A Force of Nature

In Dr. Rodney Brooks' book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, he examines some of the events in history where the notion of the 'specialness' of humankind has been challenged -- in particular Galileo's discovery that Earth is not the center of the universe, and Darwin's discovery that humans are the product of millions of years of evolution and are descended from apes.

Both of these ideas took a while to gain acceptance and the second one is still being fought about in some US states today. But it is what Dr. Brooks calls the coming "third wave" of disillusionment that we will need to wrestle with over the next 20 years. As computers begin to demonstrate consciousness and their capabilities begin to match and exceed our own, we will be faced with accepting that as humans we are once again not special but rather ordinary, and limited. A step on the evolutionary ladder rather than the top rung.

In order to maintain our position at the top of the heap, we will need to integrate our bodies and minds with the intelligent machines that we helped to create -- and that have now exceeded us.

You talk to people about these ideas and you can see just how quickly they are taken aback. "I don't want to become a machine", they say. And there's something to be said for connecting our identity as a species with our (for now) unique capabilities that include the ability to philosophize, and the ability to build technology. It is really important to us to be different, special, elevated.

Now for all the theoretical resistance to the intimate integration of our bodies and minds with intelligent technology, it's easy to see that it is in fact a force of nature and something that carries massive, unstoppable momentum.

Just over the last few years a massive industry of cell phones has sprung up from nowhere. The need to be constantly connected to friends or be able to reach other people from any place at any time proved to be gigantic. First the Walkman, and then the iPod, shrunk the stereo down to something wearable -- and with their most recent version, it's been shrunk down to the size of a pack of gum. PalmPilots and Blackberries proliferate. Hundreds of millions of personal, mobile electronic devices are sold annually.

People find that carrying technology with them, whether in their pocket or on their belt, augments their capabilities and improves their quality of life. We can accept that idea pretty easily seeing as I'd bet most readers of this website carry some kind of personal electronic device. So from nobody having anything on them other than keys and a wallet, we now all carry around one or more personal devices. This is evidence of a change in people's behavior on a societal scale. Evidence that some kind of forces are at work. Some need is being met. Some goal is being achieved.

So it doesn't make sense to say that this is where it ends or that we've reached saturation -- not with WiMAX promising ridiculously high data rates over entire metropolitan areas, and Super 3G bringing cellular networks up to WiFi speeds and beyond. It doesn't make sense to think that these are the only forms personal devices will take, when electronics are shrinking and shrinking further, networks are moving data faster and faster, and hundreds of millions of people are bringing devices with them wherever they go.

There is a race to provide the most capability, the most functionality in the smallest and most fashionable form factor. There is a rush to provide high resolution video content to devices like cell phones. GPS capabilities are being brought to cell phones so that the 'nav system' in your car can fit in your pocket as well.

Smaller and smaller. Faster and faster. More capable and more capable.

We have a tendency as people to take where we are in the present moment and treat it like it's the pinnacle of achievement, the goal, the endgame. The sum of our ambition. But, it's not. It's just part of a process that is ongoing -- the process of integrating our bodies and minds with intelligent machines and with each other. Becoming something new, and in theory better, in the process.

This force of nature is something to spend some time contemplating. People will continue to incorporate more powerful devices into their lives. Devices will continue to shrink and yet have more content and value to convey to their owners. The current fixed-pixel display paradigm simply can not accomodate these two orthogonal goals.

My central thesis is that Microvision virtual displays will play a pivotal role in the coming generations of personal devices, sold in hundreds of millions of unit volume annually. And these displays too will rapidly become smaller, cheaper, and better as time goes along -- they will ultimately become contact lenses that we wear at all times, augmenting our capabilities and our reality itself.

As to whether machines can become capable of conscious thought, I'm not sure. But I'd rather bet on the side that says anything is possible than the side that thinks otherwise.