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The evolution of Homo Digitalis

The evolution of Homo Digitalis

In Earth's evolutionary history, existing species have been taken over by other species or have died out over time. The question is: what will happen to our own species, Homo Sapiens? Obviously, we won't live in our current form forever, but who or what might become our successor?

In today's digital age we can see two noteworthy developments going on simultaneously. First, we see all individual human brains on the planet getting more and more connected to each other. The Internet and advanced audio-visual media have started a real communications revolution. Facts, photos, opinions or emotions are rapidly disseminated and shared. This is just the beginning of a development, in which all human brains are structured into a network, eventually resulting in one large collective human brain. This development was already foreseen by Teilhard de Chardin, a French paleontologist and Jesuit priest who lived from 1881 to 1955, long before the Internet. He named this collective brain the 'No√∂sphere', a sphere of human thought around the earth as a continuation of the biosphere already in place.

At the same time, the even more astonishing development of a large artificial super brain is taking place. More and more, the information systems and memories stored on computers around the world become tuned in to each other. In addition, the intelligence of computers is increasing exponentially. Computers exceed human capabilities in an increasing number of fields, other than just arithmetical abilities. Interconnected computers can basically use an unlimited expanding memory and thus become one big universal super-brain.

And it doesn't stop there. Computers are capable of performing tasks like analyzing, planning and decision-making as well. Even in the field of social relations and morality, a future super-brain might be superior to any individual or group of individuals. After all, this computer brain could draw an informed conclusion in no-time at all, by analyzing the ethical principles of all major human ethicists. Of course, human failings such as  prejudice, biased judgment, and the competitive drive that underlies our greed, which could all be considered evolutionary baggage, are no obstacle to this artificial super-brain. Future generations may well decide that it would be safer to have a super-computer as the political leader of a world power than any human prime minister or political party.

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The two future super-brains, the biological and the artificial, clearly resemble each other a lot. In both cases, intelligence arises from the continuous exchange of electrical signals between billions of tiny units. Communication among people is based on the constant electronic traffic between the billions of brain cells within the human brain, as well as between individuals. Similarly, the way computers function is by exchanging billions of electrical signals between media stored on silicon chips. Of course there are big differences too. The most remarkable feature of the human brain is its degree of consciousness. After creating a model of the world that surrounds it, the human mind is able to make projections in time based on that model. To be able to do so, all kinds of input need to be analyzed and compared, in order to set goals and choose the right strategies.

In the course of evolution, different levels of consciousness have developed, which can also be observed physically in our brains. The human brain consist of several layers: above the primitive brain-stem there is the reptilian brain, then comes the limbic brain (in higher animals), and finally on the outside the neocortex, which is especially characteristic for humans and developed in the latest stages of evolution. It's remarkable how all parts of the brain work closely together. Without this partnership, we wouldn't be truely human.

The primitive brain areas are needed for our metabolism, nutrition and respiration. The limbic area on top of that is indispensable for the development of our human emotions and our self-consciousness. It's precisely this layered structure that's so typical of the evolution of life on Earth, as many evolutionary scientists have found. Evolution moves from the primitive towards complexity and thus to more capabilities of the mind, but it also recycles anything that has been proven to be useful. In other words, evolution is an additive process. This phenomenon can not only be seen in the biological evolution, but also in the so-called cultural evolution. The Greek and Roman empires, for instance, perished, but their science and art were preserved and were the basis for further progress.

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The big question is, whether an all-powerful artificial super brain, if and when it comes, will acquire its own form of consciousness and will sooner or later break with its earlier human creators completely. People like Frank Tipler and Ray Kurzweil think this computer-brain would indeed be capable of doing so. They believe that higher forms of intelligence might as well, or even better, arise in silicon chips instead of our carbon-based brain cells. With regard to the development of consciousness, they say that there is no reason why all the necessary mechanisms couldn't in principle be reconstructed in an artificial human brain. Tipler goes even further and claims that in a not so distant future, human minds could be downloaded into a computer.

However, there certainly are some critical remarks to be made on the possibility of a conscious computer mind. The first caveat is that scientists, although being able to give a good description of what consciousness does, still have a hard time explaining where it comes from. Where do our own feelings, our subjectivity and our self-consciousness originate? What is meant by general concepts like mind, spirit and, indeed, life? Teilhard de Chardin may have been right in saying that any form of matter, either inorganic or organic, features an inside and an outside, and that since the inside is in a different, invisible, dimension, all we can observe is the outside.

Black holes, the unpredictable forces in quantum-physical matter, the minds of living beings, these are just some examples of phenomena we can observe, but hardly explain. The assumption then that humans would be able to build this intangible thing we call consciousness into a computer sounds more like a typical expression of human arrogance than a real, or even desirable, possibility.

A second point to be made is that the creation of an original consciousness on a computer would be quite contrary to the laws of nature and evolution. Consciousness didn't just appear out of nowhere, but was built over billions of years on the essential elements that were already present in primitive form. A future computer super-consciousness is therefore likely to only exist in a partnership with an existing form of (human) consciousness. During evolution, successful forms of cooperation have emerged  on many occasions. Just look at the very fruitful cooperation with single-celled organisms we still have today. Without bacteria, our digestion would be impossible.

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Nowadays, people have already become completely dependent on technology. Without computers, the whole world would descend into chaos. Fortunately, we still have a good working relationship with our machines. We are so integrated with them that we do not even realize how we are allready being greatly influenced by the increasing power of computer brains. To a large extent, our identity is based on information and memory, precisely the areas where computers can be useful to us. Thus, an entirely new form of consciousness is emerging. In the same way our mind is being affected by the intense, global communication with other human minds (the 'human world brain'), we will be even more influenced and controlled by the superior analytical and decisive power of computers.

All this doesn't necessarily have to be a negative scenario. It may just mean that our consciousness is enhanced and that we  end up on a higher level of awareness, more focused on collectiveness. One day, though, we'll have to face the fact that we as a human species must pass the baton. And if the constructive nature of evolution is indeed able to retain our valuable properties within this merger of humanity and technology, not even that would have to be such bad news for us.

To achieve that, we should pay a lot of attention to the qualities we are especially good at and where we still have a lot of room to grow. Those might include imagination, empathy, deepening of inner understanding and self-projection. On our part, if we consider everything that goes wrong on earth, we may badly need the help of computers to expand and strengthen our rationality, as represented by our neocortex. Let us therefore assume that eventually, humans and computers will have entered into a partnership that's beneficial to life on Earth.

Another question we can ask is, wether in a future of intensive cooperation between man and machine, man will survive in its current, typically animal form. Will a kind of 'Homo Digitalis' be the result of an exponentially accelerated cultural evolution? And will this Homo Digitalis, in possession of such a strong mind, still need a biological body whith all its shortcomings? Evolution has shown that all life forms strive for being more independent from their biological environment, and have the ability to change their circumstances in order to create a better chance of survival.

We can now reconstruct almost any environment by making use of virtual reality. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence creates a whole new evolutionary acceleration. The difference between the current human species and its successors will certainly be much greater than the difference between us and apes. It may even be possible that evolution continues at such breakneck speed, that part of humanity simply can not keep up and that a new split within the family of hominids occures. This would not inevitably have to give rise to conflicts, but we must assume that a highly intelligent and sentient species would not allow a less conscious branch to damage the environment on Earth through unbridled expansion.

Source: Harry Ansems