Wednesday, February 20, 2013

We Are Living in History

I'm sure you've been asked that question: If you could travel back in time, what era would you choose? I've noticed this question has been asked more than once on my company's website, Wayin. Answers vary. The time of Jesus is always popular.

But there's always a concern over how one would "cope" without all the advances we have become used to. Two thousand years ago there were no easy ways to get around or communicate. Everything was labor intensive. You probably had to grow at least some of your own food, and you likely never traveled more than a few miles in your lifetime. Could you cope with that? My guess is you'd look around for a few days, check the box, and then hop back in the time machine. Gotta get a double decaf latte, stat.

Ever ponder how people 500 years from now might answer the same question? I'm guessing their answer would be right now. This- now - is the age when augmented intelligence began, when we all became connected. If you're over the age of, say, 40, you are the last generation to grow up without the internet. Your lifetime will have witnessed the single greatest transition in human history. My 500-years-from-now self wants to meet you.

The funny thing is, those visitors from the future won't want to stick around long, either. To them, connected intelligence will have been integrated into their very biology for centuries, and it will seem to the like we walk around without an additional sense, like being blind. They will be amazed how we possibly coped, especially pre, roughly, 2005, when smartphones became ubiquitous. Augmented intelligence will have made our decedents orders of magnitude smarter.

What is augmented intelligence? Well, how about being able to look up any fact in the world instantly over your smartphone? How about getting directions on-the-fly? How being able to communicate in dozens of ways with anyone, instantly, no matter where you are. I'm sure I don't need to go on. These are examples of what augmented intelligence is today. Buckle your seat belts for what it will mean even a decade from now.

There have really been three technological revolutions, if you think about it, that are the backbone of what I'm talking about. The first was when personal computing became affordable in the 80s. The second was when the internet hit an inflection point as browsers like Netscape became available in the mid-90s. The third was when the internet was freed from our computers and could go with us inside our smartphones. This last one has only happened in the last seven or eight years, and its implications dwarf the the earlier two.

Connectivity is an appendage now. Going outside without a smartphone causes anxiety in anyone under the age of 40. Connectivity is an appendage, and it is evolving from an annoying one that was mostly good for phone calls and emails, to something that is almost necessary to navigate through the world. "Almost" necessary will become "absolutely" necessary very soon. It is hard to believe that "apps" have only been with us for four years.

The smartphone will give way also. Connectivity will become more integrated than something you have to actually carry around in your pocket. Google is working on Google Glasses as we speak. Be prepared to see hipsters everywhere wearing clear glasses around and talking to themselves within a couple of years (followed by the rest of us)...

Bendable computers/smartphones are almost here as well...

Devices will literally be woven into the fabric of our lives. It doesn't stop there, though, because after that, connectivity will be integrated into our neural systems, some believe by around 2030. Google will be in your head. (Think of how you'll kick ass on Jeopardy.) Neural implants are already enabling some amputees control artificial limbs just by thinking about what they want to do.

Think of what it would be like to grow up with both the connectivity and the computational power of computers inside your head. Now imagine that, having lived your whole life with this incredible cognitive power, someone took it away. That's how the pre-millenial world will be viewed by history; a pre-enlightenment, cognitive dark age.

Finally, think how intriguing it would seem to meet people whose lives spanned the transition from one age to the other. That's us, so pay attention! History doesn't always seem remarkable when you're living it, but living it we are.


  1. As usual, I enjoyed your piece on generational transitions. Not to argue if you're right or wrong there, but my guess is that most people throughout history would consistently believe that it was their generation that witnessed the most significant changes in history. It's somewhat axiomatic, to the extent that humans are innately egocentric. As you point out, history will tell, showing some times to be more significant than others. But I think it's hard to assess now. An example of this involves the question about the most significant development to America in the 20th century. Who knows what's really the right answer, but I couldn't argue with the suggestion that my instincts of the computer or car were incorrect; it was air conditioning and the extent to which it opened up the entire sunbelt. Not exactly the sexiest invention to all of us, but it sure changed life for many.

    As much as the digital revolution is big, arguments can be made as to its significance to core goals of happiness, "progress", and lifestyle. I know it's probably more significant to you and most young people today than it is to me, as I shun being "connected" 24/7 and the "virtual" world embraced by some (while certainly appreciating its effects on me as I email this and spend a lot of time on the internet). My career in the life sciences focused more of my attention on health, where I might argue that the associated revolution going on there may be at least as significant in affecting core human needs. If the genomics revolution continues to redefine biology and medicine, fundamental things like disease, longevity, and quality of life may change drastically in the next few decades. People might argue that the digital revolution was fine, but it was largely a tool that helped more significant things (not that the tool isn't to be valued like air conditioning). Anyhow, it's interesting stuff that ultimately relates to everyone's values and priorities in life.

    1. @Anon - I disagree re every generation thinking theirs is historic. History, when it's happening, doesn't really happen on a day to day basis. It's more drawn out, so it's often hard to appreciate when it's happening. In the history books, it's all condensed, so it seems more significant.

      As for biotech, no disagreement, but it will all be part of the same trend I'm talking about as tech and bio get merged into people's bodies.

  2. Your post raises an interesting question: how will one distinguish himself from others in the future, or excel in any intellectual way? You mentioned Jeopardy. Ken Jennings was the most amazing human contestant ever, but he bowed before his new master Watson after a solid drubbing. How does one “get into Harvard” in a world where everyone has Google and Watson built in?

    Some individuals will still be able to stand out based on physical size, strength, and athleticism. We realize now that the popular concept from the 1960’s, that we are going to physically evolve into soft creatures with large heads to hold our enormous brains, is erroneous. Human nature will always prize health, athleticism, and physical beauty. There will always be some iteration of Muhammed Ali or Michael Jordan for people to marvel at. Men and women will be attracted to attractive mates. Unless we deliberately alter this trait, I think we know it is hardwired into the human brain.

    But it has been Da Vinci and Einstein, Caesar and Churchill, Ford and Jobs who have transformed the world, not Michael Phelps.

    I don’t claim to have an answer. Will it be creativity that cannot be programmed in? Curiosity? Mental stamina? Competitiveness? Aggression?

    There is no doubt we are headed in the direction you describe. We should embrace it, not resist it. But the prospect does raise some primal fears of a sterile, humorless, and/or tyrannical dystopia where everyone is equal in ability, not just opportunity.