What is Synthetic Intelligence and What Does It Mean for Humanity?

A merger between humans and machines is coming, and it’s not what you may have thought.

Something mysterious flickered into reality when our ancestors first learned to extract knowledge from their heads and embed it in tools. Now, millions of years later, our tools are fusing with us and, in so doing, bringing about something that is part biological and part technological. We are incubating this new intelligence in our organizations, but it is also true that it represents an extension of ourselves. Humanity is like a seed in an enigmatic womb made up of artificial intelligence and automation. While these ties do expose what comes next to the darkness of human frailties, they are also our best prospects for grounding synthetic intelligence in a deep appreciation for the sanctity of life.

Two Trees in One

The Bible tells of two trees in a 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 biological roots sunk deep into the warmth of the Earth and powerful trunk stretching up into the cool clarity of a 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 a fitting emblem for the coming era of synthetic intelligence.

Getting Artificial

The Earth pulses with a remarkable array of life, each form imbued with unique wisdom. Springing forth from this pool, humans found ways to embed our biological intelligence into inanimate containers like arrowheads, clay tablets, and clockworks. These artifacts mark a transition of cosmic proportion as our planet moved from the purely natural into the realm of the artificial.

The question is whether these tools represent the beginnings of an enduring partnership or simply a stepping stone to something entirely new. Is technology, in short, ushering humanity toward an upgrade or its displacement?

Combining Parts into Wholes

If the idea of merging with machines sends a chill down your spine, you’re not alone. Science fiction writers have issued plenty of warnings about the risks of wiring ourselves to technology. These dangers are real, of course, but I am talking about a higher-level connection between us and our tools.

Life on Earth is, to some degree, the story of individual parts coming together as new wholes. Economist Brian Arthur calls it combinatorial evolution. Microbiologist Lynn Margulis talked about different species coming together in symbiosis and used that insight to explain the origins of plants and animals. In his upcoming book, author Richard Yonck even makes the case that the Universe has an inherent propensity to generate intelligence.

The essence of these ideas is that, in the right circumstances, parts come together into new, and far more complex, wholes. Individual cells come together as tissues, individual wolves as wolf packs, and metals, engineers, and pilots as airlines. Think of it as parts poured into a new container that then function on a whole new level of complexity.

The Rise of the Organizational Platform

We are now coming together with our artifacts in a synthesis—or combining—of elements into one, unified entity. Just like these other examples of parts coming together, this synthesis of humans and technology also has a container to hold it.

That container is the corporation, or more accurately, the future of human organizations. Economists have long seen companies as a container for organizing labor and capital. Now automation and artificial intelligence are giving this container an upgrade so profound it will change the way we see organizations.

“Platform” is the word we use to describe organizations so advanced that they begin to act like a kind of technology. Platforms are an organizational technology that automates internal operations and opens them to contributions of work and knowledge from the outside. Platforms are still containers for coordinating humans; it’s just that their artificial intelligence and automation radically expands that coordination from thousands of employees to hundreds of millions of end users.

How Automated Engagement Fuels Intelligence

The enormity of this coordination represents something new on this planet, and we need to understand our role in it if we are to comprehend our coming relationship with machines.

Another way of thinking about platforms is that they are technologies that allow us to serve ourselves. Without talking to any employees, we are able to search vast repositories of knowledge around the world, watch almost any show, book a flight to Timbuktu, and shop unfathomably large online stores. Platform technology is how we automate the service economy, and it works at a massive Internet scale.

All this automated end-user engagement generates enormous quantities of data that fuel machine learning for these platforms. These platforms aggregate information from millions and millions of individuals and synthesize it into a new, collective intelligence. As that happens, the system get smarter and more useful, which then enables it to attract more users and more data. The result is a virtuous cycle of automated self-service feeding an upward spiral in a narrow application of artificial intelligence. What’s particularly interesting about these systems is the very specific role we humans play in shaping them.

Human Volition and Subjectivity in Synthetic Intelligence

In basic economic terms, we humans set consumer demand, which is to say, we define what services are needed from these automated service platforms in the first place. We also play an important role in evaluating utility, or the degree to which a given service meets our needs. Dig deeper though, and you realize that what appears to be passive consumer behaviors are, in reality, humanity’s great contributions in the rise of synthetic intelligence.

Volition, or will, is the underlying force that drives consumer demand. It is what sets machines in motion and tells them what to do. Similarly, our capacity for subjective experience is the deeper nature of our ability to evaluate utility. Our ability to experience, in short, is what gives machines their meaning and value.

Today’s organizational platforms excel at organizing human volition and subjective experience on previously unimaginable scales. Automation and artificial intelligence enable a new kind of organizational technology that is fueled by a powerful human core. This partnership, this collaboration between humans and machines, is the synthetic intelligence that is now emerging on the planet.

Humanity’s Real Work

Like earlier jumps in planetary intelligence, these new containers coordinate their parts into new and unpredictable wholes. In this case, we just happen to be the parts that are coming together into something we don’t yet fully understand. What is clear is that, for the foreseeable future, our volition and subjectivity will animate and give meaning to these new entities, enabling us to carry out work and build knowledge on a scale never before seen on this planet.

People, in other words, are what will ground synthetic intelligence in its biological roots as an offshoot of life on this planet. These human contributions will help ensure that in whatever comes next, there will still be room for things like love, creative expression, the sanctity of the individual, and the many other amazing traits of our species. We are the bridge that ensures the continued existence of these values in an increasingly unknowable world.

There may come a day, however, when our capacity for volition and subjective awareness will no longer be unique to homo sapiens. It seems unlikely based on today’s technologies, but there is no real way to rule out this prospect. In the face of this possibility, our role in supplying will and subjective experience becomes even more critical as a teacher for whatever might somehow transcend us. For make no mistake, our thoughts and behavior in the interim between now and then will serve as a training ground for any artificial volition and subjectivity that may one day arise.

This gets us to the great work that now lies ahead for humanity. Their connection with humanity exposes these mighty technologies to the dark shadows deeply anchored in our biological roots. We know, for instance, that unconscious human bias already regularly creeps into our machine learning algorithms. We also see automation and AI used to maximize profits at any cost and to fulfill immensely destructive military objectives. The human roots of synthetic intelligence are capable of amazing good, but they also pose a grave danger to life on this planet.

For humanity to live up to our crucial role as the source of meaning and movement for the new intelligence now arising on this planet, we must ensure we are worthy. In short, we still have a lot of growing up to do—and by putting the expansion of AI and automation to our most noble purpose, we will finally have the time and means to do it. Our survival—and perhaps that of life on this planet as a whole—could literally depend upon it.

Stay in Touch

Stay up with the latest insights on automated service platforms, artificial intelligence, and the impact of these systems on people. Subscribe to the Vital Edge.

Share this:

Scroll to Top