How machines shape our future

In the book “Why the west rules — for now” anthropologist Ian Morris starts tracking human societal progress from 14000 BC, a time where the world starts to get warmer and humans started settlement. But, one of the serious complication he faced was quantifying the social, economical and technological ability of humanity. He had to choose parameters which can hold it’s significance till eternity. When you think about it, the time span lies from a period when humans were wondering how to use stones as spearheads to a time where we are talking to machines for assistance. This was futile, but what Morris did next was brave and extraordinary.

He managed to find four parameters : Energy capture, Organisation, War making capacity, and Information technology. Each of these parameters were given a score out of 250, which was eventually summed up to obtain a score out of 1000. Quantifying the societal progress of humanity at a moment in history, he called it the “Human Social Development Index”. Yet, Morris couldn’t convince every historian with this idea. As he says,

“Reducing the ocean of facts to simple numerical scores has drawbacks but it also has the one great merit of forcing everyone to confront the same evidence — with surprising results”

He plotted the information through thousands of years and the results were fascinating.

Image credit : The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfson and Andrew McAfee

As you look at the graph, you can see that the progress of humanity is almost invisible for thousands of years. Animals, wars, empires, farms, religions and even philosophies failed to influence the progress of humanity. The progress of the social index rises almost 90 degrees near 17th century due to the invention of steam engine.

Due to the relatively new invention of the steam engine, the industrial revolution happened in the west. Machines took over the manufacturing industries and drastically improved the living standards of the people across the globe. Urbanization was not a dream anymore. Trains were built, ships were made, and the world started moving forward.
Historians called it the First Machine Age.

Now, we are going through a period of astonishing progress with all kinds of digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Connected devices, Robotics, 3D Printing, and the list goes on. Technology has progressed rapidly in the last few years in ways that we could not have imagined in the past. From self driven cars to smart assistants, technology has proven its ability to surpass past human expectations once again.

Similarly, the steam engine helped it’s descendants in shaping what we call the modern world. Computers and other connected devices are opening up new dimensions of possibilities which allow us to see the the world in a completely new perspective.

With this era of intelligent machines, we are able to augment and automate cognitive tasks. Applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence in domains that has compelled human expertise in the past has opened up wonderful insights. A vast unprecedented boost for our mental power can help humanity to understand things on a more closer level and to master its physical and intellectual environment.