In recent weeks we reviewed the Five historic waves of human innovation, culminating in the transformative effect of free markets. How do we prepare for the sixth wave?
The Future is Already Here
You may not notice it yet, but the sixth wave is already underway. We’ve been swimming in it our whole lives. If you’re one of the fortunate lottery winners of circumstance, you’ve been born into a free society (Wave 4) with free markets (Wave 5), in relative safety, security and comfort (Wave 3), with the benefit of a liberal education steeped in math (Wave 2) and science conveyed in rich language (Wave 1).
Like me, you have benefited from all five waves.
The sixth wave is rolling forward. Even if you don’t feel the current, we rush forward on rising waters.
The Age of Data
Our lives coincide with the Information Age, fueled by a vast pool of data expanding geometrically. The ability to quantify metrics at scale offers penetrating insight and compounding benefits. We can predict the weather, launch satellites, and communicate reliably, instantly and globally virtually for free. We can count blood platelets and microscopic viral loads to combat illness, extend and save lives. We can tally warheads, track missile trajectories, and pinpoint and avert imminent threat, and post it all live.
By any historic standard, we enjoy astounding super powers. Friedrich Nietsche might recognize us as his “ubermensche” or “superman” of the future, a concept that crystalized his post-Christian philosophy in 1883.
Might Charles Babbage or Ada Lovelace or Alan Turing ever dream that our ability to count from zero to one, no matter how fast or how often, could possibly unleash today’s magic? Just crunching numbers?
Today we can count everything, and increasingly everything counts. Despite the cold calculus of this mechanized, quantified existence, all this data unleashes another possibility. We are moving into a new “hyper human”—and more humane—era.
The Eon of Aeon
A few decades before the turn of the 21st century, director Stanley Kubrick projected a different future. His 1968 breathtaking film, 2001 a Space Odyssey, (from a short story by Arthur C. Clarke), introduces Dave, a flesh and blood astronaut. He and his crew propel through space, accompanied by HAL, a disembodied male computer voice—the machine-learned “brain” of their ship.
We squirm for Dave as HAL’s consciousness recognizes his fate. A very fragile and very mortal primate threatens HAL’s immortality.
Will HAL submit to his “master”, or take control of his own destiny, along with the human occupants of their craft? Does the vessel become the organism? It’s not much of a pivot to think of the human organisms hitching a ride as bacterial parasites on the host.
How far off are we? Ask Alexa or Siri as your autonomous Uber careens through the streets of Philadelphia. Do we risk Alexa’s wrath as her global computing power begins to match the wet chipset in our own crania? Stephen Hawking thought so. Bill Gates and Elon Musk have also sounded early alarms.
Put these worries aside. The future alway proves brighter, in the long run, than we fear. We are a flawed creature, to be sure. We forecast our own future poorly. But time and again we have industriously righted our own wrongs, contained our diseases, mopped up our mess, gathered up our slings and arrows, and learned to work together, to live together.
More of us thrive together than apart. It’s time to consider the Sixth wave, to rise above our base instincts, from human to humane, to truly come together.
So have hope. Rather than fretting that Terminator’s arrival, imagine the intersection of a few mega-trends. Where might these lead us?
Health, Wealth & Happiness
The Sixth wave forecasts social progress along three vectors: Health, Wealth and Happiness.
Just projecting past progress forward, the next generation will experience accelerating growth in overall population health. We will enjoy lower mortality rates, reduced illness overall, more intractable diseases conquered or relegated from lethal to nuisance, fewer catastrophic injuries, all producing expectations for most of humanity to enjoy longer, healthier, fuller and more active lives.
Exponential progress arises from the compounding benefits of the network effect. Sciences and data sources begin to merge and mutually reinforce our insights. Imagine how just six trends might ladder up to a very different level of human health, from the micro to macroscopic.
First, consider the now maturing advances in Biotechnology, the next generation past the large molecule experimentation of chemists that fueled 19th and 20th century pharmaceutical breakthroughs.
2. Fuel that further with Nanotech, and the promise of microscopic mechanical interventions even at an cellular level.
3. And then the emerging insights we are gleaning from our own genome, Genomics – promising personalized preventative diagnoses and treatments unique to your body’s needs.
4. Moving beyond the internal, take the explosive growth in Biometrics—the countless measurements and accumulating interrelationships among ambiently tracked and recorded data. We can now begin to understand patterns of individual behavior to add to compliance practices for more effective treatment.
5. Scale that up to Population data, and we can understand outliers and patterns for whole groups of people, and show correlations by location, age, gender, and eventually maybe genome.
Finally, consider the rapid expansion in the “Millions of Instructions Per Second (MIPS)” coming online in the various fields of sciences. This shorthand—”Science MIPS“—refers to the vastly expanding number of deeply educated brains focusing on these challenges, as more of the developing world moves beyond subsistence and poverty to enter the economic middle class, with all the opportunities for distributed labor, specialization and advanced education.
More brains, regardless of location, are like more nodes in a collaborative global network. Expect accelerating speed and volume of breakthroughs. Which in turn makes us wealthier…
Consider how another six growth trends might intersect to produce mutually reinforcing social benefit. We don’t have to speculate; we’ve watched this curve since the advent of agriculture and the uptick in recent centuries with the industrial revolution. We are moving toward the hockey stick’s angled blade.
How will these factors collide, as each expands?
- Literacy rates: more people world wide participating in the conversation
- Food production: healthier populations with more time for leisure
- Global distribution: more fluid markets spread and multiply wealth.
- Capital access: overcoming the funding paradox, from community funding to micro-lending to cyber-currency ubiquity
- Transaction platforms: increasing access to markets by more people with more disposable income.
- Global connectivity (including simultaneous translation): permitting all languages to communicate as one, in real time.
The preceding implications make us “happier” as a species—more content, less likely to murder one another in the dark, and with less to fear, increasing transparency, decency and mutual support. Another six trends continue and combine with the prior twelve:
- Rule of law: more societies with clear and enforced norms of decency and fair play.
- Transparency: more leaders accountable to their people.
- Self-determination: more individuals engaging in the debate and voting their own interests
- Free markets: more people making their own destinies
- Connectedness: with greater understanding
- Tolerance: and therefore greater willingness to consider difference.
These trends have been underway in the free societies of the OECD countries for generations, and in some instances for centuries. They continue to expand around the world as connection, education and the leveling technologies slowly overcome barriers and counter-balance inequities.
So where, in summary, might this looming Sixth wave of human progress take us?
In 1965, Alan Turing’s contemporary (and code-breaking colleague at Bletchley Park during WWII) Isadore Gudak (“I.J. Good”) postulated that statistically, computational growth would lead to artificial intelligence, which in turn would trigger an “intelligence explosion“. The world would learn more in seconds we had accrued in all of prior history.
Inventor, sonic engineer and techno-futurist Ray Kurzweil is among many who have observed the social change curve described by the Five Waves in this series. He added to Gudak’s thesis, proposing the rapid evolution of a “super intelligence.” Kurzweil applies this to our insatiable quest for immortality, the prospect of an eventual singularity event (a concept borrowed from the disruption of physical time and space at the rim of a black hole—the threshold where former rules no longer apply; the paradigm shifts).
This “technological singularity” imagines the moment when the interconnected nodes of the world-wide web, powered by an accelerating, self-learning, autonomous artificial intelligence, exceed the connections among the nodes in a single human brain. Soon after, in his race against the clock, Kurzweil hopes to perform his own version of Disney’s cryogenic fountain of youth. He will load his memories and “cognitive code” into cyberspace, to live forever as an independent consciousness in the ether. Bodies return to the dust, and mankind ascends to the cloud.
This of course sounds exactly like most western descriptions of a spiritual god (and several overwrought episodes of Star Trek). It might serve as a compelling thought exercise, but “super intelligence” offers only a “single-minded” vision; it extrapolates only the vector of technology-enabled cognition. As noted in our preceding themes of health, wealth and happiness, such a narrow forecast ignores all the parallel trends that will impact the human condition and our way of life.
We must confess that humans have proven notoriously bad at forecasting, particularly timing. We consistently expect too much in the near term, and underestimate the longer term. Although Kurzweil and his contemporary techno-Ponce de Leons account for this, most forecasts of this Singularity puts its occurrence sometime into the next quarter century.
The computational platform should arrive on schedule. This ignores the advances required in the primary sciences to translate wet synapse organic chemistry into electrical signals, not to mention the connective “operating system” to allow signals to inorganically interoperate on a biological analog. So expect that we’ll slide well past the expiration date for most of the folks on the planet today, even with huge advances in human health. Get used to the idea that the only post-mortal cloud we’ll be visiting is the one where Nana has taken up residence.
But the future of humanity will arrive in some form every day. Rather than the singularity, I prefer to think of this convergence as producing “transcendence“, a future where we ultimately escape the tedium and brutality of our animal existence, which may occur in any of an infinite number of forms. Maybe we load our brains into bits. Maybe we stay a bit more tethered to our carnal senses. (I, for one, would miss bacon.)
However we arrive at the next stage of our journey, human’s fight to make the world better for their children. And every morning we seek to make tomorrow better than today. The data is on our side.
Better Late Than Never
Of course not all factors support this sunny prospect. We have much to do to correct our climate impact. Despite the receding ice caps, we are already making progress. We have probably done too little too late to save Miami. But as a pack animal, we tend to rally when the pain gets too acute and too obvious for the tribe to ignore. Very human. Very visceral, very dumb—but better late than never!
I’m watching for the next indicator on the path to transcendence. Permit me to suggest a label: aeondata (pr. ay-on-dot-ta), from the ancient Greek “aeon”, or “life” and the Latin “data”, or “things given“. I like to think of data that way—as the many gifts our lives derive from our connected world.
Cherish our gifted present. Imagine our astounding future. Prepare for the Sixth wave.