The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

People to Function Like Cells In a Vast Technological Brain

Some predictions about the future of technology and psychology

Digital technology fosters intimate connection across vast distances and facilitates global cooperation. Ultimately, the global community will function like a single brain that connects most people and their electronic devices.

Predicting Technological Change

Some predictions about technological change have a habit of coming out very wrong, such as the assumption that nuclear power would supplant fossil fuels. Yet there are some useful general rules. We know that the pace of all technological change increases exponentially and that major innovations take less and less time to be fully adopted from about 500 years for printing to about a decade for cell phones, for instance (1).

One explanation for the accelerating pace of technological change is that newer technologies increase efficiency. So it is much faster to design a computer on a computer than it would be to use old drafting tools.

Another valuable generalization is that electronic devices get progressively better at processing large volumes of information quickly (Moore's law) so that today's cell phone does very much more than early room-sized computers.

Experts in electronic engineering use Moore’s law as a rough guide to where the industry is likely to be at a future time. Over the past 40 years, the number of transistors per microprocessor has doubled every year, thus increasing by a factor of a billion.

This accomplishment was achieved by perfecting miniaturization techniques, and we are already down to the scale of individual molecules, making further improvement controversial. Given the possibilities of three-dimensional chips and biological computers, it is folly to bet against Moore's law continuing. Why should we care if it does?

Some Predictions About the Future of Technology and Psychology

One application that always prospers from new technologies is pornography, and sex on the Internet is no exception, this being the first industry to make serious online dollars. At present, pornography and dating sites are not very different from their old-media analogs due largely to technical limitations. In the future, artificial reality devices will develop to the point where people can stimulate each other remotely in a shared artificial reality that mimics the tactile and visual experiences of sexual intercourse.

Whether such digital possibilities make us sexier or not, they will likely make us smarter, just as every other major advance in communications technology did from the printing press to the smartphone. The rationale is that these devices facilitate human processing of ever more information at greater speeds. This enriches the brain and promotes the Flynn effect where enriched environments make people smarter in terms of processing information more quickly and solving problems better.

One clear piece of corroborating evidence for this is the fact that national scores on academic achievement in math, science, and reading increase with exposure to modern media and these test scores are very strongly correlated with IQ (2). Despite widely expressed fears to the contrary, technology does not make us mentally lazy.

In addition to being potentially a lot smarter, people of the future will be a lot more open to online collaboration, a phenomenon that is already well developed as I pointed out in a recent post. Key factors enhancing collaboration include a decline in ethnocentricity and increased idealism amongst younger people who wish to make meaningful contributions to humanity (3).

The collaborative urge is expressed in environmentalism, cooperative efforts like Wikipedia, open source software, and Crowdsourcing, as well as participation in online discussions and video sharing platforms such as YouTube. Car sharing is already a viable option as illustrated by the debate over Uber, and this typifies a more fluid future economy where access to goods and services is as important as ownership. There will be more emphasis on sharing whether it is rooftop solar energy in the smart grid or used clothing on sites such as ThredUp. Incidentally, the internet is very good at policing bad actors in cooperative systems, and an eBay seller with bad ratings finds it hard to do business.

In the future, electronic connectedness will involve much smarter household devices that will run differently to save electricity during times of peak demand. Our refrigerators will be stocked automatically using a vast logistics infrastructure that will be like the Amazon fulfillment system on steroids. Intelligent robots will serve as passable social companions.

Assuming that the relevant networks can be built out and protected against security threats, those of us who live long and prosper will find ourselves joined in a vast electronic network that acquires real-time information not only from every other person in the network, but also from countless household devices and environmental monitoring systems. It will be as complex, as fluid, and as controlling as our own brains.

 

1. Kurzweil, R. (2005). The singularity is near. New York: Viking/Penguin.

2. Barber, N. (2006). Is the effect of national wealth on academic achievement mediated by mass media and computers. Cross-Cultural Research, 40, 130-151.

3. Rifkin, J. (2014). The zero marginal cost society. New York: Palgrave/Macmillan.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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