The story of life on Earth thus far has had an unmistakable direction, and it has moved toward greater complexity.
Yes, it’s true that evolution has seen lots of fits and starts and collapses and mass extinctions. And it’s also true that some replicators (like viruses) seem to have become less complex over time.
But from a 100,000 foot view of Earth in the last, say, 4.5 billion years, the direction of life on Earth looks approximately clear: given enough time, a process that started with simple organic molecules slowly-but-steadily built organisms with brains that can reflect on themselves.
The evolutionary process takes awhile, but eventually, humans show up — social animals with brains that can develop language, iterate on tools, and reflect on their own nature (among lots of other amazing things). What do we then do with these miraculous brains?
We launch a new kind of evolution.
The Dawn of Cultural Evolution
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It’s hard to overstate how epic this fact is: For the few billion or so years that evolution took to produce us, all of the evolution going on was biological. In other words, evolution’s primary mode of operation began and ended with genes.
Humans, for all of our foibles, stupidities and evils, did something pretty miraculous: We switched up this M.O.
Suddenly, genes (our genes, at least) took a secondary role in the story of intelligence on Earth. Memes (a fancy way of saying “cultures, ideas and technologies that persist and evolve through time”) took center stage.
With the emergence of a life form that could invent new stuff, improve it, trade it with others, and pass the know-how down through generations, the era of cultural evolution had begun.
Just as biological evolution started with relatively simple organic structures and slowly but steadily built increasingly complex organisms, cultural evolution took relatively simple social structures (tribal groups) and iterated on them until the result was a global civilization.
For the sake of brevity, I’ve made all of this sound like a simple, elegant process.
The reality, of course, is dark and ugly.
Like biological evolution—a force that mercilessly kills, eats, and starves animals and plants as it selects for fitness and luck against the rough odds of life, cultural evolution has generally used death and destruction as its lathe.
Yes, when humans weren’t busy eating, having sex, or finding better ways to eat and have sex, they were waging war on their neighbors and finding better ways to wage war. The cultures, ideas, and technologies that achieved the upper hand in war over their rivals either annihilated these rivals or assimilated them or some combination of both.
Over the long-term horizon, this process — which involved more murder, rape and enslavement than I want to think about — brought us from tribes to chiefdoms to cities and states and empires and nations.
And so, 50,000-80,000 years after homo sapiens learned to talk, here we are: an interconnected species whose reach and dominion spans the entire planet.
The Revolutionary, Evolutionary Power of Communication Technologies
To understand why digital telepathy is the logical next step in this journey, it helps to see the major leaps in cultural evolution as breakthroughs in communication technology.
By “breakthroughs in communications technology,” I mean the technological and cultural shifts that enabled more sophisticated communication to happen faster and more often between larger and larger groups of people.
Specifically, I’m thinking of:
- The development of language, which is generally considered to mark the dawn of the modern human.
- The growth of trade, which helped technologies and ideas spread between groups and may have given us the edge over the other hominids that were cohabiting the Earth when we arrived on the scene.
- The rise of agriculture, which enabled human societies to settle down, stop roaming the Earth in search of food, and breed more humans.
- The development of writing, which facilitated (among other things) formal codes of law, increasingly sophisticated economic exchanges, and more efficient transmission and dispersal of knowledge.
- Roads and the wheel, which let tech, knowledge, and armies move faster over greater distances.
- The printing press, which dramatically accelerated the production of texts and the distribution of world-changing ideas.
- Navigation, which made global trade (and conquest) feasible for the first time.
- Steam power, which made global and continental trade and idea exchange go faster.
- The industrial revolution, which re-oriented the center of human life away from the fields and into the cities and incentivized rapid innovation in both ways of commerce and war.
- The birth of the Internet, which enabled digital information to travel across the entire planet at nearly the speed of light, and…
The Most Revolutionary Communication Technology Yet
There are smart people who argue that humanity’s most important technological advances happened in the first 60 years of the 20th century. They point to urbanization, electricity, medicine, cars, airplanes, mass production, etc., and say that the development of the Internet pales in significance.
And to be fair, they are right…so far: Compared to the shifts in the human way of life that emerged in the wake of the industrial revolution, the Internet and smartphones seem a bit lightweight.
But these people are just impatient. Along the curve of change that computation and the Internet will produce if we don’t destroy our civilization first, we are nowhere near the apex.
Indeed, the revolutionary evolutions that the Internet will ultimately bring into the story of life on Earth are so profound that calling the next breakthrough in communications technology a “singularity” isn’t too far off base.
Digital telepathy: the next breakthrough in the evolution of intelligence on Earth
Imagine what it would be like if you could transmit thoughts and feelings between yourself and other people without opening your mouth, putting a pen to paper, or typing a single word.
We can talk about things like digital telepathy and think about the potential range of consequences for humanity that would spin out of its wake, but because human consciousness is limited to its own experience, it’s impossible for any of us to truly imagine what telepathy would be like.
The crazy part is that barring a total civilizational meltdown, the prospect of digital telepathy will eventually stop being a prospect we can only attempt to imagine and start being a reality that some of us live.
Here are some recent key developments:
- In 2014, a handful of researchers announced that they had produced the first brain-to-brain communication between humans over the Internet. What this meant in practice was that two people wearing high-tech EEGs on their heads were able to transmit text messages just by thinking really hard, but hey, it’s a start.
- That same year, a group of scientists at Berkeley led by Jack Gallant used fMRI to scan people’s brains while they watched video clips and created an algorithm that could translate the brain signals into rough pictures of the images they were seeing.
- In 2012, researchers testing brain implants on rats found that implanted rats in one part of the world were able to control the behavior of implanted rats in another, using their minds.
- In August of 2016, Bryan Johnson (who co-founded Braintree and solid it to PayPal) announced that his new company, Kernel was working on implantable brain-computer interfaces (called neural prosthetics). Johnson’s stated goal? “Keeping humans front and center” in the competition for supremacy against Artificial Intelligence.
- In March of 2017, Elon Musk threw his hat in the brain-implant ring with Neuralink. His vision? To develop an embryonic-stage tech called “neural lace” into a workable brain-computer interface that, yes, keeps humans competitive with super-intelligent A.I.
I don’t know about you, but to me, all of those things look like seeds that eventually produce brains that talk to each other over the Internet without typing or talking.
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There are many paths that lead the way to digital telepathy, and they are not all roses and unicorns.
One obvious, terrifying use case is super soldiers.
Few things would confer more of a tactical advantage than the capacity to communicate with your squad and coordinate your collective actions without uttering a single word.
If you’re a world leader and you know the tech is possible, are you really going stand idle while rival nations and rich terrorist organizations develop military-grade telepathy?
You tell me.
The more optimistic guess is that it will start with people suffering debilitating conditions. Are you callous enough to tell the family of someone who is in a “locked-in” state — conscious, but unable to move or speak — that “Yes, we’re going to keep your loved one alive until their body dies, but no, you’ll never be able to communicate with them again?”
And if the technology requires drilling a small hole into their skulls and implanting some fancy tech into the tissue of their brains without their consent? Yikes. It gets murky fast.
But it’s hard to see what — short of the downfall of human civilization — would stop the evolution of digital telepathy from eventually happening. There are just too many structural forces that are larger than any of us pushing it forward*.
When the time comes for the human species to evolve, it will look to us like we are in control…that by manipulating our own DNA or implanting computers into our bodies, we have somehow seized the reins of the process and become gods.
But this appearance will only be a ruse.
Evolution — whether it is truly a blind, purposeless watchmaker or not — has been around for a while. It is older, more powerful, and more subtle than we could ever be.
It will continue doing what it does, driving complexity and consciousness higher, allowing us to think we are playing it when really, it is us getting played.