Being Human in a Post-Human World

What happens when man and machine mix?

In the 1960’s, I.J. Good proposed an upcoming intelligence explosion. Riffing on Good’s work, Vernor Vinge developed this notion further. In his famous paper on the technological singularity, Vinge proposed two alternative scenarios for intelligence explosion: the AI, or artificial intelligence, scenario, and the IA, or intelligence amplification scenario.

We are at the brink of this predicted explosion right now. In a matter of few years, the man-machine integration will be smooth enough to allow us to tap into vast amounts of information in our everyday life.

But it’s crazy how mundane it has become to be able to google things up in everyday life situations. Yet less than ten years ago, the idea that you could check a fact in a bus or in a bar conversation straight away, was pure science fiction.

Now, we are looking at the next wave of man-machine integration: wearable technology. When technology moved from the warehouse to the desktop, the way we think changed radically. We could already amplify our intelligence a great deal with a computer in the house.

When technology moved from the desktop into the pocket, this integration deepened. Now we can do amazing things with our portable computers. Yet they have integrated into our everyday life astoundingly well. Having a Star Trek tricorder in the pocket just doesn’t seem that big a deal once you have one.

And I predict that in a couple of years, once the integration of augmented reality displays and other wearable tech has been cracked properly, having a digital overlay on our everyday life won’t feel much more special than being able to draw cash from an ATM.

The interesting thing is that all the while our intellectual collective capacity is increasing exponentially, and about to explode into something it is very hard to predict, we are staying emphatically human.

I believe that the AI hypothesis with its Terminator and Matrix corollaries is far more imaginary than people tend to think. After all, we still hardly understand how we ourselves think. Going from this to actually building a machine that thinks requires for the time being at least some kind of a leap of faith.

On the other hand, AI will also play a great deal into our next level of thought. It too, I believe, will integrate into the cognitive whole that is formed by us humans and our tools. Just like a navigator or a smart search algorithm can boost our intellect, think how a strong AI could boost it more.

In a sense, then, the AI hypothesis and the IA hypothesis may well merge in the future, into something that is far more potent than AI by itself, much less human beings withouth the tools we use.

While human-like AI does present some philosophical and pragmatic problems, the IA hypothesis does not. After all, we are tool-using animals, and have been for tens of thousands of years. And with each tool, we can think better and smarter. A pen helps us pull our thoughts together. A computer helps us manage vast amounts of information. And a mobile phone helps us share that information.

Wearable tech will make all this much easier. It will ease the distribution of labor between the biological mind(s) and the digital mind(s). In a sense, as a Wired article recently put it, it will reduce the number of seconds in a day that we are confused.

We are at the brink of an intelligence explosion, and that explosion is, I am quite sure, far more human than we think. The technology we bring to play in our everyday life has followed a beautifully exponential curve for at least the last thousand years. And while the world has changed a great deal, our lives remain emphatically human.

It is the case, drawing from the ideas of  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that as we learn to distribute labor among ourselves and our machines, we do not meld into a formless mass of drones.

Rather, our individuality is increased by this amplified collective intelligence.

With the intelligence explosion, and its man-machine integration, we can all be far more human, far more ourselves, than we ever have been able to in the entire history of the humankind.


What Does the Future Look Like?

What does the future look like? Paraphrasing William Gibson, the future looks like now, only more equally distributed.

Right now, we are tapping into an increasing capacity of processing and managing information. Mobile devices, big data, social media, wearable computing, augmented reality. You name it, it’s giving your cognition a boost.

Vernor Vinge proposed in a 1993 paper that we are looking at two possible scenarios on massively increasing the advance of technology. The AI hypothesis is based on Moore’s law and presumes that at some point our tools will become so smart that they can develop smart tools themselves, in which case we will have an almost immediate explosion in computing capacity.

An intelligence explosion.

But the more interesting of Vinge’s hypothesis I think is the IA hypothesis: Intelligence Amplification. It is more interesting, since AI is still a troubleridden concept both practically and philosophically, whereas intelligence amplification is something we already have in our hands.

Is Google making us stupid? Emphatically, no. And the studies back this up too.

Yes, Google is changing the way we process information, and it is changing our brains. But for the better.

In outsourcing managing trivia to Google, we have been able to release cognitive capacity that was previously tied up with trifles. We have become more innovative.

And what with the increasingly fast dispersion and utilization of information (think social media and big data), the future of man-machine integration won’t be limited to just looking up tidbits online.

I am pretty confident we still need a mushy electrochemical component in the intelligence explosion. The brain is a nexus in an ever-growing, ever-integrating network of information, a network optimized every day better for our actual practical needs.

As our tools keep getting better and as we learn to better optimize how the biological and the digital minds work together, we will be looking at an amazing world, a world that despite all of the technological advance will be an emphatically human world.

It’s a world that is already here. It’s just not yet evenly distributed.