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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

From Left Brain to Post-Human

Synchronicity can be fun. It can also scare the hell out of you.

I've been listening to Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, and I'm at the chapter in which he looks at how developing nations, such as China and India, are rapidly catching up (or have already caught up) to the U.S. in terms of being able to handle left brain-oriented work tasks, meaning those which rely on consistent processes and linear thinking. An increasing number of large companies are outsourcing their accounting work, for example, hiring equally qualified Indian labor for less than 20% of the cost of American equivalents. 

I've been thinking a lot about such trends recently. I've been pushing my children (now ages six and nearly nine) hard to master math skills on Khan Academy and introducing them to broad science concepts. Some people think you're a tyrant just for pushing your kids to be a year ahead. I want my boys four, five, even six years ahead. Why? Because the rest of the world is hungrier and more motivated than we are. If kids abroad can be trained at this pace, they will be -- and they are. Those kids will emerge from school competing against my kids for all of those left brain jobs, and those other kids will be able to apply their accelerated educations for a fraction of the wage my kids will expect. In short, if my kids do nothing more than "meet benchmarks," if they even manage to keep pace with the kids in countries currently trouncing America in secondary education, they will still lose. There is no way my sons will be able to compete for geographically unrestricted work at $2 an hour, especially after racking up a $100,000+ college debt. The implications for American unemployment and our general economy are grim.

As if the outsourcing situation wasn't bad enough, it gets worse. Pink continues his argument, noting that software developers are creating applications able to replace even cheap foreign knowledge workers. It's the inevitable result of Moore's law. When computing becomes so powerful and inexpensive that TurboTax can effectively replace a mid-level CPA, not even Indians can compete. Pink points to Appligenics and the fact that we now have software "smart" enough to create new software. Computers are the ultimate left brain endgame. How long will it be before computers can perform contextual analysis and automatically generate the press releases some companies pay me hundreds of dollars to write?

Enter synchronicity and my in-progress interview with eminent inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. I interviewed Kurzweil in 2002 for my very first Q&A column in CPU magazine. Today, I'm doing a follow-up to this piece for my Architects of Tomorrow book. Kurzweil currently has a just-released movie called The Singularity is Near, based on his 2005 book of the same name. "Singularity" is a coalescing of accelerating technology trends. As Kurzweil's site puts it, Singularity is "an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity." He's talking about the blending of humans and computers -- the chip in your head or hand or wherever it becomes advantageous. Because isn't that what it will boil down to: advantage? Some people will get such implants for enjoyment. I suspect most will get them out of economic necessity. Today, my kids need to access more knowledge in order to stay competitively relevant. My grandkids will face the same challenge on a higher order of magnitude.

When it comes to forecasting technology trends, Kurzweil has a rather amazing track record, and he has the resume necessary to avoid being taken out of hand as a quack. He believes, and the trend undeniably indicates, that computers are only a few years away from being more intelligent than humans. Both he and Pink point to the defeat of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov by IBM's Deep Blue as writing on the wall. Kurzweil's chief area of research for the past decade has been artificial intelligence (AI), and if anyone is in a position of authority and knowledge to make such grand statements, it's him.

Kurzweil dismisses the oft-discussed risk of computers rising up against and overthrowing their human masters, as in The Terminator series, and I suspect he may be right. After all, if we bind biology and computing together, doesn't the technology become a sort of integrated prosthetic? It's not us against the machines. It's just a new, different us. And if we're bending genes in the same way we're building circuits, then it's not really so much about prosthetics as it is about changing the human form. We are racing down the path, well along the way toward turning ourselves into something else. It's pointless to pass judgment on whether that something else is better or worse. It's just different and more complex. 

I don't want to agree with Kurzweil. I find the idea repugnant. But it all makes terrible, logical, and perhaps inevitable sense. If Pink is right, then we're engaged in a left brain arms race that seems bound to lead us to Kurzweil's Singularity. The remaining question is whether computers will be able to master creativity and emotion, as well, thus migrating into the "right brain" half of our humanity. And if Kurzweil's time tables are right, if we only have 20 to 40 years left for these technology tracks to play out, what does this mean for my children and grandchildren? What can I do except continue to drive them toward a successful tomorrow...and pray?


  1. After all that, if you need a little laugh break, try this embarrassingly awkward Daily Show skit with Ray Kurzweil on for size:


  2. I've been watching for the singularity for a while now. One thing Ray doesn't usually mention is that those of us who live on this side of the singularity won't recognize society on the other side. how will it feel to be a Neanderthal in a Cro-Magnon world?

    Chip- DS sicked me onto your blog. Good stuff. SGS

  3. That's a fascinating point. And true enough, I suppose. Will my grandchildren be "chipped" at birth? What happens to parents when input and feedback arrive from the network to the brain independent of parental control? Ha! And some people think we have "socialism" issues today -- just wait! Part of me wonders if Facebook is a very early step in this technological shift. Is it the proto-formation of collective consciousness, only with crude, external tools and interfaces? I have 98 "friends." My 17-year-old cousin has 903. Will the need for social contact force us into ever more efficient ways of cultivating and "touching" contacts, ultimately necessitating action at the speed of thought rather than typing? Would an imposed, post-Singularity collective consciousness sublimate a legacy, individual consciousness and, if so, what will be the long-term effects of that sublimation on the brain and body? So many intriguing questions....