Most folks would point at the true opposable thumb as humanity’s tipping point. The ones with it went on to create civilisations, invent money, imagine gods and split the atom. And the ones without it ended up in the zoo.
But I would like to think that the invention of storytelling was the tipping point (nativists might argue that it was a discovery). Early in our history, our ancestors in sub-Saharan Africa created their first stories around a fire. These stories would transform us.
If we look at our history, we see two distinctly human abilities (and their consequences), running together. Our ability to invent stories and our ability to turn those stories into technology. Then in turn, the technology we invent reinvents us. From the wheel to the steam engine to electricity to google – our inventions have reinvented us. Irreversibly.
I say this because we are on the cusp of another reinvention. For a couple of centuries now, science fiction has been discussing Artificial Intelligence at length. And predictably, following the story-technology pattern, AI is here in our lives. To transform us like never before.
Much of what defines us as men will be directly impacted by AI. Love, sex, marriage, jobs, currency, privacy, democracy, all will change.
But not just that. All these millions of years, genetic change (in all species) has been led by natural selection. But now, we have acquired the ability to artificially engineer genetic change. This makes human evolution deterministic and truly marks the beginning of man’s next avatar.
All this while technology was extrinsic, but not any more. AI, bioengineering and nano-technology are merging with our biology. This will soon give us unprecedented control over our bodies – over pain, disease, ageing and maybe soon, even death.
But what is even exciting is that in our quest to bring human-like cognition to AI, we are forced to look at ourselves and our brain, a little
more closely. How does this physical 3-pound brain transform into an amorphous, incredible mind? What is it to be human? What is self-awareness? What is consciousness?
While these questions are age-old and pertinent, it is only now that science has acquired the ability to bring us some pertinent answers. What we earlier used philosophy and religion to answer, can now be explored with a quantitative, algorithmic, scientific lens.
AI’s ability to crunch infinite data and math’s ability to find patterns could also help us unravel some of our greatest mysteries – astrology, aliens, the secret to unbroken eternal happiness.
We might be the first generation to have the answers that man has always sought. As a speaker, writer and inveterate nosy-parker, trying to guess those answers (and the stories behind them) is what I do. And I believe those answers will alter us as humans.
Albert Camus once said, “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.” This is man’s best ever time to imagine the next story.