Man, Machine, and Singularity
The notion of collective intelligence is very far from new. It can be traced back from Hegel to Heraclitus, the latter’s universal reason or logos, and down to William Morton Wheeler, who early in the 20th century observed that ants seem to coordinate their efforts in such a manner as to suggest a collective executive agency. In an age even more physicalist in its presuppositions than Wheeler’s, it is hardly surprising that the computer has been included as a central actor. The shift in computing is from information technology in the form of transactional systems to an unprecedentedly vast sharing of data, and perhaps a new humility is in order as the realization dawns that no one person, group or institution has a monopoly on good ideas and that, further, as Quine observed, a concept is only what it is within a conceptual matrix. That is, it is only what it is in its nature as shared.
The increased efficiencies introduced by the technologies that permit such massive collaboration will doubtless be employed by businesses to stay apace of their competitors, but some have seen them as indispensable to any approach (with the barest prospect of success) to worldwide problems (e.g. global warming). In other words, the very natural order that was once the repository of self-organizing universal rationality is now widely seen as dependent for its very continuance on machines, once considered utterly irreconcilable with the natural qua natural. Ray Kurzweil has predicted the advent of Singularity. He writes, “The Singularity will allow us to transcend [the] limitations of our biological bodies and brains….There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” At such a point, Kurzweil mentions 2045, decision making might be best left to machines. However, today, the computer remains a tool, and proper collaboration is about matching human beings to technology in the most productive manner rather than permitting one entirely dominate the other.
As singularity looms over the future, there are some very practical problems presently unresolved. What, for instance, is the right model for collaboration? Is it Facebook? Steven Rubinow (NYSE) doesn’t know which model is best, but he does think it critical to remember “that the humans are still on top” in the power struggle with machines. There still, whatever Kurzweil says, is a marked difference between “man” and machine. There are judgments to be made that are irreducible to an algorithm, and while a machine certainly can detect patterns, it is powerless to interpret them against a changing horizon for meaningful application. Companies that believed otherwise would be forcing obsolete rules onto entirely new conditions. It also isn’t only, as Wittgenstein once chided a student, that a machine can’t have a toothache and that the natural world is only what it is in its spasms of pain and joy. It is that the very dualism of man and machine, natural and non-natural, has not been thought through. There is certainly something that survives through the centuries that is greater than the sum of its parts, something that endures. We might call it culture or tradition or history. We have had this sort of collective intelligence in the West since before Homer. What has changed is the speed of the “wheels,” the number of “cogs” that engage, and the extraordinary amount of energy that can be transformed into productive work (00-15).