Technology Evolution

Within a previous discussion entitled Human Evolution, the idea that man-made change is now out-pacing Darwinian evolution was introduced. While there are several threads underpinning this earlier discussion of human evolution, it was highlighted that the timeline of the last 10,000 years represents a process by which humanity has become increasingly capable of creating man-made environments to insulate itself from the dangers of the natural world, although it would be naïve to assume that our dependency on the natural world has simply disappeared. However, it does appear that humanity is now on a separate evolutionary path of its own making, which has become increasingly dependent on technology in general, but specifically in its ability to harness and utilise both energy and information. However, this upside also comes with a note of caution for the future.

Note: Much of humanity now lives in man-made environments in which a technology-led ‘evolution’ is accelerating, but not necessarily being planned. For history suggests that humanity has rarely, if ever, been in complete control of its technology developments and, in many cases, did not foresee or concern itself with many of its negative consequences.

While we might see an obvious truth in the words of Einstein embedded in the picture above, it is not clear that this wisdom has been or will be followed. One reason why this might be the case is outlined in the quote below taken from the Limits to Growth 30-year update report released in 2002 and while many disagree with its future predictions, it might be foolhardy to completely ignore the following implications.

One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve the goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

In part, we might perceive many of the problems of today’s world in these words, which also reflect the complexity inherent in the wider human ecosystem, inclusive of social, economic and political infrastructures, which have led to additional environmental and resource problems. Therefore, a discussion of the 6 areas of possible technology evolution identified, i.e. energy, AI, robotics, genetics, nanotechnology and space, needs to include some consideration of the potential cause and effects on the wider human ecosystem and the potential feedback mechanisms associated with such developments. Of course, while these discussions might start out anchored in the apparent certainty of the present, prediction has to be forward looking and, as such, must become increasingly speculative with time. Towards the end of the Human Evolution discussion, the following question was tabled and possibly indicates the starting point of this section of discussions.

Where will all this evolutionary development finally end?

In response, it was suggested that there may only be two extreme outcomes, either humanity, as we know it, becomes extinct by disaster or by evolutionary developments. However, while we might recognise that that some form of extinction event might strike tomorrow, as it did for the dinosaurs, we might reasonably proceed in the hope that the probability of this event is low. On the other hand, while the idea of evolutionary extinction might be accepted as a possible outcome of long-term Darwinian natural selection, this was not the nature of the evolutionary development being suggested, either in form or timescale. For while humanity has been adapting the natural world for its own purpose over the last 10,000 years, it has been suggested that the human ecosystem has undergone an evolutionary step-change over just the last 500 years, such that the lives of billions now depend on this man-made ecosystem. It has also been suggested that this step-change was triggered by a ‘cognitive evolution’ in the way humanity pursues and assimilates information and knowledge, which has resulted in an acceleration of technical developments that would astound and, in some cases, horrify previous generations. Today, humanity is possibly at a crossroads in that it must either turn its back on further progress or continue down a road towards evermore technical complexity, which may require the further development of cognitive AI. In the following discussions, it is broadly going to be suggested that this acceleration of technology will either lead to a fatal crash or some form of ‘ brave new world’ . While the inference of a fatal crash might be seen as being equivalent to extinction or, at least, a severe regression of current progress, the idea of some brave new world possibly needs to be interpreted as a series of transitory stages, which may eventually be populated by something other than what is currently understood to be homo-sapiens. While, such a statement is simply speculation, it is unclear how present-day humanity will survive unchanged in the future it appears to be creating.