The Atlantic, July/August 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
We don't have to rely solely on natural evolutionary processes to boost our
intelligence. We can do it ourselves.
If intelligence augmentation
has the kind of impact I expect, we may soon be living in an entirely new
era. The focus of our technological evolution would be less on how we manage
and adapt to our physical world, and more on how we manage and adapt to the
immense amount of knowledge we've created. We can call it the Nöocene epoch,
from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's concept of the Nöosphere, a collective
consciousness created by the deepening interaction of human minds.
We've been augmenting our ability to think for millennia. When we developed
written language, we increased our functional memory and our ability to
share insights and knowledge across time and space. The same thing happened
with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, and the radio. And
caffeine and nicotine are both cognitive enhancement drugs.
ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems doesn't look
much like the capacity to memorize and recite facts. But building it up may
improve the capacity to think deeply. And we shouldn't let the stresses
associated with a transition to a new era blind us to that era's astonishing
The trouble isn't that we have too much information at our
fingertips, but that our tools for managing it are still in their infancy.
Worries about "information overload" predate the rise of the Web, and many
new technologies were developed precisely to help us get some control over a
flood of data and ideas. Google is the beginning of a solution.
people hear the phrase intelligence augmentation, they tend to envision
people with computer chips plugged into their brains, or a genetically
engineered race of post-human super-geniuses. Neither of these visions is
likely to be realized, for reasons familiar to any Best Buy shopper. In a
world of ongoing technological acceleration, today's cutting-edge brain
implant would be tomorrow's obsolete junk.
Likewise, the safe
modification of human genetics is still years away. And even after genetic
modification of adult neurobiology becomes possible, the science will remain
in flux. As with digital implants, the brain modification you might undergo
one week could become obsolete the next.
In one sense, the age of the
cyborg and the super-genius has already arrived. It just involves external
information and communication devices instead of implants and genetic
modification. Increasingly, we buttress our cognitive functions with our
computing systems, no matter that the connections are mediated by simple
typing and pointing. These tools enable our brains to do things that would
once have been almost unimaginable.
Any occupation requiring
pattern-matching and the ability to find obscure connections will quickly
morph from the domain of experts to that of ordinary people whose
intelligence has been augmented by cheap digital tools. As the digital
systems we rely upon become faster, more sophisticated, and more capable,
we're becoming more sophisticated and capable too. We learn to adapt our
thinking and expectations to these digital systems, even as they come to
adapt to us.
Imagine if social tools like Twitter had a way to learn
what kinds of messages you pay attention to, and which ones you discard.
Such attention filters are likely to become important parts of how we handle
our daily lives. They could become individualized systems that augment our
capacity for planning and foresight. These systems would eventually be able
to pay attention to what we're doing and learn to interpret our desires.
With enough time and complexity, they would be able to make useful
suggestions without prompting.
Such systems won't be working for us
alone. We already provide crude cooperative information filtering for each
other. In time, our interactions through the use of such intimate
technologies could dovetail with our use of collaborative knowledge systems
to help us not just to build better data sets, but to filter them with
greater precision, becoming something akin to collaborative intuition.
In pharmacology, too, the future is already here. As the science
improves, we could see cognitive modification drugs that boost recall, brain
plasticity, even empathy and emotional intelligence. They would start as
therapeutic treatments, but some of them may become over-the-counter
products at your local pharmacy.
The most radical form of superhuman
intelligence would be a mind that isn't human at all. Here we move to the
realm of speculation. A mind running on a machine platform instead of a
biological platform may soon be possible. We just need to develop computing
hardware able to run a high-speed neural network as sophisticated as that of
a human brain, and wait for the kids who will have grown up surrounded by
virtual-world software and household robots to come to dominate the field.
Many proponents of developing an artificial mind are sure that such a
breakthrough will be the biggest change in human history. They believe that
a machine mind would soon modify itself to get smarter, and with its new
intelligence figure out how to make itself smarter still. The Singularity
concept is a secular echo of Teilhard de Chardin's "Omega Point," the
culmination of the Nöosphere at the end of history.
The same advances
in processor and process that would produce a machine mind would also
increase the power of our own cognitive enhancement technologies. As
intelligence augmentation allows us to make ourselves smarter, we could
always be a step ahead.
By 2030, we'll likely have grown accustomed
to a world where sophisticated foresight, detailed analysis and insight, and
augmented awareness are commonplace. Our augmentation assistants will handle
basic interactions on our behalf, and we'll increasingly see those
assistants as extensions of ourselves. The ability to build the future we
want is within our grasp.
AR I'm not entirely convinced. I see organized
intelligence appearing as organized corporate power that does more than
offer us more freedom to twitter our time away. The totalitarian dangers
here, however candy coated, are overwhelming. Soon there will be Borg
collectives and rebels, and the rebels who stick out too far will be hunted
down, until only the Gaiaborg remains. A few years ago I called the Gaiaborg
the Lifeball, then I called it the Global Online Dominion. Those of a
religious persuasion may call it the extended body of Christ on Earth.
Whatever, it will eat us whole and that will be the end of feral humans.