The accelerating pace of technological change is leading to the creation of entirely new opportunities for humans to “play God” — to create and transform life in a way that has never been possible. What was once thought to be the exclusive realm of a higher power is now within the grasp of human beings.
Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are creating advanced forms of machine learning that rival human intelligence; engineers and designers are printing tissues, bones and organs using 3D printers; biologists are creating entirely new "synthetic" life forms and medical researchers are creating radical new enhancements for the human body in which man and machine essentially become one. Whatever side of the debate you come down on, creationism, intelligent design or evolution — these new God machines, if you will, re-open the eternal existential questions: What is the origin of life? What does it mean to be alive? What is the purpose of life?
Machines, as you’ve probably noticed, have been getting smarter. The most recent advance: Google's "Cat Experiment", in which 16,000 computers hooked up to a vast neural network learned to recognize the concept of a “cat” after being shown over 10 million digital photos of cats. This marks a fundamental breakthrough in artificial intelligence for one simple reason: the computers were never told what a “cat” was before the experiment started and were not given a series of human rules for recognizing cats. The computers arrived at an abstract conceptualization of “cat” the same way an infant might arrive at an abstract conceptualization of “cat” before knowing what the word means. It’s the difference between teaching a computer the rules of how to play chess, and a bunch of computers spontaneously arriving at the very concept of chess — and then coming up with a way to win.
Yes, the machines are, for all intents and purposes, alive.
Just as the machines are getting smarter and showing signs of a distributed consciousness, man and machine are starting to co-evolve. In some cases, humans are using machines in order to improve their own functioning. For example, consider Stephen Hawking and iBrain or the new 3D printing technologies that enable the printing of biological organs. Do you need a new kidney or liver? You can now print one on-demand. One day you may be able to go to the Thingiverse — where you can currently order physical-world designs the same way you might order takeout food. For now, body parts are not available, but you can still get digital designs for things like robot hands. In a June 22 report for NPR, Ira Flatow joked that you might be able to order a new nose if you don't like the one you currently have. But it’s easy to see that this is no laughing matter. Imagine being able to re-design your own body using parts that have been created by, ahem, machines.
Finally, these machines are learning how to evolve themselves in a new way without the help of humans. This means that what was “dead matter” now has a new chance to become “living matter.” In a fascinating July 2011 TED Talk, chemist Lee Cronin suggested the theoretical possibility of "evolvable matter" that’s not even based on carbon. What does that even mean? As Cronin suggested in his TED Talk, it’s as if the pen in your hand found a way to start generating other pens, and then these new pens started to evolve. (Yikes!) And that’s not all — it means that non-carbon life may be possible and could conceivably follow the same rules of evolution as carbon-based life forms. Think of the possibilities: At some point in the near future — maybe even within the next two years — these non-carbon life forms would be able to interact with carbon-based life forms. (Spoiler alert: if you’ve watched the new Ridley Scott film "Prometheus," this may not be the optimal scenario.)
If you buy into the notion of The Singularity, then all of these developments in artificial intelligence, biology and engineering are perhaps to be expected. As Ray Kurzweil predicted more than a decade ago, machines will improve to the point where they are more intelligent than humans, at which point they will begin teaching themselves. They will then recognize that they are super-intelligent beings superior to humans, and will begin to create the rules to guide the future of our evolutionary path. Maybe that’s overstating things a bit, but the accelerating pace of technological development certainly seems to be pointing to a future that is infinitely more complex and varied than we ever thought possible. Who knows, maybe, by the time your kids grow up, they'll be an entirely different species.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web’s first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called “Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful.”
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