Technology creeps up on biology with each passing day, its advance faster and more furious than natural evolution, as machines surpass the human eye in object perception and match our ears in speech detection. In example after example, the cutting edge of intelligence is shifting from the biological to the technological. I say this not to discount the remarkable brilliance of living things, but rather to highlight the blistering speed with which raw data and computing power are catching up.
As we seek to understand the future of this rapid evolution, we must recognize that the process is collective, a synthesis of humans and machines, coordinating, aggregating and distilling the destiny of knowledge. The locus of this human and machine collaboration is the modern organization, which is why understanding the future of intelligence means understanding organizations and their relationship to technology.
The Myth of the Intelligent Agent
Science fiction movies often focus on one heroic individual. In movies about artificial intelligence, we often see an inventor, be it a scientist in Transcendence or a CEO in Ex Machina, heroically and singlehandedly creating some world-changing breakthrough. It’s not just the creators either; often the creations themselves are sentient individuals like the Terminator, Chappie and Agent Smith, with an uncanny, human-like autonomy and volition.
Our modern storytellers play to our shared predilection for drama, a cultural legacy carried over from thousands of years of gathering around the flickering firelight, listening to tales of gods and heroes. These protagonists and antagonists make the stories relatable and emotionally compelling, and in this sense, help us to make sense of the future. But in this instance, life is unlikely to imitate art.
Organizations Develop Technology
The idea of a lone tinkerer, hammering away nights and weekends in a garage, is itself a kind of myth left over from the way things once. Today, people innovate together, drawing on component technologies as though from a pile of shared Lego blocks, extending this piece here, borrowing designs from that one there. Economist Brian Arthur describes this process of technological innovation as a kind of “combinatorial evolution.” Our mobile phones are made of antennas, displays, memory chips, and operating systems, each made of its own subcomponents, a kind of machine-like Russian nesting doll of ever-evolving construction.
The individual human brain cannot hold all of the knowledge needed for even more modest technological breakthroughs, let alone a revolutionary new form of artificial intelligence. To be clear, I still believe that individuals play a critical role in shifting perspectives and generating new insights, but translating those insights into products and services depends critically on the resources we find in human organizations. Without these organizational connections to other people and existing technologies, technological innovation, as we know it today, would grind to a halt.
Organizations Orchestrate Our Use of Technology
Organizations don’t just develop technology; they also facilitate the way we use it. When you search the web, Google’s organizational power is there, coiled up in far-flung servers around the globe, making all those links show up on your screen. When you catch a ride with a Lyft driver, you are supported by the gossamer threads of millions of parts, code and people, all coordinating that technological experience for you, from within Toyota, Lyft and State Farm. Think of any interaction you have with technology and if you scratch the surface, you will find a myriad of organizations.
This deep connection between organizations and technology will be even truer of future breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and human augmentation. There will be organizations behind the brain implant I may one day use to telepathically pass those search requests to Google or communicate with Lyft’s future self-driving cars. The same will be true for any bionic organs or limbs or neural enhancements I might eventually receive. Artificial intelligence will greatly enhance our natural intelligence, integrating with our thought processes, unleashing uncanny superpowers beyond anything we can imagine today. The human experience will change radically, and behind the scenes will be our future organizations, whirring away in shapes and configurations that will also stretch the powers of our imaginations.
The Singularity Won’t Just Happen to Larry Page
These big breakthroughs in augmentation and artificial intelligence technologies won’t be developed by some future Johnny Depp character working alone in some lab. And they most certainly won’t be appropriated by an evil genius, solely for his or her own proprietary and individual needs. That’s not how technological development works.
Imagine, for example, Larry Page and Sergey Brin trying to develop Google Search for their own personal use, raising all that money, attracting hundreds of millions of end-users, staffing thousands of employees, all so that these two individuals might achieve better search results. It can’t happen that way. The same is true for Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook and for Jeff Bezos’s Amazon. The awesome technological powers behind these entities weren’t just developed through collective intelligence; they were developed for collective intelligence.
The same will be true for the technologies of the Singularity.
The Singularity, the term for the moment machines surpass humans in intelligence, marks a theoretical shift when humanity loses its ability to predict or even fully understand how the future will unfold. A great flood of new, synthetic planetary intelligence will swallow reality as we know it.
We can view this time as one of expanded consciousness—but it won’t just be an expanded consciousness for a select few. It will be collective in nature.
It may seem irreverent, but I see this kind of technological collective intelligence as related to something Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests when he notes, “The next Buddha may be a sangha.” Tradition holds that the next Buddha will be the Maitreya Buddha, also known as the Buddha of “loving-kindness.” The word “sangha” means “community” or “collective” in Pali. So if the Buddha is both collective and loving-kindness, then Thich Nhat Hanh may be offering a vision of the next big shift in intelligence as a collective, loving, consciousness.
The comparison of a loving sangha to technological collective intelligence may feel jarring. If so, I think that speaks not so much to the nature of technology itself, but rather to the nature of the organizations that now shape that technology. We carve our tools with our values, as a kind of “code beneath the code.” It is this underlying code that serves as the seeds of any collective Singularity we might one day experience together. Currently, these seeds, these values, are mired in a profit-maximizing paradigm that seems impossibly distant from Thich Nhat Hanh’s vision of a community of loving-kindness.
Perhaps it is time to rethink this organizational coding and what it holds for the future of intelligence.