Scalable Intimacy? What the hell is that?

I had the privilege of sitting through a speech last year by the very interesting Eric Beinhocker, former McKinsey partner and author of one of the best books on the financial crisis (The Origin of Wealth), and currently the Executive Director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at Oxford. INET is the George Soros-funded body aimed at debunking traditional economic theory and replacing it with something that can, to be blunt, explain the chaotic markets we have experienced over the past few years without using words like ‘rationality’ and ‘equilibrium’.

Eric was talking about his favorite subject, Complex Adaptive Systems, but in a roundabout way that I found appealing. He started by questioning our definition of wealth in a modern society. What would happen, he asked, if you could crystalize all of your ‘wealth’ into cash, stick it in a suitcase, and head off to the rainforest where you would try to live as a Yanomani tribesman? Well, firstly your so-called ‘wealth’ would count for nothing, except perhaps to burn when you needed a fire. And secondly you would be dead rather quickly: Either immediately from eating or touching the wrong thing, or from exposure, dehydration, starvation or illness. Ultimately, our initially narrow definition of wealth (‘a big bag of cash’) would be different to that of the Yanomani, who value knowledge of what to eat more than having money. In other words they see knowledge as wealth. Actually we also value knowledge, but in a slightly different way and to a slightly different extent. Because, he said, we (modern ‘civilised’ humankind) and the Yanomani have both solved the same problem — how to survive — but it in very different ways. Their way is personally to know what is dangerous. Our way is to create a complex system where we can fulfill our food and security needs using supply chains and knowledge systems.

Fulfilling my food needs in a rational way. By flying to Prague and buying ribs, garlic bread and a beer for £10. Oh yeah.

So if we assume that knowledge is actually wealth, how much knowledge do we vs. the Yanomai actually possess, and therefore how wealthy are we? Consider this, each person has the capacity to an amount of knowledge by themselves equivalent to one person; Eric called this a person-byte, I think (by that stage I wasn’t listening properly as a combination of #alcohol and #mindblown had taken its toll). One Yanomani tribesman has therefore one person-byte of information but, and here’s the important point, the entire tribe of the Yanomani, caring for nothing more than survival in a subsistence environment, probably has IN TOTAL only one person-byte of information because they all know the same things.

Contrast that with us. How much information would any one person have? Well it depends when in our history you look. At the point where we became ‘civilized’ and started to move beyond subsistence living to saving and sharing knowledge, we had the opportunity to move beyond the one person-byte quantum because we could look stuff up. Collectively, we also managed to go beyond the total knowledge of one person-byte, beyond the X people and therefore X person-bytes, to a paradigm of possibly exponential growth in knowledge, supported by the communication networks we created.

Eric stopped this philosophical journey at that point to discuss networks and how we operate in a complex adaptive system world of interlinked networks and this is how we should think of markets. Also an interesting subject, but not related to the title of this article nor to my subsequent #mindblown musings.

What I started to consider was another talk to which I had listened 7 years ago by the eminent evolutionary biologist Prof Robin Dunbar of Oxford. Professor Dunbar postulated the Dunbar limit, the theoretical number of strong, trust-based relationships we can maintain. This theoretical limit for humans is set by the size of our neocortex and is approximately 150 people. He showed there was a strong correlation in primate species of this ‘social group’ size to the size of the neocortex. Humans have the largest neocortex and therefore can maintain the largest number of relationships of all primates.

What has this got to do with wealth? Well if wealth is knowledge and knowledge is limited by our ability to access and communicate this knowledge, then before modern methods of communication we were limited by our trust-based social interactions (would you take advice from a stranger?)…which are strictly limited by our neocortex. We therefore had a theoretical knowledge-based wealth of 150 person-bytes.

Along comes the internet, instant communications, unlimited searching and indexing…and a new paradigm of trust. We trust the networks of those we trust. Social networks and social verification have become the norm and BAM the Dunbar limit is blown away. We don’t have a single network of close and trusted friends and associates; we have a network of networks consisting of far more than 150 people. We have…SCALABLE INTIMACY. Hence the title. We have EVOLVED and are now super-wealthy.

But here’s the catch — we are not limited by the size of our neocortex any more. We are actually limited by the sheer amount of information we receive as a consequence. We are inundated with emails we cannot answer. We talk about information overload and stress. We can no longer process properly or effectively what we receive. To get to this point we went through a quantum leap of information sharing and a new paradigm of trust-based decision making. Sadly, we may have reached a plateau again where we can no longer proceed until we make the next big breakthrough.

I think 1,693 of my emails are really important. How sad is that?

And we may be on the cusp of just such a breakthrough.

Most people have heard of Watson, IBM’s ‘thinking’ computer that won Jeopardy: A fantastic achievement but still a computer based on binary decision making processes. What most people have not heard about is the development of the ‘quantum computer’ (the D-wave, for example) that actually operates in a way similar to a human brain. Decisions are optimized not based on a complex binary decision tree, but all options are considered simultaneously. These quantum computers think like us and, if you agree with the eminent futurologist Ray Kurzweil, one of these computers will pass the Turing Test for self-awareness (i.e. true artificial intelligence) by the end of this decade. Listen to Ray, he’s been right about every major computing development for the past 30 years.

Why is this a game changer? We are hard-coded with a brain of this size and a neocortex of that size. But an artificial intelligence can be built to have a processing capability and artificial ‘neocortex’ of any size. So no limitations. This means that the self-aware machine could do all our communication and processing for us and we would attain…infinite knowledge or, as I suggest above, infinite wealth. Nice eh? Better still, Ray believes within the next 20 or so years the processing capability of these artificial intelligences will be a billion times greater than us as we are now and we will be able to fully integrate with them. Call me odd but I find that exciting — the next stage of human evolution in my theoretical life span. Sweet. That really is scalable intimacy. It also means that after a holiday I wont ever be bothered by an inbox with 500 unanswered emails again.