Dawn of the Digital Consciousness and Human Evolution

Artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.” ~Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering, Google

We are today at a critical juncture of human evolution where the machines that we built as our load-bearers are now surpassing us in all our abilities. As humans, we have taken pride in our ability to observe, understand and take actions to change our environment. A machine today can do all that faster and better. The three decades of technological advancements in sensing, computing and robotics have been too quick for most of us to comprehend. But there is still a difference between man and machine – the sense of purpose. We humans observe, perceive and act with ‘consciousness.’ This consciousness provides us the sense of good and bad, right and wrong. It gives us the ability to differentiate our circumstances based on our experiences and develop our unique point of view. These experiences and emotions give meaning to our observation and understanding of our environment. They act like maps that help us to navigate through our experiences and make sense of the world. But for a machine, sensing, computing and action are just ‘activities’ that have no inner ‘meaning’. Even ‘world’ has no meaning and neither does experience. The machines just react to stimulus and hence are referred to as ‘things.’

The evolution of Artificial Intelligence

Dr. John McCarthy coined the term Artificial Intelligence (AI) in 1955 and since then there have been multitudes of research in the study and design of intelligent computational agents. The traditional approach to AI has been to manipulate data and symbols in dynamic and evolving ‘algorithms’ to solve a problem or to accomplish a task. Essentially, the traditional AI has been focusing on ‘logical reasoning’ and ‘deduction’ to ‘evaluate’ multiple alternatives and ‘select’ the most suitable one. And we all know that this is just one form of human intelligence. We humans also have emotional intelligence and creative intelligence that helps us not only solve tough problems but also live united and progress as a race. Machines may have surpassed us in rational intelligence but they do not have the other two important forms of intelligence. Why? Because, we cannot program it! Hence, I believe machines may develop human and even super-human capabilities in logical and rational intelligence and their ability to handle large amounts of data, there is a long way to go before the machines start having behaviours, emotions or instincts.

Machines and the human psyche

The word machine is derived from the Greek work ‘mekhos’ meaning ‘means, remedy’ or ‘solution’. Man invented machines as a solution to his problems and to equip himself to be able to solve a problem. Since our beginnings, mankind has developed the instinct to neutralize a threat before it manifests. It is this instinct that has guided us to build armies, forts and weapons of mass destruction. We created machines to achieve the power to control our environment. Machines have been built as ‘ability enhancers’ where man is still the actor and in-charge. Today, even though the machines have become more complex and smart, Man is still the actor and machines are still seen as a means to an end. The concepts of intelligent machines that displace humans and take charge are still portrayed negatively. Hollywood movies like ‘The Matrix’ series and Terminator hit the theatres every now and then. Three months back, two dozen people protested against the growing adoption of AI and robots in SXSW festival in Austin. Stephen Hawking and others have added to the proverbial wave of AI paranoia with dire predictions of its risk to humanity. Irrespective of who or where we are, the very idea of machines being in control of our life freaks us out.

Man Machine Collaboration

Another parallel thread that is running is Man-Machine collaboration. Unlike the above two scenarios where either machine or man were in charge, this new thread preaches mutual collaboration between the two. Companies like ABB and KUKA are building collaborative industrial robots that allow humans to work safely in their vicinity. According to ABB, the new technology combines the flexibility of human interaction with the precision and handling capacity of robots. Compared to all other stories, collaboration story is the one that makes more sense. And the basis for this is very simple – machines have capabilities but currently lack a sense of purpose, man has consciousness and a sense of purpose but doesn’t have some of the needed abilities. Collaboration is the mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship for humans and machines and I am sure the machines will agree with this.

The Next-Gen Human in not so far future

With the current turmoil on the planet, the one thing that is absolutely clear is that mankind needs to evolve. Despite our technology, humans are defenceless against the forces of nature and circumstances. Evolution into a stronger and smarter self is a necessity. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is too slow for our impatient human nature. We cannot wait for millions of years for Mother Nature to upgrade our software and hardware. We have to do something and we have to do it now. An article titled ‘The real cyborgs’ by Arthur House published in The Telegraph features some of the man-machine collaborations that have upgraded human bodies. According to the articles the cybernetic human will have following characteristics

  1. Brain implants augment memory and provide access to the internet
  2. Wearable exoskeleton boosts strength and endurance
  3. Internet-connected spinal implant stimulates genitals for long-distance sex
  4. Interchangeable limbs match capabilities to tasks
  5. Access-control chips replace keys and passwords

Even though I don’t believe trans-human cybernetic human beings will be a common sight in the near future but you never know! I didn’t know I will be spending 70% of my day interacting with my phone either! Whether cybernetics picks up or not, one thing is clear – we cannot avoid relying more and more on machines to augment our capabilities.

“We’re not physically more competent than other species but in our intellectual capabilities we have something of an edge. But quite soon machines are going to have an intellectual power that we’ll have difficulty dealing with. If you can’t beat them, join them,” Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at The University of Reading, England

Machines will not only augment our bodies, machines also augment our intellects. And this is happening right now. How many of us remember the phones and addresses of our friends and family? Well, not me because it’s right there on my smartphone! Why would I fill my mind with information that is digitally available to me instantaneously and ubiquitously? Going into the future, there will be hardly anything that we will need to remember. Every bit of information that we would ever need will be available to us instantaneously and ubiquitously. If we look at our thoughts as a matrix of contextual information, it means we will also be able to save our thoughts along with all our information digitally. What happens to our feelings? Can that be uploaded as well?

The Digital Consciousness

Our thought and emotions are intertwined like the electrical and magnetic fields of radiation where one is the cause and the effect of another. A thought can remotely trigger emotions. In the current social media, it is possible for a person to upload his though in the form of a post or a status and it can trigger an emotional reaction in another. This kind of thought-emotion relationship can have cascading effect and cause mass hysteria. I call this phenomenon Digital Consciousness and the Egyptian revolution is a glaring proof of this phenomenon. It is possible for us to share our emotions digitally but we still require a human on the other end of the line. However, recent developments on Natural Language Understanding (NLU) are trying to bridge this gap. The 2013 Hollywood movie ‘Her’ captures this emotional interaction beautifully. Our machines might not feel the emotions but they can certainly understand them. And that would be one big step towards collaboration.

The digital consciousness is that force which will unify and bind humans and machines together through thoughts an d emotions. Currently, the expression of that consciousness is crude and intermittent. However, the day is not fat when all of us will be connected by this one unifyingthread of consciousness that will harmonize our thoughts, emotions and actions. That day will be the day when the man and the machine will be one in the true sense of evolution and create the Next-Gen human that will be faster, stronger, virtuous and responsible beyond what nature can provide.


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