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    Technological Symbiosis
    By Gerhard Adam | February 5th 2012 11:02 PM | 19 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    After reading Sascha's excellent article [Robopocalypse Now] regarding the effect and direction of robotic/AI development and its coevolutionary influences, it occurred to me that perhaps a shift in how we view such developments could promote a more intuitive understanding of what is occurring.

    Essentially my point is that we consider "tools" as coevolutionary developments which can be regarded in a similar manner as symbiotic relationships are in biology.  It is important to note that I'm not suggesting that we suddenly imbue inanimate objects or human inventions with all manner of traits or attributes unique to biological organisms.  Rather we can view them as elements that simply can't evolve on their iown.  Their "evolution" is directed by the species that benefits from their use.  

    Symbiosis is a biological description of two species that exploit each other for individual benefit, while simultaneously conveying a benefit to the other.  It's the classic "win-win" scenario, and through co-evolution, each is influenced in its future biological direction.

    If we consider this perspective, then we can consider any organism that is capable of exploiting tools, as following an evolutionary path whereby the tool conveys an advantage.  As a result, such tool-use becomes a requisite condition for future evolution, since those that don't use tools are at a decided disadvantage compared to other members of the same species.  It can be argued that since it provides a direct evolutionary advantage, then such usage also indirectly influences the genome to ensure that future generations all acquire similar skills and habits.

    For many species, such tool use is simply opportunistic.  However when humans [or any other organism] is capable of creating specific tools, then we witness a coevolutionary influence on the tool itself. In other words, it changes along with the species wielding it.  Gradual improvements in such tools promote greater advantage to the user, and the tool undergoes changes in turn.  In short; it evolves.

    This effect is significant since it has a direct effect on biological fitness since the historical advantage given in terms of hunting, obtaining shelter, etc can hardly be overstated.  Even something as simple as the use of fire can be argued to be a coevolutionary force that has transformed humans from sitting around a lit campfire, to sipping coffee in a heated house.  

    In this respect, we can consider all the arguments about human invention and technological development as coevolutionary events that have improved human fitness, while simultaneously influencing the direction in which humans "evolve".  Consequently, it isn't merely a contrivance to suggest that human technology is as influential on the development of the species as the genome itself is [including determining which elements of the genome are selected for].

    In effect, the coevolution of technology becomes another selection pressure and evolves with us.

    Computing technology is such a variation since it interacts with the most significant biological trait that humans possess; our minds and intellect.  Just as our brain is responsible in compensating for our physical deficiencies [i.e. absence of claws, sharp teeth, etc.], so does our technology compensate for other deficiences, real or perceived.

    In the case of computing technology, we are utilizing tools that allow us to quickly reference information that isn't present in our brains.  We can tap into new skills and knowledge without having to acquire it through experience or mentoring alone.  Therefore, the more adept we become at exploiting such technology, then the more we may gain a decided advantage over those that fail to.  We already have numerous examples demonstrating how our access to information influences our belief systems, reinforcing previously held ideas or forming new ones.  If the development of culture has shaped the evolutionary path of human development, then it follows that our technology is even more influential because it is shaping the future direction our culture takes.

    It is no coincidence, that many of the concerns we envision for the future are a direct result of ready access to such technologies.  After all, why even discuss issues like the publishing of data for converting the H1N1 virus into a weapon?  Why concern ourselves with instructions for making bombs or even nuclear weapons?

    In fact, we readily recognize the coevolutionary issues involved, because as the technology has evolved, so has the human ability to exploit it.  

    It can also be argued that coincident with this technical evolution, humans have acquired a level of dependence that precludes previous knowledge of survival.  While humans have gained a decided fitness advantage through such developments, we can readily acknowledge that we've long since lost the fundamental skills and knowledge held by our ancestors.  In short, we have pursued a biological path of technological dependence from which there is no return.

    As a result, we tend to take technology for granted, and as it continues to evolve, it will be subject to the direction of human intent as much as human activities will be governed by the technology.  In short, we've achieved a true level of technological or artificial symbiosis.  We do not exist, without our technology.

    From this, we can see how Sascha's article accurately describes the evolutionary trajectory we are on, because it doesn't require our technology to accurately replicate "intelligence" nor does it even require that it be independent.  After all, our technology is equally as powerful as the individual wielding it.  They are indistinguisable.  

    Once we shift our perspective in this way, we can see that the discussion regarding future "artificial intelligence" is fundamentally flawed because we have failed to grasp that WE are the "artificial intelligence".  With the technological extensions provided by our machines, it isn't necessary that we become "transhuman" any more than it requires our computers to achieve actual "intelligence".  It is the two together that constitute the artificial intelligence ... and in that regard, Sascha's article points to a serious problem we have overlooked.

    The issues being discussed are often expressed as cautions that we need to be wary about at some future point in our evolution or technology.  They are here today ... and we are completely unprepared to recognize them.

    Comments

    vongehr
    Thank you for the flowers. ;-) Your conclusion seems very restraint or perhaps you are just not telling us. You do not clearly say what this all actually means for us humans. Humans are by now slowly reduced to the sex organs of technology, but technology desires faster sex than is possible through us.
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, yours was a great article.  My only point here is to try to forget about humans and technology as separate entities that have separate "evolutionary" paths, and instead consider them together so that whatever deficiencies each may have individually, they are reduced [or eliminated] when viewed as a symbiotic pair.

    So, we don't need technology that reproduces itself, any more than we need "transhumanists". 

    Quite frankly, I'm just not clear on what this "anthill" of the future is going to look like.  If nature has shown us anything, it's that the flashy, showy stuff tends to go extinct.  Of course, humans think they're exempt from the rules, so they don't worry about it.  After all, there are some that actually look forward to the idea of being servants of their technology.  Sounds pretty daft to me.

    Then again, by that time in our evolutionary future, we may be grateful for the opportunity.  Does an ant wish for its life before the colony evolved?  Have you ever wondered if cells regret having to obey "central control"?  Is cancer simply a form of cellular insurgency?


    Mundus vult decipi
    UvaE
    Symbiosis is a long, slow process and it's for that reason that biologists have failed so far at getting nitrogen fixing bacteria to be accepted by non-leguminous plants.

    It's clear that the symbiosis between technology and humans is not complete yet. It's one of the reasons environmental and economic problems persist. Also, if we were well-integrated we would not be in awe of cars and cell phones; we wouldn't have to continuously advertise them;  gadgets would be no different and no more glitzy than a set of screwdrivers hanging on the wall...

    No matter how sophisticated the enzyme machinery of Rhizobium is, the legume is on a higher level of organization. Similarly, no matter how sophisticated robots and tech will get, we have to ensure that they remain like the Rhizobium, constantly evolving, continuously fed by but benefiting its host.
    Gerhard Adam
    It's clear that the symbiosis between technology and humans is not complete yet.
    I'm not sure what that statement is supposed to mean?  Evolution is never "complete".  In addition, you seem to be confusing the vast technological infrastructure with technological fads.  These will come and go, but it would be hard to argue that there aren't significant technologies that are so far embedded that we literally don't even think about them any more.

    You may be in awe of cars, but it isn't likely that you're in awe of your toilet, heater, plumbing, etc.  These are just obvious simple examples of technology that you probably don't even consider technology.

    The other part that deals with computing devices is still relatively new, but that is the component that is likely to have the fastest reaction and fastest evolutionary path. 

    However, it would be erroneous to presume "benefit".  That would set a direction to evolution that simple doesn't exist.  In short, we can't know whether what we're doing will be beneficial or destructive.  All we can do is pursue the path we've chosen.  Basically we're as helpless in changing our evolutionary direction as dinosaurs would have been in deciding to become smaller. 

    It isn't that we can't make choices, it's that we can't see our own evolution.  It's a huge blind spot.  This is truly evolution ... not engineering.  We can't see our future, any more than the inventor of a spear could've forseen ICBM missiles.
    Mundus vult decipi
    UvaE
    I'm not sure what that statement is supposed to mean?  Evolution is never "complete".
    Of course evolution is ungoing, but in the context, a symbiosis is "complete" when both parties mutually benefit. Maybe "stable" would have been a better word. You're forgetting that there are relatively stagnant periods in evolution.

    In addition, you seem to be confusing the vast technological infrastructure with technological fads.

    No. The fads are deeply imbedded within the economic and technological infrastructure.
    ...hard to argue that there aren't significant technologies that are so far embedded that we literally don't even think about them any more.
    Of course we don't think about certain technologies, but because we are still in a techno-worship stage, we have to be reminded that, for instance, water and sewage treatment have had a far greater benefit to civilization than all the cat-scanners in the world.

    In short, we can't know whether what we're doing will be beneficial or destructive.  All we can do is pursue the path we've chosen.  Basically we're as helpless in changing our evolutionary direction as dinosaurs would have been in deciding to become smaller.
    Just because there are often unforeseen consequences to, for instance, newly synthesized chemicals does not mean that we are basically helpless. Too often it's the excessive appetite for profit that releases these chemicals  in excessive quantities and without adequate testing. It's our social structures that determine much of our present techno-human evolution, so the comparison to dinosaurs is ludicrous.

     
    Gerhard Adam
    Of course evolution is ungoing, but in the context, a symbiosis is "complete" when both parties mutually benefit.
    You would be hard pressed to argue that our technological progress has not been beneficial to humans (and I don't mean simple interpretations like the iPod).  In addition, each technological development has resulted in continued improvements (i.e. evolution) of the technology itself.
    No. The fads are deeply imbedded within the economic and technological infrastructure.
    In and of themselves, fads are largely irrelevant until they become sufficiently stable. 
    ...we are still in a techno-worship stage, we have to be reminded that, for instance, water and sewage treatment have had a far greater benefit to civilization than all the cat-scanners in the world.
    You're missing the point.  This is precisely what makes the case, because we don't need to recognize the beneficial technologies that we already possess, because they are so ingrained in our symbiotic evolution.  You can 't be selective about what constitutes technology.  It's all part of the landscape.  You seem to be focused on only the latest fads, instead of recognizing that human technology began with the first tools.
    Just because there are often unforeseen consequences to, for instance, newly synthesized chemicals does not mean that we are basically helpless.
    We are completely helpless to direct the outcomes because each development creates new selection pressures that we cannot modify.  A very simple example can be provided with the development of antibiotics.  This modified the normal course of human evolution by shifting the focus away from our immune system to the use of external drugs.  If an individual was allergic to antibiotics, this gave a decided advantage to those that weren't.  This didn't mean that allergic individuals couldn't survive, it's simply that the trajectory has now shifted so that many that might have died from infections could now live, while many that might have lived could conceivably die from the technology itself.  It reshaped how humans dealt with disease.

    We've already seen some of the consequences in promoting antibiotic resistance bacteria, so even here we have a coevolutionary force at work that is a direct result of our technological efforts that we are helpless to modify.  Some individuals will die because of such antibiotic resistance infections, and yet they are the direct result of our technological development of antibiotics in the first place.
    Too often it's the excessive appetite for profit that releases these chemicals  in excessive quantities and without adequate testing. It's our social structures that determine much of our present techno-human evolution, so the comparison to dinosaurs is ludicrous.
    I would've thought this one was obvious.  We cannot direct our social structures to behave in any specific ways.  Even what you term our "excessive appetite for profit" is a part of our evolutionary path and represents another selection pressure that society has adapted to.  My point remains, because unless you can demonstrate that we have explicit control over the direction our technology takes [and the effect it has on humans], ,then we are as helpless to direct it as the dinosaurs were in directing their own evolutionary path.  It simply can't be done.
    Mundus vult decipi
    UvaE
    You would be hard pressed to argue that our technological progress has not been beneficial to humans (and I don't mean simple interpretations like the iPod).  In addition, each technological development has resulted in continued improvements (i.e. evolution) of the technology itself. In and of themselves, fads are largely irrelevant until they become sufficiently stable. 

    I never meant to imply that there have been no benefits. I'm not a Neo-Luddite. The main point is that the symbiosis is far being mature, hence many our problems. But the fads which somehow have become the focus of the argument are not as irrelevant as you believe; they take an otherwise good technology and waste the time of both consumers and producers. I've heard more than one programmer complain that all their energies are directed towards silly "apps". In education there is an incredible of time and money spent on smartboards and workshops--as just one example. Meanwhile they are really not much better than a blackboard or a $25 dollar screen and projector.
    ..
    You're missing the point.  This is precisely what makes the case, because we don't need to recognize the beneficial technologies that we already possess, because they are so ingrained in our symbiotic evolution.

    I disagree. There is a need to have an overall view of the impact of various technologies in order to assess its benefits. Utilitarian decisions have to be made...does it make sense for a hospital to get all the latest available technologies at the expense of extra beds, doctors and nurses? Does it make sense for a school lab to get all the latest electronic probes(many of which are phoney) at the expense of conventional glassware and a lab technician. But poor decisions like those are constantly made because everyone wants to be perceived as being "state of the art" while not taking the  time to properly evaluate individual technologies before jumping on the purchasing bandwagon.


    Gerhard Adam
    The main point is that the symbiosis is far being mature, hence many our problems.
    Not true.  It seems you're focusing on fairly trivial current technologies, instead of recognizing how "mature" the entire process is.  As proof, I would offer the argument that you presently can't even imagine, let alone live, in a way that is independent of technology.  It is already so ingrained in your lifestyle, that you couldn't survive without it.

    What I'm referring to is everything from how you obtain your food, your clothing, your water, preserving your food, etc.  In short, you can't do much of anything without depending on a long-established very "mature" relationship with technology.
    I'm not a Neo-Luddite.
    Even Luddites can't be Luddites, unless they're prepared to go back to grubbing in the ground to dig up roots to eat by hand.
    I've heard more than one programmer complain that all their energies are directed towards silly "apps".
    Once again, it's irrelevant but it misses the larger point.  The mere fact that these programmers have jobs, already creates an additional vehicle whereby their interests and desires will give rise to more technology because they have to spend their earnings on something.  Their complaint about where their energies are directed simply have no bearing.  More to the point, I can't think of any group that is probably more myopic when it comes to applications, than programmers [sorry if I'm being overly sarcastic there].
    ...does it make sense for a hospital to get all the latest available technologies at the expense of extra beds, doctors and nurses?
    Once again, you're missing the forest for the trees.  These choices are already forgone conclusions.  Do you ever hear a single conversation questioning whether a newly constructed home should have plumbing?  or electricity?  Of course, not, because it's already presumed that such technology will be integrated for general use.

    The technology you're referring to is little more than the latest "growth spurts" of our symbiotic relationship, but most of it isn't even of a calibre to see where it is heading.  In the same way that no one could've envisioned cable television and DVDs when the first black&white sets were introduced, similarly the "latest available technology" is still in the initial deployment stages. 

    Basically whatever is the "latest" will become the obvious in the ensuing decades.  So while we may have the conversation today regarding "technology versus beds, doctors, and nurses", you can be assured, within a few years such technology will be required and assumed.  You could've had the same conversation regarding computers 30-40 years ago.  Today, they would think you were crazy to suggest running a hospital without computers on every desk.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    I disagree. There is a need to have an overall view of the impact of various technologies in order to assess its benefits. Utilitarian decisions have to be made...does it make sense for a hospital to get all the latest available technologies at the expense of extra beds, doctors and nurses? Does it make sense for a school lab to get all the latest electronic probes(many of which are phoney) at the expense of conventional glassware and a lab technician. But poor decisions like those are constantly made because everyone wants to be perceived as being "state of the art" while not taking the  time to properly evaluate individual technologies before jumping on the purchasing bandwagon.

    This is the worst of central planning. I understand why it seems like a good idea, but it has never worked in practice. These decisions have to be made by those who want to deploy/use the technology.

    If you haven't read Drexler's "Engines of Creation", he writes a good explanation on how (he thinks) transformative technologies have to be discussed in the public space, because otherwise it will be developed in secret, without public oversight.

    Once opened you can't put the genie back in the bottle.


    You could've had the same conversation regarding computers 30-40 years ago.

    The president(?) of IBM said in the 50's we'd only ever need 4 or 5 computers for all of the US.
    Never is a long time.
    vongehr
    Symbiosis is a long, slow process
    This has no meaning without time scales (how many clock-cycles on which clock) and a good measure of "degree of symbiosis". Counting the clock-cycles in your PC, technological symbiosis is probably even slower, and if not, so what?
    we wouldn't have to continuously advertise them;  gadgets would be no different and no more glitzy than a set of screwdrivers hanging on the wall...
    Apart from that the screwdrivers are tools/technology (so you just defeated your own argument), "advertising" is a mechanism of attention direction. The large amount of resources "wasted" on it compares to the amount of signaling molecules demanding attention, energy for attention getting by brain modules during perception/recognition/association, and also sexual advertising did not go away and "costs" truly astounding amounts of resources. Advertising/communication is itself something that co-evolves along.
    UvaE
     This has no meaning without time scales (how many clock-cycles on which clock) and a good measure of "degree of symbiosis".

    In the context, it does have a meaning. Compared to the time that it takes most natural symbioses to establish themselves, the time that technology and humanity have coexisted is equivalent to the blink of an eye...
    but in response to the main theme of my initial comment (the immature relationship between humans and technology is of the reasons environmental and economic problems persist) we have been skating pirouettes around it.
    vongehr
    guess you didn't get my point - do you know how many clock cycles your PC does in one blink of your eye?
    UvaE
    Billions...but it's irrelevant if they are spent doing something mindless.
    vongehr
    today seems shifting the goalposts day in the comment sections - you talked about slow - now you want the clock to measure mindfullness - not sure whether your bacteria are doing a lot of mindful stuff, but who am I to judge anything on mindfullness ;-)
    The word 'awesome' has been overused, primarily by the younger generation, so much that it really is trite.

    That said, I am in awe of the clarity with which you describe the evolution and symbiosis of humans and tools. No USB4 connection to the skull needed.

    Thank you.

    Gerhard Adam
    Frank, you are far too kind, but I appreciate the comment.
    Mundus vult decipi
    MikeCrow
    Gerhard, nicely done!

    When I was a infant, I almost died from pneumonia, antibiotics saved my life.

    Most of my adult life has been spent exploiting and training others to exploit high tech tools, mostly used to make even more advanced tools.

    So much so, it almost seems planned.............
    Never is a long time.
    In the field of metaheuristics, tool development and knowledge sharing is typically modeled with Particle Swarm. Particle Swarm is heuristic search technique that is related to but different from the evolution-inspired search techniques. I'd recommend Kennedy's book Swarm Intelligence if you are interested in the subject.

    In general, Particle Swarm converges rapidly (more rapidly than most evolutionary algorithms--maybe Evolution Strategies with aggressive adaptive step size can keep up). In my work I usually have to keep the population of particles small, which can lead to becoming trapped in local optima. However, with bigger populations and controls on the information sharing between particles, one can better manage the balance between exploitation and exploration to avoid local optima.

    So I'd agree that our relationship with technology is kind of like a co-evolutionary process, but one half is evolution and the other half is something akin to particle swarm.

    "Have you ever wondered if cells regret having to obey "central control"? Is cancer simply a form of cellular insurgency?"

    At first I thought you to be out there with this one. I figured you a chain smoker searching for denial.
    I then thought of the Polysphincta gutfreundi and how it uses it's favorite tool an orb spider. I realize now we are just babes in this tool business and how dangerous things may become when we catch on.