Centaurs: Transistors and Neurons working together
Centaurs represent the alliance of neuron and transistor combining the best of each world. In the Centaur world, some activities will be totally automated while others rely on two flavors of neuron-transistor combination. Humans in the Centaur World will face a different paradigm in which working with transistors becomes the new literacy and disruptions to labor markets, wealth distributions, and human existence need to be managed.
Since Deep Blue’s victory over Kasparov in 1997, most people believe computers are dominant in chess. However, when a no-holds-barred tournament was held it was human-computer teams that won, not computers on their own. The combination of human thought plus computer analysis of moves was more powerful than any computer alone. At the same time, even human chess has been transformed by computers. During matches human players can’t use digital aids, however, computers play an ever-increasing role in training, match analysis and practice. This has led to earlier and earlier grandmaster level players, with the record being currently at twelve years of age.
The concept of the centaur that combines the best of both worlds is not new. Centaur’s were Greek mythological beings that had the body of a horse and had the torso and heads of a human. They combined the speed and stamina of a horse with the skill and intelligence of a human. Similarly, human civilization is not based only on neurons but relies heavily on the natural DNA based world. We continue to use animals and plants for producing food. Natural reserves continue to be some of the most beautiful sights in the world. In a similar way, it will not make sense to reinvent what neurons can already do reasonably well with transistors, at least for some time.
The Centaur World
Neurons will be substituted by transistors in many undertakings. As seen previouslytransistors are much better in areas in which speed, accuracy, exact memory and brute force processing predominate. We will see transistors continue to quickly take over activity in those domains. It will be mostly a good thing as those characteristics don’t come easily to humans and can be alienating to perform. The farmer toiling in the field or the worker in Henry Ford’s factory might be romanticized a posteriori. However, it was hard, repetitive and backbreaking work that is much more efficiently performed by machines.
Neurons do very well in other areas, for which speed and accuracy are not so relevant. Areas like creativity, emotion, common sense, lateral thinking, empathy, creating meaning and even consciousness are very well handled by the human brain. Exceptional speed or accuracy is less relevant to them. Consequently, we can expect transistors to extend them rather than substitute them.
There is also a premium for humans, as there is a premium for organic food or handcrafted goods. Using humans in delivering a service or product is becoming a mark of quality and exclusivity. And the centaur concept will make sure that the level of quality delivered is higher than if there was only a computer involved. A Michelin-star dining experience is the combination of the cooking and the waiting staff with the technology to make everything run smoothly. Beyond the shock value of an “automated restaurant”, it wouldn’t make sense to eliminate staff completely.
The centaur world will be a three-tiered world in which transistors take over some tasks, and neurons and transistors work side by side in others:
- Radical digitalization of speed, accuracy, and exactness. Any activity in which speed, accuracy, and exactness are the key outputs will be completely digitized with cursory human supervision. The same way the tractor digitized more than 95% of farm employment, we can expect the digitization of most “utility” tasks in which we just need to get the job done. Whole areas like transportation or administrative work will disappear to datacenters and autonomous vehicles. Parts of highly skilled jobs like analyzing medical images will be digitized to improve speed, accuracy, and exactness. Anything in which “the job just needs to be done” and speed, accuracy and exactness count for most of the value will be lost to humans.
- Centaur service for a premium experience and superior results. In parallel, a new world of premium centaur service will emerge. A computer might know the diagnosis and treat an illness, but a doctor will do a much better job of connecting emotionally, getting the patient understand and act on the treatment. Most wealth management, tax records and filing might be digitized, but a financial advisor will help the client understand what they want and how to get it. A child could learn from a computer system with all the knowledge and gamification, but it is the teacher who motivates and engages the imagination to create the future scientist. Maybe the computer can reproduce the violin piece exactly, but it is the performer who creates a vibrant and unique experience imbuing it with emotion. Most customer service could be digitized to online channels and chatbots, but sometimes there is no substitute for a helpful human to eliminate confusion and create loyalty.
- Digitaly aided human creativity. Finally, there will be a domain of human creativity, innovation, and meaning creation. This domain will be fully supported by computers that enable much-increased performance of those uniquely human skills. Artists will create new works of art, with transistors supporting the ideation, design, and execution. Entrepreneurs will conceive of new business ideas, with transistors enabling them to test, build and deploy them at blinding speed and almost no cost. Writers and film-makers will create new masterpieces of fiction and non-fiction, with transistors expediting the research, production and distribution process to their eager audiences. Scientists will conceive of new groundbreaking hypothesis to explain the world, with transistors doing the fact checking, experiments and working out the possible hypothesis to help create an even greater synthesis. Engineers will design the next great technologies, software programs, devices, and structures, with transistors simulating the underlying structures and doing most of the grunt work.
Humans in a Centaur World
So neurons will not disappear substituted by transistors, but they will live in a very different world. First, interacting with transistors will be central skill both as consumers and professionals. Second, there will be a tectonic shift in the tasks and skills that are demanded, with many of today’s job categories being quickly digitized. Third, the rules of the market that determine careers, incomes and competition will need to be rethought and adapted to the new Centaur World. Fourth, a wave of digital addiction is sweeping the world and needs to be managed And finally, the dangers of the transistor transition will need to be considered and managed.
Digital Literacy. The only life away from interacting with transistors will be that of the hermit or the religious fundamentalist. All jobs will have substantial digital support to improve productivity and interacting effectively with technology will be a key differentiator. The “digital divide” that already exists between those that get computers and those that don’t will expand and become a chasm in income, quality of life and opportunity. This doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a programmer, data scientist or hardware designer, but everyone needs to understand what technology can do for them and how to harness it. That digital literacy will become a basic human right and should be a central part of school curriculums, much like math and reading is today. Societies should also work to eliminate digital illiteracy, much like the campaigns to eliminate classical illiteracy during the 20th century. It could be argued that technology should go even before math and reading because technology will be able to do math and reading for people.
The new job tectonic shift. The 20th century saw jobs shift from farms to factories and then to services. The 21st will see it shift from factories and services to premium Centaur experiences and creative undertakings such as entrepreneurship, science, art, entertainment, and engineering. People need to be helped in this transition, much as World War II, the GI Bill, and the Marshall plan helped the farm to factory and services transition. If not we will face the angry and destitute farmers of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The skill shift required is 180º degrees, from routine jobs that value consistency and accuracy in a structured environment, to creative jobs that require improvisation and agility in an ever-changing environment. Some will not be able to adapt. Others will need substantial help to do so. The only way out will be to support workers on the shift, knowing that a substantial group will need to be taken care of until their retirement.
The New Digital Deal. Changes in the basis of work and society always create substantial changes in wealth distributions. Those who have the skills required or own the new relevant assets accumulate wealth rapidly, while those with the old skills and assets are suddenly left destitute and without hope. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to embark on measures that were termed communist when they were implemented but allowed redistribution and prosperity for decades after. There will need to be a New Digital Deal with elements like universal income, progressive taxation, and antitrust action which tackles the current transition. The added challenge is that this New Digital Deal will have to be global in concept to deal with the potential migratory flows and tensions it would create otherwise
Manage the digital addiction crisis. The world is facing a wave of addiction comparable to the opioid and tobacco crisis of the second half of the twentieth century. Human brains are susceptible to many manipulations that can hijack their rewards systems and create irresistible compulsions. The more areas like the nucleus accumbens are understood, the more it is seen how substances or experiences can interact directly with the reward machinery of the brain making it physiologically extremely challenging to resist. Alcohol and opium have been with humans since ancient times. Chemically-based drugs created a wave of addiction and public health problems during the twentieth century. Digital compulsion is the key problem for the 21st. Understanding of the brain has been used to design absolutely irresistible experiences that are tested scientifically to create ever more addictive serotonin highs. Thus we have millions compulsively addicted to digital experiences, from social media to gaming. This is specially worrisome with children who find it difficult to resist with only partially prepared frontal lobes. Digital addiction will have to be regulated, as we seen the pressure of competition drives players to implement maximum addiction in all cases.
Dangers of Digital. Uncontrolled AI could have dire consequences for the human race. Maybe it will not be the fantastic scenarios of The Matrix or Terminators but relevant figures in science and business see the dangers. The current “AI Cold War” between the US, China and Russia could have unintended consequences and lead to preemptive action if the topic is not addressed.