The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (2016)



Thousands of years from now, when historians review the past, our ancient time here at the beginning of the third millennium will be seen as an amazing moment. This is the time when inhabitants of this planet first linked themselves together into one very large thing. Later the very large thing would become even larger, but you and I are alive at that moment when it first awoke. Future people will envy us, wishing they could have witnessed the birth we saw. It was in these years that humans began animating inert objects with tiny bits of intelligence, weaving them into a cloud of machine intelligences and then linking billions of their own minds into this single supermind. This convergence will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet up until this time. Braiding nerves out of glass, copper, and airy radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all people, all artifacts, all sensors, all facts and notions into a grand network of hitherto unimagined complexity. From this embryonic net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive apparatus with power that exceeded any previous invention. This megainvention, this organism, this machine—if we want to call it that—subsumes all the other machines made, so that in effect there is only one thing that permeates our lives to such a degree that it becomes essential to our identity. This very large thing provides a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall, planetary scope) and a new mind for an old species. It is the Beginning.

The Beginning is a century-long process, and its muddling forward is mundane. Its big databases and extensive communications are boring. Aspects of this dawning real-time global mind are either dismissed as nonsense or feared. There is indeed a lot to be legitimately worried about because there is not a single aspect of human culture—or nature—that is left untouched by this syncopated pulse. Yet because we are the parts of something that has begun operating at a level above us, the outline of this emerging very large thing is obscured. All we know is that from its very beginning, it is upsetting the old order. Fierce pushback is to be expected.

What to call this very large masterpiece? Is it more alive than machine? At its core 7 billion humans, soon to be 9 billion, are quickly cloaking themselves with an always-on layer of connectivity that comes close to directly linking their brains to each other. A hundred years ago H. G. Wells imagined this large thing as the world brain. Teilhard de Chardin named it the noosphere, the sphere of thought. Some call it a global mind, others liken it to a global superorganism since it includes billions of manufactured silicon neurons. For simple convenience and to keep it short, I’m calling this planetary layer the holos. By holos I include the collective intelligence of all humans combined with the collective behavior of all machines, plus the intelligence of nature, plus whatever behavior emerges from this whole. This whole equals holos.

The scale of what we are becoming is simply hard to absorb. It is the largest thing we have made. Let’s take just the hardware, for example. Today there are 4 billion mobile phones and 2 billion computers linked together into a seamless cortex around the globe. Add to them all the billions of peripheral chips and affiliated devices from cameras to cars to satellites. Already in 2015 a grand total of 15 billion devices have been wired up into one large circuit. Each of these devices contains 1 billion to 4 billion transistors themselves, so in total the holos operates with a sextillion transistors (10 with 21 zeros). These transistors can be thought of as the neurons in a vast brain. The human brain has roughly 86 billion neurons, or a trillion times fewer than the holos. In terms of magnitude, the holos already significantly exceeds our brains in complexity. And our brains are not doubling in size every few years. The holos mind is.

Today, the hardware of the holos acts like a very large virtual computer made up of as many computer chips as there are transistors in a computer. This virtual computer’s top-level functions operate at approximately the speed of an early PC. It processes 1 million emails each second, and 1 million messages per second, which essentially means the holos currently runs at 1 megahertz. Its total external storage is about 600 exabytes today. In any one second, 10 terabits course through its backbone nerves. It has a robust immune system, weeding spam from its trunk lines and rerouting around damage as a type of self-healing.

And who will write the code that makes this global system useful and productive? We will. We think we are merely wasting time when we surf mindlessly or post an item for our friends, but each time we click a link we strengthen a node somewhere in the holos mind, thereby programming it by using it. Think of the 100 billion times per day humans click on a web page as a way of teaching the holos what we think is important. Each time we forge a link between words, we teach this contraption an idea.

This is the new platform that our lives will run on. International in scope. Always on. At current rates of technological adoption I estimate that by the year 2025 every person alive—that is, 100 percent of the planet’s inhabitants—will have access to this platform via some almost-free device. Everyone will be on it. Or in it. Or, simply, everyone will be it.

This big global system will not be utopia. Even three decades from now, regional fences will remain in this cloud. Parts will be firewalled, censored, privatized. Corporate monopolies will control aspects of the infrastructure, though these internet monopolies are fragile and ephemeral, subject to sudden displacement by competitors. Although minimal access will be universal, higher bandwidth will be uneven and clumped around urban areas. The rich will get the premium access. In short, the distribution of resources will resemble the rest of life. But this is critical and transformative, and even the least of us will be part of it.

Right now, in this Beginning, this imperfect mesh spans 51 billion hectares, touches 15 billion machines, engages 4 billion human minds in real time, consumes 5 percent of the planet’s electricity, runs at inhuman speeds, tracks half our daytime hours, and is the conduit for the majority flow of our money. The level of organization is a step above the largest things we have made till now: cities. This jump in levels reminds some physicists of a phase transition, the discontinuous break between a molecule’s state—say, between ice and water, or water and steam. The difference in temperature or pressure separating two phases is almost trivial, but the fundamental reorganization across the threshold makes the material behave in a whole new manner. Water is definitely a different state than ice.

The large-scale, ubiquitous interconnection of this new platform at first seems like just the natural extension of our traditional society. It seems to just add digital relationships to our existing face-to-face relationships. We add a few more friends. We expand our network of acquaintances. Broaden our sources of news. Digitize our movements. But, in fact, as all these qualities keep steadily increasing, just as temperature and pressure slowly creep higher, we pass an inflection point, a complexity threshold, where the change is discontinuous—a phase transition—and suddenly we are in a new state: a different world with new normals.

We are in the Beginning of that process, right at the cusp of that discontinuity. In this new regime, old cultural forces, such as centralized authority and uniformity, diminish while new cultural forces, such as the ones I describe in this book—sharing, accessing, tracking—come to dominate our institutions and personal lives. As the new phase congeals, these forces will continue to intensify. Sharing, though excessive to some now, is just beginning. The switch from ownership to access has barely begun. Flows and streams are still trickles. While it seems as if we are tracked too much already, we’ll be tracking a thousand times as much in the coming decades. Each one of these functions will be accelerated by high-quality cognification, just now being born, making the smartest things we do today seem very dumb. None of this is final. These transitions are but the first step in a process, a process of becoming. It is a Beginning.

• • •

Look at a satellite photograph of the earth at night to get a glimpse of this very large organism. Brilliant clusters of throbbing city lights trace out organic patterns on the dark land. The cities gradually dim at their edges to form thin long lighted highways connecting other distant city clusters. The routes of lights outward are dendritic, treelike patterns. The image is deeply familiar. The cities are ganglions of nerve cells; the lighted highways are the axons of nerves, reaching to a synaptic connection. Cities are the neurons of the holos. We live inside this thing.

This embryonic very large thing has been running continuously for at least 30 years. I am aware of no other machine—of any type—that has run that long with zero downtime. While portions of it will probably spin down temporarily one day due to power outages or cascading infections, the entire thing is unlikely to go quiet in the coming decades. It has been and will likely remain the most reliable artifact we have.

This picture of an emerging superorganism reminds some scientists of the concept of “the singularity.” A “singularity” is a term borrowed from physics to describe a frontier beyond which nothing can be known. There are two versions in pop culture: a hard singularity and a soft singularity. The hard version is a future brought about by the triumph of a superintelligence. When we create an AI that is capable of making an intelligence smarter than itself, it can in theory make generations of ever smarter AIs. In effect, AI would bootstrap itself in an infinite accelerating cascade so that each smarter generation is completed faster than the previous generation until AIs very suddenly get so smart that they solve all existing problems in godlike wisdom and leave us humans behind. It is called a singularity because it is beyond what we can perceive. Some call that our “last invention.” For various reasons, I think that scenario is unlikely.

A soft singularity is more likely. In this future scenario AIs don’t get so smart that they enslave us (like evil versions of smart humans); rather AI and robots and filtering and tracking and all the technologies I outline in this book converge—humans plus machines—and together we move to a complex interdependence. At this level many phenomenon occur at scales greater than our current lives, and greater than we can perceive—which is the mark of a singularity. It’s a new regime wherein our creations makes us better humans, but also one where we can’t live without what we’ve made. If we have been living in rigid ice, this is liquid—a new phase state.

This phase change has already begun. We are marching inexorably toward firmly connecting all humans and all machines into a global matrix. This matrix is not an artifact, but a process. Our new supernetwork is a standing wave of change that steadily spills forward new arrangements of our needs and desires. The particular products, brands, and companies that will surround us in 30 years are entirely unpredictable. The specifics at that time hinge on the crosswinds of individual chance and fortune. But the overall direction of this large-scale vibrant process is clear and unmistakable. In the next 30 years the holos will continue to lean in the same direction it has for the last 30 years: toward increased flowing, sharing, tracking, accessing, interacting, screening, remixing, filtering, cognifying, questioning, and becoming. We stand at this moment at the Beginning.

The Beginning, of course, is just beginning.