TTM 2014: Future of Humans

The cartoon that opened the talk. Interesting the caption: "I was wondering when you would notice there's lot more steps..."

We are not the ultimate product of biological evolution, and, more importantly, both technological and cultural evolution are now at the point where they can reflexively affect human evolution directly. Thus, the question is what will Human 2.0 look like, and how will we get there?

To look at this “next” step we need to consider what it means to be “human” today and how much that definition will change because, while technology has always allowed us to change ourselves (written cultures and artifacts such as books, or eyeglasses, or walking canes), it is accelerating dramatically, and the capabilities for foundational changes in what constitutes the biological human are similarly expanding. Indeed, a person that knows how to use a technology is a different person than one who simply sees the artifact. This change is apparent when technology is symbiotic with the person not when it is an external object the person interacts with. In this sense the young people are different from us in that they are in a symbiotic relation with newer and more powerful technologies than those that their parents coupled to. Television changed their parents, but slowly; Facebook and Google search engines and Apple devices change young people today more profoundly and more rapidly. We can see the difference that the environment does to us when we consider the movies we enjoyed many years ago. The pace of events was so much slower in them than the ones we are used today and being confronted today with such a slow place creates impatience, boredom… The Internet pace is now embedded in our sense of time and provides the metronome for our life.

The evolution of technology is so fast that in about ten years the processing power of a supercomputer ends up in a chip (of course, any extrapolation of current trends should be taken with a grain of salt . . . a scenario thought experiment, rather than a prediction). Although it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, at this pace the processing power of a computer will reach the processing power of our brain by 2025 (and in 2015 the best supercomputer might reach that processing power). Now, the question is if once a computer reaches the processing power of a brain, be it the one of a cat (already reached by a supercomputer) or the one of a human, will it will feel like a cat, or a human…

What is more interesting is the challenge of understanding information and cognition

  • as human individuals,
  • as humans using technology, and
  • as integrated techno-human systems from which cognition arises as an emergent phenomenon…

We are augmenting, and we have been augmenting, our cognition capabilities by talking to other people, but now we have started to augment our cognition capability through Internet products. And the more technology progresses the more we shift cognitive capability over to technology because the reality is that the human brain is phenomenonally complex, but low bandwidth, limited primarily by energy consumption capability (the human brain weighs 2% of the typical body mass, but consumes 20% of the body’s energy; if it consumed much more, the resultant heat could create tissue damage).

More than that. Technology is so ingrained in every day activities that humans are more and more taking it for granted and as part of their reality. There are already several situations where technology takes over human decision, and this is not to relieve humans from fatigue, as it used to be in the past, but because a human will not be up to the cognitive task (like piloting an aircraft and taking into account all the parameters needed to take a decision, or acting effectively in a modern combat environment). The reality is that shifting cognition out onto technology networks is the only real way to maintain functionality in such rapidly changing, complex environments.

Now think about what it means to be human to you, and select those specific parts that you don’t want an “engineer” to be meddling with. Most likely you’ll realize it is already too late.

Technology is evolving so rapidly that most of what we consider human, from our biological to our psychological functions, are already contingent and subject to design. Indeed, the next step in efficiency is to design the human and the tool set as an integrated system.. Education has always been about this in a way, but now the stakes are higher. We are going into a direction where the designer creates a product that in turn will change the user and its relationship with the product along with his own behavior. The cell phone is an example of behavioral change induced by technology and someone may claim that the humans that have entered into a symbiotic life with their smart phones are no longer what they used to be. And, I would say, the most scaring thing of all, is that we don’t realize it, we have probably already departed from the humans of the last century.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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