Reading articles at the New York Times about Ray Kurzweil and his notions regarding the evolution of intelligence have, along with recent discussions and the themes of the Weordan novels Katherine and I are working on, stirred up my evolving view of evolution, which is similar in many ways. The primary difference between our points of view is that while Kurzweil is more interested in looking at the evolution of specific technologies within the context of this pattern, I’m more interested in the underlying mechanism that causes the greater complexity. The power of evolution is hierarchy.
In biological systems, more complex systems are composed of multiple components that perform specialized tasks and communicate with one another. These individual components are usually systems in and of themselves that in turn are composed of multiple components that perform specialized tasks and communicate with one another. As hierarchies of systems stack on one another, they become more capable of regulating their interior and changing their environment to suit their needs. This difference in capability is evident in a comparison between a squirrel and the bacterium that reside in its GI tract. The bacterium is highly specialized such that there are thousands of different species that inhabit the GI tract of any given animal because they each need a very specialized environment to prosper. The squirrel doesn’t need as specialized an environment. It maintains body temperature when it is cold or warm. It can handle a lot of moisture or very little. It is able to actively search for food and store it for use later when there is a shortage. The squirrel is more adaptive as an individual than is the bacterium.
Hierarchical evolution can be seen in a series of steps. Some of these steps are molecule to cell, cell to multi-cellular organism, lack of nervous system to nervous system, reactive nervous system to learning nervous system, and conditioned learning to emotion driven learning. Each successive system stacks on top of the other to the extent that the higher system consists of the components of the previous hierarchy with enhancements at the next level that rely upon the functionality of the previous. Clearly, these transitions didn’t happen overnight. A large number of small changes happened where specialized roles and communication methods developed. These allowed the power of the new hierarchy to be realized.
This leads one to question what has been going on with the evolution of hierarchies over the most recent ten millennia and what is happening presently. My answer is that the hierarchies have evolved beyond biology. Human civilization is merely a collection of task specialists and communication systems that function to adapt to the environment. Initially, people settled down and created communities to change the environment so it would produce a more plentiful and reliable food source. They cooperated, individually taking on portions of the task. They discussed their plans for the future. They created systems for trade so that individuals could specialize. Conceptually, this is no different than the specialization of cell types to create organs in the body where special communication proteins called hormones communicate needs from one type of cells to another. Civilization is more adaptive than the individual person much the way the squirrel is more adaptive than the bacterium.
While there are a number of very important advances that have allowed civilization to flourish, they are merely tools that either allow an entity to fulfill a role performing a specialized task or they are tools for communication that allow a number of specialized entities to work in concert. As one can see from the list I linked to above on Kurzweil’s Singularity site, advances in tools for specialization and communication often come roughly at the same time. Writing and the wheel appear in roughly the same period, as do telephone, radio and electricity, or printing and the scientific method. The Industrial Revolution was entirely about specialization and communication in the workplace improving productivity.
Unfortunately, neglected from Kurzweil’s list are advances in trade and banking. Currency and accounting greatly streamlined trade by allowing individuals to acquire goods or services from someone that didn’t want anything they personally had to offer. It might be said that the invention of writing was necessitated by the business of keeping accounts. Likewise, banking has evolved from the personal account to the business of lending one’s own capital, to the collection of capital for lending to others, to trade markets where ownership is bought and sold like any commodity. Banking enables resources to be applied where civilization at large deems is the best place for them to be used based upon the information available. Prioritization of the use of resources is a very important mechanism to the future prospects of an entity.
I have implied what we refer to as civilization is merely a continuation of evolutionary hierarchy. It is the only arena of evolution that is currently producing greater complexity. Biological evolution has reached its limits in producing humans, whose metabolisms are already largely devoted to keeping the brain functioning. If any biological evolution is occurring, it is related to conforming to civilization, not nature. The evolution of the social system isn’t just one level of hierarchy. There have clearly been a number of steps made throughout history. There are clearly multiple levels of hierarchy within our governments with a spectrum between local government and nations and the bodies they create to regulate international law. Likewise, business is the same. Seldomly does a business produce a product all of the way from extracting raw materials to selling that product to a non-business consumer. These hierarchies are enabled by our ever advancing communications systems, which all hinge on the notion that an idea or object can be represented by a symbol, which is the essence of language and writing. Our tools are advanced by our learning system, the scientific community and by our financial and governing systems which select which ideas get resources. It is a complex, deep hierarchy. The burden of individual human survival is embedded in this system much the same way that a cell is embedded in the body.
Vinge, when he coined the term “Singularity” was convinced that there would emerge a super-intelligent computer intelligence that would be able to improve itself at a staggering rate such that humanity would become irrelevant. To some degree, the definition of the term has been softened by the community at large to be a more general definition that a system will evolve that is capable of advancing at a rate beyond human comprehension. The problem with Vinge’s super-humanly intelligent computer taking over is that it has to do more than just compete with the intellect of an individual human. It has to compete with the combined capability of all the organizations of civilization powered by billions of humans. There will have to be substantial work done in organizing the vast arrays of processors to take on specialized roles an communicate the proper information to the right processor. Needless to say, we aren’t nearly as good at making groups of processors work together as we are at making a single processor. This will put off the machine driven vision of Vinge for a good part of a century if Kurzweil is correct. While the art of automated computation is a century old, cluster computing is closer to a decade. The Cray computers of the 80’s were not multiple processor systems. The notion was new in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
The important idea behind the notion of the Singularity is that humanity as a species is not at the top of the intellectual hill. The capabilities of the evolved social hierarchies we have created have transcended our individual capabilities. While the individual scientific advances of the past century are attributed to individuals, they don’t belong to them. The ideas were already in the community. They just put on the finishing touches. This is becoming more the case every year. There are no more Da Vincis because the game is a lot harder. There is a lot more to learn just to get started and the problems are more complex. Cutting edge science and engineering are increasingly taking more and more manpower to get done. The system acts and solves far beyond the individual’s capacity. We have been working our way toward the Singularity for over five thousand years and I suspect Kurzweil is counting down how long it will take before an individual human will no longer be able to comprehend what is going on at the highest levels of evolved hierarchy. That day might have already arrived.