Within the technology space, there’s perhaps no bigger buzzword than the Internet of Things (IoT). Go to any big tech trade show, and all the biggest tech vendors are pushing their own version of the IoT. Talk to any top-level business executive, and there’s likely some kind of showcase IoT project in the works.
Manufacturers are coming up with IoT solutions, politicians are talking up the advantages of “smart cities,” car makers are pushing autonomous cars hooked up to the Internet, and technology companies are pushing connected homes.
That combination of the IoT being embraced by both the B2C and B2B space has led to a single dominant paradigm in the mainstream media: billions of digital devices, seamlessly integrated, and all talking to each other via the Internet.
The new Singularity
If that vision sounds familiar, it’s because futurists have been predicting a version of such a future for decades. They typically refer to this as the Singularity – the moment when man and machine become one. Until recently, the conventional thinking was that the Singularity wasn’t going to be here for at least a few decades. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, now the Director of Engineering at Google, had famously predicted the date of the Singularity as 2045 – still more than two decades into the future.
But then at this year’s SXSW digital event in Texas, Kurzweil moved up that timetable considerably. He suggested that the Singularity would be here by 2029. That’s just a decade away. Kurzweil isn’t sure exactly how it’s going to happen, but he thinks it’s going to involve connecting each person’s neocortex (the part of the brain that does the thinking) to the cloud.
In doing so, says Kurzweil, we’ll become funnier, smarter and more talented in just about every field of human endeavor. Presumably, once our brains are connected to the cloud, we’d become part of a massive superintelligence. We’d learn languages immediately, and we’d download new skills as easily as we download apps today. If you think Google makes you smart today, just wait until your neocortex is wired right into it!
How do we get to the Internet of People?
That vision of the future, of course, involves a blurring of the line between artificial intelligence (AI) and human intelligence. And, as you might imagine, when it comes to artificial intelligence, there are multiple paths to that great superintelligence in the cloud, aka the Internet of People. In his highly-acclaimed 2014 book Superintelligence, philosopher Nick Bostrom of the University of Oxford laid out several different paths to superintelligence.
One of these paths – you guessed it – was enhancing humanity’s own biological cognition through the use of genetic engineering. (In other words, we’d tinker with the genetic code of the brain) But other paths involved futuristic scenarios like a “whole brain emulation” – in which biologists and computer scientists work side by side to create a digital copy of the human mind. You’d basically slice and dice a human brain into thin enough pieces that you’d be able to stick it on a microchip or somehow create a purely digital representation of a biological phenomenon.
People are more important than things
There’s just one problem here, says Bostrom. If machine brains eventually surpass human brains in general intelligence, then any new machine-only superintelligence could replace humans as the dominant species on the planet. The way we think about apes and monkey now is the way this new superintelligence would think about us poor humans in the future. If this superintelligence were imbued with some sort of moral values, then it might decide to go easy on us, and maybe keep us around in some kind of Matrix. But, the more likely scenario, says Bostrom, is that this superintelligence would pose an existential risk to us mere humans and decide to get rid of us before we finish destroying the planet.
That’s why there’s a real imperative to create an “Internet of People” before the “Internet of Things” becomes too powerful. The important point here is that the focus has to be on people, and not on machines. That’s why some of the smartest people on the planet – including both Bill Gates of Microsoft and Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla, have suggested that humans must merge with machines or risk becoming irrelevant.