From atoms to “bits”


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Half of the Top 10 Trends For 2017 defined in the winter Trends Journal are a result of one major underlying force.

Make It New: The creation of new social awareness.

RIP: The Fourth Estate: The dramatic transformation of media.

Rust Belt 2.0: The astonishing effect of machines increasingly thinking for us.

VR-Ed: The transformation of our educational system via virtual-reality education.

The Ontrendpreneur: The growing demand for cutting-edge creativity in the professional world.

No More Cash: The global movement toward digital currency.

These individual trends emerge out of the growing integration between the human brain and exponentially increasing computer intelligence.

This growing integration is significantly transforming the content of our daily lives, such as the economy (many analysts predict a loss of about 40 percent of all current jobs to computer algorithms and robotics).

It also is transforming our concept of what “intelligence” means and what our purpose is.

If some of the most insightful experts in technology, neurology, psychology, culture and history are correct, we are in the unique, historic position of choosing (if we are conscious enough) the next evolutionary shift on this planet.

MACHINE INTELLIGENCE ALCHEMY

To get a clearer picture of this growing integration of the human mind and super computer intelligence, I will highlight some deep insights from Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine, long-time journalist of digital culture, and author most recently of “The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.”

Kelly’s view is this: The underlying freedom, connectivity and adaptability of the digital screen is moving us toward a world in which creativity is much more important than the status quo, and where the billions of people around the globe, connected by the World Wide Web, are producing a new level of organization based more on sharing and access rather than competition and ownership.  

As the 21st century began, Kelly had become one of the sharpest and most influential journalists of cyberculture and digital technology. And yet, as he tells the story, he (like virtually all of us) was unaware of the most important technological development underway.

His “Aha!” moment came when he attended a small party in 2002 thrown by Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, before the company’s initial public stock offering. At that point, Google was one of many Silicon Valley start-ups trying to catch the wave of Yahoo!, the most popular search engine at that time.

Kelly writes that the conversation went like this:

“‘Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?’
Page’s answer: “Oh, we’re really making an AI (artificial intelligence).”

HOW REAL IS REAL?

As we now know, Google went on to purchase dozens of AI companies.

The epiphany Kelly reveals is this: Google wasn’t enhancing its AI portfolio to improve its search engine. It was just the reverse. It was enhancing the search engine to make its AI much more intelligent.

Whenever we type a Google search inquiry or click on a website, we are traveling a two-way street. We get the benefit of tapping into an expansive matrix of information, and Google’s AI learns more and more how humans think and what our interests are.  

Today, Google receives over 3.5 billion search requests every day, each one, in Kelly’s words, “tutoring the deep-learning AI over and over again.”

(Note: The term “artificial intelligence” was coined at a technology conference hosted by Dartmouth College in 1956. Some digital advocates like Kelly prefer the term “alien intelligence,” because what is emerging will be so radically different from what we humans currently consider intelligence that “alien” is a more appropriate reference.)

As a thought experiment, imagine we had a brain with the ability to bypass all our human fears, anxieties and defensive ego issues so it could absorb information in a pure, unfiltered way. Now imagine this brain taking in more than 3.5 billion bits of information every day and having the capability of learning how this information connects in qualitative ways (that’s known as deep learning).

This is actually happening. It’s why Google, a start-up company only 19 years ago, is now the most valuable company in the world (actually, that designation recently has been shifting between first and second place with Apple, another AI company).

As we upload more and more of our preferences, opinions, perceptions, thoughts, emotions and insights into the matrix of computer intelligence we now call “the cloud,” it becomes more and more “us.”

As we become more dependent on the cloud to remember what we need and want, where do we end and where does the computer intelligence begin?

REINVENTING “US”

As I reviewed my notes after reading “The Inevitable: Understanding 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future,” the phrase that stands out most, the one that most clearly signifies the enormous force created by the interaction of the human brain and super computer intelligence is… Atoms to bits.

This seemingly simple phrase points us to the enormous underlying shift causing both mind-blowing advances and deep-seated anxieties.  

COMPUTER, BRAIN INTELLIGENCE MERGE

Atoms to bits gets to the heart of the revolutionary interaction between our brains and exponentially increasing computer intelligence.

To make this clearer, Kelly quotes Tom Goodwin of the Internet technology news source TechTarget:

“The world’s largest taxi company (Uber) owns no vehicles… Alibaba, the world’s most valuable retailer, has no inventory. Airbnb (the world’s largest accommodation provider) owns no real estate.”

Products are undergoing what Kelly calls “dematerialization.”

Take the car. This might be the most dominant symbol of the last century. It now is shifting away from a mass of steel and hard parts that we drive. It’s becoming silicon intelligence — a virtual computer on wheels. Self-driving cars are expected on the market in the near future. We already use GPS for navigation rather than printed maps. Coming soon are wireless connections for maintenance and safety.

This shift from atoms to bits is much more influential than just changing who (or what) is driving our cars. It’s shifting our perception of who we are, how we perceive the world and our capacity for intelligence.

From the 5th century BCE until the 21st century, the world around us, along with our own minds and bodies, have been perceived as consisting of hard, impenetrable matter.  

Our word, atom, comes from Democritus, the 5th century BCE Greek philosopher. He was the first to offer an atomic theory, i.e., everything that exists is made up of small, indivisible parts he called atomos, the Greek word for “indivisible” or “uncuttable.”

But AI, the super computer intelligence increasingly operating the systems sustaining our lives, does NOT consist of hard, indivisible parts. It’s made up of non-material mathematical forms called “bits.”

A bit is a basic unit of information. For the purposes of this article (my experience is in philosophy, media and depth psychology, not mathematics and computer science) what’s important to note is that bits are not hard, indivisible objects. They’re more like a pulsating current that generates information in a way we can access it.

BRICK AND MORTAR NO MORE

This shift from atoms to bits is having an even greater effect by switching us from a world based primarily on ownership of material goods to one of accessing services (the world’s largest taxi company owning no cars, the largest retailer owning no hard assets, etc.).

The entire global economy is shifting from material objects to intangible bits.

Kelly refers to this shift as “the major cultural story of the last three decades.” Two key words Kevin Kelly offers to capture the essence of this influential shift are “remixing” and “collaboration.” Let’s explore them in more depth.

Because of the shift from atoms to bits, our current media environment is being “remixed” faster and more pervasively than ever before.

We’re all familiar with the revolutionary change in the music business. In less than 30 years, powerful, multi-million-dollar record companies have gone through significant consolidation. We are no longer limited to the songs they select for a CD. We can remix individual songs however we choose. But this is just the start. Newspaper articles, TV programs and movies still exist, but digital technology “unbundles” these older forms into “bits” of information that can be recombined in new ways.

Not only is the entire media environment being remixed, soon we will have the ability to remix the material essence of who we are, i.e., our inherent DNA structure, through genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

One key takeaway from this astonishing remixing is this: To most effectively deal with this fast-emerging environment, we need to shift the orientation of our brains and modes of thinking from sequential/logical to creative/intuitive.

To see how remixing offered by today’s computer technology is changing the way we need to think in innovative ways, let’s compare reading digital pixels on a screen to reading printed words on a book page.

A book is made from separated pages of printed letters fixed in a particular arrangement (sequential/linear order). The text that appears on a screen is a non-material, ephemeral image. We can’t touch it. Our sensitivities are used to the feel of paper as we turn a page. This lack of physical touch is why many people still prefer print to screen.

But the digital screen creates a deep subliminal “touch” by connecting us, through hypertext links and search engines, to additional sources of information that can expand and contextualize the meaning of what we are looking to learn. We no longer are restricted to that private page and singular viewpoint. We have immediate access to multiple points of view and insights through which our brains can perceive new and deeper patterns of information.

The digital screen may not provide the tactile touch of the page, but it puts us “in touch” with a connected matrix of links that encourages a more “collaborative” mindset.

LET TECH DO THE MEMORIZATION

This “remixing” of information and “collaborative” mindset conducive to the digital screen are changing the very nature of learning.

Baby boomers and Gen Xers have been taught that learning is primarily the memorization of individual facts in a sequential order. That’s reflective of the nature of the printed page that consists of separate words on linear lines. This is conducive for a specialized focus on particular facts.

But computers are exponentially better at this kind of intelligence than we are. We no longer are needed for it.

A more useful and fulfilling role for us in the emerging digital environment will require a loosening of fixed, sequential thinking and a more open-minded “remixing” of previous knowledge into new and innovative patterns.

As noted in the Scientific American article, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” “Scrolling through a digital text may not be the ideal way to navigate a full-length book like Moby Dick, but The New York Times, Washington Post, ESPN and other media outlets have created beautiful, highly visual articles that play to the strength of the digital screen and could not appear in print in the same way.”  

Although many studies conclude that people understand what they read on paper more thoroughly than what they read on screens, the differences are often small.

It turns out that the preference for the printed page is more a result of resistance to the “new,” which has been the case for all major technological innovations throughout human history. There is a period of adjustment, particularly for older generations more habituated to previous technologies.

RECALL, SEQUENCE, SHAPE, LOGIC

The reality is that, going forward, we will give up tasks requiring memory, sequence and logic to computers. We are entering an emerging environment in which all the traditional IQ we need will be provided by inexpensive, reliable computer intelligence running behind everything — not only smartphones and TVs, but “smart” cars, buildings and entire environments. As Kevin Kelly points out, “Everything we formerly electrified we will now cognitize.” Our basic self-identity and sense of purpose are shifting.

To take advantage of this new reality, we need to use the expanded gateways of the digital environment to tap into our brain’s capacity for creativity, innovation and “big picture” thinking.

CODA: WHY I’M OPTIMISTIC

Yuval Noah Harari, noted historian and author of two globally influential books, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, agrees super computer intelligence is creating a crucial evolutionary shift.

But Harari is much more pessimistic than Kelly. Whereas the Industrial Revolution produced textiles and vehicles, the product of this next revolution will be the production of new human minds and bodies through silicon chip implants, genetic engineering and nano-technology.

Although these new technologies will produce astounding advances in longevity and intelligence capabilities, Harari fears the wealthy and most powerful individuals will monopolize these new enhanced minds and bodies. That would create an even bigger gulf between the “haves” and “have nots.”

I am not looking to minimize the stress and anxieties of the shift from atoms to bits and the inherent greed and desire for power revealed throughout human history. The point is, as Marshall McLuhan, the provocative media theorist of the 1960s, pointed out, every major new technology — from writing to printing to photography to radio to television, right up to the computer — wreaks havoc for a time on the nervous system until we acclimate to it.

For example, when writing was developed in 5th century BCE Greece, many philosophers, including Plato, vehemently criticized it for weakening the oral tradition. When the printing press was invented, it was feared that the proliferation of books would kill off conversation and encourage anti-social isolation. The invention of every significant new media disrupts and reshapes our senses and social perception, which can have a numbing effect (see McLuhan’s “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” and “The Medium Is the Massage”.)

The nationalistic, self-centered “build a wall” mentality we see in the news can therefore be seen as a predictable reactionary fear to this new shift from “atoms to bits.” The shift is opening a global environment transcending national boundaries, traditional lines of engagement and traditional ways of thinking.

In the 21st century, as we watch enhanced computer intelligence increase at blinding speed, what we consider human intelligence is being questioned as never before.

Smart machines can learn more, remember more and retrieve more information much faster and much more effectively than we humans can. So where does this leave us?   TJ  

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