Artificial Intelligence as Force of Nature

How will life on Earth feel once artificial intelligence spreads across all human artifacts? Will our technological creations still orbit around humanity, or will a very different reality emerge in its place?

Silent Cacophony of Machines

nest-thermostatTechnology requires instructions to use it. Until fairly recently, those instructions resided in our books and brains. But we’re now starting to embed that human knowhow as software instructions right into our appliances, our vehicles, our buildings, and pretty much every device.

Smart devices understand and interact with humans, and just as importantly, they understand and interact with each other. Cisco estimates the number of worldwide Machine-to-Machine (M2M) connections will grow to 10.5 billion by 2019. What’s important to understand is that the vast majority of these devices will typically form relationships with one or just a small handful of humans, while forming hundreds of collaborative relationships with other machines.

The Internet of Things is a new medium for M2M communications, and in this new medium, the chatter between machines will ultimately dwarf communications with humans. Our world will hum with a quiet symphony of trillions of collaborating human artifacts.

Complexity Rising

Starling MurmurationsSeemingly simple connections, once expanded to include large numbers of objects, can result in surprising complexity. If you’ve seen starling murmurations or schools of sardine dodging predators, you have witnessed the beauty of this emergent complexity.

We once believed these complex patterns were consigned to living systems and the rather messy field of biology, but the study of Complex Adaptive Systems reveals that emergent complexity is bigger than that. Complex, emergent systems show up in clouds, traffic, and stock markets. Indeed, it seems clear that once our human artifacts become connected with each other at sufficient scale, we will see similar levels of complexity emerge from the Internet of Things.

How Lasting Are Our Human Instructions?

Crack open a smart device these days, and you will find software written by a human. Crack it open in five-to-ten years, and you will likely find code developed by machine learning systems driven by neural networks. With these artificial intelligence-based approaches, it’s not even clear that “development” is the right term – software “cultivation” may be a more apt description for the feedback and training processes entailed.

With an adequate source of feedback that it can use to learn and evolve, machine learning essentially takes human coders out of the loop. As machine-to-machine communications explode relative to communications with humans, machines become the dominant source of the feedback for evolving other machines. End users still influence the high-level goals of the system, but the means through which these goals are achieved will increasingly be determined by relationships with other machines.

Fast forward over millions of iterations and whatever human instructions these systems may have once contained become diluted and eventually eradicated through the relentless evolutionary processes of selecting what actually works best. In other words, today’s explicit human instructions will likely be short-lived in the coming ecosystems of human artifacts.

Mother Nature – Bigger than Biology

The ancient Greek gods could be said to represent the birth of the human experience out of the body of Gaia, the original Mother Nature. This separation has only grown in the centuries since, as we humans have come to see ourselves as something other than nature. We have also come to see our tools as something “outside” of Nature. The underlying reality, however, is that our adaptations and technologies are no less an extension of Nature than the high rise apartments of termite mounds or the “fishing sticks” that bonobos use to feed from those very same mounds.

We live in an increasingly “built environment,” surrounded by technology with planet-shaping scale. These artifacts of human existence do not somehow live in a separate sphere, or layer, of reality. They are intimately enmeshed in, and grow out of, what was here before we were. The Anthropocene era in which we now live, requires a bigger understanding of Mother Nature – one that includes humans and the artifacts that we create.

Mother-of-Ten-Thousand-ThingsTo the Daoists in China, Nature was bigger than what we in the West have traditionally understood as natural. They used another term, the “Mother of Ten Thousand Things,” which focused less on this divide between artifice and nature, and perhaps comes closer to what scientist now refer to as Complex Adaptive Systems.

As technology evolves faster and faster through feedback loops with itself, it will increasingly puzzle us just as the weather and other natural systems do today. This is Mother Nature speaking through a new evolutionary medium, and as she does, we will be forced once again to face her awesome power, just as we once did in ancient times.

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