Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A thought experiment on the end of Humanity

Pretty slick title huh? Thought of it myself.

My girlfriend used to be a high school teacher. She told me an interesting fact - she said one of her bigger issues was that sometimes when a student handed-in an assignment, it wasn't uncommon for it to be something the student simply found on the Internet, cut-and-pasted into their word processor and handed it in. If you're like most people I tell this too, you're a bit unhappy about the laziness of these students. Instead of learning something for them self, they simply used Google to find it, and (effectively) recite what they found. Pretty weak, eh?

Einstein was once asked how many feet are in a mile. He replied something like "I don't keep information in my head, when I can just open a book up" (I googled that). Einstein apparently didn't have google.

Funny thing is that when Einstein was alive he'd look up simple facts (i.e. 5280 feet) in a book. Ten years ago we had the ability to look it up on our computers. Now I can look it up on my phone that's with me at all times. What do you think is next?

Let's say that what's next is mind interface to the net. Surely, this isn't a new idea and people are working on this right now.

But think a second - what happens when we have instantaneous access to the Internet without moving a muscle. If you ask me how many feet are in a mile and I answer - you won't know if I knew it, or if I "looked it up". And at that point, it pretty much won't matter. If it takes more effort to memorize it (to my real memory) than it will be better and faster to just leave it on the Internet and grab it there whenever I need it.

Like all technology this promises to have its glitches at first - but eventually, it will be pretty reliable. And what then? Well, if our minds work like our flabby bellies, then our human memory will atrophy. We'll slowly but surely lose the ability to remember things.

We tend to describe the idea of "knowing things" as wisdom. And we tend to describe the idea of "figuring out things" (like math or connecting disparate concepts) as intelligence. A way to distinguish this is that you can be born intelligent, but you can't be born wise.

Tomorrow's Internet has the potential to fully replace wisdom. We won't be any less wise - in fact, we'll all be instantaneously super-wise. And equally-wise (which may be weirder than being super-wise). Even children.

If you think this is crazy - I argue its already happening. Those kids in my girlfriend's old class already find memorizing things to be more effort than simply googling it. As soon as they get a faster interface to that information, they'll take it.

Most people that disagree with me on this don't actually disagree, they simply fear it. It does spell a fundamental change in humanity - and that's rather frightening. Surely things will change fast. At a minimum, all business that relies on hiding information will be, ya know, gone.

But it doesn't end there.

If we all gain super wisdom, then the only mental differentiation between us is intelligence. How fast can you multiply two numbers? How many times must some explain particle physics to you before you get the relationships between the elements involved?

The first computer beat the first human chess grandmaster in 1998. We pretty much always associated chess with intelligence, but chess is actually a pretty unfair example. Humans approach chess abstractly. In some sense considering the board as a whole, processing it in parallel, and extrapolating opportunities from it. Computers work far differently. They simply examine every possible combination (with some smart algorithms to not examine useless moves) of the game from this point forward. Chess has so many possibilities that it took awhile for computers to get fast enough and computer programmers to get clever enough to search enough possibilities to beat a human.

Computer "intelligence" is likely farther off than computer "wisdom". But you're fooling yourself if you think it isn't coming. The human brain is in essence, just a machine - damage it and it stops working. Give it alcohol and it gets off kilter. Computers will reach it - maybe not computers as we know them, but computational machines will. Ray Kurzweil predicts this sometime in the 2020's or so (per the book I read anyway, he might have changed his estimate - incidentally, he predicted computers would beat a chess grandmaster in 1997 - he was off by a year).

So what happens then? To us I mean.

By that time we will have farmed out our personal memory long ago. And then, we'll start farming out our thinking. We already happily do this with calculators or spreadsheets. We all know computers kick our ass when it comes to math. Who wants to do long division anymore? Let the computer do it. We've already farmed that part of our intellect out. If you told me I could get a chip put in my head that let me do all math instantly, I'd sign up for sure.

What happens when computers can do more? I mean, literally think for us. It won't happen overnight. But just like long division and multiplication today - we'll do it little by little. As computers get smarter and smarter, and as our interface to them gets faster and simpler, we'll slowly but surely, give them our thinking tasks.

And just like the dumbification of our kids today - and just like our fat bellies and long atrophied human memory, our unused thinking capacity then gets lazy too.

What happens then? Seems like, in some sense, we sort of cease to be as we know us. We become conduits to some consciousness we created elsewhere. You can call this extinction, paradigm shift, or apotheosis - it probably doesn't much matter.

I'm not smart enough to know what happens in this borgian future - but I have a feeling, that in 20 or 30 years, I sure will be. And so will you.

Kurzweil is a great read on ideas of the future:
Age of Spiritual Machines