Anthony horton

Places:  Our Brains on Change

It’s a biological fact: our amygdala, those tiny almond-shaped parts of our brains, are attuned to sense threats and react with fear. This ancient and primitive response mechanism flares up with every new societal shift or technological advance. But fear isn’t the only driver—power dynamics play a crucial role too. Those perched atop the social hierarchy often view transformative tools as threats to their power because new tools can indeed mean new rules. Elizabeth Kolbert in “The Sixth Extinction” remarks on how “human beings tend to respond to immediate threats and financial consequences and are not good at recognizing gradual changes.”

The Tale of the Printing Press

Introduced in the 15th century by Johannes Gutenberg, the printing press was once considered a harbinger of doom. Many feared that mass-produced books would make information too easily accessible and disrupt the intellectual order. A notable critic, Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner, in 1565 expressed concerns about the “confusing and harmful abundance of books.” Despite such fears, the printing press ended up revolutionizing society, spreading knowledge, boosting literacy rates, and democratizing information. As historian Elizabeth Eisenstein notes, it provided “the technical means for the renaissance of Western culture.”

The Internet Revolution

Fast forward to the 1990s, the nascent stage of the internet was met with a barrage of skepticism. Critics like Clifford Stoll, in his 1995 Newsweek article “The Internet? Bah!”, predicted the internet would falter, failing to replace traditional means of communication and commerce. Yet, decades later, it’s almost unimaginable to think of a world without the internet, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which underscored its essential role in keeping businesses afloat, families connected, and information flowing freely.

AI: The Next Chapter in Toolmaking

Today, AI stands at the forefront of our technological horizon, encountering skepticism akin to that which greeted past innovations. Ray Kurzweil, a pivotal figure in shaping our understanding of technological progress, argues that AI is not merely a new tool but an extension of our evolutionary journey. In his seminal work, “The Singularity Is Near,” Kurzweil presents the idea that human evolution is merging with our technological creations, leading us towards a future where our capabilities are amplified beyond our biological limits.

Kurzweil posits that this fusion will usher in the “Singularity,” a point where technological growth becomes uncontrollably rapid, resulting in unimaginable changes to human civilization. He predicts that by the 2040s, AI will surpass human intelligence, leading to a symbiosis between human and machine. As Kurzweil explains, “The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains… We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands.”

This transformative potential of AI could mean that the fears it incites are similar to the fears faced at the dawn of the internet or the printing press—less about the end of humanity, and more about the birth of a new paradigm in human existence. The possibilities are profound: enhanced mental and physical abilities, eradication of disease, and even extending our lifespans.

So, when I joke, “Dude, where’s my brain chip?” I’m not just poking fun at the future—it’s an acknowledgment of the exciting, albeit unknown, frontier of human enhancement. It is about the next step in our evolutionary ladder, potentially as significant as the development of language or the use of tools, which first set us apart as a species.

This journey towards the Singularity isn’t just about survival; it’s about thriving in a world where our intelligence is augmented by the tools we’ve created. In this light, the Singularity isn’t just a point of technological convergence—it’s a point of human transcendence, a leap into a future where our brains are interconnected, expanded, and perhaps even backed up like a computer.

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