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Humanity vs Technology

Explore the key messages in Gerd Leonhard’s book, Part One
by Gerd Leonhard

Humanity vs Technology

The book title is simply meant as a provocation, not as a prediction. My position is one of the hopeful optimist, so for me, ‘versus’ would be the worst possible case – where technology would no longer further the goal of human flourishing, but rather ‘flourish itself.’ However, I don’t think that is likely to happen if we can finally start to collaborate on a global set of digital ethics and a collective understanding of what/who we want to be in the future, and define where ‘human’ ends and ‘machine’ starts, and vice versa.

In an ideal future, humanity will sit on top of technology, harness its power to solve most of humanity’s challenges (disease, water, food, energy, etc.), while allowing us to spend more time on the top layers of the Maslow needs pyramid (i.e. social and cultural needs, self realisation, etc.). Humanity plus (or with) technology would be an overall positive outcome – and this has been our historical default, of course. Therefore, I’m 90% positive and 10% worried at this point – but it’s certainly urgent to not let the 10% grow exponentially along with everything else, either!

Humanity will Change More in the Next 20 Years Than The Previous 300 Years.

Some people snicker at this statement because it sounds like grand-standing. I think it is actually an understatement given the reality of exponential and combinatorial technological change – the compound effect of these changes vastly surpasses the industrial revolution or the invention of the printing press, IMHO.

One key factor is that technology will no longer remain just outside of us (such as the steam engine or the printing press which existed outside of human biology, i.e. our bodies) – it is actually moving inside of us (via wearables, BCIs, nano-technology, human genome editing, AI, etc.) thus impacting the very definition of humanity.  To date, technology revolutions have involved the material world around us. When technology starts involving the biological world within us – and this has really started already – the 300 years in that statement may swiftly expand to 3,000 years.

Embrace technology but don’t become it.

Genii or Pandora? Because technology is a human product, it has always cut both ways. But what I’m concerned about in the current transhumanist debate is the automatic assumption that we already know the limits of humanity – and that those limits should be dismantled via some type of intervention. Technological progress is clearly not something that we can undo or prevent, or stuff back into the box. Technology is growing exponentially powerful, and much of it is likely to have very positive effects on humanity – such as the possibility of ending diseases, solving energy issues and reducing global warming, and possibly halting or reversing climate change.  My point in the book is that we need to embrace technology and harness its positive powers but we should not become technology ourselves in the process, i.e. we should pursue human genome editing which may eventually allow us to defeat cancer, diabetes or Alzheimers – but we should probably not use the very same technology to allow us to program our babies, or indeed re-program humanity or create hybrid human-machine ‘beings’.

Other examples include language translation tools which are certain to become 99% perfect and thus omnipresent within the very near future. While we will and should use such tools to make our lives easier, we should certainly not discontinue language education and training in our schools. An unmediated conversation is an entirely different thing than speaking through an app or bot, and it needs to remain a core possibility of human interaction. We should not automate human interactions to such a degree that we can no longer function without it. The book’s chapter on ‘not becoming technology’ also comments on the debate about human augmentation: Once our brains can seamlessly connect directly to the Internet  i.e. ‘The Global Brain’ and the cloud, via wearables and AR / VR, or via Brain-Computer-Interfaces (BCIs) or via implants (within 5-8 years) – who would not want to have those kinds of super-powers resulting from this development?  Yet, if we do embrace this capability as ‘the new normal,’ we may quickly cease to be functional without it. Is that a good idea? Can anything be done about it?

Technology is not What We Seek but How We Seek

Increasingly, technology is going beyond being merely a tool, becoming its own ‘purpose’ instead.  Facebook used to be a tool for finding and connecting to friends; now it is a giant data-mining operation and global media company that generates billions of dollars in advertising (read more on why that’s an issue, here). LinkedIn used to be a great tool for facilitating business connections between us; now it is becoming a predominant and increasingly self-serving engine for global HR/work/jobs analytics; we can’t even use its most useful features anymore without spending serious money on subscriptions. LinkedIn used to be a great tool – now it is becoming its own purpose. Our ‘tools’ have minds of their own, and agendas for our time and attention; agendas which are becoming all too obvious as platforms are bought out and brands are floated on the stock exchange.

Technological Change is Exponential and Combinatorial

Moore’s law may eventually end as far as chips and processors are concerned, but everything else is still following its basic logic, doubling technological powers while halving the cost every 12-24 months (depending on the exact vertical). The most important thing to understand is that we’re no longer at the beginning of this curve i.e. at 0.001, doubling to 0.002 – we’re at 4 and the next step is 8. Going 6 steps from 4 to 128 means roughly a 30x change in approx 10 years.

The key challenge: technology is exponential but humans are linear! This is not a question of evolving from horsepower to the combustion engine – or from rail to flight. Now we are entering much deeper waters where timeless concepts such as privacy disappear and augmented human performance may rapidly fragment our society.

We are at the pivot point – ‘gradually then suddenly’ is becoming the new normal.

We have reached a crucial point in human history: ‘4’ on the exponential scale (2016). This is the pivot point after which doubling really starts to matter, quickly. Going forward, there will be increasingly less ‘gradual’ and a lot more ‘suddenly’, across the board – and we need to consider this in pretty much every sector of society. Gradually is over – wait and see means waiting to become irrelevant.  When looking at business matters, you can see this most strikingly in the lightning rise of digital behemoths and the mass extinction of age-old brands.

The Future is Hellven (Hell+Heaven Simultaneously)

This is another key meme in my work and the TVH book: The changes I am talking about will be both heaven and hell, depending on your position and ability to absorb them. Digitization and automation is heaven for large companies but hell for the employees, and often their customers. Datafication, intelligization and virtualization can reduce costs by 95% (heaven) but also significantly increase security risks and annihilate privacy.

Who is in charge? What will our ethics and values be?  The linear cycles of historical experience are already morphing into parallel universes of rich and poor, peaceful and war-ridden. Business cycles within industries also vanish, as winners and losers contrast dramatically at any one time. This is more than just the conflation of time and space so often defined as globalisation – this is exponential technology redefining what it means to exist as a human being at any one time.

So What are Androrithms?

This is a key neologism (i.e. a word I coined) in the book. I use this new term to describe what really matters for most of us: human ‘rhythms,’ as opposed to machine rhythms, i.e. algorithms. Just as there are circadian rhythms that rule our daily movements as humans, so are androrithms of behavior and culture which determine our perception and experience. A super-computer can win a chess or GO game but can currently not really follow or understand a 2-year old toddler. A person that meets me in a hallway somewhere needs an average of 1.4 seconds to gain some kind of basic understanding about me, even without speaking – a computer still does not really understand my values, ethics and feelings, even after it has ingested my entire browsing and social network history of the past 7 years (an estimated 200 Million data points).

Androrithms include human-only traits such as empathy, compassion, creativity, storytelling and soon to likely become relics such as mystery, serendipity, mistakes and secrets. Consider, for example, what that will mean for the future history of invention!  I sometimes comment that for every new, magical and amazing algorithm, we also need to strengthen our ancient androrithms. Every technological advancement impacts how we interact as humans, and in many future cases, we will need to safeguard and hedge our essential human idiosyncrasies so that they are not diminished or even eradicated by the tendency of technology to swiftly present itself as a solution to everything.

“Computers are stupid – they only provide answers” (after Picasso).

Computers are for answers, humans are for questions (after Kevin Kelly).


This is Part One of a two-part series. Find Part Two here.

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