“The brain is the organ of destiny. It holds within its humming mechanism secrets that will determine the future of the human race”
– Wilder Penfield
Over the past few months, I have become hugely interested in understanding where the relationship between the human race and our technology landscape currently sits, and how it will evolve in the coming years. My thoughts balance between convenience and security. I can see the potential for how technology can improve our lives at greater levels to generate convenience, but believe there needs to be some security economics around how it is managed.
Our Brain’s Genetic Evolution
The most complex component of our genetic makeup is our brain, and if we look back over the past million years or so, our brains have for the most part, increased in size. However, that is not the case for the past 20,000 years. Our brains have shrunk in that time frame. The reason why? Its simple: our biology is focused on survival, not intelligence. Larger brains were necessary to allow us to learn to use language, tools and all of the innovations that allowed our species to prosper. But now that we have become civilized certain aspects of intelligence are less necessary.
Something else has contributed to this: technology, which has allowed us to fast forward evolution. Initially we could not win a fight with a deer, so we created spears and rifles. Transporting goods at high speed was impossible until we invented the wheel. We could not fly so we invented airplanes. The list goes on. It is expect that our brains will shrink more in the next 1,000 years than the last 20,000 due to the acceleration of technology. Now we are at the tail end of the internet revolution, and one must ask: how will the IoT revolution affect our brain’s genetic makeup? The natural answer is hugely. Just ten years ago we had a large requirement to remember a lot more “data” to perform our everyday jobs adequately. Now we are a mouse click away.
Design will rule the relationship
Before this occurs, how humans and machines relate must evolve significantly. Humans are becoming more insecure about how technology is taking over, and rightly so. Technology 100 years ago was much more about being complimentary, with humans maintaining their sense of agency, which is the feeling that you have control over your own actions, and through them have an impact on your environment. Humans controlled machines, and held the upper hand in 99% of situations. That percentage is dwindling as the artificial intelligence and compute power available to technology is increasing. Now technology corrects our spellings are we type, can tell us where the nearest car parking space is, and can now even drive our cars.
But will everyone trust self driving cars? The answer is no (link here). At least not initially, as the vehicles will be largely alien to us. Humans work and communicate incredibly well with each-other as we have so much in common. We trust a taxi driver to get us to our destination. Why not a machine? The reason is that they don’t feel human. Yes they are smart, analytical and can apply reasoning to avoid a traffic collision. But these are what we would associate as being left brain activities. For true mass adoption, whats missing is representation from the right side components such as emotion, meaning, empathy.
We need to design in features which make them more human like. Recent studies have shown that people who had driven in a self driving car with a name and a voice were less inclined to blame the vehicle for an accident. The same reason is why some people grow attached to Apple’s Siri. An experiment. Try asking Siri “Can I change your name?”. Her response “But everyone else calls me Siri”, thus indicating her emotional attachment to people. The key to building the relationship is how we design the machines to make them easier to work with, seamlessly integrate into our lives and most importantly trust.
Societal Impact – Ubiquitous Intelligence
There are about 7 billion human brains on earth. With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), it is predicted that somewhere between 20 and 50 billion devices will be all around us by 2020. We can call these digital brains. Back in 1995, I remember when I wanted to use a computer’s digital brain, I had to be on the top floor of my parents house, or at my fathers business premises. Now, as I type, I can count 28 devices that have some form of compute within them. Naturally, the level of sophistication and usage patterns in the compute varies, which is quite similar to the human race. We have multiple types of intelligence within humans and in technology. As we have job titles, machines also satisfy a job, whether it be to tell us when our fridge is empty (simple) or interpret our shopping habits online through sentiment analysis (more complex). Throughout our evolution, technology has both replaced jobs, and created new ones. So it shouldn’t be surprising that computers are taking over what we have come to regard as high-level human tasks. We did not evolve to optimize, but to survive and, perhaps most of all, to collaborate with others to ensure our survival. We are, after all, creatures of biology, not silicon.
As MIT’s Sandy Pentland put it, “We teach people that everything that matters happens between your ears, when in fact it actually happens between people.” So technology doesn’t mitigate the need for human skills, but it will change which skills are most highly valued. (source Forbes)
The neural network within our minds is becoming ever closer to the internet network of things. It is only a matter of time before they are exclusively connected. Mind and machine. In our natural world a large amount of the data being generated is static, modular or even transactional by nature. A item of sale, an aspect of sentiment from an online browser, an environmental stat. With the advent of IoT, you will begin to see more streams and dynamic data types, which will need more dynamic compute paradigms (recently posted an article on this in the Dzone.com IoT guide for 2016 – link here). This dynamism is something we as humans do incredibly well, change, react, act. Progress in areas like Machine Learning and Cognitive Computing are ensuring technology can do the same, so mind and machine can work more effectively together.
Technologies make it possible to augment human performance in physical, emotional and cognitive areas. The main benefit for any business in augmenting humans with technology is to create a more capable workforce. We are about to live in a world of ubiquitous intelligence, so we must ensure the psychology of human to machine interaction is sustainable. As machines become more integrated in society, gone will be the days of them making our lives easier in ways that convenience us. Our agency will be affected in ways that would seem incomprehensible a decade ago. Whilst it may begin with “us” and “them”, our trust and acceptance will evolve the relationship to one which will seem normal to children of future generations.