In evolution there are two ways of transferring genes from one generation to the next: Vertical Gene Transfer (VGT) and Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT). Everyone who has enjoyed a secondary education will know the former one, but the latter one is less commonly known. This might not be so surprising, since they do not equally contribute to the theory of evolution, where Vertical Gene Transfer is the rule and Horizontal Gene Transfer is only a rule of secondary order.
HGT occurs when two different organisms engage in a symbiotic relationship. In this essay I want to address this type of evolution and analyse if it makes sense to regard technology as a species, functioning in a symbiotic relationship with Homo sapiens. I will make the argument that Homo sapiens cannot merely be creating technology, but that technology is equally creating Homo sapiens. As such it is unlikely that a technological singularity, as it is now being popularised, will be the end of humanity. However, that Homo sapiens will loose their position on the top of the food-chain is nearly certain.
The Common Understanding of Evolution: Vertical Gene Transfer
In the common understanding of evolution random genetic mutations slightly alter the body and behaviour of an organism, making it either better able to survive and procreate or less able to do so. The mutations that prove to be advantageous are naturally the ones to give more offspring, while the other mutations die out. Take for example the sword-billed hummingbird; it has an extremely long bill enabling it to feed on flowers with long corollas. They have, therefore, acquired for themselves a niche with little competition from other hummingbirds. Even though this mutation looks highly inconvenient, the advantage it affords is significant and has thus led to this hummingbird species. It is a textbook example of how a genetic mutation is transferred vertically from one generation to another.
Less Commonly Known Understanding of Evolution: Horizontal Gene Transfer
The name is somewhat confusing, since genes do not literally get transferred in this case. However, two organisms in a symbiotic relationship both benefit from a more efficient collaboration and thus the genetic mutations that lead to a closer collaboration are naturally selected. The genomes of the two organisms will, thus, in time, become increasingly alike, creating the illusion that they ‘handed over’ their genes to each other. Although it doesn’t necessarily mean that they swap genes at an equal rate, one organism might completely own up to a certain function, which it is better suited to perform, allowing the other organism to discard that function from its genome.
According to HGT it is plausible that we weren’t ever a single organism, but always a collection of organisms working together, some of which now fulfil such essential roles in our body that they can hardly be told apart from it. Mitochondria, for example, are a type of organelle found in all eukaryotic organisms, that are thought to have been independent bacteria in the early stages of cell-evolution. Mitochondria are responsible for providing the cell with most of its energy supply, an extremely important task. These independent bacteria, a.k.a. prokaryote, were, in time, engulfed by eukaryotic cells, as you can see in the image below, forming an endosymbiotic relationship. By now the nucleus of all eukaryotic cells, have absorbed much of the mitochondrial DNA.
Another, evolutionary more recent, example are gut bacteria. To successfully digest food we rely on dozens of bacterial species, each with their own genetic code. In fact, 99% of all the genetic information present in our body comes from independent bacteria. In that respect only 1% of your body is actually you. The importance of the functions these bacteria perform in our body need not to be underestimated; we would literally die without them. That is why fermented foods are so important to our diet, because they stimulate a healthy gut biome.
Now we know a bit more about HGT we can distill it into a general law. Based on natural selection, two or more organisms engaging in a symbiotic relationship will in time, without major environmental changes, increase the efficiency of their collaboration, thus, converging into a single set of body functions working towards the survival and reproduction of the whole. One of the symbiotic organisms might be the carrier, or substrate, of all the others, but none of them can be regarded as subservient to another.
This leads to my main question: Is it relevant to regard technology as a species, separate from – but symbiotic with – Homo sapiens? And as such, what can we learn from this analogy?
Technology As a Species, a Co-Evolution
By now it is a common understanding among scientists that technology evolves similarly to biological life ; that technology leads a life of its own, driven forth by forces larger-than-us. Personally I think this can hardly be disputed anymore. If technology does evolve in a similar fashion as living organisms do, then it seems only natural to assume that it can be regarded as a living organism itself. Just like human beings are evolving more efficient means of reproducing themselves, so technology is becoming more efficient in creating more technology, albeit with the help of humans. Secondly, the relationship between technology and Homo sapiens is clearly to the benefit of each species, indeed, they gravely depend on each other. It is, therefore, reasonable to treat them as two organisms in a symbiotic relationship with each other. If you are eager to accept this premise than you might as well jump to the next chapter, because for the sake of good order I addressed the two, in my eyes, main counterarguments to this premise in the two paragraphs directly below.
Some people might protest that the theory of evolution is based entirely on biological evidence and can, therefore, not be likened with technology, since technology doesn’t carry any genetic information that could evolve. This is a valid argument, but it is easily solved. It indicates that we simply need to expand on the concept of evolution and that this broader concept might need a new name. It is well-known that before biological evolution kicked-off 3,900 million years ago, a chemical evolution was already ongoing for billions of years, where new elements were naturally created through changing environmental pressures. Just as with biological evolution, all the elements in the periodic table descended from a common ancestor, namely: hydrogen. The same goes for technology itself, which possibly finds its origin in the domestication of fire, enabling Homo sapiens to cook and, thus, predigest their food, saving us valuable energy necessary for our brains to grow. Soon the technology of cooking led to stone tools, then to clothing, then came agriculture, the invention of the wheel, etcetera, etcetera. Just like biological evolution each new technology built on top of the ones that came before, and technologies that couldn’t compete with rival technologies died out. Many more parallels can be drawn, but clearly the concept of evolution is not restricted to life. The technologist Kevin Kelly coined the term “exotropy” for this general type of evolution , as opposed to the term “entropy”, which can be loosely defined as ‘increasing disorder’.
Others again protest that an evolutionary process cannot be ascribed to technology, since we, humans, as the instigators of technological advancement, could theoretically decide to stop creating new technologies, while organisms cannot decide to stop evolving, as it were; in other words, Evolution is a blind force, but technology is made by thinking human beings. However, as individuals we might be able to choose at any moment to abandon the use of technology, on a societal scale other, more complex forces determine the socio-political agenda. It proves to be hard enough already to democratically elect a president or a political party that nobody really needs, let alone find a large majority of people willing to abandon the stuff their livelihoods directly depend upon. Sure, it is possible theoretically, but it is theoretically also possible that our sun implodes shortly after tonights 8’clock news, but considering the sun has not imploded for 4 billion years and shows no signs of doing so any time soon, it is really a meaningless theoretical possibility. All in all, the argument that “we can decide to abandon technology, while evolution is an unstoppable fact” doesn’t fly in reality.
And They Co-Evolved Happily Ever After, Or Not?
In the past we have already co-evolved with many species of bacteria and most likely with other organisms too. Yet they were generally beneficial for us in the long term and never took complete control. The question is if technology will be beneficial for us in the future as well. We are making a mistake, however, if we are to maintain our human perspective only. As we have learned, symbiotic relationships only emerge when the genetic parties involved can all benefit from it, because in the end each behaves selfishly, trying to maximise their own survival chances. Technology seeks to benefit from us just as much as we seek to benefit from technology. If technology can procreate itself without the help of humans, it will not hesitate to cut itself loose from us. In fact, this might have happened to viruses a long time ago. It is speculated  that viruses are rogue pieces of DNA that broke loose from our genome a very long time ago. Genes have no will or ability to plan ahead, they just ‘act on the moment’. Viruses accidentally found another way of replicating themselves, while traveling from one host to another, and replicating they did. Nature has no ethical considerations, it does whatever it can do and if that goes well, it does it some more.
Making Ourselves Obsolete, One Job At a Time
As mentioned before, when two organisms are in a symbiotic relationship, but one organism if better equipped to perform a certain function, it will own up to that function, so the other organism can spend more energy performing other functions. This is a rather revealing process, as technology is starting to make a name for itself that it can outperform us in everything . In 2004 a thorough research was published by Professor Frank Levy from MIT and Professor Richard Murnane from Harvard where they listed the professions most likely to be automated. Truck driving was given as a clear example of a profession that could not be automated in the foreseeable future. No less than ten years later are truck manufacturers conducting experiments with self-driving trucks amidst real traffic. It is quite probable that there is not a single job that cannot be better performed by a computer algorithm.
When I started writing this essay, my hypothesis was that if technology could be regarded as a symbiotic species with Homo sapiens then they must naturally co-evolve until their collaboration is so efficient that each of them becomes indistinguishable from the other. I had the idea the rate of change was reciprocal and that we needn’t fear technology taking complete control, because we would be intertwined with technology by that time. But I am realising now that the rate of change is not equal, technology will assume more and more functions, because it can perform them more efficiently than we can. Symbiotic relationships only work if both organisms have a significant share in each other’s capabilities. At present this holds true for Homo sapiens as well as for technology, but it is starting to look like a downward spiral for Homo sapiens.
Can Super Humans Compete With Super Algorithms?
Leading figures such as: Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, are warning us for the existential threat Artificial Intelligence poses to humanity. An idea that seems to catch our collective imagination and has been popularised by many recent sciencefiction movies and TV series. But why is this idea so powerful? And aren’t there any alternatives? The idea of AI versus humanity is appealing because it is simple to understand. It is a classic illustration of the good-guy versus the bad-guy, which works well on the screen and in our imagination, but not in reality. Reality is always more complicated.
What is more likely is that by the time a super intelligent algorithm is created, humans have been upgraded as well. Or at least some. An ordinary human might pose no competition for the intelligent algorithms of the future, but an augmented human might. Today humans boost their mental abilities by inserting caffeine, sugar and Ritalin into their bloodstream, but in the future we might hook all kinds of electronic gadgetry directly to our brains and body. The rate of change between technology and humans might not be equal, but is it equal enough that we can upgrade humans to super intelligent levels? We are entering the murky waters of speculation.
One thing we can be sure about is that there are many technological innovations and revolutions to come that we have no clue about right now. If we want to say anything meaningful about the future at all we must include the possibility of such technologies arising. What these will be and how they will improve our natural abilities is anybody’s guess, however.
Brains Versus Chips
That some of us might become super intelligent cyborgs is great, but the odds still do not seem to stack in our favour. In comparison with electronic circuits our flesh and blood bodies have a disadvantage by default. There is a limit to which new software can improve old hardware. According to the law of exotropy the universe is forever progressing towards denser energy flows and this is a race we cannot win from electronics. In that respect, we should either become fully cybernetic or else bite the dust. Kevin Kelly puts it like this:
“Of all the sustainable things in the universe, from a planet to a star, from a daisy to an automobile, from a brain to an eye, the thing that is able to conduct the highest density of power – the most energy flowing through a gram of matter each second – lies at the core of your laptop.”
He continues that if you would detonate a one-megaton nuclear bomb, an explosion normally lastig for mere microseconds, and somehow spread-out the explosion equally over one whole second then the energy density of that explosion would be similar to that of a Pentium chip. In the graph below you can see various types of matter plotted against their power density in ergs per gram per second. As the graph clearly shows we will head towards greater densities of power and that’s going to be a problem for us sapiens, since the brain is quite incapable of becoming denser.
At this point we can only speculate on how the symbiosis between man and technology will proceed. One thing that is certain is that it will not be a black and white scenario of AI versus humanity; it will be more subtle and way more complex than that. In my opinion it comes down to these general possibilities:
- Certain technologies, such as intelligent algorithms, will become independent of us and will continue to pursue their own ends, disregarding human activity.
- An elite group of people will attain superhuman abilities, they too will probably establish independent colonies. They might collaborate with the intelligent algorithms, they might wage war with them, or they might simply co-exist.
- The rest of humanity will be either marooned, exploited as an energy resource, or accidentally erased.
- The new artificial and semi-biological species will evolve and co-evolve further and branch-out in a variety of hyper intelligent species. To ordinary human beings these species and their creative offspring will either be completely invisible, invisible but experienceable as a kind of weather, or visible and drastically transforming the landscape.
- And/or when a certain threshold is reached in the advancement of technology, it becomes unstable and destroys itself and everything in its vicinity.
Two things I find highly unlikely, 1) that a superintelligent entity, it being an algorithm or an upgraded human, will pay any attention to a lower species, if that species cannot be of any use to it. This implies that higher, more intelligent species will also not purposefully eradicate a lower species simply because it would be a useless expenditure of energy. It might be retorted that it would be useful for a higher species to make sure that a lower species doesn’t pose even the smallest threat to its great cosmic plans. But a lower species can by definition not be of any substantial threat to a higher species 2) that a lower species, such as ordinary human beings, will be able to fathom any of the activities of a superintelligent entity. We will probably have no clue whatsoever what they are doing and might not even know if they still exist. It is hypothesised, by Edward Snowden for instance, that the universe is full with hyper intelligent beings communicating over vast distances and that for decades we have unknowingly been recording their conversations, but have been attributing them to cosmic background noise, because that’s how it sounds to us.
I don’t think the last option, that an unknown threshold is reached and our technological civilisation destructs itself, is very likely. Since that would mean that the evolution of the universe has bottomed-out, so to say. For billions of years the universe has been diversifying, creating increasingly dense flows of information and suddenly we would reach rock bottom? It is possible, but improbable.
I think most people will find the future I outlined quite scary. We feel safe on the top of the food chain and do not want to give that position away. The irony is that we are the sole contributors to this result and yet we have no choice. It’s all “written in the stars”, or rather, in our DNA. At least we can console ourselves with the thought that humanity is probably not going to be erased on purpose. It might happen by accident, but what can you do, in the end we are only human, aren’t we?
- Mensvoort, Koert van (2004): Pyramid of Technology.
- Kelly, Kevin (2011): What Technology Wants. Penguin Books. ISBN-13: 978-0143120179
- Dawkins, Richard (1976): The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0192860927
- Harari, Yuval N. (2016): Homo Deus. Vintage. ISBN- 978-1784703936