The Future of Humanity

Linas Vepstas
6 min readJun 22, 2018

I have only one question, but it is complicated to explain. But I enjoy asking it, so I will once-again, type it in the long way, instead of pointing you at some pre-existing blog post. It is about the future of humankind. But it has to start with bacteria.

Bacteria use certain small polypeptide molecules to communicate and make decisions (so do tree-roots and plants) For example, anthrax is sensitive to the local concentration of one such polypeptide. When its low, the anthrax goes about its daily life of living. When it is high, it goes into attack-mode: it manufactures and emits toxins. Those toxins can kill its host. But they are expensive to manufacture, so its pointless to do it if you cannot make enough of them. Thus, anthrax doesn’t do this, unless it knows that there are enough others nearby; if there is, they all work in concert. The decision is based purely on the local concentration of the one particular “signaling” molecule. This is why there’s anthrax on your skin, and tongue, which probably came from fertilizer in your garden. The anthrax is not in attack mode; its not emitting toxins.

Slime mold uses the same mechanism (but different signaling molecules) to solve the two-armed bandit problem. This is the explore-vs. exploit problem. It takes energy to explore for food, but you want to explore, because there might be more food here, than there. (squirrels do this, with nuts. Oil companies do this with oil wells) You can take a glass microscope slide, splat some food on the left and right, and some slime mold in the middle, and see what happens.

It turns out there is an “optimal” solution to the two-armed bandit: its an algorithm that requires RAM/memory. It can be shown that slime-mold doesn’t do that, it uses a slightly simpler algo that does not require memory. Its still quite effective, though. Anyway, this is an example of algorithms implemented with diffusion and smells. “Smell”, because that is what the local concentration of a molecule is: its a smell. “Diffusion” is because its diffusion-limited. The smell does not propagate point-to-point. It propagates in all directions. Different smells have a lot of “cross-talk” — they interfere with one-another.

Then came jellyfish, and the neuron. The neuron is a star-gate, a star-trek transporter beam for smells (polypeptides, now called “neurotransmitters”) When I stub my toe, some histamines get released. A nerve cell picks up on them, transports them to my spinal column/brain in about one to ten milliseconds. and I say “ouch”. out loud. The teleportation is almost instant — milliseconds is shitloads faster than the dozens of seconds or a minute that it would take for the histamines to diffuse the 3–6 feet from toe to brain. And its point-to-point. No cross-talk, e.g. from histamines in the cut on my finger. Nerve-cells are de facto sci-fi teleporters for polypeptides.

A whole new class of algorithms are possible, when you have point-to-point communications. I guess the Turing-complete ones. Or maybe the “human-complete” ones. Bundles of neurons can do shit that bacteria, slime-molds, and tree-roots cannot. (well, there might be some quasi-neuronal type stuff in tree-roots, but that’s hotly debated. Bacteria extracting energy from metals also have “wires”. Whatever; they’re not brains.)

When I say “ouch”, the neurons in your brain know that my toe hurts. Which is fucking amazing, given that the connection is by sound-waves and air. (well, internet routers and websites, in this case). So we have a brain-to-brain connection.

Then came the invention of writing, which allows knowledge to live longer than the human body. Who is Aristotle? He, the flesh-and-clay man dies thousands of years ago. But he lives on: we are talking about him. His writing has infested the brains of certain academics and their students, and those students make Aristotle, or rather, his ideas, stay alive and living to this day. In fact, Aristotle lives on, in these last few sentences. Pretty fucking awesome, given that his neurons died long ago.

Of course, modern-day Aristotle is impersonal. No physical body. Modern-day WWI is also impersonal. But WWI never had a body. Instead, WWI was a collection of legal contracts between nations, that when triggered, ran in fully-automatic mode, until all raw material were exhausted (young men to kill). Generals were powerless to stop it. Politicians were powerless to stop it. And everyone played their part: farmers grew food, housewives cooked it for the local army recruiter, who recruited young men who would be killed. Could not break that chain.

WWI is an example of an algorithm, a mechanical organism, that can come to life, and act upon the real, physical world. This algorithm ran on top of human brains, but it was bigger than any one person. And it was clearly very inhuman. But, for a while, it lived a terrible, terrible life. So, when you have a mesh of inter-connected human brains, there are certain “thoughts”, “ideas”, “beings” that transcend just one human. The point is: they certainly live longer, and sometimes have dramatic impacts on the physical world.

Then came the invention of mass media, which allowed certain brains (those of writers, actors, TV-station owners, sports stars, journalists) to dominate the local inter-brain discussion. What you saw on TV is what you talked about at the dinner table. About 5% of the population (the CEO’s, the journalists) controlled the conversation. The rest of us were out-of-luck: we could get drunk at Thanksgiving and go on a tirade to an audience of about ten people. We could not reach millions. The good news is that the 5% were above-average IQ. I think all journalists had an IQ well above 100.

Then came the invention of social media. This allows the other 95%, (including the below-100 IQ) to talk to one-another. All over the world. Instantaneously. All brains are now connected. Very unlike grass-hut village days, when only the brains in the village were connected by voice. Very unlike the age of writing, when a few brains could reach out over millenia by writing things down. Very unlike the TV age, when only a few brains connected to millions. Now its point-to-point, many-to-many. All brains talk to one-another. We are, de facto, all just nodes in just one big global brain.

We are already a part of the Borg. Its too late; the Borg arrived, and we are all assimilated.

Our connection to the global brain, the Borg, is still weak. Its mostly by typing: low bandwidth stuff. VR headsets increase the bandwidth. The “neural lace” might make the connection permanent, not fleeting.

The global brain consists not only of human brains, but also of cloud computers, and the algos that run on them. Algos that do targeted advertising. Algos that ran Cambridge Analytica. Those algos run on a compute infrastructure that has maybe 0.05% of the computational ability of a human brain. Which is not big, but not insignificant. Some of our thinking is done by machines. Which is nice. I am literally smarter, thanks to google.

Computers are a thinking-prosthesis. The mathematician Ramanujan could do long-division in his head, apparently the one and only human who got really really good at it, and thus made a number of just absolutely remarkable discoveries. However, I can beat him at his own game: I have a computer; I can not only verify his identities, but I can discover new ones he did not write down. I’ve published a few of these. Not because I can do long-division in my head, but because I have a computer than can. Its like a cane or crutch or wheel-chair for the mentally-disabled: those of us that are too stupid, too broken to do long-division in our heads. Pity poor us.

OK. So this is here, now: we live in a global brain, a part of a giant social-media network. Its chaotic here. We’ve got Trump. Alt-right. Algorithmic propaganda. The global brain is doing a lot of really bizarre thinking right now. Trying to sort itself out.

Meanwhile, Moore’s law marches on. Although cloud-computing is just 0.05% of the abilities of humans, that percentage will grow, exponentially. Although our inter-human-brain bandwidth is limited by wifi, gen5-cellular, net-neutrality, 120-byte twitter posts, and the speed of typing, it won’t stay like that for long. Bandwidth is increasing. Oh, and Aristotle lives on in Wikipedia. And a little itty bitty tiny part of you and me lives on in google+and Medium and Facebook. If google+ dies, or Medium dies, that tiny little part of ourselves risks dying right along with it. Which is one of many reasons why I care about social media. Its a part of me, and a part of my mental existence, beingness.

Finally, its time for my question: “Great! Now what?” That is my question. I spend almost every waking hour trying to figure it out.

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