Tuesday, March 29, 2011

World Wide Mind

Excerpts from the book by Michael Chorost that were published on Seed Magazine:

"...technology advances by integrating. That is, when one system improves, it spurs improvement in other systems so they can keep up. When those systems improve, they in turn spur the first system to improve. The systems become increasingly dependent on each other. Their futures become mutually bound.

Take, for example, desktop computers and the software that runs them. Better computers let software engineers write bigger programs. Bigger programs create a demand for better computers. The computer manufacturers are happy to oblige, and the cycle starts all over again. A push is matched by a pull, which evokes a new push. That push-pull dynamic has rammed innovation into overdrive. For example, it took between 1900 and 1990 to develop computers that could perform one million instructions per second (MIPS) per thousand dollars. In 2005, computer manufacturers added an additional MIPS per thousand dollars to their computers every five hours.

A push-pull dynamic is hobbled, though, when one system can’t improve as fast as the other. The Internet is improving very fast. The human body improves very slowly. Our hands evolved to grip spears and plows, and so can type only so many emails in a day. Our senses evolved to monitor a largely unchanging savannah for friends and predators, and so can pay attention to only a handful of events at a time. To be sure, some human attributes like IQ appear to have risen in the twentieth century, but the rate of increase is much slower than technology’s. There is no Moore’s Law for human beings.

This mismatch between humans and the Internet imposes inherent limits on how much either can improve. This is unfortunate, because they are a natural match for a push-pull dynamic driving each other upward. Their strengths are complementary. The Internet is fast, while humans are slow; capacious, while humans are forgetful. Conversely, humans are self-aware while the Internet isn’t, and humans can interact with the physical world while the Internet can’t. But they also have aligned strengths: they are both intensely networked, intensely communicative entities."

There appear to be two solutions to this conundrum - either we integrate computers and communication technologies into humans to increase individual capacity (cyborgs) or we integrate everyone into one thinking organism exponentially increasing our capacity. I personally opt for the later over the former. The former leads possibility of the Singularity does not seem at attractive future. Beside, the later integration will force us to grow our social and spiritual skills in order to peacefully collaborate worldwide.

While I have not read Chorost's book, he seems to favor the latter option as well for he writes:

"To be sure, the Internet is a human invention reflecting human choices and values. However, it often looks as if it is a separate species with an internal logic of its own. The 1987 stock market crash has been blamed on program trading—computers that started selling frantically because every other computer was selling. The ceaseless war between viruses and antivirus programs looks eerily like the workings of a biological ecosystem. However, even if one posits that the Internet is comparable to a biological species, it’s obvious that it’s not very intelligent. It has primitive ways of “sensing” and “reacting,” but it has no self-awareness and no ability to formulate its own goals. Nor, as I argue later, could it ever reach such a state on its own. It could, however, be the backbone of a sophisticated new organism if physically integrated with humanity. The Internet would become a new nervous system for humanity, and humanity would become a new body and executive brain for the Internet."

Read more excerpts here.

His ideas are closely related to de Chardin's concept of the noogenesis. Read more about that concept here.

In either case, we are creating more complexity.

World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet
, Michael Chorost, Free Press, 2011

Michael Chorost is a technology theorist with an unusual perspective: his body is the future. In 2001 he went completely deaf and had a computer implanted in his head to let him hear again. This transformative experience inspired his first book, Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, in which he wrote about how mastering his new ear, a cochlear implant, enabled him to enhance his creative potential as a human being. Dr. Chorost earned his B.A. at Brown University and studied computer programming, Renaissance drama, and cultural theory on the way to his Ph.D. at UT-Austin. He doesn’t draw sharp lines between programming, science, writing, and art; to him, these are all profoundly creative human endeavors.

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