Exponential growth - the fuel for ultrashort termism (UST) and solutionism. Some examples and consequences.
We ended part one, with
Part one: Does Exponential Growth Have A Price? Time, And A Lurking Paradox
Part two: A Critical Look At Some (MT)Ps
Part three: Nature’s Ingenuity
This left us with some questions we will address in the upcoming episodes.
Where are we going? What is our purpose? Who or what determines my thinking? Solutions for everything?
Although these grand questions are not simple to answer, we need to project the current exponential developments 20 years ahead. Converging technologies will cause paradigm shifts that will add extra layers of complexity. E.g. the development of gene editing opens up new opportunities that can change entire species, including that of human beings. The development of chip implants in our brains will ignite new questions when it becomes a breakthrough technology, and available to many of us. What effect will it have on our way of thinking and behaving? We hear a lot about technologies that can be implanted in our bodies and their potential, yet not so much about their potential implications. Wouldn’t it be wise to focus on using technologies to find solutions for problems rather than to develop solutions for problems that are not problematic, just because it is possible? E.g., why would we connect our brains wirelessly to the ‘synthetic neocortex’?
Let us be clear, we do not want to discourage these developments, but rather explore some ethical issues and potential implications because technology will influence the way we live and where we are going. Whether we like technology or not, we need to be able to coexist with it and determine whether it adds more value to our existence.
Solutions for every problem and non-problem
Let’s build on the developments of brain implants as an example. Our brains, the final frontier of discovery, are becoming less mysterious every year. Yet, there is a long way to go before we really understand how the brain works. Despite this lack of understanding, the development of brain implants is increasing. The area of implants is not new. Patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease can have a qualitatively better life with Deep Brain Stimulating (DBS) technology, with electrodes reducing the impulses of tremor.
Some years ago I delivered a keynote speech at the CommonWealth Fund. At the same time, a neuroscience conference had been organized in Washington DC. One of the presentations was about the results of the implantation of a memory prosthetic chip to extend our memory. Whereas the DBS was already remarkable, this was the next level. One of the speakers at the conference was a gerontologist and, upon hearing this news he immediately saw the possibilities of treating Alzheimer’s disease. Although only applicable at a narrow level, these breakthroughs are fantastic.
Where are my memories?
The Human Brain Project can be seen as one of the accelerators of the exciting next level of the development of chip implants to connect our brains wirelessly to the cloud. Meanwhile, a handful of companies like Neuralink, Neurable, Kernel, or Nextmind are working on solutions in this field.
Imagine a world where a lot of people will have these tiny devices, picking up electrical signals from our neurons as well as our neurons connecting us to data from the Internet. The Internet becomes a kind of directly accessible extended neocortex, or synthetic neocortex, according to Ray Kurzweil. (1) In his opinion, the interfaces will consist of nanobots as opposed to the implants that Neuralink is working on. All this could already be a reality by the end of this decade.
Whatever interface will be used in the (near) future, the process of being connected wirelessly is the subject of discussion. The ‘always on’ connection will influence our thinking, including our decision-making, communication, learning, interacting with our environment, etc. Maybe, or better, hopefully, these devices are programmed or will have the capability to adapt to our circadian rhythm, so that they stop signaling when we are asleep.
Today we are witnessing the unprecedented possibilities of accelerating growth of these technologies (faster, smaller, cheaper), so that it is easy to imagine that these devices will onboard new functionalities automatically while you are doing things, learning from your interests, and filtering information so that it is personalized. Kind of mini smartphones with mini-mini apps inside your brains (carefully selected based on our preferences of course), helping us with whatever is needed. All at your ‘neuron-tips’ ready to receive, at 8G speed, containing terabytes of information in order to make super-fast decisions. The current interfaces are just as fast as slugs, after all. Your books, phone(s) or TV are clumsy artifacts when it comes to information. No, it is better to have exponential thinking beamed right into our brains and wiping out all that linear crap at once. Short-termism on steroids. Always Access our memories in a split second, everybody equipped with a photographic memory, no matter where we are.
But where are my memories stored? According to Ray Kurzweil, the thinking will still take place in our brains, but if we outsource our memories, can’t we outsource our thinking, at least partially, to an AI running in the cloud as well, can we? Deep learning layers in the cloud shuffling through all my data and feeding back ready-to-use decisions as if they were ours? Our thinking is too slow anyway. Compared to this new way of "thinking" and making decisions, even system-1 thinking fades. (2) Now our decisions are well-founded in this new reality with the super-brain. Advantages and disadvantages have to be weighed carefully before going that pathway. Just one ‘simple’ question that we need to ask is about the reliability of the data we are exposed to and/or using in this new reality. If you forget for a moment that we don’t know all the aspects of our thinking, we tend to oversimplify things (at least at the stage where we are now).
Who doesn’t want this brilliant, hybrid future?
Wait a minute or two
The saying goes “what can be imagined can be made in this wonderful world and its unprecedented technological opportunities”. This is the belief of many, wrapped up in ‘moonshot thinking’.
We can imagine a ‘brain-cloud connected future’ by extrapolating today’s developments. What will that look like? The next thought experiment, as a probable scenario into what direction we might be going, can serve for opening up Pandora’s box and asking some pungent questions.
Imagine you are a parent who wants to have smart kids with the best education and all sorts of other activities for the child that will gear them up for the best chances for the future. To achieve this, you would consider having this brain connection to the synthetic neocortex be fixed for your child. Of course, the assumption is that this will work, and your child will learn faster, and more and, above all, personalized information!
Forget all that other rubbish that doesn’t make any sense for this intimate and tailored exposure to data. Indeed, it costs a few dollars, but that’s what it takes. Although opinions are divided, children seem to be learning the most until they are about seven years old. At that age, the foundation for their knowledge and brain development has been laid. Our imaginary parents decide to have the implants done for their daughter at the age of eight, to be at the safe side. You have to be cautious after all, right? After some conversations with their excited daughter, she agrees and an appointment is made. The implants are carried out, fully automatically, by a surgical robot at Growthmind, a company founded in 2023 and specialized in FDA-approved super brain extension connectors. The outcomes of the first tests went, as expected, flawlessly. Up- and downstream super fast and not one bit lost during the transfers.
Something to celebrate!
Sitting around the dinner table to celebrate the 100th day of the implants, the conversations were about what school had to offer that day. Her younger siblings participated a bit but dropped out after about five minutes. They didn’t understand her sister that well, switched off, and hardly could recall the last time they had fun together.
School? In short, that was boring and the only conversations the 'connected daughter' had that day, were with her friend who has implants as well, albeit from another company. Those conversations didn’t go that well because their interests were not aligned.
After dinner was served, the older sibling stopped talking. After a long moment, she got comments from her siblings because she was so quiet for so long. Completely immersed in the processing of all new incoming information, she didn't register the questions from around the dinner table. In her mind, she was analyzing her meal and started to wonder whether the composition of all that food would fit her exercise pattern, genotype, and phenotype. Moreover, the information of her latest microbiome analysis was brought into the mix. Eventually, she started to talk and shared her findings and decided not to eat at all because this meal didn’t do the job for her (well)being. Arguing with her didn’t make sense because she was way better informed, comprehensively and instantly. Her parents ordered her to go to her room to cool down and rethink what she just shared.
Her plan worked, in her bedroom she could concentrate better and work on some ideas that had been bugging her for a while now.
In short, the 100th-day anniversary of her hybrid thinking capabilities was a success and disaster at the same time, a kind of quantum superposition.
By the end of this decade, we’ll have eradicated most of the diseases according to Ray Kurzweil. The rise of Biotech (CRISP), AI, and nanotechnology are being seen as the vanguards of the “disease wiping machine”. The ultimate result of this is that we will live longer and healthier lives.
We are living in a world that has many diseases but many diseases are not yet well understood. We have seen a lot of improvements and advancements in healthcare technology over the last few decades, which helped us to extend life expectancy around the world. Unfortunately, life expectancy, especially in the US, is declining. The decline is due to people who can’t get health insurance and treatments. New treatments are too expensive for many. Bad lifestyle habits or living conditions also contribute to the decline in life expectancy.
Through the lens of technology, eradicating diseases is most likely possible, but for whom? A lot of promising progress has been achieved, specifically in the area of gene editing. (3) But when will this technology reach the stage of being ‘democratized’? Will the divide between those who can afford it and those who can’t, not have become too big?
Will this not be an ongoing problem since technology is improving all the time, you want to have the latest, because that is provenly the best (e.g., identified flaws will have been solved), but…. It has a price. The world will not stop when something new has been applied, worked, and democratized. Something better will soon emerge and going through the last three steps of the 6Ds process (…demonetized, materialized, and democratized), replacing the former solution. Will the stage of democratization continuously be a stage of obsolesce and, therefore, relative? Ushering in an exponential vicious circle of being (far) behind if you can’t afford the latest existential improvements? Consumerism will prevail in the end.
A technological focus is fantastic, but the problems that we are facing are more systemic. Zooming out to a higher level to see the systemic connections is very much needed. It’s not about that technology can solve healthcare problems, but how it can be adopted at an affordable level.
We will flesh this one out a bit further in some of the next chapters. Solutionists may have a different opinion.
So far we are left with the sobering conclusion that since technology entered massively into the healthcare space, that it contributed to a whopping 35% increase in healthcare expenditure.
This article was written in collaboration with Alina Solotarov, Research, Xponential https://xponentialtalks.com
- R. Kurzweil, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, 2012
2. D. Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011
3. W. Isaacson, The Code Breaker, 2021
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