Back in April 2020, this writer gave the last talk at the Harvard Club, Cape Cod chapter, before the shut-down for Covid. The title was Symbiosis of Mankind and Technology and the tagline was “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”
The talk had a gloomy side to it; one of the very last slides was entitled Dystopian Future and the bullets were
• End of the value and importance of the individual
• End of economic freedom and individual liberty
• Surveillance and self-surveillance
• AI guidance will replace free will
• AI based human enhancements will lead to a caste system
• Births controlled by the “Eugenics Board”
• Malthusian conflict between generations over resources as people live longer
The talk itself began optimistically enough with a quote from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
“Physiologically, man in the normal use of technology (or his variously extended body) is perpetually modified by it and in turn finds ever new ways of modifying his technology. Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms.”
Indeed, technological acceleration and evolutionary acceleration are still intertwined processes and technology continues to interact with human biological evolution, a process that itself is very much alive. For example, the mutation in Northern Europe for lactose tolerance in adults only goes back 4300 years. A similar mutation for lactose tolerance in East Africa only goes back 3000 years! The technology associated with these recent evolutionary events is cattle husbandry.
Going back in time, mastery of fire was a technological breakthrough that transformed humans from folivores and prey animals into omnivores and fearsome predators. Per Harvard Professor Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, control of fire was responsible for the extraordinary development of the human brain: apes spend their whole day eating raw food which requires enormous caloric energy to digest; cooked food is quickly eaten, easily digested and cooked meat especially is a marvelous source of protein; as a result, energy was liberated from the task of digestion and reallocated to power larger brains (which themselves require enormous caloric energy) and time was reallocated to a wider range of activities such as tool making which in turn drove technology further along.
But progress is not completely linear. Progress in technology can accompany jumps in less desirable directions for humankind. Indeed, some 12,000 years ago agriculture transformed democratic hunter-gatherer societies into tribes with chiefs and then kingdoms with kings and then empires with emperors. This connection between leaps in technology and leaps in domination and inequality has continued.
As for the advances in animal husbandry that galvanized the Indo-European world, the fact that the Latin word pecus for “cow” was the root of the Latin word pecunia for “money” tells its own story. (Yes, a Roman pauper was impecunious.)
Closer yet to our times, an important technological leap forward occurred in Portugal in the 1400s – the introduction of the caravel: a revolutionary vessel, a vessel that could venture out into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, that could zigzag into the wind with its triangular sail, that was fast and light, that was able to sail in shallow waters without foundering, that required only a small crew. This was the war horse of the early voyages of exploration. (Columbus’ ships the Niňa and the Pinta were caravels; the Santa Maria was much larger but then it foundered on a shoal in the Caribbean Sea and did not make the triumphant trip back.) For a picture of a caravel, click HERE
The caravel was technologically an important leap forward but it was a technological advance that fostered inequality and hierarchy on a colossal scale. To start it led to domination and even extermination of indigenous peoples of the Americas. Then this opening of the Americas by the European voyages of discovery launched the Atlantic slave trade. Up to this point in time, African slavery had been a Muslim enterprise but, spurred on by Pope Nicolas V’s bull Romanus Pontifex (1452) establishing the Discovery Doctrine, the Portuguese and then the Spanish followed the Pope’s instructions to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” The key thing was that the people targeted should simply not be Christians. Not to be left behind, a century or so later, when England and Holland undertook their own voyages of discovery and colonization, they adopted the Discovery Doctrine for themselves despite the Protestant Reformation; France did as well. A twisted example of “honor among thieves.”
N.B. The Discovery Doctrine is the basis in US law for relations with Native Americans and was even invoked recently by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a decision against the Oneida Iroquois tribe in New York State. For more, click HERE .
The symbiosis of technology and human history struck again in the 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution. Here new inventions like the Spinning Jenny created a huge demand for cotton in England and Scotland which greatly increased the importance of slave labor in the 13 British colonies magnifying inequality on a colossal scale. So important did King Cotton and Slavery become that the push to maintain and expand slavery ultimately drove the US into Civil War.
And then Steam Power led to the massive migration of people from the English country side to the mills of Manchester and other centers of exploitation of labor creating a proletariat and a formidable class structure headed up by the emerging Bourgeoisie (consult Marx and Engels for details). Again we have new technology leading to massive inequality and hierarchy. Not to be outdone, in the US, “conspicuous consumption” became the trademark of the robber barons of the Gilded Age as the government and the Supreme Court did all they could to thwart the nascent Labor Movement.
Inequality and hierarchy are on the rise again in the US and Western Europe. The twentieth century saw the growth of the “middle class” and opening of economic opportunity. However, since the Thatcher era in the UK and the Reagan era in the US, things have been heading in the opposite direction: in the US, in real terms, working class income has not gone up since 1980 while for the top 10% and even more the top 1% life has become very comfortable indeed: tellingly the word millionaire has ceded its place to billionaire as the measure of true wealth. Technology has certainly contributed to this as computers and computer chips have inserted themselves in all nooks and crannies of the economy: it is an axiom of capitalism that it pays to replace people you pay with machines you own – ownership of the means of production and all that.
But today the technological “gorilla in the room” is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Indeed, today, most dramatically, we are seeing a physical merge of mankind and machinekind taking place what with nanobots, brain implants, genetic engineering, etc. For example, Elon Musk has a company Neuralink which is working on chip implants for the brain that would allow humans to control devices through their thoughts. The concern is that new medical technologies will not serve to improve the health of humankind generally but rather to provide enhancements (intelligence, longevity, … ) for an elite subset of the population – an elite that will be the top of a new caste system. Activist thinker Bill McKibben warns that a “genetic divide” will be created as the rich alone will have access to these enhancements. Accelerationist philosopher Nick Land adds that race and eugenics will be thrown into the mix.
This is all consistent with Moravec’s Paradox, a principle formulated in the 1980s by AI luminaries Hans Moravec, Rodney Brooks, Marvin Minsky, … : AI systems outperform humans in applying skills that emerged the latest in our evolutionary history. Thus motor control is difficult for a machine to emulate but computations and other “advanced” tasks are easy for machines – and with AI more and more of these advanced functions will fall victim to such mechanization while skill sets developed earlier in our history will protect many from planned obsolescence. To quote the generally optimistic Stephen Pinker (The Language Instinct, 1994)
“As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.”
The upshot is the low level jobs are not threatened by these developments but high level work is. The result will be greater inequality where the economic elite becomes smaller and biologically enhanced while the professional class all but disappears.
Then there is the HAL Problem where the machines go rogue. There is the Control Problem where the machines simply take over and reduce humanity to blissful servitude. Looking back, Alan Turing predicted as much already in 1951 considering that machine intelligence would reach a threshold where the machines would start to develop their own future generations. In 2014 Steven Hawking warned that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Part III of the awesome book Homo Deus by Yuval Harari is simply entitled “Homo Sapiens Loses Control.” Philosophers tend to be pessimistic and, true to form, Accelerationist Nick Land is even nihilistic: “The demise of humanity is probably in the cosmic interest.”
So the smart money is betting that once again a jump forward in technology will lead to hierarchy and domination and maybe worse – which is very consistent with the pattern that goes back to the development of agriculture some 12.000 years ago.
But not to worry – this might all be to the good. Futurists with tags like transhumanists, cybertotalists and prometheists argue that the role of the human race in galactic history is to serve as a pass-through for the introduction of intelligence in the universe. So we will have given life to intelligent machines who will then take over and export precious intelligence around the galaxies.
Full Disclosure: Following Hollywood’s lead, that speaker on Cape Cod added an alternative happy ending titled Utopian Future to lift people’s spirits:
• Technology will save Spaceship Earth
• End to famine, war. Long, happy life for all.
• Individual liberty. Creative work. Arts and Sciences thrive.
• Love persists, families are strong.
• Robots will explore other worlds for us
• Humans and machine comrades will export intelligence to other parts of the universe
• A new religious revelation will unite humankind
Plus an uplifting quote from the Bard (Miranda, The Tempest, Act V)
• “How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in it!.”