Evolution in fast-forward

This chapter is available as an audio podcast I recorded myself.

...so what's next?

…so what’s next?

Humans have always lived in symbiosis with their tools. By inventing more and more sophisticated and intelligent tools, mankind has changed itself and become smarter over time. This is a natural process, and it is nonjudgmental. The mistake the prophets of doom make is to assign value to it. One typical example is the belief in “progress”, as though mankind were striving throughout its history to reach a certain goal that will make them better humans. Another is the worry about technology-induced human degeneration, or as Frank Schirrmacher once put it in an interview, “my brain is being squashed by the Internet”.

Ray Kurzweil is a visionary as well as a serial entrepreneur which gives him sufficient financial independence to pursue his investigations into the way technology is shaping human destiny. He is one of the founders of the so-called “singularity movement” which can be traced back to the early computer scientists John von Neumann in the 1950s and Irving J. Good in the 1960s and which hopes to achieve man’s age-old dream of immortality. Singularity describes a world in which mankind, far from being dominated by machines, will become one with them, melding together and thus producinga new, superior kind of intelligence which can help us become better and more „human“ beings.

Kurzweil first came in contact with singularity in the 80ies at about the same time he first heard of Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, predicated that the power of semiconductor chips would double every 16 to 18 months. Doubling down, as every gambler knows, leads to enormous acceleration. We call this “exponential growth”.

The oldest story about exponential growth comes from ancient India, where it is alleged that the inventor of the game of chess was told by his grateful sovereign that he could have a wish. He asked for as many grains of rice as would be needed to fill a chessboard, with one grain on square one, two on square two, four on square three, eight on square four, and so on, doubling the number of grains on each succeeding square.

The sultan immediately agreed to such a modest wish but found to his dismay that he had just given away 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice – much more than the royal granary contained or that probably even existed in the world. Simple: by doubling 64 times, you reach the number 1.84×1019 . Whether the sultan proved true to his word or whether (which seems much more likely) he just had the inventor of chess quietly beheaded, history does not record.

Kurzweil and the adherents of singularity believe that somehwere around the year 2020 we will be able to build machines capable of emulating the human brain at a cost of less than a thousand dollars per computer. That would eventually allow us to create a “backup” of our memories and experiences and thus, for all intents and purposes, make us immortal.

But singularity, he conjectures, will do much more: enabling us to create tiny artificial cells which can replace older cells as they wear out, effectively stopping the aging process and granting us eternal youth! In his book The Age of Spiritual Machines Kurzweil writes that it will be possible to scan brains from the inside using “nanobots” and then reverse engineer them in order to understand and emulate human thought and memory. This “non-biological intelligence”, as he calls it, will combine with our natural intelligence to enhance our cognitive abilities and create “super-intelligence”. He points to recent developments in the field of neural implants which he thinks will one day make Moore’s Law applicable to human intelligence, doubling our IQs every 16 to 18 months…

If this sound like pure science fiction to you, then we suggest you visit Moffett Field in Mountainview, California. There, at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the Singularity University has its campus in a huge former dirigible hangar.

Singularity U was founded by Google’s Larry Page, among others, and is maintained through generous grants from a wide number of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. It only accepts 80 new students per year, and the waiting list is long. For $25,000 managers can sign up for so-called „executive briefings“ which consist of lectures by some of the leading lights in the fields of nanotech, biotech, artificial intelligence and robotics.

The sixth Kondratieff

Participents hope to learn about the “Next Big Thing” in technology, the next stage of the rocket, so to speak, that will propel us and the economy to the next higher plane.

Managers and economists have always looked for inside information about the future. One of them was the Soviet economist Nicolai Kondratieff, who was put to death on Stalin’s orders in 1938 and who is hailed as the inventor of the “Kondratieff Cycles”. These describe economic growth in terms of supercyles of 30 or 40 years, each triggered by a “basic innovation” that launches a technological revolution that in turn creates a new leading industrial or commercial sector.

Adherents to this theory claim to recognize five such supercycles, starting in the 1770ies with the Industrial Revolution, followed in the 1830ies by the age of steam and railways, the Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering from 1875, the age of oil, electricity, the automobile and mass production from 1908 onwards, leading up to our current age of information and telecommunications which began in the 1970ies.

If Kondratieff was right, our current age is now coming to an end, and the cognoscenti want desperately to find out what the basic technology in the next supercycle will be. Many bets are on biotechnology, ushering in decades of health and wellbeing.

Whatever this Sixth Kondratieff will be, Kurzweil believes it will be one in which singularity comes to the fore, a technological Fountain of Youth.

Of course, not everyone subscribes to this optimistic view of the future. Theodore Kaczyinksi, who became infamous as the “Unabomber” who held America breathless by sending a series of letter bombs to celebrities and government officials, killing three people before he was caught in 1995, called in his “manifesto” on mankind to revolt against the alleged “industrial-technological system” which he called “a disaster for the human race” because it would turn us all into the slaves of our machines. Which harks back to Mary Shelley and her 1818 sci-fi thriller “Frankenstein”, the story of a young German scientist who create a human-like being who unfortunately turns out to be a monster.

And in more modern times, popular TV series include “Fringe”, in which a team of scientists uses science and FBI investigative techniques to investigate a series of unexplained, often ghastly occurrences, which are related to mysteries surrounding a parallel universe. The series has been described as a hybrid of The X-Files, Altered States, and The Twilight Zone.

Making a map of the brain

Just how far we have come along the road to singularity is demonstrated by Dr Christopher deCarmes, the CEO of Omneuron, a company based in Menlo Park in the heart of Silicon Valley which specializes in developing machines that are capable of visualizing and controlling the functioning of the brain using non-invasive methods based on Magnetic Resonance Imaging. “Reading someone’s brain” is probably how most of us would describe it. His machines are used to combat depression and to measure pain thresholds, and they point the way to the future of neurology.

“We are already able to read information generated in human brains”, he says.

This means that sometime soon we will probably be able to turn the process around and reprogram the brain. Optimists see in this a kind of Nuremberg Funnel (German: „Nürnberger Trichter“), a jocular description of a mechanical way of learning and teaching. Others worry that this technology will create legions of robot-like work slaves who are remote controlled by their digital masters, condemned to blindly follow the will of computers and their human programmers.

Kurzweil and his associates, understandingly, see the future in less dramatic terms. He speaks of “accelerated evolution“ and maintains that technological evolution is an outgrowth of – and a continuation of – biological evolution”, in other words a completely natural process.

We may be closer to this then we think. In 2011, Craig Venter, the pioneer of human genome sequencing, first succeeded in creating life in the laboratory. Experts believe that college students will one day be able to engineer artificial bacteria in biology class. And the U.S. government has pledged to spend at least 300 million dollars a year over the next ten years on the “Brain Activity Map Project” which is tasked with mapping the activity of every neuron in the human brain.

It seems that scientists to this day do not fully understand completely how thought and memory are achieved. If we did, we would probably soon be able to develop artificial brain cells than can be implanted in humans.

At first, of course, these cells will be used to treat degenerative diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s. But who is to stop us from injecting these cells into healthy patients, thus potentially producing “superintelligence”. If so, this raises a number of tricky questions for society, such as, “Who gets the extra cells and will my health insurance pay for them?” Or will superintelligence be only for the rich? Will society become divided into a class of privileged geniuses and a majority of “average intelligent” dummies?

The long-overdue discussion about Digital Enlightenment which after all is what this book is about must necessarily include a very public discourse on rules and morality in an age of digital transformation and acceleration, because developments such as those just described naturally hold a high level of destructive potential. If we let it happen to us, then we truly deserve to be called “digital dummies”…


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