Just finished a remarkably good read: “Influence. The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. Albeit the book revolves around the certain “weapons of influence” that are most often utilized to bend our will towards certain favorable behaviors, the author cares to share with us a very significant observation. A very valuable insight on his perception of how technology had already begun to alter the physiological mechanics of how we think and make decisions. And that was back in the mid-80’s, long before the smartphones, the tablets and the cellular always-on internets.
Here’s what Dr. Cialdini wrote:
Because technology can evolve much faster than we can, our natural capacity to process information is likely to be increasingly inadequate to handle the surfeit of change, choice and challenge that is characteristic of modern life. More and more frequently, we will find ourselves in the position of the lower animals – with a mental apparatus that is unequipped to deal thoroughly with the intricacy and richness of the outside environment. Unlike the animals, whose cognitive powers have always been relative deficient, we have created our own deficiency by constructing a radically more complex world. But the consequence of our new deficiency is the same as that of the animal’s long-staning one. When making a decision, we will less frequently enjoy the luxury of a fully considered analysis of the total situation and revert increasingly to a focus on a single, usually (but not always) reliable feature of it.
Think about this for a while. As far as a Grizzly bear is concerned, the world hasn’t changed much the past 500 years. They somehow know that when the weather starts to get chilly they’ll take a long nap of 5-7 months. They somehow know that hunger means wander around and kill for food. They feel the click and they do the whirr. For all their lives they were and will be mostly driven by their pro-programmed instincts and they will get along just fine. Thankfully, they do not possess the required logical deduction or reasoning skills to understand that because another species, humans, have been polluting rivers for years, their delicious salmon meals are now full of mercury and they risk dying out of poisoning. Ignorance is bliss, no?
Now try to think for a while how things have changed for humans. Tim Urban puts things in a nice perspective. Imagine a guy in the year 1700 who walks into a portal and wakes up in today’s Tokyo. He comes from a world where there’s no electricity. Where long distance communication means hay-feeding your horse to the nearest height, lighting a fire and praying that the other end understands something out of the smoke pattern. And the next day he wakes up in a place where huge aluminum tubes hover on tracks, everyone looks at a magic light-emitting rectangle with a shiny apple engraved on the back, and there are five-story high billboards broadcasting video coming from the other side of the planet. He would probably die in shock before you even told him how two decades before that, we went to the moon in a rocket and now we’re planning to colonize Mars, wouldn’t he? Now, bear with me a little more.
You see, here’s when things start to get interesting. Imagine if that guy didn’t actually die in shock but walked back to year 1700 through the portal again, and then really liked how we made fun of his reaction and decided to do the same thing with one of his ancestors. He would find a portal to go back in the same distance in time, grab someone from year 1400 and bring him to year 1700. The 1400 dude would definitely learn a few new things about our solar system and a few new physics formulas but he wouldn’t be that amazed of how transportation and long-distance communication in year 1700 really differ from things back in his day. He’d surely not die for that matter. So, for the “year 1700” guy to have at least as much fun as we had we with him, he’d need to tweak his portal to go back to year 10.000BC or something and find someone who didn’t live trough the First Agricultural Revolution and how it thrusted the human race to the pivotal point of cities and organized civilization. He would need to find the B.C nomad-hunter, living his life in the fields who then, yes, most probably die if he saw the grandiose medieval churches. The crusaders, the ocean-travelling ships, the ball-firing canons and how people now live in structures made of mud and stone instead of having to wander the endless forests would be just too much to digest. He would die.
Now, again, what if the 10.000 B.C guy didn’t die in shock from the majestic castles of the mid-1000’s. What if he too decided to make fun of one of his ancestors experiencing his present? How long back in time do you think he’d have to travel? He would have to go back at least a few hundred thousand years and find someone who would die just because he would see fire or hear humans speaking language for his first time. You get the idea right? This is actually the Law of Accelerating Returns that futurist Ray Kurzweill formulated. It conveys a simple, but very important point. As time goes by, our species progresses not linearly but exponentially. More advanced societies progress in more fast-paced rate than less advanced ones. This reveals that our soon to become future will be pretty much intense, doesn’t it?
10 years back we didn’t have the iPhone. 20 years back we didn’t have WiFi. The CD technology was invented in 1985 and we don’t even use it anymore. Google maps debut was on 2005, only a decade ago!
I believe you’re with me on that the rate at which we are advancing is hardly imaginable. So as Dr. Cialdini figured out two decades back, we’ve started maxing out our cognitive resources in terms of what it takes to keep up with all this progress. It’s like the video games we played when we were younger. Every two years you’d need a new graphics card or an upgraded processor or the virtual world your game character was in would stutter and lag. Well, since your brain is not as upgradeable as your computer, at a certain point in the future you will stutter in real-life. And oh boy you will lag. For every non-hardwired instinctual decision the stream of information we will need to process will be unmanageable to process. And in certain unfortunate circumstances it might also lead to fatalities.
We don’t need to panic just yet though. You see we’re under the aid of the most ancient and powerful force in the cosmos; evolution. Evolution, at least to humans, comes in two versions: active and passive evolution. Passive evolution is how our ever-changing environment and surroundings affects and alters our biology so we can better adapt to it. Active evolution on the other hand is how we alter and affect our environment so we can more efficiently inhabit it. Passive evolution was when we stopped growing a thick coat of hair on our bodies because we no longer lived outside in the cold but in well-protected shelters. Active evolution was when we invented the air conditioning and central heating systems.
Going back to the problem of our cognitive capacity diminishing due to our constantly overly complicating our surroundings, active evolution seems like it has already started to kick in. That’s right. Google, your environment, has already started to change the way your brain works. You no longer try to absorb every piece of information you stumble upon because a huge web of information is a reach to your pocket and few taps away. Your internals adapted in order to deallocate the mental resources required to deep-burn information you learn in favor of allocating them for other high-order processes. However, eventually you won’t have any low-order processes to cut-down. We reach peak. We’ve maxed out our brains. So then what?
Enter artificial intelligence. Now, for starters let me tell you that artificial intelligence, AI from here thereon, is already highly utilized in your every day life. You get weekly custom playlists from Spotify. YouTube recommends you videos you might like. Facebook knows which people you might know. Your iPhone knows how you can drive from point A to point B by exchanging buses and trains.
The current state of AI however is not even close to human level AI. In fact compared to human level, today’s AI capability looks like this:
Truth to be said, we are still far from off-loading important cognitive tasks to AI due to the mere fact that AI is just “not there yet”. And it’s not there because early computer scientists significantly underestimated the power of our brains and how difficult it was to emulate it. Although AI science has really started taking off, it’s continuously capped by the processing power of computers; the brains behind it. But don’t get disappointed, we’re getting there. In fact if Moore’s Law keeps being relevant, that is if computers’ processing power keeps doubling each year, we will be there by year 2025. In year 2025 we will be able to have human-level personal assistants that run on AI. They’ll never get tired, they’re never be moody or tempered, they won’t make any mistakes and they will be able to learn, analyze, deduct and reason equally or better than us. They will be able to think on our behalf so that we don’t have. We will off-load the complicated, bothersome tasks to computerized intelligence so that we don’t lose our sanity living in a world being bombarded by zettabytes of information every second. It is sad, but our everyday living will need to be assisted by our artificial selves. So that we can go forward without dying out of the complexity of the world the we sprinted to create.
So there we are. Evolution pushes us to build artificial intelligence in order to help us survive.
Fast forward to 2025 or so and our mental capacity problems are solved. Now what? What’s the next step? Is there anything more we can do to go one step further? Yes there is. You see if we reach the point at which we are able to spawn as many human-equivalent AI instances what keeps from playing God? What stops us from doing with our active evolutionary achievement what billion years of passive evolution did to us? Can we activate billions of human-level AI instances to think collectively on the AI problem from scratch and on totally on their own without ever bothering us? Yes we can! Would that take long? Probably not if you imagine that we only have television for about 100 years. And then, what if this first batch of AI humanoids reaches the point where it creates above human-level super-intelligence? And then this batch summons a billion of super-intelligent AI instances to work again on AI? You see where that goes, right? It seems to me that unless we find a way to contain it, in less than 50 years humans will be to the machines what apes are to us right now. Looks like evolution is a bitch after all.
Now take a few steps back and ask yourself. What if our whole universe was created and summoned by another super intelligence entity and was left to take it’s own path through evolution only for them to study us and see what we come up with? What if we are the AI that someone created and 10.000 years on our reality are a mere 10 nanoseconds in their reality? Do you think that’s possible? Me too dear reader. Welcome to the Matrix.