The intellectual currents that accompany advances in technology can be as fascinating as the technologies themselves. Right now, the belief that humanity is on the cusp of a big breakthrough is taking hold. What could it be?
For many people, artificial intelligence (AI) holds the promise of better, easier and longer lives. Perhaps even more.
The unfolding AI revolution, complete with machine learning, deep learning and cognitive computing (i.e., machines capable of learning from their own mistakes, or from patterns discovered in large databases), and the smart technologies posed to permeate our daily lives, such as autonomous vehicles and the Internet of Things (with its capability to combine devices into one intelligent organism), promises to change our world profoundly. Also, and importantly, the computational power of computers has grown exponentially, supported by complex algorithms and neural networks that enables machines to understand and respond to language, conversing with humans and automating peer-to-peer transactions, and other business processes.
All this sounds impressive, heralding a qualitative change in our daily lives. Sophisticated technologies not only gradually transform business models and learning tools, but also penetrate our daily lives. With smartphones in hand and virtual “versions” of ourselves on the Internet, we, as humans, are integrating with the growing digital, virtual space. Can this ongoing makeover affect our biological, spiritual and intellectual makeup? Will AI continue to become ever more autonomous. And if it does, what will this mean for our collective consciousness as a species? Are we on the verge of an existential breakthrough? Some scientists believe so, claiming that the change is evolutionary and that the key driver of human evolution today is modern technology.
A cosmic brain-to-brain connection
I can still remember the question a friend asked me in my first year of high school: How do you think the ape that became the first man felt?
The question amused me, but it was, at bottom, philosophical. I recalled it recently while reading the article, “Humanity is about to transition to ‘evolution by intelligent direction.’” Its author argues that “we are rapidly heading towards the next evolutionary step into what I call ‘meta-intelligence,’ a future in which we are all highly connected, brain to brain. It will become possible thanks to the sharing of thoughts, knowledge and activities, and the technological basis of this process will be ‘THE CLOUD’.”
Having announced the transformation of humanity, and its transition to a different level of existence, the author lists the drivers of this process:
· The wiring of the planet.
· A brain-computer interface.
· The emergence of AI.
The wiring: Everything connected, always
The wiring part of the process is largely in place. The whole of humanity is becoming connected to the global web and, within years, every inhabitant of the planet will enjoy full access. This will place new communications options and unlimited digital data, products, services and content at our fingertips. Never have humans we faced a change so widespread, and so democratic. Thanks to the wiring of the planet, each of us today can (or soon will be able to) access the entire global, intellectual and cultural achievements of humanity. Granted, high quality content may only be accessible at a cost, and therefore available only to some of us. In general, though, all of mankind will benefit.
Within a mere two decades, the web has driven the rise of a global economy with its new business models, tools and communication platforms. The freely flow of data sets of cosmic proportions (big data) that the web has enabled is gradually becoming a solid, unbreakable, technological foundation for the global economy, offering business or social products of all kinds to any interested customers, anywhere. The internet has helped tear down barriers to the growth of civilization. Like the web, AI is a game-changer.
The brain: This is you, in the cloud
The author of “Evolution by intelligent direction” also noted the emergence of a direct link between the human brain and the computer. Science fiction fans are very familiar with this idea, pioneered by William Gibson in his novel “Neuromancer”.
Neuromancer by William Gibson — First eddition as of 1984
What for so long has existed only in the imaginations of artists and futurologists, is now becoming reality. Until now, the way we interacted with computers has largely relied on our hands. Soon, however, an interface that directly transmits impulses (thoughts, commands) from the human brain to the computer could deliver significant efficiency gains, time savings, and even a sense of closeness with the content we create. Reports on research laboratories developing broadband connections between digital machines and the cerebral cortex no longer blow our minds. One example of such efforts is the Neuralink projectby Elon Musk, who has invested millions into better and more efficient interactions between the human brain and the machine.
Or take the American company Kernel, which does research into how the human brain works. Today, Kernel scientists are designing software to help alleviate neurological conditions and disorders such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. Tomorrow, Kernel’s goal is to implant a chip in the human brain to link people to a cloud, expanding our memory and enhancing our cognitive functions beyond imagination. We could connect with other human brains just as we communicate with other people’s computers or telephones. In this way, we could explore all human thought without external devices.
As fantastic as this may sound, Johnson argues that the ability to implant chips that connect with other chips in other brains is no longer in question; an affirmative answer has already been given. The only question that remains is, when will it happen? And when it does, are we going to witness the birth of an unprecedented cosmic meta-intelligence? The vision is very exciting, but its consequences are hard to predict. I believe that providing every individual with access to all human knowledge, retrievable almost instantly, would inevitably lead to the birth of meta-intelligence.
AI: Catalyst for evolution
AI is essentially an opportunity to fast-forward evolution and, perhaps, merge with our machines. For the time being, the merger is about creating a better connection between the user and a computer (with its rapidly growing computational power) that engages all five human senses. IBM’s Watson already sifts through billions of data sets per minute to improve health care, performing jobs that would be impossible without algorithms based on neural networks (machine learning) that could never be done by medical and scientific personnel relying on classical computers.
Watson is proof of how the cognitive abilities of our species can be enhanced to improve our psychophysical performance. In a study on the future of AI, the McKinsey Global Institute outlines the possible evolution of medical diagnostics over the coming years.
Andrew Ng, once key specialist at the Chinese technology company Baidu, has said, “Just as electricity transformed almost everything 100 years ago, today I actually have a hard time thinking of an industry that I don’t think AI will transform in the next several years.”
Andrew Ng while giving this talk. Link
Let’s get down to earth
Supported by continually-developed deep learning models funded by companies such as Google, Facebook, IBM, Samsung and Alibaba, AI will grow exponentially. The total meta-intelligence (artificial and human combined) can be the most critical success factor for companies and nations. Therefore, along with a new arms race in AI, we will soon see a race to boost the combined human intelligence of entire nations.
Critics of the idea of meta-intelligence and, more broadly, of merging humans with machines, abound. Skeptics in the medical world argue we don’t fully understand how the human brain works. We only have a faint idea of where the brain stores (if, in fact, it does) the information it later retrieves. We are befuddled by how the brain performs its calculations. So far, chips to improve memory have only been implanted in rat brains. Therefore, linking the brain to a cloud for common access to the intellectual achievements of all, well… it will take a while. Personally, however, considering the speed at which technology is driving evolution, I would not bet against the possibility of combining advanced technology with the human body.
I think, being homo sapiens, we will do what we have always done: move fast, break things, fix them.
Peter H. Diamandis, Humanity is about to transition to “Evolution by Intelligent Direction”, Futurism.com, link, 2017.
Willam Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984.
Chantal Da Silva, Elon Musk startup ‘to spend £100m’ linking human brains to computers, Independent, link, 2017.
Jacques Bughin, Eric Hazan, Sree Ramaswamy, Tera Allas, Peter Dahlström, Nicolaus Henke, Monica Trench, Artificial Intelligence The next Digital Frontier, McKinsey Global Institute, link, 2017.
Andrew Ng while giving this talk, Youtube, link, 2017.
Shana Lynch, Andrew Ng: Why AI Is the New Electricity, Insights by Stanford Business, link, 2017.