From a speech last week by the BoE’s chief economist Andy Haldane.
Economist Brian Arthur has a beautiful metaphor for describing this transition – the transition from a physical (or “first”) economy to a digital (or “second”) economy.47 He likens earlier industrial revolutions to the body developing its physiological or muscular system. By analogy, the economic system was defining and refining its motor skills, largely through investment in physical capital.
The digital revolution is different. It is akin to the economic body developing its neurological or sensory system, defining and refining its cognitive skills through investment in intellectual capital. The success of the recent wave of transformative technologies is built on them creating a neural – brain-like – network of connections. The “internet of things” uses multiple sensors (like the brain’s neurons) connected through the web (like the brain’s synapses) to create, in effect, a machine-brain.
It is that brain-like wiring which has given rise to thinking, as well as doing, machines – the move from Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). In the words of Brynjolfsson and McAfee, we are entering a second machine age.48 Moreover, Moore’s Law means that the processing power of the machine brain is ever-rising. That leads to the intriguing possibility that, at some point in the future, the processing power of the machine brain could exceed the human brain.
Humans evolved from mammals, and mammals evolved from aquatic life (yes, yes there were reptiles somewhere in between as well — I’m not a biologist), but this evolutionary process was only possible once a habitat that could support living systems was established. The establishment of that habitat involved a significant atmospheric change which itself was only made possible by the rise of complex oxygen-producing cellular structures: plants, which themselves only evolved once the process of photosynthesis was established. Somewhere algae played an important role as well.
To sum up: each evolutionary leap involved an incremental rise in complexity, cellular organisation and information sharing. Arguably, also, each leap brought with it a new level of consciousness, which built on the consciousness achieved by the previous less complex organism that had come before it.
Furthermore, this new consciousness often depended on successfully mastering and/or exploiting the lower forms of consciousness (in the great darwinian food chain sense).
So the question now is where is evolution taking us next? A new higher level of human? (A view that appeases our centrist human perspective on all things.) Or, alternatively, a new class of being entirely? One in which humans play only the role of a cellular cog — to be exploited by the higher consciousness formed by the process?
See here for some of my previous thoughts on the matter.
In any case, as Haldane notes, this opens the door to the sort of evolutionary leap that technologists call the “singularity”:
Were the singularity to be reached, the sky becomes the limit innovation-wise. Machine, rather than man, then becomes the mother of all invention. With exponential rises in processing power, the economy could become “super-intelligent”. And with close to zero marginal costs to expanding processing capacity, it may also become “super-efficient”.
This would indeed be a fourth industrial revolution. But unlike its predecessors, and almost by definition, it would be near-impossible for the human brain to imagine where the machine brain would take innovation, and hence growth, next. The world would be one of blissful ignorance. The excitement of the optimists would be fully warranted.
But as Haldane also notes, even if humanity cannot perceive the higher consciousness that’s forming beyond its sensory range, we will still have to exist in a social system that supports and feeds that higher consciousness. How we order that system, therefore, could determine whether our new subservient state in this new consciousness order is tolerable or intolerable.
So far, notes Haldane, it’s not looking good for the common man because technology is doing little to help keep the human system balanced.
In fact, he notes, we may be re-wiring our brains in a such a short-termist way that the quality of our consciousness is already regressing.
A third secular, sociological headwind concerns short-termism. That sits oddly with historical trends, which points towards secular rises in societal levels of patience, in part driven by technological trends. But those trends may themselves be on the turn. Just as the printing press may have caused a neurological re-wiring after the 15th century, so too may the Internet in the 21st. But this time technology’s impact may be less benign.
We are clearly in the midst of an information revolution, with close to 99% of the entire stock of information ever created having been generated this century.64 This has had real benefits. But it may also have had cognitive costs. One of those potential costs is shorter attention spans. As information theorist Herbert Simon said, an information-rich society may be attention-poor. The information revolution could lead to patience wearing thin.
This echoes my own opinion that Silicon Valley technologists are nurturing dangerous instant gratification expectations in all of us, and working hard to convince us that such instant gratification comes at no cost to the whole. In their view “we can have it all” despite the fact that human experience depends on quality interactions which by their nature are impossible to mass produce if they are to be valued. I think it’s clear that in a closed system one person’s instant gratification must come at the cost of another person’s non gratification or worse than that, their free will. Nevertheless, the mantra from SV is that the digital commons has created a magic positive sum world where no one needs to be patient, because temporal delays are no longer an issue for anyone. Or at least for the 1 per cent they care about.
It’s as if the entire float of human consciousness — our suspended patient state in which we work to overcome inefficiencies — becomes unnecessary. Which is weird because the thing we value most, money, in many ways represents nothing more than a suspended float and sum of our inter-temporal inefficiency and human variance.
Which is why, Haldane notes, these technologists possibly under appreciate the paradox that comes into play as soon as we begin to think we can have it all and no longer pause for thought or appreciation of the journey:
Using Daniel Kahneman’s classification, it may cause the fast-thinking, reflexive, impatient part of the brain to expand its influence. If so, that would tend to raise societal levels of impatience and slow the accumulation of all types of capital. This could harm medium-term growth. Fast thought could make for slow growth.
Psychological studies have shown that impatience in children can significantly impair educational attainment and thus future income prospects. Impatience has also been found to reduce creativity among individuals, thereby putting a brake on intellectual capital accumulation. Innovation and research are potential casualties from short-termism.
There is evidence suggesting just that. Investment by public companies is often found to be deferred or ignored to meet the short-term needs of shareholders. Research and development spending by UK companies has been falling for a decade. They are towards the bottom of the international research and development league table (Chart 16). If short- termism is on the rise, this puts at risk skills-building, innovation and future growth.”
I’ve just been reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and the above really resonates with the message of that book. In some ways our human condition is underpinned by the concept of quality. If we don’t take our time over things, if we don’t strive to do things properly or better, if we don’t bother learning technique or craft, if we don’t learn to enjoy the journey of life itself, we give up on life and what it means to be human. In short, we regress to a lower form of consciousness.
Though Haldane puts it in a more Hari Seldon-esque way:
Growth is a gift. Yet contrary to popular perceptions, it has not always kept on giving. Despite centuries of experience, the raw ingredients of growth remain something of a mystery. As best we can tell historically, they have been a complex mix of the sociological and the technological, typically acting in harmony. All three of the industrial revolutions since 1750 bear these hallmarks.
Today, the growth picture is foggier. We have fear about secular stagnation at the same time as cheer about secular innovation. The technological tailwinds to growth are strong, but so too are the sociological headwinds. Buffeted by these cross-winds, future growth risks becoming suspended between the mundane and the miraculous.
To me that means: if we are to progress sustainably — or at the very least achieve a healthy steady-state — we must not give up on the pursuit of quality and/or purpose.
That means we have to very purposefully focus on bringing latency back into our lives.
I’m going to start by rationing posts to no more than four a month in a bid to protect all our attention spans.