Our world is becoming increasingly intelligent and it’s doing so at an accelerating pace. While at times, we may be inclined to cynically contradict this idea of our world getting smarter, the evidence clearly indicates this is where we’re headed. Moreover, as we look back through history – of society, of our planet, of the universe even – we can discern patterns, a propensity toward ever-greater complexity and growing intelligence. In my new book, Future Minds: The Rise of Intelligence, From the Big Bang to the End of the Universe, I explore reasons this trend may actually be inherent in the fabric of nature itself and how this will drive the future of intelligence. But what matters for us today, in the here and now, is to understand why this is happening, so we can try to determine where this trend is taking us.
Here in the third decade of the 21st century, we find ourselves in a world that is developing many different approaches to supplement and augment our human intelligence. While it is easy for us to point to the technologies we build as the driver of this growth, in fact the true source lies elsewhere – in the emergence we call society. This is the real force behind the growth because it is our global civilization itself that has aggregated our intellectual resources as no mere band of people could ever do. Today, we are living in the midst of an emergent system much greater than the seven and a half billion individuals who occupy this planet. That is to say, we are becoming far greater than the sum of our parts and because of this, these changes will continue to give rise to new ways to make our world smarter.
Certainly, the development of artificial intelligence is one way we are doing this. Made possible by the invention of computers and the arrival of the digital revolution, AI is rapidly altering our world. Ultra-fast image recognition and categorization, instantaneous language translation, superhuman-level performance at games as varied as Go, Shogi, Texas hold‘em poker, and the multiplayer online strategy game, Dota 2 – these are but a few of the AI accomplishments of the past decade. Given the accelerating nature of technological progress, what further advances are we likely to see in the next five, ten, twenty years?
Current AI research is focusing on developing the ability for AI to incorporate contextual and abstract reasoning, common sense, and an understanding of cause-and-effect. Such capabilities would be truly transformational. Where previous stages of artificial intelligence have been able to describe and categorize, this new level of AI would have the capacity to explain. This would be a powerful and essential capability, if these tools are to be entrusted to control the increasingly complex systems we rely on every day.
Another way our world is set to grow still smarter will be in the development of technologies that directly supplement our own biological intelligence. Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) and other methods by which we can intuitively access information and control our tools have seen rapid advances in recent years. It is now possible to send simple messages between people’s brains in the lab, to translate signals from the brain directly into words and to transfer memories between lab rats. Already, EEG headsets are used as game controllers and amateur DIY BCI communities now exist all over the world. Thousands of projects and billions of dollars of investment are focusing on ways to better understand the human brain, its methods of storage and communication, and how technology might routinely connect to it safely and reliably. Still, despite all that has been accomplished, this remains a daunting goal. The human brain is undoubtedly one of the most complex systems we have ever encountered. Many significant challenges will have to be met if we are to ever build such advanced technologies.
Nevertheless, over the coming decades, we could see far more frequent use of AIs capable of contextual and abstract reasoning, as well as BCIs that will eventually replace our smart phones. Of course, these changes will no doubt lead to many new problems along with the many new benefits that will be realized. As with nearly every major technology shift in the past, there will be a period of considerable learning and adjustment as we discover how best to navigate our increasingly intelligent world.
Richard Yonck is a Futurist.com Think Tank associate, best-selling author and keynote speaker who studies future trends and technologies with a focus on their synergies and social implications. His new book, Future Minds: The Rise of Intelligence from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe explores the nature and future of intelligence everywhere. You can also learn more about Richard here.