OPINION: Internet of All Things

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - The merger of conscious and non-conscious intelligence has already started with the cyborgs, or man-machine hybrids.

Discovery of the web and internet is a continuation of this process which is making the world a single place, where ideas and information can be exchanged at the speed of light among billions of humans. Thus humankind is becoming a single data processing system, to be integrated with the Internet of All Things, when all machines and gadgets will learn to speak to each other without any intermediation by humans and take independent decisions that impact human lives.

Data, as The Economist noted in 2017, is the most valuable resource on earth. Never before in history did data become the controller of our lives. Endless streams of WhatsApp messages, Google, Amazon and Facebook advertisements, news and media articles, spams and unsolicited emails from people eager to share information and wisdom whiplash us incessantly. Our choices and options are being continuously tracked and shaped by data. Our lives have become ripples in the ebb and flow of endless steams of data surrounding us. We do not know how to stop or control the invading data streams most of which are irrelevant and unwelcome intruders into our private space.

In his 2013 New York Times article, “The Philosophy of Data,” David Brooks wrote that our ability to gather a huge volume of data is based on the assumption that “everything that can be measured should be measured; that data is a transparent and reliable lens that allows us to filter out emotionalism and ideology”. Also, data will help us predict the future. But we have no idea when we should follow what the data says, ignoring what our intuition tells us to do. Brooks cites the example of US elections. Campaigning for elections is guided by the intuitive understanding that the outcome depends on the ability to spend money, especially on advertisements. Post the 2004 Presidential elections, however, political scientists found hardly any correlation between the number of advertisements and outcomes or between the victory margins and election spending. Intuition often does not work, but data can help in making correct choices.

With big data and machine learning algorithms becoming ever more sophisticated, a new philosophy called “Dataism” is emerging that believes in the unhindered, unrestricted flow of data as the only truth behind the progress of history and science. According to this view, articulated by Yuval Noah Harari in his 2016 book Homo Deus, Dataism is the new religion and the new God. The ultimate objective of Dataism is to make the flow of information completely free, supplanting our right to privacy and freedom of speech (and the implied freedom not to speak). While ideas of Humanism that developed over the last two centuries propagated that individual human experiences are unique and impart a meaning unto our lives, Dataism believes that individual experiences have no value unless shared, and have no meaning by themselves. All our words and actions are, in fact, part of a great dataflow enveloping the world, and only when individual experiences are connected to this dataflow, data algorithms will discover their meanings and guide us.

Harari goes further to argue that human history is nothing but a history of dataflow, and the more sophisticated the data processing system is in a society, the more efficient and successful it is. As he says, “Dataism declares that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing.” All our concepts, all our history and all our sciences can be interpreted in terms of data flow. Thus, the economy is nothing but a system of gathering and processing data about abilities and expectations, and economic growth is synonymous with the freedom of information flow.

Capitalism is only a distributed system of data processing that connects all producers and consumers allowing for free exchange of information, while socialism is a centralised system of data-processing that severely restricts the flow of information, and hence decisionmaking, only to a small group of individuals. Since distributed processing is more efficient than centralised processing, capitalism won over socialism. For the same reasons, democracies are more successful than communist societies. Low taxation is more beneficial to economic progress, because higher taxation means concentration of capital in the hands of the government that reinforces the system of centralised data processing, with the government ~ a group of select individuals ~ calling the shots. With lower taxation, decision-making tends to get decentralised. Monopolies that tend to concentrate wealth and decision in a few hands are characteristics of centralised systems that stifle competition and growth. Dictatorships and totalitarian regimes disappeared because of the inefficiencies of their data processing mechanisms, and as artificial intelligence (AI) increases the volume and speed of data processing in the 21st century, even democratic institutions which evolved in an earlier technological era might become obsolete… being unable to match the efficiency of intelligent data processing systems.

When algorithms like those used by Google or Facebook can accurately predict individual voting behaviour based on big data analytics about personal choices, reactions, likes and dislikes gathered over extended periods of time, voting itself will become redundant, and the future of democracy uncertain.

Progress and movement of human history, Harari says, is a four-stage process of data flow. First the number of processors proliferates, which happened some 70,000 years ago, when the early humans started migrating from east Africa. It was about the same time that they developed their linguistic ability along with abstract thinking, a development that is known as cognitive revolution. It enabled them to communicate with each other and thereby share information and ideas. The second stage is the increase in the variety of processors that use diverse methods of data analysis, thereby bringing in more dynamism and creativity into the processing systems. As humans spread into different continents, about 12,000 years ago, agricultural revolution led to settled human societies in different parts of the world. The variety of cultures that evolved as a result was analogous to the proliferation of the variety of processors, even though the processors themselves were still unconnected. That connection would happen during the third stage of development, which was brought about by the invention of writing and money, overseas trade and commerce which connected the widely dispersed societies across the globe. But connecting processors is meaningless without free flow of data which characterises the fourth stage. This would begin with the colonial expansions in different continents during the 16th and 17th centuries, followed by scientific discoveries and inventions that would increasingly lead to better ways of communication and transportation, bringing geographically distributed human societies closer together in an ever-widening global grid. Discovery of the web and internet is a continuation of this process which is making the world a single place, where ideas and information can be exchanged at the speed of light among billions of humans. Thus humankind is becoming a single data processing system, to be integrated with the Internet of All Things, when all machines and gadgets will learn to speak to each other without any intermediation by humans and take independent decisions that impact human lives. Then, Harari says, the Homo sapiens will themselves vanish. Futurists define Singularity as the fateful moment when artificial, or nonconscious, intelligence will surpass human, or conscious, intelligence. The AI wave-front is expanding at breakneck speed, pushing more and more areas of cognition into the domain of non-conscious intelligence. In his book Singularity is Near, the futurist Ray Kurzweil prophesied that by the 2040s, human intelligence will multiply a billion-fold and computers will keep getting smaller and smaller ~ ultimately to enter our bodies and brains to make us healthier and smarter, enabling us to conquer diseases, ageing and maybe, even physical death.

The merger of conscious and non-conscious intelligence has already started with the cyborgs, or man-machine hybrids. Algorithms are increasingly learning to evolve independently, with each succeeding generation being more efficient in processing and analysing astronomical volumes of data, far beyond the capacity of any human. Intelligence is increasingly being decoupled from consciousness. If and when algorithmic intelligence surpasses human intelligence in all spheres of human activity, will the human race become extinct like countless other species before us? As Harari says, there is a possibility that we will be reduced “from engineers to chips, then to data, and eventually might dissolve within the torrent of data like a clump of earth within a gushing river”. We will then hand over complete control of our lives to non-conscious algorithms and become a mere ripple in the cosmic dataflow, devoid of any freewill.

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