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.

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24 comments on “The 4th Revolution

  1. Laurie Graves says:

    Yes, yes. And once we know, we can’t go back. A sideline to the Freudian revolution: He was so right about the lack of control. I wonder if, to some extent, meditation or prayer helps control the unruly mind, at least a little.

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    • Bill says:

      That’s an excellent point: once we know, we can’t go back. There is good reason to believe a meditation practice helps settle and calm the mind. I’ve been meaning to try to cultivate one for a long time. But it’s still on my “to do” list.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Laurie Graves says:

        I know. It’s taken me ages to add meditation to my life. Finally have done it, ten minutes as soon as I wake up. I do a loving-kindness meditation, and it really is a great way to start the day.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ed says:

    I’m not worried yet because some human still wrote code that allowed the robot to learn how to play chess by itself. When I become worried is when that same chess learning robot learns how to make the perfect cheese souffle overnight without any human coding involved. That is when I head for the hills.

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    • Bill says:

      I hear ya. But I wonder how far off that is. If we can tell a computer, “learn to play chess,” why can’t we say, “Here’s the internet. Learn everything.”

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  3. avwalters says:

    The bigger they come, the harder they fall. I remember when my teachers told us that humans were separate and above animals, because humans had opposable thumbs and made tools. Then we learned that a variety of creatures made and used tools, obviously apes, but also birds and even some insects. Then, we were told that we were superior, because we had language. Now we know that animals communicate. So do bees… and even plants have communicative warning pheremones. When will we realize that we fit into and have a place in the universe, just like all the other species? If our skills are greater, it is not license; it only gives us a greater responsibility as stewards.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Well said. Everything is connected. The two things that I can think of that set humans apart from other animals are self-consciousness and moral accountability. Both seem to me to bring with them the obligation of stewardship.

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      • avwalters says:

        Well, they’ve done studies with crows that indicate self-consciousness. I’m looking around at the world and, more and more, it seems that moral accountability is an option (instead of a feature.) Stewardship is the obligation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • BeeHappee says:

        When I observe elephant behavior as well as many other animals, I really do not see much that would set humans apart in any special ways. If anything, it is the endless greed and need for more more more, better better better is what sets us apart..

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  4. Dee Ready says:

    Dear Bill, I can so remember being educated for 16 years in Roman Catholic schools and talking about the ladder of being. We humans were up there at nearly the top rung, only the angels and God, of course, were ahead of us. Also there was a ladder of vocation. Priests headed that, followed by nuns and then parents and single people–like myself–were on the bottom rung. Life brings change. As John Henry Cardinal Newman said back in the 19th century, “to grow is to change. To have changed often is to be perfect.” By perfect he meant growing in the compassion that he felt was truly human. Peace.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. BeeHappee says:

    Bill, you are an ego crusher. πŸ™‚

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  6. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, the complexity of creation reflects the dimensions of the creator. I believe that humans starting with Adam and Eve are the only species on earth that have a spiritual soul. All of technology when and if it becomes humanoid will not have a soul or be spiritual even if it acts like it does. It will be a new world if mankind lasts that long. I won’t live to see it but my 12 year old grandson just might live to see miraculous things that would make technology of today look like horse and buggy compared to the jet plane.

    I’m convinced that the full capacity of the human mind has yet to be used.

    Have a great day contemplating the information revolution.

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    • avwalters says:

      Anyone who has had, and loved, a pet knows that animals, too, are sentient beings. Soul? I’m not sure about that. But I know that the idea that animals are lesser is nothing but rationalization for the way we treat them. I’m not against animals for food–but every living thing under our command deserves to be treated with respect and kindness.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      We’ll see. Amazing things are happening. Certainly for now only humans are morally accountable for our conduct. But has that always been true? Is it possible that we won’t be alone in that status forever? Interesting things to consider.

      I’m in complete agreement about the human mind not being used to its potential yet. And with the ways we’re learning to supplement our brainpower, that potential is truly awesome.

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  7. hilarymb says:

    Hi Bill – fascinating post to read, as too the comments and replies – we are living in amazing times – the amount of evolutionary development we are uncovering too … I just find it all fascinating. Thanks for making me think … cheers Hilary

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Hilary. Glad you found the subject interesting. Sometimes I think I need more than one blog, to accommodate my wandering mind. πŸ™‚

      Like

  8. And then there is the whole question of extraterrestrial beings that brings up all sorts of possibilities for different types of intelligence. πŸ™‚
    We have a whole set of questions that we need to be thinking about as we rush pell-mell into the world of AI. Exciting yes! And scary. What do we do about the millions who will be thrown out of work because of automation? What happens when out military folks develop killing machines, as they are now doing? What happens when our machines go rogue on us, if they do? Is there anyway of programming our robots to do no harm to their creators as Isaac Asimov suggested or have we already roared past that point?
    At a time when we desperately need to be answering these questions on an international level, we are falling back into jingoistic nationalism.
    I am a fan of the future, Bill. It shows incredible promise. But we are somehow going to have to get beyond the more primitive parts of our mind to survive it. We need that new perspective about who we are and where we are going. And we need it now. –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      I worry about the effect AI and robotics will have on people who work with their hands. We are on the verge on having to make an enormous shift in how our economy functions, and it will come quickly. I heard one commentator say that he is very optimistic about how things will look 50 years from now, but not so much about how they will look 5 years from now. Having said that, rapid change is always disconcerting. It certainly is an interesting time to be alive. πŸ™‚

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      • I agree totally that it is an interesting time to be alive, Bill! I find it incredibly difficult to envision what life will be like 50 years from now. Makes me wish I were 50 years younger than I am. πŸ™‚

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