How the future of technology, humanity, and the planet depends on rewriting the code within the code.
Technological wonder carries a double meaning: we fill our lives with technological wonder, even as we wonder about the impact it is having on us. In this series of articles, I explore the tension between our excitement and our misgivings about our relationship with machines.
As end users, we love the convenience of Amazon, Google, and Uber, even though, as citizens, we may be concerned about their impact on our communities. At a time when most Americans believe we are headed toward a future with more economic inequality and cultural division, 87 percent say that science and technology will help us solve our problems. At the same time, 82 percent of us believe that, within thirty years, robots and computers will do much of the work now done by humans, and two-thirds of those respondents believe that’s a bad thing.
The dark side of technological wonder is more than just concern over jobs though. It grows out of a much deeper feeling that we are losing ourselves to our machines. We use Facebook to keep in touch with friends but know in our hearts that it is we who are being used—and for a purpose that isn’t necessarily aligned with our best interests.
The Deep Coding of Technology
The purpose of technology is set by its coding, be it through actual software coding or simply a process of design. This top-level coding determines how the technology carries out its function. What we sometimes fail to see is that beneath this is a deeper coding, a “code within the code,” that sets the goals—the why—behind our technology. Understanding this deeper coding requires understanding how the missions, strategies, and cultural norms of organizations create and shape our technologies.
The code within the code has still deeper layers, tracing back through individual and group psychologies and deep into our biological coding. Technology is not some alien “other,” but rather an extension of life itself. It works through humans; we are the bridge between the natural and the artificial. Through our partnership with machines, we are creating a synthetic intelligence that is part human and part machine, and this synthesis represents the newest layer in a deep stack of planetary intelligence.
A Tree of Synthesis
The Bible tells of two trees in the Garden of Eden—a Tree of Life and a Tree of Knowledge. But what if these trees weren’t actually separate, but instead, one tree growing from another? Close your eyes, and try to imagine an ancient tree, its roots sunk deep into the warmth of the Earth and powerful trunk stretching up into the cool clarity of the night sky. The colors of the bark gradually become more vibrant as your eyes move upward. As the flecks of rainbow color reach the branches, they become increasingly translucent, transforming ultimately into sparkling crystal leaves of pure consciousness.
This image has been with me for years—a symbol of the seamless connection between life and knowledge and the coming era of synthetic intelligence. Recognizing the cosmic significance of this synthetic intelligence is ultimately the key to answering what it is that we want from our partnership with machines.
A Virus in the Code
One of the underlying themes in this series is that most of society’s serious ills stem from a hijacking of this code within the code. Technology is a neutral force for achieving human goals, but one that has long been plundered for profit and expropriated for power. Think of it as two viral infections; one extracting wealth and the other consolidating control. The former has its home in for-profit enterprises, the latter in authoritarian regimes. Kleptocracy fuses these infections and is a growing problem throughout the world today.
Artificial intelligence and automation raise the stakes of these viral infections. Imagine an enterprise perfectly tuned to extract wealth, spew waste, and avoid costs—a kind of “perfect profit machine” with devastating consequences for its surrounding communities and the environment. The other nightmare is a “perfect control machine” using surveillance, AI, and automation to bend citizens to the will of a ruler. These scenarios are far more frightening than the typical “killer robot” science fiction story because their early sketches are already here. What happens with these viral infections today is critically important because, if allowed to persist, they will mutate the DNA of the future of intelligence, and do so with cataclysmic consequences.
It has famously been said that “software is eating the world.” Technology works as a force of creative destruction, disrupting and reshaping one economic sector after another. As this happens, society is transformed and whether those changes are positive or negative is deeply influenced by the code within the code behind that disruption.
The virus now wreaking havoc on our society has scratched bare the illusion that things are alright. We have allowed our techno-economic systems to run for so long with an infected underlying coding that it was only a matter of time before something emerged to expose the underlying fragility. It just happened to be a virus this time.
As we plan for how to dig ourselves out of this morass, we are confronted with a choice: return to business as usual or use this crisis as an opportunity to reclaim technology from its destructive coding. I refuse to believe that artificial intelligence and automation are here simply as mechanisms for extracting huge profits and concentrating power for a select few. The drives to maximize profit and power, by themselves, are insufficient coding for these immensely powerful systems. Before us right now is the opportunity to recode these systems so they sustain not just their shareholders, but the full range of stakeholders who contribute to their operations. It is the chance to raise our aspirations and use these technologies for solving our greatest societal and ecological challenges.
Our Future with Machines
The job before this next generation is to transform our wonder about technology into a new wonder for technology. It is not love of machines that we need, of course, but rather awe and reverence for what humanity is capable of through machines. The same revolution in automation and artificial intelligence that today eats jobs and dangerously accelerates unbridled capitalism and authoritarianism also has the potential to create much good in the world.
We are today, quite literally, defining humanity’s future with machines. This relationship will determine the nature of work, just as it will redefine our understanding of humanity’s role in the world. We are what connect the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge — the bridge to a new, synthetic intelligence on this planet. We need a new generation of enterprises dedicated to rewriting the code upon which this new intelligence is built.