Don’t fear the singularity (It’s already here)
(Warning nerdy weekend reading ahead)
I was surprised to be asked by a colleague earlier this week what I thought about the singularity, and what if anything we should be doing to prepare for it (personally I presume, rather than in our office workplan)
For those of you who are not science/science fiction nerds “The singularity” is a term coined by Ray Kurzweil to describe a time, in the not too distant future when humanity creates an “intelligence” that surpasses human intelligence, often thought of being in the form of an intelligent self-aware computer or some form of artificial intelligence, or sometimes in the form of either genetically or technologically enhanced human. It is referred to as a singularity since once this intelligence exists and can act to improve yet further on its own level of intelligence, it is beyond the ability of our own human minds to understand and predict what it will do, and how the future will unfold as a result, and yet it is expected to unleash rapidly accelerating technological advances. This echoes the idea of a black hole in space where the singularity is the point at which our current laws of physics break down and where we can’t see or understand what is beyond.
The idea of the singularity can be exciting to some who are enticed by the possibilities in terms of improved technological advances beyond what we can currently dream of and see it as an opportunity to overcome some of the world’s problems that now seem intractable such as poverty, conflict and environmental degradation. Others see it as a dystopian nightmare where the new intelligence rises up against its creators seeing them as unjust or unnecessary, the kind of future imagined so well in The Matrix” or the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica”.
So if you are still reading, you must be wondering by now what this has to do with knowledge management?
Well, the answer is that the singularity is already here. But it’s not an artificial intelligence, a supercomputer, or set of nanorobots or cybernetic implants running amok. It is something called “distributed cognition”. That is, the collective intelligence of large numbers of diverse individuals, each intelligent actors and thinkers in their own right, connected by different forms of technology that allows them to work together and co-ordinate their activities either consciously (such as in the preparations for the US moon landings), or unconsciously (such as pricing mechanisms in financial markets) in a way which much more computationally powerful than any one individual (or computer) could ever achieve no matter how brilliant.
In the modern “knowledge” economy no one person knows how to perform every task in a related chain of events whether it be building and delivering a car or vaccinating a child (from production to injection). Instead different people specialize in different parts of the operation and we use various means to coordinate their physical and intellectual inputs. It is the fact that we all have different skills, experiences and perspectives that can be brought together to complement each other that allows the whole to be better than the sum of the parts.
The organization of modern society is highly complex and inter-connected, and no-one has a good understanding of all of its parts, and the sum of all of this is able to process much more complex ideas than any one of us can imagine. Networking technologies such as social media or even e-mail and the written word have catalyzed this effect, and the rapid improvements in communication technologies have greatly enhanced this capability for collective intelligence with new approaches such as big data analysis, mechanical turks and prediction markets enhancing this capability along with social networks (online and offline), communities of practice as well as formal institutions. And like in the singularity we don’t really understand all of what is taking place now, let alone where this will all lead in the future. And the rate of increase in technological progress is accelerating, self improving as each new advance facilitates fast change.
But for the most part the technologies we use are not intelligent in their own right, nor are they self-aware and neither do they have agency to make decisions and take actions for themselves. It is the super-position of human intent over new means of connecting and communicating that creates this new super-human intelligence. The technological singularity is more like a colony of ants (albeit intelligent ones) each playing its own role, but collectively being able to take on bigger challenges and process more information that any individual can do, or more than any one individual can even comprehend. But at the time it is a very human intelligence, but not one limited by the capacity of one brain but by the ability for us to network many brains effectively, supported and enhanced by, but not ruled by technology – a true wisdom of the crowd.
So, don’t fear it, it is already here, and we can’t turn back the clock.