L.A. is home to a slate of Nobel Prize winners, top universities and some of the most oft-cited research reservoirs in the world (among them the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory). We are the “creative capital of the world,” and people don't call you that just for being pretty. The weirder aspects of our city's history have a cerebral component to them as well: L.A.'s origins are more heavily steeped in the occult than any other place in the country and, frankly, learning those crafts requires reading some pretty heavy books. A June op-ed in Forbes praised Los Angeles as the Silicon Valley of social impact. And even The New York Times conceded, as far back as 1999, that there's brains behind L.A.'s beauty.
These elements — entertainment, art, science, education — all are embodied by the Berggruen Institute, a DTLA-based, big-picture think tank working to get our society out ahead of the major issues that will affect humanity in the coming centuries.
To call its projects diverse and far-reaching is an understatement. Aside from undertaking some exciting collaborations with visual artists working across the VR/AR/AI continuum, it has formed a partnership with The Washington Post in which Berggruen produces op-eds and features for global media platform The WorldPost about the social issues of our time. Each year, the organization awards independently chosen philosophers with the $1 million Berggruen Prize to highlight the importance of investing in thought leadership. In the past, the institute has been involved in everything from developing a youth jobs plan for Europe to strengthening California's ballot initiative process.
For all the ways the Berggruen Institute flies in the face of every L.A. stereotype, its origin story is quintessential Los Angeles. After making it big as an investor, Nicolas Berggruen made headlines as host of some A-list Oscar parties, as a “playboy philosopher” and, finally, as a “homeless billionaire,” when he embarked on a nomadic life living out of five-star hotels and his private jet. It's not hard to imagine that some of those wanderings involved glamping at Burning Man and Coachella. The spaciousness of such a rootless existence allowed Berggruen to not only reconnect to his love of ideas but to realize that those ideas are worth truly investing in.
According to Berggruen himself, he might not have been able to launch this institute anywhere other than L.A.
“I've lived in many places and, while New York is a dynamic and exciting city, in California one feels it's all about the future,” he told PC Mag earlier this year. “It's a place of possibilities. L.A. especially. It's so vast, open and diverse. When I moved here, I started spending time with professors at USC and UCLA, and out of that ideas started to form, which led to me setting up the Berggruen Institute. I'm not sure this would have happened so organically anywhere else. Los Angeles is something of a laboratory, particularly in democracy and brilliant new ideas. It allows you to imagine anything is possible.”
That possibility includes updating even the basic vocabulary we use to understand ourselves as humans.
Yuval Harari famously predicts, “We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens. Within a century or two, Earth will be dominated by entities that are more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals or chimpanzees.” And this quote is at the foundation of Berggruen's newest initiative, a program dubbed Transformations of the Human.
With co-funding from Reid Hoffman and directed by Tobias Rees (a prolific author, professor of humanities at the New School of Social Research and a Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, whose background intersects anthropology, the history of art and science, and philosophy), the Transformations of the Human program has some big work ahead. Rees is assembling a team of fellows who are scientists, artists and ethicists to create a holistic understanding of advancements such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering, how to handle the questions they raise about who we are and how to beneficially implement them in our society.
“As I see it, our Transformations of the Human program is literally a study in trans-formation: a study of a form — the human — in motion. A study of a moment in time in which we are transformed, become something else, something no one knows yet,” Rees told L.A. Weekly during his recent trip to China to visit Berggruen's partner AI labs. So far, the vocabulary to describe what we are has been broad, with concepts like “more than mere nature” and “other than mere machine.” These meanings used to be crystal clear, but the developing technologies of AI and the biosciences are really blurring the distinction between what is natural and what is machine. The failure to drastically upgrade this vocabulary has created untold chaos in our world.
“Our effort to differentiate ourselves from the natural world, arguably, has had terrible effects on the planet and as well on ourselves: from mass species extinction to anthropogenic climate change to the disappearance of essential microbes in our guts with terrible health consequences for millions,” Rees said. “We keep on talking about society — as if we humans would live in a separate world, tucked away in a human web that is independent from the planet on which we live. We build AI machines that are grounded in a concept of intelligence we know to be wrong: Intelligence is clearly more than a hyper-individualized, hyper-competitive, hyper-calculative reward function. We talk about climate change as if nature were out there, a victim that needs to be protected. The negative effects are real and everyone who cares to see them can see them.”
In the same way Rees sees problems arising from an outdated vocabulary for defining humanity, so too can issues arise from trying to lock in another static definition just for reference's sake. “Our goal is not merely to expand the limited — our goal is to radically break with our vocabulary and to think anew, to find other, different vocabularies,” he said. “I don't think this is a one-time event: It is a process that has to happen again and again.”
The still-emerging impact of social media and smartphone technologies on our society will pale in comparison with the scope (and speed) of transformations that will come from artificial intelligence and bioengineering — and they are coming sooner than we think. The unique blend of scientists and philosophers in this think tank seems specifically designed to curb heartless technocratic implementation while allaying concerns of those who fear the transhumanist movement.
“I must say that I think L.A. — California — is the best, most conducive place for our project,” Rees said. “L.A. has a long history of an artistic, bohemian, intellectual avant-garde — but it is a history that doesn't suffocate the present. Many places I have lived and worked in, in particular Europe but also in the U.S., are so steeped in the past that they cannot break free and think the present in its own terms. They are more like museums of past instances of the life of the mind than experimental laboratories for thinking the difference today makes with respect to yesterday. And that is what we want to be: a radically artistic and intellectual and scientific laboratory, a studio, for the study of the human in motion. We build and look for projects that can bring this motion into view, that can make it available for thought, that can accompany it and give it direction.”
However up in the air this all sounds, the Berggruen Institute is firmly committed to grounding it all in reality. Including real estate. Earlier this year, the institute moved its base into downtown L.A.'s famed Bradbury Building (the one saliently featured in Blade Runner). But this space is just a temporary home (fabulous as it is) while construction of the institute's 450-acre, Star Trek–esque campus in the Santa Monica Mountains is underway.
And since we're talking about L.A., yes, it's going to be gorgeous.