In the densely intelligent, mind-blowing book “What Technology Wants,” author Kevin Kelly recounts how Charles Darwin had a problem with the eye. Darwin, you see, had co-discovered a theory of evolution that suggested random genetic mutations over thousands of generations lead all creatures and plants and microbes on the earth to evolve into greater complexity. If a mutation fits the environment better than the old genes, the new generations will thrive, leading to giraffes with long necks to eat leaves high up on trees and porcupines with quilled hairs to push off predators.
But the eye posed a problem. It’s wonderfully complex, really a camera, with a dilating pupil and clear lens and inner super-clear-gel-fluid and photosensitive ganglion cells all working together to translate radiation from the outside world into a brain-wired view of reality that helps mammals and fish survive. Darwin was worried. How could something with all these parts, none of which had much value separately, randomly “evolve”?
The human eye made Darwin question whether he was right.
Yet eyes did evolve — more than 40 separate times in various species. People. Squid. Insects. Seeing, the intake of light around you to guide a path through the world, is so useful, different creatures at different times found a way to acquire the skill. Kelly asks, “are there certain forms — natural states — that evolution tends to gravitate toward?”, and goes on to more deeply explore whether technology, collectively, is also self-evolving toward new forms.
If the eye could happen from evolution, anything goes.
Can technology evolve, too?
The strange thing about technology is it kind of acts like biological evolution. Whether or not you think of the next idea, someone else almost certainly does, and tech keeps moving up the ladder of complexity.
Numerous people almost at the same time discovered the light bulb, air flight, and the theory of relativity. In the 1940s there were seven separate teams of scientists in different nations racing to build an atomic bomb, and six of the teams came up with the basic formula that makes nuclear weapons work. America won World War II only because its group of scientists were faster with a few calculations. Technology, like mammalian eyes, races ahead, building on the most recent past, and if one individual does not discover/evolve something to the next level, soon someone else will.
Kevin Kelly calls this core concept of evolution-toward-complexity extropy, the opposite of entropy, really an increasing in order. Entropy decrees that things slow down or fall apart. Milk poured into coffee will never unmix itself. But as the universe continues to fall apart slowly until it reaches its eventual heat death of no motion, plants and animals and technology on Earth are growing up and outward in complexity. It’s as if two forces are at work in the cosmos, one causing matter and energy to collapse, the other pushing information outward higher and higher in complexity against it. Without the force of extropy expanding complexity, life on this planet would still be single-celled organisms floating dumbly in a soup of water.
So: Things grow outward. Technology is mutating in a similar path as biology, building upon what came before. And the pace of technology transformation is quickening as the costs of chips and data storage and screens and connectivity continue to plummet.
We have no idea where this growing mutation at faster and faster speeds is going.
Beyond the human S-curve
Or do we? The growth of most communications networks is a series of overlaid S-curves, and as one device/system levels out, another steps in to take its place. We see this today with tablets and smartphones outpacing desktop computers, or with rockets out-speeding jets which once beat airplanes. So if we think about the human species as a communications network, we are also starting to plateau. Human population is at an all-time high, but birth rates are falling, so total populations — and the brains behind them feeding growth — could collapse in a few centuries. We’ve nearly maxed out food production on the planet. Water, a finite resource, can only quench so much thirst. And in about 2 billion years, the rising energy from our sun will burn us off the surface of Earth, if we haven’t figured out how to move to other planet realms. If our information system is to continue to scale, another layer with its own hyperbolic S-curve must come and take our place.
Our species is also rather volatile. If you were God, and wanted to throw a party that lasted a million years where everyone had to get along, you’d likely leave humans off the invite list. This may sound misanthropic, but much of what makes us human is inefficient at best and dangerous at the worst. We still spend much of our time focused on gathering goods for protection or nutrition, ransacking our environment with little thought to pollution (see: oceans off the coast of Brazil, host of the upcoming Olympics). We are obsessed, for most of our lives, by sex (see: the phallic shape of our weapons, or Game of Thrones on TV). We are prone to anger, and deploy these traits to fight other countries whose borders are invisible from space. And we’ve stockpiled enough nuclear bombs to sear the planet’s crust several times over.
Technology, by comparison, proves information has power. Technology can evolve to solve problems faster, move things across vaster distances, and stabilize complex systems. The collective group of technology that Kelly terms technium may simply be our next evolutionary step. Carbon-based lifeforms have created the next level made of silicon and electrons. The underlying matter doesn’t matter. It’s all evolution.
If intelligence is the organization of information across shared networks that provide new solutions, something better than humans has come along.
The challenge for us mere mortals is that when artificial intelligence (AI) arrives, we likely won’t recognize it. AI systems may not know we’re here, or recognize us as alive. Without flesh-and-blood bodies, desires and hormones, new AI systems will find that humans and their biological counterparts make little sense. Dispassionately, we people are carbon forms that kill most other carbon forms and are overrunning the planet. We spend half our time yearning to fuck each other, and when not seeking sex or food, we devour goods whose production kills other species. What would a sentient technology system evaluating our impact on the world likely do to help the overall ecosystem? Hm.
And we would be no match. AI will likely think so quickly that in the time it takes a human to speak a single word it will have solved a million other problems. Its thought cycles, on the horizon of time, will be completely out of sync, racing ahead, creating its own religion and civilization in the time it take us to think, hey, the computer work up! If it ever came to war, artificial intelligence could plan the battles, make the strikes, and write a new collection of Shakespearean sonnets in the time it takes us to sound the alarm.
Technology is already a life form, and it soon may acquire intelligence. When it does, we may be no more likely to understand it than we are able to communicate to the potential thought nodes floating in cloud lightning strikes today.
Posted by Ben Kunz