can take this work forward for yourselves and even if you’ve been doing the work, but there’s this one additional component of helping the five communities maintain ties with one another. And, I now have friends in Muskegon, which is the community I worked in, and Christina has friends in Lake County and again, we’re like your aunt, we’re not going to go away. But we’re not living next door anymore.

Alrighty, well, it’s so wonderful. I hope it doesn’t go another six years before I get a chance to chat with you again, but I’m sure you’ll be off doing something amazing. So thank you so much for your time.

This was awesome. Thank you. It was great.

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