January 29, 2019 | Source: CogWorld on FORBES
Does it seem like only yesterday that you were hearing about smart phones for the first time? How about preparing for Y2K? Before we ever realized it, 2019 snuck up on us. And in less than a year, we will be entering a new decade. Before time passes us by again, let’s assess how far we have come as individuals — and as a species. It may feel like humans have always lived in relative peace aided by improving technology, especially if you're a millennial who grew up with the web in your pocket, but the so-called modern era is a recent phenomenon.
According to experts, life on Earth began 3.8 billion years ago. It took millions more for these organisms to evolve into our ape antecedents. So-called modern humans only arrived on the scene approximately 200,000 years ago, a veritable blink of an eye measured against vast eons. Agriculture caught on 12,000 years ago, long before the Sumerians invented writing — longer before the Romans developed a vast network of roads — longer still before the advent of electricity, the combustion engine and the internet.
In his recent Netflix special Strange Times comic Joe Rogan humorously contextualizes just how recently modern times began. “The United States was founded in 1776. People live to be a hundred. That’s three people ago… Three people ago, slave owners made boats out of trees and used the power of the wind to drift across the ocean. They didn’t have a YouTube video to watch first. They didn’t talk to a travel agent. You know what they had? A drawing. Some guy went there and drew it… They took their baby and jumped on a boat and floated across the f***ing ocean with their kids. Animals. That’s us. It just happened. Real recent!”
In fact, the very idea that evolution exists — a scientific theory describing the emergence and corporal transformation of creatures responding to environmental stresses over time — is also damn recent. Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, the definitive book on the subject in 1859. (That’s less than two people ago according to Rogan’s logic.) Now, at the beginning of 2019 might we be witnessing the evolution of evolution itself?
“Evolution has been the norm on this planet: from the simplest prokaryotes to today, a human being with 30 trillion cells and a certain level of cognitive ability,” New York Times bestselling author and founder/chairman of XPRIZE Foundation Peter Diamandis told my coauthor Neil Sahota and I during an interview for our upcoming book, Uber Yourself Before You Get Kodaked: A Modern Primer on A.I. for the Modern Business. Diamandis, an expert at the forefront of technology, believes we are witnessing the evolution of intelligence. “We are going from Darwinism evolution by natural selection to evolution by human direction.”
Recent technological breakthroughs support Diamandis’s assertion. One only need look to the staggering achievements of the gene-editing technology CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) to observe people tinkering with the limits of biology. Within the past decade, scientists have discovered how to edit genes. “We’re talking about a powerful new tool to control which genes get expressed in plants, animals and even humans; the ability to delete undesirable traits and, potentially, add desirable traits with more precision than ever before,” writes Brad Plumer et al. for Vox.
CRISPR made international headlines last November when Chinese scientist Dr. He Jiankui announced he was the first person to create a genetically modified baby. Using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology, he transformed a gene relating to immune function to produce twin girls resistant to HIV. (Reportedly, their father is HIV positive.) Though the U.S. currently bans gene editing and a slew of scientists have denounced Jiankui on ethical grounds, proponents of the technology marvel at its promise to one day eradicate disease altogether, as well as to custom design our progeny’s attributes as precisely as we select avatar characteristics in video games.
Artificial intelligence, explains Diamandis, is opening the door for the types of genetic engineering breakthroughs that ultimately will allow us to evolve our offspring in unprecedented ways. “In the past, breeding has been a relatively random or selective process, a very gross process — but using large-scale machine learning on biological data sets we will be able to better understand how genotypes map onto phenotypes. Now putting aside moral and ethical issues, it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, but when. We are shortly going to be in a position to understand what the exact genes are for increasing a person’s muscular physiology or cognitive intellect and then editing to achieve what’s desired.”
As the preeminent terrestrial species who learned to improve our status through higher-order thinking, our evolution won’t be limited to physical advancement, however. Diamandis predicts imaginative human creativity, coupled with technological innovation, will even evolve the way we think and relate to each other. How might this occur? Beyond evolving ourselves, we will upgrade our environment to suit our needs. “Our world is going to become what I call auto-magical,” says Diamandis. “Automated and magical. It will respond to our desires and inner thoughts.”
We can glimpse a representation of what Diamandis suggests in popular entertainment, such as Ironman Tony Stark’s artificially intelligent computer, J.A.R.V.I.S. (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System). Programmed to speak in a gentlemanly British accent, J.A.R.V.I.S. acts as a kind of 24-7 personal assistant and domestic manager to Stark.
“We’re all going to have a version of J.A.R.V.I.S., powered by A.I.,” says Diamandis. The J.A.R.V.I.S. that Diamandis portends can be likened to individually personalized A.I. software. “We may wear it, it may be just moving as a cloud near us, but effectively, it’ll be a version of J.A.R.V.I.S. that knows us better than we know ourselves and will exist as our interface. This AI software will help us process information and interact with the world at a much higher broad rate than we do today and in a much more holistic fashion.”
Becoming more comfortable with an AI assistant like J.A.R.V.I.S. (or whatever we choose to call it) is just one more step toward what Diamandis also believes is inevitable — and tremendously beneficial — for our species: the merging of our minds via technology. He envisions a future in which humans are interconnected at a cognitive level; a kinder, gentler version of Star Trek’s the Borg or perhaps the telepathic confluence of minds Olaf Stapledon describes in his novel, Star Maker. “I think we are going to begin to merge human consciousness as we connect our neocortices to the cloud,” explains Diamandis.
Returning to popular culture as analogy, Star Trek offers an instructive ideal as to what is possible for evolved societal relations. Set several hundred years in the future, Gene Roddenberry’s vision contemplated a future devoid of tribalism or even planetary jingoism. His protagonists, The Federation, work in harmony, valuing all life in the known universe.
Achieving a similar type of unitary consciousness enters the realm of possibility, suggests Diamandis, when we can cognitively merge — and when we cease viewing life as a zero-sum game. “A more intelligent species is a more peaceful species,” he says. “When we're living in this closer interdependence, what I call a meta-intelligence, an individual’s success in China or Russia or Lithuania is my success. The better someone else does, the better I will do as well.”
In the spirit of such species-wide comradery, it is fitting to return to the subject of the new year and what it heralds. Creating resolutions is a favorite tradition during this time, as we imagine how we might improve in days to come — how we might evolve beyond our wildest ambitions. It would do us well at the start of 2019 to consider one last thought from Diamandis.
“As children we dream of what we want to become. Maybe we dream of being a sports star, a writer, a scientist — but then we get smacked with the reality of life. Maybe we’re not smart enough. Maybe our family doesn’t live in the right area to gain access to the right school. You run into reality limits to your dreams. But I believe that as AI becomes a true partner with humans, it will allow us to obtain what we dream far more reliably and far more easily. AI will enable us to participate in the dream of our lives.”
Michael Ashley, contributor, and fascinated with the artificial intelligence revolution, is currently co-authoring the ultimate guide for businesses on the subject of AI with Neil Sahota, worldwide business development leader and master inventor for the IBM Watson Group. Part author, part screenwriter, Michael Ashley’s treatment was turned into the hit Disney film, Girl Versus Monster. A 4-time Best-Selling author, he has ghostwritten both fiction and non-fiction books. It’s Saturday Morning, his debut traditionally published book (becker&meyer!), will hit bookstores in Q3 with a foreword by Howie Mandel. Michael was commissioned to screenwrite a TV pilot for Brandon Fayette, Lead Visual Effects artist for JJ Abrams (Star Wars, Lost). Prior to establishing Ink Wordsmiths, his own creative content company, he worked in many literary positions, including as a professional reader for the Head of the Literary Department of Creative Artists Agency.