I’m halfway through reading Algorithms to live by, by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. The book is really good – but this is not a review about the book. Rather, a thought that came to my mind while reading it.
I think that books (and other pieces of knowledge) like these are what are going to fulfill Kurzweil’s predictions on the future of humanity.
I know that’s rather a strong phrasing, but let’s start from the basics.
The book covers in a basic level of detail various aspects of computer science and how those could be applied to daily life. Algorithm analysis, scheduling theory, caching, sorting – all that nerdy stuff and how it can be applied to day to day activities. My favorite chapter so far is the one about early stopping strategies and when to stop looking for someone to hire. Probably because I spend a lot of time on that particular problem.
The extra step
In several cases, the book will present optimized strategies to solve particular problems, and a bit of theory on why that strategy is the best. Sometimes, they don’t guarantee that the best scenario will be achieved, but rather maximizing the possibilities of that happening. This is the approach that we should take as rational beings. Maximizing our chances of greater success, minimizing our costs.
Yet, naturally, most of us don’t use those strategies. Time and time again the book compares what we commonly do in real life with what the best strategy is. In one of these particular tangents, the book tells about the curious case of Donald Knuth and how he checks his emails every 3 months.
The contrast of the regular person checking their email every 10 minutes, and Mr. Knuth doing so every 3 months generated in me a feeling of separation. “He is so clear on his priorities and his schedule; he’s closer to a well-adjusted machine than a human.”
And now you might see where I’m going with this.
Diving into that thought
That particular thought had less to do with Knuth himself than our general sensation of what is “natural” and “artificial” in our behavior. And being as precise as possible, rational and always using the optimal strategy is not natural. It’s not inherently human.
And yet, here we are as a species, discussing algorithms, marketing strategies, business plans, clinical trials, scientific methods… all of which we can consider technology. Technology that has shaped our lives as a species and our lives individually, in every instant.
What about transhumanism?
Let’s take a peek at the definition of transhumanism:
the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.
This is exactly what we’ve been discussing. Technology has already expanded our limitations, and it keeps doing so. A fancy futuristic word like transhumanism turned into a daily reality.
…just like Kurzweil predicted.
In all fairness, I know that when people talk about transhumanism today, they talk about the next steps. Biological cyborgs, heavy body alteration, consciousness melding and all that – but I’ll use that term in the broadest sense.
Raymond Kurzweil, in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines gave some predictions about how he expected technology to affect humanity in the short and long term. Mind you, I read the 2000 edition in 2016 and he nailed those 6 years with a precision of months. I could sum up his book in a few simple questions and answers:
- Will the future be very different, very sci-fi like? Yes, it will.
- Will we get used to it? Yes, we will.
- How will we do that? Des.. pa… cito… 🎵 (slowly)
He predicted that as technology changed, and we adopt it into our daily lives, our values and view of technology itself will meld with it. It’s completely normal for us today to think about TVs or computer screens as part of our day-to-day, but 300 years ago someone had barely figured out to take an impression of an image without manually drawing it. 300 years is not that long ago, really, maybe 6 or 7 generations ago.
As new technologies entered our lives, we’d immediately see them as normal and not question much of them anymore. Every new technology, every new step towards human “optimization” is another step in that ever ending road.
In his view, transhumanist beliefs are right, and historians will one day look back and say “huh, it wasn’t that difficult as we all imagined before”.
Back to the book
I will later probably write a more descriptive review of the book, but one thing’s for certain: it should be a bit more known. Having the optimal strategies to deal with everyday scenarios is a huge improvement in our daily lives. We don’t usually think of “strategies” as technology, but it is indeed is the application of research and science. The content of this book can easily become one of those “productivity tips”, so famous that changes what we do in complete industries.
And at that point, we’re taking one step further into transhumanism.