We all feel that there are limits to what certain processes can realize. Looking at the increasing complexity of the world, we ask ourselves “What is next? “, and we expect some changes to happen. But as we are all part of this evolution, it is hard to have a helicopter glance on our path forward. As observer you’re always part of the system.
So far, the entire story is about growth. From my personal growth, via teams and pyramids to larger constellations. It’s about growth of scope, changing levels and discovering new horizons. Implicitly it is also about achieving more, about realizing things that did not exist before. I remember the days when my parents said that “everything goes faster and faster“, meaning they can’t keep up with all new things, unlike their children. But gradually I get the same feeling when I see the younger generations embrace our internet as a self-evident extension of their reality. And it’s not only that things move faster, also the numbers increase dramatically. This is what we call “exponential growth“, an expression that got more attention since in 1972 the (WiKi) Club of Rome published their first warnings about how fast natural sources of the Earth would be exhausted. In their report “The Limits to Growth” they presented the people various graphs about population growth and consumption of goods. During a misleading quiet period there has been no attention for long term effects of our behavior, and we kept thinking that whatever we do has no relation to something else. Think of population growth, resource exhaustion and industrial development. That way the foundation is laid for an uncontrolled process that ends up in disruptive changes, because such growth never can continue forever. Chaos always wins, if we don’t invest in our world. Nowadays systemic thinking gets more attention to better understand and manage such developments (see also: Butterfly effect).
Exponential growth and technological development go hand in hand. Technology enables us to control our environment and prevent all kinds of life-threatening circumstances. A good example is the silicon industry, with Moore’s Law, that improves diagnostics quality in hospitals, secures surveillance of complex traffic situations and assures information is available where and when it’s needed. Not only the number of integrated transistors and electronic storage capacity doubled every couple of years, but also the effort, needed to realize new components or systems, increased. That forced technicians and scientists to find news ways of development, in order to keep up with the possibilities of the digital revolution. Meanwhile the world population is growing faster and faster too, and with these increasing numbers and rising prosperity more and more people use digital devices to enter the internet. I think everyone can see examples of this type of growth around us. Exponential growth doesn’t happen by itself. It is an avalanche effect of all kinds of events that kick each other forward. It’s like a recurring series of triggers that keeps itself going and stimulates every link in the chain to do more, better, faster and so forth. For this to happen, the number of changes or their impacts must grow beyond a critical value. If not, than the changes are reversible. So far we don’t know well how to predict that critical value. Some people point at the knee in the curve, but the problem is that you can only do that once you’re in the exponential part! The dependency of other growth processes doesn’t make it easier: if we try to control growth of certain aspects, we usually find out there are other (often unexpected) mechanisms compensating our efforts. “Action is minus reaction”, Newton in another dimension? Or just the well-known Yin-Yang principle that ensures balance in the entity? The same is valid for technical limitations: the moment we think some technique has physical limits, we find something else without this limitation. The flow keeps going. This is the time of large numbers, statistics, huge organisms that do not let themselves be controlled easily. We are all part of that, we play our roles, and it seems we cannot directly influence what happens.
We now live in an era where exponential growth becomes clearly visible. Maybe exponential growth is a way to reach controlled chaos. We also feel growth cannot continue forever, and because of that the Club of Rome predicted a breakdown of civilization. I don’t know if that will happen. What I do know is that something will happen to release the stress on the system. That can include drastic changes like the discovery of space travel. Maybe we find completely new city styles for the billions of people and their needs for food, shelter and work. To change the rules of the game, our values need to change, that I am sure about!
With all we know today, evolution has shown progress with ups and downs. Growth and then a collapse, when no further development is possible or environmental circumstances changed and life was not able to cope with to the new situation. It looks like the ability to survive is the most prominent driver for evolutionary development. Also the rise of Homo sapiens shows that: compared to his ancestors he was better able to adjust attitudes and practices to dangerous situations. The human body may seem weak compared to many other animals, but somehow it is a great compromise of various skills. With those skills we can survive on our own, but we can also form groups to face big threats. We improve ourselves continuously by learning from our experiences. Our adaptability leads to specialism diversity and reacts faster and with more impact compared to other creatures on Earth. Therefore human population grew exponentially, and simultaneously made other species show exponential decline. The result is that homo sapiens now dominates the globe, and many of the other branches of evolution have disappeared. I am not so sure if human domination is a blessing for our planet, so the facts shall speak for themselves.
The human race itself also goes through an evolution. From scattered groups, via primitive tribes to villages and cities, being capitals of larger domains, we learned to organize ourselves and meanwhile changed the way we get what we need to live: food, shelter and safety. We moved from food collection and hunt to agriculture and livestock to bio-industrial food production. Housing people became a business where the number of living places is no longer based on the need, but on financial profit. From a risky life with many health threats we grew to a secure world with hospitals and medical care to keep us alive in previously impossible cases. The only danger we must face are other human beings. We have this weird habit to try to kill other people and steal what they posses. The better we control that undesirable attitude (nobody who is properly aligned with his environment really wants to murder and take what’s not yours), the faster the exponential growth curve will go up. There’s a common aspect in human development: how the brain develops itself. Our thinking power makes it possible to consider possibilities that are not so obvious based on our actual situation. We can plan across distance and time, and we are patient enough to work towards what we want to achieve. Setbacks don’t stop us, but we see those as learning opportunities. To come to even more powerful ideas and concepts, we combine our thinking in groups. Through science we leave behind collected knowledge for future generations, so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s amazing to see how easily our brain processes so much posthumous knowledge and understanding, still being capable of adding more after our study finished.
This collective thinking continues to expand, and today we see a shift from pure knowledge generation to transparency of information sharing. It’s not only about knowledge, but also how we use it. The public regularly exposes people with short-sighted visions who abuse others. What we do with our lives and earth and why, that is what matters to people. Through internet, humanity is aware of the risks we are facing, and the same medium connects millions of people together to build new thoughts about life and what lies ahead in the future. Gradually we are creating a global brain that looks for good survival strategies for the next generations.
Earth is a special planet, even though not the only planet where life is possible, because life gets a chance again and again. This is even more surprising if we understand that the cosmic boundary conditions for life are very narrow. According to Nick Bostrom, the chances for humanity to stay within those limits are smaller than the options to either grow to a next level or be extinguished. Is there something we should or can do about it?
4.3 Artificial intelligence
Long time ago, when we started to combine brain power, the results were not so long-lasting. The people who started the team died, and if no good succession is in place, finally the team will also disappear. As response, humans formed bigger communities with succession planning and began to archive knowledge. Until technology started to help us store information in a reproducible way, knowledge and experience didn’t grow much and people couldn’t develop themselves in large numbers. But gradually also technology got better until we entered the digital era, and internet spans the globe. Millions of nodes and servers connect with each other now. Software development moved from sequential line coding to distributed sources that under certain conditions call specific functions from other nodes. Information is now available for everyone. The “Internet of Things” comes up, where every item has its sensors and actuators to pass information on to other units that use it for functions we now cannot even think of. The ethic question of privacy is nothing else but how to deal with the shift of identity priority from individual to global organisms.
When we talk about “artificial intelligence” the idea is about an electronic brain inside equipment that fulfills specific control tasks just like humans would do, with similar judging power and actions. Scientists acknowledge that to approach a human brain, technology must further develop until a relatively small volume holds enough decision nodes. With that thought in mind we calm ourselves, saying that artificial intelligence still is far away. It will take some time before creatures, like in the movie “I Robot “, will be around…
But something else is happening, driven by exponential growth of:
- the number of connections between people, using their gadgets and computers,
- the amount of communicated data and offline processing,
- the enormous size of data-centers as well as the number of these giant data-processing nodes,
- the processing speed and transmission bandwidth, and
- the redundancy in the global internet via distributed clouds and processors.
Even though we program all units separately, and we think we controlled their interaction with other nodes in the network, we should not forget that internet density explodes. Just like modern software is difficult to verify because we don’t know all possible states and responses anymore, we are not sure how this complex internet behaves. Meanwhile our dependency of the internet is almost complete: our entire public social life goes via tools that use internet, and that trend goes faster if I see how younger generations live their lives via the screens of their smartphones and tablets. We are used to online shopping and banking, and settle things like insurances completely via websites. Internet became a virtual world where we all can move around without the limitations of our physical existence. In a way, internet gave our identity and values new dimensions.
To get an impression about the size and complexity, take a look at Google’s Data Centers in this overview from CNet.
If we now are at the knee of the growth curve of internet intelligence, the next thing that will boost growth is the quantum computer. It uses light transmission instead of electric current or charges, and thus can have higher integration, more processors, higher calculation speeds and less power consumption. But there’s something more important. Our traditional computers use the “bit” as
information unit, the binary digit. Values are either “0” or “1”, and therefore computers are the greatest implementation of dualistic thinking. By forming strings of multiple bits we create variety and nuances, where every place in the string represents a detailed quality of the thing we describe by that string. That way we can encode numbers, characters, but also behaviors, consumption patterns etc. The only limitation in accuracy is the number of positions in the string. Since the first introduction of computers I have seen this number grow from 4 to 8, 16, 32, 64, 128 bits and further. Today we all know that a 64 bit PC performs better than a 32 bit machine. Security key encryption should grow from 128 to over 256 bits to prevent hackers from breaking it (meaning: it takes them too long). But a high number of bits also has a disadvantage: the communication backbone in a PC must transport that number simultaneously, and electronic boards somehow reach the functional reliability limit, even with higher integration in silicon.
As said before: digital technology using bits is a superb form of dual thinking. For a computer every single processing element is a simple “yes/no” decision. It’s impossible to leave something unclear; the best option we have is to start coding a gradient for each decision. But in the end, the computer always decides between two options. So here is the quantum computer, calculating with qubits. In simple terms this means we allow mixed decisions: the choice is between “yes”, “no”, and “both” and “none”. So our decision element suddenly has 4 states instead of 2. That way the quantum computer surpasses our binary thinking, and will be able to develop a higher level of intelligence than we can imagine. Remember how we used the quadrant to overcome dual decisions? It could lead to new combinations, give insights in interesting dimensions we do not expect and so forth. And in its simple form it reduced the communication. Similar advantages are with qubits.
The quantum computer is still under development; at present only the principle techniques are available. For a recent update, please read “Are Practical Quantum Computers Coming in 2018? “ In this time of exponential growth this technology will complete faster than previous breakthrough discoveries. It’s a matter of time before major processing centers have servers with quantum computers. At the same time innovations such as blockchain technologies are gaining momentum. This helps to secure distributed storage of dynamic information and thus reduces dependency of local storage centers. You can imagine that the overall internet intelligence will rise to unpredictable heights, and that’s the moment when we have created our super-intelligence. Following the line of evolution, this next step will help us survive. Well….. only if we do things right! There’s a big discussion about how higher intelligence always causes extinction of creatures with lower intelligence. But I do have hope because the Internet of Things couples human behavior into the system. Maybe a future step in evolution is to also connect our brain to this network: when we’re integrated part of that system, we will be safe. But that’s all futuristic dreaming. We’d better face reality of today!