Tree of Synthetic Intelligence

The Contest for the Soul of Technology

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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 the 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 with cataclysmic consequences.

Coding Reformation

We now face a pressing need for an intervention to reclaim technology from this deeply destructive coding. This is not an argument against profit, but an argument against using artificial intelligence and automation simply as a way to extract wealth and concentrate power. Profit and power, by themselves, are insufficient coding for these immensely powerful systems. They must now work to sustain their full range of stakeholders, and not just their shareholders. We must also raise our aspirations and focus these technologies on solving our greatest societal and ecological challenges. These systems must also be inoculated from autocracy by baking democratic governance into the very feedback these systems use to learn from us.

Humanity is on a collision course with technology and the stakes of our role in this emerging synthetic intelligence could not be higher. We must learn how to navigate this new relationship while retaining not just our liberty, but also that which is most sacred to us.

Disrupting the Disruptors

The code within the code that optimizes today’s platforms for control and wealth has led to much disillusion with big tech—and left it vulnerable to being disrupted themselves.

The root of this vulnerability lies in the dependence of platforms on contributions of work and intelligence by unpaid end users. Millions of us serve ourselves with automated user interfaces, generating invaluable data for machine learning as we do. The tech platforms then use the resulting synthetic intelligence to disrupt market after market, particularly within the service economy. But cut that flow of data and change users’ willingness to serve themselves without a stake in the result, and you disrupt the platform.

Openness is a key element in disrupting the disruptors and opening corporate data silos is just a start. Open standards and open-source software guard against monopolistic lock-in, as does the decentralized public record keeping technology of the blockchain. Technologies by themselves are insufficient unless they are coupled with new principles for organizing humanity, however.

The time is right for a new generation of enterprises to disrupt today’s platforms by marrying these technologies with stakeholder principles and mission-driven approaches to management and governance. These new entities will rewrite today’s code by disrupting the code within the code.

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 a love of machines that we need, however, but rather an 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 the destructive impacts of unbridled capitalism 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 redefine the nature of work, just as it will redefine our understanding of humanity’s role in the world. We are what connects the Tree of Life with the Tree of Knowledge—an essential part of the synthetic intelligence now arising on this planet. It is now time for an intervention: a new era of enterprises dedicated to rewriting the code upon which this new intelligence is built.

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