The age of Cognitive Augmentation is here. Ready?

Ever since humans fell out of trees we’ve been creating tools to help us survive. One of the most important of those tools was writing. As our brains and species evolved up to today and the arrival of homo Sapiens, so too did our use of tools. Until the closing of the 21st century, we augmented our physical selves. Things are about to get a bit messier now though.

As we became an agrarian society, we developed tools for farming. When our villages became so big we needed more land, we invented weapons. So we could go over and thump our neighbours and take their land. In anthropological terms this is called “caging.” The debate continues as to weather this was the start of warfare. Arguably so. At least at scale.

As our species grew and we spread across the planet, we continued to develop tools to augment our physical abilities into the age of industrialization and the ability to move about the planet faster and further and then of course, off the planet.

As we grew, our societies became ever more complex. For the most part, we’ve been able to handle complexity using physical tools and that muscle squished between our ears we call a brain. Sometimes though, our brains can’t quite figure out how to deal with certain complexities. An example is the Mayan civilization. It was quite an impressive civilization too. Incredibly creative and rich in the arts, huge cities and complex agricultural management skills.

Complexity caught up with the Mayans when the southern continent experienced decades long drought. At first, the Mayans were very good at irrigation systems and channeling water from rivers and lakes. But eventually, they stopped having insights and being able to manage their agricultural systems. As their brains maxed out and food and water became ever scarcer, they eventually turned to religion and what the evidence suggests, human sacrifice. At this time in human evolution, the only way we augmented our cognitive abilities was through writing and the creation and sharing of knowledge.

This limitation to our cognitive augmentation went on through many thousands of years, through the arrival of the printing press, telegraph, radio and television. We had some limited degree of computation available as we edged into the 1940’s and 60’s. But the cost of computing was very high and had limited abilities to be mobile or share information at scale. You’ve figured out where I’m going here. Yes, along came the internet.

The cost of computing fell drastically and we developed ways to make software and thus computers, much easier to use. We also made it easier and cost-efficient to connect them at a global scale. Then along came those computers we stick in our pockets and handbags that also happen to make phone calls. Though we seem to not prefer talking to each other and sending tweets, texts and short video clips instead.

As the 21st century opened, we made incredible leaps with computing capabilities and the ability to create what useful Artificial Intelligence at scale. When you ask Siri or Alexa something, the processing of your request may be happening many thousands of miles from where you are having a family debate in your kitchen over the age of a celebrity. You are experiencing cognitive augmentation.

Naturally, one of the first highly successful applications of Artificial Intelligence available to society at large was developing a tool to fight parking tickets. It has a 90% win rate. Aren’t we clever.

The next step in the evolution of humans is cognitive augmentation. We must still use physical tools of course. If you have a lawn mower you know this well. Fortunately, like the robotic vacuum cleaners out there, augmenting our weekend cleaning routines, automated lawnmowers are coming. Time to buy a new hammock?

Already farms are using self-driving farm equipment for harvesting vegetables and seed planting. Farm tractors today are loaded with sensors and farmers plant soil sensors around their farms and add in satellite data. Artificial Intelligence software helps them determine the optimum planting times, required irrigation and when to harvest. Cats are still needed to catch barn mice however, so they have fairly good job security until robot cats with laser beam eyes come along.

So what does this all mean?

As we saw thee rise of industrial scale tools in the age of physical augmentation, we saw jobs lost at a large scale. But we also saw many new jobs. New industries started and as we could move around the world, economies grew. Much of the initial fears proved to not be of major consequence.

With cognitive augmentation however, we may face very new dilemmas and situations. Already the debate over the value of Universal Basic Income has started. The reality is, it is most likely inevitable. Now, we talk about data being the new oil. The term “infonomics” was coined by Gartner Vice President and Fellow, Douglas B. Laney who literally wrote the book on it. It is a seminal groundwork for how we can and will, monetize information.

We are also bringing cognitive augmentation (CA) to our weapons of war. The UN has agreed to a treaty to not develop robots for war. Most countries are largely ignoring it. So far, most militaries keep a “human in the loop” with drones and use semi-autonomous weapons. If we do end up in a global conflict, it is unlikely to remain that way for very long. Some pundits suggest a highly surgical, intense and short global war. Since we’re humans, it is likely to be somewhat more messier than that.

It is more likely that white collar jobs will be lost more and faster than blue collar ones. Robots still cannot build a house and while advancing rapidly, cannot solve small yet complex problems that plumbers, electricians and carpenters all deal with. But eventually, they probably will.

There are many, many issues human society will face as we race to augment our cognitive abilities, from human rights and freedoms, to dealing with wars and weapons, how many people will a self-driving car be allowed to kill (it is an issue facing auto makers now) and more. The Rule of Law and lawmakers and policy makers will face significant challenges unlike ever before. AI may be fighting parking tickets today, but what about using an AI in a murder trial or complex litigations?

But as climate change progresses and impacts humanity on a global scale, we will not be able to solve that problem with that jelly muscle jiggling between our ears. We will need Artificial Intelligence, Cloud computing and very likely, quantum computing to run complex scenarios and simulations. We can learn from the Mayans and similar cultures. If we don’t, let’s hope we don’t resort to religion and human sacrifice.

Note: This article was also posted on Medium, where I do a lot of writing.

What do you think?

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