The 4th Revolution

Something interesting to think about this morning…

In an interview I heard recently the guest made the case that the information revolution is the latest of four great revolutions that fundamentally change the way we humans see ourselves in relation to the rest of the universe, continuing a process of “de-centering” humanity.

The first, he argues, was the Copernican Revolution, following the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe. The second followed Darwin’s discovery that humans are animals, sharing common ancestors with all other animals on earth. And the third followed Freud’s arguments for the existence of subconsciousness and his claim that that we don’t have full volitional control over our own minds and thoughts. Each of these “revolutions” had the effect of breaking down our anthropocentric world view and the belief that humans occupy a special, central place in the universe.

The argument that the Information Revolution is a fourth revolution continuing this trajectory is interesting. Now, with the development of artificial intelligence and deep-learning neural networks, it appears that thinking, perhaps even consciousness, are not uniquely human, or even uniquely biotic. Many of the capabilities that distinguished humans from “lower animals” can now be done by machines, and the machines are becoming more capable at an amazing and accelerating rate. In the past we might have said, “Sure a computer can do math, but a computer can’t play chess.” Now computers routinely beat human chess grandmasters. Then we might have responded, “OK, but a computer can’t teach itself to play chess.” Now computers can. And the same process is occurring in countless other ways.

It’s interesting to consider (if you’re as nerdy as me) how humanity’s self-perception may change over the next generation or so. In the past it would have seemed absurd to deny that the earth is the center of the universe, to claim that humans are descended from lower animals, or to claim that our actions can be attributed in part to the working of an unconscious mind. Will it someday be absurd to claim that high intelligence and self-consciousness are uniquely human?

Maybe, maybe not. Either way, we’re privileged to be alive during a time of such fascinating change.