The Race between Technology and Consciousness — Who will win?

With technology advancing rapidly with the added fuel of artificial intelligence (AI), there is a possibility that mankind will be in serious problems if global human consciousness cannot grow fastly enough.

Information technology has been advancing exponentially according to Moore’s law, which is a projection of a technology trend and describes that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles roughly every two years, while cost remains the same. Moore’s prediction from 1965 has been almost universally correct since its creation, and therefore I envision that with the advent of AI, this development will continue in the coming years (possibly at a slightly slower pace, but still exponential), resulting in major breakthroughs. If you compare the processing times of computers and devices from 1956 to 2015, there is a 1-trillion fold increase in performance in these six decades. For example, a single Apple iPhone 5 has 2.7 times the processing power of the 1985 Cray-2 supercomputer.

Calum Chace (author of ‘Pandora’s Brain’, ‘Surviving AI’ and ‘The Economic Singularity’) argues that artificial general intelligence (AGI) will soon become a reality, and will surpass the cognitive abilities of an ordinary human, and, shortly afterwards, that of all humans combined in form of artificial superintelligence (ASI). As a scientist, engineer, and technical leader in this field for more than 20 years I agree that this is bound to happen eventually. The question therefore is not if but when. How long it will take for AGI to arrive is hard to predict- perhaps another 2–3 decades, maybe less. But I expect that algorithm’s capabilities will continue to evolve according to Moore’s law, resulting in innovative new applications, devices, and services. Obviously on the flip slide it opens up lots of social and economic problems, that need to be addressed. Tim Urban wrote a good summary “The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence”, that illustrates this topic in an easy to understandable way on his blog.

The problem I want to focus on in this article is what humans will do with these new capabilities: One can use them for doing greater good for mankind, or something evil. It depends on the state of consciousness of the person using these technological capabilities.

As Yuval Noah Harai in his book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind’ points out that today science and weapon technology are deeply linked. The militaries of the world initiate, finance, and steer a major part of the research and technical development. In case of tactical, strategic or political difficulties, the leaders of governments are more likely looking out for help from science in hope of some “miracle weapon’ discovery, which could solve the problem. For example, some americans think that the problem of terrorism is not a political, but a technology problem and suggest to invest more in nanotechnology to develop miniature ‘spy flies’ that could keep track of every little terrorist movement in Afghanistan, so that CIA would be fully in the loop of each potential development.

A lot of the research that comes out of this certainly could be made available to a broader audience, which then makes it easier for misuse. With more advanced technology the effect of negative things one can accomplish is magnified. For example, a psychopath running around with a hammer can do harm to people, but the impact is probably quite local and limited. Imagine this same person can now (with proper education) leverage technology and write a complex software virus that can cause a major global problem (e.g., hack some nuclear power plant). As AI is evolving at rapid pace the impact of such negative scenarios will therefore likely be magnified further. It’s basically easier for most people to do more global harm with less money and fewer skills needed.

What is consciousness? Consciousness means being fully conscious of things including sense perceptions, thoughts, emotions, and whatever happens in our lives. Eckhart Tolle, a world renowned author and spiritual teacher, in an interview has also elaborated on the term ‘space consciousness’. He explains that:

“ … there is at the same time an undercurrent of awareness of Presence operating in us, Awareness implies that we are not only conscious of things, such as objects and the people around us, but we are also conscious at the same time of being conscious.”

The lack of global consciousness on this planet can be observed simply by watching the evening news, where stories about violence, accidents, or acts of terror are dominating and attracting viewers. If you study the list of ongoing armed conflicts on this planet you will be surprised about the number of ongoing conflicts, and the yearly number of fatalities is well above 100k people per year. Similarly, if you study the world hunger statistics, you learn that some 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life. That’s about one in nine people on earth. Each of these problems can be mitigated by raising consciousness on this planet. A conscious person would not be drawn in by sensational news about murder, nor would she be involved in supporting a war, but possibly share her food with someone in need.

With technology advancing fast with exponential growth, there are two sides to consider. On one side such advanced technology in the hands of a conscious person can be used to do some good. For example, it may be able to diagnose severe health problems early enough so that the person has a chance of an early treatment, and possibly even help with novel treatment options that were not available before. The same technology in the hands of an unconscious person can be used to build biological weapons of mass destruction.

This problem has been more recently observed by many thought leaders. For example, Tom Chi, the creator of the first Google glass prototype and former co-founder of Google X. I got to know Tom while working at Yahoo, and appreciated his creative approach and scientific mindset. He stated in a talk at Mindvalley:

„ … you recognize that our technologies are getting more and more powerful, it means that the level of consciousness that we’re currying at is getting more and more magnified. And if we do not advance consciousness faster than we advance technology for the next couple of decades, we’re done. Like, I don’t know if I can say this strongly enough, but it’s like if the power of technology continues to advance and it doubles, and doubles, and doubles, and in that same time period, consciousness only gets 20% better, we’re done.“

In his book “A New Earth”, Eckhart Tolle has also stated:

„A significant portion of the earth’s population will soon recognize, if they haven’t already done so, that humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die.“

This sounds drastic, but is a possible outcome.

While these are independent views that paint a dire picture, both authors and myself are also optimistic in the resourcefulness, resilience, and creativity of humankind to deal with difficult situations. Also history has shown that humankind was able to prevent potentially global disasters (e.g., overcome world-wide crises such as the Cold War in the 20th century).

The question is: Is consciousness on this planet currently growing? And if yes, at what rate? That assumes that we are able to measure consciousness growth and the level of consciousness in each human being. However, consciousness itself is not measurable, as it is not a “thing” that has physical dimensions. Consciousness can however be observed through a person’s word and actions, and thus we have an indirect way to approximate consciousness on this planet. Still it is not feasible to track every person’s actions, and based on that determine a global level of consciousness.

I’m suggesting therefore using proxy indicators that are easier to obtain, and that can indirectly shed some light on how widespread consciousness is developing. Here are some ideas:

  1. The number of books sold on the topic. We could look at book sales in categories such as spirituality and life style, and see how their are developing.
  2. The number of businesses that have a purpose related to growing consciousness or who have an impactful mindfulness program established.
  3. Overall trend on yoga and meditation, people attending mindfulness events, newsgroups, facebook groups, tweets on these topics.

This seems like a great topic for a PhD thesis, as it requires some diligence and research to compile all that data, and come up with even more ideas.

The Pew Research Center published a study in 2012 with the title “The None’s on the Rise”. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ It states that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. Between 2007 and 2012 alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Interestingly, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. 37% of them (17 million) classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”. That suggest some linear growth (~ +5%) trending upwards.

I started to also look at book sales, as there are good statistics out on the Web. For example, reading an article from the AAP (Associating of American Publishers) they state that religious presses, imprints that focus on religion, spirituality and faith, grew by 6.9% to $1.13 billion from 2015 to 2016. This is in line with the previous growth numbers, but does also only support a decent linear growth (<10%).

In summary both technology and consciousness on the planet are growing. However, we have established that the growth curve for technology is exponential, but we don’t know whether this holds for consciousness as well. Based on current data it supports only a linear growth of global consciousness optimistically between 5% and 10% per year, but the data is not conclusive. Certainly there is no data yet to support something similar to a „Moore‘s law for global consciousness growth“.

The question is how much global consciousness growth is needed to prevent major global disasters?

Example: Assume for a moment we have today 80 million people on this planet who have a high level of consciousness. Let’s say there is a “Moore’s law for consciousness growth” that states that number of people with high level of consciousness on this planet doubles every 2 years. So it would take less than 14 years from now for all of mankind to possess a high level of consciousness. However, as shown above growth is slower, and it is also not clear whether it is possible to develop a high level of consciousness in all humans.

If we go with a linear optimistic growth curve of 20% then in 14 years the number would be 1.027.135.000 humans with a high level of consciousness.

Is that enough? Difficult to tell. It seems most important that our political and business leaders need to have a high level of consciousness, as they impact most of our world’s happenings. If that is the case mankind might still be in good shape.

To sum up: Attempting to predict global consciousness growth is hard because of how to measure it and collecting conclusive data. In addition, it is not clear what subset or segment of population with a high level consciousness is sufficient to offset the dangers of rapid technology growth and misuse.

What can be done? I see positive trends in businesses where the development of mindfulness becomes integral part of the company culture (e.g. Google). In addition, more companies that leverage technology to raise consciousness (such as Mindvalley) are emerging. These are all encouraging trends.

If you are a leader I encourage you to study and review the mindfulness leadership principles, as they will also help to increase consciousness when applied. As a leader, especially a technology leader, you have an obligation to advance technology in a conscious way.

Most importantly you can help by training your mind and growing your own consciousness, as this is the only thing you can ultimately control and therefore make a positive contribution to the growth of global consciousness. I will write a “Getting Started” guide in an upcoming post. So stay tuned …

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