Not With A Bang But An iPhone
The iPhone X was announced today. It has, among myriad technologies we never knew we needed, Face ID. To surpass their previous biometric standard, finger print ID, they have added a dot projector, infrared camera, etc., etc. you have to measure a face some way.
Facial recognition is such an intimate ability. We have whole systems in our brains dedicated to it. It feels sacrosanct as a domain of human intelligence. If the new iPhone intermediates this essential process, what does that say about us as a species?
Where are we headed with all of this technology? What is the sum of all these incremental advances? Is there a sum to be had?
What’s the Deal?
Here’s the deal: We have, as a species, been kicking around for a couple hundred millennia. Give or take. Other primates kicked it with us at times. Some are still around, if barely hanging on.
But ours is the species that put some important elements together to endure and multiply. Key among these was the ability to transfer information through language. Our unique facility with language allowed us to stitch our minds together, to exchange perspectives, which is, in the truest neuroanatomical sense, the sharing of the physical structures of our brains.
Before this advance, sustained information was only transmitted through DNA. Language was an evolutionary paradigm shift, to be sure.
But it was not the first: nor, does it seem, the last.
Information and Evolution
The work of information theorists, Martin Hilbert of USC particularly, highlights that the history of life on this planet is characterized by a series of revolutions in information complexity - of older mechanisms for the conveyance of information becoming subservient to evolutionarily stronger systems.
RNA was captured as a go between for DNA, which, though metabolically more complex, was a better vehicle for information. DNA-based bacteria were dominated by more complex cells and put to work as mitochondrial power plants. When cells started working together in multicellular organisms, they were put to work to provide context and capacity for the transfer of information from a paltry few sex cells.
Each step in this chain was characterized by increased informational complexity, culminating (so far) with homo sapiens and the ability to share information between individuals and ultimately to create the networks of information we call culture and society.
In the last century, we have crossed a new threshold with our information technologies. The development of the internet and related networks is dynamically similar to the informational evolution of biology. Our technology can reproduce itself, is subject to fitness tests (evolution), and can interact with the world through artificial intelligence.
Over the next 100 years, the amount of digital information stored on all media will reach 1037 bits – the same as the total information in the DNA of all living things on Earth: which is to say that in the span of 200 years - a blip on a geological/evolutionary scale - our digital systems will have generated as much information as the whole of biology did in 3.7 million years.
A Better System for Information Conveyance
There is still a functional gap between biology and technology, but if we understand life as the emergent phenomenon of carbon chemistry in the presence of free, low-entropy energy (sunlight) that it is, then the conceptual distance between them closes. Technology is a feature of our biology: the two are fundamentally inseparable.
As such, the development of technology is part of the continued evolution of life on our planet. If 3.7 billion years of evolution is any guide, humanity may ultimately be to the internet what RNA was to its DNA master.
RNA became a servant to DNA not through some malicious intent. It was a question of utility and fitness. The parameters of evolution. Technology will not become our master through some evil design, but through the same push-pull of environmental advantage.
Rise of the Machines?
The same advantages that make technology evolutionarily strong, make it incredibly useful and incredibly distracting. The average American, whatever that is, is exposed to 147 newspapers' worth of information a day. Yet that massive increase in information is being processed by the same organic hardware and software we’ve had for eons.
Our lives are noisy, and getting noisier. This distorts how we see the world, which impairs our ability to evaluate the longitudinal impacts of the conditions that create the noise. We live in a feedback cycle that keeps us from having the emotional experiences that might guide our policy.
Evolution is a process, and we are all objects of the wide variety of natural forces involved – including the physics of information technology.
There are plenty of doomsday theorists who speak of the impact of a singularity (Autonomous A.I.). Elon Musk, among others, warns of World War III driven by the machines. Absolutely something to keep our eye on, to put it mildly.
But to focus on this future is to perhaps miss the moment right before the apocalypse – the step before it becomes possible. Technology is evolving. Oh hey! What’s that? The Apple Keynote was just loaded on YouTube, you say?… The X has what?
Awesome - I gotta see this.