Given the current social, economic and political developments it becomes clear that we seem to have reached a ceiling in our intellectual ability to address the complex issues that society is facing. Society lacks the intellectual capacity required to assess the holistic nature of the current challenges. Without that analytic capacity it will be impossible to come up with the right answers. We have arrived at times like this before in our history and they typically led to collapses of civilisations and the arrival of serious declines in living standards. If we are to avoid similar calamities, we need to break through that ceiling and find new tools to help us to create a smarter society.
Our lack of ability to see all the different complex issues as they relate to each other and to make thorough analyses of the overall situation is creating increased confusion, which in turn is being (mis)used by populist politicians and dumbed-down media. This makes it very difficult for society to get a good view – and to make sound judgments – of the true cost incurred by the lack of a holistic approach to the complex problems.
I will explore whether the next stage of human evolution is going to depend on merging humans and machines, something that is becoming increasingly possible through artificial intelligence (AI). Some of the predictions and scenarios discussed might not be exactly right, as we are pushing the boundaries of our current level of knowledge; some issues could attract strong responses from those with different views, and most likely some of the predictions will lead to totally different outcomes. But what really matters is the discussion itself.
The proposition that we put forward is based on three trains of thought:
- Why are we still unable to answer some of the big metaphysical questions people such as Plato and Aristotle asked 2,500 years ago? Since the arrival of science in the 18th century our ability to answer some of them has improved, but there are still knowledge ceilings that we are unable to break through.
- Social, technological and economic developments have accelerated over the last 200 years to such an extent that they are moving faster than the ‘normal evolutionary processes’ and we seem increasingly to be unable to manage them. We currently lack the knowledge and the tools to do so.
- Technological advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are perhaps the only developments that will be able to keep pace with these changes; they are going to give us the extra knowledge capacity needed to manage these ‘breakneck developments’. People-machine transcendency may guide humanity to their next stage of evolution – that is, we might need to speed up human intellectual evolution with the assistance of AI.
Even as recently as 2009, when almost the entire world united in Copenhagen for the Climate Conference, there was a sense of optimism concerning a possible breaking through of one of the ceilings. Public sentiment supported the proposed global policies aimed at curbing the unsustainable developments that are, at the very least, contributing to the problem of climate change.
Great disillusionment followed when our political leaders failed to produce tangible outcomes; and global sentiment deteriorated further when those same leaders failed to properly address the GFC. The European economic crisis has added to a lack of public confidence in the ability of our political and business structures to properly address the key issues that are now confronting people all over the world. From China to the Arab States and from Greece to Spain there is social unrest. At the same time the Obama ‘Yes, we can’ campaign and the support he received for that shows that many people are ready for major change. Unfortunately this campaign petered out, again because of a disappointment in leadership.
Even in countries that are less affected by the financial and economic crises there is a heightened level of concern about the future, and about the capabilities of the current leaders to address the issues that are at their core. Several countries now have so-called ‘hung’ parliaments, highlighting the limitations of our democratic systems. Often in such situations a 51 per cent majority simply means total control and the democratic system does not take the other 49 per cent into account.
This all indicates that the social, economic and political structures that we have built up during the industrial era have come to the end of their usefulness. Those processes take too long and often result in the wrong outcomes.
We argue that this is not an issue between the political left or right, between east or west, or between developed and developing countries. We believe that we are now in a global civilisation and that global solutions are needed. This will require global governance (panarchy) based on the principle of global democracy – without, at this stage, necessarily defining what such a civilisation will look like.
All of this goes directly to the core issues of our society, such as the limitations of national policies, democracy and capitalism. Our siloed structures do not allow us to develop the knowledge and the tools needed to cross that next frontier, where we will advance far enough to address the complex issues being faced.
We need to move from the industrial civilisation to the knowledge civilisation, hopefully without first regressing into another period of ‘Dark Ages’.
The current global sentiment of uneasiness and worry – based on our biological instinct – clearly shows that, for better or for worse, humanity is on the brink of some serious changes. This is not limited to a particular country or a specific region; it is a global sentiment and shows that people all over the world are no longer convinced that we should rely on the traditional, national structures and processes to safeguard our future.
Because of the faltering structures and processes it is possible that we do not have enough time to solve those problems through these ‘industrial era’ processes. We have to rapidly increase our intellectual capacity to avert more serious disaster – indeed possibly the collapse of our present civilisation.
From the perspective of the ICT industry in which I work, I suggest we should look at technologies that can assist us to increase and extend our intellectual capabilities, to find better structural solutions for these issues. As is already happening with individuals and grassroots community groups, the internet enables the formation of local, national and global relationships that facilitate the building of parallel structures next to the more traditional ones. At the same time, through the new internet companies and research and education networks, new forms of global communication, information and, most importantly, collaboration is happening. We need to foster these developments and make them mainstream in order to come up with better solutions on how to move to the next level of our human existence. This will require the creation of a holistic ecosystem where all of these developments come together in a trans-sector way. This requires an open flow of communication between all people, linked to open source technologies, distributed AI, and large capacity data processing linked to real-time analytics. This should give us the intellectual power to handle the change. It is a completely different approach to the siloed, proprietary- and ideologically-based, monopolistic structures which depend on secrecy, deception and propaganda for their survival.
The more these new technology-based infrastructures are developed the more people will use them, and as a result societal change will take place. These ‘people-technology’ developments will force politicians and business leaders to embrace change also and to implement structural changes that will operate on a trans-sector basis; and to develop policies that facilitate and stimulate these changes in society. This is something that is already happening in the business world, where internet-based developments are forcing whole industry sectors to change (retail, publishing, entertainment, music). The Australian national broadband network also has the potential to perform such a transformational function, as does the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development.
Advances in technological innovations – greatly supported by open communication structures – have the potential to increase our intellectual capacity to more successfully address the complex problems we are facing. Some of the most important technological innovations that are currently taking place are in relation to different interlinking (open) systems in our society, large-scale data processing and real-time analytics; AI is reaching maturity and is now entering mainstream markets. So the end of the industrial era will coincide with the arrival of new technologies that can assist us in making the structural changes needed in order to address the complex challenges of our times.
To what extent this fusion of people and technology will be successful in enabling our civilisation to move to another level, and where this eventually will lead us is an absolute unknown; nevertheless it is fascinating to think about it – and it is most likely the only way to deal with the complex issues of the emerging knowledge civilisation.